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Mar. 3rd, 2011


The victory beyond my failures

Our pastor's weekly worship email seemed particularly applicable to the struggle barlow_girl and I face and what it looks like to be faithful in it. Particularly as my life's patterns of failure appear to be recurring yet again, it's good to be reminded of what is true, so I'm including the text below.
Faith, prayer and obedience are what are required of us. We are not offered, in exchange, immunity and exemptions from the world's woes. What we are offered has to do with another world altogether.

—Elisabeth Elliot

The Apostle Paul had an amazing encounter with the risen Christ. This led him to commit his life to the spread of the gospel. One of the many churches he planted was the one in Corinth.

As we have seen over the past two months, the church in Corinth had deteriorated into a mess. Cliques, factions, sexual sin, narcissism, and gross spiritual immaturity now marked this congregation that he had labored over. The people in the church began to question Paul's own calling and pastoral abilities.

Can you relate to the profound downward pressure this painful loss would exert on Paul?

What do you do when something you have diligently labored for begins to disintegrate right before your eyes and swirl down the drain? Maybe it's a vocation or direction in the world that has never quite gotten off the ground. Maybe it's a child you have raised who is straying from the faith. Maybe it's a marriage you have poured your life into that is now crumbling.

What do you do? Do you sink under the oppressive weight of failure and loss? Do you re-imagine yourself, changing zip codes and your circle of friends?

What Paul instructs us to do is to sink our hearts into the hope of our future resurrection. As Christians we do not live for this life. We live for the life to come—the life of the resurrection.

The striking thing about what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 is that not only should we "endure" or "hang in there." He tells us to "abound in the work of the Lord, knowing that our labor is not in vain."

In other words, we are to keep believing, praying, and obeying. We are to believe that somehow our labors in this life will bear fruit in the life to come—even if our labors at the moment seem to swirl down the drain into oblivion.

Mar. 1st, 2011


Presence and gifts

Dinner last night with dear friends from Vancouver, BC, from my Central College days. Besides just catch up and spending time together, barlow_girl and I also had the rare opportunity to talk about the difficult situation in which we've found ourselves recently—not only are they far enough removed that it's OK to bring it out for discussion, but they've also had to navigate similar waters themselves. Being able to share our struggles at all was a real Godsend (I've only been able to do so a bit in the past couple of weeks, and Amy hasn't really had anywhere to turn at all beyond God and family), and being able to talk and listen regarding what faithfulness looks like in our circumstance was a wonderful gift and encouragement. Nothing's changed as far as we know, but to be so simply and tangibly reminded of God's presence with us is a far better comfort than the clarity and control I crave.

Feb. 24th, 2011


Abandon all hope but one

It's my birthday, and I'm not quite sure how to take that. A dear friend is hurting, struggling through rejection this week from something he dearly loves, with everything that can trigger and mean. It's easier for me to identify with his struggle than I'd like, both past and present, and maybe that's just the way of things. Regardless, it all casts a shadow, and while I've so much for which I'm grateful, the celebration contrasts with the sadness in ways that make its presence more stark than on more ordinary days. It's not one or the other—it's both, in tension. Neither is false, but celebration and sadness don't play well together, so how to be present without trying to shut down one or the other is a bit of a mystery, especially when I don't have much freedom to invite others into the sadness.

As with anything, the call on my life is to be faithful, and that's so often not what I want to do. Sometimes being faithful only seems to cost, while not doing so can feel so much more comfortable and comforting, even if it doesn't resolve a thing. Hoping in God means steadfastly refusing anything other than His help, and sometimes all I want is the help, regardless of its source. It's like waiting for rescue and waving planes off because they aren't the one for which I'm waiting—after a while, that just feels crazy.

God is my only hope, in life and in death, on my birthday and every other day. Thankfully, I haven't yet found myself in circumstances that tempt me to talk myself out of that truth. But boy, does it feel limiting in some respects: if God is my only hope, nothing else can be. It's one thing to wait for Him in silence, but it's quite another to wait amid the internal and external noise of temptations—fixes and balms that can be applied on my schedule, with more predictable results than this God for whom I wait. Natural as it is to go with another rescuer, a less-wild lover, it's also the very definition of idolatry.

I'd take communion every day if I could. I need food for the way, and rest. Even for that, there is waiting, and whenever I wait, I'm tempted to go another way. Sometimes I do—too often. But I can't escape the nature of the waiting and the hope to which I've been called, even if I don't like what it looks like just now.

Feb. 19th, 2011


Following on the unchosen path

One of these days, I need to get back to writing regularly. Seems silly that so much of my writing lately has been to express that sentiment, but that's because it's the truth (and because I'm a spaz these days).

Events of the week has placed me firmly outside my comfort zone, which, oddly enough, serves as another comfort zone for me. Not that I'm anything in the neighborhood of comfortable, nor will I be for the foreseeable future. Crisis, however, is my natural state in many regards, calling forth ways of being, thinking, and doing that lie dormant much of the time. Perhaps that's one of the reasons writing feels more necessary and natural now, too.

Crisis also calls on faith in a different way. Not that there haven't been plenty of reasons to cry out to, depend on, and hope in God in recent months, but when those reasons are more directly personal, so is my faith (or my need for faith, because God knows I don't always have it, and don't always exercise what I do have). Put another way, God knows how to speak to me in the midst of my self-involvement, even when I'm not sure how to listen (or if I want to). My steps are at best stumbling, but the rougher terrain changes the very nature of walking at all. 

I've also been present in different ways than I might have otherwise been, appreciating relationships and possibilities I simply might not have noticed in the same light previously. That's a gift regardless of the circumstance in which it has come, and where I find myself will probably continue to push me in that direction, sometimes beyond my comfort. I'm going to need people to see me in ways that they might not now and may never have. That's something I always want (don't we all?), but rarely try to force—it feels better to be sought and discovered than to draw attention to myself, but sometimes one must do the latter.

Being more "in" some of those relationships is going to be riskier for barlow_girl and me than it would be in different circumstances. There are burdens we can't share with most, for their own sakes, and it's been a while since that's been such a significant part of being with others for me. Withholding feels weird sometimes, and we have to remain aware that it's really, without a doubt for the best, and not at all born of self-protection. It's for their sake far more than for ours, and any cost that incurs for us is something we have to trust God to repay. Many relationships, even more casual ones, will have more on the line than we're used to—there's more to lose, for all parties. Stewardship of that matters, and being less present because of our fears probably isn't faithful.

So forward we go, not on the path we'd have chosen, but on the one we're on. That's what following looks like sometimes, and we have to trust that our Shepherd is sovereign and good, because that's the truth.

Jan. 1st, 2011



Hello, 2011. We'd planned to celebrate the new year with friends, but I didn't feel greatest and we wound up opting out and watching Die Hard: With a Vengeance at home instead. 2010 didn't care much about our change in plans and made itself scarce right on time.

I'm glad to welcome another year and let the last one go. Good or bad, years just seem to get worn and tired by their ends, and a blank canvas can bring a nice freshness, even when it's really only an arbitrary page turn. It's still better than nothing as far as I'm concerned.

Resolutions don't tend to be sustainable (or even interesting) enterprises for me, but a new year's arbitrary freshness at least gives me a moment to reflect and remember who I am. That's one of the things that can make a year feel so threadbare by its close: all the large and small ways I've managed to drift off course and away from who I really am. Particularly as a Christian, I need so much reminding, so I'll take every reminder I can get.

So welcome, 2011—I'd like to be more faithful through your days than I was in 2010, and that's going to take a lot of God's grace and a deeper reliance on Him in Word, prayer, and fellowship. Holy Spirit, remind me of who I am, ground me in Christ's love, and grow a greater love of Him and His people in me.

Nov. 30th, 2010


Returning to rhythms

Sure enough, getting back into regular rhythms with work and life has settled lots of my unsettledness and tied together much of what felt frayed. Since I work in a Results-Only Work Environment, I've got a lot of control of those rhythms where they connect with my job, as long as the work gets done, so it's no surprise that getting back into the groove is a largely comfortable experience for me. And on the home front, we did indeed get a Christmas tree Saturday, and barlow_girl got our place decorated beautifully (I helped, but she did the lion's share), so there's an additional splash of comfort and joy there.

With better perspective on the day-to-day (at least for the moment), I've also been trying on some ideas and new perspectives on how I'd like to see our church's culture develop more fully. While I don't carry the burden of leading our church as our Elders do, it's still good for me to think on these things as a staffer, a servant, a follower of Jesus, and a member of our community. Started to write some observations along these lines, but it got long enough to merit posting separately (it also makes skipping it easier!). Hopefully that will push my writing rhythms as well.

Nov. 27th, 2010

Irwin's logo


Another great Thanksgiving holiday in the rearview—we had snow at the beginning of the week, which effectively paralyzes Seattle, so barlow_girl and I spent much of the week at home, working and spending quality time with the TiVo. By Wednesday, things had cleared enough to enjoy our annual stomach-stretching pre-Thanksgiving feast at Buca di Beppo, and on Thanksgiving day we hosted seven other friends for dinner (we have to get better about taking pictures, one of these days!). After a week like this, I feel very rich indeed.

Maybe it's some form of cabin fever, but while I've been able to get plenty of rest, I've also felt a bit unraveled and frayed as the week moved on. Yesterday it caught up to me, trudging to the office to do the office-specific tasks between growing piles on my desk, finding mistakes I'll need to patch up today, and generally feeling like a mess. Probably a result of being so far outside my usual rhythms combined with the ongoing toll of grief, discord, and transition at the church. There've been easier times to do my job, and my job is by far not the toughest. Hope can be tiring work, especially in the face of loss, and in many ways, I simply haven't wanted to do it at all, or at least not in the ways that cost me something.

We'll start our Christmas decorating today, including a Christmas tree at some point (maybe today!), and Advent begins tomorrow. It's a great season for thankfulness and perspective, and those are probably the very things I need.

Nov. 13th, 2010


Freedom from biting and devouring

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

—Galatians 5:15
My friend Mike preached an excellent sermon on the "Freedom from Biting and Devouring" a few years ago. Thinking about it a lot lately.

Our church has been in the early stages of transition. As we've seen before, we suck at it. Our elders opted to end my friend Phil's artist-in-residence position (his job, like mine, changed so many times over the years that picking any one title would be tough and incomplete) last month. Until now, we've been grieving and adjusting, which had been sad and hard. But in moving forward, we've gotten to the stage where some of our gross underbelly becomes more exposed. Thankfully, none of it is a surprise to God or outside His sovereignty, but seeing the biting and devouring become apparent is unsettling.

There's a lack of charity that's had its roots in our church for a long time. Sometimes we've seemed free of it, only to have it wake up with a vengeance when something we treasure is threatened. Then it lashes out again, and in such times it's much easer to see where its tendrils have been choking us all along—where we've refused to believe the best about anyone other than ourselves (and those who agree with us), shown no concern for those who may be different from us (even as we laud examples of people who like us), and remained focused to the point of obsession on our needs and wants. In its grip, our imaginations can atrophy to fit inside the borders of our cramped personal dramas.

Loving others costs us something, and we're afraid of paying those costs or following God anywhere where we might lose anything. That's bad news for following, because those are usually the places He wants to go. Our stuff isn't as important as our charity (whatever our stuff may be), and if we co-opt good and beautiful things into barriers toward charity, God may well remove them out of love for others and, quite frankly, of us. God's Church doesn't love Him or anyone else well when we're just trying to hold onto the things we're afraid of losing, and He doesn't love us well if He lets us keep going that way.

Nov. 6th, 2010


Not that different

While telling a story, I caught myself laughing at the end and was reminded of how I sometimes find that habit annoying in others. Fact is, I probably do it all the time. Fact is, I'm not that different.

Our church has long struggled with an idolatry of being different or "doing church different(ly)." Some of this, no doubt, comes from starting as a church plant just over a decade ago—to even have a reason to exist, there was a pull to find identity in our distinctive qualities. Our mission, likewise, was often put in terms of "getting it" and helping others "get it." Indeed, the gospel itself is news that transforms by the power of the Holy Spirit—Jesus is making all things new. But even that newness and difference isn't Jesus; it's only fruit, and we get in trouble if we worship it.

Idolatry of how different we are can really hobble us. We can look snidely at others' efforts to be faithful, and sometimes, perhaps, there's even a fear that their successes may make us less special as those who see/do things differently. We can become extremely conservative about our cutting edge-ness, finding ourselves unable to imagine other approaches and points of view than the ones we've come to love. Once "I can't imagine" becomes part of our vocabulary, our view of God and everything grows sorely limited. And anyone who doesn't see it our way doesn't "get it"—one of the harshest indictments we idolaters of difference can bring to bear.

I'm stunned by how deeply this idolatry of difference has seeped into my life, and I suspect I'm only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It's huge. Likewise, even though lots of its symptoms have been relatively quiet in our church over the last few years, it's still there, rooted in some deep and unexpected ways. When those roots attach themselves to legitimate and important concerns, they're so much harder from which to be ripped free.

We can't risk throwing out our hearts with the idols that have entangled them, yet neither can we leave our idols undisturbed in an effort to protect our hearts, for they will surely kill us if we do. Only the Great Physician can perform the surgery we need to survive, and even then it may well hurt.

In the process, He will likely make use of His Word and His Church. We'll need to listen well, not only for those things that comfort, but also for those things that put us "under the knife." I'm no fan of hard things for their own sake or using difficulty as a measure of truth—I've seen way too much abuse under such auspices. But if we who need surgery seek only our own safety and comfort, we will never be made well. In one instance, Jesus asks someone if he wants to be healed (John 5:6); perhaps this is part of the reason why.

By the same token, the antidote to the poisons brought into us by our idolatry of difference may be terribly ordinary. Doesn't that make sense? Ordinary doesn't mean abdication of truth, beauty, and glory; if this were so, the gospel would have little to offer. But we may be called to accept that we're never going to be lauded by the masses, that no one will be drawn to us because of how special we are, that faithfulness may not make us heroes. Our friends may not be that interesting, our family may not be a model, our work may not be our passion, our commitments may not be riveting, our communities may not be filled with only the people we'd pick, and those in authority over us may not be performing up to our expectations. And that might just be part of the cure.

Can we submit to that, out of trust in our Physician? Do we want to be healed? Do I?

Sep. 23rd, 2010


"Seek my face"

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
     be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
     “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”

—Psalm 27:7-8

Some of the times I am most centered, sane, and honest are just after I wake up in the middle of the night (though honesty can often trump sane and centered). This time, I awoke with God's command clear in mind: "Seek My face." Couldn't help but think of all the other faces I seek instead, some with good intention and too many with evil, and was troubled with where God was (and wasn't) on that list.

I'm nearly always seeking someone's face, but so rarely God's. There are many ways I can tell myself I'm believing Him, trusting Him, being faithful to Him, or following Him, yet seeking His face is so far from my mind, heart, and practice most of the time, to the point where even imagining what that means is startling. Wanted to say it's "disorienting," but the exact opposite is true—it's so completely orienting that it makes me wonder where I am and where I've been.

Now is a great time to be oriented, to seek His face. I'm faced with so much I don't know, so many blanks to fill in, much to grieve and many wounds to tend—a place where fear and insecurity are far more readily accessible than faith and hope. What faces have I been seeking to get me through—today, this week, for a long time? I'm not proud of the answers, and they form an honest center of a confession of my sin to Him. Thankfully, He wants to hear it, my forgiveness is already purchased by Jesus, and His call is the same: "Seek My face." Your face, Lord, do I seek.

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