Tag Archives: spirituality

Want Joy? Try Risk.

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The table was full of half eaten Italian food. We bantered back and forth, the small talk masking a torrent of anxious thought. She smiled and fidgeted with her silverware. I pulled on my bow-tie, shaking it side to side while downing copious amounts of lemon infused water. The small velvety box pressing against my side from it’s hiding place in my jacket sent waves of nervous energy quaking through my young body. Beads of sweat collected on my brow as I contemplated “the question” that pulsated in my thoughts.

The story is a beautiful memory for me, because on that night I took a big risk and asked Janet to marry me. The risk really wasn’t that she would say no. We had been ring shopping and talking marriage for some time, as people young and in love have a way of doing. I suppose that something could have gone wrong, but the truth is she knew I was going to ask and I knew that she would say yes.

No, the real risk was a choice to make this union the defining human relationship of our lives. It was a magnificent leap into the unknown years ahead, with a person I was really only beginning to know. The risk was to choose this companion for this greatest of journeys, one in which we would know ecstasy, joy, happiness, sorrow, pain, misery, uncertainty and ultimately death. It was either a youthful blunder into a terrible trap or the most fortuitous discovery and subsequent decision we ever made.

As I think about that night and that decision to leap into life together, I am overcome with gratitude. I’m grateful that I saw, and not because of my excellent vision mind you, the opportunity before me. It was a risk for sure, but even more so it was a chance to bet it all on the hope of future joy.

I meet so many people who are looking for joy but are unwilling or unable to take risks. These are people who suffer from the “What If” disease. “What if it doesn’t work out?”, “What if something better comes along?” “What if I lose control?”. The anxiousness of their thoughts so clouds their ability to see opportunity for joy when it’s lying right in front of them.

A few days ago I was reading the Bible where Jesus is trying to explain what life is like when God is the most important relationship you have. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his friends this:

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Jesus is saying that something magical and mysterious happens when you see the reality of the kingdom of heaven. When you see what is really happening in the world for the first time, when you first suspect that the world is a place made by a good God and that this God is in charge of everything, your priorities begin to shift. When you first realize that this God, who sees you for who you are, is in fact speaking to you saying , “Stop trying to live for yourself by your own rules. Lay down your life, your preferences, your ideas about how things should go and follow me instead.” what is important in life gets turned upside down. When you understand and absorb and take into the core of your being that this God wants to give you life, not just for a few years but forever, you will never be the same. Jesus says when a person suddenly realizes all of this truth about himself, the world and God, everything changes. He says discovering it is like finding a hidden treasure. The man who truly finds the great treasure of life, which is life in through and with Jesus, will abandon every other pursuit to recklessly bet it all on this one relationship.

What strikes me about this story that Jesus tells is that the man who sees the treasure must take a great risk to keep the treasure. He must make that treasure, that truth about God and the world the most central reality of his life. He is defined by the fact that he found that treasure.

But my favorite part of Jesus’ line is “Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has”. You see this man who sees the unbelievable treasure of life with God realizes that real joy requires real risk.

My life has been so rich because I took a huge risk and asked Janet to marry me. She is an amazing partner on this journey and I am blessed by our life together. But there is a joy bigger than marriage. It is a joy that comes when you risk everything and put your hope in Jesus. It will cost you everything and you will gain more than you can ever comprehend.

Here’s to a life of risk and joy.

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The Flickering Heart

The stickers were cold as the nurse pressed them onto my chest. There were twelve in all, each one tethered to the computer screen by a plastic grey wire. She flipped a switch, the monitor flickered to life and I saw the undulations of my heart beating. I felt a sudden nervousness as my mortality and physicality literally flashed before my eyes. In that moment I sensed the fragility of my humanity. For a moment I considered that the lines shooting up and down on the screen were awfully small and that perhaps their pattern wasn’t quite normal. In a panic I thought “What if the doctor finds something?” 

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When the stress test was over I walked to the other side of the small medical clinic to meet with the doctor and receive my results. On the way I passed an elderly gentleman, shuffling to his appointment, his skin wrinkled and his gait impaired by a wearing of the years. As he passed, a clear and sobering thought entered my thoughts. “One day you will receive the news that your body is failing. Maybe not today or this year but one day it will happen.” The emotion that came next surprised me. I felt a strange calmness wash over me as I sat down in the waiting room chair. “One day” I thought. 

Why the calmness? I think that the Prayer of Moses recorded in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures provides an answer. 

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”

For a thousand years in your sight

are but as yesterday when it is past,

or as a watch in the night.

– Psalm 90:1-4 (ESV)

This part of the prayer provides a perspective on all of life. The Creator of all things has always been. Before the first wave crashed on the first beach or the first bird flapped his wing or before one beat of my heart flickered to life, the Lord God, Maker of Heaven and Earth existed and was life. He didn’t just create life, he was and is life. Nothing about Him has changed. He is our “dwelling place” because he is the source of life of protection and of certainty.

The contrast between His reality and mine is shocking. The one who always was and who will always be, returns “man to dust”. Dust. Dirt. Inanimate brown soil.

A thousand years, ten life-times for the fortunate person, are “as a watch in the night”. My life is so brief.

Why does this perspective bring a euphoric calmness ? The second half of the Psalm answers.

“So teach us to number our days

that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Return, O LORD! How long?

Have pity on your servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,

that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

-Psalm 90:13-14 (ESV)

I think that I felt calm for two reasons. First, because it is right and good to “number our days”. As I saw the fragility of my life and recognized its brevity I also saw truth. My life is short in the scheme of things. When we number our days we see our life before God with a correct perspective. He is big and we are small. In this realization I can make decisions appropriately given my place. When I see myself as small I am more apt to see the largeness of God and to be at peace with whatever he sends in my direction. When I feel small and sense the brevity of existence I am in a position to more easily see others as fragile creatures who, like me, fall short of perfection.

Second, I felt peace because the story doesn’t end with me. The Psalmist says “Return, O LORD!” The story of life is God’s story not mine. My days are part of something bigger than myself. The story is that there is a King who will “satisfy us in the morning with [his] steadfast love.” He is the King who made everything who will one day return to rule his people and to live among us. He is a good King, full of love, full of pity for his servants.

When I see the flickering of my heart beat I see a fragile creation. I feel appropriately small in the moment I pass the old man and realize that soon I too will shuffle down the hallway, wrinkled and broken. I also feel peace because there is a story bigger than me and a Savior ushering me into a life beyond the beating of my heart.

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King Julian’s Prayer

This morning I woke up thinking about my daughter. She is six years old. I am on a work trip away from home and when my mind is at ease it goes where my thoughts are the most untroubled, plain and joyful. In the fogginess of morning drifting into consciousness I felt a smile on my face as I thought of her.

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The thought was specific, especially for someone like me who rarely remembers my dreams. I imagined her repeating a line from one of her favorite movies, “Madagascar 3”. There is a scene where King Julian, king of the lemurs, falls madly in love with Sonja, a circus bear from Russia. After a brief romance, Julian passionately recounts his love for Sonja and inadvertently conveys a profound truth about life. He says, “Sonja, I don’t want to be king anymore. I was so caught up in who you was and who I was, but all that really matters is what we smell like together.” Now my quotation lacks the hilarious accent and inflection that Madeline gives it when she goes around quoting this line. My first thought this morning was of her saying this and my response which is always deep laughter. It was a good way to start the day.

Julian’s words are funny, both in the movie and when my daughter repeats them. They are also powerful and convicting. You know the truth is, that line is a beautiful prayer.

Sonja, I don’t want to be king anymore. I was so caught up in who you was and who I was, but all that really matters is what we smell like together.

I often catch myself wanting to be king. I want to be in charge of my life. I want to run things and manipulate the world around me so that I can be powerful or comfortable or relevant. In my mind I am often the center of the world. That’s why I get upset when I am mistreated or situations fail to work out the way I plan.

 But being king is exhausting. Ultimately, being king will kill me. This is where Julian’s line becomes a prayer for me. “Lord, I don’t want to be king anymore.” What an excellent thing to say to my Father in Heaven. He is the King. He is in control. As I pray that line from Madagascar 3, I feel the burden of building my own fiefdom melt away from my soul. I feel this amazing freedom to let go. I realize that I am not built to manipulate my world and that power, comfort and relevance are not objectives that bring me life. Instead they bring a slow, painful death. I don’t want to be king.

 Like Julian, I am also so caught up in who I am. In many ways I am enamored with myself. I view most situations from my perspective rarely stepping back to perceive circumstances from the King’s point of view. But like being king, being caught up in myself is deadly too. Actually it is a boring way to live. I am so limited in my view and my ability to see what is real.

The next part of Julian’s spiel is my favorite. I have a hyperactive olfactory sense. I smell things a mile away and it drives my wife crazy. Julian says, “All that really matters is what we smell like together.” The truth is I stink. The Scriptures say that my sin and rebellion is like a horrendous stench rising up to heaven. On my own I cannot please God or offer him anything.

The beautiful thing about the Gospel is that my detestable, putrid smell is washed over by the incredibly sweet aroma of Jesus’ sacrifice. The smell that rises from the cross where Jesus died in my place is pleasing to God. When my life is absorbed by Jesus’ life “what we smell like together” has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Jesus. He is the faithful one. He is the only one who lived rightly and pleased God. In the end all that really matters “is what we smell like together.”

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The Ruck

“Ruck up men.”, the beady eyed Ranger Instructor bellowed. The air was crisp, the mood tense as I slung the hundred pound green pack over my head and slid my arms into the web straps. The pack creaked as the weight settled onto my back. Shock waves of pain shot down my arms as the straps dug into my shoulders. This was just a taste of the discomfort to come.

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It was the year 2000 and I was a Ranger Student in the second of three phases at the U.S. Army’s Ranger school, a 61 day experience designed to teach leadership and small unit tactics. This was the Mountain Phase, and along with the thirty other men in 2nd platoon I “rucked up” or put on my very large Army issue backpack to begin the first of many patrols in the mountainous terrain of Dahlonega in Northern Georgia.

A patrol is the military’s term for a long, miserable walk in the woods. The Army has a way of transforming any enjoyable experience into a nightmare. This little jaunt in the forest was no exception. We climbed the intensely steep mountains all day and most of the night. To avoid detection, hiking on trails and talking was strictly forbidden. I still have a scar on my left hand from the thorns that ripped into my skin that day as we clawed our way through the underbrush. Each group of 9 men, called a squad, was responsible for carrying a collective amount of equipment, weapons and supplies to the “objective”, a point in the woods where we fought a simulated battle with another group of soldiers pretending to be enemy combatants. Each Soldier hauled his own food, water, extra clothes and other provisions. Additionally, the squad distributed the shared equipment, like machine guns, extra ammunition and medical supplies. Survival meant working together. Mission success depended upon the entire group of men and equipment arriving to the objective, ready to fight.

After weeks of long walks like this I learned lots of important lessons about walking in the woods but one stands out.

Never carry more or less than you need. 

In life, as in patrolling, we mustn’t carry more than we need for our journey. Things have a way of weighing people down. Despite what the world will tell you it is entirely possible to have too much.

I recently shared a meal with a very rich man. He has everything in the way of material possessions and yet he is a lonely person. His wealth causes him to be suspicious of everyone. He has many servants and few friends. He has lots of money and no one to spend it on. His is a miserable existence. His rucksack is too heavy.

I also know people who don’t have enough. In the poorer communities near our house I meet people who struggle to provide the basic necessities for survival. Their rucksack is too light.

If my wealthy friend and my poor friends were in a Ranger squad the answer would be simple. Those with heavy packs would let those with lighter packs carry some of the load. There would be this intense focus on the mission, on arriving to the objective together. There would be an innate understanding that the stuff in our rucks is there to help us accomplish our mission. The equipment has no value unless it is used for it’s intended purpose.

But somehow in the church we miss this simple lesson. Some of us strain and buckle under the weight of our money and possessions while others struggle to scrape together the basic necessities to survive.

Why?

I think it’s because we lose sight of our mission.

We are a people on the narrow road, sojourning towards the new heaven and the new earth. This is our reality, yet we often live as a people who have no where to go.  We are a missional people, called to move together, follow our Jesus and invite others to join us.

I love the story of Jesus’ encounter with the blind man named Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus and his followers are on a journey to Jerusalem. Bartimaeus is one of many spectators sitting along the side of the road. As Jesus passes by, the blind man calls out to Jesus, “Son of David have mercy on me!” The disciples and the crowd try to shut him up. They are embarrassed because he is making a scene. Suddenly, Jesus stops. He turns to face the blind beggar and tells him to come. Without a second hesitation, Bartimaeus leaps up, leaving his cloak behind and runs to meet Jesus who heals him. The thing that really gets me about this story is that Bartimaeus leaves his only possession, a cloak, behind. He follows Jesus with nothing. He is a man on a journey.

I am inspired by my memories of Ranger patrols to live as one on a mission. My prayer is that Jesus would cause me to thirst for him so that I see my life properly as one on the narrow road. I pray that he gives me the wisdom and the courage to pack appropriately.

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New

When I was a child my parents bought our first new car. I was five or six years old. I do not remember much about the event except for the smell. It was that fresh aroma of virgin carpet, metal and molded plastic that cannot ever be replicated. It is a scent that refuses to return regardless of the most valiant effort to scrub the coffee and fast food stains out of the carpet. It is yours to experience for a brief time until you ruin it by subjecting the newness to real life. Mundane habit and activity will transform what is new and wonderful into something old and smelly in a shorter amount of time than you think possible.

I long to live in a world where everything is new. I’m 35 and when I look in the mirror I’m often dissatisfied. I want to be 25 again. So I join the gym and work feverishly to regain what the years and my habits have stolen. Of course even in my most disciplined years, all the striving never results in a cure.

Sometimes I wish my relationships were new. I have this longing to return to the pristine beginning when every conversation is exciting and encouraging. I dream of a time before the wear and tear of life exposed the deep flaws in my personality. If you stick with any relationship long enough the facade of a person will fade away and you will be left with a real person with all of their strangeness and smelliness. I’m grateful for a wife that has seen the real me and chooses to love me anyway. Commitment like that is a rare and beautiful thing.

The truth is that we were made to long for what is new. Our thirst for bodies without sickness and relationships without turmoil is a God-given craving. It is a deep longing that can only be satisfied by God himself. Our own efforts to make ourselves or others new are futile and exhausting. The temptation is to think that we long for something that we once had and lost. This is a lie. The truth is that we never had what we longed for. Our longing is not for something we can recover from our past but rather something that we can experience in part in the present and fully in the future.

One of my favorite stories about our quest for newness is the account of Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ home four days after he died. He finds Lazarus’ family and friends weeping uncontrollably. Jesus is filled with compassion and weeps with his friends. Then he does the unthinkable. Jesus tells them to roll away the stone sealing Lazarus’ grave. Martha, Lazarus’ sister responds in horror saying, “Lord by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Martha knows that death brings irreversible decay of the body. She knows that any human effort to reverse these effects is futile. She is repulsed by the idea of smelling her brother’s decaying flesh.

Undeterred, Jesus moves towards the smell. He prays and tells Lazarus to “Come out!” and he does. In an instant the dead, decaying flesh is transformed into a living body. The wild reality is that this restoration was still only a hint of the newness to come. Lazarus eventually died again. The Scriptures tell us that those who call Jesus Lord should expect new bodies that will never suffer from sickness or death, a new heaven and a new earth where Jesus reigns and God’s people live in peace with one another. The new earth will be free from tragedy and chaos. It will be the world we long for and we will be the people we long to be. This is our hope.

As I think about all of my longings for new things I am gripped by this story. I am reminded that I cannot experience the scent of new life that I long for by cleaning myself or others up. Instead, I beg that Jesus would move toward my smelly life and into my smelly world and that he would make me into a new creation.

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The Braai Fire Communion

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One of my favorite traditions in South African culture is the building of a good braai fire. For those not familiar with the term, a braai is “a structure on which a fire can be made for the outdoor grilling of meat”. In the United States, especially in the South we might call this a grill or a barbecue. I prefer to call it a braai because although I just learned the term last year, it just sounds more significant.

As a man there is something inspirational about a structure that is made to hold fiery pieces of wood. The fact that it is also described as a place for the “grilling of meat” is an added bonus.

Braai is a complex word that can ambidextrously serve as a noun or a verb. You could say something like “Let’s build a fire on the braai.” or “Let’s braai.” Either way you are in for a good time.

In my experience the building of fire is a multi-purpose activity. It is one of the few diversions that passes for food preparation and entertainment. When we moved to South Africa last year my wife was pleased to discover that men regularly take over cooking duties when raw meat is involved. She did not protest when I invested a significant amount of money in all kinds of “braai accessories” to ensure that I fit into our new culture.

In the United States, “grilling” or “barbecuing” is a culinary activity normally reserved for weekends or holidays, not so in South Africa. Here, we braai whenever the mood strikes us. Meat cooked on an open flame? Yes, please.

The braai as a vehicle for entertainment is also quite noteworthy. My neighbor here in Stellenbosch once told me that “People will try to tell you that the national sport is rugby. It’s not. It’s one man telling another how to braai properly.” I have found this truth to be self-evident. I have witnessed and participated in many great debates about the proper way to stack wood, whether it is permissible to use a fire-starter brick, or how to determine when the coals are ready.

Whenever two men are together and there is “a structure on which a fire can be made for the outdoor grilling of meat” you can be sure that the men will not communicate until a fire is built. This is free advice for women out there. Men need an activity to facilitate talking. If you want to talk to a man suggest that he burn a pile of wood first. That’s why I think the braai is a perfect wedding gift.

The braai is good for my spiritual life too. One of my favorite places to connect with the Lord and with other people is around the fire. There is a calming and focusing quality to the activity of building and nurturing a fire. It provides enough activity to allow for pauses and silences that are needed for good conversation, but not too much distraction to draw attention away from people or from God. On a cool night a fire also causes people to draw close to the warmth it provides, softening the barriers of personal space, and moving people towards people. 

I look forward to building a fire tonight. In doing so I’ll make dinner, serve my wife, relax and hopefully have some great conversations too.

 

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Running Buddies

On most weekday mornings when I’m not traveling I workout at our local gym. This ritual is a holdover from my Army days when morning physical training was part and parcel of the military lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, I no longer rise at 5 am or run with a reflective belt. Instead, I’m content to move at a snail’s pace on the treadmill with my shirt-tail out while taking in a podcast or two. I miss the camaraderie of the Army morning routine but not the sore back that comes from running 5 days a week.

As my feet pounded the rubber surface I found myself reminiscing about younger running days. I found that most of my memories were purged of the pain and dread that comes with 5 mile compulsory runs. What remained were thoughts of people who suffered along with me. I thought of a particular fall day at West Point. I was 19 years old and decided to run the Marine Corps Marathon. The Academy required that any cadet who signed up for the marathon complete a 20 mile run as part of their training regimen.

Somehow I missed the organized 20 mile run with all the other participants. In typical Gabe Smith fashion I waited until the very last-minute before coming up with a plan to complete the requirement. I waited so long that it was nearly dark on the last day available to finish the 20 miles. My only option was to run on post from the cadet barracks to Thayer gate, a distance of 2 miles round trip. I needed to run that 2 mile loop 10 times.

I suited up in my preferred running attire, the classic yellow cadet rain jacket and black shorts. I was never known for my sense of fashion. At the last-minute I sent an email to some of my friends and told them what I was doing. As it turned out, this was the best decision I made all day.

Under the light of a setting sun I began the first 2 mile trip. When I returned to the starting point for trip number two, my friend Kevin was waiting for me. He ran the next two miles with me, encouraging me and distracting me from my pain. When we returned to the starting point my friend Joe was waiting. He ran the next two miles. Every 2 miles a new friend showed up to run with me.

I planned to run alone and even though I didn’t ask for their help, my friends knew me well enough to know that I needed their company. One of the things that the Lord is teaching me at this stage of life is that I’m not made to run alone. I’m made for community. Today I remember my Army buddies and I’m grateful for them. I’m also infused with a new sense of gratitude for the people who will encourage and do life with me today.

Lord, thank you for friends who run with me.

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Disappointed

This morning I woke up to find disappointment waiting for me. The details are unimportant. What matters is that in my first moments of waking consciousness I discovered a situation that stirred up dark emotions and thoughts lurking deep within my soul. In the end I was more disturbed by my response than by the situation that caused it.

The short, sanitized version is that something didn’t work out the way I planned.

In the hours since, I have wrestled with my feelings and ideas. My first inclination was an attitude of indignation. “Don’t they know who I am?”, I said to myself.  “I deserve better than this.”, I thought. “They owe me.”

Then the Lord spoke. “Am I not the giver of all things?”, he said. “Am I not the one who numbers the hairs on your head?”. “Is that a bald joke?” I asked.

He dug deeper.

“What are you afraid of?” asked the Lord.

That question brought the high euphoria of my indignation crashing down. Suddenly, the force of my emotion turned away from the one who did not meet my expectation. I saw the frailty of my heart. “I’m afraid that my plans will not work out.” I responded to the ever listening Lord. “What do your plans have to do with anything?” the Lord replied. Then he reminded me of words that have corrected and encouraged the people of God for thousands of years:

21  Many are the plans in the mind of a man,
but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.

I reflected on these 21 words. The Lord is so right. I have many plans. When they don’t work out the way I imagine, I often react in fear and anger. Why? I’m not exactly sure, but I think it has something to do with my memory.

I easily forget my place in the kingdom. I am not the King. I am a servant. I am a creation made to serve “the purpose of the Lord”. He reminded me today that His purpose will stand. He will succeed. My plans are irrelevant and small in the scheme of things.

I also forget his faithfulness. When I follow Jesus I have no reason to despair. I have no reason to become angry or fearful when my circumstances fail to conform to my particular version of the future. He is the Lord who is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the Lord who promised to give Abraham a son and did. He is the one who heard the cries of his people and rescued them out of Egypt. He is the one who sent his one and only son to die and to overcome death. He is the one who shows up again and again in my story. He is always faithful and right on time.

Finally, I forget that his Kingdom is coming and nothing can stop it. I have this image of the Kingdom coming like a forty-foot wave in Cape Town. I’m like the surfer who ludicrously paddles against the force of the swell. I’m struggling because I haven’t learned to ride the wave. I’m trying to go my way with my own ideas under my power. The Lord says “stop struggling and follow me.” “I will make a way where there seems to be no way”. “I will carry out the things I have set out to do.” “Rest and trust me.”

The weight of disappointment nearly crushed my spirit this morning. Now I receive it as from the Lord and I give thanks. Thank you God for disabling my impulse to control. Thank you Lord for giving me deeper faith in the place of fear. Thank you Lord for this disappointment which reminded me of your great faithfulness.

He is the Lord God Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth. He turns the night into day, death into life and my disappointment into thanksgiving. Great is the name of the Lord!

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