The Gift of Life.

I would say a good majority of my life I’ve woken up and done one of two things: I’ve either A) despised my existence, or B) forgot what it means to exist. Both reactions to my existence itself fail to take into account one primary, unavoidable truth: life is a gift.

It’s hard to believe life is a gift sometimes though. If I’m honest, I think it’s a curse most of the time. It seems like the world always has another sad story to tell. Thousands of people die in a monsoon in India. Hurricanes devastate an entire coast. There’s an eviction notice on the door. Mom is diagnosed with cancer.

Nonetheless, there still remains this unshakable feeling within me: the feeling that I’d rather be alive than dead. It breaks my heart to know that many people deny this feeling and make the choice of opting out. But I can’t say life hasn’t tempted me to do the same, if we’re being honest.

The problem is I know much more about existing and much less about being alive. Most days I simply exist.

I rarely live.

I’ve found that I’ve lived much of my life as a drone, moving through each day in this sort of self-automated, auto-pilot mode. It’s almost as if, on many occasions, I’m standing outside of my self watching myself go through the same motions over and over again, being dragged along the lifeless conveyor belt of existence from one place to the other.

But then I have these profound moments.

I get still and I quiet myself. I take a really deep breath (in through the nose, out through the mouth). And in these moments, God speaks:

“Life is a gift. It can be taken away from you any second. Do you want to look back on your life with regret, only to find that you went through the motions? That you simply existed? Do you want to look back only to find that you spent most of your time wallowing in self-pity, laziness, and complacency? What about all the people I put around you to love and encourage and empathize with and yet you could only see yourself? Do you really want to look back on your life, only to find out that you wasted your life rejecting its beauty?”

It’s in these moments where I wake up to this undeniable gift that is life. It’s much like the story of Walter Mitty, who finally got tired of simply existing and made the conscious decision to embark on the adventure of treasuring life. And even though I’m absolutely confident my adventure won’t involve long boarding down mountain roads and escaping volcanic eruptions, I have an adventure to live nonetheless.

We all do.

So I will choose to be thankful. I will choose to love others.  I will choose to relish these moments of being alive. I will treasure this moment right here, right now.

It very well could be my last.

 

 

 

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How I’m Learning to Drop the Act

Letting Go of the Performance

Recently, I had lunch with a very close friend. The thing about this close friend of mine is that he’s an effortlessly funny guy. Comedy comes as second nature to him, as he always knows how to lighten the mood with laughter from one of his witty jokes or just his natural demeanor. And I admire that about him. But I started to notice something about myself as I was having lunch with him.

As we talked, I kept feeling this gnawing pressure to make a joke. I really wanted to say something funny. I racked my brain twice over thinking of a punchline or a funny voice or anything that I could muster from my personality in order to get a laugh. The pressure grew and grew as the conversation went on until lunch was finally over and I realized I had not said anything remotely hysterical. I felt like a failure.

For some reason or another, I felt dejected; like I lost a significant battle with myself. But I’ve felt this pressure before. I’m no stranger to it. I’ve felt this pressure for as long as I could remember. In fact, I’ve become so accustomed to the pressure that it has become engraved in who I am. So much so that I’ve been blinded to it’s consequences on my soul. And while I’m often prone to overlook this pressure, for some reason I couldn’t overlook it this day.

After lunch was over and as I was mulling over the defeated feeling I had in my soul, I finally asked myself the question I’ve always neglected: Where is this feeling coming from?

Why did I feel like I had failed at such a trivial thing as making a joke? That’s when I was reminded of something Donald Miller shared about himself in one of my favorite books, Scary Close.  In his book, he shares how when he was a kid and his dad split, he felt like he had to prove he was intelligent in order to matter.

One time, his sister and her friends were over so he took a broken tape recorder apart and he spread the pieces across his bed. Then, as he sat there holding his screwdriver, he pretended to act like he was fixing it by looking at the pieces intently and moving the parts around on his bed. When his sister and her friends asked what some of the parts were, he would say that they wouldn’t understand. But in reality, he had no idea what he was doing.

He went on to say,

Ever since I was a child, ever since I became wrongly convinced I had to be bigger and smarter than I really was, I’ve been trying to perform, trying to convince people I was more capable than I really was. I’d been sending that same nine-year old kid who took the tape recorder apart out into the world to speak and perform and interact with people.

When I went back and re-read this, I realized that’s me. Somewhere along the line as a kid, I felt like I had to prove something in order to matter. Whether it was proving I was athletic, smart, or funny,  I felt it necessary to prove I was any of these in order to belong and to matter to someone. That kid has still been interacting with others in my place to this day. Consequently, my relationships have suffered from it ever since.

Attraction Isn’t Intimacy

I couldn’t even be myself with one of my closest friends. I felt like I had to impress him with a joke or else he would see me for the fraud I really am and decide to bounce. I was afraid he would abandon our friendship after finding out how boring I was. That’s when I realized I didn’t just do that with him either, but with almost all of my relationships. I started to notice this pressure to perform to some degree manifested itself in every relationship I had. And while I was reluctant to make this revelation, it felt good to finally realize why I felt so much “performance anxiety” all the time.

Miller goes on to say,

The reality of trying to be bigger and smarter than we are is that it sort of works, and then falls apart. It’s true people are attracted to intelligence and strength and even money, but attraction isn’t intimacy. What attracts us doesn’t always connect us. I can’t tell you how many friends I have who have been taken in by somebody sexy or powerful or charming but soon after find themselves feeling alone in the relationship. It’s one thing to impress people, but it’s another to love them.

That’s the lie I’ve believed my entire life: attraction is intimacy. It’s a dangerous lie that has wreaked havoc on all of my relationships, and even more so my soul. I’ve sacrificed intimacy time and time again for the sake of making myself “impressive” or “attractive.” But thankfully, I’m starting to see the truth more clearly.

If you’re feeling lost because you believed the same lie your entire life, let me encourage you with the truth. And trust me, I’m preaching this to myself even more so. Here it is:

You don’t have to be smart, funny, athletic, or sexy to find love. No, you are loved regardless. Jesus looks beyond our outward, external reputations and identities, and he peers into the depths of our inward selves. He sees that little boy or little girl still trying to prove they matter. And he is telling us that we don’t have to be that little boy or little girl anymore. He tells us that we matter, that we belong, and that we are loved unconditionally, regardless of our talents, abilities, skills, appearance, or intellect.

Do I have a hard time believing that sometimes? Absolutely. And I’m sure you do too. But it’s true. I believe it’s true because Jesus went to the cross to prove it’s true. That’s what I forget far too often. It’s because of Jesus that we are free to be ourselves. He doesn’t ask us to impress. He just asks us to love.

All that being said, I think that’s what I’m going to do now. It’s time for me to drop the act and stop performing.

I can already feel the pressure fading. The peace and love of Christ are flooding in.

 

 

 

Rain, Writing, and Forgiveness.

It’s been raining in Joplin for the last two weeks and it’s starting to feel like Seattle. Granted, I haven’t been to Seattle, but I hear it rains there a lot. God said he would never flood the earth again and he put a rainbow in the sky as a promise, but he never said he wouldn’t flood an entire town again. So I’m building my ark as we speak and the only people I’m allowing on are pugs and chimpanzees. Deal with it.

Granted, Seattle has beautiful mountain ranges, good coffee, and Powell’s City of Books, but I don’t think I’ll move there if this what it’s like most days out of the year. I imagine it’s because I probably have that seasonal depression thing. When it’s sunny outside, I’m sunny on the inside. When it’s cloudy skies and rainy weather, I’m as useful as a slug.

But here’s one thing the rainy weather is forcing me to do: stay inside. And I’m the type of person when I stay inside, I start thinking. And when I start thinking, I write.

So here’s what I’m thinking about today:

“but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:15)

This is one of those hard sayings from Jesus that I don’t like to hear. Honestly, I’d rather pass over that part of Scripture and pretend it doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, the Lord knows I need to hear it.

The first thing that comes to mind when I read it is the word “trespasses”. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that word I think about all the times as a kid growing up that my friends and I would see a sign on someone’s property, which said in big, red, and bold letters: NO TRESPASSING. Naturally that was our invitation to adventure, and the next thing we know, we’re in our neighbor’s yard in an old-fashioned Mexican standoff with their large, slobbery dog. But it’s what we wanted. We were the Sandlot generation and we all just wanted to be Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez.  

I think Jesus calls them trespasses because that’s what sin is. When we trespass against someone, we’ve disobeyed God’s NO TRESPASSING sign and foolishly marched onto the property of someone else’s soul. We stomp our feet on someone’s emotions and trample around on their hearts, leaving boot-sized scars in our wake.

But someone has done the same to us and we remember those scars all too well. Not to mention, some of our guard dogs were chihuahuas, which didn’t make it any easier.

Here’s the really hard thing: Jesus calls me to forgive my trespassers or else the Father won’t forgive me.  Now I’m not a Bible scholar, but that seems pretty straightforward to me. If I don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive me. How is this possible?

Some of us have had terrible sins committed against us. Some of our scars are still fresh wounds. Deep, painful wounds like sexual abuse, bullying, murder of a family member, etc. Why can’t God just forgive us first and then let us worry about forgiving others later?

I think part of the reason Jesus says this is because we cannot receive forgiveness in full as long as we still carry resentment in our hearts.

To put it simply, it’s because resentment and vengeance stand directly counter to the gospel. God goes to the cross to forgive us our sins and wipes away our eternal indebtedness to Him, yet we still hold others in our debt? I’ve been naive enough to actually believe that.

We have yet to fully understand the gravity of God’s love and it’s implications for our lives.

I don’t want to undermine the weight of our scars. Some of the sins committed against us were plain ugly and we didn’t deserve them. But in truth, nothing that has been done to us is as severe as the sins we have committed against our infinitely holy and perfect Creator. If He can forgive us for our atrocities, we can forgive others of theirs.

I know. I really wish Jesus didn’t say this either. But I also know Jesus loves us and want what’s best for us. If we can trust Him, we can find the willingness to change.

“We don’t want to grow. It hurts. And yet we do, bravely and scared, bit by bit. We tell it–it hangs in the air with its amazingness–we begin to cooperate with kindness, and we remember the good we’ve seen in our own lives. We soften ever so slightly, with one to two percent willingness, and I’ll be damned if that isn’t enough.” – Anne Lamott

As Lamott reminds us, it’s going to take a little bit of spiritual WD-40 and a whole lot of help from the Holy Spirit to soften these hard, calloused hearts of ours, but what’s waiting for us on the other side of forgiveness is the peace we so desperately desire, along with the healing our soul craves.

To conclude, it’s still raining outside, I’m still building my ark, and I haven’t forgot about the pugs and chimpanzees. But now that I think about it, I think I’ll go ahead and leave the door open for anyone to come on in. It’s less lonely that way.

 

 

 

Featured image: Jarrell Jackson

Instagram: @jarrellmljackson

Check out his stuff at vsco.co/actionjackson9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Groundhog Day.

I’m a little late to the game, but I watched Groundhog Day for the first time today. I’m in one of those classes where you watch movies instead of doing homework. I don’t know if you’re into that, but personally I really enjoy the teaching style.

If you aren’t familiar with the plot of Groundhog Day, let me fill you in.

*Warning: major spoilers ahead.*

The main character, Phil (played by the one and only Bill Murray), is an arrogant, egocentric weatherman who’s been assigned to cover the infamous holiday, Groundhog Day, in Puxsutawney, Pennsylvania. To say he’s reluctant about his task is an understatement. He’d rather be anywhere else than in the rinky-dink town of Puxsutawney with all of its rinky-dink people (“hicks” as he refers to them).

He’s accompanied by two people: his news producer, Rita (Annie McDowell), and cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott). It’s his fourth year covering this holiday and it’s no secret he doesn’t want to be there.

To his dismay, he wakes up at his hotel and comes to realize he’s reliving the same day over and over again, to no foreseeable end. He’s absolutely shocked, as any normal human being would be.

Once he comes out of shock, he starts to live as if there’s no tomorrow, because…well there actually is no tomorrow. He starts to live lavishly. Plunging into a life of hedonism, he denies himself no pleasure. He robs a bank truck, eats all the food he wants, smokes all he wants, and gives himself over to all he sees fit. He even uses his growing knowledge of daily events to figure out ways to get women into bed.

He eventually tries this in an attempt to seduce Rita, as he did the other women. However, no matter how many times he tries, he finds they’re never good enough to get her into bed. In fact, she slaps him repeatedly as every night ends.

Eventually, he grows weary and begins to despise his existence. He ends up trying to kill himself time and time again, in countless different ways, only to find that he can’t succeed.

Once this no longer works, something begins to change in him. He begins to help a homeless man. Tragically however, the homeless man ends up dying in Phil’s arms. Because of this, he vows to never let a person die in Puxsutawney as long as he’s got something to say about it. So begins a new road of Phil becoming the town hero, as he saves people’s lives left and right, as well as mastering new skills like playing the piano and ice-sculpting, in addition to consuming heavy amounts of poetry. So all the people of Puxsutawney come to love and admire him.

Because of his newfound admiration from the townspeople, he eventually gains the affection of Rita. She falls in love with this new man. And as Phil lies with her in his bed, he wakes the next morning to find that she is still in the bed with him, having broken the curse, liberating him from the eternal cycle. Through it all, he was a transformed person–so much so that he tells Rita that he wants to live in Puxsutawney, the town he initially despised.


In conclusion, why am I taking all this time to explain an old movie like Groundhog Day?

Because it reminds me of a lesson that Jesus taught long ago. The lesson is two-fold.

First, as Jesus reminds us in Matthew 6, do not worry about tomorrow. Each day carries with it its own trouble and it doesn’t do us a lick of good to stress over something that does not exist, just as tomorrow didn’t exist for Phil. Despite how cliche it sounds, it is undeniably true that we are not promised tomorrow. Therefore, we must live each day in light of such a reality. All we have is today. All we have is right now.

Perhaps, we should learn from Phil’s mistakes. Hedonism won’t do the trick. Jesus calls us to something higher.

Jesus reminds us of the real answer: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). Though the movie did not communicate the former, it is important to realize that true love for our neighbors comes from receiving and understanding what it means to first love God above all things.

As Jesus reminds us, it is in forgetting one’s self that we find true life. It was in loving, serving, and saving the lives of others that Phil found a reason to live. Funny thing is, Jesus was preaching this message long before Groundhog Day came around.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

It was in denying himself that Phil found life. Love broke his curse. Love transformed him into a new person.

Jesus is calling us to the same life; a life of meaning, hope, and authentic love. He doesn’t say it will be easy, but he promises it’s worth it. So what are we waiting for?

Pick up your cross today and love someone. Tomorrow might not come.

Thanks for the reminder, Bill Murray.