Speaking Of Death The difference between not fearing death, and not really living.

cemetery

A good friend remarked recently that death or dying came up frequently in our family’s conversations. His comment was more a good-natured jab, I think, as we were all enjoying funny thoughts and stories, joking around.

But I have thought about that since. I wondered if we perhaps give death—one of God’s enemies, defeated by Jesus on the cross1—too much air-time in our daily conversations and thoughts?

I do not imagine us to be morbid, by any definition. But neither do we fear or avoid the biological fact that each of us will expire at some point in the unknown future. The passing of our good friends, family, and friends of friends is, of course, a constant reminder of that fact of life, just as it is for you.

One reason we can so confidently discuss our own deaths without fear is that we are confident in what lies beyond. When we die we are with him in paradise2; to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord3; this world is not our home4. All of those truths (and more) assure our hearts that death is nothing to be feared, rather it will be a welcome door to our true, eternal home.

On the other hand, while it is right to so fully trust God with our souls that we do not too tightly grasp this life, a point can be made that too much focus on the next life will cause us to miss where we are right now. Where God has placed you, and is with you, right now.

We just released a new song last month. (My wife and I are musicians, working on a new album.) The song is called This Journey. I sometimes wonder if people will interpret the lyric of this song incorrectly.

“All along this path of life is where the real treasures are”

I know that our true home—that goal toward which Paul reminded us we press forward, our whole lives—is heaven, eternity with God and his people. I know that. That is the “real treasure”. What I hope to inspire with the words (and music) of that song is a renewed joy in sensing, seeing where God is right now, right here, right where we are. In the beauty of the things he has made, in the people whom he has surrounded us with, in the very fact that we are breathing, our hearts beating.

There are two extremes. One focuses entirely on the eternal and misses the present, while the other focuses entirely on the present (which will pass away, just as we will) and misses the eternal. I think there is a balance found between the two, where God is with us all along our journey.

A quick, related aside:

There is a man we know from our college days at Cincinnati Bible College (now Cincinnati Christian University) who has battled physical ailments for quite a while now. His name is Rod. Rod is always smiling, always loving other people (like, beyond-your-imagination loving), that’s just who he is. I happened to catch a Facebook post of his (actually posted by another on his behalf) that was essentially a good-bye to all his friends. It seemed his body was most likely ready to give out, and he would be home with Jesus soon. He wrote that he was not afraid, but would also be glad to stay, much like Paul in his letter to the Philippian church.

The short version of the rest of Rod’s story—which, as far as I can understand, is amazing—is that God has brought him through that! For now, he has much (or all?) of his health back. He is grateful to God for more time to serve him here, with the people he loves.

And this is my point. While we can be fully, confidently, supremely unafraid of death because Jesus has overcome that, and death is not our end… there is still an amazing joy (even in hard times) of waking up to a new day God has given us here, now.

I’m sure that when I die, whenever, however that will come to me, there are seven people in this home who will miss me. (They seem to be rather fond of me.) There are others, too, I know. (Hi Mom and Dad!) But my hope is that I can, do, and will live my life in such a way that it is fully known that I will be where I am made to be, and any sadness will only last for a short time. And, mostly, that all would know I lived my life to its full, with and in Jesus.5

It may be after I pass a hundred years in this body, or it may be next week. We can’t know, and I understand that is what can cause us to fear. But if our trust, our hope, our life is in Jesus, we have nothing to fear.

And we will also truly live here. And forever.

Volatile, Historic Times and the Spider Who Doesn’t Care

Righteous indignation on each side; blustery public diatribes backed by legal or biblical authority; verbal wars among foes and friends and family which take no idealogical prisoners—this seems to be the state of current events.

But this tiny spider doesn’t seem to know, or care. She’s not angry, or justified, or changing the color of her web to the rainbow.1 She doesn’t notice at all. The sun came up, she made her web, she’ll eat if bugs show up, and the sun will go down again when the day is through.

spider

Yet we struggle, we fight, we vehemently beat back opposing views.

Views. That’s what we’re fighting. Views. Opinions. Beliefs.

I am a person. I have my own views. I do not think it’s wise to equate the marriage between a man and woman with one between two people of the same gender. I do not think it needs to be illegal, but to me—my belief, my opinion, how I would choose—it would be wiser to proceed as God designed us to be.

(Please note: in this post, I’m not going to address any “how we are made” thoughts other than the obvious reproductive gender differences which I am referencing above. Of course there are so many other mental/emotional/chemical/physical factors.)

Since God has said that it is unnatural for a man to have sex with a man, or a woman to have sex with a woman;2 well, I believe him. He also said he hates divorce; so I plan to never choose that, no matter how much “sense” it might seem to make at some future time, or how much I might want it (to be clear, I do not want it now). He also said adultery is wrong, no matter how much it might seem like a good idea, or we might want it. Sex is for marriage, between one woman and one man—that is God’s best design. (And nothing else.)

It is not our place to condemn sin. (As Romans 2 says, then you’re just condemning yourself, too.) Sin is anything which takes the place of our reliance upon our Father. It’s often a counterfeit of the good he wants to give us. Sex is great, of course, in the context above. But every other form will harm us, or somehow harm our relationship with God, who is our Life.

It is not just homosexual sex, nor any other “great sin” our friends on the conservative right rail against which is sin. Nor is it neglect of the poor, or greed, or religious bigotry against which our more liberal friends crusade. There is so much sin. None of us is free from it, or immune from it. None of us has never sinned.

(Sidebar: if you have never read John 8, please take a moment to read it now. So enlightening.)

Now that I’ve shared my opinion on the matter, do you think I hate anyone wanting to marry someone of their own gender? Do you hate me for thinking that is not what God intended for them?

Of course I do not.

I do not hate anyone. Really. I don’t. I think I might be labeled as hating, though, because I believe some things (behaviors) are harmful, and wrong. (I think drinking pop is harmful and wrong… so maybe I’m not a good test case?)3

Difference of beliefs is not hate. It’s really, really not.

But let’s wrap this up with a return to my new friend, the spider.

As I ate my lunch, thoughts of all the discord and self-righteous banter, Facebook photos and links swirled through my mind. In that mental maelstrom, I felt noticeable peace. (Despite the noise of the traffic which passes our house most hours of the days.) I saw that very tiny spider, quiet and still on her web, swaying with the gentle breeze. I could imagine her saying, had she the voice, “What’s all the fuss about?”

I’m not saying these things aren’t important, but they are not worth a war of words. Certainly they do not justify hate in return for perceived hate. If someone thinks differently than you (so long as they are not actually harming another) then just let them. Just let them.

The world will go on. Until Jesus returns, there will be harm and good, pain and joy. Both coexist together.

I think the spider would say that we should, too.

  1. It is ironic, though, is it not, that there are rainbow-colored pinwheels in the background. 🙂
  2. Read Romans 1-2, especially Romans 2 if you are a Christian reading this.
  3. One more sidebar: I am currently reading a very interesting history of the Confederacy. The Story of the Confederacy was written in 1931 by Robert Selph Henry. Should I burn this literary work? It is not condemning the Confederate flag, nor its people. Rather, the author is hoping to present both sides of the story in our country’s history. It’s important. Does my interest in this mean I hate black people?

Underneath The inside is what matters

Beyond our bodies, we’re all the same.

Lately I have had an interesting experience when seeing photos of people, current or historical. Somehow in my mind, I am seeing (thinking of?) the person beneath the exterior. Wondering at what unknown depths there are to that particular individual; wondering how we might be similar.

Not that we are not unique—we are marvelously unique. God’s immense creativity (beyond our imagination) is evidenced just in how different each of us is from another. Incredible diversity!

And yet, we are also the same.

On the outside we are different. One has dark skin, another’s epidermis could not be more light. One has long, curly hair, another has none at all. One is woman, with soft curves; the other is man, flexing firm muscles. Big and tall, short and small; seasoned with age, or fresh and youthful; healthy and vibrant, or broken down and hurting.

faces

All this is what we see first. Our impressions begin with what matters less. Because, when we allow ourselves to see (and also, when we allow ourselves to be seen), we are all so much the same.

We hurt, we laugh, we despair, we love, we fail, and we thrive.

None of those things are exclusive to one type of person; that’s because we’re all the same. We are spiritual beings, made in the image of our Creator, Father. In Christ, says Paul, there is no male or female, Jew nor gentile, slave nor free1. We are all one. Brother, sister, family. Wealth, position, race… none of these truly matter to who we are.

James reminded Christians to not show favoritism to the wealthier people among them. It’s so easy to do. On the outside, such a one seems to be more important. But when we can see past the outside, looking into another’s eyes, hearing their story, their hearts, their thoughts—this is where we are reminded that we are so much more alike than we are different.

Battles rage these days about these things. A young man in South Carolina, killed nine people, simply because of their skin color. Also, earlier this year, riots in Baltimore were caused by conflicts (real or perceived) due to our different bodies.

Concurrently, the story of Bruce Jenner demonstrates, in a way, how our bodies do not make us who we are. I do not fully understand his story, nor necessarily agree with the measures he has taken, but on one level, it illustrates that we are certainly more than just what we see on our outsides.

This is not easy. We trust our eyes first, and most. That’s why we need the reminder to “walk by faith, not by sight“—it’s in our nature.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

And, also, from Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.

I think we know that we are more than our skin, or our gender, or our social, economic, and political standings would seem to present. I think we know it. But so much conflict comes from our perceived differences. (Which differences are certainly present, but would be better to celebrate than used to separate.)

If only we could see others as we are seen; with God’s eyes to see that which does not age, that which he has made, his masterpiece. The part of us that can spend eternity with him, no matter what happens to us in this life, in this world.

In that we are the same. (John 3:16)

As one individual, I know I can’t really do anything to stop racism, or any other ism. But we can each try to remember to look deeper, see deeper, and focus on our great many similarities, rather than our apparent differences.

After all, those differences are only skin deep.

  1. In context, Paul is specifically speaking to Christians, who, when identified with Christ in his death and resurrection, living as “Christ in me”, with the old now gone, we no longer think of the differences on the outside. Galatians 3:26-28

New Beginnings

sunrise

Do you notice that sometimes there are themes around you? I do. Every once in a while, many things around me (or even in me) will work in apparent concert toward some consistent message, idea, or theme.

Lately, I am being pretty often reminded that life is full of new beginnings.

And also that it is not.

For example, each day is a new start, each year—happy new year to you, reader!—and many other instances on the calendar or the clock provide us with a fresh beginning.

Today I marveled at sleep. Each night (for most) we shut down to regenerate. Our energy (and even our heart and mind) is replenished by an end of one day, and a preparation for the beginning of the next. Even within sleep there are cycles that our bodies go through, giving us the most effective, helpful rest to replenish us. Incredible.

A new home, a new business, even paying off debt and gaining new financial freedom—even in our own creations we find the recurring theme of a fresh start.

Some new beginnings are thrust upon us, contrary to anything we may have chosen, by accident, illness, or the will of others. Life can change in a moment—and never go back to how it was.

There are so many new beginnings, it seems to me that it is an essential part of God’s design.

Certainly not the suffering, or any evil, or the pain and brokenness of a fallen world, of the fallen us. But with so many examples around us of cycles of fresh starts and new beginnings, it must be a truth our Designer wants us to see.

Recently I have been noticing that I am no longer young. I don’t feel old, and I realize that compared to many, I do not qualify as aged. (I just spent time with my nearly-nonagenarian grandparents. They probably think I’m silly to talk about “not being young”.)

One recurring scene that reminds me that time has passed is young families. At the store, in photos of friends on social networking sites, at the public library—everywhere I see what I once was. I was them. My young wife and I, along with our younger (and fewer) children. We were those confident-yet-bewildered brand-new adults, feeling our way into what would become our life.

Sometimes—more often than you might think—I wish we could go back. I don’t want to really go back; who would? But I do wonder what it would be like to enjoy that newness again while keeping all the wisdom life has taught me through the experiences we’ve had since.

That is not the way of things.

Life always moves forward. We can’t—and shouldn’t—go back. And so God gives us new beginnings. Each day, each month, each year. And sometimes the new beginning happens at a moment of our choosing. When we choose to accept his new mercy this morning.

Those may sound like “just words” to you. When life thrusts a new beginning upon us, unwelcome, and unchangeable… we don’t want words. We want what we’ve lost. We want to undo the change.

I think God has reminders placed all around us—really, everywhere—that we would know that life moves forward, and he moves with us.

Maybe each time we remember that (and believe it), that is another new beginning. Which means we are perfectly, exactly where we’re meant to be.

22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends![a]
His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.
Lamentations 3:22-23

God Is Good! All The Time!

Have you heard that as a cheer? We hear it when something “good” happens. We hear it less often when nothing good happens, and even less often when BAD things happen.

But he is still good.

I heard good news last week. In fact, the news was “good” to a whole region of people. Western New York oft repeated the phrase, “God is good!” on Twitter, Facebook and out loud upon hearing the news that former Buffalo Bills quarterback, Jim Kelly—a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, and beloved by so many here, and around the world—was cancer-free, again! (The second time he’s had to fight cancer, and won.)

Jim has an incredible story, really. He was not such a nice guy in his playing days. But God has used one crazy, tragic event after another to transform him into a man who is so generous, so thoughtful toward others, some might hardly recognize him. He does much good for many people, and is loved (as I said) by so many.

lightning_strikes_storm_cloud

God is good! All the time!

But when I read and heard all those things, there was a twinge of “yucky” feelings in me. (And I now admit, that really should not be there. I am to rejoice with those who rejoice. The Kelly news should be celebrated! It’s great! God is good!)

I could only think, “Would those people have said the same thing, ‘God is good, all the time!’, had God not written a full recovery into Jim’s story? They might… but probably fewer people would remember to say it.

Job did. He had absolutely everything taken from him other than his wife, and his life. All his children, his wealth, his possessions, even his health. And still he said:

He said,

“I came naked from my mother’s womb,
and I will be naked when I leave.
The Lord gave me what I had,
and the Lord has taken it away.
Praise the name of the Lord!”

We’ve heard the story. But have you lived it? Are you now? We know many people dealing with many hard things, and despite the wearisome, never-ending, painful, life-draining circumstances they are enduring, they too will staunchly declare: God is good! All the time!

They know He is. They’ve felt him, even in the darkest moments, reminding them of his deep love for them, and his true goodness, and his constant care and affection for them. Not just a Bible memory verse, but an every day—every moment—reality.

Do you know that? I ask myself, do I? Am I not prone to the same “God is Good” when things go the way I hope they would go, and less often when they do not?

Yes. I am weak. I can not always (without hesitation) say “Praise the name of the Lord!” as Job, or my friends.

But their example reminds me that even in the most unimaginable, unwanted, nearly-hopeless situations… yet we have hope. We know that he is with us. Really with us. When you see these friends, you can’t help but smile in response to their smiles! What a great example of the hope we have in Jesus, and the true joy we can know in him (not to mention a great example of the love of a husband and wife for each other, enduring together all things, no matter how difficult).

What is life throwing at you? What is too hard to handle, to bear, to stand up under.

Stop trying to stand. Rest. Trust. Hope.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

Those are words on a poster—until you need them. And we all do, or someday will.

Count it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds. They are reminders that we need him, yes, and it is usually in those times that we are reminded that (even better) He is with us.

So it is true: God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.

The trick is learning to say that when the times are less than “good”. Still he is and always will be… good.

Twelve Years

cd-caya-2This is the week for remembering, it would seem. Just days ago I marked the eleventh year since the start of this blog, and today, August 29th, we passed another special day in our family’s history.

In the year 2002, our music had become the primary focus of our days and weeks, and even years. Our young family—married less than five years, with boys aged nearly-three and almost-one—we had begun to accept invitations to share our music with people around the entire country. Weeks and months were spent on the road performing the songs I had written previously, as well as leading groups of Christians in worship music composed by others. This often led to more songs being written by me (including some more worship songs to lead more people in singing) and it eventually led us to produce another album-full of these songs in recorded form.

That summer we had spent a few weeks in the studio, after a few weeks in various practice locations, after a few years of crafting and “learning” the songs ourselves. The culmination of these weeks produced our third full-length studio album: Come As You Are. And on August 29th, at Crosswinds Wesleyan Church in Canandaigua, NY, with our friend Paul Robert Jones opening the evening by performing some of his own music, we celebrated the finished work of this album with a hundred or two of our friends. It was a great, fun, memorable night.

Through the years, the songs we recorded that summer have spread across the globe. The CDs and cassettes have made their way through postal services, and carried by hands to far away lands. They have been downloaded to computers and other digital music devices. And they have impacted hearts and minds and lives with the message from our Father: come as you are, not who you will be; it’s rough from the start, you might think you are beat. But it’s not the righteous I want, for I came to seek and save the lost. Just come to me!

The song—the whole album—was a collection of the words God spoke (even still speaks) to me. His invitation to a broken soul, well aware of his inabilities and shortcomings and failures, to a life of freedom with him. Free to be my broken self. Free to hope for better, to know he accepts me and wants to show me, lead me to the Life that I’m meant to have with him—in him.

We listened to it again tonight. Most of my kids and I. (Mom and oldest daughter were off sorting clothing for a community clothing give-away, and scoring some that would also help our family.) We listened, and sang. I told stories from the recording days. I thought through the words. I think they did the same.

The message still resounds in my heart. All of these songs. I want to know you better Lord. I want nothing less, nothing more.1 And, I don’t want this to end here; my life for you just in a song. Please change my heart, Lord, and let me words speak for you. I give my life to you.2 And, songs like The Mountain To The Sea, and My Visible, See-Through Friend, and Because… all of them, really. All reminding me of my life, found in him.

If you’ve not heard the album, you can listen to all the songs here. Or, we’re on Spotify. And iTunes. And Amazon. You’ll find us out there. I would love for you to hear the whole thing. All the better if you can find a quiet time to listen to not just my voice, and Jen’s voice… but the voice of The One who made you, loves you, and invites you:

Come as you are.

  1. The One – basic – Come As You Are
  2. Heart Of Mine” – basic – Come As You Are

Real Power

jay_cutlerStrength.
Power.
Might.

Words that have impact, weight, gravitas. Vivid pictures of great force and ability prominently display on the screen of our minds. Big, overwhelming, unstoppable, unbreakable.

Powerful.

We love strength. We need it. The events of our lives remind us so often that we lack control, ability… power and strength.

And so we create heros who are strong. We even create villains in our various narratives who are equally strong—or stronger—and the irresistible draw of the story is that the hero, through whatever strength, power, ability he or she might muster, is able to overcome the impossible odds and defeat… overpower the enemy.

Because that is strength.

Right?

Well…

This week, my thoughts have remained on the idea of weakness versus strength. How can it be that our weakness, our brokenness, can be our strength? Inevitably I am drawn back to the foundational Truth that God himself is our only source of strength. The only source of Strength.

The trick is, he doesn’t always display his strength in the way we first think of strength.

I wrote about Strength In Weakness earlier this week. I shared recent reminders of how our weaknesses are not our downfall, but with God, they are a greater strength. We need him, and our weaknesses focus us—again, and again—on that essential reality.

And again my thoughts betray my true, fundamentally flawed thinking. Weakness is my inability, and strength is my ability. Strength to change things. Power to move, alter, overcome.

Perhaps this is not true strength at all?

Jesus told his friends that, “in this world, kings and great men ‘lord it over’ their people… But… you… will be different… the leader should be like the servant.”

And in the previous post, we remembered how Jesus even restrained his power all the way to an unjust execution. Arguably demonstrating more strength than an overpowering, awe-inspiring display of “power”.

I once heard the term “meekness” defined as strength under control. Is this evidence of greater power; greater strength? Yielding of available power. Sheathing the sword.

Too often we want Power to overcome, destroy the Foe. But more often, Power is demonstrated by restraint. By submission. By being the Servant.

Philippians 2

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

God speaks in a whisper. He was born a baby, in a barn, in a tiny Nowhere Town. He died the death of a criminal, without resistance.

His Power and Strength are far beyond what we can fathom, far different than we can comprehend.

Holding back your tongue is power. Holding your temper. Pulling punches. Turning the other cheek. Laying down your own rights, willingly, for another’s benefit. Without being asked to. These are some examples Jesus modeled; he who has true power.

When you next ask for a demonstration of his Power… it might turn out differently than you expect.

There is no doubt that all Power and Strength and Glory and Honor belong to him, and him alone. What that looks like, he continues to slowly reveal to me. You may have a clearer picture of it than I do, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below, or contact me directly.

But I know this—he is Power, and Strength. And my greatest ideas of Power pale in comparison to all that He is.

And the best part is, one of my favorite sections of scripture—a prayer for power and strength—talks about God’s immense power… to change me from the inside! How much more subtle can you get, but Paul says it’s beyond our imagination!

I leave you with Paul’s words. Be encouraged, in His Power.

When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. 19 May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.