I am not okay.
No, this isn’t a cry for help. I’m not depressed or suicidal. Nothing terrible has happened.
Still, all is not well. In a nutshell, I’m empty. Things that once brought me meaning no longer do.
Let me be clear: I’m not writing these words to elicit sympathy or solutions. I simply have to get this off my chest. I’ve attempted to write about a myriad of other, more positive topics over the last few months. Each attempt has felt like a tacit falsehood. My well has run dry.
So here I am. Empty.
I hate feeling this way for a multitude of reasons. For one, my life, from an outsider’s perspective, is going well. I’m mostly recovered from my 2019 accident. I’m back to traveling, hiking, and doing the things I love.
Unfortunately, these things no longer make me happy the way they once did.
As I write these words, a college friend of mine battles stage 4 colon cancer. Another friend grieves in the wake of her husband’s sudden drowning. A college classmate, perfectly healthy, just died of COVID two days ago. People I love are facing enormous hardship. Meanwhile, here I sit at my condo in Puerto Vallarta, México, living the dream, for all intents and purposes.
The only problem? It’s not enough.
I’ve faced plenty of difficulties over the course of my life. Lost one of my best friends in a freak accident in college. Lost numerous friends to suicide. Lost uncles, cousins, and friends to cancer. Had my heart broken. Broken others’ hearts. Made more mistakes than I can count. Bit my tongue off mountain biking. Tore my Achilles. Battled Lyme Disease. Fell 80 feet and broke 21 bones.
Through it all, I managed to keep a positive outlook, to see the bigger picture, to find the silver lining. Until…well, now. Now that things are actually, for all intents and purposes, going well.
This is the emptiest I have ever felt, and I can’t seem to figure out why.
I don’t get it. I’m not sure what changed. I feel weak and guilty for being unable to pull myself up by my proverbial bootstraps like so many times before.
Have you ever noticed that it’s uncomfortable to talk about current problems? Current pain? Current issues? Everyone wants to share their success story, not their present struggles. “I used to be addicted to painkillers.” “I once was an alcoholic, but I’ve been clean and sober for eight months.” “I battled depression before I found Jesus.” “I once weighed 305 pounds, but through hard work, I’m down to a healthy weight.”
Not many people know how to handle hearing someone say that they’re not okay. Right. Now.
When your arm is broken, people flock to sign your cast. When your spirit is broken, people run the opposite direction.
I’ve built my life on the premise that we are here to give love and bring joy to others. I’ve tried (and often failed) to do so for as long as I can remember. Now, I feel like I don’t have much, if anything, to give.
What’s it all for? Why am I here? Does anyone actually care? What’s the point in even trying to be a source of light for others when there’s so much darkness, darkness both within and without? Why do I consistently fail at being the kind of person I long to be?
Instagram is life. Everyone is trying to present the best versions of themselves to everyone else. Even those who strive to appear authentic still have to work hard to project authenticity. What is real? Who is real? What’s the point of even trying to play the games required to succeed in this picture perfect plastic place?
We all spend our lives chasing dreams, goals, agendas. We succeed. We fail. We make friends. Lose them. Fall in love. Get our hearts broken. Work hard. Get laid off. Retire if we’re lucky. And then? Then we die.
I’ve worked hard to get to the place I’m at in life. Now that I’m here, I realize it’s brought me exactly zero meaning.
Until quite recently, I simply refused to talk about this emptiness that’s been gnawing away at my soul. In refusing to do so, though, I felt like I was living a lie, felt as though the walls of the empty pit I’ve been in were only growing taller and more insurmountable.
I tried everything. Hiked more. Drank great craft beer with good friends. Booked trips to Colombia, Sweden, Latvia. Prayed. Read books. Spoke extensively with my counselor.
Finally, after a week of struggling to get out of bed (which if you know me, is antithetical to everything I am about), I knew I had to break my silence. I decided that whenever someone asked how I was doing, I would tell them the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it made either of us.
The first time I shared the state of my heart with someone who wasn’t expecting it, I was surprised by the outcome. I took a chance and was honest with my former boss, a happy-go-lucky individual that I’ve never actually had much of a serious conversation with in over seven years of friendship. “I’ve actually been feeling exactly the same way,” she said. “I work, I raise my daughter, I go to bed. Then do it all over again. I can’t seem to find meaning or purpose.”
Then it struck me. Maybe I’m not the only one feeling like this.
I opened up to a few more people and experienced the same result. An old friend, recently sober, who has found strength in sobriety but is still looking for meaning. A family member, who I love dearly, who teaches others about God but struggles to find Him or to know that He actually cares. A former coworker, once an unwaveringly pious Christian, who, as she put it, has realized that nothing makes sense, and that after Proverbs comes Ecclesiastes. Another family member, shunned by her own daughter for reasons her offspring won’t divulge, trying to find a way to move on.
Could it be that we’re all in this together? Could it be that we are all fumbling through the darkness, trying to patch together a life of purpose as best we can?
The moment we think we have everything figured out is the moment we stop learning, stop growing, stop asking honest questions.
“In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other,” Carl Sagan succinctly said. I am incredibly grateful for those in my life that have given me a space, a shoulder, and an ear.
Sadly, not everyone in my life has been interested in meeting me where I am at. When I brought up my emptiness to several Christian friends, they placated me with overly simple answers. “You’ve got a God-shaped hole inside of you,” they said. “Maybe it’s sin that’s keeping you from Him. Or selfishness. Maybe He’s trying to teach you something.”
Maybe all of these things are true. But maybes aren’t getting me any closer to happiness.
Plus, God never promised we’d be happy in this life. He did promise peace, but I’m still waiting for Him to fulfill that promise.
Also, the answers of a couple of my non-Christian friends weren’t any better. “Slow down,” they said. “Relax. Do more of what makes you happy.” The only problem? The things that used to make me happy no longer do.
I’m a solutions guy. If there’s a problem, yo, I’ll solve it. It’s frustrating to be here, without a road map, without a game plan. I struggle with being alone with my thoughts. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept so busy this year, taken on so many remodeling projects, picked up two more part-time jobs.
Silence can be deafening. Echoes carry the farthest through an empty space.
Where do I go from here? I don’t know. I have zero answers, and that is hard for me to admit. Maybe I need to volunteer again, to give of what little I have left in service to others. Maybe now that health issues have forced me to retire from playing music, I need another passion to pour my heart into. Maybe I need to surrender to God the things I’m holding onto. Maybe I need to take my counselor’s advice and try different approaches. Meditation. Medication. Maybe I need to practice gratitude and fake it till I make it. Maybe I just need to bury it all deep down.
For now, I sit here, empty. This chapter in my life doesn’t seem to have a happy ending. In my heart, though, I still believe that blessed are the empty, for they have room to be filled.
My only hope in writing this is that maybe you can relate. Maybe you resonate with some, or all, of what I’ve said and how I’m feeling. Maybe you need to know that you’re not the only one who feels empty, feels lost, feels discouraged.
If you find yourself where I am, reach out. Maybe somehow we can help each other find some small piece of the meaning we are looking for.
So your idea of a México vacation doesn’t include the words all-inclusive.
You prefer your water cascading over a cliff, rather than over the edge of an infinity pool? You’d rather explore ancient ruins than get ruined at the club?
It’s high time you visit the state of Chiapas.
One of the only coastal Mexican states without a true world-class resort destination, Chiapas is instead an adventurer’s paradise, replete with stunningly blue waterfalls, Mayan ruins, multi-colored lakes, covert caves, and dizzying gorges.
Don’t have much time? Here’s what to see in four days.
CAÑON DEL SUMIDERO: 2 hours
SUMIDERO BOAT TOUR: 2 hours
TUXTLA GUTIERREZ: 2 hours
CAN’T MISS FACTOR:
CAÑON DEL SUMIDERO: 5
SUMIDERO BOAT TOUR: 3
TUXTLA GUTIERREZ: 2
Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas’ capital and largest city, is a great place to begin your trip, because you’ll most likely be flying into its international airport anyway. Chiapas is one of México’s most impoverished states, but you’d never know it from the modern high-rises, sprawling malls, and trendy restaurants you’ll encounter in Tuxtla upon your arrival. I highly recommend renting a car, for several reasons: first, Tuxtla’s airport is 45 minutes from town, and Uber doesn’t service the city at this point. Second, to pack in the itinerary I’m about to describe, you’ll need a car, plain and simple, unless a private helicopter is within your budget. It wasn’t within mine.
Grab your rental vehicle and head straight towards Cañon del Sumidero. This deep natural canyon just north of the city is an absolute stunner, boasting vertical cliffs as high as 3,300 feet above the Grijalva River below. Pay a 50-peso fee at the entrance to the national park, and simply follow the road as it winds ever upward. Soon, you’ll come to the first of five incredible viewpoints overlooking the canyon. These viewpoints are either right off the road or involve very short hikes, so it’s possible to reach all five in only a couple of hours. Sumidero saves its most succulent views for last, and at its final mirador you’ll find a gift shop, food, and bathrooms, as well.
Next, retrace your steps, head to the nearby town of Chiapa de Corzo, and grab a boat tour, giving you the opportunity to look up at the dizzying heights you just stood on. This tour will set you back approximately 300 pesos, but will feature a snack and a lively tour guide.
Finally, head back to Tuxtla. Wander around Parque de la Marimba, a lively square with great restaurants on all sides. Gaze in wonder at the beautiful bells and captivating architecture of Catedral de San Marcos. Grab a local craft beer, some mezcal and a snack at CaraCara, and go pass out in one of the many hotels near Parque de la Marimba.
EL ARCOTETE: 45 minutes
GRUTAS DE MAMUT: 30 minutes
RANCHO NUEVO: 1 hour
SAN CRISTÓBAL: 3 hours
CAN’T MISS FACTOR:
EL ARCOTETE: 3
GRUTAS DE MAMUT: 2
RANCHO NUEVO: 2
SAN CRISTÓBAL: 4
Just an hour from Tuxtla by tollway, San Cristóbal de las Casas, or San Cris, as it is affectionately known, is arguably the cultural capital of Chiapas. It boasts lively cobblestone streets, scores of incredible restaurants, artisan shops and markets, stunning churches, and more, and is surrounded by scores of natural wonders.
For now, save your exploration of this Pueblo Mágico for later in the day. Adventure awaits. Drive twenty minutes to El Arcotete Parque Ecoturistico, a nature reserve featuring a spectacular rock arch with a river running through it. From the parking lot, one trail will take you down to the banks of the river and the base of the arch, and the other will let you climb through the arch itself and into a cave with unusual rock formations and windows peeking out of the cliff face to the river below.
Next, drive just a couple miles on winding dirt roads to Grutas de Mamut, a spectacular cave featuring a huge main chamber and a myriad of unusual formations. Wander through the cave on a marked trail, and bring a jacket, because temperatures here are often 40 degrees cooler than the outside world above.
Still have a hankering for more caves? Parque Ecoturistico Rancho Nuevo, 25 minutes southeast from San Cris, boasts the largest cave system in the area, as well as lush forests, camping, horseback riding, and a respectable zipline course.
Head back to San Cris. If you only have time to explore one smaller town in Chiapas, this is it. Grab a craft beer from La Artesanal’s ample menu, and try pox (pronounced poshe), a Mayan spirit with a rich history that's distilled from corn, at Poshería San Cristóbal. Climb picturesque steps up a small hill to Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a small but beautiful church replete with sweeping views of the city. This is a great spot to catch a sunset, before calling it a day. Or before raging all night, if that’s more your style.
EL CHIFLÓN: 2 hours
LAGOS DE MONTEBELLO: 2.5 hours
GUATEMALA VISIT: 30 minutes
CAN’T MISS FACTOR:
EL CHIFLÓN: 5
LAGOS DE MONTEBELLO: 4
GUATEMALA VISIT: 2
Wake up early. You’re going to have to do a bit of driving today, but believe me, it’s time well spent for the payoff that’s in store.
First, head to El Chiflón. It isn’t hyperbolic of me to state that this series of cascades might just be the most beautiful group of waterfalls I have ever seen. Coming from someone who spends half the year in Oregon, that statement carries a lot of weight. Brilliantly blue water. Breathtakingly beautiful pools. Waterfalls that grow in size and beauty the further upriver you hike.
You can take a trail on either side of the river, and each is run by a different company. I chose the left-hand trail. The hike itself is only about a mile, and leads past a series of smaller, yet gorgeous, falls, to the crown jewel: Cascada Velo de Novia. This 120-meter waterfall tumbles down two cliffs into a blue pool that has to be seen to be believed. Several viewpoints allow you to take in unparalleled views and get soaked by the spray of this majestic cascade.
Want more? Another waterfall lies upstream, and for an additional $20 MXN, climb a rough, hot trail to the top of Velo de Novia and encounter another stunning cascade. You’ll most likely have this place to yourself, as the trail is not for the faint of heart. Swim to the base of this waterfall to cool down, and make sure to avoid getting swept over Velo de Novia, as that would certainly prove to be your final adventure.
On the way down, grab a zipline and soar high above the turquoise blue river below. I did. It’s well worth the $400 MXN you’ll pay.
Though your mind has already been blown, your day isn’t over. Drive to Lagos de Montebello, a national park that features landscapes you never thought you’d see in Mexico. Bright green and blue lakes. Cloud forests of pine and fir. Incredible biodiversity and stunning wildflowers.
By the way, I recognize that I use the word “stunning” a lot. It’s hard not to when writing about Chiapas.
To learn more about the history and beauty of this magical place, I hired a guide, who hopped in my rental car and took me to all the best viewpoints of the eight major lakes that this national park boasts. At 1500 meters above sea level, Lagos de Montebello is much cooler and cloudier than its surroundings, and ominous clouds gathered as I took in breathtaking views of lakes with various hues, including the Lagunas de Colores and Lago Bosque Azul.
Lagos de Montebello straddles the border of Guatemala. There’s even a small lake, the aptly named Lago Internacional, that is bisected by the border itself. My guide took me to the village of Tziscao, where we strolled across the border (no passport required), through a small stand of souvenir shops, to a small waterfall, Cascada Cola de Quetzal, on the Guatemalan side.
At this point, you’ve already seen more beauty in one day than any human has a right to. If you still have time, numerous small archaeological sites dot the landscape around here. However, all of them were closed due to COVID-19 when I visited, unfortunately. Head back to San Cris and get a good night’s sleep. You’re going to need it.
CASCADA EL CORRALITO: 20 minutes
AGUA AZUL: 30 minutes
MISOL-HA: 30 minutes
ZONA ARQUEOLÓGICA PALENQUE: 3 hours
PALENQUE (CITY): 1 hour
CAN’T MISS FACTOR:
CASCADA EL CORRALITO: 2
AGUA AZUL: 5
ZONA ARQUEOLÓGICA PALENQUE: 4
PALENQUE (CITY): 1
Get up. Even more so than yesterday, today is not a day to hit that snooze button. You’re going to need to hit the road early to cram in today’s ambitious agenda. Let's just say that you've saved the stressed for last.
First, after driving for 90 minutes, stop to stretch your legs at Cascada El Corralito, a waterfall just a couple minutes off the highway. Walk the short distance from the parking lot into the heart of this complex of cascades. Pictures don’t do the intricacies of this unique waterfall justice. Climb the steps to the left of the falls, and venture out into the middle of it on small unmarked pathways for views that are even more up close and personal.
Back to your car! What's that? You desperately need to use the restroom? No time for that. You’ll pass through the bustling town of Ocosingo, and from here, the roads begin winding through verdant Chiapas mountains and small roadside villages, slowing your progress.
An hour and a half past Ocosingo, you’ll arrive at your next destination, Agua Azul. These waterfalls are arguably the most famous destination in all of Chiapas, and they live up to the hype. Park among a cluster of shops and restaurants, and walk a short path to a viewpoint at the base of these Insta-famous falls. Here, turquoise water cascades all around you in an infinitely complex series of drops and ledges. Continue up the trail on the left-hand side of the waterfall, arriving at several more viewpoints. One of these allows you to basically reach out and touch part of the waterfall. As impressive as Agua Azul looks in photos, it’s even more impressive in person.
But wait, there’s more. In between Agua Azul and Palenque lies another waterfall, Cascada Misol-Ha. $20 MXN will get you into this nature preserve, and a quick hike will lead you to the base of this picturesque 35-meter waterfall. A short trail leads behind the waterfall itself, allowing you to explore a small cave while Misol-Ha’s cooling mist pummels your sweaty face.
A quick 45-minute drive will get you to the gates of Palenque. These renowned Mayan ruins are a must-see when in Chiapas, and they will not disappoint. Though Palenque itself is smaller than sites like Tikal and Chichen Itza, it contains some of the most incredible architecture and sculpture that the Mayans created. You’ll need a couple of hours to walk your way through this spectacular place, and bear in mind that the park itself closes at 4:30.
Still have time? I didn’t, but if you somehow managed to power-tourism your way through today more efficiently than I did, more waterfalls await near Palenque, including Cascadas de Sombrillas.
Just down the road lies the other Palenque, a modern city of just over 50,000 inhabitants. It boasts a bustling zócalo and artsy, shaded walking streets with a plethora of good restaurants. Grab a bite, relax, and prepare to either fly out or drive back to Tuxtla in the morning.
- - -
Four days don’t really do Chiapas justice. If you’re able to plan out a longer itinerary, do it. Natural wonders such as Volcán Tacaná, Cascadas Las Nubes, and Arco del Tiempo beckon, places that require longer drives and even overnight backpacking trips.
This incredible state simply has too much good stuff for one visit.
Oh darn. I guess I’ll have to go back.
What is truth?
Is it real, or merely a social construct of the human mind? Do we live in a world of many more than fifty shades of grey, or is there such a thing as absolute, concrete truth, impervious to relativity? And, if such truth does in fact exist, where should we look for it? How should we even know when we’ve found it?
Do you know the truth? Do I?
It turns out that Pontius Pilate’s fateful question still echoes through the ages. Here we are, two thousand years later, still depleting our days desperately trying to answer it. Many of us, those with any semblance of religious, political, or scientific beliefs, think we have much, if not all, of the truth. Others, conversely, argue that either truth doesn’t exist, or that none will ever ascertain it, and thus the pursuit of truth is but chasing after the wind. Ironically, those who say there is no absolute truth make this statement as if it itself is absolute truth, thereby refuting their claim.
Furthermore, in today’s sociopolitical climate, truth seems to have been rendered irrelevant at best, and mutable at worst. With warring political factions each proclaiming that their truth is true, and with misinformation, alternative facts, and fake news filling much of truth’s original bandwidth, truth seems to have been relegated to the antique bin. If you can simply create your own truth, one that conveniently agrees with your points of view, why search for a truth that might prove more disruptive to your worldview?
Ask any artist, and they’ll tell you that black and white paint, when mixed together, make grey. It would be easy to concede that truth works in much the same way.
Growing up, my sister Rahel and I had a slippery relationship with the truth. To this day, we still recall certain stories and their details differently, but we do agree upon this: We each lied to get the other in trouble. Not one or two times. A lot.
One instance that stands out in my mind began in the midst of a friendly one-on-one basketball game in front of our family’s garage. I had the ball. I went up for a layup. She made contact with my arm. I solemnly swear on that basketball. I know my truth. So, of course, I called a foul, certain that my call was the correct one.
It turned out that my sister’s truth was different than mine. “All ball,” she said. “Impossible,” I retorted, pointing to the still-invisible welt that was sure to develop on my forearm as a result of her devastating blow.
Our argument over the truth escalated from there. Rahel, two and a half years older and still bigger and stronger than me at the time (truthfully, she’s still stronger), finally exclaimed, “You want a foul? I’ll show you a foul,” as she used her formidable size advantage to tackle me and grind my face into the concrete.
Her truth beat my truth. Until, that is, we went inside to face a higher truth: the judgment and wrath of our parents. Though we were both in the wrong, and though we had both distorted the truth to gain an advantage, mine was the bloody face. Thus, in the end, my truth was victorious, and Rahel was sent to her room.
Though I knew it not at the time, this was not the first war started over a disagreement about the truth. Sadly, this story has repeated itself throughout human history in much larger, much more deleterious ways.
Our truth is more truthy than your truth. The very existence of your truth threatens our truth. Therefore, we will fight you until there is only one truth left. May the best truth win.
Conceit begets conceit. Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence. War after war, atrocity after atrocity, and genocide after genocide, and still, we are no closer to deciding who has the ultimate truth. Muslim versus Jew. Catholic versus Protestant. Christians crusading across Muslim and American lands. The Inquisition. ISIS. Buddhists of the 969 Movement. Even secular, godless society has gotten in on the fight, as Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and others have killed tens of millions in the name of Communism, of race, of political ideology.
Could it be that we have made truth in our image? That the second we think we know the truth is the second we stop looking for it, and instead start fighting for it?
Perhaps truth is not a stale collection of rules and precepts to be disagreed upon. Perhaps it’s not a precious group of doctrines worth starting countless wars over. Truth, I believe, is a person, a person who is also God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” he said. He meant it.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. Little did he know that the Answer to his question was standing before him, bloodied and beaten.
I would posit that the endless quest for truth throughout the ages, from Plato to Socrates to Descartes to Nietzsche to you and me, has been, at its core, whether consciously or subconsciously, the search for the Truth himself.
Author and pastor Shawn Brace, a longtime friend, put it this way on Twitter: “My safety does not come from having a perfect knowledge of the truth. My safety comes from knowing Him who is the Truth.”
When we know the Truth, the Truth will set us free. Free to grow. Free to learn. Free to be wrong.
When we know the Truth, we are free to love those we disagree with, not shun them. When we know the Truth, we live lives of compassion and purpose the way he did, not existences hell-bent on preserving a doctrine or belief from contamination.
When we know the Truth, we know that we are forgiven when we inevitably fail. Accepted exactly as we are. Loved more than we could ever comprehend.
When we know the Truth, we live lives of joyous expectation, barely able to contain our excitement at what God will do in and through us next. When we know the Truth, we finally begin to understand that God’s love for us is in no way contingent upon right living, right doctrine, and right theology, as much as he wants all of these things for us.
We give up our need to be right and embrace our need to be loved.
I believe that the single biggest cause of unbelief in the world today is that we the church strive so hard to know, share, and enforce what we believe to be the truth without ourselves knowing the Truth.
You see, Jesus cuts through our clamorous craving to be correct, through our insatiable thirst to complicate the simple truth of the Gospel. Love God, love people, he succinctly states in Matthew 22. “These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”
Yes, there is a place for theological discussion, for hermeneutics, for exegesis. The Spirit of Truth indeed longs to guide us into all truth. Wouldn’t you want to know as much as you can about this God who offers us a love so recklessly lavish? But, if these important truth-seeking exercises don’t point us to love the least of these, the most different of these, the most heretical of these, then we can count them all as rubbish. “If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day… but I don’t love, I’m nothing,” Paul declares.
I would venture an educated guess that not once in the history of the church has a well-meaning believer convinced another of any doctrine or precept, large or small, through coercion, anger, ostracism, hatred, or aggression. There is one, and only one, means by which hearts and minds are changed. That means is love. We can still speak the truth, yes; but that truth must be spoken in love, the way the Truth himself spoke to prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, Pharisees, and Gentiles alike. The way the Truth speaks to broken people like you and me.
When he speaks, The Truth calls us to know him, not to understand everything. To fall in love with him, not to ostracize those who don’t. To grow in relationship with him, not to simply increase in knowledge.
The Truth stands in front of us, on trial. Will we, like Pilate, wash our hands and turn away? Or will we humbly lay down our pontificating pride and recognize that he is the Answer to every question, every doubt, every need?
Do you know the Truth? Do I?
Because when we know the Truth, the Truth will set us free.
This article was originally published in Spectrum Magazine.
I hate snow.
There, I said it.
All you Oregonians who gasp in awe and wonder at the first falling snowflake, who Instagram every second of their children and/or pets frolicking in the pristine whiteness that so seldom blankets this part of the globe, can have it. Take it all. Snow is the actual worst.
Before you judge me, go live in Michigan for twenty-one years like I did. Go enter a childhood of unpaid indentured servitude, chopping wood behind the house in subzero temperatures because your parents had a wood-burning stove, and told you that wood and labor are free, while electricity is not. Go grow up in a flat state where the most fun that can be had in the snow is sledding down a 20-foot pile of it in the Walmart parking lot. Go get an education in an area where they might close schools if two or more feet of snow fall overnight. If you’re lucky.
Almost seventeen years ago, I moved to Portland, in large part to escape the snow. (The waterfalls, mountains, and ruggedly beautiful coastline played a sizable part in my decision, as well.) Portland, thanks to its low elevation and maritime climate, gets far less snow than other cities at its same latitude. Typically, Stumptown will see a dusting of snow a morning or two per winter, and that’s it. In addition, Portland graciously allows me to enjoy snow when I feel like it, and not when I don’t. I do love snowboarding, and here, I can drive to Mt. Hood in an hour, have my winter fun, and then return to warmer climes, all in a few short hours.
Snow can be fun, as long as I can enjoy it on my terms. I don’t appreciate it when it shows up, unannounced and unwelcomed, much like ringworm, warts, or mothers-in-law.
Alas, here I sit, suffering through Portland’s most significant snowfall since 2008.
As I write these words, I have just returned to Oregon from spending two months at my (snow-free) home in Puerto Vallarta. Though I was working while I was there, I came back to a snow-capped mountain of items on my plate: meeting with clients, taking care of repairs at my rental houses, vetting new tenants at three of those houses, hiring a new cleaner for my Airbnb, preparing for another TV segment, training bartenders at a new restaurant, and much, much more. These items require the ability to drive: all over Portland, and to Vancouver, Redmond, and The Dalles.
The incoming snowstorm took a look at my agenda and said “nah.”
Right now, I can’t even get to my house in The Dalles where my coats and boots are stored, because Interstate 84 is closed due to the inclement weather. My car is snowed in, and like most Portlanders, I don’t own a shovel, so even driving to a store to buy a jacket would be a monumental undertaking. Without snow gear, I can’t even attempt to adequately appreciate the abominable arctic atrocities al fresco.
I’m not alone. Snowpocalypse 2021 has effectively brought the Portland metropolitan area to its knees. The city lacks the infrastructure to deal with snowstorms, due to their infrequency; as a result, most roads will remain unplowed for the duration of the storm. Throw in some freezing rain, and you have the makings of a disaster. Most, if not all, businesses are closed. Public transit has been completely shut down. Hundreds of thousands are still without power. The governor of Oregon has even declared a state of emergency.
I used to love snow days as a kid. Now, not so much.
What happened to the child in me that used to relish those rare opportunities to trade classes and homework in for the simple joy of building a snow fort and pelting my unsuspecting sister in the face with an unstoppable arsenal of snowballs?
In a nutshell, life. Life happened. Life came, life saw, life conquered.
As we grow older, we take on more than wrinkles. We take on responsibilities. Stresses. Obligations. (All of these lead to said wrinkles, but I digress.)
We of the 21st century have come to expect our lives to be well-oiled machines. For appointments to be kept, deadlines to be met. For us to be able to go anywhere we need to, accomplish whatever we have to, meet with whomever we are supposed to.
Until, that is, a snow day strikes.
For many, if not most, of us, our work never stops. Our phones provide us with constant, cloying connectivity, and so even during our days off, we are checking our email, responding to clients, chasing leads.
The truth is, we need time off. Our minds need it. Our bodies need it. Perhaps most importantly, our souls need it.
Yesterday, the power at my Gresham house went out. For 11 hours. I had already begrudgingly come to terms with enduring a snow day, come to terms with the fact that I would have to reschedule a lot of appointments over the weekend. But I wasn’t prepared for 11 hours of no wi-fi, a dying cell phone, and a dead laptop. Temperatures plummeting into the 40s inside the house didn’t help, either. I curled up, spent, inside four blankets and proceeded to feel sorry for myself.
It wasn’t even the impending hypothermia that dismayed me the most. It was my inability to be productive. To do. It wasn’t enough for me to just be, even for a few short hours.
What have I become? An entitled, 21st-century American? Apparently so. Eleven hours in conditions that would have been deemed luxurious by the majority of human history almost did me in.
Truth be told, I have lived my life in a hurry for so long that I don’t know how to exist in any other mode. I’ve rarely been able to locate the pause button on my inner remote. When something dramatic, like falling off a volcano, or a pandemic, or even a snowstorm brings my life to a temporary halt, I feel useless. Helpless. My self-worth is far too often based on what I do, not on who I am.
God foresaw our innate need for a pause button, one that gets pressed on the regular. For a break from the insanity we cluelessly pass off as real life. He created space in time, a Sabbath. He wrote it into Creation, into his ten commands. He created a period in which we were free to ignore work and set aside deadlines. A period in which we were free to commune with him and with the ones we love. A weekly snow day, if you will. This break was meant to be a gift, not a burden. But, like all of God’s greatest gifts, well-meaning believers Jewish and Christian alike turned it into exactly what he didn’t intend.
Even if you’re not religious, it’s hard to argue with the wisdom of taking a break.
Stephen Covey, the late author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, stressed the importance of self-renewal. His seventh habit was none other than “sharpening the saw,” or a dedication to rest, exercise, play, and personal exploration, arguing that only this dedication can enable and empower us to properly execute the other six habits.
“Without this renewal,” wrote Covey, “the body becomes weak, the mind mechanical, the emotions raw, the spirit insensitive, and the person selfish.” You can renew and revitalize yourself through rest and relaxation, he intoned, “or you can totally burn yourself out by overdoing everything.”
In other words, we all need snow days. Even those of us who live in Puerto Vallarta.
When we take the snow days, the breaks, the sabbaticals, the sabbaths, the vacations that our souls so desperately need, we find that we are actually more productive when the time comes to get back to work. Study after study corroborates this fact. Not only that, but when we take time to prioritize our relationships (both vertical and horizontal), our physical health, and our emotional well-being, we recognize work for what it is: simply one part of a healthy, balanced life, not an all-consuming fire demanding all of our attention, energy, and time.
If those ever-so-trustworthy meteorologists prove correct, this snow will melt tonight and tomorrow. Life will resume at the speed I have grown accustomed to. Once the tallest drifts melt in a couple days, all tangible evidence of this winter storm will disappear.
Our desperate need for snow days, though, isn’t going anywhere.
Find your pause button. Use it. Think you’re too busy? Think again. Maybe you, like me, often have an overinflated sense of the importance of your responsibilities. You’re never too busy to place value on your loved ones, your health, your sanity, and your soul.
Grab a blanket. A good book. Light a fire. Raise that warm mug of hot chocolate to your lips and savor a snow day, whether you asked for it or not.
Your soul will thank you.
When it comes to packing one's bags, there are two types of travelers.
(For those of you who have forgotten what travel is thanks to 2020, it’s when you board a plane, train, boat, or car and simply go somewhere. Apparently, it's supposed to be amazing.)
There are those who pack light. One carry-on, and maybe a small personal item if they’re feeling feisty. Conversely, there are those who bring four suitcases for a weekend trip.
I’m not saying that one method of packing is right and the other is wrong. I am saying that one is convenient and the other is indescribably annoying.
Years ago, I dated a girl, who shall remain nameless, who fell squarely into the latter category. She epitomized it. She celebrated it. She would bring fifteen separate outfits along for a four-day trip, citing the fact that she never knew what mood she would be in when each morning rolled around. She would bring a similar number of pairs of shoes, not to mention countless coats or swimsuits, depending on the destination. Multiple laptops. A makeup bag that equaled the size of all my luggage.
Guess which gentleman carried all her bags?
Not this one, that’s for sure.
When boarding planes, I usually pretended I didn’t know her as she bowled over small children with her plethora of oversized carry-ons.
I, on the other hand, have transitioned from somewhere in between these two camps to being an extremely efficient packer. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy wearing clean clothes as much as the next (non-touring musician) person, so I typically plan on doing laundry somewhere in the middle of longer trips so as to get by with the bare minimum of packed clothing. I figure that the less I bring, the less I have to haul around, the less I have to worry about, and the more I can simply focus on living in the moment and enjoying myself. To be fair, though, anyone who has traveled internationally with me knows that I occasionally have to make an H&M stop to buy some cheap underwear when a washing machine isn't available.
The best part about differing packing styles, though, is this: unless you're rich and lazy, chances are you are in charge of filling your own suitcase, and you get to determine exactly what and how much you bring along.
We, and only we, get to pack our own bags.
It stands to reason that if the old adages are true, life too is a journey.
It turns out that I’m much better at packing my physical bags efficiently than I am at packing those metaphorical bags I insist on bringing along on this expedition called existence. It turns out that I’m holding on to a lot of things I’d be better off without. It turns out that traveling light is easier said than done.
I suspect I’m not the only one with baggage.
How many suitcases of anger have you been carrying with you? Of regret? Of hurt? Of shame? If you’re anything like me, you’ve got more of this kind of luggage than they’d let you bring onto a plane.
Yes, others can and will do us wrong. However, we have the power to forgive, to let go of bitterness, to dump out our suitcases full of hate into an ocean of grace.
Yes, we will fail. Repeatedly. At work, at relationships, at family, at accomplishing our goals. Nevertheless, we have the ability, here and now, to empty our backpacks of embarrassment, of regret, of lies about what we’re worth.
How many backpacks of money, status, success, and ego have you managed to strap to your back? I find that the more I try to rid myself of this kind of luggage, the more I seem to accumulate.
Yes, we will get our priorities mixed up. We might spend years chasing wealth instead of authenticity, success instead of joy. But in this moment, in each moment, we have been given the gift of luggage that isn’t locked up, and we can choose to rid ourselves of these faulty priorities and reorient our lives towards what matters, one day and one step at a time.
When we travel light, there’s no need to wait at the ticket counter. At baggage claim. At customs. When we travel light, we have less to worry about and keep track of, and can focus on the exciting journey at hand.
When we travel light, we even have enough hands to help those we’re traveling alongside with their heavy bags. We can offer to carry them, as Galatians 6:2 directs, and even do what we can to help rid those we love of their burdensome baggage once and for all.
Often, the bags we carry on life’s journey are not necessarily evil, in and of themselves. Suitcases often fill up with things like work, service, and social engagements, pieces of our lives that, in their proper context, are necessary and important. But when we find that most, if not all, of our bags are filled with just one of these things, when we spend that 70th hour at work to provide for our families, yet neglect them in the process, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate exactly what our luggage is filled with.
What’s in your bags? What are you holding onto? What is weighing you down? These are questions that each of us must ask of ourselves, must answer for ourselves.
Some two thousand years ago, a man who was also God was betrayed by his friends. He was whipped and beaten gruesomely, then asked to carry a heavy wooden cross to the top of a hill, a cross that he would then be nailed to.
Jesus was so weak from loss of blood, pain, and exhaustion that he stumbled under the weight of his cross, unable to carry it further. A man named Simon, who was passing through town, was compelled to carry the cross of Christ to the top of Golgotha. Though he knew it not, his act of kindness, though compulsory, became symbolic of what we, those who follow Jesus, are also asked to do. Jesus, in Luke 9:23 (NIV), puts it this way: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
It’s hard to carry a cross when your hands are already full.
Simon carried Jesus’ cross a single time. We are asked to do it every day.
When we travel light, when our hands, our time, our agenda, our lives aren’t full of our own cherished luggage, we are free to carry the cross of Christ.
To those not steeped in Biblical terminology, carrying a cross sounds rather morbid. Rather onerous. Rather barbaric. Jesus makes it clear, though, that he doesn’t want to burden us with a heavy load, with restrictive rules and cumbersome commands. His yoke is easy. His burden is light. He knows that when we deny ourselves and pick up his cross, we are entering into life, real life, through his death. He knows that the luggage we cling to will only bring ruin.
He longs for us to trade all our baggage in. Our addictions. Our selfishness. Our love of money. Our need for approval. Our pain. Our regrets. He longs for us to free our hands and our hearts to carry one thing, and one thing only: his cross. It is at the cross, in the cross that his lavish love for a dying world is made clear. When we give up our own selfish desires so we can love God and love others, we carry the cross of Christ.
Are you exhausted from carrying leaden loads of luggage? It’s time to unload. To let go. To travel light.
Jesus gives us an invitation, one that all of us weary travelers can relate to. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me--watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, MSG)
My burdened, battered heart longs to learn those unforced rhythms of grace. Longs to free up my hands to carry a cross. Longs to let go of the lesser things that hold me back, that keep me from the life of reckless grace that I know I was created to live.
Jesus knows the depths of our perpetual struggle when he gently reminds us to pick up our cross daily. This wily world has a way of slipping things into our baggage when we’re not paying attention. Of filling our lives with things that, though they may be good, crowd out the best things. Jesus faced every temptation that we have ever known, yet clung to his singular mission, a mission that led him to travel light all the way to Calvary.
Jesus doesn’t force us to surrender. Doesn’t coerce us to pick up his cross. Doesn’t rip our possessions or priorities from our grasp against our will. He simply shows us, patiently and repeatedly, that traveling light is the only way to find meaning beyond our days, to store up treasure in heaven, to live a life of open hands and an open heart.
This life matters. What we do with our days, our months, and our years matters. Don’t carry those burdens for another minute. Lay them down. If you find yourself instinctively picking them up again, don’t beat yourself up over it. Instead, reach for your cross. Find someone to lavish a random act of kindness upon. Take a day off work and spend it with your family. Right an old wrong. Forgive yourself for a past mistake.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace
As you look to Jesus and pick up your cross, you’ll find that the allure your old baggage once held is fading away. You’ll find yourself living a life of simplicity, authenticity, and purpose, the life you’ve always wanted.
You’ll find yourself traveling light.
Chirp, chirp. Chirp, chirp.
I rubbed my eyes and squinted at the floor. Was a piece of bark squeaking in my general direction? Or was my imagination getting the best of me again?
Mentally, I ran through a list of probable causes. I had just arrived at my condo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. My two-leg flight had only lasted seven hours, so I wasn’t overly jet lagged. I’d slept well the night before, so it couldn’t be a lack of sleep. I don’t touch psychedelic drugs, so my eyes and ears were not deceiving me. Thus, there had to be another explanation for the detritus on my floor that was attempting to communicate with me.
Granted, my condo is prone to flooding. My back patio sits just a couple inches lower than the floor inside the condo, and lies underneath some palm trees. When fronds block the patio drain, and I’m not there to sweep them away, the patio fills up with rainwater, which eventually seeps underneath my back door and inundates my house.
Upon arrival, I opened my front door and was once again greeted by signs of a recent flood. So, I began to clean, which is exactly what I love doing after a day of travel. While sweeping the living room floor, I kept hearing chirping from the corner. Finally, I spotted the piece of bark that was causing such a ruckus. As my broom approached it, it squeaked and hopped away.
That piece of debris was, in fact, the tiniest frog I had ever seen. No bigger than a large fly, she could still hop over a foot in the air. Her adorable, tiny feet and her big, inquisitive, fearful black eyes left me no choice but to immediately fall in love with this diminutive creature. I named her Rosie the Ribbeter.
Rosie hopped toward my bathroom and took refuge in the bottom of my wooden bathroom door, which had been damaged by water from the most recent flood and had separated at the bottom, creating what turned out to be a desirable habitation for such a Lilliputian amphibian.
Time passed, and I settled in. I didn’t see Rosie for a couple days, and hoped that she had found her way back out to freedom via the tiny crack under my front door. One night, around four in the morning, I groggily stumbled from my bed to the bathroom. I opened the door and turned on the light. Immediately, I heard the loudest shrieking, far more piercing than the chirping from a couple days before, and saw a tiny creature jumping around. It was Rosie. She had apparently applied for permanent residency in the bottom of my door. Based on her screeches, I surmised that I had injured her in moving the door. She quickly hopped back to cover. I stopped moving the bathroom door.
From that point on, I knew I had to rescue her. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how.
I started leaving little puddles of water on the floor, in hopes that she could stay alive long enough to find her way to daylight. Several times a day, she would venture out of her door-fort, and I’d spot her, either in the shower or behind the toilet. Whenever I got as close as two or three feet, she would quickly hop out of my reach. Rosie was no slouch. If she ever got the chance to enter the Amphibian Olympics, I have no doubt that she would hop away with several gold medals, or gilded beetles, or whatever it is that they give out for trophies at such events.
All along, I of course knew that I was trying to help her. Regrettably, I don’t speak Frog, and I had a hard time communicating my intentions. She undoubtedly saw me as a giant and a threat. Whenever I tried to guide her toward the living room, and ultimately toward the freedom beyond the front door, she would retreat to safety.
After a week of this, I knew time was running out for Rosie. She needed food, and needed it fast. I wasn’t about to introduce live insects into my home, and obviously, Rosie couldn’t live in my condo forever; after I left, she would surely starve or die of thirst.
If only there was a way for me to show Rosie that I was trying to save her, not harm her. If only I could speak Frog.
I covered the bathroom floor with a bunch of Mason jars, lying on their sides, full of leaves, sticks, and grass. I put a little water in each, hoping to mimic her natural habitat enough that she might hop into one, and I might be able to take her to safety.
On the daily, I grew more and more attached to this tiny frog. It goes without saying that this year has been one of hurt and suffering for so many, and all of my hopes of any good remaining in this broken world were pinned on somehow helping this poor, innocent frog make it to safety.
One day, ten days into Rosie’s stay, she disappeared. I didn’t see her for almost 48 hours. I prayed that she had escaped, but feared the worst. I didn’t want to move the bathroom door for fear of injuring her, or worse yet, discovering that she was no longer alive.
At 2 AM on a stormy night, my heart melted as I walked into the bathroom and saw Rosie sitting in the middle of the rug. When she spotted me, she hopped directly to the rim of one of the Mason jars. As I approached, the unthinkable happened. She hopped in! Quickly, I covered the jar with a lid.
Rosie, to her credit, didn’t freak out. It was almost as if she knew that she was safe and was on her way to a better place, where she could live out her days happily gorging on all the insects her little heart desired.
I opened my front door. Those subtropical summer rains beat down in the darkness outside as I walked a mile and a half down empty streets to a place where Google Maps told me I would find a small river named Río Pitillal. Throughout the journey, when we passed under the light of a streetlight, Rosie looked up at me from the jar with those big, black, trusting eyes. Dogs barked. Birds chirped. Rosie, unfazed, kept returning my gaze.
Finally, we arrived. I found a marshy area near the bank of the river. I set the Mason jar down, expecting Rosie to immediately hop out. There were bugs to eat and puddles to splash in, after all.
Instead, she stayed where she was, looking up at me with those unforgettable eyes. So, though not a fan of littering, I left the jar in a tuft of grass near a large puddle. Perhaps Rosie, after enjoying a long, exciting day of feasting on insects, could retreat to the safety of the jar that had been her home for the last mile and a half. Tears welled up, and I started to cry as I bid her farewell.
As I walked back to my condo, soaking wet, I thought about all that Rosie had taught me. I thought about the fact that sometimes stories still do have happy endings. I felt a sense of self-accomplishment for having saved a tiny, helpless creature that surely would have died without me, and wondered if this was how God must feel toward us.
Then, like a thunderbolt in the night, it hit me. Everything I thought I knew about God and the magnitude of his sacrifice was wrong.
Yes, I had gone out of my way to save a frog, and had patted myself on the back for it. Ultimately, though, it had cost me nothing but a little time and a Mason jar.
God, though, didn’t just put out a tiny terrarium for us. He didn’t just try to guide us to the front door as best he could. He didn’t just take a few hours out of his night to walk through the rain to save us, and then say, “It is finished.”
Instead, the King became a tiny frog. Helpless. Powerless. Fragile. Alone.
God gave up everything that divinity entails, because he knew that the only way to save a frog was to become one.
He became like us, so that we could be like him. He lived among us. Taught us. Healed us. Forgave us. He learned to speak Frog.
Not only that, but the story didn’t end as well for Jesus as it did for Rosie. God couldn’t just wave a wand and magically make our sins, our flaws, and the depravity of our hearts disappear. For the wages of sin is death, and the King knew that for justice to be upheld, he must take upon himself the punishment that we deserved. Just as the prophets foretold, though God became a frog, the frogs knew him not. We misunderstood his intentions, much like Rosie misunderstood mine. He was rejected, abandoned, and murdered by the ones he came to save.
Little did we self-important, sanctimonious frogs know that he was the Son of God, the one that even death could not constrain.
This is the Incarnation. A cold night in Bethlehem. A barn. A trough. Some farm animals. The King of everything became a tiny frog so that one day soon, we frogs can spend an eternity with Him on the banks of a river of life that never runs dry, an eternity where we can know as we are known.
So, my fellow frogs, let us hop with hope. Hope for the day when wrongs are made right, when broken hearts are healed, when death and pain are swallowed up in life forever.
And, the next time I’m in Puerto Vallarta, I might just mosey on back to Río Pitillal, look for a Mason jar and a pair of big black eyes, and say hello to an old friend who has taught me so much about what being a frog is all about.
This piece was originally published by Spectrum Magazine (www.spectrummagazine.org).
My name is Jon, and I’m a fellow Christian. These modest words that follow are, collectively, an open letter to those who believe in Jesus, who call themselves Christians. I am writing this letter as a Christian who has made, and continues to make, a lot of mistakes. I have hurt both God and my fellow humans. I don’t write this letter from a position of superiority, but rather from a humble place of knowing firsthand my need for grace.
We Christians share a common creed. Preeminently, we believe in Jesus, God become man, who left everything to enter our broken planet as a helpless baby. Why? So that he could show us, firsthand, what the love and grace of God is all about. Everything he did, he did in grace, with grace, because of grace. He healed the sick. Welcomed the outcasts. Touched lepers. Hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. Not only that, but on account of his grace, he was beaten and crucified, taking the punishment our sinful selves deserved and trading it for the substitutionary atonement of a Savior, for eternal life in him.
Jesus was, and is, the incarnation of grace. John 1:17 puts it this way: “For the law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Just as Jesus lived and died with grace, we are called to live and love with the same grace we have been given. That love extends to everyone, not just to those who believe the same as us, look the same as us, vote the same way as us. 1 John 4:20 offers these words of warning: “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
How is it, then, that so much of what Christians in the United States stand for today is so devoid of grace? Lacking in love?
If grace is to be our anthem and everything we live for as Christians, where is it?
Where is the grace when Mexicans and other immigrants are called murderers and rapists by our President? When they are separated from their families and kept in brutally inhumane conditions, all because they want to move to a different country? When they are the target of racial epithets and told to “speak English” even though the United States doesn’t have an official language? Aren’t we all but immigrants? As Jeremiah 22:3 says, “Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner.” Not only that, but Jesus paints Samaritans, foreigners whom Jews looked down upon, to be heroes in one of his most famous parables. Remember the Good Samaritan? Yeah, that parable.
Where is the grace when some Christians are adamant that children deserve the right to be born, yet don’t care about what happens to those children afterward? Where is the grace in defunding their education, in sending them to war, in not wanting to make sure they’re healthy and fed via affordable healthcare and social safety nets? Pro-life should refer to the duration of someone’s life, not just when they’re in utero. Often, all it takes for someone to cease their pro-life stance is for you to reach for their pocketbook. Furthermore, abortion rates actually decreased under Obama, because (surprise, surprise) access to affordable contraception goes a long way towards avoiding unwanted pregnancies.
Where is the grace when some Christians find a way to weasel out of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, pointing to flaws in leadership or some other unjustified excuse, and by the same token are able to explain away the President’s many flaws or support him in spite of them? Shouldn’t every Christian who has actually read and taken to heart the words of Jesus be marching hand in hand with every Black person in this country? BLM doesn’t mean that your white life doesn’t matter. Human rights are not pie. Just because someone else gains some doesn’t mean you lose yours. Furthermore, where is the grace when Trump supports discriminatory housing practices? Won’t denounce blatant racism and police brutality, even on a stage so grand as during a presidential debate?
Where is the grace when Christians support any sort of white supremacy movement? Any sort of white nationalism? Can you imagine the Jesus who knelt to wash his disciples’ feet, and who, by the way, certainly wasn’t white, being at the head of a group of Proud Boys, semiautomatic weapon in hand? “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul says in Galatians 3:28.
Where is the grace in refusing to wear a mask to help slow the spread of COVID? Instead of doing this one simple, gracious act to help protect others, some Christians make up excuses and wild conspiracy theories about governmental control. Didn’t Jesus do anything he could to help and serve others? You complain about wearing a mask, while he wore a crown of thorns. Worse yet, where is the grace, the compassion, the concern in a President who consistently downplayed the threat of COVID even though he knew the dangers? Who refused to wear masks and mocked those who did? Who didn’t listen to experts and instead initiated a halfhearted, haphazard response to the most lethal global pandemic in a century, a response which cost over 200,000 American lives? Who, when he contracted COVID himself, knowingly followed through with an engagement that evening without masking up, infecting many others in the process, and couldn’t even pay lip service to the plight of those who have contracted the coronavirus and don’t have access to the world’s best health care?
Where is the grace in a system of government that consistently gives huge tax breaks to the wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle classes? A government that can’t provide necessities like healthcare and education to its lower-income citizens, the ones who need it the most? When Jesus fed the 5,000, he didn’t hang on to his loaves and fishes and launch into a diatribe about how hard he had worked for them, and how those in attendance should go get their own. Instead, he freely gave. And, it turns out, there was an abundance, enough left for everyone and then some. No, I am not condoning taking advantage of the system, and I understand that the money must come from somewhere. But, interestingly, Jesus was also a proponent of paying taxes (“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he said). You may call it socialism. Jesus called it grace.
Where is the grace in a staged photo-op with a Bible at a church near the White House which required tear gassing innocent, peaceful citizens? This is exactly the kind of sham religion that Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for, such as in Matthew 23. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Where is the grace in a President who pledges to enact a tax cut that will defund Social Security, striking a huge blow to the well-being of retirees, people with disabilities, and widows and widowers? Where is the grace in Christians supporting this? “Religion,” James 1:27 says, “that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Isaiah 1:17 says it even more succinctly: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
Where is the grace in a President who lashes out in egregiously ugly ways at anyone and everyone who either disagrees with him in the slightest, or who has wronged him in any real or perceived way? He has obviously never read the following words of Peter: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9). Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, but Trump can’t even turn the other tweet. Where is the grace in Christians who implicitly condone this petulant bully’s behavior, turning a deaf ear to his words and somehow thinking that he cares at all about what Jesus has to say, after admitting he has never asked for forgiveness in his life (one of the only prerequisites for salvation, I might add).
Where is the grace in a President who is so enamored with being the richest and the best that he tells more lies than any other president in history (according to the unbiased, nonpartisan reports of Politifact) to ensure that he is portrayed in nothing but a flattering light? He must have missed those verses about the meek inheriting the Earth, or about the first being last and the last being first. He also never read Proverbs 21:6: “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.” Where is the grace in his faithful followers, who blindly believe what the President says rather than trusting experts, science, or facts? “Fake news” is undoubtedly the most genius catchphrase that Trump has ever employed; with it, he and his followers can conveniently dismiss any proven fact that challenges their worldview as part of a vast conspiracy of the left-wing media.
Where is the grace for our planet? Our future? Our kids and their kids? If this Earth is a gift from God, created by his hand, wouldn’t we want to take care of it? To take every opportunity to support green energy? Renewable resources? Recycling? To treat animals kindly? Instead, we have a President who, in 2009, in the New York Times, supported legislation combating climate change, saying that “if we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.” Then, when it became politically necessary in order to court Republican voters, he flipped the script. He called climate change “an expensive hoax,” gutted the EPA and put coal lobbyists in charge of it, pulled us out of the Paris Agreement, dismantled the Clean Power Plan, rolled back rules limiting methane pollution, and loosened emissions standards for cars and trucks. We only have one planet. One future. Yet, the callous disregard for the environment by our President, and many who support him, in the name of economic strength shows a complete lack of grace for our world and for those who will inhabit it just 20, 30, 50 years from now. What happens to those fossil fuel industry jobs when fossil fuels run out? When the Earth is rendered completely uninhabitable? Furthermore, Trump’s policies have cost the renewable energy sector over 622,000 jobs since he took office. How’s that for building a robust job market?
What happened to love? Love for everyone in this human race, whether gay or straight, Black or white, rich or poor, male or female or any other identification? If you have everything except for love, you still have nothing, according to 1 Corinthians 13.
You can’t love God and hate Muslims. You can’t love God and turn a blind eye to systemic racism. You can’t love God and discriminate against LGBTQ people. You can’t love God and abuse women.
Wake up, Christians. If there is no grace in what you believe and practice, then you are not of God.
I don’t actually expect my writing to change anyone’s mind. Republicans have been branding themselves as “God’s party” for years, even though the notion that God can be reduced to either political party is asinine. Both parties, and their respective politicians, are far from perfect; however, the Democratic Party consistently bases its platforms on inclusion and on taking care of everyone, not just the rich, the white, the male. Which, as it turns out, is exactly the kind of social agenda Jesus espoused. Still, I am not writing this letter in order to get you to swap your partisan affiliation. I am writing it because it breaks my heart to see so many of my friends turn against the God of grace and love that the Bible portrays because they see such a different God embodied in the lives of those who claim to follow him.
Do you get it, Christians? Your graceless words and actions are the biggest cause of unbelief in this broken world. You may think you’re standing up for what is good and right, but in reality, you’re locking the doors to heaven and throwing away the key.
Yes, God cares about what we do. But our actions, our sins, our shortcomings, and our transformation are all between us and Christ. “We can’t legislate man to perfection again,” sings Thrice. The way to lead others to Jesus is never judgment and hate. Rather, it’s always grace and love.
Right before God, through Isaiah in Chapter 1, told Israel to learn to do good, seek justice, and correct oppression, he went off on them for the religious show they put on. For their outward display of piety. For their hypocrisy. The one thing God hates more than evil is evil dressed up as good.
The only antidote to evil is grace. Amazing, surprising, unexpected, undeserved, reckless grace.
Let me be clear: if we don’t live in grace, we don’t live in Christ.
“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace,” says Paul in Galatians 5:4.
God is love. Love is not just another one of his many attributes; it fundamentally comprises who he is. His love for us is so strong, so pure, so great, that he would rather give up his life than give up his love.
There’s more. He doesn’t just love us, but he calls us to love in the same way as he did. “Just as I have loved you, so you are to love one another,” he says in John 13:34. He doesn’t give us the option to pick and choose who we love. Who we show grace to. Who we accept, welcome, embrace.
“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love,” 1 John 4:8 succinctly states.
If you do not love, you do not know God. Mic drop.
These are not my words. They are God’s.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where people would know we are Christians by our love, rather than by our judgmental attitudes, hatred towards those not like us, and utter hypocrisy? Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)” He meant it. This is exactly what he desires.
Love is not a noun. It is a verb. God did not simply sit on his throne and wax eloquent about how much he loves us. Not even close. He counted everything as loss, including his own life, to put his love into action. He calls us to do the same. If we say we love everyone, yet live, act, or vote in a way that doesn’t match our words, we don’t love. Period. “Let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth,” 1 John 3:18 affirms.
So, Christians, I invite you to take a long, hard look at what you believe. Ask yourself: where is the grace? I mean it when I say that I will continue to do the same. Is grace the driving force behind our attitudes, our actions, our beliefs, our attributes? If not, let us ask God for grace. He will give it freely. His grace is enough. For you. For me. For a broken world desperately in need of the love of the Father and the love of fellow humans.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see
These are crazy times.
With COVID-19 growing from a local outbreak to a regional epidemic to a global pandemic in a matter of a couple of months, our lives as we know them have been turned upside down.
During the last few weeks, many procedures have been implemented worldwide that some of us may never have thought we would have to adopt within our lifetimes.
Healthy? Practice physical distancing. Shelter at home. Avoid close human contact.
Ill? Self-quarantine before a governmental body does it for you.
These disruptive measures, though crucial to stem the spread of an uncommonly contagious virus, seem foreign to most of us. In times like these, our natural response is to cling to the ones we love; now, in a physical sense at least, we are being asked to do the opposite. Put distance between ourselves and the people we care about? Isolate? Avoid physical contact? These regulations, though important, strip away much of what makes us communal beings. They feel cold. Lonely. Unfamiliar. Empty. Novel.
Truth be told, though, this isolation is nothing new. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have been quarantining our entire lives.
We consistently shelter ourselves from those who are different. Those we disagree with. Those who take too much of our energy, our money, our time. Those we see as less worthy, less holy, less like us. Now, Facebook algorithms even take care of distancing for us, ensuring that we mainly encounter views and opinions that most closely resemble ours.
Consciously and unconsciously, we associate with those we see eye to eye with. Religiously. Politically. We even tend to surround ourselves with those who share our affinity for a particular sports team. It turns out that Yankees and Red Sox fans don’t hang out together too often.
So often, too, we the church, though in principle believing we are called to love and love unconditionally, seek to quarantine ourselves from the world, from anyone unrighteous, from anyone whose sinful habits and words might infect us.
We quarantine because it keeps us safe. Keeps our tidy little belief systems intact and unchallenged. Keeps us unblemished, untried, untempted.
Yet, this self-preserving, self-isolating approach could be the Enemy’s biggest temptation of all.
We serve a God who did, and does, the complete opposite. A God who created this world knowing full well the decisions we would make, the sickness of sin we would choose to become infected with. A God who did not self-isolate away from our planet, or tuck this fallen world away in an out-of-reach corner of the universe, but rather a God who entered the danger zone, born a helpless human who would grow up to become our disease.
This God, this Jesus, regularly did the unthinkable. He touched lepers while they were still unclean. Let a prostitute wash and wipe his feet with her hair. Hung out with tax collectors, drunkards, and sinners. Sinners much like you and me.
Though Jesus was a spotless lamb, he became a serpent lifted high (John 3:14). Though he knew no sin, he became sin for us. He drank our cup, taking upon himself the very thing he could not look upon, be around, be a part of. Instead of reaching for his mask and hand sanitizer to safely avoid our disease, he became it, so that he could cure it forever. The cure he offers is the only cure we will ever need, and our disease doesn’t stand a chance against it. John 1:5 puts it this way: "The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out."
The God who knows no quarantine does the same thing in our messy lives today that he did on a cross long ago: he draws close to us, as contaminated as we are. He doesn’t ask that we get tested for our sickness; the Great Physician knows our condition better than we know it ourselves. He doesn’t wait for us to cure ourselves, to rid our souls of every symptom of sin, but jumps right into the heart of our circumstances, our crimes, our calamities. He doesn’t demand that we isolate from him, but calls us to him, sick and sinful as we are. His hands-on approach is exactly what our lonely, locked-up hearts have been waiting for.
Jesus knows no illness he can’t cure. No heart he can’t heal. Nothing broken he can’t restore. He doesn’t merely offer hypothetical hope of a vaccine yet to be developed; rather, he is the cure. No amount of self-medication, of self-help, or of self-doctoring could ever offer the total heart transformation that Jesus does. He doesn’t just want to eradicate our disease, but wants to bring us back to health. Back to life. As his light casts out our darkness, as his wholeness pushes out our brokenness, we become like him. Pure. Healthy. Whole.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18: "Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him."
We are sick. We are going to die. The only cure is a cruel cross, and a Savior who did not, does not, will not, spare anything to bring us from death to life.
He will never quarantine us. He will never isolate himself. He will never hold our sickness against us, for our Judge and our Savior are one.
In these times of uncertainty, of physical distancing, and of isolation, God defies any separation our guilt or shame could ever try to put on him. He has broken down every wall between himself and us. He refuses to give us, his prodigal sons and daughters, six feet of separation or an elbow bump, but instead runs down the road to greet us with arms wide open, welcoming us home.
As long as this earthly pandemic continues to escalate, it’s important to follow the rules of shelter and separation set out by governments and health agencies. But, though the battle rages against this devastating, deadly disease, we can be still and know that when it comes to the sickness that is killing our souls, the fight has already been won. We serve a God who is not bridled by rules of sin or separation, by regulations of space, time, guilt, or shame.
“So, what do you think,” exclaims Paul in Romans 8:31-32, 39. "With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? Absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love."
This is the God who knows no quarantine.
This piece originally appeared in The Compass Magazine.
All Bible verses quoted are from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.
Being God is an unenviable job.
As George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more are murdered for the color of their skin, as systemic racism abounds in a country that purports to offer liberty and justice for all, as hundreds of thousands die from COVID-19, as countless others suffer financial hardship as a direct result of the pandemic, our hearts break for the injustice and suffering around us. As each of our hearts breaks, God's heart breaks eight billion times.
Don’t get me wrong: there is joy in being God. Joy in the beauty of a hopeless person who finds hope again. Joy in turning our evil into good, our wrongs into rights. Joy in entering into a relationship with those he has created. Joy in knowing that someday every tear will dry, every broken heart will be mended.
Yet, there is an immeasurable sadness. Sadness in the pain, suffering, discrimination, and death so many of his children must face. Sadness at the evil he must allow in the name of giving us freedom of choice, freedom of will. Sadness when we so often blame the very one who died to make things right.
No wonder Jesus was called the Man of Sorrows.
Jesus wept. He wept at death when his good friend Lazarus passed away. He wept over Jerusalem’s imminent destruction, because its people failed to choose the path of peace. He preached about injustice, inequality, and servitude. He spoke out against violence, even while his own life was being sold for thirty pieces of silver.
God is the God of the broken heart. His heart breaks when we choose power over peace. It breaks when we choose violence over love. Discrimination over acceptance. Anger over forgiveness.
Does what breaks God's heart break ours?
A little over a week ago, I attended a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in The Dalles, Oregon, a town not known for its particularly progressive views. Before we marched down to the police station, we assembled in a park while several African-American members of the community spoke over a PA system about their experiences, their fears, and their hope for change.
After being moved by their message, I was surprised to see a white man, dressed in a suit and tie and holding a Bible, walk up and grab the microphone. I held my breath as he began to speak. “If you would have told me four years ago that I would be speaking at a Black Lives Matter protest, I would have laughed at you,” he said. “I’m a conservative Christian, a Republican, and the last thing I wanted was to be aligned with a bleeding-heart liberal cause.”
He didn’t stop there, thankfully. This Lutheran minister, from a small church in a small town, got it. His heart had been broken by the things that break God’s heart.
“I have come to realize that this isn’t about politics. It’s about human lives, about my brothers and sisters of color. It’s about caring about the things Jesus would have cared about,” he continued. “And so, I’m here to stand with you, here to help bring about change for some of God’s children who are being oppressed.”
Does what breaks God’s heart break ours?
If it does, our hearts will break when we see injustice. Racism. Discrimination. Misogyny.
If it does, our hearts will break when we see anyone who is created in his image being treated like anything less than the sons and daughters of God that they are.
If what breaks God’s heart breaks our hearts, we will work tirelessly to enact the change that he, and we, want to see.
Yes, we have free will to do evil, to cause pain, to show prejudice. However, the flip side of the free will coin is that we also have the freedom to do good. To love everyone, regardless of the cost. To protest peacefully. To petition lawmakers. To give of our time and money to causes that champion those who are being oppressed.
I pray that your heart, and my heart, are broken by what breaks God’s heart, and that out of that brokenness comes the resolve to bring about lasting change.
If you find your heart being broken, though, by things that don’t break the heart of Jesus, I would like to gently suggest that you head back to the Gospels to read and re-read the words of the Son of God. If the sign that you bring to a protest is one of hate, one of judgment, or one of condemnation, I hope you can ask yourself if the Jesus who knelt and washed his disciples’ feet, who touched and healed lepers, who hung out with a Samaritan woman, and who partied with sinners would be seen carrying the same sign.
Jesus was a Middle Eastern refugee, belonging to a group of people that far too many of his followers so easily turn their backs on today.
Jesus didn’t judge a prostitute who others were ready to stone to death. He attended dinner parties with everyone from dirty fishermen to despised government officials. He told parables extolling the virtues of Samaritans, hated by the Jews for their ethnicity and their religion. He treated women like the equals they are, not possessions like those around him did. He praised the less fortunate, the weak, the child, the outsider. He said the last shall be first.
The only people Jesus judged while on earth? The Jewish religious leaders. Pharisees and Sadducees who would rob the poor. Who would make money off of religion. Who would discriminate based on someone’s ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class. Who were far more concerned with religious rules than with loving their neighbor. Who wanted nothing to do with change if it meant losing power, losing control.
Read Jesus’ words, and then tell me if you can really picture the God who fed five thousand hungry people, who refused to condemn a whore, who told us do good to those who hate us and pray for those who mistreat us--can you see this God angrily counter-protesting at a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally? Refusing to bake a cake for an LGBTQ couple? Upset about Confederate flags and statues being taken down?
As Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Knowing this, why aren’t more Christians at the forefront of movements that fight for the oppressed? That champion human rights? Equality? An end to violence and police brutality?
These causes, so important to Jesus, are sadly not worth the time of many of his purported followers.
Yes, God’s heart breaks when we fall short, when we sin, when we fail. His heart breaks not because we have somehow broken his draconian, capricious commands, but rather because he knows that when we sin, we are only hurting ourselves, hurting others. Jesus put it best when confronted by a Jewish teacher of the law about which commandment was most important. The Son of God, the Author of laws but also of life, succinctly summed up his commands thus: Love God, love people. Mic drop.
When we love God and love people, God is happy, because we are happy. When we turn our backs on God and mistreat people made in his image, it breaks God’s heart, because he knows it will ultimately break ours, break each other’s.
Shortly before his death, the Man of Sorrows told a hauntingly prescient story about two ubiquitous farm animals. Jesus, foretelling his second coming, foretelling the day when no heart shall break again, said that when he returns, all the nations will be arranged before him. He will then sort people into two categories: sheep and goats.
What are the criteria for attaining sheep status, you ask?
Jesus, in Matthew 25:34-40, sums up the entirety of what our lives as his followers should be about:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’
“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’”
Love others. Love them regardless of their race. Regardless of their gender. Regardless of their sexual orientation. Regardless of whether they’re rich, poor, homeless, infirm, incarcerated. This is how you become a sheep.
Want to know how to become a goat? Do the opposite. Judge. Discriminate. Oppress. Stand idly by when injustice is taking place. Worry only about yourself, your rights, your beliefs, your 401k.
I leave you with a warning, though: things don’t work out too well for goats in the end.
Don’t be a goat.
Let your heart be broken by the things that break God’s.
This piece was originally published by Spectrum Magazine (www.spectrummagazine.org).
It’s difficult to find a human on this planet that hasn’t been affected by COVID in some way. Maybe that hermit on his private Italian island? Maybe some reclusive Antarctic researcher? In one manner or another, though, every life has been altered, whether in regards to health, finances, plans, employment, losing a loved one, or all of the above.
As a society, we need more. More masks, yes. More ventilators. More toilet paper (or more people who don’t hoard). More COVID-19 test kids, especially here in the United States. More adherence to social distancing guidelines. More federal assistance.
More hugs, but that won’t be happening anytime soon.
Most of all, though, we need more ears.
Right now, everyone has a story of how their life has changed. Some have seen their income completely dry up. Some are battling COVID in isolation or in an overcrowded hospital. Some are in danger of losing their businesses, their homes. Some are separated from their loved ones by miles and travel restrictions. Some are trying to work from home but can’t clone themselves and watch their suddenly out-of-school kids as well. Some are about to lose a parent and can’t even plan a funeral because of current regulations. Some have to celebrate their birthdays alone with just themselves and Marco Polo. I, or someone I know well, fall into each of these categories.
With so many voices sharing these legitimate, desperate stories of loss, tragedy, or worry, it seems there aren’t enough ears to go around, and not enough thumbs reaching out and messaging words of hope and love.
I am guilty. I’ve been a little too quick to talk about all that’s gone wrong for me at the hands of this capricious coronavirus, and a little too slow to check in with those who need the two ears I have to offer.
In these times of physical distancing, it’s hard not to feel emotionally distanced, as well.
My heart is warmed by stories from across the globe of individuals, companies, families and organizations that are doing everything technologically possible to stay connected emotionally, relationally, socially.
It’s not enough to read these touching tales on social media and smile while we simultaneously isolate ourselves and binge watch another show. Positive posturing in your social media posts doesn’t count as interpersonal communication. Neither does leaving a sympathetic yet generic comment on someone else’s post.
What we need now, more than anything, is the knowledge that those in our life care. Are there to listen. To love. To understand. Perhaps you know a lonely person who is struggling to make ends meet financially, emotionally, or any other word with the suffix -ally. Perhaps you are that person.
Pick up your phone. Turn off Netflix. Give your thumbs a much-needed workout. Reach out. Say hey. Check in. Truly listen. You have so many apps at your disposal. FaceTime. Skype. Messenger. WhatsApp. Instagram. Good ol’ texting or phone calling. Even banners from your balcony.
Make the effort. I challenge you, and challenge myself, to contact five people today that you haven’t spoken with in awhile. We need each other. We are alone together, never simply alone.
Unprecedented times like these not only show us who our true friends are, but challenge us to be a little less self-absorbed, a little more apt to be the first one to reach out, a little more forgetful of our own needs and problems as we remember to do everything we can to be there for those who need us most.
To be honest, I’ve been discouraged these last few weeks. Self-reflective. Down. I have already spent six out of the last nine months trapped in bed, recovering from falling 80 feet and a subsequent spinal fusion surgery. My life had just started to get back on track, and now I find myself stuck indoors in a familiar place. As someone who needs, relies on, and craves social interaction, my soul is as empty as my bank account threatens to be. I’ve been tempted to shut down, and I already have, for short periods of time.
See? I can’t even make it through one blog post without talking about my own struggles.
From today on, though, I choose to offer my ears. My thumbs. My heart. I choose to remember that I am far from the only one navigating these uncertain, uncharted waters, and that I have much to be thankful for, many to be thankful for.
From today on, I choose to stop thinking as much about how I’m going to get through, and start thinking more about how I can help others get through.
If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll join me.
This piece was originally published on Medium.