Sunday, April 6, 2014

God, Abraham, and Isaac

I've been chewing on Genesis 22 for a few weeks.  It tells of God's command to Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering to Him.  As the story goes, or at least from what we can tell from the text, Abraham obeys without question and proceeds to take Isaac up the mountain where he will sacrifice him to God.  He even has Isaac carry the wood!  When Isaac questions his father about where the lamb is for the burnt offering, Abraham tells him that "God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." (v.8)  Abraham builds the altar, lays the wood down, and binds Isaac.  And just as he is about to go through with it, an angel of the Lord stops him and God provides a ram for Abraham to offer instead.

This has long been one of the most disturbing passages of scripture for me.  I've never been comfortable with it.  I think we're supposed to marvel at Abraham's faith.  And I think we're supposed to understand it as a foreshadowing of how God ultimately sacrifices his own son, Jesus, and actually goes through with it for our sake.  But I've been trying to imagine what was going on for Abraham.  And what is the big picture universal message for us that we need to hear and understand?

From previous chapters, we know that Abraham and his wife Sarah were unable to conceive a child.  But God promises to Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son who will be their heir.  And not only that, but that Abraham will be the father of a multitude of nations.  Abraham is 99 years old and Sarah is super post-menopausal when God does the impossible and Sarah gets pregnant.  So Isaac, the promised one who very clearly is a miraculous gift from God, is born when Abraham is 100!

That's the context.  Absolutely nuts!  But we don't get too much else between the moment of birth to the moment of this sacrifice story.  So I've tried to imagine what life is like for Abraham.  I imagine a father who loves his son with all his heart.  But who maybe is so afraid to lose him or not raise him well that he places crazy restrictions on him.  I imagine an overprotective father who is afraid of losing his precious gift of a son in a time of high infant mortality, and no modern medicine, while sojourning in unknown lands.  I imagine a father who freaks out if his son is climbing a dangerous looking tree, or standing too close to a ledge, or hanging around potentially bad influences.  I imagine a father who tries hard to make every little mistake that Isaac makes into a teachable moment.  And the more I thought of how Abraham may have viewed Isaac, the more I felt I could relate.  I'm like that with Lucas sometimes, especially after Nathan died.  Understandable.  I think I've gotten better.  I used to be worse.

So what are we supposed to take away from this crazy story?  Ultimately, I believe that this story is about the necessity for people who have a relationship with God to trust him radically.  No.  We need to trust him extremely.  And part of being able to do that is to understand in a really deep way that everything good in our lives is a gift from God.  And then to be able to sacrifice, or lay at the altar, even the people in our lives that we don't think we could live without because we trust him to provide the lamb for the sacrifice.  He's already done it!

In the early days after the accident, I was consumed with fear and worry about how Lucas would turn out.  I imagined my son having two holes in his heart that would never be filled and would leave him crippled for life.  I stressed over every meal I prepared for him, agonizing over my inadequacies in the kitchen.  I sat him behind me whenever we were in the car together so that if something tragic should happen, it'd be more likely that we'd either both survive or we'd die together.  To this day, he sits behind me 95% of the time, more out of habit than fear.  I'm a work in progress.  I trust Lucas in God's hands a little more with each passing season.  I frequently lay him at the altar before God (figuratively, of course!) and pray a prayer that declares my trust in God to provide everything Lucas needs and everything I need as a parent.  It's a prayer that exhorts my own heart to trust more.

One of the great challenges of faith is acknowledging that we are limited in our ability to control our lives.  Then after acknowledging our limitations, we have to relinquish that sense of control and trust in our sovereign God.  In this light, I think the role parents play in the lives of their children provides the most difficult context in which we are called to trust God radically.  Why?  Because it is the role in which a person is most likely to feel that they can have total control over someone else's life - even more than their own.  It is the role that carries the biggest responsibility for discipleship.  And it is the role that provides the greatest temptation and easiest access to trespass inappropriately in another soul's very being.  When things with your kid seem to be spinning out of your control, or they make some bad decisions, it is extremely easy for a parent to freak out, punish disproportionately, pass on their fears to their child, and ultimately distrust and dishonor God.  I think the challenge to radically trust God is especially hard for single parents like me who feel 100% of the weight of responsibility for their child's development and well-being.

Aside from my experience as a single parent, as a teacher I also see the effects of overbearing parents who try to exert too much control over their kids.  So many kids are stressed out of their minds and look so miserable.  So many kids push back hard (understandably in some cases) and rebel because they are being trespassed against so badly by their parents.  And I see the effects of the opposite, too; parents who are not involved enough.  So many kids who do not know their own value because their parents are too busy to care.  So many kids who try to find their value and affirmation from all the wrong places and who are obsessed with being cool.  Being a parent is such a difficult balancing act.  And what makes it even harder is that you have to continuously recalibrate where that balancing point is because your children are continuously growing and becoming more independent.  It is hard to trust God with your kids.  But it is so very important and life-changing, for you and your kids, if you do.

So back to the why question of this story.  I think it's the ultimate lesson of submitting to God, relinquishing control, seeing the special people God has placed in your life as gifts, and proclaiming radical/extreme trust in the God who actually went through with the sacrifice of his only son.  It doesn't make the story any less difficult to digest.  I still don't like it and there are aspects of it that nauseate me.  But I get why it's important.  And I hope and pray that God continues to help me with the special role he's given me as Lucas' dad.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Already, but Not Yet....but ALREADY!!!

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Jerry Sittser give a talk on "Adversity as Spiritual Formation" at Biola University.  Some of you know that Dr. Sittser's book, A Grace Disguised, helped me work through my grief and pain more than any other.  In it, he shares of his own journey through tragic loss (in a drunk driving accident he lost three generations of family; his mother, his wife, and his daughter).  As I sat there listening to this hero and fellow sojourner, I was struck by how little he shared about how God's promise to "make all things new" helps him to move forward in faith.  Come to think of it, I don't think he talked about heaven at all.  For me, the promises of Revelation 21.1-5 have been ones that I've been so blessed by.  But for a while now, I've also been aware of an imbalance in my faith life.  For every Christian, there is this dual reality of the Already and the Not Yet.  In other words, Jesus' death and resurrection as well as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit gives the Christian many aspects of the faith life that we can experience right now.  But there are also some things that are promises that we will not see realized and for which we remain in a perpetual state of longing until that Great Day.  As I said, I've been aware of an imbalance in my life. I am inclined to lean too much towards the Not Yet and not enough in the Already.  This post is about three things that together has helped my paradigm shift to one that is more in balance.

The first is a brief conversation that I had with Dr. Sittser after his talk.  I approached him, thanked him for his insights, and shared briefly of the eerily similar tragedy that I suffered six years ago.  Then I mentioned to him that I was struck by how his entire talk centered on the present and how he didn't really talk about heaven or God's promises of the ultimate redemption to come.  And he said something that I didn't quite understand at the time, but have been chewing on since.  He said something like, "Mark, first of all, don't get me wrong.  I believe in God's promises and future glory and all of that.  But I don't look at heaven as some far away place that we have to keep pushing towards.  I look at it in the opposite way.  I look at heaven as something that is moving towards us."

The second, and in true chiastic form (the meat of the sandwich - though the bread of this sandwich is pretty darn good, too!) probably the most important thing that I've been chewing on is a part of the Lord's prayer (Matthew 6.9-13) that our Life Group (weekly bible study/fellowship time) studied a couple of weeks ago.  Verse 10 says, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  I was struck that in this brief little verse, heaven is characterized as the place in which God's will is always done.  That's what makes it heaven.  And I realized that we see glimpses of it all around us, if we have the eyes to see it.  God's will is done sometimes here on earth, and when it is we catch a glimpse of what heaven's going to be like.  This revelation has made me want to participate all the more in being Jesus' hands and feet to a world that is so dark and needs his love so badly.  I want to be a part of this!  Don't you?!

Almost immediately after the revelation from the Lord's prayer, I came across the story of a young woman named Sarah.  I cannot do justice to her story and if anybody who reads this wants to read about it as she tells it, let me know.  She tells it beautifully.  But in short, Sarah is a breast cancer survivor.  And from her own words, I read about her excruciating journey and how she lost almost everything important to her and moved 3,000 miles away from her comfort zone just to start over because she couldn't bear being in a place that constantly reminded her of all that she had lost.  But that's not the end of her story.  Two years after moving, on a chance encounter on a train, her life crossed paths with the lives of a refugee single mother and her five children.  And somehow God helped her to see how deeply her story and their stories are intertwined.  She was able to see a common thread of marginalization and suffering.  And after requesting and getting their contact information, Sarah chose to love them with Christ's committed hesed love.  Though they no longer live in the same state, she is still committed (4 years later?) to caring for them.  Again, I'm not doing her story justice, but I hope you can see how beautiful it is!

So Dr. Sittser starts this whole madness by telling me something that I didn't really understand.  The Word comes in and clarifies.  Then Sarah's testimony confirms that we can see the kingdom coming right now, even in the midst of loss and pain!

I've since had my blindness continue to be healed as I've seen other beautiful ways that the kingdom is coming.  I think of my friend, Marcos, who along with his wife Bridget just formally adopted three children who they were loving through foster care.  I think of God's kindness in answering my desperate prayers for my dad, who passed away in December.  I think of miraculous openings to share my journey with those who needed to hear it.  I think of how God's love is revealed in the life of my church and the ways that we love each other and try to reach those who are lost.  So many ways, big and small, that the kingdom is already here.  It's no doubt hard to see in a world that is so broken.  Forget about the world.  If you are at all self-aware it is hard to see in the midst of your own brokenness.  But it's there to see.  If you can't see it, maybe you can ask God to help you see.  It's quite a sight!

Friday, January 31, 2014


I spoke, albeit very, very briefly, about Grace in my talk.  Here's a little bit more about it, sung beautifully by U2.  Bono's words about Grace and karma that you see at the end of the video say even more.

"She carries a pearl in perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.
Grace finds beauty in everything.
Grace finds goodness in everything."

I'm looking forward to being that pearl in perfect condition.  I'm on my way...

Monday, January 20, 2014

Life: An Unexpected Journey

The following is the text of a talk that I gave on Thursday, January 16th at my school.  I am amazed and humbled to have had the opportunity to share a bit of my journey and hope that it will help at least one student or even one colleague in their own.  I saw the talk as an offering that I was giving to the Lord with Open Hands.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the

Life: An Unexpected Journey

First, a word about the prayer that you see on the screen. This is part of something that is commonly known as the Serenity Prayer. It’s probably most often seen at Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings where I believe they recite it together at the beginning of each meeting. It’s a prayer that is an admission by those who pray it that there are certain things that they cannot change or control (their addiction), and that there are also things that they can (their choices). But as is the nature of prayer, it is an expression of hope and faith that there is a personal and loving God who will hear them, and not only hear them but help them! During this past summer I came upon this prayer. And though I am not addicted to alcohol or drugs, I felt intimately connected to it. I felt that I could relate to the truth that there are things that I could not control and things that I could, and that there is a loving God that I believe in who will help me in my daily journey through life. I printed and taped the Serenity Prayer up on my bedroom wall and pray through it every day.

Speaking in front of a crowd of this magnitude is not something that I am accustomed to doing. But I do feel that I have some insights on dealing with the unexpected journey that life can be that I hope you will find helpful today or perhaps someday down the road. As a teacher, it is always my passion to pass along what I know to others that their lives might be enriched. If there is even one of you here today that either takes comfort in what I share or is positively challenged by it, then I will feel that this risk to share about a significant part of my life will have been worth it.

On January 1st, 2008, as we were coming home from a family gathering, the minivan that I was driving along with my wife, Midi, and twin 4-year old sons Lucas and Nathan, was violently struck on the passenger side by a drunk driver speeding through a red light. Midi died almost instantly. And my sweet boy, Nathan, after being declared brain dead and suffering life-ending internal injuries, died in my arms in the wee hours of the following morning. The pain and suffering that I have endured since that awful day are indescribable. The injustice of it all is profound. The magnitude of loss is beyond measure.

There is so much I can share about my life as it relates to this tragedy. But what can I tell you in this short amount of time?
  • ●  I could share with you about the pain of loneliness and isolation and struggling with the feeling that no one could possibly understand what I’ve been through or am going through.
  • ●  I could share about how insecure and inadequate I sometimes feel as a single parent and how I overcome those times
  • ●  I could share about how in the first two years of great instability I did damage to 7 different significant relationships in my life and how, thank God, they have all been restored.
  • ●  I could lead you in a discussion about how people deal with their brokenness and insecurities (whether conscious of them or not) by a variety of overcompensation techniques. And I could share with you how I do that sometimes and how I overcome it when I catch myself doing it.
  • ●  I could share about how I choose to forgive the man who killed them. And I could also tell you that forgiveness is hard and how sometimes you have to do it over and over. And then I could tell you about the power of forgiveness and how much greater it is than anger, resentment, and bitterness.
    ●  I could talk about how Grace is greater than Karma. That, as Aslan says in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “there is a deeper magic.”
  • ●  I could spend all day talking to you about how wonderful Midi was and how she touched so many lives because she had the gift of being able to see how every person was made in God’s image, no matter how messed up they seemed to be. I could share with you how I pursued her with steadfast love and eventually won her heart, though she was way out of my league!
  • ●  I could tell you about how much joy it gave me to be the father of my twin boys, how smart, sweet, and intuitive Nathan was, and how much I miss him.
  • ●  I can tell you about my amazing son, Lucas! I can tell you about how I and others marvel at who he is and who he is becoming. I can tell you how much joy it gives me to have him in my life and how much I love being his daddy.
  • ●  Icouldtellyouabouthowlovingbrothersandsisterswalk alongside me, suffer with me, cry with me, pray for me, and patiently love me. And I can tell you about how important it is to have community who you can count on like I do.
  • ●  I can tell you how dangerous an obsessive focus on yourself and your own problems is and how I believe that this kind of self-focus can lead to mental illness and profound darkness.
  • ●  I can tell you how I also lost a daughter - the daughter that we were in the process of adopting.
  • ●  I can share with you how I’ve come to peace with questions like, “How could a loving God allow this to happen?” or the general, “Why do bad things happen to ‘good’ people?”
  • ●  I can share about the illusion of control that we all seem to have about life. Though we are in many ways the captain of our own ships, to think that we can control the water or the wind is laughable.

    So what do I want to leave you with?

People often marvel at how healthy I’ve been and wonder how it is possible for me to be so strong, courageous, and hopeful after what I have been through. Well, the answer to this goes back to March 14, 1992. That is the day that I decided to accept the gift of life offered to me by Jesus. That is the day that I became a Christian while seeking something that I could build the foundation of my life on. While I understand that the word “Christian” can be charged with some negative connotations for some of you and perhaps some prejudice on your part, for me becoming one was the ultimate turning point of my life. So the answer to how I have responded and in some ways even thrived since 2 of the 3 most precious people in my life were taken away from me goes back to that critical decision and the relationship with God that has grown since then. You see, my life is built on something that won’t change no matter what the circumstances. My roots are deep. And so I cannot be permanently shaken or knocked off course.

If we are honest, we should all be able to acknowledge that we all depend on things, or people, or institutions that can change, even if they don’t intend to or promise not to. Even the people who you love the most can change or your relationship with them could change. So many of you are children of divorced parents whose affection and commitment towards each other changed. Many of you have experienced your own heartache already in relationships that have fallen apart. Many of you have even lost people you loved and who you thought would be in your life much, much longer. But you don’t really have to look far or even to things so intense to know how your own heart changes. You yourself make promises to yourself that you sometimes cannot will yourself to keep! You’ve all
broken resolutions you’ve made to yourself. You’ve all given in to some temptation to do or think of something destructive to yourself or others. So I want to challenge you to build your own life on something solid that will not change (i.e. NOT yourself or others), regardless of the crazy twists and turns your life takes.

Another thing I would like to leave you with to reflect on is Gratitude. Gratitude is so powerful. I am so grateful for the years I shared with Midi and Nathan. I am incredibly blessed to have been married to such an amazing woman and to have been the father of such a precious son. It is easy to focus on the injustice of what happened. And make no mistake: It was horribly unjust. But I choose to focus on gratitude. The only way that you can be grateful for anything is if you do not believe that you deserve it and that it is a gift. A sense of entitlement is the absolute enemy of gratitude. Midi and Nathan were gifts to me from a loving and generous God. I didn’t deserve them. But I got to have them anyway. They touched my life more than words can express. And because I know that I didn’t do anything to deserve them I can be grateful to the God who I believe gave them to me, even as they are gone too soon.

Finally I want to share with you about living life with Open Hands. This is my posture towards God. And what the posture represents to me is two things: 1. With open hands I offer everything to him. I offer my pain, loneliness, fear, sadness, insecurities, hopes, desires, passions, dreams. 2. With open hands I open my heart fully trusting to continue to receive from a loving father peace, comfort, security, joy, strength to forgive, strength to move forward, strength to love. Living with Open Hands is in contrast to living with Grasping Hands or Clenched Fists where one tries to grab and fill and take what they think they need to survive out of a place of insecurity and pain. And unfortunately, it is the easier and more natural path that we all consciously or unconsciously take.

Do not misunderstand my journey. It has not been all “pie in the sky.” I regularly experience and acutely feel the pain of loss and all that comes with it. And it’s not only my pain that I feel. I feel the pain of others more than I ever did before I experienced my own. But I’ve learned how to give and receive with Open Hands. That is how I have managed to survive as I have. I, like each one of us, am a work in progress. It’s not like I’m permanently in a place where I’ve moved past everything. I regularly have to make the choice to
● forgive rather than be bitter
● hope rather than despair
● live with Open Hands rather than Grabby Hands/Clenched 

While we cannot control everything around or even inside of us, we do have the power to make choices in the way we respond. So you can see why I put the Serenity Prayer up and why it means so much to me. I guess in some ways I need that daily reminder to trust and that daily admission that I need help and can’t do it on my own, but that God has my back!

Though I hope that none of you will ever experience tragedy, especially of the magnitude that I have, I sincerely hope that what I’ve shared with you today is a blessing to you all!

Thank you. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Glorious Unfolding

This song, the whole album really, has really ministered to me lately.  Thanks Steven Curtis Chapman!