Suddenly the Judge Shall Come

“Suddenly the Judge shall come and the deeds of each shall be revealed.” 

This is a line from the morning prayers I say. When I first became an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I used to emotionally cringe at this line. It played into my old juridical perspective of God, depicting God as pounding his gavel and declaring me guilty. Or worse, it played on some of my deeper distortions of God as a deity hiding around the corner, waiting for me to do something bad so he could jump out and catch me red-handed. 

But that isn’t the God revealed in Jesus. He’s a good, loving, generous Father who desires us to enter the true human life and vocation as his image-bearers, ambassadors, and priests.

So now, I see this line more therapeutically. A judge determines what is real and true. Like a doctor touching an area on our body in order to diagnose, the pain that we experience reveals disease or disorder that needs to be addressed and healed.

So it’s for our goodness and health that the Judge comes and reveals our deeds. It reveals what is real. And that honest revelation is always a gift, and never a curse.

But how does the Judge come and reveal? I find in my life it’s through pressure and suffering. When circumstances become stressful, that’s when the Judge reveals, when the Doctor diagnoses. As part of the process, the crap that I’m fairly good at burying during normal times is exposed. Anger, anxiety, fear, impatience, gossip, pride, self-centeredness, control, self-preservation, and so much more are flushed into the open.

And that’s when I’m reminded and invited again to trust in and follow my Shepherd. In him I lack nothing. In him I am safe. In him I am sustained. In him the fractured and frenzied pieces of my life are being reintegrated and restored.

I write this because yesterday morning as I prayed that line, I choked when I realized how the past couple of weeks have brought the Judge so powerfully. I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt so overwhelmed, to the point I feel physically ill and emotionally strung out. And what’s being exposed isn’t good. It feels like all the spiritual formation over the past several years has evaporated.

I’m not writing this to invoke pity. Rather, it’s a reminder that true and genuine honesty is a gift, not a curse. If I let God do his work, then what I’m experiencing is ultimately for my good. Suddenly the Judge comes and it is a good thing, even though it hurts so much.

Trust, Worship, & Care

As a resident of California, things have been changing rapidly over the past week in regards to COVID-19. And as I’ve watched and listened to family members, co-workers and the public, I’ve been pondering how I will live during this unique time.

These kind of thoughts always take me back to Psalm 23. This has been one of the core passages for my faith and spiritual formation the past couple of years. “The Lord is my Shepherd, so I lack absolutely nothing.” Whatever issue is facing me, this first line always confronts me with a choice. Is it mere poetic sentiment or is it ultimate Reality? If it is ultimate Reality, then my circumstance, large or small, is simply a passing shadow, like a storm cloud temporarily eclipsing the ever-shining sun.

The ultimate Reality is that God is good. He created a good world. And his reign and purposes for this world and all who live on it are good. So we are safe in this ultimate Reality.

That means COVID-19 did not catch God by surprise. It didn’t wrestle any control of his world away from him. Nor did it alter any of his good intentions and purposes for his creation at large and for you as his child in any way.

I’m not trying to minimize the incredible stress and uncertainty that comes with COVID-19 and it’s societal impact. Without going into any details, job loss, risk of exposure, dramatic changes at work, and even death are close to my extended family.

But again, Psalm 23 keeps confronting me with the question, is this sentiment or Reality. Is God truly the Shepherd-King of his world and all who live in it? As I’ve been learning during my training with God’s Spirit over the past couple of years, it is Reality and I can trust him.

Our trust must then move toward worship. In his commentary on Revelation 4, NT Wright says the difference between the worship from creation in general and the worship from humans is the word “because.” In Revelation 4, the four creatures around God’s throne, representing creation as a whole, worship God with an amazing declaration of who he is. But the twenty-four elders, representing God’s people, worship by using the word “because.” Their worship states that God deserves all worship because he has created all things. They worship because of his ultimate Reality

Our trust in God and his ultimate Reality must lead us to a worship that is immersed in and reflects upon that ultimate Reality. This is so difficult when our news feeds constantly bombard us with everything but that Reality. They fill us with fear and anxiety so our worship is more a reactive cry of desperation than a reflective declaration of trust and love.

Now there’s nothing wrong with cries of desperation. But they shouldn’t be the core of our worship of God. We need to ask, is my worship driven by my news feeds and fear or by my immersion and reflection on the ultimate Reality he’s revealed to us?

Our trust and worship should then lead us to peaceful care of others. If God is truly the Shepherd-King, then we don’t need to turn to hoarding and armed protection like I’ve some Christians proclaim. We follow the Prince of Peace. And like his followers throughout the ages, we’re called to care for others, even at the risk to ourselves.

Yes, we should prepare and even stock up on supplies, but with the intention of giving them away to those in need. Yes, we should practice social responsibility by staying physically away from people, but only until they need our support and help.

I know this has gone long, but I want to share a recent incident. I normally don’t share these kind of personal moments, but I think it highlights how simple care can make a difference in this current situation.

Debbie and I were in line to enter a grocery store. We had finally moved to the front of a substantial line. An older gentleman walked up to the employee monitoring the entrance and asked if he could go in to just get two items. She said no. He said he had to take the bus to every grocery store, but she insisted. He turned and began to walk away.

Debbie overheard the conversation and asked if we could let him in front of us, but I said that wouldn’t be fair to all the people behind us. She asked what if I grabbed the items for him. I agreed and she ran to catch up to the man while I entered the store. One of the items the man wanted was limited to one per customer. It was something I was going to buy for our family, but I grabbed it for him instead.

When I finished shopping and left the store, I gave the man his two items and Debbie told him they were a gift. He started tearing up.

Simple care. That’s all it takes. My wife is the queen of this kind of love.

Trust in an ultimate Reality that leads to reflective worship and other-centered care. Whether it’s a pandemic or just normal circumstances, this is the way of life as Jesus’ apprentices.

Missing Mom

Today marks the first anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death. I wrote the following on Facebook soon after her passing, but wanted to share it again.

“Yesterday, my beloved mother-in-law passed from this life. Often you hear about people who embody heroic portions of kindness to all people. We had the rare privilege of living with one. Leslie impacted so many people through her sheer kindness, gentleness and sacrifice. No matter who you were, you were always accepted and cared for. Others were always more important than herself. Whether it was a plate of food, an extra $20 to help meet the bills, or a kind word, she genuinely gave to everyone. She gave like she was the richest person on earth. And quite frankly, I think she was.

“As long as I knew Leslie, her heart’s desire was to ultimately be in Jesus’ presence. Yesterday, she was rewarded with her greatest desire. I can only imagine her joy of seeing her Friend and Savior welcome her with his loving arms and whisper, ‘Welcome home my good and faithful daughter!’”

A year has passed and it has been a difficult one. We have celebrated birthdays and holidays, but they have not been the same without her. And it pains me that my family will celebrate new and significant milestones without her. 

I miss her smile and her voice. I miss the small things she would  do. Just yesterday, I saw a woman eating a donut the way mom would hold her food and I felt the pang I’ve felt throughout this past year.

I miss you, mom.

Update: After posting this, Debbie left a beautiful “first year in heaven” tribute to her mom on Facebook. I wanted to include it in this post because it provides such a beautiful image of Leslie and expresses the immense hole in our lives that her absence has created.

“It has been one year since my Mama was welcomed into Heaven. We miss you Mama! We miss so much about you. Your sweet voice, your loving hugs, your smiles and funny jokes. We miss how much you made us feel loved and lovable. We miss your singing out praise songs and hymns throughout the day. We miss you “getting our honey”, that always made us smile and laugh. Nobody could soothe me better when I was sick; it was like you had the best recipe for toast and tea. Thanks for all the times you made baby tea for us when we were little and needed some special treatment. I have never met a more compassionate and giving woman. I have seen you give of yourself over and over without a complaint and yet I haven’t learned to be enough like you. I will keep trying to learn from your example.”

“Until we meet again, sweet Mama, we will remember you and the love of God that you have shared with us. We will remember that you taught us to trust and follow Jesus. We will remember that you taught us to pray and sing hymns and praises to God all through the day and when we wake up at night. You are often in our thoughts. In our selfishness we wish you were here but we know that you are in a much better place. Happy first year in heaven!”

Traveling Alone

Early this morning, our family took Chris to the airport. 

During our July 2018 visit to St Herman’s Monastery, the Abbot told Chris that the next step in exploring his calling to monasticism was a two-week visit to the monastery. Chris decided to wait until he finished his AA degree, which he accomplished this past August. So now, he’s taking a solo trip to the monastery. This is both his first time traveling alone and his first time on a plane.

I am emotionally torn about Chris’ calling. As his dad, I don’t want to lose my youngest. Imagining a life without him is too heart-breaking. Frankly, I’m already struggling with the prospect of two weeks without any contact with him.

But I’m also filled with joy and excitement for him as he learns to follow God into his unique life-calling. As someone who had a similar calling into professional pastoral ministry, I know that joy firsthand. I know what it’s like to wake up each morning with a sense of purpose in this world.

And as one who is no longer pursuing that calling into professional ministry, I also know the inner turmoil, self-doubt, and even depression that accompanies not fulfilling a calling.

I wish I could join Chris on this trip. But this next step, and all the subsequent steps, can only be walked by Chris alone. The monastic life is a solitary life. Chris will not be able to find solace or affirmation from family and friends. He must learn to trust God as his Good Shepherd. Because of this, my role in Chris’ journey has changed since our trip together in 2018.

I’ve done all I can to prepare Chris for this trip. And I will help him with any future trips. And if possible, Debbie and I will one day walk him through the monastery gates and entrust him finally to his abbot.

But now my role is to pray for him continuously and coach from the sidelines when appropriate as my son travels alone.

Happy Birthday, Debbie!

Today is Debbie’s birthday. She is my wife and my best friend. I don’t know what I ever did to deserve such an amazing person as her with whom to share my life, but I am sincerely and eternally grateful.

Not only is she stunningly beautiful, but Debbie has an incredible depth of character. I can honestly say that I have never met another person who is so God-centered and other-centered like she is. Having been a pastor and a theology student, I have heard and read my share of people talk about what love is. Debbie’s life cuts through all the verbiage with the actual thing. Her default setting is to think about the good of other people. Then add to that her brilliance, her charm, her wit, and all the other envious qualities and you have this astounding woman.

And, every morning, I wake up thankful and stunned that she wants to spend her life with me. And every night, I go to sleep grateful I’ve shared another day with her.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

In his commentary on Matthew, NT Wright begins his observations of Matthew 6:25:34 by asking a question that startles me every time I read it:

“Has it ever struck you what a basically happy person Jesus was?”

Sure there were times of stress, grief and anger, but as Wright states, “But these are the exceptions, the dark patches painted on to the bright background.”

When Jesus spoke of God’s care for the birds and flowers, this emanated from his “strong, lively sense of the goodness of his father, the creator of the world.” This was Jesus’ knowledge and experience of God and life.

So when Jesus invited his followers not to worry about tomorrow, he led by example. He was able to completely live in the present, aware of and celebrating his father’s goodness in the moment.

In addition, when Jesus instructs his followers to make God’s kingdom and the covenant life of creative goodness and sacrificial love for the sake of others their highest priority, he’s inviting them into a twofold reality.

First, God is the source of beauty, energy and excitement, not food, drink and clothes. God is the creator who infuses his world with his beauty, energy and excitement. So his people can find their source first and foremost by loving and trusting God, who is always close to them.

Second, because God has saturated the world with his beauty, energy and excitement, it doesn’t mean that food, drink and clothes don’t matter. Jesus isn’t telling us not to enjoy these things, but to enjoy them in their proper priority. For example, Jesus attended parties and ate and drank so that his enemies accused him of being a glutton and drunk. And when he was crucified, his tunic was such high quality that the admiring soldiers gambled for it rather than tearing up such a valuable item. So Jesus isn’t saying to avoid these things.

Rather, Jesus is inviting his followers to enter a life of different priorities and values than what the surrounding world offers. When one puts God’s work and life first, beautiful and wonderful things like food, drink and clothes are provided. So the aspects of our lives like work, relationship, possessions, and hobbies should be enjoyed. But we don’t have to anxiously strive after them in order to find happiness and fulfillment. In this life Jesus is inviting us, one doesn’t have to worry about tomorrow because we know our creator God and good Father is near, caring and providing.

So let’s return to Wright’s introductory question, “Has it ever struck you what a basically happy person Jesus was?” Imagine what his inner life was like. Imagine his deep, trusting confidence in God’s love and goodness. Imagine his ability to live in the present, loving and celebrating God’s goodness in that movement, task, or relationship. Imagine the utter lack of anxiety and worry about what the next hour, day, week or month would bring.

Now hear his joy-filled, anxiety-free voice inviting you to share his knowledge and experience of life:

“Are you having a real struggle? Come to me! Are you carrying a big load on your back? Come to me — I’ll give you a rest! Pick up my yoke and put it on; take lessons from me, I’ll be gentle with you! The last thing in my heart is to give you a hard time. You’ll see — rest you need, and rest you shall have. My yoke is easy to wear, my load is easy to bear.” -Matt 11:28-30

Visiting St Herman’s

Back in July 2018, Chris, who is my youngest son, and I visited St Herman’s Monastery near Platina, CA. We took this journey together because he feels called to monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I wrote the following reflection soon after the trip, but never posted it. I’ve decided to post it now because immediately following this upcoming busy holiday season, Chris will leave for an extended stay at the monastery as the next step of pursuing his calling. I assume I will be posting reflections over the next year as he moves forward in the process. So it seemed like the right time to post this initial reflection from our first trip to St Herman’s.

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It was the final moments of a long trip. I was sitting in the dark on the bus with my youngest son. 

The trip to the monastery was fourteen hours. Then three days of physical, emotional and spiritual intensity. Then fourteen hours back home.

Chris and I visited St Herman’s Monastery on a quest, a pilgrimage. For some time, Chris has felt called to monasticism. In many ways I see a bit of my young self in him. I was in my late teens when I became a Christian. Passionate to follow Jesus, who gave me a new life, I sensed a calling to ministry.

Now my youngest senses a call to monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. And where I had no one to help me explore my calling, I have committed to help Chris explore his calling as best as I can.

If monasticism is his vocation, his call is more severe than mine. If he chooses to become a monk, his vows will sever him from our family in order to embrace a lifetime of ascetical hardship and suffering. Chances are I will rarely see him again, maybe never. As his dad, this absolutely crushes me. The thought of him never being present in our family’s life, never seeing his face or seeing him smile or hearing his voice shatters me to the core.

So I don’t want him to make this decision by himself. I will travel this road with him as best and as far as I can to help him determine what God is calling him to do with his life.

My role on this trip was simple — to help him get to the monastery and back, to support him in any way possible, and to pray for him. Most of my trip was spent praying for and talking with him. We discussed various aspects of the monastic calling and what it meant to follow Jesus in any context. I tried to help him understand Scriptures, to answer questions, to process his thoughts and to pray. And pray. And pray.

Chris has such a beautiful heart toward God. He truly wants to give himself fully to God and to be shaped into his fullness. My greatest fear is such a life might be wasted in pursuing the wrong thing. If he’s not called to the monastic life, then he will endure great pain and hardship in isolation when he could have made an impact for God in the marketplace and in our family. But if he is called to the monastic life, I lose my son.

Our trip was a success. It was one step in a journey. Chris met his expectations for the trip and I met mine.

So sitting in the dark on the bus, pulling into our final destination, I listened as Chris spoke with a young woman. She had asked about our trip and Chris tried to explain our journey to the monastery. She responded by saying, “That’s a really long trip to take.” And Chris’ response broke through my fears, my ache, my fatigue….

“I would have been lost without my dad.”

I know his statement was specifically about our trip. But, for me, I hope it speaks prophetically about the journey that lies ahead for him… and for me.