December 17, 2013


I wonder what happens to those people who live their entire lives without experiencing a significant tragedy.

When they hug someone, do they hug like we do?

When they encounter someone who has been completely wrecked by something, do they have that point of reference that some of us do, that permanent and unfixable moment when life changed? The one we dredge up and experience again, just for that split second when we know that someone else is hurting in the same way we hurt?

That moment of tragedy, it's not one we like to relive, but we can't help it. And it doesn't just come up when someone else is in pain, it might appear abruptly while we're driving down the street, or sneak up and tap us on the shoulder during some beautiful moment in the future, watching children play, standing alone in nature, or drifting to sleep on a lazy afternoon.

We try to redeem tragedies, to find some use for them and extract a profit from them, as though through logic we can get God off the hook and say "He's still good! See? Our hugs are just that much better! Now we know what true empathy is!"

In his infinite Grace, God might indeed take something awful and purpose it for good. But I'm not convinced it should always be our expectation. It's not as though we're owed a dividend.

I say we can let the tragic be tragic, unredeemable, terrible, and still move forward in life without needing an explanation or excuse. A moment may be completely unprofitable aside from driving us into the arms of the Father and serving as a reminder that there is more to reality than what we see and experience here. If we are the type of people God wants us to be, then we are the sort that will immediately fix our eyes on Him when we experience something tragic, without need of explanation or reason.

January 29, 2013

Don't you worry bout a thing

Jesus tells us we shouldn't worry.

He says we shouldn't worry about what we're gonna eat or drink or wear. Something about the birds not having to, so neither should we.

I have to admit, I never really saw much application in that. I figured this was one of those parts where Jesus is talking to someone else. I'm not a big worrier, and I was born in a place where most of us, one way or another, aren't going hungry. I've been to a place where I had to ration bottled water because you couldn't just stick your glass under the tap, but that was temporary. For me. As for what we wear - yeah, some of us worry about that. Especially right before laundry day. But even then, it's not so much a naked-in-the-cold thing as it is a style thing. Or for others, a smell thing.

And so I found myself a few months ago unusually stressed out about life in general. It's a shame, too, because I was stressing out in the midst of what's actually a pretty peaceful time of abundance. Well, it was a time of abundance until yesterday, when I took my car in to have the heat looked at and had to get a ride home in a loaner while they held it on $1800 bond to fix my heat, timing belt, water pump, gasket, basket, triscuit, and some other stuff. So it's really just a time of peace, not (financial) abundance.

Even before the car problem, I was starting to worry.

We get used to worrying. Maybe we like worrying. Life is a story, and the story has to have a problem, a challenge. If it doesn't, it's boring. We need something to overcome or work toward. So sometimes we think up new stuff to be unhappy about, to work toward, to worry about. We'll even worry about the stuff Jesus explicitly told us not to worry about.

For me, it's the transition of life and my life purpose that have been stressing me out.

See, I've got this idea that God's got this grand, perfect purpose for my life, with all of these perfect experiences, challenges, and opportunities that have given me wisdom and taught me skills for some unique purpose, just for me.

I've had plenty of time to think about this, to graph it, outline it, map it, describe it, transcribe it, clarify it, add to it, reduce it, boil it, simmer low for fifteen minutes and remove from heat and - oh, we're not making rice?

There's no recipe to figuring out your purpose, I don't think. Because despite all of the thought and all of the process and all of the skill-building experience/challenge/opportunity, I'm still in this period of transition, and I still can't for the life of me explicitly state my purpose.

People ask me, now that I'm back from Puerto Rico, what I'm doing next.

Like I planned ahead or something.

Like I've got a five year plan, or even better, a master plan.

Five years ago (yikes, almost six), I graduated from college. With no five-year plan. Just... find a job. Get benefits. (... profit?)

I still don't have a five year plan. So I really can't tell people what I'm doing next.

For a while, that frustrated me. Stressed me out. Worried me. And I embraced the worry. Loved the worry. Because at 28, being unable to explicitly state my purpose was a wee bit embarrassing. I mean, come on, I was a missionary. I was doing big stuff for The Kingdom. I must have left it for ... something.

When I got home, I found this silly little temporary job (full time, with benefits) that I viewed as a stopping place, an oasis with a paycheck. I thought I might be out of there after a few weeks. Two or three months tops, before bounding off to the next huge, God-pleasing thing.

But then I began to see problems with that thinking. First, I was overlooking the amazing blessing of my current situation. Full time job. Benefits. Relevant work. No, not exactly what I'd pictured, but it was two or three months after I landed the job that I finally realized how much of a blessing it really was, and how thankful I had failed to feel. Second, if life is a story with something to work toward, obsessing over my specific, unique purpose and my next step in that purpose makes this whole story about me. I have to do what's best for me. (So I can best serve God, of course.) I am learning that life - and the story of life - is much better when I am just a role player in God's much bigger, better story.

Now, I don't reject the thinking that God has given me some abilities that I ought to consciously put toward his service. Certainly, it's good to take note of those things and pursue opportunities to put them into practice. But as soon as "finding your purpose" becomes a point of stress - or worry - for you, you have taken it too far. I fear that the focus on passions and purpose can put people (especially college students and twentysomethings) in a place where they are frustrated, waiting on God to deliver some instructions and epiphanies that will never come. Very seldom in the Bible does God yell down instructions from way up above. And they're usually at incredibly pivotal moments.

This whole line of explicit purpose-thinking translates to me trying to plot and produce my own livelihood for tomorrow. Now, I haven't done an exhaustive Biblical study to analyze to what degree we as humans are responsible for good planning in regards to realizing our full potential and God-given life purpose. Yet. (Although I did read Purpose-driven Life a long, long time ago...) But Jesus' words in Matthew 6 lead me to believe that I shouldn't be losing sleep over where God might be sending me for my job, for my career, or for my ministry.

Jesus says we shouldn't worry about our food, our drink, our clothes ... our livelihood. A little further down he reminds us: "Seek first his kingdom, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you." That right there? That's your purpose.

December 15, 2012

Blogging for the End of the World

The end of the world is coming, they say. "They" being the Mayans, and everyone who believes them.

Kinda makes me wonder how many people who are buying into it also think the Bible is a bunch of ancient hooey...

Personally, I'm not sold on Mayan mythology, and I think I tip toward the reasonable side on the crazy spectrum. I would suggest that if you're gonna buy into their doomsday prophecy - and how does one prep for doomsday, anyway? - shouldn't you give some credence to their other beliefs, too? I don't see too many people counting in base five, sacrificing other people, worshiping corn, or building pyramids in their front yards with big weird heads carved into them.

I'm not seeing it, but that doesn't mean it's not happening.

For a reasonable guy like me, I need something more reasonable, more modern, more trustworthy than ancient Mayans.

Like late night talk radio. That's truth I can bank on.

I was driving (late) the other night when a gentleman on the radio got on and said those knuckleheads running the Large Hadron Collider at CERN - the scientists who are trying to learn more about the beginnings of the universe by finding the "god particle" - are supposed to do their biggest, most expensive, most awesome test ever on the 21st. The same day the Mayans think we're going down. That's significant because some people think those experiments might somehow open up a black hole and immediately destroy earth or something. As you may be aware, they have not yet succeeded in destroying earth. But I'm guessing that big test on the 21st could probably do it. I don't know why, I don't get it, I don't understand it, but it must be true because physics. Physics is why, physics is how that all works out.

I honestly don't want to do too much research into it. I googled "Large Hadron Collider test December 21" and the only things that came up were sites run by people who make the late night talk radio people look reasonable by comparison. So that test may or may not happen, it might be a rumor, and I don't have enough interest to waste more time or thought on it. Like the Mayans, though, if you're gonna embrace teachings from the late night radio people, then you'd better give some credence to everything else they say (Just Google John Titor and Chemtrails and try to sort it out for yourself. Oh boy, now I'm gonna get hits here from John Titor and Chemtrails.)

Okay, so if I don't believe the Mayans and I don't believe late night talk radio, what do I think about the end of the world?

As far as I can tell, no one knows the day or the hour. Not the Mayans, not late night talk radio, not Harold Camping, not Anderson Cooper, nobody.

It is interesting to think, though... If the scientists do open a black hole or something... (And I think it's interesting that we non-scientists tend to lump all scientists together, as though the guys counting freckles on seagull eggs are the same ones strapping EKGs to athletes on treadmills and calculating the fuel needed to send a go-kart with a camera to Mars.)

If the earth were to pop, if those guys at CERN were to make an oops and open up a black hole so our whole planet instantly disappeared... none of use would float in the ether long enough to feel any pain or mourn any loss. We'd all be gone instantly. None of us would be able to crack open our sufficiently Doomsday-prepped storm cellars and nosh on canned goods while the world burns. None of us would feel the hurt or ponder the significance of what would be the most horrific thing imaginable to most people - the complete destruction of humanity and all of our incredible progress. That's a dark thought, I know, but it's still pretty abstract.

So the Mayans stopped counting when they got to next Friday, which is well beyond the end of their civilization. And the idea that a science experiment in Europe could destroy the universe (on that day) banks on some fringe weirdos being right and some brilliant (and well-funded) physicists being wrong. Their experiments might produce some puzzling data one day, but it probably won't end the universe.


That day is coming, eventually. I won't even begin to speculate when, but I'm not losing sleep over it because I'm as prepared for it as I will be. For those who accept this planet and its nature as all there is... I guess thinking about its end could be pretty scary indeed. But I'm convinced there's something more, another kingdom at work. Come what may in this one, I rest assured that I am right with the other one, the infinite and eternal one, through the Eternal One.

December 2, 2012

You senseless, ignorant, brute beast, you!

(That is how you title a blog about a Psalm.)

I started reading the Psalms a long time ago, checking off all 150 of them (and the 30ish Proverbs) twice a year. It works out nicely and it's a good habit, but if I'm going to be honest, I find a lot of them hard to read and I prefer the short ones. Reading them in order means I don't necessarily get the sad ones when I'm sad, or the happy-praisey ones when I'm abundantly joyful. (Maybe that's for the best?) I can't totally relate (yet) to having mobs of enemies chasing me down, or wetting my bed with tears, or the heart-wrenching betrayal of a good friend. To my untrained eyes and mind, lots of them seem indistinguishable, and often I read them out of duty, not the passion or curiosity I ought to read them with.

But every now and then, one of them will grab me by the collar and punch me in the face, as God's Word often does. This is what happened with Psalm 73. [Hey, I conveniently linked it so you can read it if you want. It's not too long, I swear.]

Asaph wrote it. He confesses some surprising stuff for a guy who penned part of the Bible. "Why do the bad guys get to have all the fun?" he asks. They're a bunch of nasty, proud dudes, and they get all the perks, and they never get any comeuppance. They're carefree and violent, they put people down and take advantage of them, and they scoff at God, and they get rich doing it. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure these sorts still exist today.

Poor Asaph: He's worked and worked and kept his standards and remained pure and fought the good fight and everything, and what has it bought him? Plague and Punishment.

"Life is rough, I tell ya, so rough..."
"How rough is it?"
"So rough I almost betrayed God's children by speaking my mind!"

Okay, so Asaph's no Rodney Dangerfield. But he's presented his issue - he's starting to feel this jealousy of the bad dudes coming on, and he juuuuust about speaks his mind but stops short. To do so, it seems, would have been an act of betrayal that bordered on blasphemy.

Good on him for not doing it though. He came to his senses. "I almost slipped, lost my foothold" he says to kick off the Psalm. At least he has a foothold, right? And he remembers - these bad dudes are set for destruction. For real.

So he realizes his error. Maybe the only thing more foolish than someone without understanding is someone who has it, but envies someone who doesn't have it. Asaph caught himself doing that and stopped short. The Israelites couldn't often say the same. I dare say I'm not so prudent, either.

"It ain't worth it, man," Asaph seems to realize.

And here's the part that really clocked me: Verses 21 and 22: "When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant, a brute beast before you."

A Biblical writer, calling himself senseless, ignorant, a brute beast. In God's presence.


That's not how I want to picture myself in front of God. I'm working hard to be pure, to obey Him. I'm a good Christian, aren't I? I want so badly to picture myself with dignity before Him.

But nobody approaches the throne with dignity, do they? When you stand before God, it's all gone. Nothing left. Filthy rags and all that. I've got nothing of my own to stand on.

A big, dumb, senseless, ignorant, brute beast really isn't a bad metaphor for a human in front of God. Like a cow with a vacant stare, but without its strength or delicious meat.

Undignified, like David - who voluntarily let his dignity go when he danced in the buff.

But what follows is beautiful: Even as a senseless beast, "You hold my hand," Asaph says, "and guide me, and take me into glory." Lest there be any doubt, even in that undignified state, we serve a good and loving God. We have the advocacy of Christ on the cross.

That's a comforting thought.

Though the evildoers prosper around him, "Earth has nothing I desire, but you" Asaph says. May it be the same for me.

November 10, 2012

Good point, Mr. Chambers.

Lately, I am a man of few words. So I'll share someone else's:

Fellowship in the Gospel

"After sanctification it is difficult to state what your aim in life is, because God has taken you up into his purpose by the Holy Ghost; He is using you now for His purposes throughout the world as He used His Son for the purpose of our salvation. If you seek great things for yourself - "God has called me for this and that" - you are putting a barrier to God's use of you. As long as you have a personal interest in your own character, or any set ambition, you cannot get through into identification with God's interests. You can only get there by losing forever any idea of yourself and by letting God take you right out into His purpose for the world, and because your goings are of the Lord, you can never understand your ways.

I have to learn that the aim in life is God's, not mine. God is using me from His great personal standpoint, and all he asks of me is that I trust Him, and never say - "Lord, this gives me such heartache." To talk in that way makes me a clog. When I stop telling God what I want, He can catch me up for what He wants without let or hindrance. He can crumple me up or exalt me, He can do anything He chooses. He simply asks me to have implicit faith in Himself and in His goodness. Self-pity is of the devil; if I go off on that line I cannot be used by God for His purpose in the world. I have "a world within the world" in which I live, and God will never be able to get me outside it because I am afraid of being frost-bitten.

-Oswald Chambers' My Utmost for His Highest, November 10.

I am constantly seeking great things for myself - the next career move, fulfillment in relationships, financial success comfort stability, a fully articulated 10-year plan, etc. And here is the much-needed reminder of my need to utterly abandon myself and stop dictating my plans to God. It's my prayer that I'll remember this tomorrow, and the next day, and that one day I won't need reminders anymore.

October 28, 2012

Win now

I have semi-religiously watched nearly every single Tigers game this season. By "watched," I mean either I physically attended (okay, that's just one game) or literally watched via MLB.TV (at least parts of 100-130 games) or checked scores on my SmartypantsPhone (often suspiciously, or surreptitiously, or more like "aw screw it, I don't care if they see me checking baseball scores or not.") I have all-too-often known the scores, and often the counts, and could usually be relied upon for trustworthy information and stats by less devoted, more casual fans.

You wonder how someone can be that interested in a 162-game season? I don't, not anymore. It gives me somewhat of a window into how someone could pay attention to all 80ish NBA games. (I don't know the real number, and I don't care because the NBA is stupid and nobody could possibly be interested in all 80ish games. Or so I thought.) You really have to love the game, have a dog in the fight, or love the game and have a dog in the fight.

This is how you care about 162 games: You watch your team fight for first place, maintain it, put it away, and clinch a playoff spot. Even the worst teams (except the very worst - sorry Cubs and Astros fans) stay mathematically in it until the last couple weeks of the season. Then, suddenly it's the playoffs and every game actually does matter, as much as a sporting event can matter.

So the Tigers made the playoffs and I hoped for the best. They weren't favorites by any means. They ousted the A's, who were widely regarded as one of the best stories in baseball this year because they won, and they shouldn't have won. Pretty much. But the Tigers beat 'em.

Then they swept the Yanks. And the story wasn't "Wow, the Tigers sure are good," it was "wow, what's wrong with the Yankees?" Naturally, we Tigers faithful were incensed. But we swept 'em.

Then, we got five cursed days off before we played the Giants.

The Giants? What in the world were they doing there?

Oh well. I didn't hate the Giants. Yet.

So we waited through those five awful, boring days off to see our team play again. And they presumably sat around and waited for the Cards to take care of business.

But no. The Giants.

The stupid Giants.

They should have been eliminated, but played and won three games with their backs against the wall. They made the series on bonus time. Borrowed time. No pressure. And if you've watched the World Series games (and YOU BETTER HAVE) you probably saw that. They're loose. Screwing around in the dugout. Man, I hate the Giants now.

I freaking hate the Giants.

I didn't hate the Rangers. I respected them. We weren't supposed to beat them. Last year in the ALCS we were old and rickety and hurt and tired. No, we had no business there. We were overmatched. We could have played way over our heads and still lost.

But we're better than the Giants. We are, aren't we? I thought we were. But now we can't even buy a base hit.

We're better than we're playing. I'd have a lot less of an issue with us losing the World Series team if the Tigers were at least playing their best. Not beating themselves.

Game one, we were rusty. Game two, a few bad breaks early on, then we forgot how to hit. Game three, back home, and - nope, still can't hit.

Tonight, in about 25 minutes, game four starts. It might be our last game of the year. So they have to win now. But - teams don't come back from being down 3-0 in the World Series. I just pray they don't get swept. They have to win now.

If they survive tonight - hey, they've got Justin Verlander tomorrow. Best pitcher in the game. Win that one, then you've only got two more to win. And there might be some pressure on the Giants.

It probably won't happen. If it does, it will be the most thrilling thing in sports in my lifetime.

You can always say "hey, there's always next year." True. The Tigers will get better next year, I think. Victor Martinez will be the DH, not Delmon "ALCS MVP by some miracle" Young. (I can't fault Young, though. I'd rather have a guy who sucks all year and comes up big in the playoffs like him, than - dare I say it? - a guy like Prince Fielder who smashed the ball all year and has done nothing but whiff in the playoffs.) And our pitching is great. And all that.

But I hate that thinking. The odds are severely against your team getting back to the World Series. Get there and win it. Win it now, while you're there. We wait, and watch 162 games (some of us) for this kind of opportunity.

Win it now, guys. Show up tonight.

September 26, 2012

Artprize and art and our fine city

Artprize rages on in Grand Rapids.

For you non-Grandrapidians who read this, it's a huge annual art contest in which a rich family in our city hands out a cool quarter-mill to whoever the public thinks brought the best piece, and $100,000 to whoever the Art Critics choose.

For us locals who vote on who should get the big chunk of change, it's probably more about getting downtown when it's full of people than it is about taking in art. We're all swelling with local pride of late, and maybe it lends some legitimacy to our city to see the sidewalks crawling like a "real" city.

So we all flock downtown to gawk at the good and the bad. Really, I think almost all of us do. I made my second trip downtown last night. I've covered... let's see... Devos Place, Amway, JW, Ah-Nab-Awen Park, and the GRAM. I've seen about half of the public vote's top 25, and three of the critics' top 25.

You'll note that there must be some disparity between the critical top 25 and the popular top 25. I'm hoping that over the next few nights I'll get a chance to see the ones that are getting more critical buzz.

John Waters, an arty director whose arty movies I haven't seen, said in a recent local interview that the art world is controlled by two small groups of people who wear all black and live in London and New York. So I guess that puts Grand Rapids a little... out of the way, and I assume Artprize's reputation among the art community isn't terribly distinguished.

GQ would agree. In their article, they affirmed some things local artists have said since the first year, that Artprize attracts a lot of kitsch and, when left in public hands, the most accessible thing tends to win out. Each of the winners from the first three years has had plenty of detractors - not for technical skill, but for content. The first year, it was a painting/sculpture of waves. Then a huge pencil drawing recreation of a military regiment. Then an image of a crucifix (pandering, they assume, cuz Grand Rapids is so Christiany.)

The article, by a writer from New York, seemed to imply that we're a bunch of Midwesterners who don't get "it," trying to break into the Art world, choosing crap over more art-community-ordained stuff.

Naturally, we flipped out. We always do. When people write articles like that one, they usually end up on the local news, and people get offended, and the mayor writes letters to defend our fine city. I think there are a lot of people here excited about the trajectory of Grand Rapids, hoping that we'll "arrive" in our lifetime, that the world will take us seriously or something. Just as our hearts flutter when outsiders notice us as a hidden gem, we bristle when they don't acknowledge us as a cultural epicenter.

I think Grand Rapids will have arrived when we can all shrug off criticism and strut quietly while the haters hate (or the noticers notice, or whatever). Grand Rapids doesn't need indy cred or validation from big city people and big city writers and national media.

Personally, I like it just the way it is.

Artprize is a ton of fun and we have reason to be excited, to see our downtown crawling with people, to run into our suburban neighbors in the UICA or on Monroe or Ottawa. Artprize doesn't make our reputation. It isn't something that makes us a cool city, but rather, a symptom of a cool city.

All that being said, there is some legitimately good art down there - and I should know, with my amateur photography skills and my communications degree from my Midwestern school.

I find myself increasingly relying on my gut reactions to make decisions and evaluate things, especially in regards to art. I'm attracted to art that is shocking or surprising - like these vases, which upon closer inspection actually correlate with historical data of cities - or so masterfully done that I would drive out of my way to come back and see it - like these graphite drawings of the Chicago Seven.

I stood there and talked to two artists my first night out there as the venues were closing. One had brought a pretty pedestrian piece, in my opinion, and the other had created the masterpiece graphite drawings I mentioned above. I am one of tens of thousands of people who probably wouldn't dedicate the time and thought to art if not for Artprize. For me to be standing there, hearing some guy from Rockford tell me about his sculpture, or marveling at the detail on those Chicago buildings while the creator looked on - that's a pretty unique thing.

September 17, 2012


Here's a scenario:

Bob and Mike meet.

They soon discover a mutual interest in following Christ.

They decide that they should partner up and do this together.

So they meet regularly, bringing their wives and their kids all together to talk about Jesus.

They read their Bible. They praise God, often in song or poetry.

Over time, their gatherings grow and a few other friends and families begin to attend as well.

They don't write up a statement of faith or anything, but they never get into any weird, unorthodox stuff.

They begin a few traditions, a few standards (think: meeting every other Saturday afternoon, favoring discussion over a sermon, using recliners instead of pews, singing a capella because no one's a musician, no age division, laser lights, arm-wrestling, an occasional post-church stein-hoist). They've got a culture of sorts.

Maybe some of their customs and traditions and methods are unique, or even a little strange. So much so that it might not feel like church to a church-going outsider.

So what is this gathering? Is it a church? Is it the church?

What does it mean if we call Bob and Mike's as-yet-unnamed gatherings "church?"

We're past the point of assuming a church is a building, right? Lots of churches start and meet in people's basements. We'll call their gatherings a church.

So if it's just a couple of dudes and some friends gathering weekly to follow Christ, unusual traditions and all... does this thing, suddenly a "church," immediately get lumped in with the rest of the church (or churches) as a sacred institution? Are they part of the Holy Priesthood, entrusted with the Great Commission, held accountable for all of its blessed finances and how they spend every penny? Holders of the talents while The King is away?

Is every church subject to scrutiny as a sacred institution, or can a church simply be a community of people seeking Christ with their own customs, much like any other earthly, human community - chamber of commerce, moose lodge, Boy Scouts, sewing circle, carving club - except focused on following Christ? Are there sacred churches and non-sacred ones? Where do you draw that line, and what separates them? Rigidly structured organization?

I ask these questions because I have often, in the past, been a bit of a church cynic. "Can't believe they spent money on that." "Why aren't they doing (insert thing I suddenly started thinking was deathly important while in college)?" "What's a "liturgy?" "Why is there no liturgy?" "They should really talk more about (insert thing they didn't talk about the week I was there.)"

I am beginning to think that maybe it's no big deal for a church to have some customs that I don't really identify with, or to lack some that I really do, or to use their money in ways that I wouldn't immediately think to, and simply trust that they probably know what they're doing and don't need me to get all teenage-angsty about it.

I suppose I pose those questions in defense of weird churches.

In the end, there are far more important things to consider about a church than how much money they put into their multimedia, or what the worship team is wearing. For example, what its members are doing the other six days of the week.

August 25, 2012

Bona Fide Tropical Storm Isaac

When I first moved here in November 2010, it was the tail end of hurricane season. Hurricane Tomas had just passed through the Caribbean, and left a whole bunch of crap on our beach. I resented the cleanup, but as a storm-loving Midwestern boy, I was not-so-quietly hopeful that maybe I'd get to see one of them in my time here. With 2010's season having drawn to a close, I looked forward to 2011.

Last year, we did get a brief visit from Maria. The storm migrated north of Puerto Rico so I took my big, heavy storm shutters down and left them on the ground outside my bedroom window. That night, Maria grew a tentacle that dangled down and swept across Puerto Rico from west to east while the rest of the storm floated north into the Atlantic. As I was laying in bed, the wind picked up and sprayed rain through my windows and kicked around the storm shutters outside. Mostly, I objected to the loud clanging and scraping of metal on concrete at 3 in the morning.

The next morning, we found that the awning in front of our dining hall had been picked up and heaved into our playground. Boom, no more monkey bars. I picked up the storm shutters behind my house and took a mental note that they were to be kept up in any storm threat, lest I lay there and shudder in the mist and hear them clang around again someday.

I had missed out on Irene, which came a few weeks earlier while I was in Michigan.

And that was it for 2011.

So in 2012, by the middle of June, I was checking the National Hurricane Center website everyday, wondering what was coming, trying to get psyched up for a good storm, secretly hoping that I might get to see one.

Fast forward to August 23, 2012. Enter Isaac. He was born just off the coast of west Africa, and within a week had rumbled across the Atlantic and declared himself a legitimate Tropical Storm. (Tropical Storms in progress, for the record, have fairly detailed Wikipedia pages.)

With my time in the tropics winding down, I decided that a bonafide Tropical Storm would be A-OK. Less cleanup, less potential for death than a real hurricane, but with all of the spectacle of something as yet unseen for me.

There are no hurricane sirens here in PR, from what I'm told. I guess they'd be redundant since as soon as we're in a potential path, we're all talking about them and facebooking them and stuff. We get all worked up, and the night before they hit - by then we know if they're close enough to do damage - people pack the grocery stores to stock up on the basics. The paranoid, conscientious Midwestern boy I am, I was well supplied days ahead of time. Remember, I'd been watching since June.

The day before, we put the storm shutters up, and I caulk the gap underneath my back door where rain loves to seep in from even an average rainfall. I can only imagine what it's gonna do with a tropical storm. It's weird, you stand out there and watch the waves lap up onshore, and the sun is shining, and there's this impossibly humongous beast lingering just over the horizon, ready to mess up your world, and you'd never know it.

Then the big night: Nothing happens.

I wake up the next morning. and the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. I brew some sun tea. I would have done the crossword, if I'd had one. All of Puerto Rico has the day off, but we spend it in staff meetings as long as we have power. I check the satellite images, and the center of the storm is about fifty miles south of us, but we're well within its wingspan. Where's the storm?

By 3:00 pm, gray clouds are coasting overhead, and little raindrops are falling. The wind picks up, the trees sway, and soon there's an average rainstorm going on.

But it lasts.

And lasts.

The back half of the storm, it turns out, is pretty good. The waves kick up, splashing over the beach into our backyard. Soon, I've got a pond back there, and the Caribbean just beyond.

It all picks up. And the wind howls. I lay there and watch a movie as the rain comes down in sheets and the palm trees bang their heads like awkward teenage concertgoers. Eventually I go to bed with the wind blowing and the rain pelting outside my bedroom window.

In all, we get about 20 hours of big waves, strong winds, and a lot of rain. There's nothing really dangerous in all of it, save for the flash floods in some communities. We never even lost power. But: my thirst for a good storm is quenched.

And though all I dealt with this time was paranoia - and a some cleanup the next few days, I bet - I have to wonder how different this would be if we'd been in the middle of a real hurricane, one of those 110 mph affairs, not some minor tropical storm centered 50 miles to the south. My house sits probably 20 yards from the Caribbean, which advances a little bit each year on our property. It was nothing for it to wash up and fill our backyard with water and beach sand. There's a basketball court out there somewhere that crumbled into the ocean. If you go down the street into the barrio, you'll see uninhabitable houses at the sea-end of every street that have collapsed into the encroaching water.

These houses... they're not going to last forever.

I'm heading back to Michigan in a few days, weather-permitting. We'll just see what this guy does in the meantime. At the time of this writing, it has a 50% chance of becoming a tropical storm in the next 48 hours. My flight is Wednesday....

EDIT: Pretty sure that guy out in the Atlantic is going North.

August 22, 2012

"me" as a four-letter word

A good Christian book should give you a nice, solid gut-punch. If it doesn't, go find something else to read.

I just read The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness by Tim Keller (Dude, that's 99 cents on Amazon for the Kindle edition.) It's a short book - only 30-40 minutes to read it, but well worth it if you've got an e-reader. (Go buy it, go now.)

Keller argues, in a more eloquent and exhaustive way than can be blogged, that we shouldn't think too highly or lowly of ourselves, but rather we ought to just... not think of ourselves. Self-forgetfulness and all that. Humility, it's said, isn't thinking less of ourselves, it's thinking of ourselves less. Dwelling on self-esteem is fruitless. There's no need to compare yourself to others. There's no sense in considering how you're going to prove yourself.

For whatever reason, "self" has become a big, horrible word for me lately. I was convicted this summer as I processed our activities and reflected on them that there was way way waaaay too much me in there.

How did I do?
Was I ready for this?
What does this say about me?
How does this reflect me?
...What's next for me?

That last one, especially.

Do we all do this, or is it just me?

(See, there I go thinking about myself again.)

It's a natural tendency to view the thing that you're responsible for as yours. You're running the show. You're (sort of) controlling things. If you're not there, it might not happen. Consequently, you slap your forehead when you forget and pat yourself on the back when you succeed.

And then... It's kind of horrifying to stop yourself and realize that you're thinking about the ministry you're in as yours, and that you're aligning its impact and efficiency with your own, and gauging its success primarily on your own perceptions and feelings. The pressure and back-patting are healthy and relevant to some degree, but the problem comes when its the first thing you go to when you plan, respond, and reflect.

I am guilty of thinking of myself first, and it goes deeper than this ministry. It digs deep into my entire spiritual life.

Deep down, I realize that I am obsessed with my spiritual sufficiency and my spiritual progress, and that I view the world as my story starring me.

Man, all I think about is me sometimes.

"Am I growing closer to God?"

I no longer view that as an innocent, relevant, or even positive question. To approach it grammatically, I am supposed to be the object, not the subject. No matter how badly I want to build myself and prove myself, I am little more than a forgiven recipient of the love of Christ. I have no ground to stand on. There is nothing I can do, no progress that I can make, that can change the way God loves me. Even at my worst - especially at my worst - he would still send Jesus to die for me.

As such, if I have to accept that as true for myself, I have to accept it as true for everyone.

So I've got nothing on you.

And there's no sense in framing everything around myself. And there's no one in the world I've got any right to compare myself to or look down on, or despise, or withhold any of the entire breadth of the love that Christ has shown me. So I better get busy simply imitating the love of Christ, and get my eyes off myself.

I believe that this is a long-standing work-in-progress in me, to let go of myself. This will take some time, I know, and Keller's book was a well-timed read. I'm beginning to see this self-obsession manifested in a number of ways, not least of which is my writing.

I'm considering abandoning my mundane, daily journal, and significantly altering my approach to this blog. I don't want to write about me anymore. Maybe not for a while, maybe not ever.