a letter to hudson

hey hudson,

you were due to arrive the day i first sat down to start writing this letter. we welcomed you into the world a full week later. now that i’m finally wrapping this up, it’s been three weeks since you breathed your first breath of air–a good sign that you’re arriving in the right family.

Hudson's birth

these are the first words i have ever written to you, and the mere mention of that fact is enough to steal my breath. we have a whole lifetime of words ahead of us to exchange, but these are the first. i will do my best.

before your sister was born, i wrote down some things i wanted to make sure she knew. several years later, it feels presumptuous to think you would want to hear what i have to say, or that what i have to say would be of value to you.

perhaps that is simply the passing of time, but i now feel i have less to offer than i did just a few years ago when it comes to worthwhile advice. time will tell.

the story of my life will not be the story of your life, of course. and yet, the story of my life will undoubtedly give shape to yours. so i thought i might start by telling you what life was like when you first arrived into our family.

life when you arrived

we’ve been living in the bay area for just six months at this point, so it still feels new to us in many ways. and after moving four times in the past five years, life has felt transient for a while now.

before we arrived in california, and before we left our home in washington state before that, we lived in england for two years, and then north carolina for a couple more after that. i had been studying theology in both. our time in england was so rich and full and, in many ways, unbelievable that i wrote a book to do my best to keep it all from falling through my fingers. one day i will have many stories to share with you from that chapter of our life.

your sister, emma, was born just after our time in england, and so she spent the first two years of her life in north carolina. two years of learning how to do life as a family of three. how to crawl. how to walk. it all happened there. by the time we were packing up our things in durham, i found myself wanting to boil the curtains and make a soup out of all the memories we made in that home so that we could take it all on the road with us.

after four years of school, and a year back in washington state, we moved to the bay area so that i could take up a new job–which suddenly sounds very grown up and dad-like of me. how does that happen?

i have found myself wondering lately what you will think when you find out one day that i was a university minister when you were born.

will you find that strange?

will you find that fitting?

that i am working in ministry at all–and in a church, no less–has been one of my life’s great surprises. it wasn’t always the case, which is likely why i’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact. but so it is.

my workdays are a combination of hearing from college students about their life (mostly) and their faith (sometimes); doing my best to speak meaningfully into their lives on the difference a life of faith in Christ makes in an often faith-less life; and, at times, reading and writing.

even in the surprise of this work, i often struggle to imagine something that would be more meaningful to me. perhaps one day you will know what i mean.

at the end of my days, i follow so many other commuters home along i-80, past the golden gate bridge standing tall and proud on the westward horizon. when i finally arrive home, i am greeted by your sister, now a dizzying three and a half, and your mother.

your sister often runs to the door, greeting me with a wide, watermelon slice grin. your mother also often looks happy to see me, but her smile, i am sure, has more to do with the fact that she knows that she can now be “off” for a bit.

this is, hands down, the highlight of my days.

when you are one day old enough to read this, hudson, you will likely know them both better than i am now able to put into words, but here’s what their lives looked like before you arrived.

emma

your sister has chocolate brown hair that reaches just past her shoulders, with curls on the ends that dance when she runs. her smile is a gift from your mother, and it is enough to stop me dead in my tracks and lighten my foot steps at the same time.

Emma & Hudsonemma is a wizard at puzzles and matching card games, and she is now asking us to read beatrix potter (“peter rabbit”) at bed time. you cannot keep her dry near a pool.

she has already told us that she wants one, make that two dogs. and a cat. we’re doing our best to hold out, but we have no idea how long that will last.

we have been talking about your arrival for some time now, hudson. we’ve been telling emma that you’re coming, so that you don’t completely sideswipe her.

the evening we found out we were having a boy, emma made a disgusted face. “i thought we were having a girl,” she said. which is funny, given that she had already been telling us she was going to be having a brother long before we knew.

when we tell other people your first name, she frequently corrects us. “you mean hudson james,” she says in a teacher’s voice.

she is also, even at three, one of the most thoughtful people i know. it’s not infrequent that we’re in a store and she grabs something, returns to us, and insists that you’ll need it.

emma has been telling us about all the things she’s going to teach you as your big sister: how to brush your teeth, how to do puzzles; important stuff. just the other day i walked in on her wearing her green fairy wings and reading a picture book to a doll seated on her lap. you can add reading to the list.

Emma reading at 3 and a half

as you will learn, emma is quite sensitive, like her parents. be careful with your words, will you? if you give her time and your undivided attention, she will adore you.

the last few weeks before you arrived, emma would often start the day by staring at your mother’s pregnant belly and shouting, “hudson james, come out!”

your sister has been anxious for your arrival. so has your mother.

your mother

i did my best to paint a portrait of your mother in the letter i wrote to your sister upon her birth; maybe you can look over her notes. but there are a couple things i want to tell you about your mother, since i have your attention.

Jen & Hudsonfirst, your mother is the best woman i have ever met. i mean it.

i’ve known your mother for about half of my life at this point, and never before have i met anyone whose heart i trust more. in a world where trust is hard to come by, your mother has been a rock.

but it’s her love that you will most likely come to appreciate most. your mother’s love is tough and strong. it is one of the most patient, steady, and at times sacrificial loves i have ever experienced. there will come a day when you will know this is true, and you will be as grateful for her then as i am today.

i mentioned this to your sister in my letter to her, but your mom, as you will come to learn, is also much tougher than me. i cried like a baby at our wedding; she didn’t lose a single tear. already i’ve gotten into the habit of calling you sweetheart, which she pointed out to me doesn’t sound masculine enough. so i grew a beard and kept calling you sweetheart.

of course, your mother has her rough edges just as much as the rest of us. i’ll let you discover those for yourself.

a few things to avoid, though, when it comes to your mom: early mornings, if you can; unnecessarily expensive gifts; and the spotlight. also, she’s still working on taking compliments.

if you do happen to cross her, chocolate peanut butter sweets do in a pinch.

life: ball lightning, your voice, & paying attention

as i mentioned, i feel reluctant to tell you much in the way of advice. perhaps it’s a growing sense of my own naivete, or perhaps it’s an even bigger question of whether or not you’ll actually be interested. either way, i have my doubts. i’ll keep this short, but here are some things i’ve noticed when i look out at the world.

Dadda & Hudson

first, you should know that my life has not unfolded according to some well executed plan on my part; it has exploded with surprises. apparently there are actually those most enviable people for whom life seems to go according to plan. but for me, life has been more like ball lightning: exploding here, exploding there, and then, darkness and silence.

in the seeming chaos of it all, you will most likely find yourself wondering, what in the world was that about? but then, after some time, you will look back and think, my God… that was beautiful.

knowing this, in advance, can save you much heartache.

do your best to surround yourself with the kind of people who can put a finger on the ball lightning moments, trace them to the next, and tell you a story. friends are the ones who give meaning to the ball lightning chaos of life.

second, and in absolutely no order, i have to tell you something that will sound like something i have to tell you. i know. but here it is.

you are a male, and a white male at that. which means that you will have, by nature of your birth, a voice. do not take this lightly.

things are changing by the day at this point. in the last couple of years, we have seen the kind of racial violence we haven’t seen in 50 years. i hope to God that things have improved by the time you’re able to read this, but experience shows that these things take time. and lots of hard, intentional, proactive work.

if things have not improved, it means your voice will be heard at a whisper when others are shouting from the rooftops. if you do not use that for good, i have failed you as a father.

and lastly–i promised you i’d keep this short–i cannot hope to know what will bring your life the kind of hope and joy that i desire for you. you will no doubt be influenced by those things that have brought hope and joy to my own life: books, authors, people, places. but i hope you hear me here: when you happen to come across those things that steal your breath and bring you surprise tears, pay attention. pay attention to your life, hudson.

if life is for you anything like it has been for me, the rush of it all will beg you to keep moving. it will tell you that to stop and take it all in is to fall behind.

do not listen.

if you can, pay attention to that which brings life to your life, and point.

music & books

two of the things that have brought life to my life have been music and books. perhaps it will be the same for you.

so you know, the first three songs you heard were “ara batur,” by sigur ros; “drift,” by kim janssen; and “love is all,” by the tallest man on earth. you could do worse than these three.

i do hope you have a deep appreciation for words, as i do. in the way of writers, your taste is not likely to be the same as mine, but here are a few who have left a mark on my life.

frederick buechner encouraged me to see the holiness and grace in everyday life. in the most ordinary, routine moments just as much as in the highest peaks or deepest valleys. that lesson has made each day, no matter how mundane, worth living into deeply.

c. s. lewis once showed me that it is okay to be a thinking christian. maybe, and hopefully, that will sound like a given, but that lesson changed my life in tangible ways.

and dietrich bonhoeffer not only wrote, but lived in such a way that showed me that our God-given gifts are not to be used merely, or even primarily, for ourselves. they are to be poured out for Christ’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of the world. if we try to keep such gifts for our own gain, they will not only spoil, they will turn us sour with them.

there are more writers whose work i would like to share with you, of course. i am sure you and i will discuss them in the years ahead. but if you take your time with these three, your life, and the lives of those around you, will be richer for it. of that i am sure.

not looking the other way

one last thing before i go. at the moment of your birth, your doctor welcomed you into the world and placed you into your mother’s arms in one beautiful, sweeping motion. in an instant, i found myself simultaneously laughing and crying.

Dadda & Hudson first sight

the head nurse was there, standing opposite me, on the other side of your mother. she turned her eyes from you to me and said, “you look as though you didn’t know he was in there!”

i knew you were “in there,” of course, and that you would soon be with us. but if i were being honest with you, hudson, i’d tell you that life has been so busy, at this point where my feet stood waiting for life with you in it, that i had worried you were going to arrive and i would find myself looking the other way.

but here’s the thing, when you arrived, it was impossible for me to be looking anywhere else. i was staring straight at you, but it was you who were looking the other way. and as i spoke to the back of your head, laughing between tears, you picked up your head and turned to face me.

in that moment, as best as i can describe it, i knew the gratuity of God’s grace. one day, i hope, you will know the same.

and years from now, when you take your first steps; when you learn to throw a ball; when you spell your own name for the first time; when you pick up a pen and tell the world a story; when you tell me that you’ve met someone; when you give your heart away; when you receive it back again in pieces; when you come to us and say you’ve decided to step out in faith; i promise to do my best not to be caught looking the other way.

i love you, hudson. we all love you, so much. and in you i see God’s gratuitous grace. if you know nothing else, know that.

i hope you can forgive the trite nature of any or all of my words. i am still new at this, but i am working on it.

your dad,

ryan

‘called’ available for pre-order

good news: my forthcoming memoir on calling is now available for pre-order on amazon. check it out here.

Called_final

here’s the full description for called: my journey to c.s. lewis’s house and back again from amazon:

Called is the heart-breaking, humorous, and refreshingly honest account of one twenty-something’s adventure of learning what it means to be called by God-an adventure that took him to England, C. S. Lewis’s house, and back again–and why it was only in the reality of his worst nightmare that he learned what it means to be called.

What is it like to be ”called” by God for a particular purpose? What can you learn for your own life of faith from such a calling?

Through a series of personal anecdotes, illuminating conversations, and candid reflections,Called brings you face-to-face not only with the world of C. S. Lewis, but also with the very real peaks and valleys of pursuing a calling. Seeking to reclaim the uniquely Christian sense of calling, Pemberton shows that God’s call cannot be reduced to one’s dreams, skills, or passions, vividly and powerfully illustrating how Christ turns ideas of failure and success on their head.Called will encourage you to realize God has entered into your story, calling out to you anew each day with the words, ”Follow me,” leaving you to ask, Will I be obedient to the calling set before me?

called is due out feb 2015, but you can pre-order your copy now.

first look: “called” cover art

so my publisher has just given me permission to share with you the final cover art for my new book, called: my journey to c.s. lewis’s house and back again, and i could not be happier with how it turned out.

Called_final

this image of the famous oxford spires framing the cover instantly brings me back to memories of strolling through the bodleian library‘s old schools quad on my way to the radcliffe camera. the golden sky sets the classic look i was hoping for, and the whimsical typeface matches the book’s voice.

for the unfamiliar, called is the humorous, heart-breaking, and honest account of my journey of learning what it means to be called, a journey that took me to oxford, england; c.s. lewis’s house; and back again, and why it was only while sitting in the reality of my worst nightmare that i learned what it means to be called by the living God.

called is due out february of 2015 with leafwood publishers.

stay tuned for more updates as the release date gets closer, including a new book website, book trailer, a special sneak peak at the intro and first chapter, as well as announcements about book readings i’ll be giving. and if you want to make sure you don’t miss any called news, feel free to sign up below to receive e-mail updates.

until soon, peace.

-ryan

meeting frank: practical theology

we bought a car shortly after arriving in durham, and shortly after we bought our car, we realized something was not quite right.

it struggled to start. not just in the mornings, but always. i assumed it was the battery. i hoped it was the battery.

so i found a local shop online with a string of good reviews and made an appointment to get it checked out.

when i walked into the small shop on wednesday afternoon, i was greeted by an older man sitting behind a desk in a cramped, hot and stuffy office / waiting room.

frank was his name. his silver hair was clean cut, and he wore a red polo with a pair of black ray-bans around his neck.

it came out in conversation that i had recently moved to the area to start school. a woman waiting for her car’s oil to be changed–the only other person in the room–asked what I was studying, and i told her i was studying theology.

“geology?” frank asked, from his swivel chair behind the desk.

“oh, no. sorry, theology,” i said, noticing the hearing aid behind his ear.

“oh, I see,” he said. “well that’s abstract!”

“you think so?” I asked. “i think it’s incredibly practical.”

“you know, i’m sorry, but i just decided at a very early age that it’s made up,” he told me. “i think people believe it because they need to believe it.”

our conversation was interrupted when his mechanic entered the office to hand in the keys for the woman’s car. her oil change was now complete.

later on in the conversation, it came out that frank had lost his wife just three months earlier.

“she had a bad heart,” he told me. “and then, one day, she was shopping…” his words slowed, “…and she fell. she hit her head . . . and the next day she was gone.”

there was a moment of silence. a long one. and then i told him i was so, so sorry for his loss.

“what was your wife’s name, frank?”

“pamela.”

“how long were you and pamela married,” I asked him.

“51 years,” he told me proudly.

“shooo…” I mouthed. “frank, I am so terribly sorry. i cannot even imagine…”

we were disrupted again, when his mechanic came in to let me know my battery was seven years old and hardly holding a charge. he told me it looked like my alternator was running fine, so i’d just need a new battery.

i thanked him, and i told him i’d like to have that taken care of. he smiled, nodded and returned to the shop.

frank and I talked about a lot of other things that afternoon. about farming in eastern washington–he grew up in a small town in the same state i was from–, about joining the airforce, about being a fighter pilot, and about meeting his wife while he was stationed in england for four years, where i had only just returned to the states from.

i laughed at the parallels between our stories. and then i told him about hayley.

i told him how it still hurts, even two and a half years later, and how i could not imagine the pain he was now feeling.

he told me it did hurt. he told me he was constantly reminded of her absence. by things he’d remember. by things he know she’d say, if she were still around. and how those reminders made it even worse.

i nodded, and i told him i didn’t know how he was hanging in there as well as he was, in light of his loss.

“well i’m here,” he told me, looking around the office. “if i weren’t, i’m sure I’d be a vegetable.”

i nodded, again.

frank continued to tell me about pamela.

“she was an incredible woman,” he said with a smile. “everyone loved her. she used to be a secretary at an episcopalian church here in town, until she retired. everyone loved her.”

then, turning to me, he asked me if i believed in the after-life.

“yeah, absolutely,” i told him. “i don’t think I could do theology if i didn’t.”

“yeah, I suppose so,” he said.

he thought for a moment, and then asked me another question.

“when we die,” he continued, “does our spirit… go up?”

i could tell, from his question, frank had not much experience with the church. and i appreciated his honest question.

i told him it probably depends on who you ask, but that i believe that things do not end when we die. i told him i believe things continue on for us after we die.

he nodded, slowly, and sat back in his chair. i could tell he was thinking.

the mechanic returned, to tell me my car was now ready for me, but that I’d need to replace the two rear tires, as winter was coming up, and they were too worn.

i asked frank if he could help me with that, so he did a search online while i waited and gave me a quote.

we talked for a bit longer, and then he said something that took me completely off-guard.

“it’s really been a pleasure to meet you,” he told me, voicing something i had been thinking about him. “you’re really easy to talk to. it’s like i’ve known you for some time.”

then he asked me a question i often get, and that i often struggle to answer.

“what are your plans for your theology? are you going to be a minister?”

“oh, yeah. well, i’m not sure yet,” i confessed. “i am on the academic track, to teach, but i’m not sure. i’ll probably end up somewhere in the middle.”

he looked confused.

“in the middle?” he asked. “what does that mean?”

“well, maybe doing some teaching in a church,” i continued, “and maybe some in academics.”

again, frank looked at me with a face of confusion.

“well you should be a minister,” he told me, matter-of-factly, which surprised me, given that he had just told me he thought religion was “made up.”

“you’d make an excellent minister.”

“wow… well thank you,” i told frank. “i really appreciate you saying that.”

frank finished my paperwork and handed it to me, from his spot behind the desk. and then i spoke up again.

“i’m not sure what you think of this, frank,” i told him, “but for what it’s worth, i’d like you to know i’ll be praying for you. i really can’t imagine how difficult this must be…”

his face suddenly became very serious, which made me nervous. i wasn’t sure how he was going to react.

but then he began to nod. and his eyes welled up with tears.

“thank you,” he said, sniffling. “i really need some help.”

i reminded him that he had my phone number, and i told him it would be a pleasure to talk with him some more, anytime he was interested. he thanked me again, and i smiled to him as i made my way out of his hot, stuffy office, into the refreshing afternoon air outside.

and as i walked to my car, i began to pray for frank, with tears now welling up in the corners of my own eyes. i struggled to imagine the depth of frank’s pain after losing his wife of 51 years.

and then, as i prayed, i began to smile, slightly. as something cs lewis once wrote came to my mind.

“i warned you that theology is practical.”

a letter to emma

hi there, princess. it’s me, ryan. your dad. the one with the lower voice who you hear every once in a while when you’re trying to nap. or when you’re in the middle of your water aerobics routine.

you’re not far away at this point. very soon you’ll be joining us here, in the world, rather than reclining in the warmth of your mother’s womb. and we can’t wait to meet you.

we’re getting things ready for you here. picking out clothes for you to wear. setting up your bed. and tucking away plenty of fuzzy blankets. the world is getting ready for your arrival.

and i know you won’t be able to read this for a while yet, but i wanted to take the time to write you a note. i thought i’d give you a heads-up on the world that’s preparing for you, so you can prepare for it.

now, i haven’t been here for long–less than 30 years, at this point–and i’m far from having things all figured out, but i have been here long enough to take note of a few things. and so i thought i’d scratch them down for you, hoping one day they might be helpful for you.

some of this may be helpful right away. other bits will likely not be helpful until years later. and the rest, well the rest may not be helpful at all.

and if, for some reason, it turns out that none of this is all that helpful by the time you’re old enough to read it, i apologize. but know i’ve given it my best.

your mother

to start, i thought i’d tell you a few things about your mother. you’ll be spending a lot of time with her, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know her for yourself, but i’ve known her for some time now. more than 10 years, i guess. so i have a bit of a head-start, and i thought i’d give you a few pointers.

first, and most importantly, the thing you should know about your mother is that she has been waiting for you for a long, long time. in fact, you should know that you are your mother’s dream come true. it may not always feel like it, particularly when you get to the age of 13 or so, but it’s true. ever since i’ve known your mother, she’s dreamed of welcoming you into this world.

and so, on those more difficult days, never forget: long before you showed up, your mother dreamt of holding you in her arms. that will be true whether you’re 16 months or 16 years old.

the second thing you should know about your mother is that she likes her sleep. i tell you this because, if you want to earn some major points with her someday, let her sleep in. and then bring her breakfast in bed (preferably pancakes with chocolate chips). she’ll smile at you with the kind of smile that stole my heart years ago if you do.

thirdly, you should know your mother sees things in black and white. and i love that about her, mostly because it’s very unlike me. if you want to have a long conversation as you think through things, you will find i’m the man for the job. but if you don’t have time to waste and you just want a straight answer, you’re probably better off asking your mom. she’s a straight-shooter.

the last thing i’ll tell you about your mother is that she likes gerber daisies, peanut butter and chocolate (especially together), fuzzy socks, and puzzles. she does not like bananas, spiders or feet.

i could go on, but that should be good for now. i have a few other things i want to tell you that i hope might be helpful.

love

perhaps it’s good i started with your mother, because the next bit isn’t quite so nice.

you see, the thing is, emma, you’re being born into a world with a lot of wounds. i’m very sorry to say it, but we haven’t been very good to one another. the people who came before us weren’t very good to each other, either. nor were those who came before them.

and so what you’ll find as you move through life is a lot of brokenness. and hurt. you’ll find people have a hard time trusting one another. you’ll find people getting frustrated over things that really shouldn’t matter all that much. you’ll find people saying mean things and generally acting pretty ugly to one another a lot of times.

but don’t take it personally. it’s not about you. it’s about all of us. and the pain we share.

you didn’t create this pain, but you will be born into it. just like all of us. and like all of us, you will be asked to carry an overwhelming amount of this pain. more than seems fair. more than you can bear.

i’m very sorry about that, but my hope is that you may be able to help do something about it. in fact, my hope is that your life may be lived in such a way that you might help to heal it from the inside out.

now i know that seems like an awful lot to ask of you. and i know you’re probably asking yourself how you are possibly supposed to help heal the wounds of this world that has been broken and hurting since long before you arrived.

my answer? with love.

and yes, i know. i know that sounds terribly idealistic. i know it is sounds so simple. and it is. but it isn’t, at the same time.

you see, if you want to make a difference in this world, emma, if you want to help heal the brokenness and the hurt, you have to love.

love those who show you love. love those who don’t. love those closest to you. love perfect strangers.

and no matter how useless or thankless it seems, keep going. not to be noticed, not to be rewarded, but simply because you believe in it.

mother teresa, a woman who left us before you got here, and a woman who not only believed in love, but who embodied it, has this great quote where she says,

“do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. what we need is to love without getting tired.”

i hope you find a way to love like that, emma. without getting tired. if you do, the world will be better for it.

work

now i know it’s a little early for me to be talking to you about work. don’t worry. for the first 18 years or so of your life, we’ve got you covered. (and probably for a while after that, the way things are looking at the moment).

but eventually, there will come a time when you have to start thinking about what it is you want to put your hands to. we all do. here are my thoughts for when you begin to think about this.

when it comes time to consider what it is you’d like to invest your time doing, don’t over-think it. instead, trust your heart. you’ll find, as you go through life, that you like certain things. you’ll also find you dislike other things. you’ll find there are things you’re pretty good at. you’ll also find there are things you’re not so good at.

if you can, find a way to combine what you enjoy doing with the things you’re pretty good at. if you can do that, this world will not only reward you for your work, but you will find that the world will be rewarded by your work.

Truth

another thing you’ll find in this world is that everyone has questions, and everyone is looking for answers. people want to know why we’re here. they want to know where we’re going. and they want to know what happens when the curtain of this life comes tumbling down.

you’ll find, as you go through life, that people offer a lot of different answers to these questions. you’ll find some people who say their answer is the right one. and you’ll find others who say all answers are right, just as much as the next one.

we’re going to spend a lot of time together, you and i, so you’re going to find out very early on what i believe. and you’ll probably even be influenced by my beliefs. but i’m honest enough with myself to admit that there will come a day when you start poking around to find the source of Truth for yourself. when you do, here are three things i hope you’ll think about.

first, when you’re considering whether something provides answers for life’s great questions, ask yourself, “does this help make sense of what i know about the world around me? or, instead, does it sound like something someone would make up, out of some sort of wishful thinking?”

secondly, and order is important here, ask yourself, “is this aesthetically pleasing?” what i mean by that is, when you’ve found something that you think makes sense, ask yourself if it’s actually attractive, as well.

and then, lastly, after you’ve done all that, ask yourself, “does it make a difference with the pain and the hurt of this world?”

i say order is important because if something simply doesn’t hold water, in the first place, then don’t bother with how much you’d like it to be true.

but, if you find it seems reasonable enough, in light of what you know of this world, then go on to ask how it satisfies your taste for beauty. when you hear it, does it make you smile? does it make you smile uncontrollably? while not necessarily a guarantee of Truth, beauty seems to be an awfully good indicator of it.

and then, when you’ve done all that, ask yourself whether it actually makes a difference with the brokenness of this world. i can’t imagine Truth suggesting we run from the brokenness and pain that surrounds us. i can only imagine Truth healing it. any offer of truth that doesn’t do something to heal the pain and hurt of this world is too thin to be True.

i think what you’ll find when you’ve really considered things, emma, is that Truth is both intellectually satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. you’re not likely to find that all of your questions are answered with a watertight solution, but if any attempt at an explanation for our questions does not satisfy both of these requirements, and if it does not then actually attempt to make a difference with the brokenness of this world, be careful how much you trust it.

and one more thing, while we’re on this topic: there are going to be many, many people who disagree with you once you’ve arrived at a particular position. and plenty of them will be much more intelligent than you.

don’t let that bother you. but don’t shut them out, either. listen to other people’s questions. go deeply with them, and allow them to critique your ideas, as you do theirs.

but at the end of the day, when you still have questions and their arguments still scratch at the back of your mind, don’t believe or disbelieve something simply because of what others say. believe in what you think to be true and beautiful because of what you know of the world around you. at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that will provide a solid foundation for anything you hold to.

a handful of thoughts

i’m sorry these final thoughts don’t fit into any neat categories, but here are a handful of thoughts i wanted to share with you before i go.

there are an awful lot of things in life we don’t get to choose. friends is one exception. i hope you surround yourself with great friends.

i hope you surround yourself with the kind of people who love you enough to tell you the truth, even when it hurts. and if it hurts you to hear, know it hurts them to say.

if you’re hurting or struggling or lonely or confused, and you find yourself feeling like you’re the only one, remember, you’re probably not. there’s an awful lot of us. because of that, there’s someone who has likely been where you are who can help.

growing up, my grandpa (your great-grandpa) used to say, “if you see something that needs to be done, go ahead and do it. don’t wait to be asked to do it.”

i think that’s a pretty good rule. except if it’s your mom’s things left out. if that’s the case, know they’re probably there for a reason and don’t need to be picked up. trust me on this one.

i mentioned this previously, but you’re going to find things in life that you’re pretty good at. i realized i should also tell you, you’re going to meet people who are better than you at whatever that might be.

don’t let that get you down. do what you cannot not do, and do it in the way only you can.

and on a similar note, remember that we’re not likely to always be the best, the smartest, the fastest or the strongest, but we can always choose to work the hardest at whatever it is we do.

one thing you’ll come to learn is i married your mother, in large part, because she has one of the biggest hearts of anyone i know. i love that about her. i also inherited a big heart from my parents, which means you can expect to have one yourself.

two warnings about that: first, guard it. be careful. you will find your heart often leads you to love people in a way that they might not always return. and that can hurt. others aren’t always going to love as you do, and expecting them to can lead to disappointment.

at the same time, be careful you don’t guard your heart so much that you don’t allow others to feel its warmth in a way that makes their life better. that is, after all, the reason you have it in the first place.

as a girl, and later as a woman, you’ll have the temptation to believe that you ought to be defined by your body. i hope you don’t. i hope you know that you’re so much more than that. cs lewis, an author who has helped me out a lot, as you’ll come to learn, once wrote, you aren’t a body, you have a body. you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. and i think there’s a lot of truth in that.

on a similar note, one thing i hope you learn to avoid is allowing others to determine your value. what i mean is, know you are worth more than what others might think of you. or not think of you. you see, living to please others is like starting a race that has no finish line. if you can avoid this, you will save yourself an incredible amount of time, energy, and hurt.

at the same time, know that the greatest experiences in your life will come from the times you put others before yourself. they’ll come when, in one way or another, you were serving another. it seems counter-intuitive, i know, but that’s how it goes.

you’ll also find, as you go through life, that the most rewarding experiences will come from the greatest challenges. i wish it weren’t the case, but it seems to be a universal truth. knowing this, in advance, can help when you’re facing those challenges.

and, lastly, when life brings you to a point where you simply don’t know what to do, when you have to make a decision and you have no idea how to move forward, imagine yourself having to explain your decision to your future son or daughter one day (when you’re much, much older). that’s what i did with you, long before you arrived, and it helped me with some of my most difficult decisions.

see you soon

well emma, you’ll soon be making your way into this world. and we’ll be here waiting for you. like friends and family at the airport after a long flight. we’ll be wearing smiles, and we’ll be crying. well, i will be. your mom claims not to cry when she’s happy.

but here’s the thing, princess, no matter how dark this world will seem at times, know that you never have to go it alone. not ever.

when this world is overwhelming, when pain and fear is so great you want to run and hide, i want you to know this: your mother and i are here for you. and we love you. we love you with the kind of love that doesn’t make any sense. we loved you before you entered this world, and we will love you long after you arrive. we will always love you, with the kind of love that doesn’t get tired.

and at the end of a long day, a difficult month or even year, when you still have questions, you’ll find me waiting. patiently. you’ll find my lap to crawl in and my ears attentive. and when you’ve grown too big for my lap, you’ll still find my ears patiently waiting. and then, as now, i’ll give it my best.

see you soon, princess.

love,

your dad

tears of hope: a christian perspective on death

two years ago, we said “goodbye” to my sister-in-law, hayley dawn. though it hardly feels right using the words “in-law.” she never used them when she introduced me as her brother.

this goodbye came after five of the most difficult days of our lives. days spent praying, crying and struggling to keep conversation. days that became blurred together, spent in the hospital that acted as our makeshift home for the week.

we prayed at her bedside. we prayed when we were walking alone in those cold, long hospital wings. we prayed in the middle of conversations, to ourselves. we tried to sleep. tried to eat. but it didn’t make sense. none of it did.

and then, on may 1, she was gone. just like that.

without a chance to catch our breath, we were forced to move forward, pushed along by the pressing current of passing seconds, minutes, hours and days. pushed along by weeks and months that had no sympathy for this loss. pressed by the forward movement of time that seemed to want to swallow up and fill in the void left by her absence.

and we were left dumbstruck by it all. i’ve never seen someone look so confused until that day i saw two parents lose their 19-year old daughter. i’ve never felt so confused myself until i felt those first moments in the absence of my sister’s life.

death doesn’t fit life

death is a funny thing. not funny “ha ha,” of course, but funny in a sesame street, “one of these things does not belong” kind of way.

death is funny, in a way, because it just doesn’t seem to fit with life. we squirm when we think or talk about death, even though it’s supposed to be this natural thing.

“it’s as natural as birth,” they tell us, but i’ve yet to meet someone who actually feels that way when it happens to those closest to them.

i realize death is common to us all. and i might even be willing to admit it’s a part of life (as we know it). but i’m not so sure i believe it’s natural. and i think, intuitively, we all know that.

when someone close to us has passed away, everything within us screams at this news. our very soul wants to shout,

“no!…

this isn’t right!

it’s unnatural!”

and it is.

i say death is unnatural because we were not created to die, we were created to live. and our souls know that.

our souls don’t get death. it leaves us scratching our heads, like the young boy who’s just been told his grandpa has “gone up to be with Jesus,” left to ask, “sooo… can i go see him?”

we are eternal beings forced into the temporal. like a fish snatched from its aquatic home; placed on the dry, dusty ground; and commanded to walk. like a fish flapping its body against the dirt, struggling to breathe, we simply do not know what to do when faced with the reality of death.

savored like a six-course meal

if our souls know death is unnatural, it seems our memories do, as well. when we lose someone close to us, our minds have a way of not letting them go.

memories of a lost loved one rush at us like hungry koi racing to the surface of our mind as we go about our day. we’re constantly reminded of the reality of their life as memories from times together are cast like a shadow on the back of our eyes.

sometimes they visit us when a particular experience triggers a memory. sometimes they seem to come by no invitation at all.

and no matter how painful they may seem at the time, we wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. when the aftertaste is all we have, we savor it like a six-course meal.

it’s funny the way memory works. i’ve lived in the uk for two years now, and i still can’t tell you my phone number. yet i have no trouble recalling conversations that took place years ago.

before i leave

the memory of hayley that i can’t shake lately is of our family sitting around the dining room table and talking, long after we had finished eating, as we often do.

in this particular memory, hayley is getting on to me about hurrying up and having a baby already. jen had wanted a baby for a long time, and everyone knew it. i was dragging my feet, and everyone knew that, too.

it was a bit of a touchy subject, though, since it was well known i was hoping to wait a bit before we started having children. because of that, people wouldn’t really bring it up to me.

but hayley would. hayley could. that’s just how things worked between us. and hayley wanted a niece or nephew nearly as much as jen wanted a baby.

hayley was considering moving away to hawaii for college at the time, and she wanted to make sure she was home when we finally decided to have our first child. she didn’t realize it at the time–she couldn’t have–but something she said that evening would stick with me for years to come. the words she spoke that night would prove to be a painful reminder of the depth of this loss long after she was gone.

after talking excitedly about how she couldn’t wait to be an aunt, hayley’s face became serious as she looked me in the eyes from her seat across the table and said, rather pointedly,

“you have to have one before i leave, ryan.”

hayley never made it to hawaii.

and now, two years later, and just a few months away from the arrival of our first child, this memory replays itself in my mind day after day in the still quietness of a library. i distract myself with sideways glances out the second-story window, but staring out into the pale blue sky, i can’t help but cringe at the thought that our little emma will grow up without her aunt hayley.

this is my first time having children, so i’m certainly not an expert on how this is supposed to go, but there’s nothing about this that feels natural to me.

dressing up death

some christians, when talking about death, will try to downplay its significance. they’ll dress it up and tell us it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. and they’re right, in some ways. but i think they’re terribly wrong in others.

when faced with the death of a close friend, Jesus cried tears of sorrow, even though He knew he would soon bring this friend back to life.

i’ve heard some christian writers say Jesus was crying because he was fed up with all the unbelief He experienced. they’ll say these people should’ve known Jesus could do anything, even bring this deceased friend back to life, and that Jesus had simply had it with their lack of faith.

but i don’t buy that. we see lots of examples of Jesus being frustrated by the shallow faith of His followers, but not once does He respond with tears. not except for here, in this one instance.

and i think that tells us that these were real, genuine tears of sorrow. i believe these were tears of anger, even. anger at the ugliness of death, and the hurt that comes with it. i think Jesus saw that. and felt it.

Jesus knew this isn’t the way things were supposed to work. He knew things had gone terribly wrong, and death was a painful reminder of that.

Jesus’ tears at the news of His friend’s death tells us death really isn’t a good thing. they remind us that we don’t have to dress up death as being beautiful or pretend like we’re all right, even when we all know, deep down, it’s ugly and painful. and that we’re not all right.

Jesus’ tears tell us its okay to grieve and acknowledge the ugliness of death with our own tears. even as christians. and even if we approach death in great hope of what is to come.

a different take

in a way, those who try to dress up death are right, i suppose. as christians, we do have a different take on death.

if we believed this was all there is–birth, life, death and then the cessation of our being–we would cry without hope. but we don’t. we do cry–my God, do we cry!–but we cry with hope.

as christians, we believe what happens on the other side of this life is infinitely more beautiful than this present darkness is dark. but we must be careful when it comes to talking about death.

if we’re not careful, we can make it seem like the loss of a loved one isn’t that big of a deal. it is. it always is. things are broken, and they’re broken in a way that hurts us deeply.

and if we’re not careful, we can also make it seem like grieving isn’t appropriate for christians, not in light of what we know. but the thing is, grieving is perfectly appropriate for christians, in light of how horrible death is.

Jesus felt it appropriate to weep in the face of death. so, too, do we.

death reminds us things are not the way they were meant to be, and we feel the pain of the world’s present brokenness just as much as anyone else.

we’re no longer fearful of death, we might say. and rightly so. because we have hope that on the other side of this life is the real life. life with Him. and so death is no longer a scary thing. but it’s also not a beautiful thing.

the reason for our tears over death is not that the next place is so scary, it’s that saying “goodbye” is so hard, even if it’s only for a time.

darkness into dawn

there’s this account in the book a severe mercy where a friend of c.s. lewis’s, an american by the name of sheldon vanauken who had met and befriended lewis while studying in oxford during the 1950’s, had lunch with lewis for the last time. the two friends would exchange letters with one another for many years to come, but this would be their final time meeting in-person, though neither men knew it at the time.

after sharing a meal together, the two men bid each other “farewell,” and lewis assured his friend they’d see one another again:

“i shan’t say good-bye. we’ll meet again.”

with that, lewis crossed the street, dodging traffic as he went. and it was when he had safely reached the other side of the road that he turned around and shouted back with a grin:

“…besides, christians never say goodbye!”

death is a funny thing. we’re told it’s natural, and yet we intuitively know it’s not. we know life is not supposed to end. and, we’re told–thank God–that it won’t. it won’t really.

we’re told, because of His sacrifice, there is hope. even when it seems like this news brings only darkness, we know, deep down, there is hope. because of what He has done.

and so, as trite as they may seem during our darkest moments, there is still great truth in the words clement of alexandria wrote many, many years ago:

“Christ has turned all of our sunsets into dawns.”

see you soon

and so we cry. we cry when we remember those words they once said. we cry when we remember that look on their face. we cry when we remember the sound of their laugh or the little things they did with their hands when they talked.

we cry because we know this isn’t how things are supposed to be. we cry because we know death is unnatural and because we want them back. we cry because we want them back so bad. we cry because it’s tough to say “goodbye.”

but we cry with tears of hope, because deep down we know our tears will not last forever. we know it’s not really “goodbye.” not really. it’s “goodbye for now.” it’s “see you soon.”

-for hayley dawn, and for those who cry with tears of hope-
you remain missed 

why good news is not enough: when truth fits reality

a couple friends and i recently made the one hour drive north from oxford to birmingham for a concert. we were going to see one of my favorite bands, angels & airwaves, and i was excited to finally see them perform live. particularly on this side of the atlantic.

i love music. and one thing that’s even better than music is live music.

i love music because it’s honest. people can tell when others aren’t being honest. and the same is true with art. people can tell when an artist isn’t honest. people can tell when music isn’t really music.

i used to think i knew what music was, but then i saw charles bradley sing the song, “why is it so hard?” and i realized i really didn’t.

when i saw his eyes and his mouth and the expression on his face when he sang those words, i realized he meant what he was saying. and i realized how few people who sing actually mean it.

i think that’s the difference between actors and musicians. actors are paid to pretend. they may look like they mean it, and they may even think they do, but you can’t really have music if you don’t mean it. musicians mean it. and that’s why i love music, because it’s honest.

second-story tattoos & skinny jeans

i had never been to birmingham before, but i had heard about it. never anything good. and it showed.

pulling into the city was depressing. garbage lined the streets. buildings were literally falling apart. and homeless men and women wandered the tired streets. you could almost feel the weight of the sorrow of this city as we passed through it.

after grabbing a quick dinner at a japanese noodle house that smelled of ginger and soy sauce, we found our way to the venue: an old three-story theatre. our tickets were for the second story, so we were looking down at the stage. it was an intimate setting, and it felt like we had a front-row seat, even from the second-story balcony.

the old theatre was crowded with 20- and 30-somethings. dressed in vintage t-shirts and skinny jeans. guys with spiky hair and girls with dark eyeshadow. drinks were being served at a bar in the back of the second story, and conversations were being had over pints and cocktails while the opening act took the stage.

i’m not sure i could recommend the opening band, but i was intrigued by their sound. and by the scene that played out as they performed. everyone was crowded into this dark room. dressed in dark clothes and tattoos. the kind of people who don’t look like they’d get excited about much.

and as this band began, i found my eyes looking around the room. taking in the scene. and thinking to myself, “how do you begin to connect with an audience like this?” and then, “how would you possibly try to speak about truth to an audience that looks like it could care less, about anything?”

when “truth” doesn’t match reality

i think one thing anyone who wants to speak to this generation–the 20- and 30-somethings who make up generation y–should know is that our generation doesn’t buy truth if it doesn’t fit with what we know about reality. and one of the conditions for truth is that it isn’t neat and tidy. truth isn’t neat and tidy because reality isn’t. it isn’t cheerful and shiny. it’s not smooth and soft. instead, quite often, it’s full of pain and anguish. it has a rough texture and it’s messy.

if someone attempts to offer us “truth” that doesn’t include the bitter taste of pain and hurt that we know life carries, we’re not going to waste our time with it. we know reality hurts. we know it hurts because we’ve tasted it.

this generation has watched as our own country’s commercial airplanes were flown into high rise buildings, killing innocent passengers flying to see family and friends and office workers just starting their day.

we’ve seen our friends go off to fight in a war we don’t understand, and return to the tears of family and friends who are handed a folded flag as a means of condolence.

we’ve watched kids our own age be gunned down in schools by other kids our own age who were bullied until they couldn’t take it any more.

we hear about rich men stealing money from the retirement accounts of our parents and our aunts and uncles, and we read about them getting away with what amounts to a slap on the wrist.

we receive the news that our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents have cancer. and we watch as their lives slowly slip away.

we spend years in college only to be told that the economy is the worst since that of the great depression, and then we enter the workforce hoping to somehow, in some small way, make a difference in this broken world.

we hear… we hear about our loved ones getting to the point of being completely overwhelmed by life, and deciding to just put an end to it all.

this generation knows about hurt and suffering and despair because it’s the reality we’ve grown up in. and if “truth” is offered to us in a way that doesn’t reflect this, then we’re not buying it.

truth in music

i like music because it’s honest. it’s a reflection of the zeitgeist of a culture at a particular point in time. if you want to know what a generation is thinking or feeling, then listen to their music.

on this particular evening, the opening band began their performance with a very heavy sound. hard, steady drumming played alongside rolling guitar riffs, and vocals that seemed to moan of pain and anguish. this was true of the first two songs, and the crowds nodded along, as if they understood, before raising their arms and clapping their hands when the songs had finished. but then, when the third song came around, the sound began to feel much more optimistic. much more hope-filled. you could feel it in the air, as everyone began to wake up from the lulling sound of the first two songs. and by the band’s final song, the music made you want to dance. and people did.

and i think that’s the way truth is. we all want hope. we all want to dance. we all want to know things will be brighter. but we don’t want to be told things are brighter, because we know they’re not. we can see they’re not.

and so, you cannot offer truth that says, “hey, don’t worry. things are just fine. everything’s okay, let’s celebrate!”

we know things are not okay. in fact, we know things are very, very bad.

we see it every time we pass the homeless man wearing a sleeping bag and beard, laying on the street corner.

we see it when we visit our grandparents in the nursing home, when we look around and see those faces that are dying not of ailing health or mind, but of loneliness.

we see it in our friends and family who are so overwhelmed with sadness that they sedate themselves with drugs and alcohol. usually legal, but not always.

we know things are bad, and if you tell us they’re not, we won’t believe you. in fact, we’ll shut you out before you can get another word in.

and so, if you want to offer us truth, you have to acknowledge how bad things are.

an offer of truth

as i stood in the second story of this old theatre in birmingham, i found myself thinking about truth and reality, and all the ways this world screams out to us that things are broken. i found myself thinking about how truth has got to have the bitter taste of pain and brokenness that reality has. and i found myself thinking about how that’s exactly what christianity does.

it doesn’t dress up or dumb down how bad things really are. in fact, if anything, it emphasizes our sorry state. christianity says things are indeed so bad that it took God–the only Being who is outside of our reality–entering into our reality, living a completely perfect life, and then dying an innocent death on our behalf.

christianity says things are so bad it took Love incarnate swallowing up evil in this sacrificial act of grace and mercy to straighten the trajectory of our world, from darkness to light. things are still dark, to be sure, as we can clearly see, but the hope and promise of light is now before us. because of this act of love.

that’s what christianity offers as truth. it says, “yes, you’re absolutely right, things are broken. in fact, they’re far worse than most of us realize.”

and yet, even in that brokenness, christianity promises hope. hope that this nightmare is not all there is. hope that, one day, this bad dream will be over and it will finally be morning, to use a line from c.s. lewis.

it will not happen immediately, but it will happen eventually. because it is already happening. christianity tells us the Light has entered the darkness, that It might bring Light into every dark corner of this broken world we find ourselves surrounded by.

tim keller visited oxford recently, to give a series of talks. several nights into his visit, i remember him voicing the question so many have:

“if God really did enter into the world in a man, why didn’t He just destroy evil altogether?”

and after asking this question, he spoke to us all, answering his own question,

“you know what that would mean, don’t you? if He destroyed evil, we wouldn’t be here, because the evil is inside of us. . . He didn’t come with a sword to destroy evil, He left with nails in His hands to redeem it.”

that’s one of the reasons why i believe the truth christianity offers. because it’s not simply good cheer, but because it acknowledges the bitter, painful, broken reality we all wake up to each morning. because it speaks of a God Who knows the depth of this pain, and Who did the unthinkable to heal it.

i think john stott was thinking along these same lines when he wrote,

“i couldn’t believe in God if it weren’t for the cross. in the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

the only appropriate starting point

and as i stood on the second-story balcony looking around the room while the music played and the lead singer danced around in the darkness with lights of blues and red shining around him, singing, “as God falls fast asleep, kids still move to a steady beat, even if its bombs falling at their feet,” i couldn’t help but think that these kids get it. they know the depth of the darkness of this world they’ve been born into, and they’re unwilling to consider any “truth” that doesn’t acknowledge that darkness. they won’t trust it, because they know it doesn’t fit with reality.

by the time the main act took the stage, i was encouraged that not only the audience understood that things are broken and in desperate need of healing, the band seemed to, as well.

at one point in the performance, the lead singer took a moment to say a few words. and i was completely taken off guard by what he had to say,

“we’re not about being a rock band, we’re about an idea… that you can make a difference…”

i was taken back by these words because they weren’t coming from a “christian” band taking a few minutes to speak to a churched audience about the gospel. we were at a secular rock show, in a crowd of 20- and 30-somethings who came to be entertained.

the truth is, we all know things are broken, and we all desperately want them to be better. as dark and hopeless as things now are, we still want hope.

the truth is, we still want the Light to overcome the darkness. we still want the Good News, but simply giving us good news is not enough. before one can say why this news is good news, one must acknowledge the brokenness.

we do others a great disservice–and ourself–when we pretend that everything’s okay. it is not, and we’re disrespectful when we celebrate the Light without acknowledging the present darkness.

the painful, bitter taste of reality must be our starting point because it is what we all share. we understand the brokenness. it is the hope we must be shown.

one year later: you will remain missed

hayley, we miss you. there’s no other way to say it. your presence is missed. carved out of our lives like a scoop of our flesh. and we are acutely aware of it. each and every day.

but i cannot

i still picture you walking through the door, you know? every so often. as if nothing had ever happened. as if you never left us.

i can still see your pink hollister sweatshirt and dark-haired ponytail as if it were just yesterday. i can still see your eyes squinting just so with each smile. and it’s at those moments i find myself missing you so terribly. for, at first, my heart leaps in my chest. i get excited. it’s almost as if you’re there. you’re not, of course. but, for a brief moment, it really, truly is almost as if you’re there. and i want to run and give you a hug, but, of course, i cannot. and that’s when my heart becomes heavy. sinking deep into the pit of my chest.

when i’m listening to this song. or that song. i want to send it to you. i want to say, ‘remember when?…’ but, of course, i cannot.

when i look at the initials permanently inscribed on my wrist, i want to show them to you. but, of course, i cannot.

when i want to share a photo of your beautiful new niece with you. to say, ‘isn’t she gorgeous?’ but, of course, i cannot.

when i want to get your thoughts on something, when i want to share this experience with you, when i can almost hear your laughter echoing off the walls, or feel you at my side, when i recall your hugs. . . hayley, i miss you. we miss you.

you’ll have to forgive me

you’ll have to forgive me, but this place where we gather to worship on Sunday mornings is still a painful reminder of the words she spoke to me. there, in that place. when she asked me to talk at her wedding one day. it’s but a painful reminder that we will never see her walking down the aisle, smiling from ear to ear, lit up like a princess in her beautiful wedding gown.

you’ll have to forgive me, but this song that you want to turn up is still a painful reminder of that cd she asked me to make for her, but i failed to finish in time. it’s but a painful reminder of those afternoons we spent lying on the carpet-covered floor in the living room, sharing music.

you’ll have to forgive me, but the beeping noise of books being checked into this old library reminds me of the beeping noises from the machines that loomed over your hospital bed. beeping noises that grew so familiar over that week we spent in the hospital. those beeping noises that kept us company as we stood, sat, slept, cried and prayed by your side. they’re but a painful reminder of those days and nights we spent hoping with all we had that you’d wake up. that you’d open your eyes. that you’d smile at us from that white linen hospital bed. if even only faintly. and that the doctor would tell us you could come home with us. a hope that went unanswered.

you’ll have to forgive me, but this wound that one might think should be healed over by now still feels so very fresh.

one day

when someone loses a loved one, we find ourselves wanting to help. to somehow offer healing and recovery where there is only pain and sadness. and we find ourselves saying things like, ‘you’ll see them again, one day,’ genuinely hoping those words might help.

and i’m sure we will see you again, hayley. one day. i have all the confidence in the world of that. but you are missed still. in the here and now.

frozen in time

we’re getting older, hayley. slowly. but we are. all of us. and yet, you are not. you are free from the aging process. at least, in my mind you are. frozen in time, it seems. we’re falling victim to the affects of time each day, and yet, when i see you, when i remember you, you haven’t changed one bit.

some might say that’s not quite fair. that we have to age and you do not. i don’t think anything about this has been “fair,” but perhaps this one thing is when we’ve come closest to “fair.” for, if we could have it any other way, which we usually cannot, i don’t believe i would. i don’t want you any older. i don’t want you other than how we remember you. with a smile as bright as the sun. with a laugh that can tear apart the darkness. with a heart that, even though it has seen so much pain, receives our pain as if it were the only pain in the world.

a year later

look at me. . .look at us. a year has passed since you left, and yet, what has changed? so much, it seems. and yet, so very little, at the same time. this pain is still my neighbor. the bandages on this wound are still blood-stained. your presence is still missed, hayley.

this whole dreadful experience has been like that of a nightmare roller-coaster. the kind you cannot get off. sometimes we want to shout in fits of rage until our lungs give out. sometimes we just want to sit down, resting our head on our knees, and cry for days in a pool of our tears. sometimes we want to slam our fists and demand answers for all of this.

where’s God in this?

in the midst of this pain, we find ourselves seeking answers. when our world has been so shaken up, we want to ask questions like, ‘where is God in all of this?’. . .’has He forgotten about us?’. . .’why doesn’t He take away this pain?’

and i think these are fair questions, when we’re surrounded by such pain. they’re certainly common.

i’m not exactly sure how i’d answer such questions. but i think i’d start by saying, He’s in the same place He was before all of this pain took place. this experience has not changed that at all. He’s certainly not off quivering in a corner somewhere, trying to figure this one out. figuring out how He might respond to this particular instance of pain. that’s not to say i don’t think He hurts right alongside of us. He does. but i don’t think this is puzzling to Him as it is to us.

‘so, where is He?’ one might ask. well, if He does not change, as His word says, then He’s in the same place He has always been. reigning from on High. i also think He’s within us. making His home in each one of us. in our joy. in our pain. right in the messy, confusing middle of it all.

you don’t see Him there?. . .you don’t see Him anywhere? well, have you called out to Him?. . .that, it seems, would be a good place to start.

has He forgotten about us?

‘has He forgotten about us?’ someone else might ask. for He might feel far away. incredibly far away. we may have felt His presence before all of this pain, but after. . .well, for some, some haven’t felt close to Him in any way since this pain struck.

but i don’t think that means He has forgotten about us. no, i don’t think that’s possible. instead, i think any absence we might now feel is due more to our own concerns and our own efforts than to any lack of His ability to remember us.

why doesn’t He take away the pain?

‘why doesn’t He take it away? the pain. why does He let it linger?’ another good question. another fair question. and i can only guess as to why that might be. but if i had to guess, and some, if not many, are likely to disagree with me on this point, here’s what i’d say.

pain–the emotions of pain, not the physical aspect of pain–is not something that can be taken away, but only replaced. we are not machines. our moods cannot be turned off or on with the simple flip of a switch. they cannot be cut out and removed like a cancerous tumor. they cannot be picked up and carried off like a heap of black coal by the metal claws of a giant crane. but they can be replaced. they can be overshadowed.

like any emotion, you are not unhappy because your happiness was taken away, but because it was overshadowed by something of greater magnitude than the depth of your happiness. in this case, it seems, whatever we held before as happiness has been overshadowed by this pain. by the pain of this loss. and so, with our gazes fixed on this pain, it is all we can see. . .this pain is overshadowing that which desires to bring us joy–namely, Him–because our gaze is fixed solely on this loss.

it is only when we allow our gaze to be removed from this wound that it will begin to heal. not to forget. not in the least! but to heal. so that we might place our focus not just on this pain but, rather, on Him. for if all you ever think about is the tooth that has been pulled, you will of course be more aware of its painful absence.

we will find healing when we turn from this pain and toward Him. focusing instead on the joy and life and goodness He offers us. not to forget, but to heal. not to remove our pain, but to overshadow it.

where is the hope?

‘but where is the hope in this?’ one might ask, which is a great question. for, how can we possibly pray to a God who allows such pain? how can we possibly have hope in such circumstances? more great questions. and, again, i would answer the same way. just as He has not changed, nor has our hope changed. it remains in Him. it must. for, if not in Him, where? and, if nowhere, then surely this life is not worth living. but it is. i assure you, it is! while there is still breath in your lungs, while you still have life within you, that life is meant to be lived. and it is meant to be lived for Him.

‘why, why would i possibly want to live for Him, when He has brought me only pain?’ one might respond. why? because His purposes are the only ones worth living for. all other roads, however long it may take to find out, will ultimately prove unfulfilling. like a glass full of sand to a water-deprived mouth. time after time after time. each road providing yet another ultimately unsatisfying result. until finally, exhausted from trying all the others, we return to this road. to this path. to the one He has been gently trying to lead us down our entire life. when we’ve tried every other path, when we’ve exhausted all other options, this one will still remain. and, along this road, when we reach Him and His presence, we will find joy of the unspeakable sort. we will find comfort and healing for our wounds. not that we will be immune from pain along the way on this path–not in the least–but, on this path, we will find Him. and, in Him, we will find all we need.

at the end of this road, or perhaps more appropriately, where this road meets the next (for we cannot speak of “the end” of a path that carries on and on and on, into eternity), where we move from the temporal to the eternal, we will find the painful remnants of this flesh and earthly existence burned away. in the peaceful presence of the only true Love we were ever intended to experience. His love. when we arrive in His presence, these wounds will finally be healed. leaving only a scar to remember, however faintly, the pains of this world. washed head to toe in the love of a Savior who cared more for you than He did for Himself. in the love of a Father who cared more for you than He did in protecting His Son from an excruciating death He did not deserve. so that you might experience the kind of love that makes this pain, no matter how overwhelming, deep and agonizing it now is, fade into the blissful depths of the very love you were created for. then, on that day, “the bad dream will be over: it will be morning” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). the broken bone will be set. the bleeding will be stopped. the tears will be dried up. all will finally be made right.

with all of our heart

you are loved, hayley. with all of our heart, we love you.

and you are missed. with all of our heart, we miss you.

and until that day we see you again. . .until we see that beautiful smile shining from within the heavenly Light streaming forth from His presence. . .you will remain missed.

success & sacrifice: all as loss

it wasn’t until i met by best friend steve that i realized we get to choose the kind of stories we tell with our lives. we all have dreams. some of us simply choose to go after them.

“i kinda feel like i’m tearing down everything i’ve spent the past four years building up,” i explained to steve while he worked away.

“kind of?” he said with a look of confusion on his face. “you are.”

i had dropped in an on early friday morning. to say hi. to catch up before heading into the office. i wasn’t planning on telling him i was having a rough time. but it ended up coming out anyway.

steve was already working away when i arrived. he had been all night, as it turned out. he owns his own business, and summer is his busy time. his unshaven face a dead-giveaway he hadn’t been home for days.

“but that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” he asked.

“yeah. yeah, it is,” i said. “but it still stresses me out. it’s just so much change.”

not his own

i met steve a couple years back. at a friend’s birthday party. it was at steve’s shop, and he was delivering some birthday cakes for the party. we got talking a few weeks after the party, and i was blown away by how this guy lived out his faith.

for starters, he served full-time at his church. leading the worship team. which isn’t a huge thing in and of itself. okay, maybe it is. especially for a guy like me who can’t even whistle in tune. but that was on top of owning his own business. achieving incredible success and notoriety in his industry. being featured in loads of magazines, including martha stewart. he had gone after his dreams, and he was living it out in a way that glorified God. all before he was 30.

“money is just a tool that allows me to bless others,” he explained over coffee shortly after we met. and i never doubted for a second his words. i knew he was being genuine. and he was. the income he received from the church he worked at was used to support his widowed mother. and to treat the youth on his worship team. truly, his time and his money were not his own. and he lived that out in a way i had never seen before. and haven’t seen since. it blew me away.

introducing my dream

not long after that, steve asked me what my dreams were. it took me completely off guard. this wasn’t something i was used to being asked. and so i fumbled my way through an answer. keeping things pretty shallow. but then, after a while, i blurted out what was really on my heart. it came pouring out of me before i could stop it. what i really wanted to do, but what i had been too scared to share with anyone other than my wife. for fear of being laughed at.

“i want to study at oxford someday,” i said. pausing. giving the statement room to breathe. giving him time to laugh. but he didn’t. so i continued.

“c.s. lewis studied and taught there, and he has had a huge impact on my faith,” i explained. “his writing has helped me think through and understand a lot of things of the Christian faith, in a way that nothing else ever has, and i’d love to be able to do that for others.”

“then you should,” he said, matter-of-factly. that was it. straight and to the point. no laughs. no “come on’s!” just, “you should.”

i remember sitting outside with steve on another occasion. in the courtyard outside his shop. it was sunny. and we had just finished lunch. and i remember him saying to me, “if i were you, and if this is what i wanted, then i would do everything in my power to get there.”

let’s be realistic

a couple months after i had shared this dream with steve, my wife and i had some close friends over for dinner. an older couple from our church. i say friends because they are. but they’re so much more than just friends. they’re mentors, in a lot of ways. they’re trusted counselors in our lives. and we love them dearly.

carol is a very intelligent, beautiful older woman with a sing-song voice. soft-spoken, her presence feels like a warm plate of fresh out of the oven chocolate chip cookies. doug, her husband, is a man’s man, to be sure. he loves to fish and play sports, and he greets you with a firm hand-shake. even though the grey hair has tried to steal away his youth, his looming frame gives away that he was an exceptional athlete. doug’s laugh bellows through a room after each witty jab, and he’s one who is always digging deep in his faith. reading. discussing. never taking it for granted. which i consider invaluable. and i love being around them both. their energy is contagious.

it was after dinner when we found ourselves seated around the living room. talking. and carol brought up something i had been getting doug’s thoughts on for a little while. an itch i had had for some time. to be doing something different. to somehow be integrating my faith with my work. to mix things up a bit. even though i didn’t know exactly what that looked like.

“so ryan, what’s the news on that?” she asked, nonchalantly.

“well, it’s still there,” i said.

“yeah? well what are you going to do about it?” she replied.

i grinned. “i don’t know. nothing, probably.”

doug smiled from across the room.

“oh come on,” carol cooed, in that sing-song voice. “what would you be doing if you had nothing stopping you?”

this was her way of prying the answer out of me. and it worked.

i paused. to look at her. to gauge if she really wanted to know, or if these questions were just for the sake of conversation. the look on her face told me she genuinely wanted to know.

“if i could do anything?” i asked. repeating her question. “well, honestly, i’d love to teach and write about theology someday.”

her face blew up with excitement.

“really! oh, ryan, that would be great! now, you’d have to go back to school, of course. where would you want to study?”

“i’ve gone this far,” i thought to myself, “and she hasn’t laughed me out of the room yet. i guess there’s no hurt in going the rest of the way,” even though this was terribly out of my comfort zone.

“oxford,” i replied, aloud. “i’d love to study at oxford.”

again, she blew up.

“i knew it! i knew you were going to say that!” her voice erupted into the room.

“really?” i said. scrunching up my face, completely baffled by her response.

“yes, i just knew you’d want to go somewhere exceptional,” she said. “I knew you’d want to travel and go somewhere far away.”

pausing, to let it settle in. to think. looking at me with a smile on her face, carol then spoke again, “well, you’re going to have to go for it, then.”

“okay, but let’s be realistic,” i interjected. only to be put in my place.

“realistic?!” carol belted out. so loud and deliberately i was almost ashamed of my words. “realistic? what’s not realistic about that, ryan?”

carol and doug spent the next two hours talking us into booking a trip to england that summer. to look into schools. to meet with professors. and to see if this was something more than just a pipe dream.

“if you don’t go after this now,” doug said, “you’re going to spend the rest of your life wondering ‘what if?'”

he was right. and i knew i had no choice in the matter. this itch would not go away on its own.

successful

growing up, i wanted to be successful. i thought about it all the time, even though i didn’t know what that looked like, exactly. i knew i wanted to do really well at whatever it was that i ended up putting my hands to, but i wasn’t sure what that was.

i knew what i wanted to achieve, though. i wanted to achieve security. i wanted to earn enough that i didn’t have to worry about providing for my family. i didn’t want my children to have to want. or to worry about money. or where it was going to come from. i wanted to take care of things. i guess that’s what i thought success meant. not having to worry about things. i thought it meant doing so well in your job that you had everything in control. whatever that was, that’s what i wanted.

but then, at some point, that all changed. i realized i could have a job that provided great paycheck after great paycheck and still not feel successful. if it was something that didn’t have deep significance to me. not because i felt my job was insignificant–i actually really enjoyed my job–but because, well, i realized there was an itch inside of me that deeply desired to be scratched. there was a passion that begged to be let out. to teach and write in a way that helped others see Christ clearly. to be doing that. full-time. as my job. i knew that’s what success looked like for me.

to look back on my life. 50 years from now. and know i did that. that my life’s work pointed others to Him. that is what success looked like to me. and i knew that’s the path i needed to set out for.

all as loss

the new testament tells us about a jewish man by the name of saul. saul was born into the right family. he was taught by the right teachers. and he went on to become a very prominent man himself. he was what many young jewish boys dreamt of being one day. for his time, saul had it made.

saul would have been in his mid-twenties during the time of Jesus’ ministry. which means he would’ve heard all about it. about the healings. about His teachings. about the huge crowds that would gather everywhere He went. about how He was going against the traditions the jewish people had kept for centuries. and about the miraculous claims. that this Jesus had risen from the grave three days after being crucified. he would’ve heard it all.

the new testament also tells us that saul went on to lead a persecution against the early Christ followers. against those professing faith in Jesus’ resurrection. against those who were mockingly called “Christians.” we’re told he would imprison them. and that he even personally oversaw their stonings.

and it was at one point in saul’s travels–on his way to send some early Christ followers to prison–that he was stopped. suddenly. by a great light. and a voice that came from within the light. a voice that spoke to him. personally. asking him,

saul, saul why do you persecute me?”

we’re told it was the voice of Jesus. and we’re told this man saul was so changed from this personal interaction with Jesus that he stopped his mission of imprisoning and killing the Christians, and he actually began telling other jews that this man Jesus was the messiah they had been waiting on. that He was the way to their God. he began telling his jewish brothers and sisters about the salvation that was found only in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. and about the life that was made possible by His grace.

saul was completely changed. he had it all, and he left it all behind. he traded his place of prominence for a lonely prison cell. he traded praise from men for beatings and lashings. because of his experience with Christ.

and at one point in his ministry, saul (who Jesus renamed paul) went on to write, “i consider it all loss for the sake of knowing Christ.”

over tea and books

and so we went to england. the first time for either my wife or i. we had an incredible time. and by incredible i mean, of course, it was filled with plenty of moments where i thought to myself, “what in the world are we doing.”

the day after we arrived, we found ourselves sitting in the rental car office. we were told our car had been rented to someone else. but not only that, there were no automatics left. anywhere. i could probably re-introduce myself to the intricacies of driving stick shift after driving an automatic for the past eight years, but it would be enough of an adjustment driving on the wrong side of the road, from the wrong side of the car. it was a risk i didn’t want to take.

i had setup an informal interview at oxford for that day. it was supposed to be starting in only a few hours, and i had no idea how we were going to get there.

but we did. it all worked out. we even made it there on-time. and i was speechless when we arrived. the old brick buildings. the beautiful, stretching green lawns. the sunlight pouring over the fields as the local youth played cricket. it was breathtaking. all of it. and i felt a bit like we were stepping into someone else’s shoes for a while.

i had my meeting with the oxford professor whom i had been in touch with for a couple months. by e-mail. as soon as i knew we were coming. he greeted us by name with a warm smile and that rich english accent that makes you feel about 50 iq points lower. he asked if we wanted some tea, of course. and we did, of course. his office was like a small library. brimming with books. both old and new. rows and rows all lined up neatly along shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. the room wasn’t terribly large, but just large enough for a fireplace, his desk, and a few chairs for guests. tall windows that offered beautiful views of the english countryside sat across from the bookshelves.

he started with some questions to get to know us a bit better. where we were from. what we do. welcoming jen into the conversation just as much as he spoke to me. making us feel very much at home. even though we were so very far from it.

and then he got straight to the point. he turned toward me and asked why i wanted to study at oxford. and so i told him. paying careful attention to each word.

i explained how i had a great job back home. one i knew i could stay at and be very happy with. but that i also had a deep passion for theology. that that’s what i spent my free time in. reading (he asked me for authors). writing. and that’s what i wanted to spend my time doing.

i shared with him how i had first experienced c.s. lewis’ writings during my sophomore year of college. how i had been amazed by how brilliant this man was, and by his ability to support his own faith in the Christian traditions. traditions and beliefs that can be pretty tough to swallow, he illustrated clearly. illuminating them with approachable analogies and precise logic. and i explained to this professor how lewis had taught me that i did not need to sacrifice my intellect to approach the things of the Christian faith. and how i wanted to help others see that.

he smiled at me from his chair across the room. nodding in agreement. and all of a sudden, i knew we were speaking the same language.

he asked about my academic history. grades. and he closed our meeting by telling me he thought i’d be a great fit. he encouraged me to apply, and to use his name as a reference. i was ecstatic.

returning home from that trip, i knew this was the right path.

three months

i spent the next three months working on applications. after a full day of work, i’d find my spot in the local coffee shop. my favorite. the one that looks out over the bay. the san juan islands and sailboats gliding slowly across the water provided a backdrop for my preparations. asking for paperwork from these people. and then sending them to those people. writing. about myself. about why i wanted to go. until the sun had set and the coffee shop closed for the night. then i’d leave. and do it all again the next day. for three months. i hardly saw my wife during this time. and it was wearing.

less than a month after submitting my application, i found out i had been invited to return to the school for an interview. i was so excited to hear the news. but i also knew i simply could not afford the time or cost of the trip for a single interview. and so i worked out a deal with the school. so that i could hold my interview over the phone. i knew this would put me at a disadvantage. to those who were able to meet face-to-face with the school. but i had no choice.

the night before my phone interview, i thought i’d look a little into the process. just to see what i was getting myself into. apparently these interviews are a pretty big deal. i found out that just getting invited to this point is quite the achievement. and that parents were known to spend around $500 an hour to hire a consultant to help prepare their child for the questions they might be asked during their interview. which put me at ease.

i went on to read that of all of those who had applied to this program, the school had only accepted six students the previous year. six. in the world. and it was at that point that i laughed out loud. i was actually relieved. there was no longer any pressure. if i was supposed to be there, then i’d be there. but if i wasn’t. . .well. . .six.

even his very life

i watched a video online a while back. it was introduced by francis chan. a pastor and author out of california. a man who is absolutely committed to helping the downtrodden. and to sharing with others the love of Christ.

but the video itself was something else entirely. it was a video of a man being beaten for preaching his faith (as was made clear in the introduction). his Christian faith. he was in india. and he was from india himself. he was standing in a group of people. the group was circling him. and all of a sudden he was kicked in the back. knocked to the ground. and then the beatings began. kicks to the head. stones were thrown. he was literally beaten to death. it was horrific. unlike anything i’ve ever seen. you wanted to do something. to step in. to help this man. but you could not, of course.

and the thing that stuck with me most from this video. the thing that is still with me, more than anything else. more than the physical violence. more than the crowds of people. more than the fact that no one got involved to stop the violence. no, what stuck with me most was that this man fought to get up. after the kicks to the back. after the kicks to the head. while they were still standing there. waiting for any movement. to attack again. this man actually struggled to get up! and that blew me away. it still does.

me? i would’ve laid there. quietly. i wouldn’t have moved. i would’ve made it appear as though i were dead. until they left me for dead. then maybe i would’ve tried to get up. after i knew the coast was clear. but this guy. this man. he struggled with all he had to lift his beaten and battered body from the ground. even while his enemies stood over him. even while the beatings continued.

how proud the Father must have been at that point. for this man. in this instance. when he considered all as loss. even his very life. for the sake of knowing Christ. and showing those watching what that looked like in His life.

everyone who stood there in the crowd that day. the hundreds of thousands of people who watched this video. they all saw what i saw. a man who professed faith in Christ. a man who believed in Him with all he had. and who cared more about that than his very life. and who wasn’t giving up.

that’s the kind of faith i want. with all i have. the kind of faith that considers all as loss. even my very life. the kind that’s willing to strive with every last ounce of my being to show others my faith.

and i pray you would, too. i pray you would see clearly the love of our Father, and the incredible gift He is offering. i pray you would be so enamored with it that everything else would be but a periphery issue. that all else would be but a distraction for the path that leads you directly into the loving arms of your Savior. and mine. Jesus Christ. that He might change you from the inside out. creating you into the most beautiful creation. into His very own image. that you might display Him to the world.

creation over the Creator

the truth is, very few–if any–of those reading this will be asked to choose between their life and their confession of Christ as Lord. that is simply not the way satan is attacking those in this part of the world. instead, he is battling with complacency and pride and self-worship and materialism and idolotry. rather than fearing for our lives, we are fearing for our possessions and lifestyles. you may not be asked to bend the knee to allah, but you will certainly be asked to bend the knee to a lifestyle that worships creation over the Creator. you will most certainly be led to believe that a life lived for one’s self is not a wasted life, but rather an admirable life, if it is met with success.

and rather than holding on to our faith and the gospel so tightly, more tightly than our very lives, our grip loosens on it a bit more each day. slowly. so that we care a little bit less about the gospel, about His good news each day. so that, steadily, our gaze moves from Him, onto ourselves. or others. or things. and that is where satan wins. he wins by saying, “look at this.” and we do. rather than at Him.

His desire is to pour Himself out, completely, into your life. but, you will have no arms to catch Him, no room in your life, if you are holding too tightly to the things of this world. and He knows that.

i pray your gaze would remain on Him. i pray your heart would be broken by His love, and His sacrifice. every day. i pray you would not help but be consumed with love for Him, and for what He has done. every day.

misguided focus

the entire story of humanity is one in which satan comes to us and whispers, “this deserves your focus. this deserves your focus. this deserves your focus.” continually throwing things at us in the vain attempt (or perhaps not so vain) to distract us from what actually deserves our focus. namely, Him. the Lord of all creation. the Lover of our souls.

throughout all of history, that is what he has been doing. trying to distracting us from what our focus should be on (Him). and, instead, trying to focus our attention and our efforts on other things. on money. on government. on fame. on clothes (“fashion”). on sex. on appearance. on food. on our work. on ourselves. and, as we’re created knowing something actually does deserve our focus. our worship. we fall into the mistake of believing him. we fall for his lies.

and our self is the thing with which he most easily distracts us. tricking us into thinking we deserve our focus. for, of all other things he points to, our self finds itself most fitting this description. of that which deserves our worship (perhaps it is because we’re designed in His image). we see this worked out in pride and self-conceit.

surely, when it comes down to it, we’re able to identify the futility of living for material gain. we all strive for it, but not many of us are going to say clothes or riches or any material possessions should be our ultimate pursuit. however, it is more difficult to make the same acknowledgement when it comes to our own well-being. when it comes to our selves. we’re much more likely to realize material wealth does not deserve our focus when compared to our own needs, but our own needs fail to deserve our focus in light of His purposes. of His glory. and of helping others realize His love.

busy little bees

i fear we are living our lives just to busy ourselves. like busy little bees. or birds. going to and from work. building. going. meeting. moving. doing. so that we can build these comfortable nests for ourselves. that is our aim. for most of us.

we believe the lie that His desire for our life is one of comfort. of a safe, warm nest. and the sooner we awaken from that misconception the better. for the longer we’re led to believe that to be true, the more difficult the truth will be to receive when it comes. for many, there may be a period of shock at the realization that there are no suburbs in heaven.

i feel like He wants so much more for us. i feel like He wants to free us from this lie. that we might experience Him. and live for Him. in big ways.

christmas eve news

i got the news on christmas eve. we were in-between christmas parties. dropping off gifts from the last stop. picking up gifts for the next stop. i picked up the mail from the staircase, and i didn’t even look at the address to see who it was from. i assumed it was junk mail and i was on my way to the trash can. and then i stopped. in the middle of the kitchen. by myself. and read the words i never actually thought i’d see.

“dear ryan pemberton,

we are pleased to offer you a place to read theology at harris manchester college of oxford univ…”

that’s as far as i got before letting out an embarrassingly loud yell of excitement. there may have even been a little bit of a scream. but i can’t know for sure. i was in a state of genuine shock.

“no way!” i shouted, running into the living room, letter in-hand, to show jen. as she stood at the foot of the stairs. looking into those big blue eyes that knew this news was going to forever change the road we had been traveling together.

the sadness in her eyes

we were on our way to jen’s grandparents’ house that christmas eve night. when i opened up the mail. we were heading there to open up presents. jen’s family was already there. it was late. and we were late arriving. everyone else–jen’s immediate family and her grandparents’–was already sitting around the table when we walked in. talking. over plates of pie crusts and dirtied forks.

“i got in” i said excitedly, as i approached the table. the smile on my face likely giving away the news long before my words.

big eyes. huge smiles. at the news. laughter. people getting out of their chairs. for a hug. to congratulate me.

i made my way around the table. and i’ll never forget the look on hayley’s face that night. her best attempts to put on a look of joy and happiness for this news failed to hide the sadness in her eyes.

she was supposed to wake up

a few months later, we found ourselves in the hospital. by hayley’s side. saying goodbye. even though we didn’t realize it at the time.

it was the second night we were there. and i had been up all night. by her side. waiting for what was supposed to be good news. the hospital staff had brought hayley’s body temperature down significantly. shortly after she arrived. to try to save her brain functioning. they were warming her body up now to her normal temperature. two days after she arrived. slowly. carefully. so as not to do any damage.

she was supposed to reach normal body temperature between 4 and 5 a.m. at which time she was supposed to become responsive. she was supposed to wake up. that’s what she was supposed to do, we were told. but she did not.

what was supposed to be a celebratory time was traded for tears. and sorrow. after seeing the look on the nurse’s face. the look that said, “this is not good.” i went to the waiting room. to wake up the rest of the family. her mom first. shaking her shoulder gently. and then the others. so that they could be there. they woke up expecting good news. to be able to once again say “hi” to hayley. but that’s not what they received.

family filled the room. we cried. and prayed. and then the doctors asked us to give them some space. for tests. so we were shuffled down the hall. and into the waiting room. we took our places. to wait some more.

after not sleeping all night, expecting to see my sister open her eyes once again. i realized there was absolutely nothing i could do at this point. i could not even be by her side. so she didn’t have to  be all alone in that cold hospital room. and so i took the opportunity to close my eyes. to get some rest. i grabbed a blanket and crawled underneath the computer desk in the corner of the waiting room. closing my eyes hard. trying with all i had to shut out the reality we now found ourselves in. hoping to wake up and find myself somewhere else.

waking up in the icu

at 8 a.m., the previously quiet waiting room was now filled. with family. and a handful of friends. i awoke slowly. from the voices. and one voice in particular stood out from the rest. not because i recognized it, but because somehow i knew i was being talked about.

“i think that’s him,” i heard the voice say. “i think that’s her brother.”

slowly my eyes opened. i stretched. and sat up. carefully, so as not to hit my head on the computer desk that had acted as my makeshift tent in this icu waiting room. squinting to open my eyes. contacts sticking to my eyelids from working overtime. i didn’t recognize the girl who had spoken, but i could see her steal glances over her shoulder. so as not to stare at the guy waking up in the corner of the room.

laughs, from family. “get a good night’s sleep?” they joked.

rubbing my eyes. looking around the room, i realized i had woken up exactly where i had finally went to sleep. things were the same. they had not changed. unfortunately.

the girl looked over again. this time long enough to ask, “are you the one who wrote the devotional book?”

“uhhhhh,” i struggled to catch up to speed. with the question. “yeah, i think so. . .maybe.”

the birthday present

we celebrated my birthday the same week jen and i returned from our trip to england. and it was at my birthday party that i was given the greatest gift i’ve ever received. it was my words. in book format. steve had compiled each entry from hands&feet, and he had them bound into 10 hardback and 10 paperback copies. i was speechless.

hayley was there that night. when i opened my books. when i saw them for the first time. when the tears filled my eyes as i held the wrapping paper in my hands, staring down into the box. at the spines of these books that held my words.

saying goodbye, hayley said she’d like to read one sometime. without thinking twice, i put one of the hardback copies in her hands. “here you go,” i said with a smile. “now you can.”

she had been walking a pretty rough road for a while. i didn’t know where her and God stood. but i knew that relationship had seen better days. i had hoped the words would help her see Him more clearly. and His love for her. and how deeply He wanted better for her. i wanted that so bad. and i hoped this would help.

she talked about you

“she talked about you,” this girl spoke up again, in the icu waiting room. jen told me later she was a roommate of hayley’s. “she’d read your book at night, and then she’d share it with us.”

a smile spread across my face, slowly, as i woke up. as i became more aware of the conversation at-hand.

hayley had been reading my book. she read my words before bed. and she even shared them with others. and i could only hope and pray that it had helped her see Him more clearly. and His love for her. with all i had, that’s what i wanted.

you have mine

hayley and i talked a few days after i shared the news with her that christmas eve night. by text. i asked her how she was doing. she congratulated me again on school. and then she said something i will never forget. something that sticks with me to this day. something that pushes me forward and encourages me when i need it most.

“you’re going to impact a lot of people’s lives. you have mine.”

saying goodbye

we’re moving to england later this month. we’re saying goodbye to all that we know and love. to all that is comfortable to us. to pursue a long-time dream of mine. i’m going to study at oxford. theology. that i might use the knowledge i gain there to continue to write in a way that helps reveal Christ to others.

and it’s funny. i never thought i’d actually get to this point. preparing to go pursue this dream i thought was so far out there only a couple years ago that i didn’t even want to share it with others. for fear of being laughed at. and yet, here we are, preparing to go. and i never thought i’d be so scared.

in pursuing this dream, i’ve realized that often times our greatest hopes and dreams are tethered to our greatest fears. and it isn’t until we take a step in the direction of our dreams that those fears become real. so real you can smell them. so real you can feel their warm breath on your face. the question is, will we believe in the reality of our dreams deeply enough to face our fears head-on? it is only when we do so that the beauty of our dreams will a become reality.

our very own all as loss

the past several months have consisted of us preparing to leave behind all of our comforts. tearing down the professional relationships i’ve worked so hard to build up over the past four years. with my clients. and the job i fully expected to be at. for years. to settle down and have our own warm little piece of the american dream. saying goodbye to all of our friends and family. most of whom we’ve grown up with.

this is me considering all as loss for the sake of His glory. i have a good job here. i have no idea what job awaits me at the end of this journey we’re undertaking. i have amazing friends here. i have no idea who we’ll meet over there. this is my wife considering all as loss. putting her own dreams of settling down and raising a family on-hold so that we might undertake this calling now. and i couldn’t be more proud of her. or more thankful.

there are still so many unknowns. so much that makes me afraid. but we are doing this in the hope that, through this step in faith, God will show up in a big way. that He will swoop in and work through this experience and use it to help share Himself with even more people than i might otherwise reach were i to remain where i’m at. where we’re at.

i am not risking getting kicked in the face or beaten for my faith. but i don’t think that’s what He is calling me to. not at this point, at least. but i do think He is calling me to this. to relax my firm grip on everything i thought would bring me comfort and security. my job. my friends. my family. and to trust Him. so that He might do an incredible thing with a pretty ordinary thing.

what is it?

what’s distracting you from living for Him? what’s getting in the way of living in a way that others see Him at work in your life? what’s stopping you from living your life in a way that tells a beautiful story of His grace? of His redemption? of His love? what’s preventing you from living in a way that makes Him look glorious?

is it fear? for taking a step out in faith that He’s going to show up? or is it fear for what others will think if you put both feet in this faith, rather than leaving a bit of yourself outside this faith? rather than investing all your faith in Him. so that, when the opportune time comes, you can pretend like you’re not totally into this faith. so that others don’t think you’re one of the loonies.

what is it? is it something else? have your desires become muddled? have you become tempted by the world so that other things have taken the place that is meant to be reserved for Him? so that other things have taken the prominent role in your life? so that you’ve become the ignorant child content with making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation by the sea (as lewis puts it)?

whatever it is, i would ask that you be honest with yourself. let yourself answer the tough questions. even if the answers hurt. it’s only when you answer this question that you can begin taking steps to remove the distractions. to remove the fear. so that He might be displayed in your life as He should. so that He might take the throne in your life. and so that you might live life beautifully. so that your story would display His love, mercy, compassion, grace and redemption. in a way that touches the lives of those around you. in a way that makes Him look glorious.

not leave you as you are

i pray your life would be blessed as mine has.

i pray your life would be filled with amazing people. friends. family. with people who believe in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself. who dare you to dream big. who encourage you to do great things. who make you a better person, just by being around them. who love you. dearly. so much so that they’re willing to lay aside their own interests for the sake of yours. who sacrifice. for you.

but, even as great as those things are, i pray you would consider them all as loss. for the sake of knowing Him. for the sake of seeing Him more clearly. and for the sake of being His hands and feet. to a hurt and broken world. i pray your grip would not be so tight on the things of this world that you cannot carry His beautiful story of grace and love and redemption into those dark spots in this world that need it most.

that’s my prayer. that’s what it has always been. that’s why i began writing here three years ago. and that is what i hope you take away from these words. hold it close to your heart. chew on it. take it and run with it. share it with others. let it stir within you and drive you to seek Him out. in His word. in prayer. but, by all means, do not let it leave you the same. for His desire is to do great things with you. and He will not leave you as you are.

digging in

like a farmer on his hands and knees. in the dirt. under the scorching sun. he digs his worn hands into the soil. scooping it from the ground. and lifting the rich, dark soil to his face. he closes his eyes and breathes in its smell. a smile spreads across his sun-weathered face before opening his eyes. slowly. and as he exhales, you might be confident he is in fact crazy. but he is not. for he knows something we do not. he knows what this soil is capable of producing. life. newness. of the sort we cannot imagine. but he can. he has seen it before. and he is looking forward to seeing it again.

in the same way, He is capable of producing life. even in a life that seems so far gone. but we must dig in. we must get our hands dirty. and when we do, we will find life of the sort we did not know possible. we will breathe it in. and it will fill us up. so much so that it will pour out from us. into the lives of others. and the smile will spread slowly across our own face as it does. going out. changing lives. all for His glory.

thank you

thank you so much for taking the time to read my words. the past three years of writing here at hands&feet. of pouring out my heart and my thoughts. this truly has been a blessing in my life. i pray they have been for you as well, and i look forward to hearing what they’ve meant in your life some day.

forgiveness: the one i didn’t want to write

i should probably start by saying i didn’t want to write this one. i’m not sure why, even. maybe it has something to do with the fact that part of me doesn’t think i have anything to contribute to the topic of forgiveness. maybe it’s because it seems so elementary, in a lot of ways. you forgive, you move on. end of story. right?… or maybe it’s because i don’t want to come across as though i think i have this one all figured out. i assure you, i do not.

but i did recently find myself in a pretty horrible situation. one that began with me needing to forgive someone. someone very close to me. for inflicting a deep amount of pain. but then it turned into a situation where i needed to ask the same person for forgiveness. and so i found myself spinning round and round in this confusing circle of forgiveness. it was horrible.

forgiveness is one of those things–like so many others–that you can’t really have an educated conversation about until you’ve walked through it. i mean really walked through it. when you’re faced with the reality of having to forgive someone for something significant. something you don’t want to forgive. something that hurts so bad that you just want to hold onto the pain with all you have and not let go. that’s the kind of forgiveness i’m talking about dealing with here.

and, like i said, i was forced to recently. the need to forgive hit me square in the face. like a cold, dead, stinking fish.

sanding down my edges

“for someone who believes in heaven and hell, it’s not okay to tell someone to go to hell,” i said, before taking a bite of french toast. the kind of french toast that’s made from thick cut, artisan bread. not the thin, sandwich style stuff. i was having breakfast with a good friend of mine. ryan. at a place in seattle. a place we always try to go when i’m in town.

it’s a really cool, open space with lofty ceilings, rustic wooden tables, concrete floors and big windows that serve as large-scale snapshots of the beautiful northwest sky on a clear morning. the place is always filled with lots of bustling people on the weekends. 30-somethings parents with their children. 20-somethings meeting friends. grey haired couples enjoying breakfast over the paper. or a good book. it’s a great place to be on the weekend, with wonderful smells of bacon and cinnamon floating through the air.

and the food is amazing. the berries come from local berry farms. the bread is made at the place down the street. the eggs are local, too. and the employees wear shirts that read, “eat like you give a damn.” it’s that kind of a place. very northwest.

we found ourselves sitting at the bar overlooking the open-air kitchen on this particular morning. watching the eggs spit and hiss as they hit the frying pan. omelets turned and spun in the air by guys who have obviously done this before. and it was over this breakfast that i shared with ryan a conversation i had just had the day before. one i now deeply regretted. one that still pained me to discuss.

“and after i said all those horrible things, i could feel Him at that moment reminding me that there was still much work to be done,” i shared. “i could picture Him with a wood plane in hand, sanding down my edges.”

“or cutting them off completely,” ryan corrected.

“indeed,” i nodded.

rage-filled conversation

the day before, i had confronted a close relative on something they had recently done. and said. i am sometimes astounded to think it takes a license to own a gun, but that we are permitted to fire off our words without regard for the wounds they cause. the holes left by these wounds do not heal easily; they can sometimes remain with us for our entire life.

this all happened during what was already an incredibly difficult time. this family member had kicked me while i was down. they had pained me deeply. so much so that i have trouble thinking of much else that anyone has ever said or done that has hurt this bad. but that’s just how it goes. stabs always seem more painful when they’re from close range.

the plan was to tell him i forgave him. to let him know i knew i had no right to hold onto my anger for his actions in light of the forgiveness i have received in Christ. that it would be awfully hypocritical of me to accept forgiveness for my own mistakes with one hand, and hold him at arms-length with the other hand. out of anger. and hurt.

that was the plan. but things didn’t go according to plan.

what began as a slow, soft toned conversation quickly turned into a rapid-paced, hate-filled attack between us both. where words were thrown like spears. aiming to hurt. but it didn’t end there. i quickly found myself lunging at him with all i had. i found my wife’s arms clenched around my waist. to restrain me. another close relative who was there stepped in between us, and i found myself flailing with all i had. to get at him. i found myself yelling at the top of my lungs. threats. name-calling. and i remember seeing my sister covering her face. the tears streaming. sobbing.

his words had stuck. they had pierced my flesh. and i wanted a piece of his. with my own two hands. i wanted to feel the force of my knuckles against his skin and skull.

a place of self-righteousness

my grandpa likes to keep old newspaper clippings. of our family. of his grandkids. wedding announcements. academic honors. family members returning home from the service. he hangs them from the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. most of them are old now. so the paper has begun to turn colors.

and i usually just allow my eyes to glance over these hanging newspaper clippings. i’ve seen them a million times before. but on a recent visit, i found myself on the backside of these cutout articles, and i realized i had never taken the time to read what was on the other side. i found myself curious at what news had been hanging here. right alongside the wedding clippings and straight a’s. overlooked all these years.

and one of the articles was about forgiveness, and how an amish community had shocked the world when they displayed forgiveness for a man who had walked into their church and sprayed those present with bullets. killing many. children. and others. and how this forgiveness was the last thing anyone expected to be given in the face of such an incredibly horrific act. but that’s what this community gave.

the article went on to quote a professor who had been studying forgiveness. because that’s what you do when you write an article. you get a quote from an expert. and so this reporter probably called up this professor. this man who had been studying forgiveness as it varied by different people groups. to get a sense of what forgiveness takes. why some give it, and why others don’t. why some choose to let go of their anger and hurt and not direct their hurt onto the one who inflicted their pain. and why others simply do not. and what it does to them.

professor forgiveness talked about how when we choose not to forgive, we often end up displaying a sense of self-righteousness. we focus on how the other party has inflicted pain in our lives. we focus on their wrongdoing. and we overlook our own wrongs. and he talked about how, for those who do choose to forgive, it’s often because they acknowledge their own wrongdoings.

comes naturally

i’m not one who typically struggles with forgiveness. for whatever reason, it’s one of those things that i just haven’t really had a hard time doing. in a way, it seems like it almost comes naturally. i don’t know. maybe it’s because i’m pretty conscious of the ways i’ve fallen flat on my face so many times. wanting to do right, but failing to do so. time and time and time again.

like professor forgiveness said, if you’re not so focused on the other person’s wrongdoings, forgiveness comes much easier. and my own faults seem to stand out pretty fresh in my mind. so perhaps that’s why forgiveness has come easy for me. (i’ve got my own wrongs to work on. i simply don’t have time to worry about yours…)

until this. until those words that seemed to bore into my flesh and wrench my heart like someone ringing out a sponge. i was furious, to be sure. but more than that, i was hurt. and i wanted to show him how i hurt. i wanted to make it clear how hurt i was. and the only way i knew how at that moment was through physical violence. the last thing i wanted to do was offer him my hand in forgiveness.

savored like a werther’s hard candy

when i was holding onto this anger. when i didn’t want to let it go. when i wanted to suck on it and savor it like a werther’s hard candy. i wanted to know i was right. i wanted to know i had every reason to hold onto these hard feelings. i wanted others to tell me how wrong he was to say the things he said. and did. how no one should ever say such things. but especially not someone so close. and i could. easily. because of how obvious his wrongs were.

but there was another part of me that knew, deep down, that it wasn’t about finding people who would tell me i was right. that, no matter how many people i might be able to line up on my side of this terrible situation, that i must forgive. and it doesn’t make sense. like i said, he was in the wrong. i was in the right. there was no one who would say otherwise.

all the same, i knew forgiveness was necessary. after all, my not forgiving him was producing an obvious terror in my soul. one that had displayed itself during that recent rage-filled conversation.

as you have been forgiven

at one point in the Word, we’re told we ought to forgive as we have been forgiven. and part of me wishes it didn’t. probably the same part of me that would like to savor this pain from time to time. but It does. and so we must do something with that, if we claim to believe any other parts of His Word. for we cannot pick and choose. that is simply not how it works. this is no buffet line faith.

and so what do we do with that? well, it probably makes sense to ask what that forgiveness looks like for us. “…as you have been forgiven.”

what does that mean? well, we’re told our scarlet sins are washed white as snow. we’re told He no longer holds them against us. because of the payment made on our behalf. His blood makes us clean. with no remnant of our dreadful messups or blemishes.

we’re also told He loves us. that He doesn’t just forgive us, but that He goes one step further. it’s not enough for Him to simply pat us on the back and say, “it’s okay. I forgive you.” but He actually loves us. with the same love He has for His Son. His perfect Son. the Son who never once did anything that was outside His Father’s will. the same Son who He has loved from before time began. with that same love, He loves us.

and we’re called to do the same thing. we’re called not to just consider it enough to say, “i no longer hold this against you.” but we’re called to go one step further. to display authentic love for the one who caused us the pain. not because we think they deserve it. nor is it because we’re going to get a star beside our name at the end of this life. but because that’s what He calls us to. and because that’s what He has done for us.

as lewis puts it so well, “to be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (the weight of glory, p.125)

public tears

some time had gone by after that rage-filled conversation had taken place. after that scene that left me feeling both hurt by this person’s words and embarrassed at my own response. and a couple months later he sent me a text. to say he was sorry. and that this needed to be taken care of. so i agreed to meet for coffee. to talk.

and so he did. small talk, at first. but i wasn’t interested in it. i couldn’t be. not until everything else had been dealt with. and then maybe not for a while after that.

we were sitting in a coffee shop downtown. but not my usual spot. because i knew, even in the best-case scenario, i wouldn’t want to be somewhere people would know me. i was right.

and so there we sat. talking. between long gaps of silence. and i couldn’t look at him. i couldn’t even lift my head from the floor. in my hurt. but i knew i needed to talk.

so i began by apologizing for the things i had said. for my own horrible words and my response. i began by asking for his forgiveness. i acknowledged that my own words had caused me much sorrow. that they had made me feel pretty horrible about myself. and i told him i was sorry for allowing such things to come from me.

he nodded. acknowledging he accepted my apology. but then i went on. i went on to tell him why the things he said had hurt so bad. how they had stuck with me and tortured me in ways he could not have even imagined. i shared some of my most treasured memories with him so that he might have some context for my pain. in an attempt to help him stand in my shoes. so that he might feel the pain from the wounds he had inflicted. and the tears came as i did so. and i let them fall. knowing everyone could see. knowing the looks would come. all the while keeping my head down. my eyes burning holes into the floor beneath my feet.

and i told him that, even in this pain, i forgave him. and i meant it this time. i told him i didn’t want to hold onto this anger any more. i acknowledged that i’ve made many, many mistakes, and i knew he considered his own words a mistake. i told him i was sure things would be okay at some point, but i also told him i didn’t know when that would be.

doesn’t mean it’ll be the same

i grabbed lunch with another relative of mine around this time. a pastor. a guy who i often share the pains and struggles of life with. a guy i trust deeply.

this was before the second conversation had taken place. before the coffee shop. we were catching up on life. and all of this came up. i told him how i had been struggling with forgiveness.

and, after listening to me explain the situation, he said something that seemed to make the process of forgiveness easier for me. it made accepting the invite to talk things out a bit easier, when it came.

he told me just because we forgive someone, that doesn’t mean the relationship is immediately going to be restored. he told me it should be, eventually. but that this kind of forgiveness comes with the realization that those wounds don’t heal overnight. and we should be mindful of that.

and that was a relief. it made sense to me. if i accidentally trip and fall, for example, and i end up bumping into you, causing you to in turn fall and hurt yourself, there will be pain. i will apologize, of course, and you will likely forgive me, but there will still be pain from the injury. and that pain may remain for a while, even after you’ve forgiven me. that is simply how things work.

i was relieved to hear forgiveness did not equate to me having to fake a smile when i still felt wounded. i was relieved to hear that the act of forgiveness and the restoration of relationships are two separate activities. but i also recognized that they are related. they work hand-in-hand. the act of forgiveness brings about the restored relationship.

not just because it’s easier

i chewed on this for a while. i wanted to make sure i wasn’t accepting this advice simply because it made me feel better. or because it was easier.

i thought about how Christ calls us to perfect forgiveness. i thought about how He calls us to love those who persecute us. not just to forgive them. but to go on and actually display love for them. and this advice that i had received seemed to fly in the face of that teaching. so i was left wondering, if i’m told forgiveness should be shown with love. and if i’m still feeling wounded and not quite like loving this person, am i forgiving as i should?

but the more i thought about it. the more i realized this act of perfect forgiveness, much like our sanctification, much like our becoming like Him, is a process.

just because i choose to surrender my life to Him. out of love. and in obedience. acknowledging that He has purchased me at a price. at the price of His Son’s life. just because i do this doesn’t mean i suddenly become perfect. as He is. no, it does not happen immediately. nor does it happen perfectly. at least, not at first.

a gradual process

perfect obedience to Him is not present in my life. nor will it be. not in this life. but i am moving in that direction. with His help. it is a gradual process. one that will take much time. but, with His grace, it will occur.

in the same way, our forgiveness will come to mirror Christ’s. in any and all situations. to the point where we will one day be able to say, “…Father forgive them, for they know not what they do…”, even as we face the threat of death.

the fact that forgiveness did not come easy for me in this situation is merely proof that i am still very much a work in progress. but it will become easier. if we ask for His help. and when we acknowledge we have all messed up. that we all are in dire need of forgiveness. and that the judgement seat is simply not ours to sit in.

i have a pretty simple role during my time here on earth (to point others toward Him), and making people pay for their mistakes or earn my forgiveness simply isn’t part of that job description.