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

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

The Christian Soul: Interlude

In our previous discussion on Christian spirituality, we took up the topic of obedience, and then proceeded to demolish any semblance of freedom we might be entitled to under the guise of “our freedom in Christ.” It was rather unfair of me, actually.

So before we launch into our discussion today, I would like to state plainly that I am all for freedom and like most have a part of me that fears its loss. That part of me imagines a life whereby I am denied every choice till I am left with nothing but the worst version of myself.

But there is a fear greater, and it is a life lived without purpose and destiny. We must be honest: Freedom has its limits. I am sure my friend Citizen Tom would agree that the purpose of freedom is not freedom itself, but what freedom is able to achieve. The country in which I live is based on the ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But even in that single phrase, we find liberty (that is, freedom) does not make a good solitary traveler: It must have companions. Freedom follows life, and it yields to pursuit. Continue reading “The Christian Soul: Interlude”

Maybe Life Is Not a Problem

I awoke the other morning with a thought too good to be my own. It was the type of thought that sheds light on all your other thoughts, even thoughts you have been thinking without even knowing it, as morning sunlight might do to your back lawn, revealing the toys left out the night before.

As the thought too good to be my own (which we shall return to shortly) rose up within me, one such toy thought it revealed was this one:  The goal of life is to solve problems.

The problems of life for the modern-day Christian are many. First, there is the problem of living in a manner so as to be perfectly acceptable before our Creator. Then there is the problem of living in a manner so as to be maximally blessed, which has its own set of sub-problems, such as the problem of walking in divine health and divine favor, and also the problem of walking in divine financial prosperity.

Then there are the problems of everyday life (in case you think the above ones are not about everyday life) such as how to find a mate and have a good marriage, how to raise godly children, how to communicate effectively, how to avoid worry, how to be a good leader, how to break free from destructive behavior and addiction — and so on.

Life has so many problems, it is reasonable to think that the goal of life is to solve them. It is reasonable to think of life as sort of a super-problem, consisting of a matrix of smaller problems, all designed to challenge our problem-solving abilities. And that our highest calling before God is to do so.

Especially when one consider the modern three-point sermon, and the vast selection of Christian blog post titles out there, such as:

  • 5 Tips for Overcoming Fear about the Future
  • How to Make Right Decisions
  • How to Break out of a Victim Mentality
  • 8 Steps for Walking out of a Poverty Mindset
  • 5 Ways to Stop Discouragement from Getting the Best of You
  • The Number One Way to Get Unstuck in Life

Yes, life is a problem, and God is the problem-designer, and we are the problem-solvers. And God’s deepest desire is that we get better at solving problems. And the better we are at solving problems, the more of God’s blessing we experience. For solving problems is what it means to be fully human.

As opposed to solving problems being merely the means by which we become fully human.

That was my thought at least. As I have mentioned already, I was not aware I had even been thinking it. It wasn’t as if I had heard it in a 3-point sermon or read it in a recent blog post. None of my fellow churchgoers had uttered it to me in passing conversation. It was just there, in the cadence and activity of the modern church body, each member focused on figuring out how to get more of God to improve their lives.

But then the thought too good to be my own rose up within me, in all its simplicity: Maybe life is not a problem.

Maybe life is not a problem to be solved. Maybe the purpose of life is not to solve life’s problems. Maybe the purpose of life is something else entirely.

But in life, there are problems. And those problems cannot — should not — be ignored. What do you mean, maybe life is not a problem? For me, life is certainly a problem. And I am hell-bent on solving it!

So I said in my heart. But as I sat pondering this new thought, I realized there is a big difference between life having problems and life being a problem.

If life merely has problems, then we are — and life itself is — more than the problems we solve. We are called to something greater than solving problems. Granted, we might have to solve problems in this life. But we only do so that we might be in a position to fulfill the real goal of life —that we might be fully human.

But if life is a problem — that is, we see the goal of life as figuring out how to master God’s laws and principles that we might live most successfully — then solving problems becomes our purpose. Our highest calling before God becomes being really good problem-solvers.

Maybe life is not a problem to be solved. Not only this, maybe the problems we encounter in life are not even ours to solve. Maybe life is such that the problems we face are solved while we are focusing on something else.

While I was caught up with the thought too good to be my own, I saw a picture. It was the body of Christ spread across the whole earth. And when the world looked upon it, it did not see a people diligently trying to figure out the problems of life. It saw instead a reflection of Himself. From greatest to least, each member a uniquely created expression of all that He is, and all that He hopes to be, to a lost and dying world.

So lift up your eyes, child of God. Beyond your problems, and all your efforts to to solve them. Your destiny lies beyond.