Wednesday, February 14, 2018

"From Dust You Have Come", OR "Sacrificing"

Anyone else look forward to Lent every year?

Anyone? Anyone? Beuler?

Lent really is one of my favorite times of the year. And I think it all goes back to one particular Lent, five years ago. Until that year, I hadn't given much though to it; Lent had always seemed like something Catholics practiced, and I was a proud Protestant. I understood the forty days before Easter were special, because it represented Jesus' return to Jerusalem before the crucifixion, but it hadn't ever occurred to me to "give up" anything for Lent, like I'd heard some people do.

But the previous year had been a difficult one. My marriage had ended, and I'd had to learn to adjust to life on my own over nine very painful, confusing months. I'd gone through up and down periods of growing closer to God and then sliding away. All and all, my life had been a hectic roller coaster, and I decided I'd had enough. I wanted to grow closer to God, and Lent was the perfect season to do it.

So I gave up sugar. Not just sweets or desserts, but all refined sugar. No coffee creamer. No sugar cereals. No sugar in my pasta sauce or bread (it was really difficult to find those). No sucrose, fructose, or dextrose. No sugar substitutes, either (bye bye, diet soda). I had to consciously re-arrange my eating habits, shopping habits, and going-out habits to reflect what I had fasted to God over this time.

And I loved it.

I was thrilled with the difficulty of discipline. The extra time in the supermarket and looking at a restaurant menu reminded me of all that God had brought me through in the last year, and how far I'd come by His grace since the previous May. My fasting sugar wasn't simply done to improve my health, or so I could say to people, 'No thanks, I'm fasting sugar for Lent'; every time I craved sugar, or had to watch what I bought, I was reminded of God's faithfulness in my life.

Ever since that year, when I truly felt the Holy Spirit moving in me during the season, I have loved Lent. Even more than Christmas.

Tonight is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and I was excited. The Ash Wednesday service is one of my favorite services of the year. I always felt moved by the Holy Spirit during the service, the calling for us to be holy, as Christ was holy.

My evenings are much more eventful now than they were during that year-and-change I was living on my own. I live much further from my church, and Hillary and I have to wrangle three little girls together to make it on time. Having to leave so early and get home so late makes it difficult, too, as we've actually got to start our bedtime rituals before we leave for church, just so we can get the kids in bed at a reasonable hour when we get home.

Maybe it was the devil holding us back. Maybe it was just poor planning on our parts. Maybe it was a little of both. But, no matter the cause, Hillary and I found ourselves pulling out of the house at 6:45, for a church service that was half an hour away that started at 7:00. There was no way we were going to make it.

So we turned around before we left our subdivision and returned home. I didn't make it to my beloved Ash Wednesday service.

I was so bummed that, when we got home, I put in my headphones and listened to some Ash Wednesday sermons on YouTube while I fixed dinner for me and Hillary. And, like God so often does when I'm in the wrong, He took the time I was chopping sweet potatoes into fries to set me straight.

If there was ever a single meaning for Ash Wednesday, it has long been lost to antiquity. Today, Ash Wednesday has many meanings. One, to remind us that we have come from the dust, and to the dust we will one day return (Gen. 3:19).  Dust and ash, by definition, serves no purpose; it's waste material, only good for throwing out or cleaning up. How much like dust are we to God! God has no necessity of us. He would still be as holy and righteous, ruling over His world, had He never brought man into existence. But that itself is a testimony of God's love: even though we are worth nothing, of no value, God still loves us and makes plans for our lives and desires nothing but the best for us.

Ash Wednesday is also a reminder of the Old Testament tradition of mourning, where the mourner would put ash on their heads as a way to humiliate themselves before God. Humiliate, in this sense, coming from its original root word, 'humility': to take a posture of humility before God in mourning over our own sin that has separated us from Him. During the forty days of Lent, we are to mourn for our sin, understand that it had separated us from God, and spend the season in repentance while we strive to imitate Christ's holiness, because it's God's will that we be conformed into the likeness of His Son. (Romans 8:29).

Lent is a time to prepare our hearts for the upcoming death of our Savior, just as he spent his final forty days in Jerusalem preparing for his own death. It's a time of sacrifice. It's a time of repentance and mourning. And most of all, it's a time to struggle for holiness, a struggle that may have left our sights in the previous year.

And if God was calling me to sacrifice for Lent, maybe the first thing He was calling me to sacrifice was my beloved Ash Wednesday service for the sanity of my family. Because if the service itself had become more important to me than what the service represented - a time of sacrifice and holiness to honor God - then, like many other things I'd given up to God in the past, I needed to let it go.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think there's anything wrong with being bummed because I missed church. There are definitely worse things to be sad about! But, if time simply wasn't going to permit it this year, I needed to pull myself out of my funk and find where God could use me at home. So I pulled out my earbuds, finished making dinner for me and Hillary, and started Lent by helping get my kids ready for bed with my wife.

I may not have gotten the cross drawn on my forehead with ashes, but it was still a reminder just what the season of Lent is supposed to mean. It's a season of setting myself aside to listen to the Holy Spirit's calling of my life. It's intentional denial of something I normally love, to remove one of the many sources of white noise in my life that prevent me from hearing God's calling. And it's a reminder that I'm a sinful man, that I mess up and need a Savior to remind me of my need for repentance.

I'm going to giving up sweets this year, with two exceptions: a little creamer in my coffee every morning (but no more than one cup), and whatever sugar substitute that's in Shakeology (my breakfast every day). I'm also giving up swearing; even though I don't do it much, it far too often makes its way into my private conversations. And I'm giving up useless internet time, because that bad habit often destroys my evenings and keeps me from making the most of the time God's given me.

And scrolling.

Those are my sacrifices for Lent. It's my prayer that God will use these fasts to help me grow closer to Him, that every time each of these fasts affects my life I'm reminded that I'm nothing but a pile of useless dust, beloved by God for nothing that I could offer Him, and that it was my sin that nailed Jesus to the cross, where He went willingly for me.

Happy Lent, everyone.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

"Bubble Bobble Bad Words", *OR* "Rationalizing"

Should we try to rationalize the Bible when it doesn't make sense?

I've been a Christian for over half my life, and completely read through the Bible twice, not to mention the dozens of times I've re-read select parts of scripture as part of devotions or study. I still, and I'm sure this will continue for the rest of my life, come across things I'd forgotten with every reading. That, or I'll read a passage with the eyes of experiences, a little more spiritually mature than the last time I studied them.

And still I encounter passages that don't make sense or seem contradictory.

The Bible is truth. I have to believe that. If there were parts of it I chose to follow and parts I didn't, then it stops being truth and starts being God's Wikipedia page, free to be edited and glossed-over by whomever at their leisure. When I start picking 'good' scripture and 'bad' scripture, I literally believe in nothing.

But what do I do when I come across passages that seem contrary to my view of God?

The Bible says that God is full of compassion and slow to anger (Psalm 103:8). But, early Friday morning, I read a passage in Numbers (the most underrated book in the Bible, in my opinion) that left me confused and disturbed.

"The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punished children for the sins of their father to the third and fourth generation." (Num. 14:18)

Context is important. The context of the passage is one of the most famous in the Old Testament. After their rebellion and complaining, God determines that the Israelites aren't worthy to enter the land of plenty He's created for them, because of their rebellion and impertinence.

But even with context, the verse left me shaken. Is THIS the same God whom Jesus came in the name of? How can God punish children for sins their fathers committed, three and four generations down the line? What sin could possibly be so bad that great-grandchildren, who never even met the sinner need to be punished? What did they do to deserve that? How is that a God who the same verse says, 'abounds in love and forgiveness'?

I circled the passage and kept reading. A few verses down, I discovered this next passage:

"As for your children, that you said will be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But you - your bodies will fall in this desert." (Num. 14:31)

In the context of the passage, this verse makes more sense. Only the generation of people who've rebelled and turned their backs on God will be punished. Their children will be given a chance to have the land that God promised them. Whew! That certainly makes me feel better. God won't punish the generations for the sins of their fathers after all.

But wait... which one is it? Do I serve a cruel God who punished straight down generational lines? Clearly both can't be true. Does this make God a liar? Does this mean the Bible contradicts itself?

Surely there was some way I could rationalize this. Some how, I could come up with a world view in which both statements were true, that sometimes God punishes later generations and sometimes He doesn't.

Which brings me back to my leading question: should I even try rationalizing the Bible when it doesn't make sense?

I must remember that God isn't like me. When I try to imagine God thinks like me, and I try to put context of what God does by imaging what I would do in the same situation, I am disempowering God to an insane degree. It's akin to trying to understand why a motorcycle works because I have the basic knowledge of how to get a tricycle to go. I understand they both have wheels and move me around... but the comparisons stop there.

My mind and God's mind have even less in common that the tricycle and the motorcycle. In order to understand anything about scripture, I have to first understand that it was first breathed by One higher than I. Second, I have to accept that when God speaks, he says what he means, and when He speaks through others, they say what He means, too. There's no room for rationalization. But it's possible to understand scripture without rationalize it. If it wasn't, there would be no point for God to leave scripture for us.

Without going too deeply into the theology of sin: sin and rebellion from God make us grow apart from Him. God doesn't wait for us to somehow purify our lives of sin before He reaches out to us and wants to form a relationship with us. God is not amused by sin, but he is not surprised by it, either. He desires to form a relationship with us in spite of our sins, knowing we will sin all our lives but desiring to start a fire in us that continually encourages us to leave our sin behind, to be in a process and attitude of repentance. From this, God can show us His will for our lives and help us live in the abundance of His love despite our sin.

It is in trading the desire of repentance for the desire of sin where the true danger lies.

I'm a father of three girls, and they do and repeat everything I do. Including the bad stuff. Faith loves to play the NES classic edition with me, and her favorite game is Bubble Bobble. She likes being the blue and purple dinosaur, and she likes we both can play at the same time and continue as many times as we want when we die.

The numbers in the lower corners are the lives each player has. They go quicker than you'd think. 

Dying is nothing in this game. It can happen dozens of times in a single level. But last night, when my little green dinosaur dropped after getting touched by a bad guy, I let a bad word slip. 
It was quiet. I don't even think Faith heard. But Hillary was sitting in the room with us. And she heard, and gave me a look to let me know that she'd heard.

We don't curse around our children. It's not something I want to teach them them to do. But Hillary's look told me everything I needed to know about that situation. I had not only possibly taught my daughter a bad word, but, even worse, I'd taught her that it was completely appropriate to use it in a situation where things didn't go quite as you'd like.

Parenting is a big deal in my life. It should be, in the life of anyone who's really trying not to screw up their kids. It's a massive responsibility, as pointed out by God several times in the Bible (and demonstrated by God with his own Son). Provided she even heard it, I don't think one curse word is enough to turn Faith onto a path of destruction in her life. But it would be naïve of me to think that my words and actions aren't going to mold her future attitudes and behaviors.

What my children see in me now, for better or for worse, it going to affect what they do and say. And that, in turn, will mold their own children. And their children's children. If we as parents aren't careful, the sins of the father can literally become the sins of the children. And then my children really will be experiencing the fallout from my sins, to the third and fourth generation.

I'm not a believer in God's cosmic "slap-on-the-wrist", that He physically punishes our sin here on earth. If that were the case, wicked people would always get their comeuppance, like the bullies in an 80's teen movie. And we all know that's not the case, because bad people prosper all the time in this world. Real punishment from sin is what sin creates in our lives: separation from God. It fills our ears with spiritual cotton, preventing us from hearing God's voice. It covers our eyes with spiritual cataracts, blinding us to the beauty of God's creation and the splendor of what He's blessed us with. Worst of all, it creates distance between the only One we were ever truly meant to have relationship with. When we are separated from God by sin, we cannot live the life of the fullest that Jesus desires to bring us.

Those are the consequences our children may have to face because of our sins.

This post has gotten pretty heavy. They tend to, whenever I talk about parenting. But the beauty in this is that God doesn't expect us to go through the struggles of life and the pitfalls of parenting alone. Remember, even though the Israelites turned their backs on Him, God never abandoned them. Even though they had to wander in the desert because of their poor choices, He still provided for them.

No matter what trolls on the internet try to say, the Bible doesn't contradict itself. God has provided Truth for us because He is a God of order and not of chaos. The Bible does not need to be rationalized to be understood, but it does need to be studied, prayed over, discussed with spiritual friends, and experienced in real life to be understood. It takes a lifetime of careful, conscious effort.

Faith likes to play Bubble Bobble because we can continue as many times as we like if we lose all our lives. Much like the video game, God gives us as many chances as necessary for us to return to Him, as long as we continue to live in an attitude of repentance.

Just watch your language. And write down those passwords! 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"Cool Runnings", *OR* "Learning to Disconnect"

I never would have thought that forcing myself to disconnect and relax would be so difficult.

Yesterday was mine and Hillary's three year wedding anniversary. This day is extremely important to the two of us, but not in the standard "Everyone's anniversary is important to them" way. As many readers know, our wedding was not the first wedding for each of us. We'd each been put through the proverbial wringer when it came to past relationships, each having our previous marriages crumble around us despite our best efforts to keep them together.

Our relationship began with each of us in a place where we didn't know if we'd ever have back the lives we'd lost. Little did we know that God had even more in store for us, and what He was preparing us for was greater than anything we were leaving behind. After dating for less than a year I asked Hillary to marry me, and we tied the knot on July 18th, 2014.

It was a Friday, because every Saturday at the venue was booked solid for the entire summer. We rehearsed that morning in the summer sunshine, but then it rained for the rest of the day. The rain caused accidents on every major road leading to the venue, causing many guests (and even our cake) to arrive late.

But, like so many things in our lives, despite the apparent flaws on the surface, it was absolutely perfect. I won't go into much more about our wedding day now, since many readers have heard the story often. If you'd like the play-by-play of that amazing day, you can check out this post. 

Since our wedding, Hillary and I have made it a priority to take a week-long vacation every year, just the two of us. Our days consist of getting kids where they need to be, cooking for kids and adults, cleaning, work, exercise, and entertaining three kids with three very different sets of interests. With the break-neck pace of our life, Hillary and I will sometimes go days without ever having a conversation. The week-long excursion is necessary time to recharge and reconnect our marriage, to invest in each other so we can better invest in our family when we return home.

Last year, we broke our tradition of traveling to Key West, Florida, and traveled to Banff, a ski town in Alberta, Canada. It was a fantastic trip, and the cool weather and relaxed pace was exactly what Hillary needed, being seven months pregnant. It was such a fantastic experience that we decided to return to Banff this year.

And that's where I sit now, writing this post.

When we decided to return to Banff, we knew we wanted to do many of the things we weren't able to do last year, Hillary being pregnant. Even though yesterday was our first full day in Canada, we wanted to make the most of it. So we drove to Lake Louise, one of Canada's hidden treasures, and hiked the Plain of the Six Glaciers trail.

That's the Upper Victoria Glacier, front and center in the background. 

Fun fact: when something is very large, it destroys your ability to judge just how far away it is. And the series of glaciers in the background of the above photo is very, very large. It LOOKS like the Lower Victoria Glacier (the little snowy bottom of the big glacier) touches the back of the lack. In actuality, it's nearly a mile around the lake to the trailhead of the Plain of the Six Glaciers, and then nearly three more miles to the base of the Lower Victoria. Isn't "depth of field" interesting?

The hike was maybe the most difficult hike of my life. The trail was uphill the entire way (even to the base of the Glacier, which also doesn't look that high. Yay, perspective!) and covered with broken shale and rocks, which had eroded from the glaciers over the course of millennia of glacial ice melting and becoming the headwaters of the lake.

We also hiked over SNOW. Huge mounds of hard-packed snow, in the middle of summer. And it wasn't cold on the trail; the temperature was in the low 70's, and we worked up a healthy sweat over the miles. Still, snow found a way to survive.

Of course, I had to investigate. 

After neatly four miles of hiking, we finally arrived at the Plain of the Six Glaciers Tea House. Originally built in 1927 by the local railway company, the Tea House still operates to this day. It has no electricity and no running water. But to two extremely tired hikers, it was an oasis. Hillary ordered a bowl of hot vegetable soup and a cup of coffee, and I had tea with homemade biscuits. I probably would have preferred coffee, but how can you go to a 90-year-old tea house and not order tea?

Reading the story of the Teahouse from the upper patio. 

Once we were refreshed, we stretched out in my parachute hammock and took in the view of the glaciers. Soon after, we hiked a little further to get a better view, but we didn't go the entire way because we had to make the last shuttle bus down the overflow parking for Lake Louise. (Not pictures in any of the photos: the massive crowds of tourists that surround the lake area). 

The glaciers normally don't look so hazy; there are some brutal wildfires burning in British Columbia (one province to the west), and the smoke is blowing into Alberta. Everything smells like a campfire. 

We've had an amazing day of hiking already, and there are still many more days of vacation in Banff left. But, even though we're having a blast, we've been toying with the idea of leaving early and returning to Kentucky. This surprises even us, because we've never considered this on an anniversary trip before. We've always been happy to be back when the trip was over, yes, but never entertained the idea of actually cutting the trip short. 

But things back in Kentucky are much different now than they've been on any of our other trips. 

HOW DID SHE GET THIS BIG ALREADY!?! Someone tell me how to slow it down!! 

I didn't take this picture. It was sent to me by my mother and father, who are watching Ellie Kate while Hillary and I are out of the country. 

Mom and Dad came to Lexington to pick up the baby last Sunday, before Hillary and I had to drive to Cincinnati to stay the night to catch our early international flight Monday morning. We hugged, we kissed, and then they left with the baby. 

Hillary and I cried for ten minutes in the car and seriously considered cancelling our trip, then and there. 

We've left Faith and Zoe for three consecutive years, for a week each, as we left on our anniversary trip. It hadn't been this hard with them, because they're older and can understand that, even though we're gone, we will be back and our life will go back to normal. They're comfortable staying with various sets of relatives. And we promised we'd bring them back some souvenirs, which sweetened the deal. 

When we'd been to Canada the summer before, we hadn't even considered the possibility that it would be this difficult leaving the baby. She's so small... how can she understand that mommy and daddy will come back? What if she doesn't sleep well? What if she gets upset that we're not there? 

What if she forgets us? 

Of course, this is all nonsense. Ellie Kate remembers people she's met after much longer than a week's separation. She's sleeping pretty good (as well as can be expected, and better every night) at my parent's house. And she's generally a happy baby. 

But when you're used to kissing those squishy, little cheeks... when you're used to hearing that infectious laugh when you toss her into the air... how can you justify leaving that, for any period of time? 

I'll never understand people who are satisfied with seeing their children for one or two days every week. I'll never understand why someone would want to barter away those scant few days for extra weekend time. For Hillary and I, the struggle isn't in forcing ourselves to spend time with our kids, but forcing ourselves to spend time AWAY from our kids: to disconnect from them long enough to make sure they're not becoming the center of our universe. 

How does anyone have a child and not be forever altered? How can you simply return to the old mindset of doing everything for yourself? 

It's more difficult than some might realize, finally having a few days of "freedom" after spending so many months having to constantly look out for the interests of a helpless little person. Hillary and I, at first, were afraid we were becoming one of those couples that finds it impossible to have a life outside their children. We quickly realized this isn't the case: we still love to talk, have adventures, share our thoughts and ideas and dreams, and enjoy each other's company. But, honestly, it took us a day or so to fully take in the fact that we weren't responsible for any little people for a while. 

We haven't rescheduled our trip home. Yet. Hillary and I recognize that this time is crucial to our relationship with each other. Christ has directions for a strong marriage, and we recognize that keeping our marriage strong is at the core of keeping our family strong. And we know our baby, who may or not remember us when we get back (joking!), is in good hands with my parents. But you can bet, when the flight back to the USA boards, she and I will be first in line. 

Until then, I guess I'll keep re-watching this video. I took it the morning before my parents picked up Ellie Kate. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Father's Day: Introspective stuff (or, "Manning Up")

I just celebrated my fourth Father's Day, and this one was the busiest yet. Actually, the last few months have been the busiest of my life, what with the birth of Elliot Katherine Smith in October of 2016. I can count on one hand the number of full nights of sleep Hillary and I have gotten in the last eight months, but it's been the most amazing eight months of my life and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

In fact, I wouldn't trade the last four years for anything, either.

Three years ago, Hillary and I were preparing for our wedding. As such, her daughters, soon to be my daughters, needed a name to call me. They'd been calling me 'Graham' for over a year, and although that had been fine when Hillary and I had been dating, it just didn't have the feeling that any of us wanted. 'Daddy' was already taken... so Faith, and by proxy, Zoe, since at that time Zoe wanted to do whatever Faith was doing, decided I would be called "Dad."

So even before Hillary and I were married, I became Dad. I officially had kids.

This was what was waiting for me when I came home from a mission trip to Guatemala that summer. Tears were shed. 

Fast forward a few years, and my life looks completely different than anything I ever planned. Hillary and I survive one miscarriage and then have Ellie Kate. She turns out to be absolutely amazing, and the cutest baby that has ever lived. Yes, I'm biased, but I am more than willing to back that statement up with independent research 

Good luck to anyone else vying for the title. This is your competition. 

I was lucky enough to spend Father's Day weekend not only with my father, but all three of my children, since other concerned parties asked to have the entire weekend free because of previously arranged engagements. More power to ME: I couldn't think of any other people I'd rather spend Father's Day weekend with.

And what commenced was a lot of swimming, playing, and all-around fun. And one big reminder that I am, without a doubt, the most blessed man on the face of the earth.

Last night, as I was feeding Ellie Kate her bedtime bottle and rocking her to sleep, I noticed a printed canvas that sat on her bookshelf. You all know the kind: there are hundred of them at Hobby Lobby, with fun and inspirational sayings printed on them. This one had been in Ellie Kate's nursery since we'd brought her home, but I don't think I'd read it until that very moment (it had been partially covered by "The Very Hungry Caterpillar"). I'm not sure when we bought this particular canvas, or if someone bought it for us, but here's what it says, in white letters on a pink field:

Read me a story 
and tuck me in tight. 
Tell me you love me 
and kiss me goodnight. 

I've shed a lot of tears over my kids already, even in the short time they've been in my life. But as I held the baby in my arms and read this, really read it, I had to bite my lip to keep the tears back as I faced a truth that I'd always known. It had been easy to ignore in the eight months since we'd brought Ellie Kate home, because of the breakneck pace that life has taken, but in that quite moment I was forced to confront it. 

I only have a short time to influence this little life before she steps into a harsh, bleak world. The world will not tell her she is loved, will not look out for her best interests, will not care whether she is happy or fed or encouraged. The world, given the chance, would chew her up and spit her out like it had millions before her. 

How long do I have? Ten years, before her friends suddenly have more influence than me? Ten years before me telling her "I love you" isn't enough for her to realize that she's beautiful, that she's amazing and special and perfect just the way she is? 

Even thinking back to the time that's already slipped away, the time I frittered away staying focused on keeping diapers clean and getting her to sleep through the night and moving her from bottles to baby food, without realizing those were moments I'd never get back... I realized I'd already lost so much time. 

And then I thought about Faith and Zoe, the older girls, and I got really horrified. 

Already, Faith is reaching the age where she'd rather spend time alone in her room with a piece of technology than with her mother and I. She's EIGHT. And if this is what she'd rather do, I have no one to blame but myself: if I want to encourage her to spend time with me now, and to foster the necessity for quality time so she'll still want me in her life when she's a teenager, I need to get off my butt and invest in her NOW. I know there are already voices from outside her, pulling her this way and that: and if you have a child around the same age and you think your kids are immune, PLEASE don't fool yourself. It starts earlier now than it did when we were kids. 

And Zoe... sweet, little Zoe... all she wants is someone to play with her. Legos. Play-Doh. Doc McStuffins. Dinosaurs. It doesn't matter to her. If you sit in her room and play with her, you're her best friend. 

How much time have I already missed with these girls? I've only been in their lives for four years, which means I'm already behind the curve. How often have they needed my time and attention, and I've simply been too hard-headed to notice and offer myself to them? It's not THEIR responsibility to seek me out for me to invest in them: It's up to ME to intentionally invest in these kids. 

Maybe I'm agonizing too much about this. After all, I don't *think* there's anything wrong with the time I spend playing video games, or watching TV, or goofing around on the Internet. I don't think too many of these opportunities have slipped through my fingers yet. But if I don't let myself become a little paranoid - if I'm not constantly on the look-out for every opportunity to make sure my kids know how loved they are - I'm going to blink, and these important moments are going to be gone. 

Ellie Kate has already moved out of the Duckling Room at daycare. Now she's a Piglet. 

Faith has seen hundred of videos on Youtube Kids, the contents of which I am completely oblivious of. 

Zoe wasn't even verbal when I met her. Now she's reading three- and four-letter words. 

The Steve Miller Band lied. Time doesn't keep 'slipping' into the future. Time screams into the future like a meteor entering the atmosphere, and only when you take a look around do you realize how much time has passed and how old you really are. 

I know one thing for certain, though: without God's help, I'm never going to be able to make the most of my time with my three girls. If I focus too hard on them, make them the center of my life instead of Him, I'll end up elevating them to a place they were never supposed to be: as the center of my life. And, while this sounds appealing while they're small and sweet and cute and cuddly, I have to remember that I'm the one they're looking up to, and what I teach them matters. If I teach them that earthly relationships are what we should strive for, that it's okay to make another person a god in your life, that's the kind of relationships they're going to look for. 

And if I'm afraid now of having my hands full when they're teenagers... I'll really have my work cut out for me if the girls make every little boy they fall in love with the centers of their universes. 

One day, the girls are going to be grown. And the things I teach them now, when they're young, are going to matter. While it's vitally important that I show them love and affection and caring that only their daddy can provide, it's even more dire that I teach them there's Someone who loves them on a level that I could never even approach. That, no matter how much someone on earth says they love them, that Another loved them so much that He sacrificed everything to be with them.

They need to learn that there is such a thing as love that can never be taken away, love that never fails, that never grows old, that always fulfills. 

There's no way to slow down the rate at which the girls are growing up. The two older ones have already been through so much in their young lives. If I want to make sure I'm not royally screwing up this Daddy business, I'm going to have to keep my head on straight and keep my eyes on Jesus. We, as parents, are the first line of defense against the forces that do, and will forever, assail our children. 

Time to man up. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Is it Hateful to believe in Hell?"

I hate politics. I hate what it's done to our country, I hate what it's done to people I know, and I hate what it's done to my various social media outlets.

This blog post has NOTHING to do with the current administration: I believe it's possible to feel a certain way about the government, live my life contrary or in accordance with whatever is being said and done, and (GASP!) not blast Facebook with it.

This has to do with an article I read on NPR earlier today. It's titled, "Is It Hateful To Believe In Hell? Bernie Sanders' Questions Prompt Backlash".

You should read it yourself, instead of taking my word for what it says. In case you're busy or tired, here's the general idea: Bernie Sanders, Vermont Senator, questions whether Russell Vought (Trump's appointee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget)'s views of Christianity - specifically, on the eternal condemnation of non-Christians - qualifies as hateful or Islamophobic. It was the Senator's opinion that it does.

Bear in mind: this blog post is not about all the things mainstream Christianity does right or wrong.

I repeat: This. Is. Not. About. What. Mainstream. Christianity. Does. Right. Or. Wrong. This is about the Christian belief in hell, the authority of scripture, and whether or not belief in scripture should disqualify someone from a job. Reading this article set my mind twisting, mainly because I'm usually a fan of Senator Sanders. But I think he's got this wrong.

If I claim to be a Christian, I have to believe in the absolute infallibility of scripture. If I believe that parts of Scripture are truth and others are not, or parts of it should be taken in context and parts of it shouldn't, then I can make it say whatever I want it to say. And if that's the sort of Scripture I believe in, I don't actually believe in anything.

Hell exists. Damnation exists. Condemnation exists.

In the article, Senator Sanders repeatedly asked Mister Vought, "Do you believe people who are not Christians are condemned?" He did not elaborate on this, and I assume it was so whatever answer Mister Vought provided could be twisted into America's political machine.

But the answer is simple. If Mr. Vought is a Christian, the answer is yes.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." (John 14:6)

I claim to be a follower of Jesus. So I must accept the truth that He is the only path to salvation.

The article claimed that "about of half of U.S. Christians believe that some non-Christians can go to heaven". In my view, this means that half of U.S. Christians aren't really Christians at all. Because if someone is trying to peddle a Christianity without the need for Christ, without the need for forgiveness of sin and Christ's sacrifice on the cross, without reconciliation with the only true One worthy of our love, they're not peddling Christianity at all. They're trying to sell a watered-down, touchy-feely, sunshine-and-rainbows Christianity. And believing in this fake Christianity is, in my opinion, even more dangerous than not being a Christian at all.

But that leave me with this problem: Since I believe this, then that means many of my loved ones are, indeed, condemned.

This is a hard pill to swallow. I am friends with people who believe many different 'flavors' of Christianity, some of which don't have room for hell in their belief of God. I am friends with dozens of non-Christians and people of other faiths. Am I proclaiming that, as they are now, they're bound for hell?

Yes. And I cannot apologize for that belief. Because it's Scripture. It's truth. And Jesus never apologized for Truth.

This doesn't mean that it doesn't break my heart. Quite the opposite! It has me on my knees day and night, asking God to show me a way to speak about Jesus to these people I love in a way that won't turn them away from Him forever.

But does this belief make me hateful? Does it make me Islamophobic? Or Agnostophobic? Or Anti-semetic?

The argument I believe Senator Sanders was trying to make (at least, it's the argument the commenters on the Facebook article thought he was trying to make, and I severely regret having to wade through that quagmire) is that Mr. Vought would be unable to do his job as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget because of this belief that non-Christians are condemned, that it would stain his view of them and impact his decisions on whether or not to allocate funds to these condemned people.

Despite it being in Scripture absolutely nowhere, there is a common misconception that Hell is for people who disobey what's written in God's Big Book of Downers, and Heaven is for people who never have fun but fall in line to God's ridiculously unrealistic behavior constraints. This lie has been pushing people away from Christ since He first walked the earth.

All of humanity is fallen. Everyone, Christian or Jew, Muslim or non-believer, continues to fall short of the glory of God every day. Me, included. You, included. Your grandmother, included. That's the point of salvation: repentance of a life lived in opposition to God, but continual justification for the endless times we fall short. We call this GRACE.

Belief that those who haven't yet claimed the justification of Christ are still under God's wrath isn't a statement of hatred. It's a statement of fact.

But we are called, as ambassadors for Christ, to show the love of Christ to everyone regardless of this fact. A Christian teacher would never think to not invest in the life of a student because the student has a different belief system. A Christian plumber wouldn't ignore a flooded basement in the home of a Jewish or Islamic family. A Christian pastor would never turn away the questions of an agnostic or atheist seeking clarification.

And a true Christian deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget would never allocate funds away from certain groups of people simply because of their condemnation.

The love of Christ, and the gifts and works of our hands, aren't simply for the righteous. If that was the case, then no one would every do anything for anybody. Because no one is righteous. Absolutely no one. 

Christ set the ultimate example for us. When he died on the cross, no one on earth was worthy of the gift of salvation. When He brought his "funds" to us - the payment for our sins - all of humanity, stretching from time immemorial to time eternal - was condemned. But instead of turning away, He gave. Not only to the millions who would accept His free gift, but for the billions who He knew would have the opportunity to accept it, but would chose not to.

Christ commands the same attitude of love and generosity and fairness from us.

I suppose the article rubbed me the wrong way because it accused a Christian of being unable to do a job simply because he believes scripture. But, as is often the problem with interpreting little pieces of scripture instead of interpreting scripture as a whole, the context was lost. Christ is the only path to salvation, yes: but, as long as there are people in our lives not on that path (and there always will be), we are called to live every day displaying the same love Christ showed everyone, not just Christians, when He died for us.

Yes, condemnation exists. Yes, billions of people stand under it, tens of millions of those in America. But does believing that, saying it aloud, count as hate speech?

If so, then I guess I'm hateful.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 Wasn't a Bad Year

It's officially time for the entire world to stop griping about 2016.

For months now, your social media feeds have no doubt been full of people who hated 2016. And much of their disgust with the previous year seems justified. Dozens of beloved celebrities, actors, and musicians passed away. Political turmoil runs rampant, not only in America, but in much of the industrialized world. There were terrorist attacks, natural disasters, mass shootings, wars, and Batman/Superman movie that not a lot of people liked.

But 2016 isn't to blame for any of that.

I've seen, "Screw you, 2016!" and "I'm staying up till midnight on New Years Eve just so I can watch 2016 die" appear so many times on my Facebook feed over the last week that I've stopped counting the occurrences. These posts are blaming an abstract concept, a unit of time that has no significance other than what we apply to it, for the problems of the last year. And if we as a people fail to place responsibility where it is due, we are doomed to find ourselves in the same place next year, typing "Screw you, 2017! Maybe 2018 will be better!" on our phones and laptops.

Instead of blaming 2016 for the deaths of our favorite actors and musicians, we should instead look at the underlying problems that contributed to their deaths. Very few people have started a social media conversation about the danger and stigma of substance abuse and addiction. Many of these celebrities were in their prime when everyone in the music and movie industries were talking about drugs and alcohol, but no one was talking about the consequences. Instead of blaming 2016 for the deaths of these beloved figures, let's instead start a national conversation about treating substance abuse. Let's reach out to those we care about who are struggling with drugs and alcohol. Let's find a way to help these people instead of blaming 2016. Heck, let's at least start a conversation about it.

Of course, there were those who passed from old age, or, more tragically, cancer or other diseases. While these are equally tragic, they are no more the fault of 2016 than the others.

This blog has never been, and will never be, a sounding board for politics, so this paragraph will be short. Many people are upset about the incoming administration in American politics. But sharing inflammatory articles, blowing up the Twitterspehere with four-letter words, and ranting in the comments section of someone else's post aren't going to change anything. And like the many notable celebrity deaths, 2016 is not to blame.

Instead of blaming 2016 for the massacring of innocents in a nightclub, we could have started a national conversation about the use of deadly weapons. Someone could have reached out to the shooter, made him understand that he was allowed to find happiness and fulfillment in life, instead of seeking absolution at the butt of a rifle. Someone could have shown him a better way. Or at least stopped him from buying an assault weapon.

And yes, while it is true that there is very little we as citizens can do in the way of international politics, the truth is that some people, somewhere, can influence these actions. Maybe that's as large as choosing not to send a regiment of troops into a city. Maybe it's as small as bringing food to refugees.

The common thread that connects all these upsetting headlines is this: 2016 isn't responsible for any of them.

We did it all. We, as people of the world, are responsible for the whole mess. If we're looking to blame something, let's place the blame where it belongs. On us. Instead of saying that 2016 was the worst year ever, let's be honest and say that 2016 was our worst year ever.

Yeah, it seems like there's a lot that needs to be done, especially in the wake of how awful most people perceive 2016 to have been. It doesn't feel like there's anything we can do about the atrocities in Aleppo, or the terrorist attacks in the Belgium airport, or the shooting at The Pulse nightclub. And that's true. For the average citizen, some things are out of our reach.

But each of us has a tiny corner of the world we can influence, and if all we can do is make that part a little bit better, then we should do it. If we want things to change, WE HAVE TO CHANGE THEM. Do volunteer work with your local anti-homelessness organization. Collect donations of food for your local food bank. Arrange a bake sale to raise money for a cause you believe in. Call someone you know who's elderly or shut-in. Pray for someone you normally wouldn't. Confront someone in love whom you suspect struggles with substances.

It's going to get tiring. Doing good always is. That's why you don't see people camping out in New York for the "Occupy Wall Street" movement anymore: it was a protest not based on making things better, but simply sitting around and waiting for others to change things.

Every day actions will feel small, but over time they'll add up.

Everything I write is from a Christian perspective. If you're not interested in hearing why I believe the things I wrote about, you can simply stop reading here and have a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy post about everyone banding together to do the right thing. If you'd like to get a little deeper, keep reading.

Scripture says, "Let us not grow weary in doing good, for we will reap the harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, let us do good to all, as we have opportunity, especially to those who belong to the family of believers with us." (Gal. 6:9-10). These are good words, and one of my favorite scriptures. But dang, is it hard to put into practice!

As the church, Christ calls us to do many things. I believe that the gospels boil down to this message: imitate Jesus, treat others as he treated them, and put all things of The Kingdom before the things of this world. And when you look at 2016, it doesn't seem like a lot of people were imitating Jesus. Not the people who made the news, anyway. But maybe that's the real testament of following Jesus: those who are doing it correctly aren't going to show up in the limelight (Mark 6:1).

With that in mind, any New Year's Resolution we make should be the kind that Jesus would make.

He sought out those who were unloved and unwanted and provided for their basic needs.

He never stopped thinking about the Kingdom of Heaven, and what He could do to describe its majesty to people.

He desired for all people to come to a relationship with God the Father, and to understand God's love through that personal relationship.

When He saw sin in believers or religious people, He called them out on it.

He called no one to simply exist where they were, but called everyone to continually grow closer to God in word and action.

Yes, 2016 seemed horrible on the surface. But we've got to remember that 2016 was simply a number. It was another spin of the globe, full of broken and confused people just like us. But as the body of believers, it's got to be up to us to crack our knuckles and get to work. Yeah, most of us can only affect one tiny corner of the world, but it's a corner that may never understand Jesus without us. Each and every one of us had to do their part. And from the look of things, we've got our work cut out for us.

Finish the cartoon however you please. 

Image uncredited; I didn't draw it, but found in within the miasma of the internet. If it's your image, please contact me and I will credit your work! 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Rest of My Life Begins Now.

Number one: If you are friends with me on social media, I'm sorry. It's been an eventful week in my life, and I've been bombarding Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with pictures to chronicle the event. If the pictures were set to animation, I'd bet you could watch the whole thing happen frame-by-frame.

And WOW, doesn't Hillary look beautiful? 

On Wednesday, October 26th, at 9:36 in the morning, my wife gave birth to our daughter, Elliot Katherine Smith.

The c-section went off without a hitch. At a little after 9:00, they took Hillary back to the operating room to start anesthesia. This was my cue to put on my "bunny suit": the canvas-like coveralls, mask, booties, and hat that I had to wear into the sterile environment.

I was barely in there ten minutes before we had a baby.

Hillary's probably not thrilled that I used this picture. I think it's beautiful. Don't you? 

I began the day excited. Ready. In great anticipation. And once she was born, everything was pretty much a whirlwind of activity. They cleaned her off, handed her to me and Hillary so we could hold her while they sewed Hillary up. Cue the tears of joy.

I got to carry Ellie Kate to the area where they test her vitals, make sure everything is working. After about fifteen minutes, I went to see Hillary in recovery. She was doing well, still a little out of it from the anesthetic. I responded to frantic texts from both our parents and let them know everyone was okay.

They brought us the baby, took us to our hospital room on the 4th floor (which was more like a hotel room than a traditional hospital room), and friends and loved ones soon arrived. People held her, hugged us. They brought food (thank goodness).

Ellie Kate even got to meet her big sisters. 

As the day wore into the evening, people left. Until that night, it was simply me, Hillary, and the baby. And thus began the most challenging, and rewarding, time of my life.

I don't want this entry to become an extended diatribe about my previous marriage. It's something I've talked about at length in older entries. If you're a first time reader, however, I'll abbreviate. Something like four years ago, I was married to another woman, who walked away from our marriage after a long period of distancing.

Here's the portion of the story many don't know.

The fall after my ex-wife left me, I was the assistant youth pastor at my church. Barely a day went by at that time without all my thoughts being directed at the hopeless and uncertain path my life had taken. So, when we took a few dozen middle-school-age youth on a retreat that September, I couldn't keep my mind from dwelling on the fact that I was no longer married, and the path I had laid out for my life had been irrevocably shattered.

I don't even remember what the theme of the weekend was. But one night during that retreat, during independent prayer time, I faced the hopelessness with God.

I wasn't married. I knew I wanted to get married again, and I knew God knew that, too. But I wasn't even remotely ready to date anyone. And once I started dating, how long would it take for me to find the one I wanted to marry?

I knew I wanted children. But I was already staring my 30th birthday in the face. After I found the elusive person I wanted to marry, how long would it be before she was ready to start a family? One year of marriage? Two? Five? Would I be facing 40 before I had a kid in kindergarten?

I remember sitting in the floor of a cabin during this prayer, with my arms crossed on a coffee table and my face buried in them, when that realization came to me. And I wondered... would I ever have children?

The moment that thought escaped my head, a literal pile of youth kids threw themselves on me, to pray over me. Their weight was literally enough to take my breath away.

Now, I'm not a person whom God normally speaks to in audible words. I think He knows how dense I am, and He knows that words would be too easy for me, so normally He speaks in much more indirect ways. But when He's got something to say, it's big. And this time, He said, "I will fulfill this for you one day. But until you have children of your own, these are your children."

Fast forward, four years and a month.

Hillary and I have had Ellie Kate home for three nights now. She's obviously not sleeping through the night yet; even worse, she's pretty much nocturnal from her months in utero. But we're adjusting: Hillary and I are playing tag-team at night right now, trading off who sleeps upstairs with her so the other can get a few uninterrupted hours. It's difficult, yes, but it's way easier with such a good tag-team partner.

I still haven't been able to convince Hillary to wear the face paint and spiked shoulder pads. 

There's simply so much to tell, because I am so overwhelmed with how new and amazing everything is. The days are starting to get away from me, though: I started this blog post two days ago, and am only now getting around to finishing it. More and more things keep happening, and I want to write about them but I simply don't have the time. So it's probably about time to end this post. 

There are certain things in this life that simply can't be understood without experiencing them, and I firmly believe having a baby is one of them. I have never been so swept-off-my-feet in love before, and there simply aren't words that can describe it unless you've experienced it yourself.

However, I don't have to go back to work until December 5th, so I'm sure I'm going to try with a few more blog posts before them. 

Until that time, take a nap for me and Hillary. 

I think Hillary and I have perfected the beautiful baby. The rest of the world should stop trying.