I cannot promise that life gets better. Life can be cruel, unfair, intolerable. People can be downright mean. Failure and rejection will happen. Risks don’t always pay off. You will miss chances and opportunities. Injuries and disease are a real danger. Our brains are often broken by depression and other lifelong illnesses. People will leave.
But none of these things—absolutely none of them—determine your worth as a person. Nothing that has happened to you gets the say on who you are. Of course, life hurts. We’re allowed to hurt. We’re allowed to be mad. We can vent and yell and shake a fist at God. All of that is being human. But all the ways in which life can be unfair do not have a single thing to say about you as a person. You are loved, regardless. You are loved simply because you were born. For me, that’s often enough for the next breath. Looking back, I’m glad I breathed again.
As it were, your life has launched into being, and it is the one song you get to sing. It is a song full of beauty and terror. It is a tree full of colors and crevices. There are wonderful and terrible things that life has to offer. But all of it is yours. I hope you lean into it as much as you can. It’s a crazy and ridiculous thing to be alive. I remember the philosopher saying when we look at “how things are” then we will go mad, but if we see “that things are,” that things even exist at all, we might find joy in the madness.
No, I do not feel loved all the time. It comes and goes, often based on my performance or my mood or from some bad pizza the night before. We are weird temperamental creatures. We are capable of having complete blissful giddy euphoria in one second, then chest-crushing deflated saddening numbness the next. Again, none of these things determine your worth. You are loved through and through. You were loved before you got here. You are loved, outside of your age or achievements or acclaim or applause. You are loved. I mean it.
You are loved.
You might have heard that a million times, but it’s no less true.
You do have a Creator. He is with you. He is bigger than your situation and closer than your deepest hurt. He’s not mad. He is cheering for you and rooting for you this very second. He’s okay about all the things before. He sent His Son for that very reason.
You can put down the blade. You can throw away the pills. You can quit replaying those regrets in your head. You can quit the inner-loop of self-condemnation. You can forget your ex. You can walk away from the things and people that destroy you. You can resolve your conflicts right now. You can sign up to volunteer at that shelter. You can have the courage to stand up for justice in the street, in your office, in your home. You can forgive your parents. You can forgive your children. You can draw boundaries and say no. You can go back to church. You don’t have to sit in the back. You don’t have to prove your worth to the people you’ve let down. You don’t have to live up to everyone else’s vision for your life. You’re finally, finally free.
You are loved. I am loved.
As much as I love you, dear friend, He loves you infinitely more.
Believe it. Walk in it. Walk with Him.
God is in the business of breathing life into hurting places.
This is what He does, even for the least likely like you and me.
Dear friend: I know you might have had a picture of how you wanted your life to be, but some terrible tragedy swept it away. We all have a certain picture of how we want our lives to be, and sometimes it gets ripped from our grip and smashed to pieces. Our dreams can get crushed in an instant, no matter how much you’ve planned, with irreversible results.
You might be living in a life right now that doesn’t feel like it’s yours. You might be in a different place than you had hoped for, than you had imagined a year ago, a month ago, a minute ago. Your heart will pull for another chance, another door, another world.
The three hardest words to live with are often: In the meantime.
Yet — in the meantime is the whole thing.
If you’re waiting for your “real life” to start after the heartache, or even after good things like graduation or a wedding or when you get to the big city, you’ll stay in a holding pattern. The time will pass anyway. The tide doesn’t wait.
So I hope you’ll consider starting in the meanwhile.
When a dream dies, it dies. We can mourn. We can pound our chest. We can bleed. And at some point, you can open your hands to another dream. I hope you find it. It might even look a lot like your old one: but you won’t. It’s you that will be new.
You can overcome what’s over, because you’re not over yet.
When the ten count is over: you can count to eleven.
What comes next will not be what you had envisioned. I hope you’ll keep dreaming anyway. I hope you‘ll consider God can do a new thing.
You are free to pursue something new.
In sixth grade, I had this friend who was six foot two. He was twelve years old, with wrists the size of my torso. Imagine that: my own personal giant.
He became my voice.
His name was Tripp. I was bullied a lot in sixth grade, but when Tripp was around, nobody tried to clown me. One time, Tripp wrapped his hand around a kid’s head like it was an apple, and no kidding, just like a crane out of heaven, he gently placed the kid on the other side of the hall from me. For weeks, that apple-headed kid had been telling me to go back to China. After the crane incident, Apple-Head never bothered me again.
The thing is, nobody should need a guy like Tripp. We should all get an equal distribution of voice. But that isn’t how it is right now. People get squashed. Silenced. Stuffed in a locker. Told to get on a boat.
Really, I wish everybody had a guy like Tripp who spoke up for them. I wish that nobody needed a guy like Tripp, either. Until then, I’m grateful for the people in the hallway who speak up. Not just online, but in dorms and cafes and churches and check-out lines, when it’s not easy or popular, when it costs something, when no one is looking and when everyone is. I hope to be that guy, too. A crane out of heaven.
The other week, a shooting took six lives and I thought, “That’s not too bad.” I immediately felt sick. Because this isn’t normal. It isn’t okay. And I don’t want to get numb, desensitized, detached, withdrawn. I don’t ever want to get over the anger and grief of how “normal” this has become—whether it’s thirty, six, or one.
It’s a national habit to look at the death toll, but shootings really destroy lives twice. At the hospital, we regularly receive GSW (gunshot wound) patients through the ER. Many survive. Sometimes, surviving is worse. The trauma of it. The nightmares. To witness such a thing is a lifelong wound. The death tolls are horrific, but the mental and emotional toll is just as destructive. I’ve been up close with GSW victims and families—and I can’t watch the news with neutral disinterest. I can’t watch movie violence the same way. I will never get the smell out of my nostrils. When you sit among people with bullet wounds, you see most political “dialogue” for what it really is: fear, cowardice, pomp, rationalizations, and self-aggrandizing, all which speak past the victims instead of for them. I hope I’m not doing the same thing. Please tell me if I am. Please tell me what I can do.
I don’t know if anything will change. Again. It seems hopeless. But I want to grieve angry. I don’t want to calm down. I want courage. And compassion. And champions who will make waves so that something will change. God, keep us loud. God, give us strength.
One look at the news and it’s easy to get cynical. It’s easy to give in to pessimism. It’s understandable, given our daily trauma, the terrible headlines, and our disappointing leaders. It’s tiring. But often the world is the way it is because too many of us have accepted the way it is. Pessimism has always been a sport for sidelines. I’m afraid that the detachment of pessimism, as fun as it is, is often just laziness.
No, simply “thinking positive” doesn’t make things better. And it takes momentous effort, decades of sweat and tears and rallies and voices, to move the needle towards real change. That has to start with you. With me. With believing that change is possible. With our little corners and small platforms and unseen podiums. With believing that even ancient institutions like politics and the church and social attitudes can be completely transformed.
Optimism doesn’t only see how we are, but who we could be. I want eyes that see that far. The way ahead was lit by others who dared to hope. Change happened by those who first believed it was possible. So we must carry the light for those coming next. We are the next. We can’t go down without a fight.
When somebody tells me, “Don’t worry, God is in control,” too often that’s used as an excuse to be passive. When I hear “God will provide,” that usually means, “I don’t want to help.” When I hear, “That’s God’s Will,” that seems to mean, “Better that guy than me.” These are no better than empty “thoughts and prayers.” At best they’re a cowardly cop-out, and at worst they’re abuse powered by false theology.
If God is really in control, that means I have to answer to Him. That raises my responsibility to the highest level. And if He’s in control, He has given us real resources to help. That should be motivation to do more, not less. If I am not in control, then I can’t do it in my strength, but His. That’s good news.
John, I can’t believe I have to bury you this week.
You were one of the most energetic, enthusiastic, fun-loving people I have ever met. You were the best. Easily top five of the human race. You loved to talk. Sometimes you would talk for forty minutes straight without taking a single breath. Then you’d get this sheepish look in your face, a little embarrassed, and you’d say, “I’m talking way too much.” But it was never too much. Ever. I’d give anything for you to talk and talk and talk again, as long as you wanted.
The first time after you heard me preach, you walked up to me and asked, “Why aren’t you famous?” I laughed really hard. But you weren’t laughing. You were serious. You had that silly, goofy, wide-eyed grin on your face. The one that everyone loved. You were that earnest. That sincere. You were always texting me some new insight you had, or a podcast, a song, a quote you heard, a picture of your baby girl, a video of you working out with bricks. You were exactly who you were, all the time. That’s rare. You were that rare sort of guy who was always yourself. You let people be comfortable with themselves, too.
I got to say goodbye to you at the hospital where I work. You were on my assigned floor, even. They say that people can still hear in a coma. I tried to say everything. But I never got to say sorry. I’m sorry that we didn’t have more time. We were supposed to eat Korean BBQ together. We were supposed to hit the gym together. I never told you that I liked to write or had a blog. I had so much more to say. And I’m sorry.
I miss you man. I’ll miss the funny way you turned your head sideways when you laughed. I’ll miss that effusive, embarrassed grin. It’s those little things that make a person which we miss the most. If your baby daughter turns out anything like you, she will be spectacular. A bright shining star.
I love you, man. I’ll see you again one day. I promise. Until then, I will make the most of it. It’s goodbye for now, for only a little while.
Honesty is the first step to healing. It’s really difficult to confront your own ugliness inside. It’s hard to confront your own selfishness; it’s threatening to confess that you are wrong. But it’s only with a reckless self-confrontation that you can be liberated from the lies you have believed. You can see the lie for what it really is. It’s only by stepping back from the momentum of darkness that has swallowed up your vision that you will begin to see once more. The light is staggering, blinding, painful, and even humiliating, but to see yourself as you really are is to begin the path to be set free.
A homeless man once told me: “You can’t be too hard on people. They only know the world they came from.”
I’d like to believe that everyone’s trying their best with what they have in all the ways they know how. Maybe not everyone’s trying their best. But it doesn’t help anyone if we don’t believe the best about them. And that’s my best: to believe we’re trying.
Grace is thoughtful. It considers a back-story, an upbringing, their trauma and trials, the whole person, and not just a tiny single slice of their life.
Grace brings wholeness to a hasty judgement; it regards my own flaws first, in light of the grace I’ve also been given.
Grace brings what could be instead of what should’ve been. Grace covers my past and empowers my future. Grace does not shame. It does not enable. It does not condemn nor condone, but convicts and re-creates.
Grace confronts the worst of a person and does not shy away from surgical rebuke. At our worst, we realize how much we must confront the ugliness inside. But grace restores there, in the wreckage. It sees what is both our doing and the undoing of others; it sees both our affliction and the pain that was inflicted. It is always healing the fractured fallen weary sinner.
Grace is what we least want to give but most need to receive. Jesus saw what we deserved, but gave us what we needed instead. That’s grace. Not merely unconditional love, but counter-conditional, unfazed, unrelenting.
Our convictions can only be as strong as the questions we ask.
I’ve been in places where questions got me shamed, assaulted, and destroyed. Our platforms of social media, church, politics, and campuses might seem open-minded and willing to dialogue, but if you move against the status quo, you’re likely to be called a heretic, sinner, apostate, or ridiculous. Most places will stomp out dissension and cancel you if you mess up a single time. We can play the game of “we are a safe place,” but conflict always shows our true selves.
I’ve been guilty of this, too. I don’t like asking uncomfortable questions, or being challenged with ideas I’ve never heard, or assuming that my precious ideas are too narrow and naive, when really my own ideas have never evolved. I’ve shut down disagreeable opinions not because the content was unsound, but because I was comfortable where I was. God forgive me for covering my ears to a better version of life.
If you’re in a place that won’t ask questions and always reject what you ask, then 1) you might be called to shake the status quo, or 2) it’s time to leave.
I want beliefs that have been strengthened by skepticism, that have gone through the crucible of confrontation, experience, and a choir that doesn’t always echo each other. I want truth that will keep me through darkness. I need a faith full of doubt to make it through the hardest valley. I want resilience born of grit and growth.
When I preach love in a time like this, my words aren’t credible because the church is not. I can’t help but feel the church is always part of the problem. We contributed to this mess.
The church is called to be the safest, most gracious place on the face of the earth. Not perfect, but passionate, with arms open as wide as the cross. I know I’ve fallen short. God help us. God start with me.
Eventually I’ll say something that you’ll disagree with. I will disappoint you. I’ll come off brash, inconsiderate, ignorant, and misinformed. Your favorite writer or pastor or celebrity will miss an angle or fumble a point or miss the whole thing. You’ll think, “How could I have ever liked this guy?” We then dismiss and demonize based off one sentence, one phrasing, one particular choice of word. I’ve done it, too. You know, farewell forever.
Maybe it’s for a legitimate reason, and they really did go too far. Then farewell, sure. But I wish we could give a little space for a conversation. Even over coffee. It’s possible this person misspoke because they’re just a person and they don’t always get it right. It could be that they need the patience of dialogue to re-examine what they said, instead of the hasty hate-train that offers no fair exchange. It could be they really didn’t know better, or they just needed a nap.
I want your help. I want to know when I’m wrong – but it’s hard to hear what’s right when everyone is yelling. I want the freedom to make mistakes so that I’m not afraid to learn from you. I don’t want to be afraid that you’ll throw things when I don’t phrase things exactly the perfect way. And really, I’m not sure if you would listen to yelling, either. I’d want the same chance you’d want for you, too.
I know there are some non-negotiables that can never be compromised. I cannot say every “side” is equal or that every platform is good. None of us will ever agree on everything. Sometimes we must part ways. And that’s okay. I just don’t want to judge an entire life over a few degrees of difference. We can disagree and still be friends. Even if we must part, I want to become better from our disagreements, to see what I had not seen before, and mostly, to see you. I will hear you.
When I ask if God is good
I see a cross, an empty tomb.
What He writ large in the stars
is writ small for our wounds.
From the sky to my sin
He is re-making us again.
When nothing else is good,
He is the only one who is.
I wonder how they could yell Barabbas instead of Jesus.
I wonder how they sang “Hosanna” and days later, “Crucify him.”
I wonder how Pontius could wash his hands of it, as though a dirty conscience could be so easily cleaned.
But – I am Barabbas, sinner set free.
I yell “Crucify him” as I sing praises with ease.
I am Pontius, who turned a blind eye to glory.
And yet, so Christ still died for me.
Still he died, where I should be,
a perfect love on that tree.
It’s super easy to preach “love your neighbor,” but the loving part is crazy hard. I think most people really believe they’re loving and kind when they have to be, but the second someone disagrees or causes inconvenience or looks at you funny, the love thing can go out the window real quick.
What I usually see online or in church or in politics or in marriages is that unless a person fits an exact specification of beliefs and behaviors and likes and dislikes, that person is cast out of the inner-ring. I’ve spent a lot of terrible energy trying to carve others into my own image, overriding their point of view, always waiting for others to “come around.” That‘s no better than hate.
It seems Jesus said that “hate is murder” because when we only accept the people who match our values, we are disappearing them. We’re essentially saying, “Be like me or you don’t exist. I’d rather you be someone you’re not.” This is hate, and it’s crushing somebody out of existence.
This is especially obvious in social media, when one wrong word gets you canceled. But it’s worse when it comes to religion. That’s attributing a supernatural superiority to hatred. It gives an awful permission to say, “God said it, not me.” Which is cowardly. And if your god always agrees with what you believe and only likes the people you like—that god is the one you made up to justify your bitterness and to boost your ego. It’s a push-button keychain god that does your bidding. It isn’t the God who will challenge you, stretch you, surprise you, and who loves the people you can’t stand.
No, we cannot love all the things that people do. Yes, I believe in accountability and justice and boundaries. But over all, I want to love my neighbor for who they are and not for my version of them. I believe not in who someone should be, but could be. It’s the same way that I believe God loves a guy like me.
Discouraged, exhausted, beat down, beat up, clawing and falling, it’s so far, but my God, by God, another inch I crawl.
I grieve with you. I am angry for you. I hurt with you. Your pain is my pain.
No one is the one-dimensional, evil caricature that they’re painted to be.
No one is the shiny version of a person that’s worshiped on a pedestal.
It’s easier to hate a cartoon-parody idea; to denigrate a hologram; to blast the artificial; to praise the effigy. It’s easier to demonize a faceless, disembodied, phantom enemy.
If you and I could sit down for coffee, we would discover hidden layers, messy dimensions, buried motives, unspeakable trauma, two fractured people hanging on.
We are wildly struggling, conflicted, complex.
We are not wholly evil nor holy good.
Yes, monsters deserve justice for their crimes. Heroes deserve more applause. But I will pause to consider that we are often both. We can be our own worst enemy, and we are just as capable of being our own heroes, overcoming the worst of us with the best in us.
Across a table, chair to chair, eye to eye, we might disagree—but I hope we will learn how we came to be. To hear the whole story.