Surprise? Trials and Traffic in Orlando

The other day I headed to a fundraising seminar in Orlando. At 10 am. So the 2 and 1/2 hour trip from Bradenton had to start a bit early due to the lovely Orlando traffic. I did what I could to beat it, and I did for the most part. But there times when the proverbial Grandma with a walker could have passed me (a la Office Space).

Traffic is frustrating, but it is inevitable, particularly in Orlando. Because I left so early, preparing for the worst, it didn’t bother me nearly as much. But there was something else in my favor: it didn’t surprise me. It didn’t come out of nowhere. I-4 in the morning always has bad traffic. If I choose to drive through Orlando, I will hit traffic. The very expectation of traffic lessened my frustration. Could I really be mad that I was sitting in traffic on I-4 on a weekday morning?  Would that have made any sense? Should I have been surprised?

Dealing with trials, particularly when you are doing something good or right, becomes less difficult when not caught by surprise. When I’m caught by surprise, I get angry or begin despairing. Or I want to stop doing what I did (helping when helping gets me hurt).

Doesn’t God love me? Don’t I have enough to deal with now? God is giving me the shaft! What did I do wrong? Didn’t I love that person well now and he/she did this?

The health and wealth prosperity gospel preachers would have you believe that if God is pleased with you, it will show up in all kinds of blessings. Mostly physical or financial, but all now.

Sadly I think I believe those jokers more than I believe what God says through His apostle. I’m more often than not surprised by suffering. This isn’t supposed to be happening to me!  At least much more than I admit. But I Peter 4:12 reminds us

“12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

Can I really be surprised, and filled with anger, when trials happen? Suffering and Orlando traffic shouldn’t surprise us.

Yet according to Peter, there’s really nothing morbid about driving through life, as though you are always on the lookout, trying to prepare yourself for every suffering. Kind of like the way you might think “accident” every time you see break-lights on the interstate. Instead of being surprised (and the concomitant anger or despair), we can rejoice. Rejoice?

13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

At Christmas time we enter a time of celebration (though not only celebration but also longing). God did not leave us to suffer alone, but instead came to suffer with us. But not only as an example of sympathy; it was much more than that. Jesus became our substitute for us. Suffering is temporary but His glory is forever, and we are part of that glory in Him. He loves his little brothers and sisters.

Sometimes we need to hear those angels singing a little louder “Glory to God in highest…”

His glory was revealed, continues to be revealed, and will fully be revealed one day. At that time we won’t need reminders to rejoice. Until then we do. May we all hear the angels a little louder this Christmas. And may we gladly join them even as we go through trials that our Savior has already walked through before us. And for us. And now we are in Him.

If this Christmas presents particular sadness, I pray the hope of Christ’s first and second comings will remind you that God cares about your suffering so much that He suffered for you that you may share in His glory.

Zorilla, Suffering, and the Sober mind-ammended

The bible study presently known as the West Bradenton Project core group (we’ll get a better name before the summer is out), is going through the book of I Peter. I’ve really enjoyed going through the book personally in my devotional time as well as in community. 

God speaks through his apostle Peter reminding us about the need to be “sober minded.” I love it. This is the same guy who chopped off a servant’s ear (the dude wasn’t even the ones with hands on Jesus) when Jesus was absconded from the garden (John 18:10). We don’t have any proof that Peter was for sure a zealot (the party of Jews that believed the Kingdom of God would come by military force), but he was probably influenced by them. Many were.

And even before this happened, he told Jesus that he was wrong (not a good idea) when Jesus said that Peter would betray him thrice. 

I don’t associate those things with sober-mindedness. And Peter himself wouldn’t have as well. 

But I think that’s what makes the call to sober-mindedness that much more powerful. It comes from a dude who his not naturally sober-minded. In other words, we’re not talking about someone who is naturally laid back, from California, telling people to “chill” in the face of suffering. This doesn’t come naturally to Peter. It doesn’t come naturally to me either. It only comes supernaturally. 

Cue the gospel. Some of us are more laid back than others. I’m not. But in the end, none of us can’t rest in our personalities when it comes to being sober minded in all situations. We have to rest in what Jesus has done for us, instead of simply his example before us, if we want to see our lives slowly conformed to that example.

We discussed sober-mindedness in the face of suffering, and how that becomes even harder. But it becomes even more important when starting a new church. We have to be willing to suffer, and not knee-jerk react, demanding our rights, demanding our voice be the first to be heard. Later in the book of Peter, he reminds us that this kind of attitude will eventually lead to many gospel opportunities. I think if you look at the first few centuries of the church growth you’ll see he’s right. 

Finally, we considered what it might look like to be sober-minded. The best example which came to my mind was Ben Zobrist, aka “Zorilla,” the Tampa Bay Rays (2nd baseman/outfielder). He was unjustly hit in the hands by a fastball, which was clearly an intentional payback from the night before when the Rays reliever brushed back the present day “Barry Bonds” of baseball Miguel Cabrera. 

Ben was hit intentionally, and nothing happened. Nothing. A simple warning to both sides? Ben smiled at the pitcher, and walked to the base. He didn’t charge the mound or, say things he would regret. He told the umpire that he should do something about it and let things fall out as they would. Instead of becoming a judge himself, Zobrist “entrusted himself to him who judges justly (I Peter 2:23).” 

As of yesterday afternoon-after I originally wrote this-M.L.B. has officially suspended the pitcher who thew the ball at Zobrist for 6 games. Some semblance of justice I guess…

Regardless, of what justice happens in this life, we see an example of what a sober-mind looks like.Not a knee-jerk reaction or retaliation, but a calm explanation and willingness to press on independent of fairness or lack thereof. He, and the Rays, just kept playing ball.

If a local church is going to make an impact in its community, it has to be sober-minded and willing to suffer. It has to take one “in on the hands,” get up, and walk to first base. It can’t only be concerned about what is fair (to itself).

I’m not a fan of what’s happening at a government level. But when Peter wrote this, people had far fewer rights than we do now, and the church flourished. 

Take heart. I do think the church as a whole and individual Christians have some great opportunities ahead of us for evangelism if we would embrace a sober-mind in the face of suffering. Remember Peter, remember Ben, but thank Jesus who is the ultimate sober-minded one on our behalf.

On Joe Staley, writing scripts, and discerning gifts

San Francisco Offensive Tackle Joe Staley wasn’t always an offensive tackle. He was one of the players who tried to avoid getting tackled, after he caught the ball. In high school he played wide receiver. 

But everything changed in college.

I started out as a skinny 200 pound wide receiver coming out of high school,” Staley said. “I was a sprinter and all of that stuff. I was really fast. I ran a 21 in the 200. Then I got fat. I went to college. Brian Kelly came in my sophomore year. Played tight end my freshman year in college. Brian Kelly came in and said ‘We do not use tight ends in our offense but we want to keep you on the field in some way. We are going to move you to tackle.’ I cried my eyes out. I am not afraid to admit it. Almost transferred but then stayed, gained weight, busted my butt and got drafted.

He was a first round draft pick and is now playing a prized position Left Tackle, in the Super Bowl. Not exactly how he would have “drawn it up,” but I don’t see him having any problems with the “script.” Here are a few thoughts.

1.) Sometimes, or rather quite often, the scripts that are written for us by God are far different than the scripts we draw up for ourselves. But they are always better. Not better in a more lucrative, more high profile way (although they may be sometimes like this one), but better in a redemptive way. God will always make the script redemptive, and He will do it in at least two ways. First of all, He is redeeming you from the power of sin and using your situation in unique ways, which may not (I can’t prove this part but I think its true) be the case in a different situation. But secondly, and sometimes this is actually easier to see, your script is redemptive for others. This perspective is more easily forgotten.

In II Cor 1:3-11, Paul explains that his affliction (not the way he would write his script if he had a say), opens the door for God’s comfort, which can be experienced in all situations. But his afflictions and the comfort which follow has become part of Paul’s script SO THAT others can be comforted. The script God writes for individuals is not only for individuals but FOR OTHERS. My depression, and back surgery at young age, were/are intended not only for my comfort and redemption/sanctification but for the comfort, redemption/sanctification of others.

I’m aware of individuals coming to faith simply because of the affliction/comfort of another. Affliction/comfort is evangelistic at times. Our scripts aren’t over. We know the end. We just don’t know the middle, but we know that God has our good-and the good of others through us-in mind more than Brian Kelly had Joe Staley’s best interests in mind.

2.) Transition from the front to behind-the-scenes. No position in football is less glamorous then offensive lineman. They are usually fat, wear knee braces, and no one knows their names unless they give up a sack or get a penalty. No position is more glamorous then wide receiver. Running backs don’t last that long. Receivers get more miles, and thus more publicity, and contract extensions. Yet few positions are more important than offensive lineman. They can make QB’s and running backs look good. They can make wide receivers look good because they give them time to get open. 

Sometimes public spiritual gifts are more valued today, as they were in Corinth. Preaching is important, but without evangelists bringing folks, who would there be to preach? To go from a public ministry like leading a bible study to something more behind-the-scenes can be tough. I love this honesty.

I cried my eyes out. I am not afraid to admit it. Almost transferred but then stayed… 

It was hard. He cried. He almost left. I wish there were more “almost’s” in churches today instead of the quick flight to somewhere else that “truly appreciates me and my gifts.”

Now this transition may just be for a season. There may be new opportunities and gift development. Or it may be for a career (like Joe Staley). But remember behind-the-scenes-gifts are every bit as important.

3.) Gifts are best discovered and developed in community. It took someone else to recognize that Joe Staley wasn’t going to be a productive wide receiver at the college level. It wasn’t Joe. He wouldn’t have made that choice. Spiritual gifts inventory tests can be quite helpful. But they are no substitute for asking someone, “Where do you see me best serving and being used?” Other people are fallible. But so are you and I. The more folks involved in discerning spiritual gifts, the less fallibility (as a general rule).

I’ve never been a fan of Brian Kelly. But I’m thankful, as I’m sure Joe is, that he loved Joe (or perhaps the success of his offense) enough to tell him the truth and get the most out of his gifting.

Victor Cruz and entering into suffering

While listening to the Dan Patrick show the other day I heard a more-than-heartwarming story where N.Y. Giants Wide Receiver Victor Cruz visited families and children in Newtown Connecticut. Apparently one of the victims, Jack Pinto, was a very big Victor Cruz fan, so much so that he was buried in a number 80 Giants jersey. Somehow word got out this child loved Cruz and so Victor felt this was a good place to start.

Here are some of my thoughts on the story and interview:

Cruz entered into instead of avoiding suffering

After one of my grandfathers died (and I honestly can’t remember which one), my parents called one of his surviving relatives (I can’t remember the relation either) to inform him about the funeral. But one thing that I will never forget was his response: “I don’t do funerals, they are just too depressing.” To declare that “busch-league” would be the understatement of the year, akin to saying Notre Dame simply lost in the BCS final; it was a massacre. To ignore suffering and death is inhuman, but to intentionally avoid and refuse to death and suffering is truly counter-Christian. 

Cruz mentioned that he came to do the best he could to try to bring a little distraction. He didn’t intend to come with words but to come and be a presence.

Jack Pinto was among 20 children who lost their lives Friday in Newtown. Several elementary school-age children played touch football in the front yard of his family’s home on Tuesday. Many wore Giants jerseys or Newtown football or wrestling shirts as they laughed, smiled and hugged.

About 45 minutes later, Cruz left the home in an SUV and an escort of five police cruisers, sirens blaring. He later tweeted that he has “much love to the entire Pinto family. Great people with huge hearts.”

Presence more important than your words

In the interview Cruz told Patrick that he spent time specifically with the Pinto family, so that his stay was about 2 hours. That time included speechlessness and hugging sobbing parents. How hard is that? To be around such sadness and not be able to fix it? Words can’t fix, but a simple presence reminds folks that we know that, even as we wish it weren’t so.

Sharing the sadness

On his drive home he left with a burden that was originally not his own. Now he carried it. He couldn’t simply turn that heaviness on and off.  Now, in some small way it was his. Sadness can stick to you like a b.o. when you enter into the sadness of others, but that is never a good reason to refuse to enter into the sadness of others. Cruz models well the command found in Galatians 6:1, “To carry each others burdens and in this way, fulfill the law of Christ.” Burdens slow you down, and they make you sadder for carrying them. But Jesus says to carry them, so something makes me think He’ll take care of us in that process.

More than family 

As I watch shows like Parenthood, I see family members making sacrifices all over the place. Whether it be watching kids, picking up the slack at work because another member has cancer or allowing a mother who has fallen on hard times to move in for a season. Why do you do this? The mantra is “It is family, and this is what we do with family.” But what about when its not family? We don’t have any aphorism, or motto for that. 

Cruz entered into the sadness of those outside his family. He didn’t have to. He could have ignored this scenario, since they weren’t really a “priority.” It involved going out of his way. That’s another reason why I found this story so compelling, heart-warming, and challenging.


Cruz is know for his salsa touchdown dance, but I will know him more for his modeling.  He mentioned faith in God, and that it would be hard to let his one year old daughter out of his sight. But that he would have to do so one day. I don’t know what kind of grasp Cruz has of the gospel; I couldn’t tell from the short interview, and I missed the first part. But in looking at his example of entering into suffering, suffering that could easily have been avoided, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that he certainly models a gospel response I would hope all Christians (including myself) have with their neighbors.

For the Christian, Jesus entered into our suffering, by suffering himself, for us, who are responsible for the suffering here on Earth. He didn’t just come and lament with us, he suffered because of us, and on our behalf, to redeem us and purchase us out of hopeless suffering. Now we suffer but we do so with the hope, power, and joy, of a suffering servant (for-the time), but now ruling and conquering King. He himself is our motivation. 

Yet we should never neglect the power of seeing the gospel modeled before us. Just as seeing people temporarily get pleasure out of doing things they shouldn’t do can tempt us to follow, so can the reverse be true. Seeing other folks entering into suffering can “tempt” us to follow their godly examples.

I know that Cruz wanted to honor Jack Pinto by winning that next game against the Ravens (they lost), but as is usual, what athletes do off the field has much more impact than them winning games or playing well.

Sad old thoughts on Newtown

Its now been several days removed from horrible massacre in Newtown. When tragedies like this happen, we all have defense mechanisms to help us cope (I’m talking about we bystanders-not the victims or families of such victims). Sometimes we run to agnosticism: how could God exist in this mess? Sometimes we assume God could have done nothing to stop this from happening. Sometimes we protect ourselves by just not allowing ourselves to feel such pain. I know I do that. Not that we become apathetic, but we don’t allow ourselves to go to such despairing depths. 

Much has been written about this tragedy and how to process all this mess. These are simply some of my thoughts, that serve as counsel for myself, a distant bystander, and possibly other bystanders.
This is not advice, but how I, simply as a Christian first, and pastor second, think through this mess, and/or need to think through particularly rough acts of injustice. If you want to know how you can pray,  Scotty Smith gives a great explanation for how to pray for the families involved.

1.) Agnosticism. When suffering and injustice happen, the first response may be one of agnosticism. How can God be real and loving, and allow this to happen?  It makes sense at first to think like this. It really does, particularly when injustice happens to Christians, whom claim to be alone in receiving full favor from God (Luke 2:14). However in order to be consistent with the promise of Christianity, we have to remember that a life of no suffering is not promised to us; in fact, it is very much the opposite. Jesus promises us suffering. So does the writer of Hebrews (12:7-11) and Paul in II Tim 3:12. 

But Tim Keller also reminds us that if we use the existence of evil to conclude that God does not exist, we are ultimately committing intellectual suicide. Either God created us in His image and we know and can declare activity like this wrong, or we are a collection of atoms and chemicals without any way to declare this activity evil. Did precious children die or did molecules and chemicals become re-arranged? If there is no God, nor man/woman created in God’s image, we can have no ultimate standard of goodness and cannot call this act evil. And we know this is evil!

2.) God can’t control everything. This is comforting at some levels, because it makes God out to be gentle and loving and caring. He would have liked to stop these actions, but He can’t because His hands are tied. Remember Free Will? But if this is the case, then you probably should limit your prayers to things that don’t cause God to step on anyone’s free will. Not sure how that would be possible though. If God can’t stop these things, He is not a God worthy of your prayers. So we can’t go there.

3.) Protective Apathy. Now I don’t know anyone apathetic to 9/11 or this Newtown Tragedy. But sometimes I do try to distance myself from sadness. I don’t want to think about it, or guess what, I feel sad too! I honestly don’t dig sadness. Who does? But our Savior was no stranger to sadness, even entering into it. When sadness comes upon us, we don’t need to protect ourselves by simply focusing on the positives. Below are John Piper’s words from his daily advent devotional:

Many of you will feel loss this Christmas more pointedly than before. Don’t block it out. Let it come. Feel it. What is love for, if not to intensify our affections-both in life and death? But O, do  not be bitter. It is tragically self-destructive to be bitter….Jesus came at Christmas time that we might have eternal life.

Running from sadness is not life. Jesus is life. Sadness about death can be good when it drives us to Him who is the Resurrection and the Life.

This injustice sucks. People are messed up. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but there are special punishments for leading children astray (Mark 9:42). I can’t imagine what happens to those who murder children. Lanza is not in a better place.

Yet nothing short of the Final Resurrection will bring back our believing loved ones. We grieve with hope, but we still grieve.

I’m actually quite saddened as I write this. I’m ready for Jesus to come back. Today. I don’t get a vote, but I do get a prayer, found in the penultimate verse in the bible: “Come Lord Jesus.” In Him is life forever more and in Him alone is, as Rich Mullins (whose life was cut short by car accident) sang, “a hope to carry on.”

Sadly sovereign, mostly sovereign, and mostly believing sovereignty

Christians, at least in America (since I don’t know a ton of Christians outside of America I’ll limit my target audience to those I actually know) really struggle with the idea of God being Sovereign. Now few people struggle with declaring God is Sovereign, since that’s exactly what the bible tells us about God. But when it comes to actually what God is sovereign “over,” well that’s when two paths diverge. I’ve “chosen” (or have I?) the road less traveled, but many folks really believe in a limited picture of God’s Sovereignty. 

For instance, my son’s preschool lays forth some of its theological convictions, one of which is “God is Sovereign over all things.” But what they really mean is that God is Sovereign over all things except my individual choice to repent and believe. That is off limits. God does not choose people, God’s people have chosen Him. This is an arena God can do nothing about. So in essence God is only mostly Sovereign (still better than slightly sovereign I presume). 

Yet for those who would profess that God is in total Sovereign control over His universe (Psalm 115:3; Psalm 135:6), there is still yet another bigger problem. Believing it. How do I know if I am, at the moment, truly believing God is Sovereign? Here are some diagnostic observations I’ve been personally working through (well before, but also during the election) to discern how much I really believe.

  • I might be saddened by a decision/outcome, but will not be depressed by it. 
  • I will be angered by an injustice, and it will move me to prayer and action, but I won’t be disillusioned by sin’s presence. Sin’s presence will be with us until Jesus returns.
  • I will be frustrated by an event or outcome, but instead of a fatalistic apathy or uber-introspection, I can evaluate and discern what can be learned for the future
  • I might be angered by the actions of others, but it won’t stop me from loving them

For a more thorough look at the idea of “God is in control” as it relates to the election, I commend to you the article of a friend and fellow PCA pastor

Professing God is Sovereign is the easy part; believing God is actually Sovereign is hard part. Very hard. I’m a decent theologian but not very good at applying my theology. That’s what my frustration, anxiety and blood pressure levels reveal. They reveal a disbelief that God is both trustworthy and sovereign. 

This part has much less to do with the election and more with the presence of evil in the world and our moving into it.

There is on often overlooked aspect of God’s Sovereignty: that God can ordain something that brings him sadness (though not regret). Think about God not delighting in the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11). Think about the cross. That did not come about by accident but by God’s decree. Think about Lazarus’ death in John 13 and remember that Jesus could have come sooner, but chose not to do so. Yet he wept. An intentionality, plan, and purpose, but not without tears. Think about the way a father has to discipline a son, being in total control of that discipline, yet he is sad that it has come to this point. 

I think we need less an answer as to why we suffer, and more a dynamic relationship with Sovereign loving God who also weeps with us. One of my favorite preachers, Martin Ban of Christ Church Santa Fe, reached this conclusion, even though I disagreed with how he got there. The why is less  important than the Who.

God’s Sovereignty doesn’t mean that God simply coldly ordains. He is not subject to emotions the way we are, but we cannot assume that things which always fall out according to His plan are without any divine “tears.”

Jay Mohr on "suffering"

Jay Mohr played a dirtbag agent Bob Sugar in the movie Jerry McGuire. From what I can tell after hearing him numerous times guest hosting the Jim Rome show, I don’t think he had to “act” too much for that role. Actually I have never enjoyed him filling in until a few days ago. 

Mohr referenced someone complaining, “We’ve suffered through years of bad quarterbacks and we finally have a good one now.” 

He responded, “Oh, so you personally suffered during the bad quarterback play? What, did you go without a coat all winter? Were you evicted from your house? Did you have no place to live? You suffered because of bad quarterback play?”

I’m sure I’ve said similar things. A good reminder in regards to words we use to describe sporting events. We don’t really “suffer.” Even long suffering Browns and Bucs fans.

But he wasn’t done. Mohr went on to fairly accurately describe the way some folks view their sports teams. We slave 40 hours at a job we hate with a boss we dislike to check out for 3 hours and have something to really live for.

I guess you can see why some folks use the word “suffer.” Not a good way to view sports. But when there is no alternative bigger picture other than sports, success, family, it makes sense. And when Christians forget the bigger picture of the gospel, we can very quickly revert back to our old form.

I may never say this again, but, thank you Jay Mohr.

Why I need CD groups

In our C.D. group (community/discipleship) last week we discussed some “gospel transitions” for how to make the “leap” without making a leap from the normal shared experiences or opinions to the gospel: such as war, politics, family, injustice, etc….These are quite helpful, so I encourage you to check them out here.  
Studying those gospel connections in community allowed all of us to share our own experiences, struggles, fears, failures, and future opportunities that individually we would have missed.
However one of the greatest confirmations for why I and YOU need to be in some sort of regularly gathering group was confirmed to me without any bit of teaching. Amy was home with a sick kid, and I was still lamenting the fact that I would be spending MORE money on my property in FL (little did I know the upcoming expenses for my house in WV just days later!), as well as a few other things.
Then during our prayer time I soon became not only convicted but encouraged. I wasn’t alone. Actually folks had much rougher things going on. A small group is like Vegas, so I don’t share any personal details with those outside the groups. But suffice it to say that I began to hear of other struggles and suddenly I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel so frustrated. I felt what was actually true: I’m not a pilgrim on a solo trek, but part of a caravan of struggling pilgrims. 

Even if we didn’t have an encouraging study-which we did-just the mere gathering for prayer in someone’s home made my problems seem much smaller. We all had problems. Some were worse, some the same. But problems shared in the home and fellowship of others are far less daunting than when they never leave your heart or your house.