Learning to See Beauty in the Wreckage

This is the beginning of a larger work that I hope to finish one day, but I want to share it with you in the meantime.  So maybe if you can get a publisher to back me, I will do it… : )

I remember walking into my backyard one early summer afternoon when I was six years old. I walked passed the clothesline that held the nearly dry sheets that danced in freedom and swayed in grace with the gentle blowing breeze. It was a profound metaphor in that moment of my life. With my back to the ground, enveloped by the cool green grass, I stared into the vast blue sky painted with puffy, white cumulus clouds that seemed to completely surround me. It was in that moment, on that infinitesimally small patch of earth, where I was wholly embraced in perfect freedom and perfect love.

I have always wondered why that particular memory stayed with me even unto this day. What was it about that simple and seemingly uneventful moment that still has my heart? What was so transformative about that afternoon that it still taps into my soul’s deepest longing? And why do I, in my spirit, keep going back to that place behind my late 1970’s home where all I did was lie in the grass and stare at the sky?

To be honest, I think about this moment all the time. How many six-year olds remember the most seemingly mundane moment and remember it four decades later unless it was so meaningful and so evocative that it just can not be forgotten? I believe it was in that place, in my backyard, lying in the grass, when I was four years old, where I knew for the first time, definitively, that heaven and earth literally came together and God was pouring out and showering me in presence and love.

The crazy thing is that I remember it all so vividly and so thoroughly. No matter what else was going on around me or in the world, it was in that place at that moment where I knew without question in my heart and in my soul that I was wholly embraced in perfect freedom and perfect love. I was in a place where I felt fully and completely alive. And I believe the reason that moment stays with me, nearly forty years later, is the reality that no matter how far I have wandered, no matter how fractured and disconnected I have become as a war-weary and war-torn human, I desperately long with every ounce of my being to be enveloped in that overwhelming and all-consuming love once again.

This may come as a surprise to you, but I believe you have been in that place as well, whether you remember it or not. It may not have been behind your house staring at the sky, but it may have been in a moment of being held by a loved one, or in a moment running into the woods to your secret spot, or in a moment closing your eyes while the sun shined down on your face and the wind blew through your hair, or in a moment rolling down the car windows and singing out to the top of your lungs.

Despite who you are, where you came from, what your background is, or the life situation in which you grew up, I believe each of us have had that moment, no matter how temporary or fleeting, when we felt wholly embraced in perfect freedom and perfect love, where we knew without question that, if even for a split second, heaven and earth came together. And in that moment we felt fully and completely alive, our hearts experienced a peace and joy we never knew existed, and we wished it would never, ever end.

We have all been there.

And the truth is that this embrace, this freedom, this love has always been present with us and has always surrounded us, whether we have acknowledged it or opened ourselves up to it or not. It has been there all along completely enveloping us, fully immersing us, and never abandoning us, despite each of us slowly and progressively, many times unknowingly, losing sense of it, becoming closed off to it, or turning away from it.

That is the great casualty of this life- we have become disconnected from this great embrace and allowed ourselves to be separated from the source of perfect freedom and perfect love. And it is this disconnection that, no matter the paths we have traveled or how it happened in each of our lives, has steadily closed us off from the life we were always meant to live, the life we were always meant to experience.

Instead of lives immersed in love, outpouring in joy, flooded by peace and contentment, and baptized in grace, we have walked in shallow puddles, always longing for ocean depths.

Instead of abundant lives in which our senses are fully awakened and fully alive, experiencing this beautiful world, this wonderful life in it’s fullest sense, we have become increasingly desensitized to and uninspired by the miracle and majesty that we awake to each morning, consequently pursuing other avenues that artificially stimulate us and close us off to the richness and bounty of this life.

And instead of lives in perfect union with God that then extend outward through each of us in all of our relationships, we have walked down a path where our relationships have become as fractured and as disposable as the relationship we have with our Creator.

The truth is that life can feel like a real struggle sometimes. And I am certain I am not shocking you when I say that. Instead of it feeling like grace, life can many times feel like punishment, judgment, and condemnation. Instead of it being full of opportunity, life can feel like closed doors, empty promises, and dead ends. Instead of it being an invitation into something greater, life can feel quite average, extraordinarily ordinary, and like you are just barely making it through the day, barely making ends meet, or barely hanging on.

Our lives can feel so far from what our hearts desire, so far from what our souls craves.

We have been, in a very real way, walking through a minefield with enemy fire passing by us with every step and ripping us away from experiencing this eternal life presently. Sometimes we are hit and wounded, but at other times the ground explodes beneath our feet and it seems as if we have been completely taken down with no way out and no one to help us.

We are those who have been wounded by other’s words or actions. We are those who have been wounded by loved ones who abandoned us. We are those who have been wounded by the ways others have taken advantage of us. We are those who have been wounded by substance abuse and addiction. We are those who have been wounded by our addiction to pornography. We are those who have been wounded by our pride and self-sufficiency. We are those who have been wounded by the expectations other people have for us. We are those who have been wounded by a negative self-image or self-doubt, sometimes leading to self-hatred, self-mutilation, and then possibly attempts at killing ourselves. We are those suffering from the wounds of broken promises, broken relationships, and failed marriages. We are those suffering from the wounds of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

And it’s hard to remember, let alone believe, that there is anything better than the war we entered from birth. Our wounds and pain, our cynicism and skepticism, our apathy and indifference have become a normal part of our lives through the years, for some people more than others, of course. But, we are all victims to the great tragedy and it’s wreckage to one degree or another.

So while we may have, at one time or even in one single moment, rested in the sweet embrace of perfect freedom and perfect love lying in the backyard or being held in the arms of a loved one, it’s easy to become jaded and hardened through the years, cynical about the present, and completely resigned to the future. We can very easily begin to believe that life is something we try to endure, rather than something we have the opportunity to live to the fullest.

That is the lie we begin to believe and then the way we begin to see everything around us.

I remember one spring when we first moved into the house in which we currently live. The backyard was a blanket of yellow dandelions. I hated it. I absolutely hated it.

But first, as a proper backdrop, my dad is a meticulous and obsessive manicurer of fine lawns. And as you can probably imagine, I grew up detesting this vile weed bent on disrupting the gentle and unbroken sea of green surrounding our house.

This was the case each day as I turned onto the street leading to our new house. It wasn’t just a mental frustration of having so many dandelions in my yard. It was, in a very real way, a physical frustration. I could feel the frustration deep in my bones.

One Saturday morning, and very likely the day I was planning to treat the lawn to get rid of the weeds, our sweet five-year old Caroline gazed intently out the window. I wasn’t immediately sure what she was looking at, but then it became obvious as she said in the most innocent and exuberant voice, “Those are the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen, daddy!”

What a punch to the gut. Ugh.

I was completely and utterly caught off guard. Caroline was exactly right. Why did I not see it that way myself? How could I have been looking at something so unimaginably and miraculously beautiful the entire time, but yet been so viscerally disgusted by the sight of it? What I saw as a nuisance weed that needed to be eliminated immediately, Caroline saw as a real life floral tapestry in her own yard that amazed and delighted her. That may have been the first time in my life when I realized how dramatically the “lenses” we wear transform how we see and experience this life.

Unlike me, Caroline had not accumulated years and years of baggage that influenced and shaped how she viewed the world, or how she was experiencing her young life. Caroline was able to see a world surprising her with the blessing of tiny, yellow flowers in her very own yard! She could see beauty clearly with the eyes of her heart, while my distorted lenses saw nothing but a hideous curse that had to be dealt with.

Maybe that’s why most children have an easier time finding those places where heaven and earth overlap, where they experience perfect freedom and perfect love, because they are not so battle-torn and war-weary. They still have eyes that are open wide and that can still clearly see the world without the fractured lenses that distort how we see people, situations, and the world around us.

The truth is that children are still open to the possibility of awe and wonder, the inherent goodness in all people and things, and the sense that the only moment that matters is the one they are living in at that exact moment.

It’s no wonder Jesus says unless we all become like little children we will never get to experience this great embrace of heaven and earth; we will never be able to presently enter into the perfect freedom and perfect love of God. Becoming like a child opens our hearts and awakens our lives to awe and wonder, allows us to rediscover the inherent goodness in all people and things, and births in us a sense that the only moment that matters is this moment right now.

But is this really even possible?

It’s certainly one thing to be told that each day is grace, full of opportunity, and an invitation into something so much greater, but quite another to actually be able to enter into that kind of life. Sure, the dandelion story is beautiful and it is a really nice sentiment, but there is simply too much wreckage and too much heartache around us for that kind of unrealistic idealism.

While I admit that I am a wild idealist, and my wife would probably say that I am idealistic to a fault, I will always stand uncompromisingly in the gap between “what is” and “what could be.” However, I do not stand there completely oblivious to reality or in blind ignorance.

I see the wreckage around me and I feel the burden of it every single day. I know you do as well. We live in a world of immense tension and great suffering, a world literally caught between heaven and hell. And sometimes there are just no words. Our souls just ache.

Today as I write these words I am one degree of separation away from friends whose marriages are wrecking or completely wrecked, friends who have children growing up without the support or involvement of the other parent and who are suffering through the emotional pain of it, a friend who just overdosed on drugs a few months ago, another friend who was just charged with multiple drug-related felonies, friends and family who are battling for their lives with Stage 4 cancer, another friend with three young children who just lost her husband to brain cancer, friends who are unemployed, friends who suffer from mental illness and depression, and friends who have children who have been suicidal in the last few months.

Believe me. I get it.

But while we hold together the tension of smiles and tears, the tension of joy and pain, the tension of celebration and mourning, the tension of happiness and sadness, the tension of life and death, we are still, even now, being wholly embraced and completely enveloped in the perfect love of God through it all.

You may find that incredibly hard to fathom, but listen. Despite the war, despite our battle wounds, despite the wreckage around us, there is another reality surrounding us, immersing us, in unending life and beauty, longing to revive our broken and wounded hearts so that they may beat again and to wash over our blinded eyes so that we will finally see clearly.

We live in a world that explodes with great artistry and creativity. It is a world that offers limitless freedom and opportunity. It is a world that flows with the greatest expressions of love and goodness. It is a world with incomparable life and beauty. And we have been invited, to not just see it with new eyes, but begin living in it presently and then helping others see it and experience it as well. Yes, even in the wreckage, even in the very worst circumstances, and even through immense pain. We have all been invited to presently enter the great embrace of heaven and earth.

And this embrace is no different than the one that so tenderly held me in my lawn that day as a fully awake and fully alive four-year old. It held me and nurtured me, but then began pursuing me through the years, as I grew distant, hard-hearted, angry, prideful, and self-serving. I didn’t have the eyes to see it, though. The only thing that changed through the years… was me. The open arms of the father were always outstretched, awaiting my presence, and continually longing to hold me again.

But the path leading back to that place was not a straight line, nor was it pain-free. It never is. We can’t snap our fingers or will ourselves into eternal living. It is a daily pursuit, and one that navigates through the pain, heartache, and wreckage of a war zone. And sometimes it can be completely brutal. It can tear your heart out and make you ask questions about who you are, what you are doing, and why you are doing it. I know. I have asked those questions, myself.

For me, it was a road of humility and contrition, introspection and self-reflection, crucifixion and resurrection. And all of those words are just fancy ways of saying that I needed to take an honest and humble look at myself to see who I had become. I desperately needed to discover what was keeping me from living a full and abundant life and keeping me from returning to the embrace of perfect freedom and perfect love.

My wife would frequently catch me sitting at the dinner table by myself staring out the window into the backyard many times over the last ten years. I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t having a midlife crisis in my 30’s. I just had so many questions and I felt like I was completely suffocating. I found it hard to find happiness and joy. It seemed as if my life was about enduring each day and I was only happy when anticipating something big or exciting, whether that be a vacation, a hiking trip, or something like that. I battled through each day in hopes of some larger outcome. My happiness and joy were predicated only by what I wanted or by what I believed I deserved or needed out of life. I was so blind. I could not see beauty around me. I was so ignorant of the miracle and mystery in which I lived and breathed.

I had become bored and discontented with this life.

But there was this moment when it all started to change for me. I was in the family room after supper with my oldest two daughters. They were playing with each other on the floor, but it was the kind of playing that just grates on a parent. If you are a parent of little kids you know what I mean. There is nice, quiet playing and then there is the loud, blood-curdling, excessive playing. This was the latter. I was tired from a long day at work and I really didn’t feel that well. To be honest, I had been wishing it were a bit later so I could just put them to bed. I am not exactly sure what hit me at that moment, but I closed my eyes and rested my head on the back of the couch… and just listened. I heard Caroline’s sweet voice. I heard Anna laughing at her. I could hear my wife cleaning up in the kitchen. I could hear Aberdeen, my dog, running around and barking at the girls. It was chaos, but the most beautiful chaos I had ever heard. Tears ran down my face and I thanked God.

I felt like Emily Webb from the Thornton Wilder play Our Town. But, rather than looking back in pain and regret for blindly missing the treasure of every single moment when it was too late, I was resolved to live this life to the fullest while I still had the opportunity and to learn how to see and experience it in it’s fullness, even when it is tough, even when it is painful, even when I want to give up. My life was going to change. My mind needed to change. I needed a new heart. I needed eyes that could see clearly. I longed for happiness. I longed for joy. I longed for presence. And I now knew it was possible in my adult life, in ways I had never imagined.

That is where my pursuit began… on the couch in the middle of chaos. What a contrast from the green grass and gentle winds forty years ago when God first had my heart, but this time it was sweeter. I understood it better. I appreciated it so much more.

A few weeks ago my four-year old son and I went on our very first overnight backpacking adventure. I can’t underscore how important this first trip was for us. I am a serious backpacker. I have been all throughout the United States in some of the most beautiful places on earth, completely cut off from civilization and communication, fighting with grizzlies and running with elk and caribou. Well, I haven’t fought grizzlies and run with elk and caribou, but I have been dangerously close to them! Anyway, this first overnight backpacking trip with Will was very important to me because I didn’t want it to be a bad experience for him the first time out. Of course we had previously set up the tent and camped in the backyard several times and he really enjoyed that, but leaving the familiarity of our house and going into areas in which he was unfamiliar was a complete wild card.

We drove an hour away from our house and ended up in the Hoosier National Forestry in south-central Indiana. This area is beautifully wooded and hilly and perfect for a first-timer. I could tell that Will was excited based on how much he talked for the entire hour that it took us to drive there. He peppered me with one million, four-year old questions that ranged from what we were going to eat to how we were going to brush our teeth. He was so pumped up.

When we pulled into the parking area he was already out of his car seat and standing by the car in wild excitement. He put on his jacket and asked me to help him with his backpack. I helped him and then put on my own backpack. We were off. It was a cool spring evening, not quite sunset, and everything was exploding to life around us. It was absolutely perfect. Will knew it as well.

Every thirty seconds for the next hour, Will kept yelling out, “For Heaven’s sake! This is soooo awesome! For Heaven’s sake! This is soooo awesome!”

I am there with you, brother. This is soooo awesome! This is soooo awesome! For Heaven’s sake, this is soooo awesome!

I don’t believe I have fully and completely arrived, though. Learning to see beauty in the wreckage is a lifelong pursuit and one we will only fully and completely realize in the Age to Come, but one that will begin to presently open our eyes to new life, deepen and fulfill all of our relationships, awaken a profound sense of awe and wonder in us, and create a heart of expectant hope along the way.

Peace…

Brandon

I Don’t Need Your Legislation (A Good Friday Litany)

I know who I am.
I know what I signed up for.
I know whose life I have chosen to pattern my life after.
I know that patterning my life after Jesus comes with a cost.

And to that end, I realize and accept the fact that it could cost me everything, including my own life.

But despite that reality, I have chosen, and continue to choose, to bear the cross of Christ and to be led by the Spirit of God.

For it is only at the cross where all that enslaves is crucified. And it is only in the Spirit where I, at last, find freedom.

To that end, I do not need anyone or anything to protect me.

And I certainly do not need any legislation to pronounce the freedom I already have, and will continue to have, despite my changing circumstance or situation.

For if my loving of friend and enemy offends or is a crime, then arrest me.

If praying or blessing offends or is a crime, then imprison me.

If my Kingdom values (which always looks like Jesus) offends or is a crime, then ridicule and ostracize me.

If standing up for the oppressed or marginalized, or by associating with “sinners” and outcasts offends or is a crime, then spit on me.

If honoring God with my entire being (my words, my life, my all) offends or is a crime, then beat and give me your most severe punishment.

If patterning my life after Jesus and going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and giving the shirt off of my back offends or is a crime, then crucify me.

But hear me in this.

I do not need a law to protect me.
I do not need a government to grant me a freedom I already have.
I do not need a legislator to promise or guarantee a freedom that I will continue to have.

My freedom is in Christ alone.

Whether I am poor or rich… I am free.
Whether I am enslaved or emancipated… I am free.
Whether I am imprisoned or liberated… I am free.
Whether I am a servant or a master… I am free.
Whether I am suffering or in comfort… I am free.

For it is God alone who has freed me. And that freedom is enjoyed in any and all circumstances or situations of my life.

I have counted the cost of following Jesus Christ and accepted the freedom he has given me. That is sufficient.

“That’s all nice and good until they come after you and then punish you and make an example.”

To which I would humbly reply, “If punishment for loving was good enough for my Savior and Lord, then may it be good enough for me.”

For it was Jesus who loved, yet faced accusation.
It was Jesus who loved, yet faced the heavy hand of opposition groups, religious groups, and the government.
It was Jesus who loved, and lost everything.
It was Jesus who loved, and was mocked, beaten, and spit upon. It was Jesus who loved, and was put to a wretched and inhumane death.

All of this without legislation to protect his religious liberty.

He made no appeal to the governing authorities for his right to practice his faith. He lived and faced the consequences and said, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they are doing it.”

[We ought to] think of [ourselves] the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. (‭Philippians‬ ‭2‬:‭5-8‬ MSG)

Let his life be our life.
Let his love be our love.
Let his way be our way.
Let his death be our death.

For that is where life and freedom are found.

It is for this reason, that no Christian should hide fearfully behind man-made legislation. For if we live our lives like Christ, ought we not expect to be treated as Christ was treated?

It is only when we face opposition, persecution, threats, and ultimately death, that we can show the world, as the Body of Christ in the world, what great lengths we will go to in order to demonstrate the sacrificial, cross-like love of God.

And that kind of love will never be found in legislation, it can only be found when we pick up our cross.

“Yes, and all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”- ‭2 Timothy‬ ‭3‬:‭12‬

Brandon

Heaven: A New Heaven and New Earth

This is part three in a series looking in depth at our understanding and misunderstanding of heaven… and then why a proper understanding of heaven is important for the present identity and task of the Christian in the world.

Here is part one of the heaven series if you would like to start at the beginning.

From the words of the prophets in the Old Testament leading up to and culminating in the teachings of Jesus and then passed along through the writings to the early Church, there is a sense that God isn’t giving up on the creation that was called “good” from the very beginning. In fact, there is very clear Scriptural evidence that God has always had every intention of renewing and restoring the entire created order, rather than destroying it.

This is a strong assertion, being that it contradicts the teaching and understanding of many Churches that teach how God will one day destroy the heavens and the earth…and then take Christians away to a spiritual heaven to live for eternity.

But as we look through the Biblical narrative: we find all of creation suffering under the weight of death and decay. We find all of creation subjected to frustration. We find all of creation groaning for liberation from the curse under which it is has been placed.

It is a physical creation.

It is a tangible creation.

It is a touchable creation.

It is a physical, tangible, touchable creation that wants to be liberated, freed, released from bondage.

It is a creation that is enslavedand longs to be as it once wasnot destroyed, not annihilated, not discarded, and not thrown into the trash bin of history. It is a creation that yearns to be saved, renewed, and restored.

And it is not just the creation in which we live and which surrounds us that will be completely renewed and restored! We long for liberation from death and decay as well. Presently we have and enjoy the first fruits of the Holy Spirit given to us by God, which gives us a foretaste of the blissful things to come, but we also groan inwardly as we wait for the redemption of our bodies, which will reveal our adoption, or our manifestation as God’s sons and daughters.

This surprising discovery, which stands in contrast to the belief that God will one day destroy the heavens and the earth, is a beautiful synergy of God’s restorative work through Jesus Christ, not just for humanity, but also for the entire created order.

For God so loved the world (kosmos– the entire created order) that He sent His Son…

But despite all that Paul has written about how creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and corruption, despite Paul writing about how heaven and earth will be brought together under Christ, despite Jesus talking to the disciples about the renewal of all things, and despite Peter stating that God willrestore everything, there are still a couple of misunderstood verses that have led us to the belief that the earth will one day be destroyed and that our future hope is a disembodied, spiritual heaven.

…and the material elements of the universe will flare and melt with fire? But we look for new heavens and a new earth according to His promise, in which righteousness (uprightness, freedom from sin, and right standing with God) is to abide. 2 Peter 3: 12-13

THEN I saw a new sky (heaven) and a new earth, for the former sky and the former earth had passed away, and there no longer existed any sea. Revelation 21: 1

At first glance, these verses seemingly contradict the very position I have proposed- that God is in the process of renewing and restoring all of creation. But the key to unlocking these verses, and having a better and more comprehensive understanding of what the text is really saying, lies with the word new.

As we look at the original Greek language we find something very interesting. There are two words that can be used to describe something as new. The first word is neo and is used to describe something that is new in time. For example, a house that is newly restored to its original condition could never be neo because it is not new in time. When the house was first built it was neo, but being that it is now something old (archaios) being renewed or restored, it can ever be described as neo again. Neo is not the word used in the passages from 2 Peter or Revelation.

The word that is used to describe the new heavens and the new earth in those passages is kainos. Kainos also means new, but it is describing something that is qualitatively new or renewed. Interestingly enough, it is the word kainos that Paul uses to describe the Christian, as a new (kainos) creation. The individual Christian has not been vaporized into non-existence and newly created, rather the old (archaios) has passed away, and the new (kainos) has come. 2 Corinthians 5: 17

Therefore, the passages are not alluding to a heaven and earth that are destroyed and then replaced by a heaven and earth that are newly created. They are both speaking of the current heaven and earth passing from one condition to another (parachomai), being refined by the refiner’s fire, and then being qualitatively renewed (kainos) to their full glory, which is beyond anything that we can comprehend.

Behold, I am making all things new (kainos)…

The final destination for God’s people is not “going up” to God in heaven, while the earth and sky is destroyed. Rather, our future hope is in a renewed world and cosmos in which God’s dwelling place is among His people. If that doesn’t get you excited about the possibilities in our future I don’t know what will…but more on that in another post.

Read the next post here

peace…

brandon