We were having coffee, just catching up. I asked politely about work, about summer schedules, just small talk. Then I asked about family. His whole demeanor changed. The smile faded. The shoulders dropped. The eyes shifted. He told me, “You know, my wife has chronic headaches. Migraines. Sometimes, she can’t get out of bed. It means that every day, we don’t know what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot see, what we can and cannot enjoy. It is very difficult and lonely for her.”
“That sounds really hard,” is what I say back. We kept talking about other things.
Years later, I am sitting in a doctor’s office. An ENT actually. He’s great. Friendly. Competent. He’s telling me that the symptoms I am experiencing are part of a larger phenomenon known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL – because who wants to spell that ever again?): an unexplained but rapid hearing loss in one ear, accompanied by tinnitus (ringing), bouts of vertigo, and a constant sense of “fullness” or congestion. None of the symptoms, mind you, actually mean anything. They all represent the brain’s stubborn attempt to re-establish a connection with the nerve of the inner ear, which is (likely) permanently damaged. It’s a futile attempt to fix something that is fundamentally unfixable.
How did it happen? I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know. We never will.
Anyway, I’m sitting there, realizing that from this moment on, my experience of life will never be the same. And all I can think about is that guy, over coffee, trying to tell me something about his wife and how hard her life is. I do a lot of coffees, a lot of sharing, a lot of listening. I’m a pastor, after all. And I know a lot of people with chronic illness, just stuff that will never go away. I’ve talked to them, held their hands, read them Scripture, prayed over them. But until this moment, I didn’t understand them. What it feels like to know, deep down, there are no next steps, no more doctors, no more meds, no more plans. There’s just a broken body, and the ways you learn to live around it.
I haven’t shared this with many people. I wasn’t ready. I don’t want this to be a long, drawn out thing about my health. I was listening to someone recently talk about their own chronic illness, and he said, “One of the hardest things about it is that I’m offended when people don’t ask how I am doing, but then I’m exhausted when they do ask how I am doing.” I loved that. It’s so true. I don’t want this blog to be about how I’m doing (I’m really ok). But I’d love to share what I am learning. So here goes…
I need daily bread. During this time with my health, I have learned that some days I can do whatever I want, and some days I just can’t. I have no control over it. My plans are very much plans for the day. I know now more than ever the reason Jesus teaches us to ask for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Not weekly bread. Not monthly. Not quarterly. Not annually. Just daily. Upon further reflection, I think too much of my energy in life has been looking ahead to some hypothetical future, or mulling over some unchangeable past, instead of living the day right in front of me. Now, I find myself concentrating more and more on this idea, to live the day God gave me. There is a design element here: God indeed made us to plan as well for the future as we are able, but more importantly, He made us to live and obey and depend on Him today. When you really begin to pay attention, this idea is all over the Bible. Hebrews 3:12-13 comes to mind:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
My body failing me is difficult, but it also throttles my attention from drifting too far ahead or behind. What can I do today? What does faithfulness look like right now? I need daily bread, and Jesus is happy to give it to me when I ask. I’m asking now more than ever.
This body is not my home. It’s one thing to feel out of place in the world. It’s another to feel – even just a little – out of place in your body. To feel that your own body is an obstacle to who you want to be and what you want to do. This, by the way, is a feeling we will all experience at one point or another. If illness doesn’t get us, age will. My fellow chronic-illness folks and I are just practicing a little early.
I hate to admit this, but for most of my 20s and 30s, Paul’s teaching on the new body has been for me a fascinating abstraction. Chronic illness has cured me of that. When I turn to, say, 1 Corinthians 15, rather than reading for mere comprehension, I read for hope. I read for reminders and promises. Promises that reshape my reality. Promises like “what is sown perishable will indeed be raised imperishable”, and that a glory awaits me that I can hardly fathom, just as I cannot fathom the beauty of a rose by merely studying it’s seed.
I no longer just believe this is true. I need to believe this is true. And there’s a sense in which the culmination of our faith only happens when we don’t just think it; we feel it.
I feel now, in a way I didn’t before, that while this broken body is a gift, it is also a problem. It has limits, weaknesses, short-comings, and liabilities that I was not designed to carry. But God is not surprised by this, and He gave me good news about it before I knew I needed it. If that is true, if my broken body is not an obstacle to His love and care, then I can trust Him with what comes next. I can trust Him with tomorrow. And so can you.
Summertime is finally here, and this one feels different. After a year of uncertainty, I sense a growing light at the end of the tunnel. My hunch is we all have plans we’ve put off, vacations we’ve canceled, and family trips we’ve postponed that we are itching to make up for this summer. That’s great! In the flurry of activity, restauranting, traveling, and hugging that may be headed your way, let’s not forget to keep deepening and growing in our apprenticeship to Jesus. The floodgates may be opening, but our disciple-making mission stays the same. Here are just a few “outside the box” ways I plan to keep growing this summer for you to consider:
- The BibleProject: I have mentioned this in a few places, but the BibleProject is the most innovative Bible study tool I have seen in a long time. Tim Mackie and company have created a host of resources for increasing biblical literacy, including incredible videos on books and themes of the Bible, and a podcast that gets you behind the scenes on their process. I recommend at least subscribing to the podcast and digesting a few during long car trips, flights, or chore time at home.
- The Chosen: If you know me at all, you know I have a strong aversion to cheesy Christian media. Maybe you disagree with me there, but it’s okay; we can still be friends. But even if you are wired like I am, you will still love The Chosen. This streaming series is the first of its kind: an episodic look at the life and ministry of Jesus and those closest to Him. I have yet to start season two, but season one was incredible and did as good a job of capturing the essence of Jesus and His first century context as I have ever seen. What I appreciate most about this show is its ability to remind me how lovely the real Jesus is, the sheer force of His teaching and personality, and why I will never find words of life apart from Him. Check it out!
- The Formed Life: Okay, shameless plug. BUT, I really do believe that this daily devotional deep dive our church has created is one of the best discipleship tools I have ever engaged in. Sign up for daily blogs, videos, and practices designed to help us go deeper into God’s word, to train in the disciplines that shape us, and draw us closer together as a church family. If you have yet to participate, or have fallen behind in your engagement with this resource, this summer is a great time to re-up.
Keep growing, church! And have a great summer.
What Comes Next? This is the question I keep asking myself as we near the end of this pandemic. I’m not the only one. There are political, social, and financial implications that have many sectors scrambling to anticipate the future. Much ink has been spilled already in potential answers.
Followers of Jesus have extra motivation for prayerful discernment about what comes next. We are always interested in where God is moving and how we can join Him. I have no doubt that God has incredible plans for our community, our nation, and our world, and that 2020 was not wasted time for Him.
While I cannot predict the future, a few guiding principles shape my thinking.
There is nothing new under the sun.
This is the constant refrain in the book of Ecclesiastes. While things may appear new, they are only new to us. If you pay careful attention, a prominent design pattern of the Bible is the repetition of themes and motifs, especially human sin and depravity. From the family dysfunction that follows Abraham and Sarah through their children and grandchildren, to the cycles of idolatry, rebellion, oppression, and deliverance in the book of Judges, the Bible is always echoing itself. From God’s point of view, there is really nothing new about human behavior or the brokenness of the world. What will that mean for our future? I’m not sure. Some, like Andy Crouch, are predicting a repeat of the roaring 20s with social conditions that created the depressed 30s. It makes sense, but only God knows at this point. Whatever comes next, it may feel new, but it really is not. One of our previous pastoral residents, Kristen Brown, who now teaches at Northeastern Seminary, put it well in a recent talk: “…we live in precedented times…” From a biblical point of view, I think she is spot on. There is nothing new under the sun.
There will be loss.
Even though there is nothing new under the sun, we still feel the changes from what was to what is, and that is always accompanied by loss. That is part of the nature of change. When the Jews, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, return to Israel from exile in Babylon, rebuild the Temple and begin to worship, the older generation weeps as they remember the glory of Solomon’s version (Ezra 3:12-13). That glory would never come again, at least not like that.
We know that a better Temple was coming (Jesus!), but there was still an experience of real loss, and we should anticipate that loss. Personally, I find myself praying often about the church. What will happen to attendance and participation after a year of quarantining and more online options than we could ever dream of? How will the church heal from a year of division in our country and even among fellow believers? I don’t have these answers, but I anticipate that we will feel a sense of loss and grief, even as we begin to return to “normalcy.” That’s okay, and it is often a part of how God works.
There will be gospel opportunities.
In the book of Acts, when the church experienced persecution in Jerusalem for the first time, believers began to scatter across the region. Without realizing it, the cataclysm of oppression launched the Gentile mission that is still happening today. If we sense some doors are closing, we can be sure God is opening others. At Christ Community, I can tell you that our online presence is bigger, faster, and stronger than ever. The internet, while containing threats to the gospel, also presents a new “Roman road” by which to share Jesus. God is working there.
Christianity looks weirder and weirder to our surrounding western culture, and the data tells us that many who were only nominally participating in church before the pandemic will likely never return. That’s hard. But remember, God famously whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300 before rescuing Israel from Midian, reminding us that He often does His best work when we feel at the end of our rope. Our faith is only going to stand out more and more, even if our numbers and influence may appear to diminish. My sense is that God sees that as a strength, not a weakness. What opportunities is He opening in our lives for greater witness and service to neighbors?
What do you think? These are just my thoughts. What about you? I really want to know! Leave your comments here around how things might change, and what doors God may be opening. We can’t predict the future, but we can be faithful and prayerful in anticipation of what comes next. God is ready. Let’s be ready to move with Him!
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
I’m standing outside the church. It’s Sunday morning. Early. Kinda cold. My hands are in my pockets, shoulders tight, feet moving. I should have brought a jacket. Our congregation is beginning to arrive for church, and I like to be outside whenever I can to greet them. The first dozen or so I’ve seen many times during the pandemic, so they know the routine and head on in.
And then I see them. Two men, a father and son, whom I haven’t seen since March. For health reasons they were unable to return. But now, with a vaccine, they could. If you know me at all, you know I’m not one for sentimentality. But I kid you not, seeing them brought a warmth, an energy, a joy I had not felt in a long time. I ran up to them too fast. They were alarmed. But when we recognized each other, we beamed. I didn’t know it, but it was like a part of me, a part of my family, had returned, and I felt closer to “whole” again. I know. It’s melodramatic. But it’s true.
It felt like Psalm 126, a psalm of “ascent” used by faithful pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem to worship. The whole point of the psalm is to remember. You can see it in the first line: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” The poet is looking back on something God did. Remember when God did that? How that felt?
That little private moment in the parking lot, I felt like I wasn’t just remembering what God had done. I was experiencing it. I felt like someone in a dream. It was surreal, like God was putting His Temple, His people, back together, one brick at a time, after a long exile in Babylon. During this long pandemic, it felt like a miracle.
The Lord has done great things for us…
I say all this to remind myself, and maybe you, that God is working. He is restoring our fortunes; He is re-building Christ Community. Even if you are not able to return on Sundays yet (which I completely understand), my hope is that you can still experience the church family coming together as I have.These small miracles can happen at the park, in the driveway, and over the phone.
Those who sow in tears…
I say all this to remind myself, and maybe you, that God never wastes a tear. God makes many promises about our suffering in the Scriptures. But this one, in Psalm 126, is the one I forget the most. God is with us in suffering, God protects us in suffering, of course. But He never wastes our suffering either. In fact, if I’m reading this right, there’s something in particular about our tears that soak the soil for the joy God brings next, more potently than we can imagine. This has always been true of God’s economy, and it still is.
We have sown many tears this year. Tears of fear, grief, loss, loneliness, and anxiety. Personally, I feel like I have done more funerals this year than I ever have as a pastor. Every one of them hurt, and COVID made each one of them worse. They caused tears. God has planted every one. He has planted yours, too.
I honestly don’t know what God is going to do next, what this harvest will bring, other than this: it will be joy. Because with God, joy is always the last chapter. Keep sowing, dear church. And I can’t wait to see you again.