“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.

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.

What Is Your Sacred Pathway?

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La Iglesia de San Francisco in Lima, Peru 2014

 

The other day I was tasked with leading a faculty devotional at my school. I decided to put together a small presentation based on Gary Thomas’s book Sacred Pathways, a book I read several years ago.

Here’s the premise of the book, one of Thomas’s thoughts in the opening pages:

“Expecting all Christians to have a certain type of quiet time can wreak havoc in a church or small group. Excited about meaningful (to us) approaches to the Christian life, we sometimes assume that if others do not experience the same thing, something must be wrong with their faith. Please don’t be intimidated by others’ expectations. God wants to know the real you, not a caricature of what somebody else wants you to be. He created you with a certain personality and a certain spiritual temperament. God wants your worship, according to the way he made you. Your worship may differ somewhat from the worship of the person who brought you to Christ or the person who leads your Bible study or church.

Basically, if God created all of us uniquely, it makes sense that each of us best connect with Him in unique ways. Now, Thomas makes clear that these spiritual pathways that he suggests are not to be replaced with every Christian’s mandate: talk to God (prayer) and listen to Him (Scripture reading). And many of the pathways are commands for all true believers. Nevertheless, many of us are wired more strongly towards certain paths than others. So, which pathway is yours?

Naturalists: Loving God Outdoors

“Naturalists would prefer to leave any building, however beautiful or austere, to pray to God beside a river… just let them take a walk through the woods, mountains, or open meadows.”

Sensates: Loving God with the Senses

“Sensate Christians want to be lost in the awe, beauty, and splendor of God. They are drawn particularly to the liturgical, the majestic, the grand. When these Christians worship, they want to be filled with sights, sounds, and smells that overwhelm them. Incense, architecture, classical music, and formal language send their hearts soaring.”

Traditionalists: Loving God through Ritual and Symbol

“Traditionalists are fed by what are often termed the historic dimensions of faith: rituals, symbols, sacraments, and sacrifice. These Christians tend to have a disciplined life of faith.”

Ascetics: Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity

“Ascetics want nothing more than to be left alone in prayer. Take away the liturgy, the trappings of religion, the noise of the outside world. Let there be nothing to distract them–no pictures, no loud music–and leave them alone to pray in silence and simplicity…. Ascetics live a fundamentally internal existence.”

Activists: Loving God through Confrontation

“Activists serve a God of justice… They define worship as standing against evil and calling sinners to repentance. These Christians often view the church as a place to recharge their batteries so they can go back into the world to wage war against injustice.”

Caregivers: Loving God by Loving Others

“[Caregivers] often claim to see Christ in the poor and needy, and their faith is built up by interacting with other people…. Whereas caring for others might wear many of us down, this activity recharges a caregiver’s batteries.”

Enthusiasts: Loving God with Mystery and Celebration

“Excitement and mystery in worship is the spiritual lifeblood of enthusiasts…. enthusiasts are inspired by joyful celebration. These Christians are cheerleaders for God and the Christian life. Let them clap their hands, shout “Amen!” and dance in their excitement–that’s all they ask.”

Contemplatives: Loving God through Adoration

“Contemplatives refer to God as their lover, and the images of a loving Father and Bridegroom best capture their view of God. Their favorite Bible passages may come from the Song of Songs, as they enter the ‘divine romance’…. these Christians seek to love God with the purest, deepest, and brightest love imaginable.”

Intellectuals: Loving God with the Mind

“Intellectuals need their minds to be stirred before their hearts come truly alive…. These Christians live in the world of concepts…. ‘Faith’ is something to be understood as much as experienced. They may feel closest to God when they first understand something new about him.”

So which one are you? Take the survey here.

I scored highest as a Naturalist and Sensate (also pretty high as Intellectual and Contemplative). I love connecting to God outdoors, especially where there is less white noise–no buzz of cars and infrequent planes flying overhead (unfortunately, it’s difficult to find spaces like that). I also experience the greatest sublime when I’m utilizing my imagination and senses through art and literature. Thus, understanding myself better helps me to thrive in my own devotional life, and I hope it might help you too.

Finally, if you have a chance, I would encourage you to order the book (save the planet…buy a pre-owned copy). It gives sage wisdom to help avoid pitfalls for certain spiritual pathways. For example, my temperaments might cause me to remain isolated in nature or books, but I am still biblically commanded to serve others. We need to watch out for these natural tendencies to ignore the universal calling of the Christian.

I hope you are blessed and can better connect with God according to how he designed you.

“Thanks, God. I mean it now.”

I remember the elation I was feeling during the days leading up to my appointment at the U.S. embassy in El Salvador. I was on vacation from my teaching job during the Holy Week, Semana Santa, and I had just returned from a short trip to Antigua, Guatemala with my then-girlfriend, Elena, and her family. For a couple days I walked those cobble-stoned streets, ate in its cafes and restaurants, took pictures in front of its Baroque-style churches and architecture, and enjoyed the presence of Elena and her family.

Though Elena and I were not yet engaged, we knew we wanted to get married, so we made an appointment at the embassy for the day after we returned from our trip to Antigua. I was very confident that I had done all my research and knew exactly what needed to be completed for us to get married in El Salvador (at a breath-taking cafe on the volcano overlooking the city), continue living there for a year or two, and then return to the United States. The embassy was merely a precaution to make sure we were following all the steps properly.

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Eventually we met with an embassy agent, but our world came crashing down around us; she explained to us that it would be necessary for us to separate.

There were basically two types of visas we could apply for: a fiance(e) visa or a spouse visa. With the former, we separate before the wedding and then get married in the U.S. With the latter, we get married in El Salvador and then separate at some early point in our marriage. Basically, it was essential that I leave Elena at some point to return to the U.S. and establish myself there with a permanent residence and job.

We left that meeting so deflated. We would have to be separated.

I remember the initial shock, trying not to cry, trying to be strong for Elena, to be positive and act like it was only a small obstacle. We left the embassy and walked down the road a little ways to a coffee shop. We discussed our options but pretty easily decided that it would be better to separate before getting married rather than after. Literally, in the course of one conversation with an embassy agent that lasted minutes, all of our plans had changed. I had planned on teaching in El Salvador longer. We were going to get married on a tropical volcano in Central America!

Nope.

That happened on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017. I literally went back to my home that night and immediately began applying to teaching jobs [side note: I actually applied that night to the school that would end up hiring me, Summit Christian Academy in Lee’s Summit, MO just outside of Kansas City, and I’m so incredibly grateful–so many applications, yet it was the very first where I now work!]. A few days later I notified my supervisor that I would not be returning to teach the next school year. Additionally, I had to say goodbye to some of the coolest 10th, 11th, and 12th graders I knew. Those kids treated me so well, and they gave me one of the most precious goodbye cards I’ve ever received. However, the end had come, and that summer I moved back to the U.S. Elena visited for three weeks, but then, suddenly, we were no longer together.

Even now I begin tearing up thinking through the emotions of last summer, watching her walk through security at the airport after saying goodbye, refusing to leave my spot until I absolutely could see her no longer.

Some of those first weeks of separation were incredibly difficult for both of us. We had to acclimate ourselves to a new reality in our relationship, a reality that easily fed into underlying fears (Will they leave me? Will they find someone else? Will our application be denied?).

Part of me wants to say that I blamed God a lot, but that probably doesn’t capture it. I was just kind of cold to God. The situation had numbed me, and I had difficulty even mustering any sort of emotional response to Him. It’s not that I lost faith. For example, I knew that church was important, and I searched diligently for one when I moved for my new job. However, my personal devotional life was suffering. I found prayer tedious and cynicism easy.

With time, however, Elena and I began finding our routine. I had moved to Lee’s Summit and was staying with a family (angels in disguise really–the Whites were a miracle) while I adapted and got settled into the new area, and I began working as a sixth grade teacher, being energized by the relentless youthfulness of the kiddos. Elena began her second year at the American school where she is an assistant teacher for pre-K, and it has proved to be such a positive environment and blessing for her. Thus, we began finding routine in our daily schedules and in our long-distance relationship (lots of texting and video calls).

In all this, though, the best thing happened. Even when we first learned that we would be separated, I made comments that perhaps this is a forced blessing, a path we would never choose for ourselves but one that would lead to greater individual growth before we join together forever in marriage. It was always hard to internalize that, but I communicated it nonetheless. However, it became true; that’s exactly what has happened.

In this season Elena and I have grown so much closer to each other, and more importantly, we have both galvanized an even deeper and richer foundation in Jesus Christ. He is our Rock. When we can zoom out and look at the big picture, we realize that one year is a small sacrifice if it results in a lifetime anchored in the power of Jesus. If this is what He needed to do to prepare us for our life ahead, then this season is worth it.

God tests those he loves.

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.      -1 Peter 1:6-7

This process has been slow and incremental, but recently I prayed something simply, and, more or less, it went like this:

“Thanks, God. I mean it now.”

I didn’t want to see it at first. I couldn’t. I said it, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t see how Elena and I separating could lead to anything good. It has, though, and we are both so grateful that God has been faithful. He has been preparing us, making us better versions of ourselves so that we can be better for each other and, ultimately, for God.

Elena’s embassy appointment is soon. She has been approved in every step of the process so far, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe she won’t be approved for this final formality. We’re still praying, though, because this journey is always anxiety-inducing. Nevertheless, we have a Power that is beyond all powers; He is the Mystery that is deeper than any mystery, and without Him we’d be nothing.

I love you, Elena Montoya, and I can’t wait to marry you soon.

 

 

Till We Have Faces: My Blog’s New Look

image by Nicole Mason

 

About a year and a half ago I began this blog primarily as a literary resource for students when I was teaching in El Salvador. I posted on the blog, but it was usually in a literary or educational capacity: a creative attempt to engage with my students. When I moved back to the U.S. because of visa application requirements (read here), I took a job as a sixth grade teacher in the Kansas City area (I teach three sections of language and one section each of Bible, history, and reading). However, I struggled with the purpose of my blog. That, coupled with busyness, allowed the blog to atrophy. Nevertheless, I grew to miss the writing and posting, and therefore, I’ve decided to re-tool/re-brand the look and purpose.

I guess if I had to define it, this would be a life blog of sorts. I want to write about things that matter, things that affect and move me, things to think about, and, hopefully, things that challenge and encourage others. Topics will be relevant to my own life:

  • Education
  • Literature and writing
  • Travel
  • Culture
  • Faith

FAITH

The Christian perspective has come under a lot of fire these days. The reasons are, of course, myriad, and I don’t want to dive into all of them here. What saddens me, though, is when people treat faith and religion of any type flippantly. Religion essentially answers the big worldview questions:

  • How did the world come to be?
  • What’s wrong with the world (if anything)?
  • What’s the fix?
  • Who am I?
  • Is there life beyond the grave? What kind of life?

Christianity, of course, centers around Jesus. The teachings of Jesus and the doctrines of the Church are both simple and complex, easily grasped and infinitely profound. It’s filled with paradoxes (e.g. Incarnation), and I love that.

At the core of what attracts me about Christianity, though, is its message of hope. We call this Good News or Gospel (the word in Greek is eu-angelion which literally means “good news”). The Good News from the Christian perspective is that, through Jesus, wrong is made rightThe Bible teaches that both humans and creation are messed up. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you and I and all people were made to be more than we are. God is trying to make us all fully human again. Additionally, creation itself is to be perfected someday. So this reality that we live in now is not the final answer. There’s more. And through Jesus, we have access to that more. He is the fulfillment of all of our deepest longings.

The title for this blog, “a great, real place,” comes from a quote from Till We Have Faces, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, CS Lewis. Let me share a few quotes that tie in to what I’ve been saying and that really lay the foundation for this blog.

“Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

The milky way galaxy and a person's silhouette at nighttime in Kôprovský štít
image by Štefan Štefančík

 

Reflecting on Another Mass Shooting

 

Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, November 5. A man opened fire inside the small community church, killing at least 26 people.
Photo and article information retrieved from CNN

4% of the town population was obliterated. Eight members of a single family were killed. The gunman’s grandmother-in-law could not avoid the destruction. Even the pastor’s daughter died yesterday. It was denounced as an act of evil. It was evil.

I don’t know much about the shooter. No one does yet. It’s been barely 24 hours since the attack, since the killer himself was silenced forever. He was ex-military, discharged for bad conduct after a domestic violence case. Was he attacking humans yesterday or, in his mind, was he battling some demon? Were there some claws in his brain from his military past that wouldn’t release him? I don’t know. Regardless, the end result was twenty-six innocent lives lost.

At times like this, it feels as though nothing is sacred. The shooter attacked a church. A church. However, the lives in Sutherland Springs were no more valuable than those lost in Las Vegas or in Orlando or in Newtown or in…or in…

My fiancee is from another country. We’re working through the visa process. We talked through and prayed through this event yesterday. It felt a little hollow giving the same explanation I did after trying to quell any of her fears from the Las Vegas shootings. “It’s far away. It couldn’t happen here.” I bet words like that were barely a month removed from the lips of the dead when they had once heard about the Las Vegas massacre.

So where do we go from here? Life is so fragile. Mourn with those who mourn. Right now, any other counsel just feels insufficient.

November 5th

Bare trees with branches, tentacle-like, grasp. Exposed bark. Leaves cling to a few oaks, green tinged with yellow, orange, brown.

There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. God has given us nature to surround us and wrap us like a garment, and I have had only a few moments of electrifying clarity in my life, always at the hands of an important book or nature. It seems no accident that mystics seek nature to sharpen their visions and their divine movements.

And perhaps there is a mystical connection with coffee.

#HappySunday

Thanks to my parents for the blessing of their house, their little hermitage, their house tucked away in the woods that has often been a retreat over the years.