Beautiful Creatures

I cannot get away from the idea that life is an expression of God’s beauty and that his most beautiful work is our very lives. It continues to cast reflections upon my heart and mind as I go about my day.

I made mention of this briefly in my last post, but I must elaborate. Two weeks ago, the thought struck me that the words I write are sacred, but I realize now it goes much deeper: Everything I do is sacred. All that I say and do matters: All that you say and do matters. This is because, from Heaven’s perspective, all things matter.

Every star in the Universe is known by name. The very number of hairs on your head are numbered. Every tear you shed is collected by God; every thought you think is known before it is said. And you and I: We were created to be a reflection of His beauty.

I really hope to convey this idea without it becoming in the minds of my readers yet another “have to” in the course of life. We do not “have to” find a way to reflect God’s beauty; this essay is not a “have to” lesson.

With the events that have transpired in my life in the past several weeks, I realize I am way beyond “have to.” I am at the very heart of “need,” with an occasional wandering into “want” and “desire.” “Have to” is the farthest thing from my mind right now.

Which — if you ask me — is a very, very good thing. And I wish the same for you. For there is something precious about life that has nothing — and I mean nothing — to do with “have to.” Life, if you are willing to accept it, has everything to do with “need”, “want” and “desire.” That is, It is about what we, as human beings, ultimately need. And more and more I realize it is about coming before God and pouring our hearts out before Him with all that we want and desire. We were simply not created for obligation; we were created for passion.

Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” And he answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22). The interesting thing about this commandment that we often overlook is that it is absolutely impossible to fulfill it by adopting a life of obligation. I cannot oblige my way into love. I can only fall in love.

And when I fall in love, I am not thinking about “have to” at all. I am thinking about another person, and how I can lay down my life for that person. I am thinking about spending every moment with that person. I am thinking about opening my heart wide, coming to know them just as I wish to be known. This is love.

So when I think about the fact that everything you and I say and do matters and and that we were created to be a reflection of His beauty, I am not thinking about obligation; I am thinking about love. I am thinking about being loved, and being in love. And I am thinking how that is possible with God because of Jesus demonstrating to us the greatest act of love the world has ever known.

That by humbling himself and becoming flesh and willingly taking all my sins upon Himself — taking my place to die on a Cross that I might be found innocent before God the Father — He demonstrated a love so profound that every other expression of love we see in this life is but a dim reflection.

I cannot help but think of the woman in the Bible who poured out an alabaster jar of precious perfume upon Jesus’ head and washed his feet with her tears. Professor Brian S. Chan of Biola University is quick to point out three things Jesus says in response to this. He says, first of all, that this woman has done this in preparation for His burial. He also says that wherever the Gospel is preached, what she has done will also be told. Most importantly, He says this woman has done a beautiful thing.

When we are in love, we are inclined to do beautiful things. And if I think, “I am afraid I am not in love with God,” then I must recognize this is not a deficiency but an opportunity. For we love by first being loved. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4). We love by coming to know the God who is love, whose love is unfathomable, whose mercy is inexhaustible. We love not by trying to love but by falling in love.

And when we do, we cannot help but love in return. We become beautiful creatures. And though it may not be our goal, the world takes notice.


Photo by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash

Artistic Expression

Last night I attended a conference for Christian artists: Painters, dancers, writers, even basket weavers (I kid you not — and world renowned). Earlier in the day, Jesus said something to me that was one of those things that sounded ordinary but was quite extraordinary. He said, “Your words are a prophetic act.” In the Revival (Charismatic) culture, everything these days is a “prophetic act.” You here the term so often it has lost all or most of its meaning.

But God was telling me something important about my gift (and I will add here, yours as well). He was saying that the very words I write bring the presence of God — bring, as we like to say in revival circles, Heaven to Earth. This was important to me not because God was validating my gift but because He was telling me that what I write has inherent value regardless of what purpose or value I subscribe to it. Art, in other words, does not need to have a purpose; the fact that it exists is purpose enough.

For years I have struggled with how this gift works. Many of you may not know I am a writer of fiction and that it in fact is my primary gift. And the one thing that has always been self-evident to me is that in any form of artistic expression, freedom is paramount. But it is real difficult expressing any artistic gift you possess with freedom when you are trying to make sure it has a “purpose.” How is this going to reach the lost? How will this advance the Kingdom?

The answer is rather simple yet profound: Our very act of artistic expression, conceived in freedom, is itself an advancement of the Kingdom. The creativity that God has placed within us, and wishes to release through us, is not neutral. God told me during worship last night, “Do not underestimate the power of art. Do not underestimate the power of your words.”

We may agree, but this is a bit of a paradigm shift for many in the church who feel everything should have an overt purpose. To say artistic expression matters and should have a place is to say something deeply theological: That we weren’t put on this planet to simply save the lost or “advance the Kingdom” through preaching and the latest local church initiative to make Christianity seem really appealing to others. (Or worse, to try to get our art to explicitly do the same, all of which is a hopeless form of manipulation). Rather, our very lives are a work of art, not an effort to advance the Kingdom but the very expression of the Kingdom.

All of this took a great burden off my shoulders, for I realized I had been trying so hard to make this life work, it was destroying any semblance of art within me. It caused me to write the following words, which I hope bless you:

My life is not an act of futility or frustration; my life is an act of worship.


Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

 

 

Life is Beautiful

 

My five-year-old granddaughter Anna, who was close to my wife Catherine (who, as many of you know, passed away unexpectedly this month), was over with her mom and dad to celebrate the college graduation of my daughter (her aunt). There were about thirty people at the house and this house is not big, so there was lots going on.

Suddenly, Anna says to me from across the room, “Grandpa! I see something in this house that was not here before!” And with that, she walks over to an end table beside me where the guest book and brochure from Catherine’s memorial service had been placed on display. The brochure had Catherine’s photo on it.

“Yes, that’s Grandma,” I said. I waited to see what her response would be — and so did her dad, not far away. Several days before, Anna’s mom had explained to her that her grandmother had gone to be with Jesus in Heaven, and that God would surround her with other family members who loved her, and they would take Grandma’s place till we all saw her again. Anna had taken the news seriously but with surprising acceptance. But our journey through this loss has just begun, and today was a new day.

Anna studied the photo for a bit, then turned to her dad and said, “Isn’t today just wonderful?” And then she proceeded to take two flowers that had been attached to one of her aunt’s gift bags and place them carefully on the book stand, just above Catherine’s photo.

It has been a little over three weeks now since my wife Catherine passed, and as you might guess, many, many people who loved her and who love me have reached out and asked how I am doing. It has been difficult to answer with any form of honesty or credulity, not because I am too devastated to form the right response, but rather because of the opposite. How I, and my children, are doing has been a rich composite of many tears but also of unspeakable joy.

It has been characterized by unprecedented vulnerability and unexpected strength. It has been a tender marriage of both unprecedented grief and unfathomable grace. It has been a college graduation without mom here, but with sweet little Anna placing flowers next to her photo and declaring, for all the world to know, that this day, even with its sorrow, is just wonderful.

So my response to my loved ones, if it were a text message, would be simple and concise, amounting to four words: Life is still beautiful.


Photo by Jarl Schmidt on Unsplash

 

Catherine

 

Dear Readers: The following is a transcript of my reflection shared during the memorial service for my wife Catherine. For those unaware, she passed away suddenly June 5, 2018. I plan to resume my “normal” writings in the weeks to come, though in away, this is all part of the journey.


God I love this woman.

Well, as we begin to approach the end of this service, I want you to know two things. The first is that I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.

Catherine always liked to say that. “Thank you Lord I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.” I would be in my office working at home and suddenly I would hear from the other room, “Thank you Lord I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.” It was a simple phrase, but it actually had profound meaning. It meant there was absolutely no situation you were facing that was too big for God. It also meant that your imperfections were not too big for God either.

It meant, in a way, what Jesus said to His own disciples before his own death: “In this world you will have troubles. But take heart: I have overcome the world.”

I have told you these things so that in me you may have perfect peace and confidence. In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer [take courage; be confident, certain, undaunted]! For I have overcome the world [I have deprived it of power to harm you and have conquered it for you]. (John 16)

So thank you Lord I am having a wonderfully imperfect day. And thank you Father that we, here today, all of us, are having a wonderfully imperfect day.

I imagine many of you today are feeling acutely the imperfection of this life in the present moment. I know I am. The loss of my beautiful wife is anything but neutral. There is something deep within us that knows this is not the way things should be. On the contrary we know it is tragic, even perhaps unjust.

Well, I do not wish to get too philosophical. But I would like to propose to you, as a way of encouragement, that the reason we feel this way deep in our gut is because we know we were created for a different world.

We were made for a world where things like this simply do not happen, a world not built on the brokenness of human frailty but an eternal world whose maker is God.

That this life is not so much our home as it is the place where we are called home: A place where we are invited and given opportunity to return to the place to which we know we have always belonged.

It is also a place where we are given opportunity in this life to exchange our imperfection for God’s perfection: A crown of beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise instead of despair. Of this I am convinced.

So thank you Father that I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.

The second thing I want you to know is what Catherine meant to me.

So I have hand-picked a few stories, beginning with the way we first met.

Now some of you may be aware that our relationship began with me volunteering to babysit her two children. Karyn and Paul were about 8 and 10 at the time, Catherine was a trade show coordinator. She traveled often and needed someone to look after the kids while she was away. On one particular occasion, I was available so I said yes.

As a a side note, if I may address the young single men in this room: If you are looking for a way into a woman’s heart, I highly recommend this strategy.

I am only kidding. The truth of the situation is, a master plan for winning over her heart was the farthest thing from my mind. We were no more than friends at the time. But when Karyn and Paul insisted I be their only babysitter after that first time, and I came to love her children as my own, and came realize in a profound sense they were my own.

And as Catherine and I evolved from no more than friends to good friends, and from good friends to me realizing she was much more than a friend, it was clear she had found her way into my heart. I love that woman.

But I still believe babysitting her kids was a good idea.

So that is how our relationship started. But many of you may not know that Catherine and I actually had met several years before, almost without knowing it. And how we actually first met is important, even symbolic, of who Catherine was and what she has always been to me.

I have to give just a bit of backstory. At that time, I was a wreck. Not five years before, I had experienced a spiritual crisis. As a result, I was broken on the inside in so many pieces, I knew I was beyond repair. And so now here I was a few years later, searching for God. I thought I needed God to simply show me He was real. But looking back, what I really needed was for God to show me He was love.

And so one evening, at a worship service at a church right here in Orange County called the Huntington Beach Vineyard, I found myself at the front of the church altar. The pastor had invited anyone who wished to receive more of God’s love to come to the front and others would pray for them. And so there I was.

What happened in the next moment was a bit unexpected. I suddenly felt the power and love of God in a way I had never felt before in my life.  I mean, this ovewhelming sense of peace and love filled my entiere body and soul and spirit. And this was a bit weird, but almost involuntarily, my arms raised upward to heaven as though on their own.

At that very moment, a hand touched my elbow. And then another hand touched my other elbow. They gently held onto my arms, supporting the weight of them as I connected with the love of God.

Moments later, I opened my eyes to find a young woman holding up my arms. She was very kind and passionate and of course just as crazy as I was to find ourselves in a church service like this. I would later find out that her name was Catherine Stevens, or as many of you knew her, Cathy Nugent, the woman I would one day marry.

In a way, our first meeting was a perfect symbol of who Catherine was to me as well as many other people. Her deepest desire in the lives of those around her was to connect them to the love of Jesus. She could not of course do this without God; she could only facilitate, much like a midwife.

Hold them up, support their arms so to speak. But she did this regularly and quite successfully, facilitating God’s work of reconnecting our brokenness to His perfect goodness, and in the process rebuilding our lives.

Okay, two stories down, one hundred ninety eight to go.

Just kidding. You know there is this desire — I do not know if you feel it — but to capture completely all that Catherine meant to us in a one-hour memorial service. To not leave anything out. I realize it cannot be done. She simply meant too much.

But I also realize that this is what the rest of our lives are for:  To recollect, to cherish, to appreciate, to be thankful. To cry. To laugh. To honor. To heal.

And throughout all of this, the one person I am not grieving for is Catherine.  Let me read something:

We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. (2 Corinthians 5)

I have to tell you one last story. Last Sunday I had the opportunity to visit that same church where so many years ago Catherine and I first met, and once again I found myself up front in desperate need. And once again, God met me as He has so, so many times since that first encountered. This time, I was standing, and the power of God was so strong I could not remain standing. I found myself lying on the ground with the love of God overwhelming me and going very deep. And this may sound strange, but in the midst of this tragic situation, the presenting emotion as I lay there with God was joy.

And then a woman who was praying leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I see in my mind’s eye your wife in Heaven, and she is dancing. And she is wearing a light pink garment, dancing in a meadow among the beautiful  trees with Jesus. And she is so, so happy. And she is so happy with you and for you.”

I knew it was true. It reminded me of one of the last things I said to Catherine as I sat beside the hospital bed after she had passed away: I am so happy for you.

You know, people say that after the loss of a loved one, your life will simply never be the same. I want you to know I do believe because of what has happened, my life will never be the same. But not because of Catherine’s death. On the contrary, because of her life.

 

Urgent Prayer Please (Update)

It is with great sadness I inform you that my sweet beautiful wife Catherine passed away last Tuesday night at 7:30 PM.

Many of you are probably unaware Catherine had her own prophetic prayer ministry, emotionalrenovation.com. The tagline was “letting Jesus rebuild our lives.” But I liked what Catherine often said about what it was she did: Helping people connect to the love of God.

Many of you are also probably unaware of how deeply my own writings were shaped and inspired by her own life: How her deep connection with Jesus has, throughout the years, connected me more profoundly to the love of God than I ever thought possible.

She will be greatly missed. She was the most profoundly authentic and passionate woman of God I ever knew and had such a tremendous impact on so many people.

Catherine, we will miss you and are so grateful for your blessing in our lives. I know for you and all of us who know you, this is not the end, but only the beginning.

Sincerely,

The husband of the most beautiful woman in the world. OOXXXOOOX