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.
Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday, culminating with our celebration of the Greatest Day, the day death died and hope triumphed, our Resurrection Sunday.
I didn’t grow up in a tradition that thought much about Lent, but in seminary I discovered that Lent is a path walked by countless Christians for centuries, to prepare themselves for the joys of Easter. It is a season of reflection, confession, and anticipation, as we enter the sufferings of Christ.
Can I celebrate Easter without Lent?
But Lent seems like a lot of work! Is it really necessary? Why can’t I just celebrate the resurrection? Why take this longer, more arduous path when I know that, either way, Easter is coming?
That’s a fair question, and that option is certainly available. But I think of engaging in Lent a bit like one of my favorite hikes from this past year.
Alaska and Lent
Our family was in Juneau, Alaska, and we wanted to do the same thing the majority of visitors do when they’re in Juneau—visit Mendenhall Glacier.
When most people visit this massive glacier, they do so by taking a tour bus to the visitor center on the east side of the glacier, go for a short walk on a paved path, and then fight through the crowds for a quick selfie with this spectacular ice—all from nearly a mile away.
But I thought to myself, “Not good enough! I didn’t come all the way to Alaska to stare at this thing from 4,800 feet away on an over-crowded sidewalk! I could have just stayed home and googled it. No! I want to touch it! Smell it. I want to feel the cold breeze blowing off it. I want it to drip on me, and I want to taste the water of this ancient snow.
In essence, I wanted to experience that glacier as intensely and completely as humanly possible.
So much work
But it wasn’t going to be easy. After a ton of research (and convincing my family: “trust me, this way will be better”), we took a taxi to the opposite side of the glacier, a place with almost no tourists. Because of its increased isolation, we had to convince the taxi driver to return later to pick us up. And all we could see when we arrived was one tiny glimpse of the glacier from an even farther distance. Just a bunch of trees, a narrow, poorly-marked trail, and the potential for bears. Did we just make a huge mistake?
It was too late for those thoughts, so off we went! We are fairly experienced hikers, but it was a difficult seven-mile round trip. Three out of four of us fell and got hurt. There were places where we lost the trail, spots we trudged through the mud, and other areas the brush was so thick we could only barely squeeze through. We had to scramble up steep and dangerous cliffs and gain about 1,200 feet in total elevation. We were hungry, tired, and becoming more ticked at each other with every seemingly pointless step.
And we still hadn’t really even seen it! I’m pretty sure our kids, ages 9 and 11, were contemplating emancipation. I could see from Kelly’s face that she was questioning her life choices. Even I was beginning to feel more than a bit of regret. Stupid hike! We could have taken the bus, clicked our selfie, and been done with it by now!
Then we saw it
And then we got above the cliff, and instantly, we forgot about all the work. Oh. I’d never seen anything like it.
I had never even imagined ice so blue or so massive or so gorgeous. It literally took our breath away (of course, we may have still been winded from scaling the rocks). It was still about a half-mile away, but we could FEEL the ice in the air and had to put on our coats.
Our pace slowed as we soaked it in. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, each of them a failure to capture it. Closer and closer we inched, in awe of the beauty God invented.
We walked beside it. We walked on top of it. Eventually, we found an ice cave and walked under it. We felt it and tasted it. We lingered. We explored. We played. We couldn’t leave, for our hearts were overwhelmed, and we will never forget it.
And we could have missed it! Sure, the other way would have been so much easier, but this path? Not only were we able to get closer to it, but the work to get there actually heightened our joy. The anticipation (and sometimes doubt) of what was ahead, the pain and even continual questioning if we’d made the right choice, and the exhaustion of the experience actually made it better when we got there. The work became our delight.
Lent and Easter
And similarly, we can try to celebrate the resurrection without feeling the weight of the cross, we can try to rejoice in our forgiveness without reflecting on our brokenness and sin, we can try to delight in the hope of life without carrying the burden of suffering. You can absolutely celebrate Easter without Lent. But, you will rob yourself of a greater joy.
For it is in the arduous path of Lent that we get to stand in the presence of our Resurrected King. Not merely from a distance, as if we were a bunch of selfie-stick-carrying, religious tourists, but up close and personal. Through our increased engagement with the disciplines, such as Bible reading, prayer, reflection, solitude, confession, fasting, worship, community, etc., we get to experience our God not just from far off, but all around us. And the work will be worth it.
Our hike toward Easter
We invite you to take this hike with us. The trail began this week on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.
Along the path, you might consider giving up something for a season to participate even a tiny bit in Christ’s sufferings and to create space in your life for these kinds of disciplines. Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Some Christians might give up meat or dessert, Netflix or shopping or social media. We give these up not because we have to, but as way to heighten our joy when we get there.
Each day on this journey of Lent, we encourage you to take additional time for focused meditation on God’s Word and reflection on our need for a Savior. Think about your sin, turn from it, and remember what it took for God to save you from it. We don’t do these things to earn favor from God or make Him like us more, but simply to create space in our lives for Him to do His greatest work.
To help us each day, we’re also recommending an incredible online devotional from 2019 that the Center of Christianity, Culture, and the Arts of Biola University posted. Each devotional (from Ash Wednesday through Easter) includes Scripture, poetry, art, music, and a written reflection. Take a look at their website, and sign up to have them email you these brief readings each day through Lent.
If you haven’t signed up already, now is a good time to join us on theFormed.life. This resource is a great foundation for daily study, focusing on spiritual disciplines and habits. During the four weeks leading up to Easter, theFormed.life will be focused on discussing elements of Holy Week.
With each step along the way, our anticipation builds.
And what’s our destination? My favorite church services of the entire year! Our Good Friday services at all of our campuses are a powerful time to enter the story of Jesus’ death. And then, of course, Easter Sunday, when we get to celebrate afresh that sin has been vanquished, suffering and evil has met its match, and death will be no more!
Yes, you can enjoy Easter without Lent, just as we could have glimpsed Mendenhall Glacier without that painful hike. But why would you? Greater joy is being offered. So which way will you go?
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Originally published February 20, 2019
2019 ONLINE LENTEN DEVOTIONAL FROM BIOLA UNIVERSITY
I want to be a tree
“I want to be a tree.” I felt these words deep in my bones as I stood before the largest tree in the world. His name is General Sherman, located in Sequoia National Park in California. He is 2,200 years old (already a big tree when Jesus was born). He is 275 feet tall (the WW1 Memorial is 217 feet tall), 36.5 feet in diameter (that’s roughly 4 parking spaces across) and weighs 1,385 tons (that’s about 600 minivans). He is a big tree.
When I saw him, I thought, I want to be a tree. Now, of course I much prefer being a human, made in God’s image, and all that. But. If I could be anything else, I just might pick a tree. At the very least, I want to be the kind of tree talked about in Scripture.
Trees in the Bible
Jeremiah 17:7-8: Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.
I want to be that tree. So rooted in God and drawing on His unending resources that nothing can shake me. When life heats up or droughts last way too long, even then it has no fear and is not anxious. I want to be that tree!
If you are familiar with the Scriptures, you may have noticed how God loves trees. He talks about them all the time. They are in the first pages of our Bibles, the last pages, and even the climax of our story happens on a tree. Trees in Scripture are often a sign of God’s blessing and favor, and humans are encouraged to model our lives in some ways after them and are often compared to them (just a few examples: Psalm 1, Psalm 52:8, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 17:7-8, Matthew 7:17-19).
So when I saw this tree it grabbed me. We actually spent the better part of three days in old growth sequoia groves, far below their towering canopies. We could see these magnificent trees flourishing in every direction. We touched them, smelled them, climbed on the fallen ones, stood inside hollow ones, picniced among them, drove our minivan through one of them, and hiked for miles below their stunning presence. These are the weird things the Millers do on vacation!
Lessons from a Tree
There are many things trees teach us. God’s Word explicitly uses trees as living illustrations and I want to mention three things that make me want to be like a mighty sequoia.
First, trees take the long view. Every time I plant a tree I feel like it is an act of faith, looking ahead into a distant future. I plant knowing full-well that the greatest size and beauty of this tree could likely be long after I am gone. Planting a tree is always for the people who outlive us. Trees take the long view and they encourage us to do the same.
I have never once looked at a tree and thought, boy, that thing is sure in a hurry. I have never seen one appear to be concerned about the moment or focused solely on the present. Instead, trees give me a sense of history and stability. It has been there a long time and will probably be there a longer time still. Trees are patient.
When I look at my life, I’m almost always in a hurry and obsessed with right now. It is easy in a year filled with as much turmoil as 2020 to imagine that things have never been more challenging or more divisive or disappointing. I’ve caught myself thinking things like: never before has our nation been so divided. Never has a virus had so much influence. Never has being a pastor (or parent, or teacher, or business leader, or medical professional—fill in the blank) been more exhausting.
Then I look at this tree. How many revolutions, civil wars, and contentious elections has it seen? How many nations rise and fall? How many viruses and diseases, economic downturns, and unanticipated situations? How many pastors come and go and how many apparent setbacks or divisions within the broader church?
Oh right. I’m probably not the first human to feel any of these things.
Of course, none of this minimizes the things we are feeling today. Our struggles are uniquely our own and as such, feel uniquely personal. Yet instead of looking at the last eight months, or the last four years, or even the 40+ years I’ve been alive, a tree reminds me that God also sees a bigger picture. And I need that bigger perspective.
Psalm 90:1–4: Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
A tree has seen a lot.
God has seen it all.
Nothing surprises Him or catches Him off guard, and as such, I can, like a tree, wait patiently. I can trust in Him and rest in His provision. Trees encourage me to take the long view.
They also encourage me to suffer with purpose. I find this remarkable about sequoia trees; sequoias are quite literally built for suffering and come out better because of it.
I tend to worry about all the fires in California and everywhere out west. Even more, I worry about the fires in my own life and work and relationships. Not only are sequoias designed to withstand most forest fires, they actually need the fires in order to thrive.
Just look at this sequoia cone, no bigger than a small chicken egg, with tiny seeds embedded. And look behind at the dark spot at the base of the tree–a burned out hole big enough to camp in. (For you history and nature nerds, this is the same tree John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt camped under in 1903 when they “invented” the National Parks.)
Take a look at that burn mark. It seems impossible to me, yet in all the hiking we did, it was harder to find an old sequoia without burn marks than those with them. I knew the trees needed the fires, but I was surprised to see the majority of them deeply scarred by their environment, yet still massively mighty! How does that work?
You see, the bark of a mature sequoia can measure up to three feet thick (yes, you read that right—three feet) protecting it from almost any fire. It will leave tremendous scars but the tree stands protected. Not only that, the fires actually help the cones open up in order to release the seeds. Fire then burns off any competing plant undergrowth so the new seeds and saplings can flourish at the base of their towering parents. The fires and trees work together demonstrating some of the keys to the trees’ endurance: thick skin, ample pruning, and new growth.
If I am completely honest, 2020 has felt like one fire after another. I still feel the heat, and there is a good chance the burns many of us have experienced could turn into scars. Let’s not naively imagine it all rosy. There are things that, after this year, may never be the same. Not everything survives a forest fire.
I don’t want to be one of the casualties. I want to emerge stronger, with bolder faith, more resilient hope, and deeper compassion. Tender but thick-skinned. I want to see a church purified and pruned, longing for and working toward the Kingdom. I want to sprout new growth in my life, my family, my community, and our church to God’s great glory and our great joy. I want what Peter wrote to be true of us.
1 Peter 1:3–9: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
When I see a scarred sequoia it reminds me to suffer with purpose. I don’t have to enjoy it or pursue it, but I do have to let God use it. If you let Him, He will not waste the fires in your life.
And if you’re thinking, yeah, but how? You are not alone. I feel it right with you. Left to my own devices I tend to retreat back into my self-centered focus on the present and waste my suffering. But there is one more lesson from these mighty trees.
Sequoias stand tall together. They need one another and they almost seem to know it. In fact, I was puzzled when the ranger told us that while you may occasionally see a lone sequoia, it will almost certainly fail to flourish. It might survive. It might grow to a decent size and even live to a decent age. But it will never be a giant. It will never really be what it could be. For that to happen, these trees need a community.
You see, sequoias have remarkably shallow roots for their size. Again, imagine a tree that is 275 feet tall, weighing 1385 tons. Think about the foundation required for a building that size. Now picture that tree swaying and being whipped about in storm after storm after storm for 2,200 years. And it’s still standing.
Mature sequoia roots are only 12-14 feet deep. How do they possibly withstand every storm for thousands of years? The roots form a community. They spread out (each sequoia can spread out underground across an entire acre), twisting and turning and intertwining into an entire community of roots, holding each other strong. It can be a cluttered and tangled mess down there yet it allows them to flourish through nearly every storm.
When I am tempted toward despair or apathy, toward destructive distraction or unhealthy busyness, toward doubt or anger, it is the people standing with me who keep me standing.
Who are those trees in your life? How, even in the difficulty of today, are you pursuing those relationships? How are you helping each other stand tall?
Life and community and church all look very different right now. It is hard. Isolation creeps in. Old habits die. If we’re not careful, at some point we’re going to look around and realize that we are alone, and then, even the smaller storms will shake us. What will happen when the big one comes?
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
May our roots grow deeply entwined together, so that in this unusual community, we might stand tall and endure every storm.
Will we be this tree?
Will this be us—God’s church—in this world? Will we be this tree? Rooted in Him and never fearing. When the storms rage, when the fires come, when the immediate feels so pressing. When elections overwhelm us, when viruses disrupt us, when fears and disappointments and frustrations loom. Will we keep trusting? Will we learn from the trees?
Next time you feel the tensions rising up within you, look up at a tree. Sure, you may have trouble finding a sequoia nearby, and not all trees are the same, but any tree will do. Let it remind you anyway.
Take the long view.
Suffer with purpose.
Stand tall together.
And as you look up at the tree, may you also lift your eyes up to the God who promises to make you into the forest described by Isaiah 61:1-3.
For our God comes: …to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.