Gift 38 – Looking Through Old Papers

Dear Little One,

Today as I was cleaning my office I came across a notebook of old papers from high school. I spent the next half hour venturing back in time through my former thoughts, prayers, my former identity. Many of the things I read made me smile and shake my head as I remembered how silly and simple high schoolers can sometimes be.

Other pages, however, were challenging. Challenging because I could see how far I’ve digressed in what this whole following Jesus thing is all about. You see, the older I become the more my heart turns from a temple into a factory—it goes from loving Jesus to loving being a Christian, with all the pressure to chime in on hot-topic issues, and to have something impressive or insightful to say.   It also doesn’t help any when Christianity is kind of your job.

Anyway, one particular piece of paper brought me back to that secret place where Jesus longs to live, not just be the topic of conversation. Reading it was like finding an old love letter after being married for several years—challenging, revitalizing, an invitation to love like this again. I share it with you now to remind you what life with Jesus can be when you hang tightly to the faith of a child, even in the midst of ever increasing responsibilities and demands. I pray that you may you have a Mary heart in this grownup world of Martha obligations.

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Life with the Lord Means…

  1. Adventure.
  2. Peace in all things, like a recklessness because my life is secure in Christ. Now I can love without fear.
  3. Sweet loving blessing in knowing God. He gives the shining stars as gifts.
  4. Faith surprises.
  5. I can be a child before God and a leader for people, but only when my eyes are focused on Jesus. “Being” and “seeming” is not important so I can really become.
  6. Grace.
  7. Abundance (not necessarily outside, but in my heart—even in dry times I’ll have hope).
  8. Jesus enthroned in the secret places of my heart—the wellspring of all outside life.
  9. Purpose.
  10. Joy in the face of adversity.
  11. Hope in pits of sorrow.
  12. Love, even when I think it’s impossible.
  13. Disciplined lifestyle in freedom.
  14. Staying connected to the Vine.
  15. Hearing God’s voice.
  16. Prayer life! Ask and it will be given—our wills aligned, mine to His.
  17. Freedom from money and all material possessions because my hands are open in an offering to God. This freedom that goes hand in hand with trust is wonderful (Luke 12:15—so good!).

Gift 37 – Hey There

Dear Little One,

Now that your mom is in the second trimester of her pregnancy, we’re really getting excited to meet you.  We’re feeling like…

Photo on 1-29-15 at 5.37 PM

While you’re relaxing like…


And every once and awhile dancing around like…

Well hopefully not quite like that, but still, you’re a mover.  That’s all for now, we love you!

Gift 36 – Sinful and Hazardous (II)

A friend brought up a good point after reading Gift 34 – Sinful and Hazardous (I). He asked, “Does this mean we can do whatever we want as long as it doesn’t seem harmful? Isn’t this ideology a bit too much like, ‘If it feels good, do it’?”

So lets take this whole “Sin is Harmful” thing a bit farther in order to clarify…

While God certainly has your flourishing in mind, we more often than not merely have our comfort in mind. These are not the same.

One of the most important outcomes of growing in understanding of God’s goodness is growing in trust of God’s goodness. Just as Jesus navigated life decisions with a deep knowledge of his Father’s heart, this same intimate knowledge allowed him to trust in the mist of confusion, pain, fear, and ultimately a cross.   This kind of trust manifests in obedience—which can mean doing something you don’t want to do (or not doing something you want to do) in submission to God’s supreme long-term perspective.   There is no greater picture of trust and obedience than the Son of God writhing in the dirt as he begs for the cup to pass, but ultimately surrendering to his Father’s judgment. “Not my will, but yours be done.”

garden 2

This too is what it means to know God’s goodness.

I’ve been blessed with parents who love me deeply. I have seen both mom and dad sacrifice for the sake of their children. This is just who they are. In fact, I know their hearts so well that if one of them were to ask me to do something that I didn’t understand, maybe even something difficult, I would do it. I would obey my parents because I am confident they would never act in self-interest at the expense of one of their boys. They’ve proved this time and time again.

The same is true for the children of God in our relationship with the Father. Lack of obedience is lack of trust. And again, this is “sinful” because it is harmful, not because God is a hardnosed Deity who demands purposeless submission. The goal is to develop a concept of sin and obedience in the context of a relationship with a good God so as not to do the right things for the wrong reasons (Read Matthew 5).

Instead of robotically doing what God wants, this is about becoming the kind of disciple who desires what God desires as our hearts are shaped by His.

Gift 35 – Made to Make

lego pic

A few weeks ago I visited the LEGO store in Chicago. It was packed.

Crazy packed.

Like so many people you had to squeeze in your arms and walk like a penguin to avoid accidently touching peoples’ butts packed.

What I find so shocking about the demand for LEGOs is that, while it can’t cost more than a cent or two to make a plastic brick, LEGO sets often sell for hundreds of dollars. What’s even more incredible is the fact that after opening the box you still have to put the pieces together…and for some reason that’s the fun part. I really don’t think anyone would buy LEGOs if they came pre-assembled. In fact, once a kid finishes building a LEGO set the fun is pretty much over.

This simple realization opened my eyes to the unceasing human desire to make stuff. We love to make, and build, and fashion, and form, and craft, and construct, and design, and invent. We find great joy and satisfaction in creating. As a kid I used to horde all kinds of supplies just to make random creations like milk jug skeletons, coat-hanger puppet people, and cardboard donkeys (I really made one of those). Making stuff comes as naturally to a child as laughter.

This is good. This is worship. This is one way you reflect the Great Maker, who out of nothing turned the cosmos into a workshop and set to work charging protons and suns, designing colors, scientific laws, and human brains.

Here are a few pictures/videos to display some of the diverse creations of modern day Makers…

The Cedar Creek Treehouse in Washington (the worlds largest treehouse)  (

The Cedar Creek Treehouse in Washington (the worlds largest treehouse) (

One of my best friends invented an incredibly cool board game.

One of my best friends invented an incredibly cool board game.

Our foster daughter's snowman...I thought this would go well after New York City :)

Our foster daughter’s snowman…I thought this would go well after New York City 🙂

Making a glass horse the old fashioned way…

And this…

Gift 34 – Sinful and Hazardous (I)


As I filled my car with gas, I noticed a small sign on the pump: “Smoking while fueling is illegal and dangerous.” For some reason the distinction between “illegal” and “dangerous” struck me as a bit…redundant. Isn’t it enough to say that smoking near flowing gasoline is dangerous? Like, you’re-gonna-blow-up dangerous? The legality of the matter seems trivial when you picture a person engulfed in flames after lighting up at the pump. The two things are actually one thing—smoking while fueling is illegal because it is so dangerous.

A similar separation has happened in our ideas about sin. Somehow we’ve come to believe that there are things (activities/behaviors/patterns) that are sinful, and there are also things that are harmful. I can hear religious authorities informing, “You don’t want to do that, it’s sinful and hazardous.”

But the truth is, the two are one. If something is sinful then it’s not good for you. No exceptions. Likewise, if something is harmful to you, it is sinful.

In my experience with working with high school kids I’ve become aware of an evident religious haze surrounding the concept of sin. “Mr. Russ, is ____________ a sin? Well how about ____________? What I mean to say is, will God be mad at me if I _____________?” Our confusion about sin has everything to do with a misunderstanding of God’s character. Believe it or not, God is not arbitrarily calling stuff sin. That’s not how God operates because that’s not who God is. There is no sin you can commit that will bring you more joy, more satisfaction, more life. In fact, the very reason God warns of certain behaviors is precisely because God is for us. God is totally, completely, passionately, sacrificially committed to our flourishing—even more than we are committed to our own flourishing! The very reason He hates sin is because He is for His people.

Sadly, this is a paradigm shift for many. We have imagined a God who makes the rules without consideration for His children, and we had better get on board or else! But He is so much better. It’s time to let Jesus be our guide, the one who lived with such a profound and overwhelming sense of his Father’s goodness. While many Pharisees were actually “sinning” in their study of God’s Word (imagine that!) because of their motivation to be seen as spiritually superior (Matt. 23), Jesus perfectly navigated the confusing waters of Sabbath observance (“Is it lawful to heal a person on Sabbath?”), food regulations (“Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?”), and Torah prioritization (“Which command is the greatest?”) with incessant focus on God’s character.

May we grow to be like him in our understanding of sin and righteousness as we too abide in the Father’s heart.

Gift 33 – Blessing


“Wow…I mean [deep breath]…wow.”

Those were my first and only words for about ten minutes after Amanda told me she is pregnant. Now that the idea of becoming parents has had time to sink in, I’ve decided to better organize my thoughts into a blessing for our future son or daughter.

Historically, and still today in many cultures around the world, a paternal blessing is an essential ingredient for a child’s growth and flourishing. Perhaps the importance of such a blessing is even more evident by its nonexistence in this culture in which 63% of youth suicides, 71% of pregnant teens, 90% of all homeless and runaway teens, and 85% of youths in prison come from fatherless homes*. In his interview with Christianity Today, Bill Glass (pro football player and founder of the prison ministry Champions for Life) speaks of the importance of a Father’s blessing. “It’s got to be said out loud. It’s got to be stated.”

So here’s my attempt at a blessing for you as you grow, Little One. The language of it feels almost out of place in a world in which so little is sacred, but these words represent my heartfelt prayer for you to walk a path that goes beyond the expectations of your culture, up into the high, green country of life to the fullest where Jesus leads those who surrender to his love.

May you be a rebellious citizen of light
in the dominion of darkness.
May you be a vision of Resurrection Life
in the Valley of Dry Bones.
May you be an Easter-hopeful traveler
on the long road to Emmaus.
May you be a joyful Sabbath child
in the chaos of ten thousand tabs.
May you be a bread-and-wine kind of worshiper
in the trend of fast-food feelings.
May you be a beacon of “foolish” integrity
in the Big Business of underhanded dealing and compromise.
May you be an instrument of grace
in a world of scorekeeping, sin counting, and wrong weighing.
May you be an agent of peace
in a world ravaged by war.

May you care deeply.
May you be eyes to the blind, feet to the lame, a friend to those in need—may you take up the case of strangers in the land (Job 29).
May your heart break for what breaks His.

May you trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him (Prov. 3).
May you chase after understanding as one runs after riches (Prov. 3)
May you rise early to seek wisdom and choose her over beauty (Wisdom of Solomon 6 & 7).

May God’s intimate friendship bless your house (Job 29).
May you love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6).
May you seek first his kingdom and his righteousness so that your delight may be in Him (Matthew 6 & Psalm 37).

May you hate what is evil, cling to what is good (Romans 12).
May you be an inconvenience to the wrongdoer, an opposition to oppression, and an enemy to injustice.
May you deal gently with the broken.

May you have open ears and a hesitant tongue (James 1),
May you serve eagerly.
May you be a good character in a great story.

May you be curious and inquisitive, asking tough question.
May you love learning,
May you listen well.

May your heart be a tree planted by streams of water,
a well tended garden,
freshly tilled soil,
a deep, pure well,
a tall glass of grapefruit juice.

By his light may you walk through darkness,
By his Word may you hear his voice,
By his glory may you fear his Name,
By his table may you find your sustenance,
By his rebuke may you recognize his affection,
By his love may you know his embrace,
By his Church may you discern your purpose,
By his Spirit may you live each day.

When you come to a fork in the road…
May you pray earnestly, choose wisely, and go boldly.

When you wrong others…
May you sincerely feel remorse, humbly seek forgiveness, and wholeheartedly pursue reconciliation.

When you are wronged…
May you remember your own wrongs, forgive fervently, and move on freely.

When you meet challenges…
May you assess yourself meekly, persevere stubbornly, and overcome honorably.

When you wake each morning…
 May you bathe wholly in God’s love, to heal all your wounded places, cover all your naked places, and strengthen all your weak places. 

And when you are tired and ready…
 May your mourning turn to dancing, your sorrow into laughter, and your death into resurrection.

*John Sowers, The Fatherless Generation. pg. 36-37

Gift 32 – Learning as Play

Making goofy videos like the one below might seem a bit…pointless.  Especially when you consider the papers that need grading, the lesson that need tweaking, and the endless flow of emails that need responding.  So why take all the time to make a silly rap video?

I really believe that teachers are teaching more than just their content area.  The way we talk about the new things we’re learning, the questions we ask, the ways we respond to the ups and downs of life–these life-postures and attitudes are teaching, too.  Maybe students need to see their teachers loving learning and having fun in their content area before they can learn to do the same.  Though growth requires hard work and discipline, education also must be playful if teachers and students alike are to maintain a sense of joy, wonder, and discovery.  So here’s a peak at the H.C. Bible department at play…


Bible Department Rap from Holland Christian Schools on Vimeo.

Gift 31 – Real Men Wear Pink Tutus

What does manliness look like?

Some might say being a man involves growing a beard, wearing flannel, or driving a big truck. Others think manliness is about muscle, money, or macho-osity (I made that word up).

But the truth is, while cut-off sleeves and bacon cheeseburgers are all well and good, being a man sometimes means wearing a pink tutu.

My friend Bri told me a story about her dad that captures what real manliness is all about. It was Halloween 1997 and 8-year-old Bri was getting ready to go trick-or-treating with her little sister Sage. Sage had wanted to be a ballerina that year, so their mom bought pink floofy material from Wal-Mart and sewed a tutu for her youngest daughter. Fulfilling her role as the aggravating older sister, Bri laughed at Sage’s homemade costume and told her she looked completely stupid.

Sage burst into tears. Succumbing to her sister’s pestering, she refused to go trick-or-treating in the pink tutu.

So what did her dad do? Some dads would have told their daughter to stop crying, to toughen up and to weartutu the homemade costume. Other dads would have said she should just stay home if she wasn’t willing to wear the ballerina outfit. Instead, this dad asked if there was any pink fabric leftover. Mom quickly sewed together one more dad-sized floofy tutu, and within the hour a pair of twin ballerinas—one sporting a full beard, joined the throngs of neighborhood trick-or-treaters.

This story reminded me of what real manliness looks like. Being a man isn’t about boasting or bravado, but sacrificing yourself for others. True manliness, the kind Jesus embodied, often doesn’t look like manliness at all. For Him it meant being mocked and spat upon while humbling himself to a cross instead of flexing His heavenly power or getting righteous revenge. Christ’s chosen weakness is the ultimate example of strength.

Being a man means humility, devotion, righteousness. It means loving, even when there’s a personal cost. It means embarrassing yourself to encourage someone you care about. It means going trick-or-treating with your daughter in a matching pink tutu so she doesn’t feel silly being alone.

Gift 30 – Picture Perfect

A few days ago Amanda and I decided to take our Christmas card picture at the park (actually, Amanda decided and I went along with it, but never mind).

That meant a ten-minute drive with not one but two psychopathic canines crammed into the back of our Chevy equinox. They yelped, they romped, they stormed the front seat nearly nocking the shift stick and bringing us to an untimely doom—you know, the usual. We arrived at the park scratched, slobbered upon, and overall a little flustered, but the fun didn’t end there. The leashed doggies hadn’t yet been for a walk that day and so tried desperately to break free of their bonds with the ferocity of two salivating criminals resisting arrest. Eventually Amanda and I had to practically tackle our little friends and hold them in headlocks while trying to persuade in a singsong voice, “Look at the camera! Come on, boy, look at the camera! Be a good dog and look at the camera! JUST LOOK AT THE DANG CAMERA BEFORE I LOSE IT!” Or something like that.

At this point I was getting a little annoyed at pretty much everything in creation and said something snarky like, “Why are we even taking a stupid Christmas card?” To my wife’s credit she held back a retort, but I could tell she was getting frustrated, too.

Fast forward to a few minutes ago. I received an email notification, Amanda Russ has tagged you in a photo on Facebook, and so opened a new tab to see. This is what I saw…


My first thought was, Who is this family, and why was I tagged in their picture?   This lucky clan had two perfectly trained dogs and had probably just finished a pleasant picnic in the park when the photo was taken. Then a looked a little closer. Wait a minute…is that us?!

 My point is this, while I have been so very blessed with a wonderful wife and two playful pups, our real lives and the picture don’t exactly match up. Real life is way messier and more complicated. This got me thinking about all the times I have become subtly jealous of what someone else has, or does, or is while scanning social media. It’s so easy to compare oneself with others while scrolling through photos—Look how perfect their lives are. They never argue. They have the perfect family. It must be nice being them. These thoughts are always accompanied by contrasting self-assessment. I wish I had __________. Why can’t my family be more _________? My life is nowhere near as good as   ___________’s.

This is called comparison, and it’s a killer.

While I’ve always known comparison is harmful, I’m beginning to see that our comparative thoughts aren’t even true. Just like the picture above isn’t even close to being an accurate representation of our day at the park, other people’s photos don’t really capture their lives either. The truth is, everyone struggles, everyone fails, and no one is as perfect as their pictures (after all, who posts pictures of arguing, paying bills, etc.?). Comparing oneself with social media pictures is as misleading and as damaging as a young girl comparing her body with photoshopped women in magazines.  The images aren’t real.

Teddy Roosevelt said it best, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” One of the great secrets of life is in contentment, in silencing comparative lies and looking instead to all you have to be grateful for. And next time you’re skimming social media and begin feeling like you would rather be someone else, just remember that the lives you’re seeing probably don’t exist.

Gift 29 – Super Cool

As the school year begins I can’t help thinking about cool and the deep desire of just about everyone to be popular. Underneath the desire is the innate human longing for acceptance and approval; to be a part of community—and this isn’t bad. The problem comes when we prioritize becoming cool over just about everything else.

For this reason I have compiled a list of 5 reasons why cool should not have priority in our lives…

1. Cool is fleeting. Can you believe that this look was ever cool?

cool 2

Or that these slick-haired, booty-shorts wearing boys used to rule the school?

ball 2

Or that these mmmbop-in’ brothers once captured the hearts of teenage girls around the country (pretty impressive considering they look like teenage girls themselves)?

cool 1

But before you laugh too hard, you should know that no matter how in-style you think you are at this very moment, in a few years you will look back at pictures of yourself and shake your head in embarrassment.

The truth is, cool changes. In fact, cool is so incredibly temporary that whatever is cool today might very well be laughable tomorrow. This means that investing too much in cool is as foolish as building your house on a fault line. Cool changes far too often to make a good foundation.

2. Cool is not fun. I think most people would agree that their most miserable years (often middle or early high school) were those spent running after cool. Put simply, obsessing over the desire to be liked can be stressful and even downright destructive. There is nothing enjoyable about the sick, panicky feeling in your stomach as you wonder what other people are thinking about you. Wouldn’t it be so much better if you let your guard down and were able to relax a little? Those wise and confident enough to stop caring about what others think are nearly always the ones who have the most fun, build the most genuine friendships, and have the least regrets.

3. Cool is uncool. The great irony of cool is that it isn’t. Cool is paradoxical in the sense that those who want it most will never achieve it, and those who simply don’t care are the first to earn the approval of their peers. At work, at school, and at play, human beings are drawn to those with confidence, conviction, and compassion. Not those who are trying to be cool. You might be jealous of “the cool people”, or maybe even afraid of those on the top of the social ladder, but deep down, no one really respects those who have only achieved a mere surface-level coolness. The truly respected ones are those who have prioritized more important things over their desire to fit in.  Example: One of my best friends Ron Radcliffe came to college with a fanny pack full of Pokémon cards and a collection of homemade swords…and within no time became one of the most well-known and well-liked people on campus. Why? Because Ron is man of confidence, conviction, and compassion, and people always eventually gravitate to character.

4. Cool is almost always hierarchical. In other words, in places where cool is the currency, there are varying degrees of rich and poor. There are those who are cool and those who are…not so cool. This is how it works. For someone to be “in”, others have to be “out.” Unfortunately, when you have so many people trying desperately to ascend the social ladder, people are inevitably going to be stepped on. This is one of the reasons why bullying is such a serious problem in schools across the country. However, as followers of Jesus we are called to a different pursuit. In fact, Jesus flipped the ladder upside down when he spoke to social outcasts, when he touched lepers, when he refused to turn children away, when he ate with tax collectors, and when he washed his disciples’ feet. This is the pattern we’re called to carry on.

5. Cool gets in the way. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul writes, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Clearly, there are times in our lives when we have to choose what and whom we’re living for, and so often, cool and Christ are calling us in two very different directions. I can think of several times in high school alone in which I was clearly aware of Jesus’ leading to befriend the friendless, or to speak against gossip, or to hold my tongue when tempted to say something funny but potentially hurtful, but why did I often resist? Because cool was telling me to look out for myself. This, I think, is the most fundamental difference between the call of cool and the call of Christ: one is primarily about self, and the other is primarily about self-denial. And yet, only one of these paths leads to authentic, free, meaningful life.

It’s time we considered a new definition of cool as we think about what really has value, importance, and precedence in our lives. What needs to take priority? What really matters? These are the things that do not change from day to day, the things that satisfy and build character, the things that consider others as valuable as ourselves, and the things that allow us to love with the love we’ve been given.

These are the things worth running after.


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