Author: heykarrieann

Prose & Poetry

Words give voice—voice to what has been, what is, what could be. Voice to what has been gained, lost, or never obtained. Voice to facts, and voice to feelings. Words are the content, but content needs form—a vehicle.

Often, prose can get the job done (and get it done pretty well). Often, prose is strong enough to carry the heavy weight of feeling and emotion. But sometimes, it’s just not. Sometimes we need something else. Sometimes we need poetry.

When the weight of profound beauty is too ethereal and transcendent and eludes our grasp, prose will not do. We need poetry.

When the pain is too brutal and raw and crushing and disorienting, prose will not do. We need poetry.

When our souls encounter what pushes against the bounds of temporal existence, and see things that are beyond what the eye can see, and feel what isn’t altogether understood within the confines of the material world, prose will not do. We need poetry.

When our hearts can’t be restrained by formalism and need the freedom of hungry, searching linguistic exploration, prose will not do. We need poetry.

My Life Fell Apart 5 Years Ago Today

Note: This was actually written almost two years ago, but I never posted it. So you can do some basic math and add two years to whatever you read for an accurate timeline. I was recently inspired to post after speaking with an acquaintance I knew in Los Angeles, and it helped me remember that although very few of us know what it’s like to experience what I’ve written below, there are a few people out there who know exactly what I mean. And so…this one’s for him and everyone else who can relate to our stories.

Five years ago today, I lay on the floor of a stranger’s house in Austin, unable to speak or move. What was supposed to be a fun weekend, unbeknownst to be, became a hinge upon which my entire life would swing. After being rushed to the first ER, and subsequently released because they couldn’t find anything wrong (despite the fact I had to be carried out of the ER because I couldn’t even walk), I was driven back to Dallas and promptly re-admitted to my second ER.

Some illnesses are merely a mild blip on the radar for some people, so it’s sometimes hard for others to imagine what a horrible case of mono can do to a person. It’s difficult to even know what to say in this post, because volumes could be written. I could talk about all of the horrifying symptoms I experienced for months, which eventually led to other health issues that have completely derailed normal adult life for the past 5 years. But I won’t, at least not today. What I will say is that I had no idea, before this happened, how sick it was possible to feel, or how utterly helpless one feels when the medical establishment has no insight whatsoever regarding how you can get better. You’re all alone, because doctors can’t help you, you are too weak and unknowledgeable to help yourself, and you’re not wealthy enough to find someone who might actually be able to help.

But believe it or not, being sick really hasn’t been the worst part of the last five years by a longshot—it’s everything else that I’ve lost (partly due to the sickness, partly due to other factors). I struggle for the perfect metaphor, and I’m not sure I have one, but the best I can do is the image of an earthquake—a big one. Imagine being in your home when “the big one” strikes (Californians will understand me here). Imagine seeing, one by one, in violently rapid procession, all of your most treasured possessions falling to the floor and shattering, one after the other, as you stand there helpless, watching your world literally crashing before your very eyes. You are helpless to stop it. When the earth stops shaking, you survey the damage and realize that nothing of the life you knew is left intact. You are surrounded by brokenness that cannot be restored or put back together, and something inside your own soul breaks in response.

Though still not yet the worst part, many other things have been worse than sickness: leaving a career and ministry that I loved, that in many ways was my life, in a complicated mess of miscommunication and hurt that has taken years to recover from. Jumping from that into another ministry position that turned out to be one of the worst experiences of my life, only to be ended abruptly with no advance notice, and leaving me without any recourse or resources with which to continue life in California. A new job didn’t come fast enough, and my body and soul were so worn out by that point, I spent weeks having to sell the majority of my belongings—furniture, clothing, housewares, and everything I had accumulated over 10 years of adult life—and reluctantly returned to Texas empty, literally and figuratively, where things have only been exponentially worse. Within a week of returning, when I finally stopped running on stress and adrenaline from the previous two excruciating years, my body went all-out crazy on me and completely broke down on every level. But again, that was not even the worst part.

The few belongings I could take with me have been sitting in a storage unit for almost three years now—three years. And to be honest, I relate more to my things in storage than I can relate to any friend or acquaintance. We both sit in a cramped, small, and dark holding cell, having the ability to be used and to be useful, yet being trapped in a state of impotence and isolation. Partly due to physical limitations, and partly due to who knows what, I’ve almost reached three years of unemployment. Not that I don’t have part-time jobs here or there, but I am utterly incapable of providing for myself. I don’t understand how it’s possible to be unemployed for three years. I am a hustler, not known for laziness, and no matter how many higher degrees I have or how much experience I have, I have been trapped, careerless, with no way to simply even provide for my own needs, despite desperately wanting to do so. Literally hundreds of resumes have gone out with no calls coming back. It simply makes no sense.

As a writer, my mind has thought of various books and articles that could be written, that should be written, by somebody, and one of them would be titled When God Wastes Your Life. We’re all familiar with the popular concept of not wasting your life, which is actually a pretty exciting thought, as we imagine challenging mission trips or ministries or risks we might take. But to tell the truth, that’s a whole lot easier than desperately wanting to live and not waste your life, yet it seems that God is content to let you languish for years in a storage unit, while time goes on and the world spins on without you, and even if you ever do get out, maybe it will just all be too late to start over and live again. And of course I speak from the human perspective. Somehow in a way that makes no sense to me, if the Bible is true and God is true, it can’t be a waste, despite a mountain of circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

Though in some ways the book of Job does not comfort me, since it seemed that his ordeal was over in a matter of months, and it’s hard to relate when your own story goes from months to years (are people right when they keep calling this a “season” of my life? What if it’s just the rest of my life?), he does say some things that I’m glad he said, because I’ve said them, too. It’s nice to know that someone else has felt that way, and communicated it in the exact words and mental pictures that I would have used. These are words that make the Pollyanna-esque squirm, but words that I am utterly grateful for:

“I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow.” Ps. 88

“He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths. He has stripped me from my glory and taken the crown from my head. He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, and my hope has he pulled up like a tree.” Job 19

So no, having had life-changing illness has not been the worst part at all. It’s also not the worst part to have had your life as you know it—your career, your friends, your ministry, your home—completely uprooted and destroyed, and to literally go back to square one at the beginning of your thirties.

The worst part by far is wanting desperately to start over, to accept the losses of the past and courageously press on to create a new life, yet to be forced to live in the essence of a prison from which you can’t escape, a refugee camp from which you can’t progress, or a hallway in which every single door remains locked, no matter how hard you knock or how much you push. This inability to financially provide for myself has forced me to live in a very difficult and isolated location, far removed from the city, culture, diversity, or opportunity, stuck in a remote suburb where the unmarried are viewed as an odd cultural artifact, and life revolves around family and children and lots of money. Before there was a whole big exciting world to explore; now my world has shrunk to existing in a 10’x10′ room in another’s home. Not having a job means not being able to pay rent and live on my own, which means having to live as a strange hybrid of a child and an 85 year old and not like an independent adult. Living the life of an 85 year old must be bad enough when you’re 85, but when you’re 35, that’s a whole different story. It’s dehumanizing in a way that’s hard for others to understand.

This is what is unbearable and completely inscrutable—why is God seeming to waste what are supposedly the best and strongest years of my life? The years I’m supposed to be getting married, having a family, advancing in my career, or serving in ministry? And even if this does turn out to be a “season,” though a long one, will it be too late to live again once it’s over? Will it be too late for marriage, family, career, or ministry? The rest of the world hasn’t stopped, and time hasn’t stopped, while I’ve been stuck. In our twenties, life feels like a rising firework…shooting up and up and up….we’re not sure where we’re going, but we expect that something will blossom and we’ll explode into a beautiful display of light and color as we accomplish our goals, whether it’s marriage, having a family, developing a successful career, or involvement in ministry. But what happens when you shoot up and up and up, and then you just disappear with no explosion, just like the dud firework, as all that seeming rising potential just vanishes into nothing?

I haven’t blogged in a very long time. For the past year and a half, it’s just been too dark to say anything. Despite my ability to use words, sometimes there just aren’t words, or at least any that should be spoken, so I’ve said nothing. I don’t know why I’m saying them now, except maybe for two reasons: one, to remind myself and others that I still exist, that I’m still alive, that I’m still a person, and in some small way, connect to living people even if only through technology; second, to encourage anyone out there who resonates with any of this in any small way. Because everything I’ve experienced and am experiencing is just too bad to not have some small good come from it, and if that small good is encouraging someone else, then so be it.

I don’t have a conclusion here—I’m still trapped in the middle. To me, there’s nothing worse than treating the harsh realities of life like a T.V. sitcom that has the inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion shoved into a convenient 30 minute package. Life doesn’t work that way, at least most of the time, and this blog post reflects that reality. There’s not an ending, just a hanging and suspended pause, because I don’t know what comes next. I’m just metaphorically sweeping up all the pieces from the earthquake into a pile before your reading eyes—examining them, reflecting upon them, mourning over them, pained by them, but not in a place to make any conclusions or wrap them up with a tidy bow. I suppose the best that any of us can do is simply to look at all those broken pieces, which make our hearts feel so broken and our lives feel so broken, and with the tiniest speck of trust that we can muster, believe that God knows how to make a mosaic out of them if He wants to.


The 10 People Who Impacted Me Most in 2018

As I tried to think about the positive aspects of 2018 and how to categorize and convey them, I realized that for me, it wasn’t so much about great stuff that happened, but rather, the people whose lives and actions had the most profound impact on my life. It was really good to spend time thinking about these people who have been shining stars against a dark night sky. So here you have it: the 10 people who impacted my life the most in 2018.

This is not in order of importance, but mostly in order of when I met them or had the experience with them that stamped itself upon my mind:

  1. Joe

I barely know Joe and do not even know his last name. We only ever had one or two conversations. But Joe was my neighbor at the apartment complex when I was back in California. I was making my amazing gluten-, dairy-, sugar-free pumpkin pie, and in the middle of the process, I realized I didn’t have baking powder. Since I’d met him once and he was a genuinely nice guy with no whiff of creepy, I thought I’d stop by to see if he had any. He didn’t, but when I got home after work the next day, there was a can of baking powder on my doorstep. The simple kindness of a stranger. So I left a card on his door for Christmas. He in turn left a card on my door for New Year’s. We never even saw each other again, but it was one of those situations where you meet someone who is genuinely kind and thoughtful to strangers. You never know how much little things can mean to someone. We tend to think that we have to do something huge to impact another person, but Joe showed that that’s not the case. More often than not, it just means choosing to take a little bit of time and a little bit of money and a little bit of “inconvenience” to bless someone else a lot by doing something really kind and unexpected.

2. Taylor

Taylor and I have been friends for about 5 years now, and she’s a treasure who is really good at keeping up long-distance friendships. But how she most impacted me in 2018 was during the tailbone incident mentioned in the previous post. She was the one who took off work, got groceries, helped me with doctor appointments, and slept on an airbed in my living room and helped me until my dad flew in from Texas. She was there when I was completely unable to do anything for myself for three days and was so terrified. She is the friend that you want beside you in the trenches, and I am so honored that she would be friends with me. The story of Taylor shows that a large part of the time, impacting someone else has to do with presence. It’s about showing up and being there. The power of presence cannot be underestimated.

3. The Staff at Grace to You

In addition to Taylor, other colleagues at Grace to You impacted me with their service on my behalf during the tailbone incident. Jessica came with Taylor and me to appointments, she ran errands all over town, and she did all of that despite the fact that we hadn’t known each other for very long or very well. Cameron and John moved a mattress on a truck back and forth from Taylor’s to my place so that my dad would have somewhere to sleep when he arrived. And my wonderful boss Steve was, per usual, completely supportive and always caring just as much about my personal life as my professional life. Grace to You is an amazing place filled with amazing people, and I’m so thankful for my time there. And again, the recurrent theme here is presence and practical help. It’s great to tell people you’re praying for them. But if you live anywhere near them, they might rather have some practical help and have you be the ANSWER to their prayers, if you know what I mean.

4. Dr. Zieser

When I returned to Texas, I had a premonition about a month before the neurological incident that I should sign up to be a patient of Dr. Z. This was a bit of a sacrifice financially, but I was intrigued by the model of his practice where you pay a flat monthly fee for as much access to him as you need via text, phone, email, and in-person appointments. He’s a Christian, and he truly wants to help people, which is why he moved away from the prevailing medical model to this one, where he can spend unhurried time with his patients. And while he hasn’t been able to diagnose or “fix” anything, he’ll never know how much it means to me that he actually cares. He listens, he respects my medical knowledge and wishes, and he always does everything that he can to help without making my life harder by having to fight with my doctor. I feel better going to see him even if he can’t fix anything, because in a sense, I believe he DOES help my body and soul through his genuine care and compassion. If only every doctor had Dr. Z’s heart, I truly think that the medical world would be transformed for the better.

5. Christina

I had been interviewing for a job in June when the whole neurological incident went down. That put me in a really weird situation when I got offered the job. I wasn’t sure whether or not to tell them what was going on, but I was pretty sure that I just wasn’t going to be able to make it to the office in the morning because of the CFS, apart from whether or not I had MS. Problem was, I don’t have someone else providing for me, and I desperately needed a job to pay my bills, so I felt stuck between what seemed like doing what was best for me versus doing what was best for others. But I firmly believe that integrity demands honesty and seeking not to disadvantage others, even if that means that I get put in a really bad situation myself. Sometimes we are rewarded in this life for our integrity, and sometimes we’re not (e.g., Joseph landing in prison despite his integrity in the situation with Potiphar’s wife). You never know which way it’s going to work out for you, but true integrity knows that it doesn’t matter…what’s right is right. I knew there was no way they’d give me a deal to work from home in the morning and come into the office in the afternoon. I was SHOCKED when they did. This was primarily due to my boss Christina, who chose to see all of my strengths and the good things I had to offer instead of simply the fact that I can’t get my body to the office early in the morning. And during all these past months that I’ve gotten to know Christina, I’ve seen her to be an incredible woman. She is an amazing boss, and the more I learn about her story and everything she does for her family, I’m amazed by her courage, strength, compassion, and love. If only everyone could have a boss, and a friend, like her. She truly cares about her employees as people and is flexible and understanding when “life happens.” I love working for and with her. I really think she is Wonder Woman undercover, which I’ve told her on numerous occasions.

6. Quentin

Quentin wanted to be anonymous in his impact. But Amazon blew his cover. After seeing the podiatrist and buying the boot and that not working out, I needed a knee scooter. But they are not cheap, and I’d already spent a lot at this point in the foot fiasco. I asked some people if they knew of any I could borrow and asked them to pray that I could find one. A few days later, a monster-sized Amazon box appeared on the doorstep with my name on it. Inside was a brand-new knee scooter. But I had no idea who sent it to me. I was, of course, blown away by this act of kindness and dying to know who it was so I could properly thank them. I thought it would remain a mystery. But when I went on Amazon to write a thank you card, it generated a template that said “Dear Quentin.” Ratted out by Amazon. A colleague of mine at work and a member of my team, I’d only known Quentin for two months when he so graciously bought and sent this incredible gift to me. Since we work together, I know he doesn’t make a ton of money either, so I imagine this was a sacrifice for him. I am amazed at the generosity of rare, special people like Quentin and know that one day, he’ll be richly rewarded.

7. Dr. Bearman and Richard

Dr. Bearman is a doctor in Los Angeles who specializes in medical cannabis, and Richard is a well known herbalist and teacher in New York. I’d become familiar with their work through two different health docuseries that I’d seen. And since I’ve had to learn to be my own medical advocate and take action, I got their information and sent personal emails to both of them. Dr. Bearman promptly, kindly, and thoroughly answered all of my questions regardless of the fact that I’m not one of his patients and wasn’t paying him anything. When I reached out to Richard, he told me his normal fee for a two hour consult with recommendations, but then he also said that he would accept any amount I can afford, and if I can’t pay anything, he’d do a consult with me anyways. As someone who’s been to many doctors who only take excessive amounts of money, offer no help at all, and just seem annoyed when I ask questions as they run out the door, these two men stood out as bright stars. Practitioners who truly want to help people and make that clear through their actions. I’m profoundly grateful for both of them, the important work they do, and the many people they help.

8. Yoojin

I met Yoojin at an event for working women at the church I’d been visiting since August. We only met briefly and didn’t talk to each other during the event. But a few days later, she emailed me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to get together. This is the kind of initiative that every single Christian needs to have for others, especially new people. I’m honestly not sure why so many people seem so blind to this reality, but I could see that Yoojin clearly “got” it. Within seconds of our meeting at a coffee shop, we were chatting away like old friends as we delved into some similar life circumstances we were both facing. And she’s been so faithful to text, hang out, and just be a true friend. She is beautiful inside and out. She has a husband and family, works as a nurse, and is dealing with her own mystery health issues that are difficult, yet she’s always making time to help and serve others. If everyone in the church were like her, it would absolutely blow the world away.

9. Kimberlee

Sometimes you know pretty quickly when you’re going to be friends with someone. I met Kimberlee at the Saturday morning women’s Bible study that I went to this fall, and she was the group leader. We chatted a bit after my first time there and decided to get lunch the following week. We launched into our life stories at Panera, and I knew we would be friends because we share a particular trait (as do Yoojin and Susan): we are both super honest and transparent about ourselves and our lives. There aren’t any masks or “images” or trying to look and sound better than we are. We both just tell it like it is, and I love that about her. In a few short months, she’s become a treasured friend, and she’s someone that I can truly count on. I’m so glad we found each other in these North Dallas suburbs, both fish out of water in the culture but totally on the same page with each other. She really understands and lives out how to love others.

10. Susan

I also met Susan at the working women’s event, and we were in a discussion group together. I could tell by our discussion that she wasn’t one of those people to just plaster Bible verse platitudes over the painful realities of life, and I remember thinking, “I like this woman.” After the event, she reached out to me as well, and over the past two months, we’ve gotten to know each other as I’m going through my health issues and she’s just gone through an extensive and difficult ankle reconstruction surgery. Like Kimberlee and Yoojin, she’s been an example of what all believers should be about: actively taking initiative and reaching out to others to build relationships. Despite her vast professional accomplishments, she’s so humble and always ready to learn from others. I’m so thankful to have met her and for the ways that she’s been a flicker of light in the dark sky of this year.

If you have some time, I totally encourage you to think about the people who impacted you most in 2018 and why. Once you do that, reach out to them and let them know. They’ll never know unless you tell them, and I promise you it will encourage them.

And then, maybe take some more time to think about the ways that you might leave an impression on others’ lives in 2019. It really just boils down to looking outside yourself to others, trying to put yourself in their shoes, and remembering that Jesus wasn’t joking when He said, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).


Your Heroes Don’t Impress Me

Who are your heroes, and why are they your heroes? I’m not really the type to have heroes per se, but there are people whom I admire. And over the last year or two, life circumstances have dramatically affected who qualifies as a hero in my book.

I think that most Christians are at least aware enough to recognize that the world’s heroes aren’t necessarily real hero material. They likely wouldn’t claim Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, Jeff Bezos, or Oprah as their heroes (though they might certainly, and validly, admire certain characteristics or abilities that they possess, which is different from considering them a hero). But often, it seems that Christians’ heroes are just “Christian” versions of the famous people that the world fawns over. Many Christians’ heroes tend to be Christian famous people—the common denominator being that they still share a measure of the fame, success, wealth, visibility, physical attractiveness, or power that the worldly heroes do.

Of course, I’m not saying that it’s wrong for some of our heroes to be famous Christian pastors, authors, speakers, etc. But I do find it interesting that the Christian view of success in these cases isn’t too different from the world’s view of success: visibility, a “platform,” and lots of followers. People swarming them at conferences and asking for their autographs or to take a picture with them. People paid handsome honorariums to speak at this-or-that upcoming conference and enjoy all-expense-paid study cruises as featured speakers.

These kinds of heroes likely don’t have to worry about how they will afford to pay their bills next month in order to survive. They likely don’t know what it’s like to labor and receive no recognition. They probably don’t know what it’s like to not be able to publish a really great book because the Christian publishers don’t know who they are, and they don’t have a “platform” or “following.” They don’t know what it’s like to have so much that they want to give and contribute to the world, yet be homebound due to chronic illness or disability that makes leaving the house as formidable a challenge as climbing Mt. Everest, with all their gifts seeming to shrivel and die in front of their eyes without any opportunity to use them.

And again, I’m not saying that these people who have such earthly blessings and fame are thus invalid heroes, or that they are not worthy of emulation and admiration. Some of the people in this category I would consider heroes myself. Having money and power and “success” and fame doesn’t disqualify genuine people from being heroes. What I’m saying is that that’s not WHY they should be anyone’s heroes.

And I’m also saying that our definition of hero could use some broadening. I think that in heaven, our jaws will drop when we see which people God considered “heroes” in their earthly lives, and I’m going to guess that 90% of them are probably people that no one has ever heard of. In other words, blessed are the obscure on the earth, for they will be heroes in heaven. My biggest hero at the moment, whose identity I’ll protect, is a man who runs a small Facebook group for Christians with chronic illness. I don’t know him personally or where he lives. But I do know this: he deals with chronic illness, lives alone, has no spouse, has no career, and his children are grown and gone. I’m pretty sure he struggles financially (understandable given his circumstances). And I honestly don’t know how many friends he has, or how many Christians around him are actively seeking to care for him and purposefully invite and welcome him to be a part of their own physical family and lives (a major post for another time, as I continue to be shocked at how many Christians can’t seem to open their eyes outside of their nuclear families).

Yet this man writes with courage and conviction that no matter what he has lost, no matter what he’ll never have again, no matter how many Christians around him receive earthly blessings while he receives next to none, he will not curse God. He will not give up. He will keep the faith. And he encourages this small Facebook group daily with written devotions that—in my estimation—knock the socks off of whatever sermon, conference message, Gospel Coalition article, or profound Tweet that the rest of the Christian world is spending their time praising, demonizing, or childishly debating. This man is truly a hero that most will not ever even have the opportunity to emulate, even if they wanted to, because most will never suffer the loss of all the things that he has.

And someday, I just really, really hope that I get to see this man in heaven. I can’t wait to see him be seen by all for the spiritual hero that he is. I can’t wait to see him be rewarded. I can’t wait to see the extra joy that he will have when all things are restored—a joy, I wonder, that might only be possible for those who have known depths of earthly loss and suffering that most could not conceive.

The Things I Wish Would Die Today

Today is Easter. A cloudy, dreary Easter at that. The day when death itself dies as it’s defeated by the power of life, the power of God, the only power that can overcome the curse of death—perfect righteousness that death is not allowed to touch or taint, but only tremble at.

This cosmic triumph of life over death—inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection as a prelude and precursor to the triumph that all who belong to Him will one day experience—should be the one that matters most. It is the one that matters most. But amidst the strain, despair, and brokenness of life, it doesn’t always feel like the one that matters most on a day-to-day level.

Other deaths feel more important, more in need of resurrection. The death of lifelong hope for marriage and family. The death of a once viable career. The death of aching loneliness. The death of perpetual financial worry and instability. The death of grief over all that was hoped for in life but never even existed—aborted hopes and dreams that never even had the chance to announce their arrival with a cry of life. The death of poverty, elitism, racism, socioeconomic inequity, abuse, mistreatment, neglect, bullying, abandonment, desperation, hunger, exposure, pain, sickness, infertility, bad marriages, being misunderstood, not being able to fulfill a vision or desire for good in the world.

These are the things I want to die today, and for everything good their opposite to spring to life, like brown grass turning green overnight. Like flowers pushing up through the dirt of a freshly-dug grave.

But today is not that day. And it probably won’t be tomorrow or the next day either. It could be years, centuries, millennia, before that day comes. But this day is the promise and reminder that that day will come. Christ the Lord is risen today, but until the fulfillment of all things, we carry around inside us His life in seed form. We walk amongst and live within a sphere of death, both personally and globally. The ugliness of sin and death taints and taunts us every day.

But we’re still in the middle of the story. And it is guaranteed to have a happy ending for those who belong to Him. So while Easter is the celebration of an accomplishment, the story is still very unfinished in real time. Easter is a day not of ultimate fulfillment, but rather persistent hope. Not hoping for something that might happen, but that through Christ’s resurrection, is guaranteed to happen.

So it may be cloudy and dreary today, both meteorologically and existentially. But someday, the sun will come out and shine on a perfect world, where all the things we want to be dead will be dead forever, and all the things we want to be alive will be real and true and beautiful forever.




I Watched My Neighbor’s House Burn Down

The piercing tones of a fire engine interrupted me at home one afternoon. Usually, the sounds are further away, but this one sounded close. Much too close. Since there’s only one entrance into the neighborhood, I knew that they were coming to assist someone close by. As I looked out the window, I saw huge billows of dark, thick smoke ascending into the sky. And that’s when I realized it—my neighbor’s house was on fire.

In that moment, it’s a strange mental process to figure out what one should do. I don’t know any of the neighbors, but I felt compelled to drop what I was doing and see what was happening. I followed the smoke, the fire engines, and the other people walking toward the scene, until I reached the house. A large gathering of onlookers stood by. We didn’t say much—we just watched.

I stood there for at least 30 minutes, not quite sure why I was standing there, but finding myself unable to walk away. The flames, which at one point seemed under control, all of a sudden burst forth with new vigor. By the time that fire engines from surrounding cities appeared to help, the blaze was burning furiously. When it was finally under control, the house was all but destroyed.

Some people stayed standing there, while others, including myself, finally began to drift away. I felt sad and sobered for the rest of the day, and I began to reflect on why I had walked across the neighborhood to watch my neighbor’s house burn down. It wasn’t morbid curiosity. I wasn’t like the teenage boys who just wanted to witness something crazy happening. And after some reflection, I finally realized why I had done that.

There’s an unsettling truth in life that most (if not all) of us will learn at some point. And that truth is this: the rest of the world doesn’t fall apart when our personal worlds fall apart. I remember the first (but certainly not the last) time I experienced this at the age of 21. The boy who said he wanted to marry me, and with whom I’d planned to spend my life, one day just changed his mind and broke things off with no warning.

I remember going to Target the next day to buy some things, still dazed and in shock. As I roamed the aisles, wanting nothing more than to crawl into the fetal position on aisle 10, I heard people around me laughing and joking. I saw people who were happy. And I was shocked to see that the world around me kept acting as though nothing was wrong, when for me, everything was wrong. I was shocked to see that the world was still turning when my world had been shaken to the core.

And that’s why I left my house that day to stand there silently while my neighbor’s house burned down—because when we don’t stop what we’re doing to acknowledge another person’s loss and tragedy, we diminish both their humanity and our own. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the family. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t do anything to help. What mattered was that someone’s life was crumbling in that moment as their home burned down, and I had to stop what I was doing to acknowledge that reality. I had to stop my own world for a moment, as though to say that I see what is happening to you, I grieve for what is happening to you, and I am sorry. And so, for just a moment, my world will stop with you.

Christmas Mourning

For those of you keeping track, I haven’t written or posted in quite a while. Without going into the details of why, suffice to say that I hope 2018 will include some new writing on the blog. In the meantime, I’m pulling an article from the archives. If Christmas seems to be more sad than joyful for you this year, or if you know someone for whom that’s the case, read on or share it with others:

There isn’t a typo in the title of this article. We are all know the phrase “Christmas Morning.” But Christmas and mourning? This is not the stuff that catchy holiday songs or Hallmark channel Christmas movies are made of. Yet to one degree or another, most of us have experienced disappointment, disillusionment, discouragement, or depression on Christmas day.

It can be tempting to laden Christmas with a weight of expectations that no day can bear. And as it buckles under the weight of our expectations, in some cases dashing them to the ground, we may begin to see more clearly that perhaps we’ve been a bit intoxicated by the Christmas “spirit” and need to revive our spiritual senses.

It is natural, understandable, and even good to want an enjoyable Christmas. After all, who wouldn’t want a day of familial harmony, joy, and togetherness? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy a wonderful, home-cooked (to one degree or another!) meal? Who wouldn’t want to give and receive gifts surrounded by twinkly lights and flickering fireplaces with carols playing in the background, perhaps with a few cute children thrown in for good measure? And if any of us lack imagination as to what that day “should” look like, there is no shortage of commercials and movies around the holidays to give us warm and fuzzy images of what an ideal Christmas should look like.

But what if it all falls flat? What if the family gets together and it’s nothing but frustration and disappointment? What if sickness or serious illness makes the planned Christmas celebration impossible? What if bad weather keeps you from seeing your family and causes you to spend Christmas all alone? What if someone you love is conspicuously absent through a recent break-up, divorce, or death? From the trivial to the traumatic, we can easily become disillusioned, discouraged, or depressed, when Christmas doesn’t “deliver” the type of peace on earth and goodwill toward men that we expect (and sometimes wrongly demand) from it. The perfect day we long for ends up just like the other 364…not perfect. Somehow broken. Never immune from the curse of sin.

It is these Christmas experiences that reveal our hearts, and even how we fundamentally view the celebration of Christmas and the incarnation of Jesus Christ on the ground level of real life. Many of our Christmas expectations come from a longing for a perfect day that’s a break from the brokenness of everyday life. Yet Christmas means that Jesus left the perfect days of heaven to situate Himself right in the midst of the brokenness of this earth. We long for loving and harmonious union with friends and family. Yet Christmas means that Jesus left perfect fellowship with the Father and Holy Spirit to situate Himself in the midst of people who didn’t understand Him, tried to use Him, hated Him, betrayed Him, and abandoned Him. We long to be in a beautiful, warm, and cozy home. Yet Christmas means that Jesus left His Father’s house and came to situate Himself in the feeding trough in a barn with poor parents. There were no twinkly lights in the manger.

In different ways, we all come to Christmas (as we do in all of life), with some set of expectations. They may be small or large. They may be recognized or unrecognized. They may be fulfilled or they may be shattered. And when they are shattered and we are confronted with them, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Just as we seem to be moving further away from the meaning and celebration of Christmas by our disappointing circumstances, we may actually be moving into position to press deeper than ever before into the true meaning of Christmas, if by God’s grace we choose to step in that direction.

One Simple Question to Gauge Your Love For God

I’m well aware that no single question is the definitive litmus test for a person’s love for God. However, there is one particular area that I’ve been contemplating lately, and I’ve been noticing its absence or presence in the lives and speech of other believers. It’s something that should be a huge part of our longings and our language. Yet it sometimes seems to occupy a tiny corner space, at least here in America. I can’t speak to other nations, though I’d love to hear the thoughts of readers in other countries.

Allow me to set up the question with a scenario: imagine that you are engaged to the person you say is the love of your life. You’ve finally found him or her, dated, and are preparing for marriage. There’s one catch, though. You are living in the U.S., and your intended is living in Europe. Now, imagine that both of you are completely content with this long-distance relationship. You’ve both got jobs you enjoy, a good church, friends, and a decent place to live. You say the other person is the love of your life, but both of you are completely fine living on different continents, content to maintain your relationship via text, email, phone, and Skype. Maybe someday you’ll live in the same place, but there’s no urgency, no longing, to be face-to-face in real space and time. Truth be told, there are some things you’d like to accomplish where you are before you have to move. You’re not quite ready to leave the job, the church, the friends, or the apartment. But maybe when the excitement and activity of your current life wears off, then sure, of course you’d like to eventually live with your spouse. You’re just not in any hurry. And it really doesn’t emotionally affect you too much.

Anyone with half a brain knows that there is something seriously wrong with this relationship. Any concerned friend, parent, pastor, or counselor would tell you so. I would hope they would ask you to seriously consider whether marriage to this person is a good idea, given your relative indifference about the long-distance situation, and your lack of longing and anticipation to be with that person.

Here is the purpose of the analogy: how many Christians treat their relationship with God in basically the same manner? And now we get to the diagnostic question of this post: how eagerly do you long for, and how frequently do you pray for, the return of Jesus?

If we don’t, I might suggest that we have some things in common with the dysfunctional couple of our illustrative scenario. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t love God at all. But it may suggest that there is more worldliness at play than we realize. Oftentimes we equate “worldliness” simply with blatantly ungodly devotion to the things of the world. But really, worldliness is more subtle than that. It’s simply preferring the world and temporal things on any given day more than God and the eternal state. That’s it. It’s preferring to have the temporal gifts of God for 70 or so years before Jesus’ return. It’s wanting to get a nice earthly life first, and then being ok with Jesus’ return. Would you long for Jesus’ immediate return the night before your long-awaited wedding? The night before your big job promotion? The night before your prestigious ministry opportunity? The night before your kid’s graduation? The night before your first grandchild is born?

The Christmas season can be an interesting sociological study on a number of fronts. But one of the things that puzzles me is when people get really excited to celebrate His first coming, but have very little interest in His second coming on a day-to-day basis. They don’t long for it. They don’t feel homesick. They don’t pray every day for Jesus to return quickly to bring comfort to the afflicted, justice to the oppressed, to destroy Satan, and to set up His everlasting kingdom. So it always stands out to me when I find people who do. Like one of my former pastors, who prays every night with his family at the dinner table that Jesus would return soon. Like Joni Eareckson Tada, who lives in hope of her bodily resurrection someday, freed from her wheelchair and a crippled body. Like my current pastor, who chooses songs for us to sing about being bound for the Promised Land, and prays in our corporate gathering for Jesus to return.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the best thing we could seek to cultivate this Christmas as believers in Christ is that heart of deep and continual longing for His return. That we not be content with a long-distance relationship. That we pray to be face-to-face with Him, as we were created to be in the Garden, lost in the Fall, was reintroduced by Jesus’ first coming, and will be consummated in His second coming. Because at the end of the day, Christmas Day is Part I of the story, but we’re still waiting for Part II to arrive. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!

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Why Do We Dream? Thinking Theologically About Our Unconscious Hours

I have often wondered about dreams. Why do we dream? What do our dreams mean, if anything? And specifically, how might Christians understand dreams in a way different from the world? So today I want to share some thoughts as I’ve pondered these questions. I can’t chapter and verse my thoughts or claim absolute truth on them. I’m just thinking theologically and personally here.

I have strange dreams. It’s always been the case, for whatever reason. I dream pretty regularly, and remember a good chunk of them when I wake up. I’ll spare you the details of my Alice-in-Wonderland-like experiences, but suffice it to say, as I’ve given it a lot of consideration, I would boil down and connect my dreams to two primary theological realities.

And before we begin, let me add how I am defining “revelation.” I believe that dreams are revelatory in the sense that they can reveal, or teach us, realities about life in God’s World. However, I do NOT believe that dreams are revelatory in the sense that God is “telling” us what to do in our lives or what decisions to make through our dreams. After all, you don’t want to choose a college, a job, a marriage partner, or make any other major life decision, based on a dream that could have easily been induced by a late-night snack or whatever you were watching on Netflix before you fell asleep, and somehow attribute that to the voice of the Sovereign of the Universe.

So what are the two realities that dreams can possibly make more clear and put on display? In my experience, dreams magnify the reality of my sin, and the reality of sehnsucht.

First, I think dreams are redemptive in that they can further reveal our sinful nature. Sometimes I have dreams where I say sinful things, or do sinful deeds. Things I would (hopefully) never do in real life. I’ve woken up shocked that I could dream that. And oftentimes, I can connect it to something I have watched, or a stressful experience I’m having in real life. But the points that stick out are these: 1.) I can sin even when I’m unconscious and my body is out of commission. If anyone wants practical evidence of the soul being a distinct entity from the body, there you go. There is a functioning “inner man” always at work, even when my physical body, or “outer man,” lies dormant. The body may lie dormant in sleep, but the soul does not. It is always alive and always active. In fact, it will never die, for even when our physical bodies cease to work, our souls will immediately be either with the LORD or away from the LORD, until the day when our physical bodies and souls are reunited forever. And because of the fact that “sin never sleeps,” it means that 2.) I am in need of a Savior even when I sleep, for I can still sin when my body sleeps. Sometimes we joke around that at least we know we’re not sinning if we’re sleeping. But due to dreams, that’s actually not true. There is still that corrupt part of me that can’t be controlled when I’m unconscious, and it comes out in my dreams. I need a Savior, even when I sleep. And I believe it’s appropriate to confess to God the ungodly things that we dream, for as much as we’d like to think we’re not responsible for it, it reveals the inner corruption that remains. And perhaps dreams can remind us that we do need to be careful what our eyes and ears behold in movies and TV if they find sinful expression through our dreams. So I’m thankful for dreams, because they remind me and show with greater clarity how much I am a sinner, and how much I need the righteousness of Jesus, whether I am awake or sleeping.

Second, I think dreams reveal an entirely different aspect of life than our sinful nature. And this will be hard to write about, because the topic itself somewhat defies description, and words are poor communicators. But I would summarize it by the German word sehnsucht, which doesn’t quite have an exact English translation, but carries the idea of “yearning; wistful longing.” And again, here I tread on the borders of something so hauntingly beautiful and humanly impossible to capture that I almost hesitate to speak at all, for words are insufficient.

Every once in a while, I will have a dream that is unique. I wake up and immediately want to go back to the dream, for in it, I felt something that I do not feel in normal life. It’s often a combination of unparalled beauty, along with feeling perfectly at home, at peace, safe, whole, protected, happy, and fully alive. The dreams are hard to describe. In fact, they’re more easily described by the feelings they evoke than the actual content of the dream. Yet, I’ll try. One of the dreams is standing on the beach at night next to the ocean. In my dream, I’m supposed to be in Ventura, CA, but when I wake up, I know that Ventura does not look like that, and I’ve never felt like that there. Almost as though my real experiences in Ventura were a pale shadow of the full beauty of Dream Ventura, which brought black-and-white to brilliant color. And I stood on the shore feeling perfectly at home, at peace, safe, whole, protected, happy, childlike, and fully alive. Another dream is just a brief snippet of remembrance…something about walking around in what is supposed to be Santa Barbara in my dream, yet when I wake up, I know it wasn’t Santa Barbara. For Santa Barbara doesn’t look like that in real life, and I’ve never felt in real life the way I felt in that dream. Perfectly at home, at peace, safe, whole, protected, happy, childlike, and fully alive.

And as I try to trace that experience, that dream, back to God, I come to the concept of sehnsucht. For my dream reveals that there is a deeper beauty and homier home than anything I’ve ever experienced in this world. And when I wake up, I want to go back to where I was. There is a yearning, a wistful longing, to feel the way I felt in that dream. And that, I believe, is a glimpse of what the new heavens and new earth will be like. For a moment in my sleep, the corruption of the world and my own heart slide away, and I feel and experience something entirely other-worldly. Like going home to a home I never knew I was estranged from. Like finally feeling the way we were originally created to feel, yet lost in the Fall. Like becoming fully myself, when I didn’t realize how fragmented and partial I was. When I wake up and try to grasp for it, it eludes me like a wisp of smoke vanishing into air. My fist grabs for it and it evaporates. I’m left with fuzzy and vague shadows of what it was. It’s the itch you can never quite scratch. But even though you can’t reach it, you know it’s real, and that someday you will experience it again. And as overwhelming as it seems, you will experience it forever if you are redeemed by Christ. I say it’s overwhelming because I honestly can’t imagine what it will be like to feel that completely safe and happy and awed and whole and real and alive all the time. It would be a system overload. My current body and mind couldn’t handle it. And perhaps that’s why we’ll need glorified bodies…not only ones that are free from sin ourselves, but ones that have the capacity to experience God’s glory and overwhelming beauty and unmitigated ecstasy without melting or exploding on the spot.

So in the end, everything goes back to God, even our dreams. And in the end, dreams (at least for me), highlight the two biggest realities of life in God’s world. First, the deep and pervasive horrors of sin (the Fall), and second, the hauntingly beautiful yet currently elusive unspeakable beauties of full holiness, God’s presence, absolutely restored humanity and earth (Redemption). And I, for one, can’t wait to go to my true and real home, become my true and real self, and be with my true and real God.

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The Comparison Game: The Game You Can Never Win

What if I told you about a game that everybody plays, yet nobody ever wins? Would you want to play it? The fact is, you probably already do, or at the very least, are tempted to play it. “What game,” you might ask, “is it?” And my answer would be: The Comparison Game.

In our sinful nature, we are hard-wired to compare anything and everything in our lives to the lives of those around us, whether near or far, believer or unbeliever, friend or foe. Not only is the game broad in its potential participants, but it’s equally as broad in content. We can pretty much compare anything: spouse, lack of a spouse, job/career, lack of a job/career, children, lack of children, financial situation, opportunities, family, ministry, physical appearance, where we live, what we live in, mode of transportation, physical health, friendships, church, mental ability, physical ability, and that’s just a start. The list could literally almost never end.

Because it’s woven into fallen human nature, it’s woven into God’s Word again and again. In fact, God knew that it would be so prevalent among us that He instituted a law against it in the 10 Commandments. It’s a pretty big deal when the ONLY commandment of the 10 that deals directly with a heart issue (rather than the outward expression of a heart issue) focuses squarely on the issue of covetousness, whether it’s coveting someone’s spouse, house, or ANYTHING that belongs to him. Put comparison and sinful flesh together, and more often than not, they’ll birth the baby of covetousness.

The most “famous” example of this in the Old Testament, of course, is our friend Asaph in Psalm 73. I love this guy’s absolute honesty, and I wish more people were like that. Not the sinfulness part of course, but the honesty about it before God and man. In his case, he envied the wicked (ie: unbelievers), when he compared their lot to the lot of the righteous (ie: believers).

I appreciate what Asaph is saying, but for me, that’s never really been where comparison and covetousness gets me. I don’t look at rap stars, the Kardashians, or famous actresses, and envy them (for the most part), mostly because their lives seem so hollow and twisted, and their fate (unless they repent) is tragic. But my version of covetousness is probably even worse than Asaph’s, because I tend to do it with other believers.

For some reason, it seems like suffering as believers would be easier if we were all in it together on the same level. But quite frankly, that’s not how God has arranged it, for reasons I will never understand until glory (where He’ll either explain it, or I won’t even care anymore since it simply won’t matter). The fact of the matter is, while all believers suffer on one level or another, some suffer much less than others, and some suffer incredibly more. Some believers will have a monthly paycheck that allows them to live comfortably and not in constant anxiety for how they’ll make it through, others live hand-to-mouth in poverty. Some believers have sweet marriages; some believers have horrible ones, or perhaps the deep (and often invisible) pain of wanting one, and never having one. Some believers are healthy as a horse; other believers are sick as a dog. Some believers go on vacations; others can only find respite and escape in their dreams. I don’t understand this. It deeply disturbs me. I want it to be “fair” and for everyone to be the same.

Think about a scenario with me: we’re in Acts 1, and Judas has hung himself. Peter announces to the 120 believers that they need a replacement. The two men on the ballot: Barsabbas (Justus) and Matthias. They prayed and cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. Perhaps you’ve never wondered this, but here’s what I wonder: how did Barsabbas feel in that moment? Maybe it didn’t bother him at all. Or maybe he felt a little ashamed or embarrassed, in the presence of 120 people, having not been the one chosen. Maybe, just maybe, he went home that night and prayed, asking the Lord, “Is there something wrong with me, that I wasn’t the one chosen? What does Matthias have that I don’t have? Did I do something wrong?” I don’t know.

Consider another scenario a bit later in Acts 12: Herod is on the rampage against believers, and James and Peter are the objects of his wrath. However, things go down very differently for each of them. James (the brother of John) was killed; Peter was imprisoned and miraculously rescued by an angel of the Lord. Not a very “fair” outcome for two of the Lord’s apostles, eh? I try to imagine what I would feel like if I were James’ wife or child, mourning his death, while Peter’s family and the believers were rejoicing at his “miracle” deliverance. Again, I don’t know if anyone actually felt this way, but sometimes we forget that these were real people, with real feelings, and real griefs.

I hate the comparison game because it produces anger, envy, jealousy, depression, and a sense of isolation from other believers. None of those things are good. Yet my flesh is powerful, and only God’s grace can pierce through all that junk. And it really is pathetic, because I’m evaluating according to what I can see (which is very little), rather than what I can’t see (which is the entire picture, which ONLY God can see).

Yet I’ve saved the biggest biblical example for last: the interaction between Jesus, John, and Peter in John 21. When Jesus tells Peter he is going to die a martyr’s death, he immediately turns to John and asks, “Lord, what about this man?” In other words, Peter wants to know whether John will have the same fate as he will. Comparison 101. And the response is, I must say, CLASSIC Jesus, when He replies, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

So I don’t intent to wrap up this post with tidy answers or platitudes. It’s too deep, too real, and perhaps, too raw for me to do so. But at the end of the day, the focus lands squarely on the only place it rightly can: on Jesus Himself. Stop looking around and follow Me. Stop comparing what I’m doing in others’ lives to yours. You simply lack the sovereign intelligence to evaluate it. It’s not easy, and it may be a daily discipline with failures and restarts. But all we can do is choose to look at Him, look at Him, and look at Him again, and simply follow Him. As much as I’d love to change roles with some of my fellow actors in the drama of redemption, I can’t. I’d be a fool to try. I have to follow Him, and trust that the Screenwriter, Producer, and Director knows what He’s doing far more than I do, whether in my own life, the lives of friends I love, or the lives of distant sufferers I only read about or hear about on the news. I can’t see how any of it is good with my eyes, so I must believe it by faith, until faith becomes sight, God is justified, and I repent in dust and ashes.