#Generosity (300 words)

You’re reading this because someone was generous. Generosity is a cornerstone of our existence, our humanity, and our best chance for making it. It feels good to be generous (try it). Humans were designed by a generous God to be a generous creation. So what happened? Cynicism, jaded motives, and our own sour experiences have built walls with few doors for free flowing, joyous, and giddy generosity. We’ve been burned before, so the risk of bad feelings outweigh good vibes. Jesus said “When you give to the needy…” (Matthew 6:3). The needy are anyone who has a need. Poverty, sickness, loss, and loneliness are real needs with real pain attached. I need food. I need love. I need money to get home. I need hope in the midst of my surprisingly empty luxury. Jesus commands his followers to be tangibly generous because that’s how the needs of humanity are best met. We distribute God’s time, money, and gifts to the needy. Generosity is the plan for the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is generous to the point of death. He didn’t have to do it, but he did — out of generosity. He meets our need. Disciples of Jesus are to live like Jesus, therefore our generosity must always be to the point of discomfort, pain, or even death. These are things we naturally avoid. Jesus wanted to avoid it, too (consider his painful conversation with his Father moments before the arrest). Discomfort, pain, and death don’t stop Jesus, nor should it stop us. But it does. At least, for me it does. I am selectively generous right to the edge of my comfort. It’s not enough.

Followers of Jesus are conduits of Kingdom generosity to a needy world. Where to begin? By accepting the generosity of Jesus in, and ultimately through, you.

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Hospital Night Light

I took Mac to see his friend who’s recovering from surgery. While we were in his room, I noticed one of those hospital night lights. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the night light that looks like a small furnace vent. Instead of air, it puts out a little rectangle of light on the floor, ensuring that you won’t trip over your gown or O2 hose or slip on the pudding (I hope) that spilled.

Anyway, that little hospital room night light reminded me of something from many years ago.

Mac had major surgery when he was young. Still non-verbal, his only communication with us post-op was his little hand raised with persistent drink sign-language. In his recovery during the overnight hours, Emily and I took turns holding him in our laps. Mac’s hospital room was eerily silent at night. He didn’t want to do much, and we were supposed to sleep, but surgery and recovery throws off your circadian rhythm. Hospitals provide a time anesthetic for everyone involved, not just the patient.

The one scene I vividly remember is something from around 2:30am, there on the third floor of Mott Children’s Hospital. Mac sat on my lap, his little hand wrapped around my thumb and his little head under my chin. Not a word, not a song, not a screen. Just a light. I can see it, surrounded by the darkness of the overnight and the occasional chirp from some medical device in the corner. I looked down and saw Mac stare at it, too. We were both sitting there, thinking, not thinking, staring. Little vent light. I’ve never noticed them anywhere but a hospital room — back in 2007 and again on the first day of 2020.

It’s funny how such a mundane architectural detail can be packed with such meaning. And it’s strange that I can’t find a picture of what I’m looking for online. I looked for an example pic, but, alas, Google did not deliver, so you’ll have to imagine it. Until then, I’ll prepare for a TON of ads for hospital night lights in my Facebook feed. I may not have found what I was looking for, but Google sure got what it wanted: data. If Microsoft Word’s Clippy character was still around, he’d say “It looks like you plan on building your own hospital! Can I recommend a floor plan?”

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Christmas Eve 2019

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:5 (NIV)

Tonight we will light candles and crack glow sticks along with Christ followers around the world. All of this is a Jesus birthday celebration, and what birthday would be complete without candles? By the way, if these are birthday candles, that makes us the cake.

The candle you’re holding tonight is more than a birthday candle. It is a representation of the difference that Jesus Christ makes in a world full of darkness, for a people walking in darkness. We who were walking in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2) and that’s something to celebrate. Jesus is, after all, the Light of the world. A man named John wrote about this Light, reminding us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).

I’ve spent the whole day overcoming darkness. When my alarm went off at 5, I instinctively looked at my backlit phone, filling the bedroom with that blueish hue that squints the eye. I turned on a lamp, filling the room with even more light, a yellowish/white hue that gave off just enough light to make it to the kitchen and fire up the coffee pot — a small green dot of light ensured me that hope was alive. When I got into the car, the headlights illuminated the way (since this is Michigan in Winter and the sun doesn’t rise until sometime after 10:30am). I walked into a dim office and turned on the lamps, chasing away the darkness and starting a new work day. You and I are good at chasing away the darkness. We don’t even have to think about it.

When John wrote that the light shines in the darkness and that the darkness has not overcome it, he wasn’t talking about physical darkness, though thinking about it this way helps us understand the deeper significance of darkness — especially spiritual darkness. Human beings, created in the image of God, are unlike any other part of creation in that we have an awareness of the fact that something isn’t quite right, things are out of balance, broken, and a little crooked. We feel it — this darkness — when we witness the suffering and poverty of the world, the epidemic of loneliness and anxiety, and in our feeling of separation from God. These are the kinds of darkness that John is writing about. The light shines in the darkness (world suffering, personal suffering, separation from God) and the darkness has not overcome it (it’s there, but it won’t win).

A few months ago I was waiting with my wife in the Emergency Department at Bronson Hospital. Kidney stones struck again. As she and I waited in the big waiting room, I noticed a gentleman standing near the entrance, holding his pants up. I locked eyes with him, said hello, and proceeded to get Emily to a comfy spot to wait until she was called back. The guy came over to me and asked for a ride to the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission. I replied that I couldn’t leave my wife there alone. He asked for money, but I didn’t have any. He hoped they would give him a belt at the Mission. A belt? That I had. I offered him my belt, which he gladly accepted, though he needed help getting it looped through. At that point, everyone was looking at us, some uncomfortably so, as I carefully fished the belt around his waist, his pants soaked by probably not rain. In that moment, I didn’t have the power to make homelessness or poverty disappear. I didn’t have a ride to offer or a dollar to give. But I had a belt. I believe it was a holy moment, because God was there and because a little bit of darkness was being chased away by a little bit more light.

Followers of Jesus believe that light disrupts the darkness of suffering and poverty. We support and serve where a servant is needed, bringing fresh water to places like Sierra Leone, backpacks full of food for students at Woodland Elementary, and Christmas parties at the Colonial Acres community. We pray, we seek, we do. Jesus came to be a servant, and to give His life as a ransom for many. The Light of the world pierces the darkness, and that has to look like something if it will truly bring the healing that the Kingdom of God promises.

This isn’t a candle. It’s a reminder that Jesus actually cares about the suffering of the world. This darkness bothers Him more than it does me, since this is not the world God intended. He says of His followers you are the light of the world — let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify God (Matthew 5:8). It’s a good Word, a good challenge for the whole year, but it’s especially fitting at Christmas as we spend billions on gifts for, well, us. Writer and Pastor Michael Slaugher reminds us in his book of the same title that Christmas is Not Your Birthday. We are called to be the generous, loving, and bright light of Christ in the darkness of the world around us.

There’s darkness in the world around us, no doubt. But we also have to acknowledge that there’s darkness inside of us. We see it in two growing epidemics: loneliness and anxiety. We live in this hyperconnected world where we broadcast our lives on social media, text and tweet, and share games and interests on Discord. Yet people experience the despair of loneliness at level’s we’ve never seen before, accompanied by that echoing ache of isolation, the loss of perspective, and feeling that it’s just me that feels this way/thinks this way/does this or that. Our connection on the internet is an ironic connection, in that we have more opportunities for community and yet experience it less and less. Where is God in the dark of loneliness?

Corresponding with our loneliness epidemic is the growing number of mental health issues, seen in escalating rates of addiction, depression, and anxiety. I had a candid conversation wth a school counselor this week, and they shared that what we’re seeing now in the student population is like nothing we’ve ever known. Students as young as 5th grade are experiencing significant mental health issues. Statistically, nearly half of all Americans will experience some kind of mental health issue in their lives. Shockingly, half of all mental health issues begin by age 14, and three-quarters manifest by age 24. I am increasingly aware of how difficult the holidays are for a number of families that dread getting together with relatives because of dysfunction. Christmas isn’t a joyous time for everybody, especially for those who are experiencing their first with a notably empty chair at the table. Where is God in this darkness of loneliness and mental health issues?

Jesus is the Son of God, and Christmas songs include the word Emmanuel for very good reason: Emmanuel means God is with us. Jesus knows what it’s like to be human. He knows loneliness, when he spends time alone in the wilderness under heavy temptation by the evil one. He knows isolation on the cross. And He knows anxiety, as the scripture tells us that his agony before the crucifixion included sweating drops of blood (Luke 22:44). Jesus knows the pain of losing a loved one, seen in the tears of Jesus as he weeps for the loss of His friend Lazarus (John 11:28-37). Here is a great mystery: Jesus, the Light of the world, puts on human flesh and becomes one of us, experiencing the highs and lows with us. He is Emmanuel, not just in location but in sharing in our pain and anxiety.

The darkness of loneliness is overcome by seeing and being with Jesus, the Light. The darkness of anxiety is overcome by Jesus, the Light. In Jesus, we get a complete picture of God the Father, which is the cause of much of our loneliness and anxiety. In Jesus, we get a complete view of ourselves because we can see clearly in the Light that which was once obscured by the darkness of self. Jesus is the Light of the world. Jesus is the Light of my world. And, we pray, of ours. The Light speaks to the darkness inside of us and illuminates the way to wholeness because we can finally get a real view of ourselves.

We don’t take mental health as a simply spiritual problem anymore than we do a broken arm. No matter what health issue we’re talking about, we seek God and pray for healing while we’re on the way to the hospital. If mental health is a chemical/physical issue, it seems that God would want us to pursue balance for the chemistry of our minds just as He would a cast for our arm.

There is, however, a spiritual issue that can only be treated spiritually: the darkness of our separation from God.

The scripture says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are born into spiritual darkness, separated from God because, try as we might, we can never be good enough, nor do we have the power to overcome our darkness by ourselves. Sin separates. Jesus, the Light of the world, the Light of salvation (John 1:6), the Light of grace (John 1:16-17) sets us free from sin and death. His Light lavishes grace and forgiveness onto our broken and stained souls, uniting us again with God the Father. Yes, sin separates and brings darkness… but Jesus reconnects and brings light, a light that cannot be overcome by darkness.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus (again, we are the birthday cake holding the birthday candles), but we remember that He was born to us, born for us, and born to die (Hebrews 10:5-10). His death on the cross defeated our sin. His resurrection from the grave defeated death. And we who have received this gift of light are no longer distant from God. This is the good news of the gospel, and the ultimate point of Christmas. When the angels say a Savior has been born to you — He is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11), they were serious! Our greatest need is felt in our deepest darkness: we need to be saved from sin and death, the very sin and death we brought upon ourselves in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).

The spiritual darkness may seem the most esoteric and philosophical compared to the tangibles of personal struggle and world suffering, but our sin is the root of every problem. This is not the world and we are not the people God originally created. Instead of leaving us in our darkness, He came right to the epicenter with a blinding, dazzling, overpowering Light that defeats every kind of darkness!

The candles you hold in your hands represent the Light of the world — Jesus Christ, born to set us free. As we share this light together, we remember what Christ has done to set us free and what Christ continues to do as we carry His light into the dark world. There is hope. There is Truth. There is healing. There is light.

Do you know this Light? Not just about Jesus — do you actually know Jesus? Have you received this Light into your soul? Tonight is the perfect night to say “yes, I’m walking in darkness, and I need the Light.” It’s Christmas Eve, after all. Let Him be born in you today. And may you carry the new Light in your souls to the dark world.

The world is desperate for this Light. May we continue to spread this Light until Christ returns and brings His Kingdom. A little bit of light will crush a little bit of darkness and will not be overcome by darkness. Good news: darkness loses, Light wins.

Merry Christmas!

Amen.

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Folds With Mac

Ben Folds is a musician I particularly enjoy. I’ve written about him before. Folds is a gifted pianist, putting the thing back where it belongs as the best of all instruments in terms of flexibility. The Piano Forte it’s called, and for good reason. He’s a master. But, disclaimer for Folds and lyrics: kids, don’t use his swears.

Anyway, I took Mac (now 14) to see Folds at the Kalamazoo State Theater. We had a grand time celebrating his (Mac’s) birthday. His first concert, an artist that he, too, respects and emulates, and a chance to bump into Radio’s Ben Barnes and his wonderful wife. They sat in front of us because some people didn’t show up.

Most memorable is watching Mac enjoy the show. He snagged a tshirt from the merch table afterwards, which I hope will be a good memory-maker for him (at $30, it’d better make him be able to fly).

You dare photograph me during an especially memorable experience? For shame!

Folds, a consummate piano player, also knows his way around a drum set. The pianoforte is, after all, a percussion instrument. Yet the drums are not a pianoforte instrument. Interesting. Sort of.

No capo.

I’m so proud of Mac. He’s got a strong ear and appreciates good stuff. I love being his dad and watching him grow up, though I must remember that he is a boy who shaves and not quite a man yet. I’m ready for another year of him being and becoming, a true honor for me as a dad. I am not, however, ready for him to start driving a car.

Happy Birthday, Mac. Love you, buddy.

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Ability

Becky walked to her care with purpose, just as she was trained.  Opening the door, she looked behind her to see the coffee shop she just left. Next door was an Urgent Care clinic.  A young mother ushered her son, who looked to be about 6, in through the entryway and out of Becky’s sight.  It reminded her of all the trips to the hospital for checkups, x-rays, reconstructive surgeries, followups and more surgeries yet.  Spending so much time in the hospital gave Becky thick skin when it came to gruesome or fear-generating medical procedures.  It crossed Becky’s mind to become a Doctor, because she believed she could do whatever she set her mind to.  She sat in her car and looked down.  Not at her knees, poking out through the rips in her jeans, and not at the bottom of the steering wheel where she tended to hold on.  Becky looked at nothing.  She fiddled with her keys without thinking, finding the match by feel.  Her apartment key had horizontal lines, the mailbox key was short and always felt greasy for some reason, but her car key had a distinctive mass to it, due in part to the buttons that locked and unlocked the doors.  Her thumb found its way to the red panic button under the lock and unlock buttons.  She thought about pressing it, not because she was in danger but because she was angry.  Why did he say that?  What was he hoping she would say in return?  Becky had been broken up with before.  Hers was a life of adventure, rejection, new adventure.  It wasn’t the breakup.  It was what he said.  Something about her limp, how it made him uncomfortable in public and how he felt guilty for even thinking it.  Then why’d he say it?  Something about how his dad made a joke about Becky walking in circles because one leg is shorter than the other, which was code in his family for rejection.  In many families, this counted as loving banter, good natured teasing.  Or at least Becky thought so.  No one ever made fun of her for her disability, not to her face.  It was hard not to notice.  That’s what hurt: he broke the rule and said what he really thought about Becky.  For her sake, for his sake, it was better this way.  He just wasn’t ready.  It’s not you, it’s me.  

Becky remembered what a family friend said to her in middle school. We can respond to our disabilities in one of two ways.  We can hide it, which is hard unless we hide from people, which often happens.  Or, we can embrace it and choose to be who we are, regardless of what people will think.  This is not a choice made once but repeatedly, daily and sometimes moment by moment.   Becky made the decision a long time ago, supported by family and friends, that her disability would not be a hinderance.  She decided this every day, over and over, until it became second nature.  Of course, when her now ex brought it up, it was not what she wanted but surely what she asked for.  She wanted him to acknowledge it.  It stung to hear it from the other side.  

Becky started her car.  Sliding the gearshift into reverse, she backed her Saturn out of the tight parking spot and headed home.  Tomorrow would be another day.  A better day.  A new adventure.  Becky slowly but gracefully made her way up the stairs to her apartment.  She insisted on having an apartment on the second floor, only to prove to the manager that she was capable after he insinuated that, of course, Becky would want a handicapped-accessible room on the first floor by the blue-striped parking spots.  Of course.  Becky insisted: of course not.   The decision was made again that day, that moment, to embrace her disability.  When she finally got up to the top of the stairs and turned left, she reached into her pocket to get her keys.  Feeling the greasy key, she whispered under her breath.  Forgot to check the mailbox on the way up.   Tomorrow.  It could wait until tomorrow, when the new adventure began.  There was already something to go after.  

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Chili & Hoodie Weather

The temperature has plummeted (relatively speaking) here in Southwest Michigan, and most of us are pretty happy about it being cooler than it was this summer. According to an official unofficial poll that I’ve been accidentally taking, 100% of respondents report that they love or really love this weather. I didn’t mean to collect this data, it’s just that people around me have voluntarily stated with frank assurance that they love this weather. Their love is fueled by either 1) hoodies or 2) the crisp air. It is interesting how we can converse with total strangers about weather. People in Florida spend most of their time between air conditioned spaces running for their lives from the variously oppressive heat, so they have only one thing to talk about — how hot it is — and there’s no point in bringing that up more than a few times a year. Here in Michigan, however, we have 3-5 opportunities per day to make small talk about the weather because it changes so much.

So, I made some chili. Here’s my recipe:

  • Darn Good Chili Mix (usta be a swear, but they changed it for the kids)
  • Pound of beef
  • Little can of jalapeños
  • Tomato Paste (does not taste like traditional paste)
  • A quart of Pico De Gaio
  • Whatever canned beans you want to add — even Busch’s tastes great
  • A small can of corn with added green and red peppers, drained
  • Several squirts (official unit of measure) of Sweet Baby Ray’s
  • Chili Powder
  • Brown Sugar
  • Chili Powder
  • Brown Sugar (balance to taste)
  • Maybe some oatmeal, if it’s too watery
  • Diced onion

Cooking directions: Make the chili.

The chili turned out pretty good. The only thing missing? A hoodie. No, not in the chili, but on my torso and heady. In fact, by my count, 5 of my hoodies are missing. That’s because I have a son who wears most of my clothes, including my shoes, and because he gives my hoodies to his friends. It’s fine.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying this fall day, especially if you’re in Florida.

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