thoughts on christmas

I don’t know how I feel about Christmas. For the first time in my life, I suppose since I can remember, I am not all too excited. Some people might say that it’s because everything has become so commercialized. Others say that it’s because I’m getting old, thus becoming more cynical. (Old people, is that true?)

I’m not sure. But what I’ve always enjoyed about Christmas are the things I suppose I’ve always had: wonderful friends and family, much laughter and love. For me, this is a cheerful and joyous time. I get to see my loved ones and celebrate with tons of good games, food, and drink. I am blessed beyond a doubt.

This is not the case for everyone. This season can be especially hard for some, as it might serve as a painful reminder of what we do not have, or what we once had, now gone. Husbands and wives departed, kids you haven’t heard from in years. The loneliness is amplified, and broken pieces of ourselves are recycled. It can be a sort of bone-chilling emptiness.

But then one of my mentors told me something profound. He said that if we look hard enough to see beyond ourselves, perhaps we can begin to rediscover what this holiday is about–giving. If we can give, not just well-intended presents, but of our time and energy and hearts to meet the needs of those around us, then perhaps we would recapture the true spirit of Christmas. We would be modeling after the very Christ, who was sent to heal those who are hurting, mend the torn pieces, and bring life to things once dead.

I thought this was divine. Because if we all lifted our spoons to feed not ourselves but one another, then those with less would have more, and none of us would go hungry. And you don’t have to look far to see that the world is starving for our support, love, and attention.

What if God has chosen us to be a part of the remedy? What if we can bring Christmas to strangers and friends around us? What if we actually look to be Christ to those who do not know him?

For those of us who have been given much, this might seem like a tall order. The problems are plenty and overwhelming, and I don’t know where to begin sometimes. But I think upon Christ, about how God’s son exchanged all his heavenly riches to become human and understand our pain, and I guess that’s where I begin.

So, that’s my encouragement to you this year, by the way of my mentor. Pray to have eyes that are opened to the needs of those around you. Should you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find a way to seek and fulfill them.

Let us begin.

How I’m Spending My Twenties

Several months ago, I was passing time in a local bookstore scanning through random books. I remember picking up a woman’s memoir or self-help book of some sort, and I caught a quote from the back cover that has stuck with me ever since.

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

The words are simple but they sunk in heavy. It encapsulated how I felt for most of my twenties. I still remember my first day at my first job out of college. And all the other jobs after that. Yet I find myself here, at the beginning of June, and I can’t tell you how I got here. The years are short.

Oddly enough, when I’m catching up with old friends, I often find myself muttering the same words. If you were to ask me what’s new in my life, I’m not sure what to tell you. I’m kinda slow in the milestone department. No wife. No kids. No house. “Just work, that’s it.” The days are long.

It’s a weird time in life because I feel like I’m caught in the middle of two worlds. I have friends who have long settled into the next chapter of their lives, married with a kid or two in tow. (These are the ones responsible for half of my book sales–so thank you.) I also have friends who are still hanging onto the vestiges of their youth, playing the same cards until it’s out of their system–whatever that means. Me personally? I’m at a crossroads; I’m ready to board but my train hasn’t yet arrived.

There is a temptation to follow the paths of those who’ve gone before me. I wonder what it would be like to be a husband, to wake up early some mornings and cook her favorite breakfast or write her little notes, or how I’d have to think up something clever to make up for doing something stupid, which would probably be every other day. I also wonder what it would be like to be a father. My closest experience was found caring for my little cousin Justin for his first 13 years. Lord knows I would love to be a father.

But for whatever reason, it’s not now. So, in the meantime, I’m actively waiting.

Waiting…

And waiting.

There is something sublime that happens in this waiting period. For one, waiting puts you back in your place. You can’t always get everything you want, whenever you want. Waiting also benefits you in the end. It will intensify your joy and appreciation of that prized object when it does arrive.

I wrestled with this lesson a few weeks ago. Literally. I was rolling with my friends in jiu jitsu. It was my first time, and I wasn’t on the mat very long, but by the end of the night I was spent. I had exerted so much energy trying to attack, predict and defend against the opponent’s moves, but my friends pinned me easily, breaking little sweat. My friend Josh later pulled me aside. He said the ones who excel are not only sound technically, but also patient. Before they execute their moves, they would wait for opponents to make a mistake or tire themselves out. That’s what separates the good from the best. I thought that was rather poetic. Even in a physical, full-contact sport, there is a time and place for waiting.

The waiting room. It is a hard place to be in, no doubt, when most of my peers are jumping and sprinting to their next stages in career and family. But when I learn to embrace this place, it’s like there comes a serenity that falls upon me, wraps around my mind and holds my soul together.

I don’t know when my train will arrive. Some days I even wonder if. But I stopped looking at my watch. When I take the time to look around me, beyond me, the world opens up. There is so much more beauty than I ever cared to notice.

——

“It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst…and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry…you will someday.” – Lester 

Germany, Gospel and Last Samurai

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There are some trips you take that help you to recharge, perhaps to break away from normal routine if nothing more. Then there are others that exist to merely entertain and indulge your senses. Still there are a few that seem to mark your life in a significant way, trips from which you take away lessons or impressions that will stay with you long and true for the next leg of your journey.

When I initially flew out to Germany, I didn’t think it would be that kind of trip. After all, the primary reason for the visit was business, and I was spending only a week in town. I figured, if anything, I’d book an extra weekend so that I might actually explore Germany beyond the view from my office window. To be quite frank(furt), I wasn’t expecting much other than to say I did my 40 hours and stuffed myself with brats and bier. But sometimes these things hit you when you least expect it.

I guess it starts with the country terrain. The land alone is beautiful. Lots of trees, mountains, rivers. (I say this knowing fully that I only explored one region [and a half, I suppose, if you count my day in Heidelberg] and that there is so much more to see.) But as Friedrich would show you, the Germans are inseparable from mother nature. Germany is a biker and hiker’s dream. In addition, there is a lot of history contained in the country, as evidenced by several castles, cathedrals, and government buildings. Not to mention, the people are friendly–most of them speak decent English–and the food was wonderful. If the trip consisted only of this, I’d have been plenty satisfied.

Yet what stood out most was the people. The Germans are a very direct people. They will be upfront with you when pressed with something, and when they say something they mean it. My roommate Matt told me not to greet Germans with “How are you?” because over there it is not a trite greeting. “If you ask, expect an answer that is anything but good.” Because they will tell you how they are doing, really. It was refreshing because I didn’t have to second guess their intentions or what they were really trying to say. Their words are measured carefully. (Which reflects heavily upon me as a man. Do I measure my words carefully? Do I mean what I say, do I follow through on my commitments, is my word my bond?)

So, the few people I met there who considered themselves “Christians” really meant it. They lived out their faith. Their words and actions validated their claims. It was none of this going-to-Sunday-church-but-living-godless-Monday-to-Saturday business. When they say they are committed to being a disciple of Christ, they show what it means to have a definitive break from the world. It means they will say yes to doing some hard things, no to some others, and that persecution from family and friends is expected. They understand they will look weird to the world. They have counted the costs and determined that he is worth it.

Throughout my week, outside of work, I felt like I was on a missions trip, with the main difference being that the mission was me. I felt a bit like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, where I was coming into contact with a new culture and people that reflected a way of living I had not known before. I experienced sincere kindness from people who consistently sacrificed time and energy to share their lives with me. On a pizza & movie night, I witnessed how a man devoted himself to loving his wife and four kids. I thought to myself, He’s got it right. I want to be like that one day. The German believers made me reconsider how I was living and approaching life, and the beauty in their lives inevitably led me to rediscover the beauty in mine.

What’s more, I think it made me reconsider my bearings on the gospel. Do I truly believe in what Christ has done for me? Do I believe in his power to change my life? How am I reorienting my life–how does it look different–if I claim to be a disciple? I say I believe in God’s all-sufficient grace, but I’m afraid I still live most days with an identity wrapped around what I achieve and what others think of me.

There is still much to process, but I’m thankful for trips like this. God not only gave me what I wanted, but what I needed. It’s like a kid who expected action figures for Christmas and got a shiny bike instead. He went the extra mile to surprise me. Thanks, God.

Only time will tell where this bike will take me.

Thanks Bruce

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently act frankly; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never. In other words, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. – Bruce Lee, Oct 20 1963

It is hard to swim upstream. It is hard not to feel like I have to keep up with the rest of what society is selling. It is hard to dig when you only have the energy to rake. It is hard to turn the other cheek, walk in their shoes, give without getting in return. It is hard to wake up each morning knowing it’ll be a fight.

But, this is where I might find the real essence of life.

Like Horse & Carriage

I made a trip up to Central and Northern California this past weekend to observe two marriages. One actually becoming official “before God and these witnesses” at a small chapel in Fresno; the other fresh and exciting after a couple weeks spent honeymooning in Europe. Both reminded me of the beauty found in marriage.

Ricky and Jessie came together in a simple yet meaningful ceremony. Pastor Jon officiated the wedding and delivered a memorable sermon. Nothing too long or heavy, but it was full of honest and practical wisdom. I remember one quote in particular in which he said (paraphrased): “In marriage, one half plus one half does not equal one. In this equation, rarely does each person ever give their full share of the fifty. Sometimes you might feel you are giving more, sometimes less. But if you are putting the other person’s cares above your own and you are running toward the other person to meet their needs, then rest assured you two are bound to meet each other somewhere in the middle.” It reminded me of the whole concept of giving, not taking, in marriage. Knowing the kind of man that Ricky is, I have full confidence that he will cherish, protect and provide for her with every ounce of God-enabled strength.

After the reception, Jeremy and I headed on the road to Oakland. The next day, we met up with my dear friend Deborah. We were introduced to her husband Jerry. We spent the entire afternoon and early evening together, going from church service to brunch to J-town to the piers over at Fisherman’s Wharf. It was a lot of activity, running into fobs at J-town and dodging fat birds, but through it all I got to see how Jerry served and loved his wife. They had that sort of chemistry that spoke of deep trust and understanding. I recount how at one Japanese novelty store, Jerry asked the cashier if they had a Domo ear-set to complete her full-body Domo costume. They didn’t have it, but Jerry was obviously looking out for her best interests. (Sarcasm intended.) I became a big fan of Jerry and I am glad that she is well taken care of. (It also doesn’t hurt that his hair reminds me of a cross between Beatles Paul McCartney and Super Saiyan 3 Goku.)

As I reflect on these two stories, I begin to see how they tie together. I think about the Bible and all its talk about marriage being a symbol of Christ and His church. How Christ in all his glory came not to be served, but to serve and make lovely His bride. How even when we fail or falter, Jesus is pursuing us with a passionate and furious love. He is fully committed. And He will not rest until He has us, wholly and completely devoted to Him.

This is what makes marriage special. This is what makes it divine. The world looks in to see what we have. It discovers, as a matter of fact, that it is a love triangle. Indeed, Christians are the most scandalous lovers of all.

When Voices Turn Flesh

I saw them out of the corner of my eye. A homeless couple, sitting on a bench, begging. As the other three members in our party shuffled into the BJ’s, my friend Travis decided to stop and listen to them. Not wanting to leave a brother behind, I told the others to go ahead while I stuck close to Travis, you know, in case something happened.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve come across and met several homeless people on countless occasions, at times even going out of my way to provide them food or clothing. Many of them are not as you would expect. They are not all junkies. Or alcoholics. Or robbers. Most of those whom I have met are coherent, decent people who just happened upon hard times. Still, whether subconsciously or not you kind of get the sense that they are a different class of people. In our tainted and jaded worlds we look to them as people whose worth and dignity are lower than yours.

So we walk by and turn an eye or try to feel good about ourselves by sparing some pennies or lint or whatever we have in our pockets. We go about our business and forget or pretend like this isn’t reality.

The reality is that night, we ran into a couple that was weathering some hard times. It’s one thing to be at a financial rock bottom. I can imagine what’s worse is having to beg for meal after meal just to survive. You are at the mercy of other men. So it was no surprise when the man’s first words to us were: “Please, listen, we’re not drug addicts or alcoholics or nothin’ like that, we just tryin’ to survive. Could you hear us out a bit?” Mind you, this was a 6’4 250-pound black man in his early forties, looking like he just retired from a fifteen year career in the NFL. He could have taken both of us out. But something prompted me and Travis to stop in that moment. And something prompted us further to listen.

I think what’s especially humbling when you are homeless and having to beg on the streets is the fact that you are no longer a name. All dignity is lost. You are just a face people pass by, a voice people choose to drown out or suppress in public. If people pass you by, you don’t exist. If people flippantly spare some change, you’re just a cause. But God has imprinted his image on you. Aren’t you worth more than that? Don’t you have a story, too?

In that moment, I decided I would help them out. I had a couple 20s in my wallet. But more than that, I wanted to return to them a sense of dignity that might have been misplaced or muddied in this whole ordeal. So I asked him for his name. “The name’s Andre,” he said as we shook hands. His felt like a sledgehammer. “And this is my wife, Chantiya.” Chantiya looked a little weary and exhausted, and perhaps she wasn’t all there. But Andre–there was something different; he had a good vibe about him. He is what I would call a gentle giant.

“So, Andre, what’s your story?” I asked.

He was a normal man not too unlike myself. He was working a typical job in the warehouse/assembly field before he got laid off due to the economic downturn. While he was trying to find another job, unemployment was paying him up to $15,000 to keep him afloat. Then they cut off their support. Now, he’s trying to help feed his wife and daughter by begging on the streets.

Within 15 minutes, they were no longer just another wandering voice in the night. They became real, living, breathing flesh. Andre and Chantiya. People like me who were just trying to get by in this beautiful struggle called life. The only difference was that we were riding opposite points of the wave right now. And I knew God didn’t bless us just to be fat collectors. Jesus was about dispensing; I just had to help.

Before I knew it, Andre and Chantiya were in my car. They needed a ride back to the Rodeway Inn in which they were living day-to-day. Throughout the car ride, we were talking about God and spirituality and how Jesus has been seeing them through this, even though it’s been hard. When we pulled up, Travis and I were taken aback by how dumpy the place was. Half-naked junkies smoking outside the rooms, giving us the look. It had a bad vibe all around. “It was like a scene out of Training Day,” he would later say.

For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t feel any bit threatened or afraid. I asked them how I could help them this day, and I met their need. They were very thankful and humbled. Then I asked them if I could pray for them. We all got in a circle, held hands, and came openly before our Maker. It was a powerful time I cannot exactly describe.

Before we left–and Travis was eager–Andre went to his room and came down with a copy of his resume. I told him I’d do everything I could to help him find a job, get him and his family back on their feet. Then we shook hands again. I told him how I was encouraged by his upbeat spirit through all of this, and to keep on fighting. “You know I will,” he said. “Cause you know Jesus Christ kept on fighting for us. He never quit.” Andre didn’t know it, but he had just delivered a powerful sermon.

Then we left. I’ve been trying to contact him ever since, with some leads I got. No response. I can’t find him.

Wherever they are, on this night or the next, I pray the Spirit of God be upon them. To protect them and lead them out of the dark valley. Because they are no longer just voices blowing in the wind. They are Andre and Chantiya, a married couple struggling in the beautiful disaster called life.

It’s easy to turn down a voice or cause when you don’t know the story. But when you lend your ears, colors begin to appear and life happens. It’s not always about getting in your words. I had nothing to say to them that night. I mean, what platitude could I give them that could possibly comfort them? Look for the silver lining? It’ll all turn out alright? I don’t know that. I haven’t been in their shoes.

But so much happens when you listen. When you try to immerse yourself in their world and reach out to them instead of trying to pull them into yours. Sometimes that’s all this world needs. More understanding, more listening, more love. The church is sounding like a broken record to the world, but I still have hope. I won’t give up on her, not just yet.

I learned it all that night.

On Fire When He Speaks

Don’t give up. Don’t stop believing. Don’t ever count something or somebody out, just because God’s logic doesn’t line up with yours.

I say this because I was guilty. I was in a lonely, desperate rut no more than a few months back and I was about ready to give up on God. Many people around me were moving up and about in life. Church ministry became a huge burden and I felt like a confused hypocrite. Worst of all, I was lonely. I had very few friends to turn to and share about all this stuff.

Then crazy things started happening. A random acquaintance had a vision about me–the type you read about in the Bible that the apostles experienced. It was like a wake-up call from God. Then our church youth retreat happened, and I witnessed one of my youth actually come to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior. It was a reminder that God still changes lives, even when you have stopped believing.

At this point, I’m thinking, life is still hard but God–You know so much better than me. He must be onto something here so I started praying that God would break me and humble me and give me His heart. It’s a dangerous prayer, I know. But it’s one I knew He would answer. Before I knew it, God had broken and afflicted me with deep, personal trials. As if I were the refiner’s gold and He the blacksmith, all my bad habits and wayward thoughts and insecurities were brought to the surface of the crucible. He said He needed to skim away those impurities in order to renew my spirit and use me.

Somewhere in this refining process God started to pour out abundantly into my life. One thing was community. God divinely brought about a close-knit group of brothers and sisters with whom I am not only able to hang out but share deep stuff, inception-like. The other was ministry. God had reinvigorated my passion for the youth and this past weekend, I even witnessed some of them performing their first random selfless act of kindness: they spent their own money to feed a homeless lady on the streets!

All to say that these gifts and trials and lessons from God came as a reminder to me of one thing: LOVE. God loves us all more than we could ever imagine. I was in a lonely, desperate rut. I didn’t deserve any of this. I didn’t even ask for it, really.

But it doesn’t take long before you discover that in this spiritual union, God is the bridegroom and you are the bride. He pursues us with a passionate and furious love. He chases after us, He woos us with His grandness and beauty. He brings us out of our pits of darkness. And out of His unfathomable love, He enables us to love Him back.

It’s true what they say. God works in mysterious ways. I stopped trying to reason and figure it all out, it’s just a silly game I won’t ever win. All I know is that when I enter those pits in life, I must never give up, never stop believing, and never count Him out.

*****

Please do yourself a favor and watch a documentary called Furious Love. It will light your world on fire.