From JNCO Jeans to Jesus: Musing on True Popularity

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Sixth grade was a transitional year for me. I never really thought about style and appearances before that, but all the sudden looks mattered. That year in particular stood out to me because, wanting to appease one crowd, I began the year dressed in JNCO jeans (if you don’t remember those, they were like denim dresses with an inseam). If you knew me in sixth grade, you’d laugh at the discrepancy between innocent little Caleb and the alternative brand I felt compelled to don. By my birthday in October, though, I was begging my parents for gift cards to the mall in order to fit in with an entirely different group. I went 180° the other direction in my style choice: Gap, Abercrombie, and American Eagle (out of those brands, today I only own Gap).

Back then popularity mattered. Or at least I thought it did. I remember my middle school years being difficult. In sixth and seventh grade I was arrogant, warmly embraced by the cool kids. By eighth grade, though, I lost all those friends as I refused to join them in their initial experimentation with sex and booze (yes, that was in eighth grade!), and, thanks in large part to my amazing parents, I had to slowly rebuild a healthier sense of self-worth.

In eighth grade I had an identity crisis. You know what? I still do.

Every day I wrestle the temptation to find my worth in something other than the only One whose opinion is worth anything.

Salary, stuff, success, fitness.

At thirty-one years old, I’m still fighting the popularity contest. Ironically, that contest is normally a one-man show. I put the pressure on myself. Don’t get me wrong; people can be very judgmental. But I actually find that many people really could care less how many career awards I’ve won or that I live in an apartment or that my wife and I share one Honda Fit (or they just talk about it behind my back).

One of the beautiful aspects of teaching is that, in my classroom, I’m also a learner. Here’s what one of my students wrote the other day in her narrative essay:

“[My] experience has made me realize that it’s okay not to be popular. Ultimately, the people who look like they have it all figured out, [sic] are the people who are hurting the most. We therefore find our “popularity” in Christ and who he says we are.”

This wonderfully wise student echoes the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

I could list so many verses that speak into the unique masterpiece that is YOU, a divinely carved image of the sovereign God. Let me also mention one of the great paradoxes of the Bible: the people who thought they had “IT,” Jesus let them know they were lost, and the people who had nothing, they were the ones who were found by Him.

Jesus eternally marked the popularity of His children on the cross when He said, “It is finished.”

It is finished. God already thinks you’re cool. Let that be enough.

“Advent”: A Poem

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Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

Advent

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Lamp-posts line
cold streets: lightless,
lifeless, leafless poking
about in irrelevance.

Rosy cheeks cross rosy
streets, a subtle blush
sponged upon the winter droll;
everything is fine.

“Say it enough, and it’s
yours if you just believe,”
thumped from a television
set, just another sound.

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Many years ago some shepherds were
in a quiet place waiting but they
didn’t know it: angel news
has never been too common.

The ugly earth in naked
unconcern started glowing
with the messengers. Do not
fear didn’t stop the trembling, but

in a pinprick moment
a baby squealed, wrapped in
prophecy and misguided expectations.
Are we held? Despite everything.


I began writing this poem back in the winter of 2014, sitting in a coffee shop on Brookline Avenue in the Boston area. (I’ve tinkered with it here and there and perhaps will tinker with it more.)

I wanted to capture in one poetic space the frailty of our grasp on fleeting things, the emptiness that many experience around the holidays, and the paradox of the real Christmas event in Bethlehem.

This Christmas–in joy or sorrow–I hope we can better reflect on the earth-redefining significance of a seemingly innocuous moment in a small, Middle Eastern village two thousand years ago. I pray that it triumphs over all our silly little trivialities.

“Waiting Is an Art”

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Photo by David Bartus from Pexels

“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men to do us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancee while he was in prison, December 13, 1943 (bold and italics added)

I am currently reading God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, a compilation of notes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many of these notes are gathered from letters written while in prison, an enemy to the Nazi regime for his involvement with an assassination plot against Hitler.

I love Christmas. I love the simple, silly little traditions surrounding the holiday: decorating the tree, Christmas movies, music, hot chocolate, snuggling up with my wife (okay, this is actually just my first year celebrating Christmas as a newlywed). I also love the slightly deeper aspects of sharing the holiday with friends and family.

Traditionally, though, the season of Advent is about waiting.

Unfulfillment.     Anticipation.     Hope.     Anxiety.     Wondering.     Wandering.

Will God come through?

The Israelites encountered the deep, wintry silence of God for approximately four hundred years between the final book of the Old Testament and the Immaculate Conception.

God is in that waiting, though. All the build up, the fear and trembling, the white-knuckling it through life (and often the holidays) is really just meant to call us into grasping more tightly on to something beyond our immediate situation:

the deep waiting that will be redeemed in the manger.

So, if you feel restless, you might be on to something.

“For to us a child is born… Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

“Back to School” Is Not Just for Kids

 

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“The time has come to revive an idea that once seemed natural: the student’s life as a Christian calling.”

Dr. Leland Ryken, author and professor, writes this in a chapter that he contributed to Liberal Arts for the Christian Life. For Ryken and many Christian educators (like myself), education is not a season of life meant to prepare people only for a career; instead, education–learning–is a calling, a vocation.

This is my third year as a professional school educator. (I use so many descriptors here because many of us are educators in varying capacities in other areas of life. For example, I was also educating as a college pastor for three years) I taught 10th-12th grade literature (and SAT prep) at a bilingual school in El Salvador, I taught 6th grade last year at SCA, and this year I moved back up into the high school realm, teaching 9th and 10th grade English. I am by no means an expert, but I have closely experienced the lives and attitudes of students over the past several years.

Unfortunately, for many students, learning is seen as a chore, a necessary evil in the natural progression of life aimed solely at a future career. I confess; I feed into that mentality too. Just yesterday I was explaining the benefits of taking grades seriously and adding academic extracurriculurs (such as being a tutor) as a means of boosting their future college applications. Truthfully, learning needs no justification. I’m not saying that learning is not justifiable; rather, we should not need to insist that the primary benefit of education is job attainment. Learning is a Christian practice. 

“The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”
-John Milton, Of Education

Thankfully, education fits perfectly within a Christian worldview. Whereas learning might in fact be only utilitarian among some other worldviews, Christian education is a biblical model and mandate. As Milton notes in his famous tract on education, we humans are broken in our understanding of truth (vis-à-vis the Fall in Genesis 3), but Christian learning is a means by which we repair our knowledge and intimate relationship with God. The Bible is full of these examples and imperatives.

“Jesus grew in wisdom…” (Luke 2:52)

“Love the Lord your God with… all your mind…” (Luke 10:27)

“…Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

 

So where is a good place to start reversing the narrow view of education? At home. Adults especially, those no longer studying in an educational institution, begin modeling lifelong learning as parents, as co-workers, as neighbors. Read books, learn languages, go to museums. If you’re a parent, let your kids “catch you” being a life-long learner. It will rub off and form positive habits in them.

At the height of his wisdom, Solomon was studying normal, supposedly non-spiritual things (we actually know that there is no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular and that God is as much God over butterflies and algebra as He is over theology). All of this brings glory to God and grows us in our understanding of Him and His kingdom.

Now, I will add, don’t be blind to the pitfalls of knowledge: There is obvious evil apparent when knowledge becomes divorced from living (i.e. ivory tower approach). Redeemed learning, though, growing in wisdom and understanding in the context of Christian maturity, is fruitful and necessary.

So, welcome back to school… all of you.

Yes, You Can!

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Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

I really don’t like prosperity preachers (do we remember the private jet fundraising debacle?); the worldview they offer is so hollow and contradictory both to Scripture and basic human experience.

The biblical narrative is pretty clear: God made all things perfect, the first humans fell from grace in an attempt to become divine themselves, God began a redemption program that began immediately after the Fall and culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and finally, the Church (believers of Christ) joins God as representatives of the coming kingdom, the new heaven and earth. The Bible is filled with pain, and Jesus himself promises trouble (John 16:33) until the arrival of the new Jerusalem when pain and death are eradicated (Revelation 21:4). Guess what? Unless somehow I missed the memo, Revelation 21:4 has not yet happened (and if it has, someone needs to tell global news that what they’re reporting isn’t true). In fact, the history of the Church is one of pain and abuse (sometimes towards the Church and sometimes by it). Prosperity like what some of these guys are preaching is a luxury for the lucky few (the richest 1% owns half of the world’s wealth).

However, as the title of this post suggests, I want to share a message that is going to sound dangerously close to self-help propaganda. Just because this life is filled with tribulation, it does not mean you are powerless.

PAIN ≠ POWERLESSNESS

Pain does not equal powerlessness.

Too often I have witnessed individuals struggle with self-confidence, for some reason believing the lies that they cannot succeed in various situations. Somewhere they experienced failure, and it hurt… bad. Somewhere they experienced failure, and they were surrounded by people that reminded them of that failure and twisted the knife deeper. Maybe that’s you. It’s definitely been me many times.

Too often I have witnessed people living in fear, unable to rise above their anxieties and circumstances. And unfortunately, a life of fear leads to a life of immobility and inability. Potentially life-giving experiences are avoided. Opportunities to serve others are passed over.

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Abundant life. That’s the goal. Instead, many of us are living somewhere between drowning and barely getting by–a far cry from abundant life.

The truth: because we’re in a world where pain is promised, we have to experience hard things to get to that abundant life. And frankly, we have to do hard things to get to that abundant life. The way of Jesus, paradoxically, is the way of pain and sacrifice.

Even though I’ve missed out on some amazing things because of fear (for example, sitting at home watching Netflix because I was too intimidated to initiate relationally with others… yes, even extroverts can have relational anxiety), I can also pinpoint obvious rewards for stepping outside my comfort zone. A lot of my solo travel experiences were done under intense fear.

I remember crossing the English Channel back in 2010, arriving in France by myself on a ferry staring down an unknown country, an unknown language, and two months of uncertainty as I bounced around place after place. I started having a panic attack on the ferry as I was trying to memorize a few French phrases, and I realized that I didn’t know at all how to pronounce the words (lets just say that French pronunciation is very different than Spanish pronunciation). But you know what? One of the more intimidating experiences of my life turned out to be one of the most memorable.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone can or should choose traveling as the difficult obstacle they need to overcome. And obviously there are more significant fears we can overcome to make a greater contribution to society and the kingdom of God. But let me encourage and challenge you (and me): STOP LETTING FEAR CRIPPLE YOU.

I know this is a million times easier said than done, and I don’t pretend to understand your unique–and perhaps harrowing–personal experiences that have fed into certain fears. Believe me, there is no judgment on my end, just encouragement. But listen to what the apostle Paul said to his fledgling apprentice, Timothy.

…I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. -2 Timothy 1:6b-7

God did not give us a spirit of fear. He gave us a spirit of power, love, and self-control. Stop saying, “No, I can’t.”

Yes, you can.

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Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

How do I know? Because Christ did, and we have access to that same spirit of power. Let me remind you, though, that we have access to that power through Christ. This is not something we can self-manufacture (which is why this is not a self-help guide). And ultimately, this spirit of power, love, and self-control is a gift in order to share in “a holy calling” (v. 9). Thus, as we move out of fear, we move into a sacrificial calling on behalf of others.

The abundant life.

Final thoughts:

How do we actually access the Spirit of God? These biblical verses and passages assume a relationship of committed faith in Jesus Christ. There is (unfortunately) no ten-step guide to accessing the Spirit, but I’m going to share three easy steps in a list that is probably much longer. As Christ-followers we need to (1) saturate ourselves with the truth of Scripture, (2) pray and invite the Spirit to fill us up with His power, and (3) do hard things. Yes, you can. Take action yourself. Invite His Spirit in, and trust that He will meet you in your efforts. There’s no magic formula, and probably most days empowerment will feel a lot like plain old weakness actually, but keep moving, and you will find yourself, in time, living more abundantly.

 

Rooted, Unrooted: Can I Settle in without Settling for the American Dream?

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Ever since college, really, I have struggled with the tension of being rooted versus being unrooted (not uprooted per se).

In college I was in a serious relationship, and when that relationship ended, I realized, looking back, that I was in it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted the perfect, idyllic life (as I saw it). I was studying to be a pastor, and I thought that after college I would get married, study in seminary, become a suburban pastor, settle down, and build a family: a cute, domestic American dream. Terminating my serious relationship obviously slowed down my dream. However, that experience actually awakened a latent desire for travel, and I ended up swinging the pendulum in the far other direction.

Immediately (like, a few weeks ) after I graduated in December 2009, I hopped on a plane and backpacked around Europe for three and a half months by myself. A few years later I headed to Scotland for a month of hiking and exploring. Later I traveled around South America (Ecuador and Peru), moved to Boston for a year, went on another trip to Europe (Scotland and Italy), and moved back to St. Louis (during that year I went on short trips to England and Toronto). Eventually I took a job teaching in El Salvador hoping to teach there for several years, but I fell in love and moved back to the U.S. (this time to the Kansas City area) to apply for a visa for my fiancee. We recently married, and I’m about to begin my second year teaching here.

You can see that my life the last few years has been pretty unrooted. And though I now have a steady job that I love, and my wife whom I love with me, I know that there will still be many trips overseas in our future (my in-laws live in El Salvador, and my sister-in-law lives in Germany), and I’m definitely not complaining about that. Now, however, I have begun imagining domesticity once again: the settled life.

Imagining a rooted life can take many forms: a house with more space to grow a family in the future (and space to actually sit on the patio with our morning coffee which is less tenable in a second floor apartment), a second car, fun little home amenities like a second TV or decent furniture, and the list goes on. I start seeing things through new lenses: “Oooh, that would look nice in our home!” Let me tell you, this is in stark contrast from my modus operandi the past few years.

Some of you might think, “Aww, that’s cute. Caleb’s finally growing up.” But am I? What kind of life squares away better with a Christian worldview? Is it better to live rooted or unrooted? The Bible seems to make a case for both, so I’ll share a few critical passages.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… -Philippians 3:20

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. -Hebrews 11:13-16

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. -1 Peter 2:11

Heavenly citizenship. Strangers, exiles, sojourners seeking a heavenly country. This is an important description of New Testament believers. For many years I have justified my nomadic life with descriptions such as these, and there is obvious, biblical truth here. So is there any room to justify a more stable, domestic, rooted life? Look at what God says to His people living in exile.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare….” -Jeremiah 29:4-7

We might not think of ourselves this way, but we are exiles. We are God’s chosen people (Gentiles grafted into the nation of Israel) living dispersed among the nations. However, a clear biblical strategy mandated to the scattered Jews that applies to us today is to become rooted into our local areas and seek the welfare of that place.

So, rooted or unrooted?

Both.

Trying to justify the type of nomadic, traveling life that is sexy today is fruitless from a biblical perspective. Inter-cultural experiences are amazing and should be sought after. Travel is a good thing. Living abroad is a good thing. But the Bible is clear that we are to seek community and fellowship, both with Christians and non-Christians. If the type of travel you envision is gallivanting around the globe endlessly (as a lifestyle versus a vacation) without ever rooting to one place, it’s hard to square that up with a kingdom mindset. Tuck in. Get to know your neighbors and your city. Serve your surroundings. In this way, domesticity is good!

Nevertheless, there is still a strong warning. Christians are, by definition, unrooted. This is not our home. America is not our home (nor is it a chosen, righteous nation). In both a figurative and literal sense, we are wanderers with eyes constantly on our true home, the kingdom come. Do not put your saving hope here (socio-political systems, education, wealth, etc.). We look ahead to the new heavens and the new earth and the new Jerusalem.

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. -1 Corinthians 51-53

We’re Married: El Salvador-USA Wedding

the landing.

Exactly 349 days after saying goodbye at St. Louis Lambert Airport as she flew back to El Salvador for us to complete the immigration process, I greeted Elena (this time at Kansas City International Airport) with tears, kisses, and a great big hug. I’d like to say that the moment was just like the movies, but I was accidentally waiting for her at the wrong exit (oops!), so it was a little anticlimactic. Still, meeting her at the airport, even in the awkwardness of being in the wrong place, was absolutely magical. She looked stunning, and she was finally in the U.S. to marry me.

the week before.

Don’t get me wrong, the week before the wedding was stressful. Just ask about any of the dozens of incredible people that helped make our wedding possible. Nevertheless, that week was wonderful, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity that Elena’s parents had to see a side of the U.S. that was completely different than their previous travels to the States (they’d been primarily to Florida and California). Though we spent some time in Kansas City and St. Louis (including a Cardinals game!), we spent a lot of time driving through the rural Midwest. I realize how much I take for granted the rolling hills, miles and miles of cornfields, barns and farm houses, rivers, and bridges along I-70; it’s an idyllic drive.

The actual wedding preparation, though, was seriously a miracle. So many people offered to help in any possible with decorations, directing traffic, playing music, translating, and the list goes on. The wedding would not have happened without them.

the wedding day.

Before the wedding, Elena and I tried to find a great wedding venue that would fit our budget. We’ve had to pay a lot of money for lawyer and immigration fees (and will be starting the process all over again as she applies for residency and in a few years for citizenship), so we were obviously on a budget. There’s nothing like trying to plan a wedding when your fiancee is in another country, and you’re trying to show potential venues via Messenger video and photos. We also realized quickly how much of a markup weddings are in the U.S. Eventually, we decided on getting married at my parents’ house. It definitely made more work, but… it was beautiful!

the bride enters.

La imagen puede contener: 3 personas, personas sonriendo, personas de pie, boda, de traje y exterior

When Elena entered the aisle under the arch, I was nearly breathless. Her dress, her hair, her makeup, the flowers were perfect. But she was the most perfect of all. My best friend was walking slowly down the aisle, arm in arm with her father, to marry me. I am the luckiest guy on earth.

the ceremony.

We were so blessed by our ceremony that truly sought to incorporate two cultures into one. Aesthetically, we used traditional Salvadorian fabrics for our decor in many ways: the groomsmen’s ties, around the flower baskets, in random other places, and eventually at our reception as well. Additionally, our friends Mike and Evelia led worship, singing both in English and in Spanish, as Elena and I celebrated the Lord’s Supper together. Our friend Fran interpreted in Spanish as my Dad officiated, and we introduced the majority gringo crowd to some Salvadorian traditions: the rope and the giving of the Bible. At one point, Elena’s father, who is also a pastor, explained the tradition of the rope, how we are tied together forever in marriage. At that time both of our mothers draped a rope around us that stayed on us the remainder of the ceremony.

Eventually we read to each other the vows that we had written: Elena read in Spanish and I in English. Her vows were beautiful, Biblical, witty, perfect. We then put on the rings while promising ourselves to each other, kissed, and walked (I think I was running) down the aisle as husband and wife to Carlos Vives’ song Volví a Nacer. 

what I’ve learned so far.

Barely anything.

It’s only been just over two weeks since we’ve been married (which we’ve spent back at our apartment in Blue Springs, MO and on a mini honeymoon to Eureka Springs, AR), so I can’t pretend to know anything really about marriage. However, I can make a couple small observations about our current marital bliss, and I’m sure I’ll have much more to add in the coming years.

1. God made us for companionship.

Now, I vehemently believe that marriage is not required to be a good Christian and that some people will be called to singleness. Marriage is not essential for companionship. However, with that caveat being said, after living many years basically on my own, there’s something absolutely amazing about doing life with someone by my side. I know this will require some adjusting as we both bring our own routines and structure into close living spaces (our apartment isn’t exactly a mansion). Still, to wake up in the middle of the night and have my wife by my side is comforting in a way I had never experienced before. I’m so thankful for this new reality.

2. There is no sustainable rock upon which to build a marriage like Jesus.

Philippians 2:1-11 is the perfect model of sacrifice that is essential for any relationship. I can imagine the ways that this model will challenge both of us in the future to give up our own self-interest in pursuit of the other’s well-being. We won’t live this perfectly, but I’m thankful that we have the Word of God at our fingertips and hopefully always near our hearts in order to journey this life and this marriage together and to live as true representatives of Christ in his kingdom here on earth.

What I’m Missing Even When I Have It All

photo by Alexander Lam

…contentment.

I find contentment to be so elusive. It’s been that way nearly all my life. You know what? Since I flew to South America in 2014 for ten weeks in Ecuador and Peru, I have not lived in the same place for more than a year (until now).

my story

In 2014, despite my goal to teach ESL overseas (I was planning on moving to South Korea and had even begun the paperwork), I got cold feet and moved to Boston. I quickly got a job managing a cafe in Harvard Square. Even so, I could barely keep my head above water financially due to the astronomical cost of living in Boston. I had some really great memories in Boston, but I also struggled some. I was discontent, and I moved (that’s a little oversimplified; there were some other deeper reasons to my move too).

Back in St. Louis, wrestling with my purpose and the direction of my life, I thought that God was calling me back into pastoral ministry. I probably applied to thirty different church positions. To this day I believe I was well-qualified for the jobs I was applying to, but I got zero bites. I didn’t even get a call back. Again, I was discontent.

Thankfully, some doors were opened to me, and I spent the next year managing The Cup‘s Chesterfield location (that location has since closed), working with the youth at a church, and even preaching some as the interim pastor of another church for four months. In fact, when I was presented with the opportunity to take a teaching job in El Salvador, I can honestly look back and say that I accepted the position out of contentment rather than discontentment. I was happy back in St. Louis and not looking to move. However, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

In El Salvador I fell in love, and even though I had planned to teach there longer, I returned to the United States after one year because of the immigration process. I teach now in Kansas City, and I am getting married in a little over two weeks! However, try as I did, I had many moments of discontentment over the past year. I missed my fiancee, I missed El Salvador, I missed opportunities being immersed in another language. As much as I love my new home and teaching here, I still allowed discontentment to creep in.

Now, I’m sure you’re giving me grace for the discontent I may have experienced over the past year while being separated from my fiancee. Still, the Bible doesn’t give qualifiers, and the apostle Paul challenges us today just as he did in his letter to the church in Philippi.

it’s in the Bible

…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.           

-Philippians 4:11b-13 NIV (italics added)

The secret of being content. Contentment feels like a secret sometimes, doesn’t it? Like the top secret files of the government tucked away in some secret vault in Washington DC (think National Treasure), contentment seems like a top secret file buried deep in the throne room of heaven. The truth: contentment isn’t hidden.

the garden of contentment

You and I have access to the apostle Paul’s secret. It is through Jesus that we are opened up to the garden of contentment. Jesus said things like “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) and goes on in the same passage to say, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11).

Why a garden?

The image of a garden goes all the way back to the beginning of the Bible. We were made to live forever with God in paradise. Thus, the goal of salvation and being united to Christ is so that we have renewed access to the garden (actually, it will be a new Jerusalem). Furthermore, Jesus brought in that kingdom when he came to earth. No, we’re not living in a literal kingdom with a stone-walled fortress and palaces. But through the Spirit (that lesser remembered part of the Trinity), we live as kingdom subjects now and have access to the hope and peace of Jesus and his garden of contentment.

how to live with contentment

If Paul could live contentedly despite persecution, surely we (this is a big finger pointed at me primarily) can learn to be content in our comparatively easier lives (I’m not saying our lives are easy, but most of us aren’t being tortured, and most of us know where our next meal is coming from).

I chose this topic to write on because lately I’ve been struggling to live in the moment. I’m an innovative guy (I always have a million ideas and little projects in my mind) who often fails to just settle down and enjoy what’s in front of him. Often these are for good reasons–I want to live a life of meaning and purpose, and I’m processing how to serve God best. However, many times I’m just being selfish and distracted. Or, in my present case, I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of my bride-to-be. So, how do we fix this?

Caveat: on this side of eternity, we will never live perfectly content lives. I’m paraphrasing Steinbeck here, but once we stop worrying about being perfect, we can be good.

The solution to living with contentment is also found in the same passage of Philippians.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God….

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

-Philippians 4:4-6, 8

Be thankful.

Out loud or in writing, be intentionally grateful.

Be present.

In good times and bad, be present in life. It’s good to think about the future or difficult situations, but we can’t be consumed by them. Remember to take a breath, step back, and be present in your immediate situation with the people around you and your reality. Lean in to Jesus when things are hard.

Little by little you and I will learn the secret, and hopefully we can pass it on to others.

Worship: The Flame of Life

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photo: Hakan Erenler

[This post was featured on The Avenue Church’s blog and podcast, For the City.]

The word worship elicits all kinds of images. One person may think of pew on pew on pew leading up to a large Gospel choir in the front of the sanctuary. Another person may recall the used and careworn pages of an old hymnal–maybe even the smell of those pages. Or perhaps one imagines hands raised in the concert hall of a mood-lit mega conference, singing alongside hundreds if not thousands of other believers. One may also remember the emotions: joy, elation, penitence.

When we think of worship, we almost always envision a form of singing. Even for those who know that worship is more, we still, upon instinct, normally associate the word with singing. This is natural. Worship through song has a rich and beautiful tradition in the Church, and it is probably the easiest way to confess love and honor to God. However, just because it is the easiest, that doesn’t mean singing is the only or even the best form of worship. True worship, of course, encompasses the whole individual and the whole church assembly.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1

Paul writes this to the Romans, urging them to submit their lives to the rule of God, and he defines worship as a presentation of one’s body as a living sacrifice.

At my church, The Avenue, we’ve begun a series entitled Valley of Vision, drawing its name and inspiration from the well known Christian devotional compiled and published in 1975 by Arthur Bennett. The Valley of Vision is a collection of Puritan prayers meant to provide form and inspiration to each believer’s personal prayer life. It has also become a simple liturgy used in some churches like The Avenue.

One of the prayers in The Valley Vision is “Worship” (read the whole prayer here), and in the opening lines, the writer promulgates the importance of worship and its significance.

“Glorious God, It is the flame of my life to worship thee, the crown and glory of my soul to adore thee, heavenly pleasure to approach thee.”

It is the flame of my life… Yes, adoration can come in the form of singing. However, notice how much more poignant is the message of this Puritan prayer. Worship is not a flame for the singing time of the service. It is not the flame of Sundays. True worship is the flame of life. Therefore, if this Christian practice is bound to the whole life, it makes sense that worship must consume more than a thirty minute segment of one’s week!

Worship is the offering of all of one’s self to the object (or objects) of one’s allegiance, and by offering one’s self in all areas of life, that becomes the act of praise. As an aside, notice that I mentioned objects, plural, can receive worship. That was intentional. We are always worshipping something; if it’s not God, it’s whatever consumes our devotion, and sometimes that consists of lots of little distracting somethings that steal our attention from God.

Thus, if worship is an offering of all of life, you are worshipping as a parent, caring for your child and pointing her to Jesus. You are worshipping on your hands and knees (prayer-like!) in your garden, pruning God’s good earth for His glory. You are worshipping as you serve your city. And, I believe, you are even worshipping in your failures when that failure becomes an offering of confession and a recognition of your need for grace. God is other in His greatness and power.

This leads me to another aspect of this important prayer. One of the reasons we worship God is because He has given us a mediator, a go-between between man and the Almighty.

“Give me knowledge of thy goodness that I might not be over-awed by thy greatness; Give me Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, that I might not be terrified, but be drawn near with filial love, with holy boldness; He is my Mediator, Brother, Interpreter, Branch, Daysman, Lamb…”

In the Old Testament, Moses asked to see God’s glory (what an audacious request!), and God acquiesced to his request with the caveat that Moses would not be allowed to see God’s face: “for man shall not see me and live.” In the Old Testament, God was personal but not exactly approachable. However, in Jesus Christ every believer has access to God through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, we also worship with the humbling knowledge that, without Jesus, we would be left to worship from afar, unable to comprehend or survive the absolute holiness of the Divine. In Jesus, however, we have a brother and mediator. He is the high priest who gives us access to the throne of God.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15

So let us fan the flame of our lives, let us worship without ceasing by bringing our adoration of God into every area of our lives, and let us praise Jesus all the more because we know that He makes a way for us to enter the eternal kingdom of the most high and eternal God.

My First Published Poem


Really, this is late news, but last fall a poem of mine was selected to fill the pages of Glass Mountain, “a literary journal edited by undergraduate students at the University of Houston” and “dedicated to showcasing the works from undergraduate and emerging artists.” This, of course, is a humble achievement (I wasn’t exactly published in The New Yorker), but I am extremely grateful for the consideration and encouragement that at least something of mine was halfway decent. I continue to write, polish, and submit poetry (I actually just joined a critique group in my area) and hope to share more in the future. I also am working on a novel. Many people know how important reading and writing are to me but very seldom get to see any of the fruit of my constant labor. So here’s something. 


This is perhaps one of the “heavier” poems I have written, but from the perspective of a teacher, I wanted to capture the tension between the ephemeral and eternal. The question, “What redeems the time?” is an allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poetry.