sick cycle carousel

I’ve had several things I’ve wanted to write on the last month, and what’s more, I’ve had more time than I’ve had in almost a year! But I’ve been stuck in a bit of a writer’s block as soon as I get part way into  the post. And what I’ve slowly come to realize is that I had another issue I had to write about first, something that was more pressing. Something that, as the prophet Jeremiah described, was like a burning fire in my bones.

As long as I’ve called myself a Christian, I’ve lived in the space between my broken sinfulness and perfect holiness. I know I’m a new creation, changed from the old, wicked heart that I once had when I was apart from Christ. I do not live in abject sin in defiance to the Creator of the cosmos — but I’m not the picture of perfection I aspire to be. The one who looks just like Jesus, so that others can see me and see the goodness and transformation-power of following Jesus. I seem to still struggle with my old self. I heartily identify with Paul when he says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do… I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15,18-19) I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t do it! And what I don’t want to do, what I know is a stark contrast of the hope in me, I do, and do frequently. I struggle with idolatry, lust, pride, envy, greed, and that’s just me being gracious with myself. I want to step off of it, but I keep going around and around in a sick cycle carousel of sin and depravity. I long to be rid of all the elements of my brokenness and live a sin-free, victorious, holy life that pleases and glorifies God. I’m not too patient with this whole sanctification thing.

I know I’m not alone in this. In honest conversations with people, most echo a similar sentiment, of wishing that all sinful desires, thoughts, and actions were eliminated at the moment they believed and trusted in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. And in truth, there is transformation that occurs at our salvation! Most of us just wish that it were…. more complete.

I’ve had the privilege and honor this last year or so to lead worship at a great and Christ-glorifying church, but a couple weeks ago, I was at one of those points where I was just so disappointed with myself. I’m pretty sure I had broken all of the Ten Commandments within the span of a week, and what’s more, I had hardly spent time reading the Bible or praying to God. When it came to Sunday morning, I felt like a bitter hypocrite and as far away from God as I could be. I thought, “God, I don’t want to sing these worship songs! Jesus, I can’t raise my hands or really lead your people into worship! Just look at what I’ve done, I can’t serve you! I’ve disappointed you again and again and I’m not even sure you’re listening to this prayer.” I wasn’t worthy to sing songs that talked about the wondrous grace of God or His beauty when my own life seemed to be unfazed by it.

And as all this guilt and sorrow and shame was roiling in me, it was as if the Holy Spirit cut into my thoughts and spoke: “You’re not loved because of what you’ve done. You’re loved because of what Jesus has done. Don’t sing because you’re worthy to sing the songs, but sing because the Christ you sing of is.”

I vividly remember that moment because of how much it humbled me. In a twisted way, I had somehow believed that God was thrilled to have me on His team when I had my act together, but regretted it whenever I fell. I was trying to make it about me and my worth to God and my ability and how felt, forgetting that Jesus is the center of it all! My sin and shortcomings are not more powerful than the triune God who is the blazing center of all worship and adoration!

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you worry that you’re just not on par with God’s expectations, so you’re just a disappointing “could-have-been”. That because of your sin and brokenness, you’re a huge failure in His eyes. But that’s where the cross comes in, because it accomplishes what we could never do on our own in all our attempts at cleaning ourselves up: it replaces our filthy rags with the righteousness of Christ. Now, when God the Father looks at us, He doesn’t see the habitual idolater, but He sees the sinless, risen Jesus. It’s not an excuse to continue in sin, but it’s an assurance that the power of the resurrection and the Holy Spirit in us is greater than the power of sin or our lack of discipline.

That’s the message of the gospel, that those of us who were far away, despised, destitute, strangers, foreigners, and hopeless have been brought into the Kingdom of God and given unconditional citizenship. We have new identities and are new creations, and we’re given the task to honor and glorify the King because the King is good and gracious and just, saving us when He had no obligation to. And that act of rescue should compel us to thank Him, living to make His Name famous and showing everyone the grace and glory of such a God.

And a funny thing happened: as I was singing those songs, my heart and mind were reminded of the truth I was singing, and joy and peace enveloped me in a way I can’t quite put to words. I realized I wasn’t just instructing people in the glory of God, but I was reminding myself of it. And what’s even better is that a day is coming when we won’t have to be stuck on the sick, cycle carousel of our faults and failures, when we won’t have to live in the space between our depravity and glorification. A day when we’ll be living with our Savior and King.

I am so looking forward to that.

sorrow saturday

They shifted around listlessly. Through the walls they could hear the soft sobbing and occasional wail of the women in the next room, and the men would look at each other briefly before ashamedly diverting their eyes.

How could they be so wrong? Everything had seemed so right.

Peter dabbed at the corner of his eye, but even he did not have any words for the moment. He sat and ruefully ruminated on the events of the the last day. In the same amount of time, he had witnessed his hope, his confidence, and his future literally die.

Thomas’ voice cut the silence. “What do we do now?”

Peter broke out of his trance and stood up. “I’m going fishing,” he said as he gathered his cloak. “You guys can sit here, but I’m going crazy staring at these walls.”

“You can’t leave!” exclaimed John, “Everyone knows we were with Him. You’ll be ridiculed by everyone who sees you! The High Priest may even be looking for us!”

“John is right,” James chimed in,  “We should lay low and stay here until the dust settles. Let everyone forget about last night, about us. Some new scandal or news is bound to crop up soon enough. In the meantime, we can think about what to do next.”

“Next?” retorted a bewildered Peter. “What do you mean next? The man we followed and devoted our lives to the last three years is lying in a grave. Jesus is dead. We move on, that’s what we do next! Maybe there’s a Messiah yet out there.”

I’m not altogether sure this is what happened the day after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, but this is the scene that plays in my mind. A band of disheartened, broken disciples sitting around, asking themselves, what happened? How did things go wrong so fast?

Just earlier in the week, Jesus had ridden into the city heralded as a King and now He lay wrapped in strips of cloth and returning to dust. Just 2 days earlier, they were confident they were following the Christ, the One who was to rescue Israel and establish His throne over the earth. Now He was just another teacher, a prophet maybe, and a failed Messiah. Messiah’s don’t die before they accomplish their purpose.

We who live in the future know the outcome of the story, what happens soon enough: the glorious resurrection of Jesus and His ascension! The fulfillment of numerous prophecies, the theological implications of the death of the Son of God, and the realization of where His Kingdom was. We have 2000 years of theology and study and speculation. The original disciples did not.

The feeling of defeat is something that is familiar. We know what it means to be broken, to be disappointed, and have our dreams and hopes crushed. We set our expectations high, and down and down they tumble from their lofty place. Things don’t always turn out as we thought they would.

A lost job. Failed relationship. Disease. The death of a loved one. Natural disaster.

And hopelessly, we cry out, Why? What do I do now?

What do you do when hope has hidden herself from you and despair blankets your heart? When depression and disappointment become your late night bed buddies? Sorrow certainly may come with the night, but sometimes joy doesn’t show up with the morning. Or the morning after.

For the disciples, “Friday night” must have been a night of shock and tears and bewilderment. But “Saturday” would have been when the reality of the death of Jesus and the heaviness of defeat sunk in. “Saturday” was when they had to face each other and figure out how to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Amidst the darkest of our nights, we must press on, knowing that though we don’t know what the morning brings, God on high does. When we’re bitter and lonely, heartbroken and upset, we trust in the sovereignty and goodness of a faithful Father.

It’s a lesson in patience and trust. And patience and trust are hard.

We may not know what the future brings…. but the story does not end with Saturday.

It is Well with Her Soul

Today marks the anniversary of the day my friend Esther Boyalapalli passed away after fighting medulloblastoma for two years. To learn more about Esther’s story, please click here. The following is adapted from something I shared with my InterVarsity fellowship a few years ago.

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Esther BoyalapalliIf you have been around OneWay in the last few years or so, you have inevitably heard about Esther Boyalapalli, accompanied by an assortment of adjectives: loving, caring, strong, unwavering, faith, beautiful, perfect, godly, prayerful, and the list goes on and on. All these can accurately be used to describe Esther, but my goal is not to talk about how amazing she was, but how I saw God work in her, and what I learned from knowing her.
Esther and I both came into UT in the Fall of 2005 and became plugged into OneWay. A couple of my earliest and clearest memories of her are from RISC 2005 and a memorable trip to Kerbey Lane that a couple of us freshmen went to. And when I think about Esther at that time, the first thing that comes to my mind is her smile that stretched from one side of her face to the other, a smile that really was infectious and contagious and hardly left her face. She spoke so demurely and with a grace that I know left an impression on those who came across her. I had the privilege of serving with her on Outreach team my sophomore year and really get to talk to her and see where her heart was.

In the summer of 2007, I received the news that they had found a tumor, and it was definitely a reeling hit. She had mentioned to me about her headaches, but a tumor? My initial response was, seriously, God? Of all people, You had to let Esther go through this?? Couldn’t You find someone else?

And there I revealed a huge misconception that I had, and indeed, I think a lot of people have: that because someone is “good” and does “good things,” they do not deserve to have bad things happen to them. Because Esther was such a “good” and “godly” woman, then it was unfair that she had to go through cancer. It is a sinful idea that one person is inherently above or better than someone else, and pulls us away from what the Gospel teaches us about grace and suffering.

The next year or so, Esther went through chemo and treatment, and it seemed like she was on the right road to recovery. She started driving and was going to start school again. The huge weight behind her eyes began to lift, and you saw the joy and cheer there. Then, in the Spring of last year, the tumor resurfaced.

On July 3, 2009, Esther walked from earth into eternity.

I had the opportunity to talk to her parents, and Esther’s mom told me that Esther had some of the same worries and frustrations that everyone else had, this “why me?” frustration. Just because she was Esther, didn’t mean that she was exempt from doubt and fear. In that fear, she held onto God, and she learned what it meant to truly trust her God. But when the second round came, her mom said that it was as if a transformation happened in Esther. She was no longer scared or bothered by what was going around her, it seemed like a peace just enveloped her. And it was something that God did in her, not a peace she mustered up on her own.

Right there, in Esther, in her story, I saw the transformative power of faith in Jesus! Here was a girl that you thought had it all, down to her walk with Jesus. If I have ever known a Proverbs 31 woman, a woman who’s heart is after God, it seemed Esther was her. But through this ordeal, she learned to really hold onto Christ, and His promise, that He will never leave you nor forsake you. And she clung to it, because that’s all she could cling to. And God took her heart of fear and doubt and misgivings and gave her a heart of trust, of faith in something larger than her and larger than medulloblastoma. You could literally see how God was shaping and changing her.

I believe, and I believe the Bible attests to this everywhere, in the absolute and complete sovereignty of God. The last couple of years, but especially the last few months for me, I see how there is no such thing as “chance” or accidents. Esther’s cancer wasn’t an accident. But it was something that God gave her to shape her into the woman that God wanted her to be. For us, when suffering and trials and hard times come about, and the Bible is clear that they will, we will have fear and doubt and worry and feel pain.

But in those moments, we don’t stay in that fear and doubt and worry and pain, we look at the hope and promise of Jesus, that He works all things for the good of those who love Him, that He had a plan for us that He wrote out before we were even formed in our mother’s bellies. Jesus will never leave us or forsake us. We put our faith in that promise and glorify God with our lives. We have a hope and assurance that death is not the end of the story, that death has no victory over us because our victory was won on the cross in the person of Jesus.

Easier said than done, right? As I was writing this, I thought about what this looked like in my own life, and I was convicted in realizing it’s the same thing: clinging to faith, clinging to Jesus. Our strength and hope is not in anything we can find or create in this world, and it is certainly not in ourselves. We run to Jesus.

There was a guy named Horatio Spafford that lived in the 1800s who was a prominent lawyer in Chicago. This guy ran into a sea of bad luck. First, he lost his only son, and then shortly after that, the great Chicago Fire swept through the city in 1871, which ruined him financially. He had invested in a lot of real estate and the fire destroyed pretty much everything. Soon thereafter, he decided his family needed a vacation, and chose England because his friend D. L. Moody would be preaching there. Delayed because of business, Horatio sent his wife and 4 daughters ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic, their ship was struck by an iron sailing vessel and 226 people lost their lives, including all 4 of Horatio’s daughters. He received a telegram from his wife when she reached England that had only 2 words on it: “Saved alone.” He then sailed over to England, and the captain of the ship showed Horatio the spot where the previous ship had sunk and his 4 daughters had died. Horatio Spafford then went to his room and penned these lines:

When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roar, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘it is well, it is well with my soul’

How’s that for suffering well?

We rejoice because death did not win over Esther. Because of Christ’s work, we will see her again, with a renewed body, having fellowship with her and all who have been redeemed by Christ!

Esther’s story is not ultimately about how great of a person she was, but how great our God is. It is about clinging to the the only true solid rock. I don’t know why He chose her of all people to suffer through and die with cancer, but I know that God formed the universe and trees and animals and humans and protons and neutrons, and He’s been doing this a lot longer than I have. He knows what He’s doing, and looking at Esther, I know that He loves us.

Come Awake

Music has the ability to sometimes perfectly express our emotions and feelings. In our ups and downs, we can find a song to relate to. It’s one of the reasons why we cling to it so much.

And sometimes, it can quickly turn us the other way.

I’d been in a weird funk the last week and a half. In the midst of cluttering my life and schedule with stuff, I was just coasting through.  And then I started listening to this song. And I can’t get enough of it.

At first, it’s a song with a bit of a catchy melody. And then you listen to it over and over and the truth behind the lyrics capture your heart. The Holy Spirit testifies with your spirit the veracity of the truth of the chorus. And He urges you to live in light of it.

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling over death by death
Come awake, come awake
Come and rise up from the grave

Christ is risen from the dead
We are one with Him again
Come awake, come awake
Come and rise up from the grave

It is simple. But so true. Christ IS risen from the dead! We are joined to Him in one family.

And then the urging: Come awake! Come awake! Come and rise up from the grave!

In Christ, our old selves died with Him, but now we are new creations! Thus, be a new creation!

And then… the bridge. It excites me. Moves me. And instantly reminds me that joy in Christ is the call for all who call Him Savior.

If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to check out Matt Maher’s other stuff too. He’s a great songwriter and worship leader.

I find myself humming this song at work or in the car. It is not a “feel good” sedative of a song.

It is a reminder of the very truth that we base our lives on.

Christ is risen from the grave, we are one with Him again… Come awake, come awake… Come and rise up from the grave!