The Invincible Summer

This winter is dragging. Several snowstorms, cancelled plans due to weather, dreary days, ice crystalizing everything, and multiple power outages that leave houses 45* inside, have left me more than ready for the spring.

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Winter is a symbol of despair that is not unknown to the pages of human history and literature. Camus talked of the “invisible summer” within that always warmed the depths of his soul in the midst of winter. In the Ice Queen’s Narnia, in which it was “always winter, never Christmas,” the despair of the boreal tundra is never relieved by the anticipatory hope of the annual coming of Father Christmas. In Stephen King’s The Shining, the snow which beards the windows of the Overlook hotel is a symbol of the claustrophobia that drives Jack Torrance insane. Similarly, for John Snow and the Night Watch, winter is always coming, a reality against which a small band of ragged soldiers, sworn by a sacred oath, stand in resistance.

Winter for many, including myself, is a season of the soul that is dark, fruitless. It’s a time of forced inactivity. Everything outside dies—the trees, the grass, the flowers—and everything inside feels dead. According to the writer of Ecclesiastes, “there is a season for everything.” But what is this one for? Just as we bundle ourselves up in heated homes, sipping on constant warm drinks (the best part of winter) to stave off the chill, we find our souls similarly affected by this season of darkness.

The winter of the soul often involves loss, depression, failure, loneliness, and darkness. There are times in life where it just doesn’t seem living anymore. There’s that deep sadness that moves beyond mere seasonal affective melancholy. We wonder: is there any life left underneath this frosty heart of mine? It is unlike the summer of the soul, times of joy and accomplishment, of life-giving friendship and monumental crossings of life’s thresholds. Nor is like the springs of the soul - newness everywhere, new relationships, new opportunities peaking up through the once-frozen ground, and the birdsong of excitement and promise surrounding us all around.

Thankfully, the Scriptures are not silent with regards to the winters of the soul that are bound to come. Here’s some penetrating insights from the Bible to thaw our souls:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth…[for] the years approach when you will say ‘I find no pleasure in them.’ (Ecclesiastes 12:1) The writer of Ecclesiastes, in an existentially honest treatise about the seasonal nature of life makes it clear that dark days are coming. In the meantime, we are to always remember that we have a Creator who in grace and mercy allowed us to come into existence, and to whom we will one day have to give account. When the days become pleasureless, when all the good books, movies, trips, coffee (!), and adventures have lost their appeal, we are to reflect on theological reality that God exists, and our mortality demands we live before that Audience of One.

“Your waves and breakers have washed over me … I cry to you for help … why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88) In the winter of the soul, the Psalmist acknowledges a profound truth in the darkness. These waves that I’m being hit by in life are yours. Your waves! Our suffering and tragedy might just belong to the One who holds the universe in his hands, and there is something to learn, that perhaps the darkness is shaping us in ways only God can see. Christian author Mark Buchanan wrote of Psalm 88: “this Psalm allows us to break our silence about our agony when God refuses to break his.” We would do well to recover a faith, not just in the God who has specifically, brightly, decisively revealed his nature in the person of Jesus Christ, but also in the God who hides himself, the God of whom Job’s friend Zophar the Laamathite cried out “who can fathom the limits of the Almighty?” A God that we can figure out, who offers trite advice in the face of tragedy, is too small to be worshipped.

“they were kept from recognizing him…” These are the words that Luke, the Gospel writer, uses to tell of two travelers, downcast and depressed on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion and death of Jesus, the one on whom they had previously placed their now-shattered hope. Their hopes defeated, their aspirations gone, their dreams of redemption curbed, and the immortal script simply tells us that “Jesus himself drew near.” I find it everlastingly satisfying that in all of our defeated hopes “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Sometimes it is when darkness is our closest friend and winter has its icy grip on our despairing hearts that we are kept from recognizing him. God refuses to allow us to feel his presence to teach us that relying on whether we feel it or not does not change the reality of his care, concern, and attention to the storms of our souls. It is often in those times, unannounced, disguised, and unexpected that the Lord himself draws near.

So if you’re tired of this long winter, keep praying, keep waiting. Learn to love the longing for the light that the darkness produces. Let the silence of God pull you into lament, for as Spurgeon said, the best kind of prayer can not be called anything else but a cry. Consider Jesus, who risen from death offers all a hope beyond hopes, that no matter how dark the night gets, in Him an everlasting morning is coming; no matter how frosty the winter of your soul deep down there remains, for all who trust in him, an invincible summer.

Redeeming Singleness

(this is a blog post I wrote for my church’s website)

If you would have told me in college that I would be single and 34-years-old I probably would never have believed you, but life tends to ‘happen’ for many of us and here I am. In our wider culture, 34 is still young, and probably on par with the increasingly delayed age at which people are getting married, but in the Church, if you’re 34 and “still” single (I love that adverb “still” that subtly reminds you that you are not like everyone else), you are dramatically the minority.

Even as I write this, I imagine there are those reading in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s that are single that are already thinking “Luke, you have no idea…” in the same way that I inwardly laugh at and make fun of the 23-year-old recent college graduate who complains about their lack of a significant other. I want to say to these bright-eyed graduates, “When you’re 30 and still single, then come and talk to me whippersnapper.”

So here I am, 34 and single in the Church. What makes matters more pronounced is that I’m one of the preachers at a church that’s largely made up of families. When everyone’s world revolves around kids and family, singles can often have a hard time finding their place. We would do well to remember a few simple truths:

The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, clearly refers to singleness as a “gift.” However, the reality is that while we often affirm the ‘gift’ of marriage in the Church through sermon series, retreats, marriage studies, and couples activities, I believe that it is also time for the Church to recover the gift of Singleness. What exactly is “singleness as a gift”?

Singleness allows you to be single-minded in your pursuits. Paul wanted the Corinthians to be “free from anxieties” (v. 32) and clearly claims that “the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (vv. 33-34).  (This is why a disproportionate amount of church planters ‘feel called’ to go to the city that their in-laws live in!) Paul is being realistic about the realities and challenges that married life brings.  In fact, he admits: “those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (v. 28). Paul knew of the realities of married life would bring troubles that those who are single would never have to deal with. I was talking with one of our Legacy mission partners recently who mentioned that many of those who leave the mission field or return home from doing ministry in cross-cultural environments do so because of a problem with their spouse or their marriage. As a single person, however, you can have a single-mindedness that the practical realities of marriage prohibit.

Singleness allows you to invest in friendships in a way that married people cannot. There is a social agility that comes from being single. You have a lot more open evenings, and you have a lot of time that is not spoken for by a significant other. As long as you are strategic with your time, you can use it to invest in a lot of different people. Think about this: it is much easier for a married couple to invite a single person over for dinner than it is another married couple. For some reason, there’s more pressure when its another couple: to have a perfectly clean house, to have home-cooked food that’s delicious with well-thought-out courses.  But, for some reason, when you’re single, in my experience, married couples are a lot more willing to invite you into the chaos of their everyday life and to come on over ‘as is.’

Marriage is not the cure-all for selfishness.  You’ll hear people say this all the time. Something like “I was soooo selfish before I got married.”  Here’s the mistaken assumption within this: that marriage is the ultimate antidote to sin and self-centeredness. Unfortunately, many people have bought this lie. While marriage can be a tool that helps a person grow towards greater Christ-likeness, so can singleness. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can solve our sin problem. Every potential spouse you ever meet will be under-qualified for the job of God. He/she may make you feel happy for a time, but that cannot give you the redemption that you’re seeking. Marriage is a temporary status given to some to for the mutual sanctification of each partner, but God uses relationships of many kinds to help us grow (James 4:14, Matthew 22:30). Spiritual maturity necessitates relational richness.

The only thing that can save you from the two dangers of either wanting marriage too much out of insecurity, or wanting marriage too little out of cynicism or fear is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have friends in both categories, and truth be told, I have found myself in both categories. Do you see the dangers in each extreme? The insecurity which craves a spouse to fulfill one’s identity is such that no other person can ever fill that inner emptiness. If you are desperately and insecurely seeking a wife or a husband, you will crush every potential spouse with the godlike expectations you place upon them to fill that emptiness within you. On the contrary, if you desire marriage too little because of cynicism or fear of vulnerability, you may miss out on an amazing potential relationship through which God wants to shape and mature you. The good news of what God has done for us in Christ can remind the insecure person that all the love they could ever need is found in Christ, our True Husband, who gave Himself up for us on the Cross and gave us a new identity. That Gospel can also free those afraid of marriage from the need to find the perfect spouse because it exposes the modern idol of independence lodged in our hearts. It also similarly reminds us that we can fully embrace our flaws and the flaws of our potential marriage partner as we see ourselves as sinners in need of God’s grace.

We would do well to recover the gift of singleness, not as a kind of ‘purgatory’ while we wait for marriage, nor as a way of life completely devoid of desire for marriage.  We would do well to have this attitude, so well-articulated by Paige Benton Brown (go search her name along with ‘singleness’ and read her article if you haven’t yet … it’s amazing): “Let’s face it: singleness is not an inherently inferior state of affairs. . . . But I want to be married. I pray to that end every day. I may meet someone and walk down the aisle in the next couple of years because God is so good to me. I may never have another date . . . because God is so good to me.”

Why I'm Recommending This Book to All My Friends

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I now have a room in my house dedicated to tracking my habits. I’ve got two calendars on the wall, and three large post-it easel sheets on the other wall. One of the calendars contains Xs and Os … Xs for every day I executed my morning routine, and Os for every day I failed. My house is tidy and clean, my bed is made, and I come home in the evenings with no lingering tasks to take care of. I feel less depressed, less stress, and more focus throughout the day. I quit drinking coffee three months ago, have not missed a single day on my prescription medication, and every week I send a funny meme to a friend in another state. None of these would have happened if I hadn’t read Atomic Habits by James Clear. Here’s a couple game-changing lessons that stuck with me:

Think systems, not goals. For a long time I would struggle changing my habits because I would think “I want to get in shape,” but if “getting in shape” is your goal, then your system must involve exercising, changing your diet, and avoiding situations and places where you’re bound to eat things you don’t want to eat. The reason you don’t get the change you’ve been striving for is not because your goals are wrong: its because you have the wrong system in place. Bad habits repeat themselves because the wrong system is in place. “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems,” Clear writes. Winners and losers have the exact same goals, and you should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.

Identity is the greatest motivator for habit change. It is not enough to say “I want to do this.” Psychologists have discovered that the most powerful motivator for legitimate transformation in a person’s life is “identity-based” motivation. To have an identity-based trigger for a certain action is to say “I want to be the kind of person that always does (desired action).” Its the difference between saying “I’m trying to quit smoking” and “I don’t smoke.” One of my favorite quotes in the book is: “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.” 

Bad habits are often the result of environments conducive to them. I had a bad habit of not taking my medicine in the morning that I need to take. So, listening to James Clear’s advice, I added a “cue” to help me remember to do it: I put my medicine bottle right next to the bathroom sink, and alongside a water bottle. Now, every morning while I’m brushing my teeth, I see the bottle and take my medicine. It was adding a simple cue to my environment that helps me to remember. Clear recommends looking at your entire environment in terms of relationships. I noticed that the bathroom sink was where I spent 2-3 minutes brushing my teeth, and where I would most likely see the medicine bottle. It could be something as simple as laying out your gym clothes, shoes, etc., the night before, so that when you wake up, everything about your environment is already conducive to you going to the gym.

The four rules of Habit forming: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, make it satisfying. To make something obvious, it has to be something you see every time, like my medicine bottle in an obvious place. Having a habit tracker also clearly tells you what you’re doing and what you’re not doing each day. Making a habit attractive involves pair habits you NEED to do with habits you WANT to do. Our brains are constantly in a stimulation-reward loop, and so if we can design ways of ‘rewarding’ our brains in connection with needed lifestyle changes, habits will form. Similarly, joining a culture where the habit you want to do is accepted and celebrated (like Crossfit for exercising) makes it attractive. To make a habit easy, reduce the friction surrounding the good habits, priming your environments so that the good habits will more likely than not happen. Increase the friction surrounding bad habits. The example given is unplugging your TV after each use. If you know you have to get up off the couch to plug in the TV, you will more likely than not watch less TV. Finally, making a habit satisfying means giving yourself immediate rewards after you do a habit, use a habit-tracker to “not break the chain,” making a game out of it, and never miss twice. None of us will be perfect, and we’re going to mess up, but focus on getting right back on track after breaking a chain.

Habits can change your life, but only the Gospel can change your heart. Now, I’m not much of a ‘self-help’ guy, and I would be remiss as a pastor if I did not bring a snippet of biblical wisdom to the ‘habits’ conversation. While you can make a lot of changes to your life through diligence, discipline, and practical wisdom, no amount of effort can change the heart. Only the grace of God can do that, given to us in Jesus who laid down his life for us, conferring upon us a brand new identity to those who trust in him. That new identity can be one of the most powerful motivators for putting off the old way of life, and putting on a new way of life characterized by love, joy, peace, and self-control. But in the meantime, thank you James Clear for giving us some wisdom on our brains and our behavior. Powerful read.

Three Lessons of Loss from the Chiefs Kingdom.

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What a season for the Chiefs. Last Sunday, our church was filled with a Sea of Red at all of our campuses as we paused to remember that we are a part of a Kingdom much bigger than the Chiefs kingdom, but few of us could take our minds off the AFC Championship kickoff coming in a few hours. We all huddled in our living rooms, away from the 17* weather outside, heated up our nachos and snack food, fired up our TVs to root on the boys in RED, and watched a frustrating loss against the Patriots. Because the game is what everyone was talking about, and because I’ve developed a fondness for all things local, I want to offer three reflections on the fall of the Chiefs Kingdom in the AFC Championship.

Patrick Mahomes: Learn from the greatness of others, but don’t be afraid to be yourself. Left handed shot-put style throws, no-look across-the-defense passes, side-handed tosses that seem to curve around defensive players and into the hands of his receivers, there has yet to be a game where Pat Mahomes did not do something that caused us to go “wow.” Throughout the game I kept wondering what it must have been like to be Pat at 23 years old, competing against Tom Brady at 41 years old. Brady was probably one of his NFL heroes growing up. Pat sought to emulate Brady’s uncanny ability to move around in the pocket from watching film of Brady back in college (thanks Ben Field for this insight!). Now he makes his fair share of mistakes, and Tom Brady may be the NFL’s GOAT, but the kid is a class act in front of the media, and all around fun to watch. Now Tom may have had more yards than Pat Mahomes, but Pat is beating Tom in every category (with slight exceptions in Yards per Game and Completion percentage), and has not been afraid to do things that even Tom Brady would never do (like a no-look pass). It seems a good rule of thumb to watch the top performers in any given field, and seek to be like them and surpass them, but to never be afraid to bring your own gifts and abilities to whatever field on which you play.

Dee Ford: Sweat the small things. Towards the end of the game, Tom Brady’s pass was barely missed by Rob Gronkowski and intercepted by the Chiefs in what appeared to be a certain touchdown, only to be called back on an encroachment call on Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford. People were saying that Ford had lost the game for the Chiefs. A video emerged in which Dee Ford was asking teammates on the sideline whether or not he was really offsides. You cannot help but feel sorry for him. As angry as we get at players representing the teams we cheer for, let’s remember that they’re human. Another video emerged of Dee Ford, reportedly hours after the game, was on a flight sitting next to an elderly woman carrying on a very polite conversation. It is helpful to remind ourself that these guys are young, they’re human, and they make mistakes. The other side of it is that you can’t make those kind of mistakes at this level of competition. When you’re competing for the AFC Championship, you need to sweat the small things. How many thousands of times had the defensive team went through practicing lining up on the line of scrimmage and avoiding those kinds of penalties? It is popular to say ‘don’t sweat the small things,’ which is true enough when talking about anxiety and worry, but when it comes to being excellent in everything we do, Dee Ford’s small mistake is a reminder that we should sweat the small things.

Tom Brady: Never miss twice. I’m reading a book called Atomic Habits by James Clear (highly recommended) and there’s a huge piece of advice he gives to people trying to form a new habit in their lives: “never miss twice.” Basically he says that as you get momentum with your new habit, you are going to screw up. We’re all human; none of us are perfect. Perfection should never be the goal. Instead, just make it your goal to never miss twice. In overtime, Tom Brady converted three third-and-ten situations to first downs. Basically the Chiefs defense missed three opportunities to stop the Patriots drive. Missing one is bad enough, but you still have a chance to get lucky. Few teams though can miss three third down conversion opportunities, especially in a championship game in overtime and still expect to have a favorable outcome. Also, Brady dodged a bullet with his mistaken pass that was intercepted and called back because of the offsides call on Ford. But he didn’t miss twice. If you’ve found yourself already breaking some of the New Years Resolutions that you made for 2019, get focused, and get back on track. Don’t miss twice. Focus on getting 1% better each day, and after 100 days, you’ll be 100% better.

Hats off to the Chiefs for an awesome season. It’s fun being a part of the Chiefs Kingdom.

Why No One Names Their Kids "Herod."

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You don’t ever see him on Christmas cards. There are not any figurines of him in our nativity sets. You don’t see a glowing King Herod on people’s lawns as a part of their Christmas light display. He didn’t make any Christmas Carols. And while you will see children with the names of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Elizabeth, John, and even the occasional Zechariah, nobody in history has had the boldness to name their kid “Herod.” Nobody even dares to name their dog Herod. This is understandable for the same reason no one would name their son “Adolf” or “Stalin.” There are certain names that have historical associations so bad that we avoid them altogether. (Have you ever seen that modern documentary about people with the last name Hitler?) Why is this? Here’s a couple reasons:

We’re more similar to King Herod than we think. While entirely understandable why “Herod” is not written on any birth certifications, it is a little peculiar, because I think if we’re honest, the character in the Christmas story that many of us most resemble is Herod. Sure, we’re not out there killing babies or murdering members of our own families out of paranoia, but there is something in all of us that will stop at nothing to get rid of those who threaten our power. Herod’s lust for political power and anxiety over his throne is not so unfamiliar to us. There is something deep within the human soul that rises up whenever anyone threatens our self-centered lives and cries out “No one tells me what to do.” In the book of Romans, Paul reminds us that “the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot.” There is something in us that will protect our own thrones at all costs, even when it means getting rid of Jesus.

Herod missed out on one of the greatest opportunities in history. Herod had the opportunity to see the birth of Jesus. I recently was reading something Max Lucado wrote about how God did everything necessary to get Herod’s attention. He sent wise men from the east, and words from the prophets. He provided wonders in the skies, and revelation from Israel’s Scriptures. Still, Herod chose to protect his own precarious rule, which would be over in a short amount of time. There are many people who have willingly rejected the voice of God in their lives, not because there are any rational reasons to do so, but rather because to admit belief in God or any higher power comes along with demands on that person’s life. Many who remain in doubt have failed to recognize that they have a vested interested in God NOT existing, for if He does exist, that means they owe him everything, and will be removed from the throne of their own lives. Doubt your doubts! It is far better to give up your throne willingly than to be forced off it.

Herod chose pride over humility. “Pride goes before destruction,” the author of Proverbs writes, “and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Fall Herod did, just like every king before him, every other ruler in history, whether Pharaoh, or Nebuchadnezzar, or Alexander the Great. We don’t get to keep our thrones. The positions of leadership in which we find ourselves are always temporary so we should approach them with an open hand and with humility. The way of Jesus is marked not by self-preservation, but by self-denial. Herod’s pride destroyed his family, destroyed the town of Bethlehem, fragmented his kingdom, and destroyed his legacy, because he could not release control of his kingdom to another king, even if it was just a baby. Proud people miss out on the voice of God. Pride will always eventually take you to some great plummet; humility and wonder will lead you to the manger.

Even though we all have a ‘little king Herod’ inside all of us, may we be careful that we do not miss the manger. May we be aware of our subtle attempts to get rid of Jesus (even as we pretend to be Christians and use a lot of religious language to cover up the real issues of the heart). May we choose humility over pride.

And if you ever do meet anyone named ‘Herod,’ don’t chide them for it, but maybe see if you can subtly get the nickname “Harry” to stick.