Gift 50 – The First Three Words You Ever Heard

Before you were born, I thought long and hard about just what I wanted to say to you in your first minutes of air-breathing life. What should be the very first words your brand new ears ever hear? Your mom didn’t think it mattered too much; after all, you won’t be able to understand human speech for a long time yet. But to me this was important.

Part of me knows that words are just words. But deep down I still secretly think that words—all words—are incantations of a sort, doing things to those on whom they fall. And so I’m praying these words, three little words, do their work in you until you become like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaves never wither (Psalm 1).

photo (27)I wanted the first words you ever heard to be like good soil for you to grow in. I want these words to be a firm foundation under your feet, allowing you the freedom to try and fail, the liberty to trust, the strength to be yourself in an age of pretending. And though you won’t understand their meaning at first, I will take you back to these first three words often—on good days and on bad ones. When you’re navigating identity issues, or celebrating a birthday, or hurt by the words of a classmate, or getting ready for a date, we’ll revisit these words together. I’ll say to you, “Do you know what the very first thing ever said to you was?”

Whether you feel like it or not, these words are truth. Fact, even. No matter what you do you will not be able to shake the whole worlds of meaning they hold, brimming just beneath the surface. You are stuck in these three words, and I’m sorry but there’s nothing you can do about it. Whatever shape your identity takes in the years ahead, it will forever be building off of your base, your starting point, the irrevocable, unalterable, irreversible reality that

you

are

loved.

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Gift 47 – Welcome home!

“Look at the flowers of the field. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you?”

Getting ready to leave the hospital.

Getting ready to leave the hospital.

Ahhhhhh!

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Meeting Piper for the first time…

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I’m pretty sure he likes you.

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Daddy and the nap time guard dogs.

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Hey Reagan, what’s the meaning of life?

Hmm…let me think about it.

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You: Daddy, how did the dinosaurs go extinct?

Me: I don’t know, Reagan, how?

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You: Tar pits.

Trying to figure out this whole dad thing.

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Time for a music break…

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First bath at home!

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Rae,

The value of our home has gone through the roof since becoming a family of three (five if you count the pups).  It’s so so good to be together.  As funny as it sounds, I keep thinking about God and his love of home.  God’s first action in the Scriptures is to make a home where he can his children can live together.  When that home is lost, the rest of Scripture is full of God’s desire to bring his family back.  “I will be their God and I will be their people.”  Home.  Together.

Home is what God loves.  Recovering home is what he died for.  This is that longing in our hearts, too–to be home in the company of the Trinity.  Invited up and in, into the great Family Room of God’s hospitality.  These few days with you has given me a clearer picture and fuller taste of just what it is God loves so dearly, and why he loves it so much.

Gift 45 – Your Mommy

So let’s talk for just a minute.

Your mom, there’s no one like her.

By the time you’re reading this I’m sure you’ve already realized that she’s the prettiest woman in the world (but for real), that she’s an extremely hard worker, that she loves gardening, loves watching thunderstorms, and loves animals as much as St. Francis of Assisi (before we were married she once abandoned me on a date to rescue a lost kitten). You already know that she is a thoughtful gift giver (you have an Ewok costume waiting for you for your first Halloween), an amazing muffin-maker, and that she thinks the people on the Today Show are her friends. And of course, you know by now that she loves you more than anyone in the entire world.

But I want to tell you a few things about your mommy that you might not know. I want to tell you why I love her so much and why she will always be my best friend…

  • I used to have a lot of really bad dreams. Before we got married, I knew I could call her even in the middle of the night and she would pray for me. She did regularly. After we got married she would often read to me from the Bible or from books she knows I love. Here’s a journal entry from Nov. 2012: “I woke up in the middle of the night after having a bad dream. My sweet wife got up and read The Lord of the Rings to me until I could fall back asleep. How blessed am I? Thank you, Lord.”
  • She’s always game for an adventure. We’ve already had several wonderful camping trips in the three years we’ve been married. Your mom is always ready for a road trip (though be warned, she’s a terrible D.J.). There are few things I love more than exploring Michigan with her. Even more importantly, she’s always willing to step out in trust when we believe God is calling us on an adventure. I remember sitting next to her in church the morning we heard about a foster care opportunity through Bethany Christian Services and her eagerness to find out more about the program. Though we felt like kids ourselves, and were by far the youngest foster care parents at any of the meetings, the seven weeks spent with our first foster daughter were unforgettable. I remember thanking God countless times during the process for such an organized (there’s lots of paperwork involved), compassionate, and patient wife.
  • Your mom does way more than you know. I’m sure of this because she does way more than I know. She is always giving of herself to ensure things are just right for you and me. Even though she has about 20 more jobs than I do, she also sacrifices at home by making us wonderful food, cleaning our clothes and the house, and by picking up after the dogs (and let me tell you!). The reason you might not realize all that your mom does is because she doesn’t talk about it. She doesn’t even complain or draw attention to all her hard work!
  • One time when we were dating her little brother got sick and started puking. While I was gagging in the background, I remember her getting down on her hands and knees in the bathroom to rub his back.  Wow, I thought, she’s the kind of person you want to marry. 
  • Your mom goes out of her way to make me feel special. Our love languages are different, and yet when she found out I value words of encouragement she started putting notes in my lunch. She often writes me little messages or emails during the day to let me know she’s thinking of me. Speaking of going out of her way to show love, did I mention that she came with me for the midnight showing of Harry Potter and all three Hobbit movies?!

The truth is, while I am so so excited to be your dad, I’m also a little bit afraid. Having your mom by my side gives me so much confidence and joy for all that lies ahead for us as a family. We make a good team, and we can’t wait for you to join us.

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Gift 27 – Now Go

When you love someone, you start to care about the things they care about. As I grow in love for my wife I learn to see from her perspective, value the things she values, and even love the things she loves.

The same is true for those who love God. As our love grows, our hearts are shaped to be like His as we see Him revealed in Scripture. In time we begin to celebrate good things like victory over addiction, unity in the Church family, and the healing of damaged relationships. We also begin to grieve injustice on a personal (addiction, bitterness, jealousy), communal (gossip, bullying, exclusion), and societal (homelessness, sex-trafficking, extreme poverty) level. And as our love grows we are called to act on these things that break God’s heart.

Do you remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? God reveals His plan to rescue Hebrew slaves, and I imagine Moses is ecstatic…at first.

God: I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out and I am concerned for their suffering…

Moses: Yes!

God: So I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land…

Moses: Alright! That’s great!

God: I will bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey…

Moses: This is terrific news!

God: So now, go. I am sending you.

Moses: Wait…what? You’re joking, right? I thought you were going to do it?!

God: I am going to do it. Now go, I am sending you.

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See, when our hearts break for the things that break God’s heart, we’re not just meant to cry, or even just to pray, but to go—because God is going to act, and He is sending us. True purpose begins when we ask the question, “What do you care about, God?” and then act.

God said of the shepherd boy David, “I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.” I wonder how long it took God to find a person, just one person, who cared so deeply about God’s heart that he was willing to do?

Daughter, my prayer for you, for us, is that we would join with Samuel in asking, “speak LORD, your servant is listening,” Isaiah in offering, “Here am I! Send me!” and most of all, with Jesus as he offered himself lovingly and submissively to the Father, “Not my will, but Your’s be done.”

There is much to be done. In our homes, our communities, our world. Our God is looking for men and women willing to join Him in caring and acting on His heart.

Jesus tells a story about a landowner looking for workers for his vineyard. He goes into the marketplace and finds people standing around twiddling their thumbs. “Why are you standing around not doing anything?” he asks. “Sir, no one has hired us,” they respond. The landowner replies, “Well then come work for me!”

In a culture starving for purpose and significance, people standing around not doing anything, hear the invitation of our dangerous Friend and Lord who calls us to follow him into the dead places of the world where he will bring life. He still has a plan to free slaves. Now go, he is sending you.

Gift 24 – Second Chances

Son,

A few weeks ago your mom and I had several couples over for dinner.  We got talking about proposal stories and ended up going around the table, each couple sharing the story of their engagement.

I was hoping the conversation would change before it got to us because my proposal to Amanda wasn’t anything special.  To be honest, it was completely lame.  I’m not saying that proposals need to be grandiose complete with hot air balloon rides to Paris or anything, but I really didn’t do anything to make her special or even appreciated.

When the conversation came to me I said, “Um, well, I pretty much just asked.”

“You didn’t do anything?  Like did you even take Amanda out for dinner, or give her flowers or something?” a friend questioned.  “Nope.  Just asked,” I said a little bit embarrassed.  The awkwardness passed, though as the evening went on an idea began growing in my mind: who says you can’t propose a second time?

Last week we celebrated our second anniversary, and I’m pleased to say I had the chance to re-propose to the woman I love (I’m also pleased to say that she said yes :)).  This time I made sure to show her how thankful I am to have her in my life.

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Here’s the point, son.  It is all too easy to become comfortable and complacent in the relationships that matter most in life.  I’m talking about one-word responses, thoughtless gifts given only because of a holiday, and even just monotone conversations that become the norm.  If you’re not careful, your relationship with family and friends will become crusty like food forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.

To quote the great philosopher Taylor Swift, “Life makes love work hard.”   Though I hate to say it, Taylor’s right.  Life happens, and loved ones can get pushed to the backseat pretty quickly.  A little thoughtfulness, creativity, and surprise can go a long way in keeping relationships healthy.  When I become robotic as a husband, son, or friend, I’ll often be gently shaken back to attentiveness by one of many kindhearted friends in my life who live what I’m talking about.  One friend and colleague writes an encouraging note to someone just about every single day.  He’s been doing this for over 8 years!

Right now is a good time to do something out of the ordinary to show appreciation for someone in your life.  So think, then do.  Right now.  Go out of your way to make a friend’s day, or take a second chance to repair something you should have done right the first time.  Just remember, son, you only get one opportunity to re-propose, so make it special.

Gift 23 – Prayer (III)

“Is there any chance I could direct an orchestra piece for the Fall Concert?” “Do you think I might be able to get my picture taken in the front seat of your police car, officer?”   “Would it be okay if I marched with the band for a parade?” “Can I ride on the Zamboni between periods of the hockey game?”

“Is there any chance I could direct an orchestra piece for the Fall Concert?”
“Do you think I might be able to get my picture taken in the front seat of your police car, officer?”
“Would it be okay if I marched with the band for a parade?”
“Can I ride on the Zamboni between periods of the hockey game?”

Son,

You might be wondering how I got to do the things shown in the pictures above.  Well, believe it or not, all I did was ask.  Yep…that was it.

If you look up everything that Jesus says about prayer in the Bible, you might be surprised to find (like I was) that he so often focuses on asking from God.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  Which of you fathers, if your son asks fora fish, will give him a snake instead?  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

 Or what about the second half of the famous prayer that Jesus taught his disciples:

Give us today our daily bread /  Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors  /  Lead us not into temptation  /  Deliver us from the evil one.

 So much asking!

At first, all this asking might make a person a little uncomfortable.  We’ve all been told that God isn’t some divine Santa Claus who exists to satisfy our desires, so what’s going on?  A few things to notice…

  • First of all, if you are someone who loves and follows Jesus, your desires will be increasingly shaped by God’s heart.  Put bluntly: a maturing Christian isn’t asking God for a pony.  James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”   A good question to ask is, “Is my life about God’s kingdom or my own?”  That will help determine whether your prayers are about God’s kingdom or your own.  The more you are shaped by the revelation of God’s Heart in your life (through God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, the Church), the more you will care like God’s heart cares.   As this happens, God says ask away!  Asking becomes powerful when the heart of Christ is alive in the body of Christ.
  • Prayer changes the pray-er.  Praying can actually wake up our desires and can be a catalyst for action.  Those who don’t care don’t ask.  And those who care, ask, and care more with each asking.  Perhaps Jesus’ consistent invitations to ask are his pleadings with us to care and to act!  Pray for your enemy and you may start caring about reconciliation.  Pray for the hungry and you may start caring that they have food to eat.  Pray for your wife and you may be moved to be a source of joy and encouragement for her.   In this mysterious way God often answers our prayers through the praying, because prayer is not only a reflection of your heart but also a directing of it.  As Eugene Peterson says, “We become what we are called to be by praying.”
  • Maybe the most important thing to realize is that the asking kind of prayer is an act of trust, dependence, and worship.  No one who is self-sufficient or self-reliant asks for anything, but the person who knows the good character of God relies on him like the branches of a fruit tree depend upon the trunk—and so they ask.  Making requests in prayer is acknowledging God’s generosity, God’s unlimited abundance, God’s ability to provide, and God’s loving heart towards his children.  The heart that does not ask does not yet know God as He wants to be known.

Son, I am convinced that God actually wants his people to ask more than we do, not less.  Though it was uncomfortable at first, I’ve gotten in the habit of making requests to God on a regular basis.  Just as I was surprised by what came of asking a police officer to sit in his car, or asking to march with the marching band, I’ve also been astonished by all that comes from making requests in prayer.

So ask already!

Here are some suggestions:

–       For eyes to see and ears to hear.

–       For opportunities to serve (the funny thing is, asking this will makes you aware of all the opportunities to serve that have always been around you).

–       For joy and compassion.

–       For wisdom and wonder.

–       That God’s Word would become a delight, like the author of Psalm 119.

–        For encouragement and strength for struggling friends and family.

–       Good things for your enemies.

–       Hope for young people wrestling depression.

–       For a tight reign on your tongue (words are powerful!).

Gift 5 – Action Figures

“[We need to] just land the plane on our plans to make a difference by getting to the ‘do’ part of faith…love is never stationary. In the end, love doesn’t just keep thinking about it or keep planning for it. Simply put: love does.” – Bob Goff

“Christian life is action: not speculating, not debating, but doing.” – Frederick W. Robertson (1816 – 1853)

“Dear Children, let us not love with words or speech but with action and in truth.” – 1 John 3:18

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When I was a kid I collected action figures almost obsessively. I would heap blankets on the floor of my bedroom and stage “mountain” battles between my GI-Joes and Star Wars toys. The cool thing about action figures is that the characters are made as though halfway through a motion—slashing with a lightsaber, running to the crime scene, flying on a skateboard while tossing a pizza in the air (Michelangelo the ninja turtle). They’re doing something.

Have you ever met a kid who wanted to play with an opinion figure? Me neither.

Imagine a boy getting his toys together for a meeting. “Okay guys, today we’re going to discuss the pros and cons of being a polypropylene composite.” Doesn’t happen. We’d rather do something. The reason companies make action figures instead of opinion figures is because no one ever wanted to play with an opinion figure. There’s a word kids use to describe things like this that are all words and no action: boring.

In Matthew 25, Jesus separates all people in to one of two groups—one group going with him and his father, the other group going away to be punished. The folks who get to go with Jesus are the ones who fed the hungry and thirsty, invited strangers to become friends, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited the imprisoned. In other words, the ones who did stuff. The interesting thing is that Jesus didn’t ask the people on his right what they thought about predestination or about Christians getting tattoos, shockingly, he didn’t even ask them what they believed. He simply saw what they had done and knew right away what was in their hearts.

Son, when Christ returns I want you to be found—like an action figure—in the middle of doing something. Being dangerous isn’t about having certain ideas, or agreeing with other Christians, or even just about believing certain things, but about a heart so filled with love for God that it comes out. Sometimes Christian culture (Christian school, church, etc.) can be breeding grounds for opinion figures; boring Christians who talk too much (I’m guilty!), but the Bible is like an exercise DVD in that it’s no good being passive. Imagine watching “Power Body Strength Training” while sitting on the couch eating French fries. What’s the point? Likewise, Jesus asks time and time again, “What’s the point of hearing my words if you’re not going to do them?”

So lets make a deal: I’ll stop writing, you stop reading. Receive the love of God with open arms and go do something about it!

Gift 2 – Nothing and Something

My new campers would be arriving in just a few hours, so I made my way across a big field towards my cabin to clean when I saw another counselor, Silas, wrestling with what looked like a camper (he was with a group of kids that had arrived earlier in the week). I thought they were just playing around until I got closer and Silas waved me over looking pretty serious. Apparently the camper was giving him some trouble…lots of trouble. Both Silas and the 14-year-old kid were scratched up a bit; the boy was injuring himself and Silas.

Silas asked me to stay with the camper while he went to find our supervisors. So I sat down next to this kid who by now had given up the wrestling match and was just crying on the ground (thank goodness…about the not wrestling part). I tried making small talk but the boy wouldn’t even give me his name. I watched him cry into his own arms and noticed he was pretty dirty: dirt under his finger and toenails and scratches and scabs on his body and face. He had cuts on his wrists as well.

After about ten minutes he began talking through his tears about all sorts of things. His name was Matt. He said he was so angry and sick of being himself. He was tired of feeling the way he did and tired of God ignoring his prayers for help. He said the only way he could think of to get rid of all his feelings was to simply not exist anymore.

My heart dropped and broke and cried and did about ten other things. I started praying like crazy for God to give me something to say. Eventually Silas came back; I walked them to their cabin before going to my own to clean. I kept praying while I swept the place out, asking God to do something, to change the way this kid was feeling. I got a little angry. “Let me get this straight, God, so you say that you love people, but you’re just not willing to do anything about it? Really?”
At this point I really believe the Holy Spirit guided my heart, saying, “What if you gave him your ring?” Hooooollllddddd on just a minute. I had gotten the ring earlier that summer in Israel and had worn it every day since. It says in Hebrew, I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine. It was without a doubt my most precious possession; something I planned on passing on to my son someday as a sacred heirloom of sorts (you know, like Lord of the Rings or something). I was not giving it away to some kid I hardly knew. As I continued sweeping out my cabin I had quite a nice wrestling match with the Holy Spirit. It went something like this:

Me: My ring is a symbol of my commitment to You, God. You wouldn’t want me to give that away, would you?
God: If you keep it against my leading it will instead be, in your eyes, a symbol of your lack of commitment to Me.
Me: But what if I give Matt the ring and he doesn’t understand how much it means to me? He probably won’t care about it half as much as I do and it will be a waste.
God: Yeah, I know what you mean. My Son meant everything to Me, and people still don’t get the half of it. Yet I still gave Him to you.
Me: Touché. But God, seriously…
God: So let me get this straight, you’re saying that you love people, but you’re just not willing to do anything about it?

That last bit sounded vaguely familiar…Finally, I thought about Matt’s wounded wrists and understood that though my gift might not mean anything to him, I had to try. I walked through the woods from my cabin to the one in which Matt was staying. Knocking on the door I said, “Hey Matt, can I talk to you for a minute?” He joined my on the porch probably thinking he was in trouble or something.

I told Matt that I’d been thinking about what he said and how he feels like God doesn’t care about him. I showed him my ring, telling him that I’d gotten it in Israel as a reminder of how much God loves me. I said, “This ring is my most precious possession. And you wanna know something cool? The most precious thing to God was His Son, Jesus, but He still gave Him for you so that you would know for sure that He loves you and He’s with you.” I took the ring off my finger and said, “So I want to give this to you. To remind you that God is with you and He loves you.”
I know, not the most eloquent sermon in the world, but it didn’t seem to matter. Matt froze while his eyes got huge in disbelief. He said, “Wait, are you serious?” I nodded, and without another word he wrapped his arms around me (this was the first of five huge hugs he gave me in just a few minutes). He was inexpressibly happy and grateful. He put it on right away and it fit perfectly. His eyes filled with tears as I did my best to keep mine in. “I didn’t tell you this earlier,” Matt said, “But tomorrow is my birthday.”

“Well this is God’s birthday present to you, then,” I said.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said, smiling. We talked for a few minutes before I walked back to my cabin, thanking God for the cool opportunity.

I kid you not, one year later I was back working at this same camp when a taller, more-alive Matt walked up to me still wearing the same ring I’d given him a year earlier. We sat down by the soccer field while he told me all about how much better his past year had been. “Last year,” said Matt, “Before you gave me your ring, I was planning on, you know, ending things when I got home from camp. But this birthday present from God changed my mind.”

Wow. I was speechless. Was this young man’s life worth losing a ring over? Definitely.

So what is the second gift I have for you, son? Nothing. I’m afraid I gave your ring away. On the other hand, I may have gained something even more valuable to pass on. You see I learned that loving people, the way Jesus loved us, almost always costs something. Being dangerous means loving anyway. You might lose time, you might lose money, heck, you might even lose your most valuable possession, but guess what, son? It’s worth it. The value of loving others is immeasurable, incalculable, and life changing. I’m embarrassed and a little ashamed when I think back to how hesitant I had been to give away a thing, and for a person who really needed it. But you’ll soon learn how easy it is to get your priorities mixed up when muddled with the business of everyday life. The gift I want to give you is the reminder that loving people comes first, and that no matter how much you love, no matter how much you give away, it will ever only be a faint echo of the great love Jesus gave to us. Remember that and you will be dangerous.