Ash Wednesday: Beauty in the Cruciform

With foreheads crossed in ashes, millions of Christians around the world will inaugurate the Lenten season today by commemorating Ash Wednesday. The ritual will be significant for some, full of depth and meaning. It will be mundane for others, an annual go-through-the-motions habit meant to keep the good karma coming our way. And many of us will choose to fast for the duration of Lent.

Coffee. Television. Meat. Sex. I once knew a guy who fasted from speaking. Just completely stopped talking. The possibilities are endless.

But this year, as we begin our march toward Easter morning, I’d like for us to reconsider the idea of the Lenten fast. In recent days, in light of the tragedy of the 21 Christians beheaded by IS militants in Libya, I’ve had these jarring words from Isaiah 58 weighing heavy on me:

You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Most of these men were from a poor village in northern Egypt. Upon hearing the news of their deaths, witnesses say that many of their relatives fainted from shock, only to awake again to the crushing pain that this was indeed reality and not just a horrible nightmare. Egypt has declared seven days of national mourning. In the footage released by the militants, the 21 are accused of being “people of the cross.”

People of the cross. 

Is this not what we all are? Are we not the bearers of good news planted in blood stained dirt at the foot of the cross? Were we not all invited to carry our very own crosses and follow? What is Lent if not a steady, daily reminder of oncoming crucifixion? So what will we crucify? What will we put to death?

This year, maybe we can put to death something other than coffee, television, meat, and sex. Maybe we can put to death something that will stay dead long past Easter morning.

Apathy in the midst of injustice.

Ignoring the cries of the oppressed.

Passivity in the face of hunger and pain and loneliness.

Maybe this Lenten season is an opportunity for us all to fast from, and put to death even, our oh-so-American tendency to prioritize comfort and convenience above all other things. Maybe this Lenten season is an opportunity for us all to confront the horrors of our broken world with courage and bravery and action; to do something about the injustice in our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools, our homes; to respond to the cries of the oppressed, to take action, big or small, when our cozy little lives are disrupted by the harsh realities of hunger and pain and loneliness.

Maybe this Lenten season offers us pause, to untangle ourselves from the mess of our luxuries, to find beauty in the cruciform life.

Maybe we can begin by remembering and praying for the families of our 21 Egyptian brothers.

Milad Makeen Zaky, Abanub Ayad Atiya, Magned Solaiman Shehata, Yusuf Shukry Yunan, Kirollos Shokry Fawzy, Bishoy Astafanus Kamel, Somaily Astafanus Kamel, Malak Ibrahim Sinweet, Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros, Girgis Milad Sinweet, Mina Fayez Aziz, Hany Abdelmesih Salib, Bishoy Adel Khalaf, Samuel Alham Wilson, Worker from Awr village, Ezat Bishri Naseef, Loqa Nagaty, Gaber Munir Adly, Esam Badir Samir, Malak Farag Abram, Sameh Salah Faruq

Dear Daughter

Dear Daughter. You little thief. You've stolen my thoughts and all of my idle moments. You are constantly on my mind.

I find myself falling hard and fast in love with you, day by day, even though we've never met. I close my eyes and picture you often but I cannot see your face. I dreamt of you a few nights ago. We were playing peek-a-boo. You sat inside a tent, small to me, immeasurably large to you. I would peek inside and you would giggle and something I have no name for would flood my heart. I type this now, about a dream, and my eyes get teary, which all seems so silly but it's true and good and honest and I am overwhelmed, just completely overwhelmed. I have been smiling for days now, thinking of that dream. How you have done this to me, all from the warmth of your mother's womb, I do not know. But you have. And still, I cannot see your face.

You are an unending paradox. A stranger I know so well. Family, in the truest sense, that I don't know at all yet.

Many friends have told me that I will learn something profoundly new about God's fatherly love for us once I become a father myself. They're probably right but I haven't felt that just quite yet. What I have felt is something else. You, my child, have indeed taught me something about God. Like you, God is an unending paradox. A stranger I think I know so well. Family that I don't know at all sometimes. I picture God often but I cannot see his face. Yet, even veiled in his infinite mystery, God is so excruciatingly close, so incomprehensibly near. And I need him to be, especially now.

I am anxious and nervous and afraid because I don't know the first thing about being a good father to you. My father was not good to me. I have discovered in recent years that he did indeed love me. Daughter, sometimes I think about my father, your granddad, and I wish I would've known him and I wish he would've known me. But more than that now, I wish he would've known you. You would've wrapped him around one of your ten little fingers, which I've only seen in ultrasounds. I haven't met you yet and I barely knew him but I know your granddad would've been mesmerized by you. We are all mesmerized by you. Your mother, your grandparents, your aunt and your uncles.

When you arrive into this world, I will hold you. But I must tell you, my arms will be trembling. Though the doctors will tell me that you weigh just a few pounds and ounces, you will be as heavy as the heavens when I embrace you. So forgive me if I falter. Certainly, it will not be the last time. And yet, paradoxically, in my frail, unsteady arms, you will be safe. You will be safe because you will be loved beyond comprehension, as you are loved even now. Your mother and I are eager to meet you. Rest easy now, sweet girl. Save your strength. You have a beautiful life ahead.

With all the Love I can muster,


dear daughter

Advent & My Not-Yet-Already-Here Little Girl

I've never been any good at waiting. Patience is a virtue that's been lost on me. Maybe we can blame it on having spent my formative years as an only child, simple biology, or something else altogether, but regardless, I'm impatient to the core and can't stand much waiting. Yellow lights turning red just as I pull up, the cheats with 13 items in the 10-item limit express lane, the Department of Motor Vehicles - all of these things make my blood boil. I have issues, I know. I'm working them out, I really am. Today is December 23, 2014. Advent is coming to a close and Christmas morning is just around the corner. And Advent is all about waiting. It's this wonderfully counterintuitive season on the Christian church calendar when people all over the world focus their energies on slowing down, producing less, and being more. Advent is a stalling of the clock. In some inexplicable way, Advent renders space and time moot, even if for just a little while. It's a season in which we surrender ourselves to the waiting; we don't just tolerate it or deal with it - we immerse ourselves in it. We immerse ourselves in it because the waiting itself holds a gift, a promise, and a mystery. The gift is that Christ has come. The promise is that Christ will come again. But the mystery is what has always captivated me. The mystery is that Christ is somehow, someway, here with us even now, in this very moment, on the near side of our waiting. That which we wait for is already here.


This year's Advent is different for me. It's much more personal and emotional and visceral and all sorts of other things. In April, my wife and I are expecting the arrival of our first child, a baby girl. Everything about this has changed everything about everything. My little girl is not quite here yet and already she's taken up residence in my head and in my heart in ways that no one ever has before. She occupies my dreams, both sleeping and awake. Without saying a word, she's won my affection. Without a single glance, she's charmed her way into my imagination. Sometimes I place my hand on Jenny's stomach and I can feel my daughter kick and when she does I am amazed in ways I haven't been since I was closer to her age than to my own. I wonder about my child with childlike wonder.

We're waiting in a way we've never waited before. We've never anticipated and longed for an arrival quite like this. Never has expectation meant so much. New life breaking into this world, coming to change everything, coming to change us. A strange thing has happened. My unborn daughter has gifted me with a brand new sense of eternity, that when we are gone, something of us will continue on in her. Already, from the womb, she is kicking down the doors of death and reminding us of the forever that awaits. Maybe this is because she's from a place we all knew once, when God formed and knit us before we were in our own mothers' wombs, when he took dirt and dust and breathed life into it so that we might live and breathe and have our being.

This is the gift Advent offers us. We are from a place we cannot possibly remember. We are headed to a place we cannot possibly imagine. But while we wait, the place we're from and place we're headed have come crashing into the place where we reside now. The gift, the promise, the mystery. Every time new life enters this world, it whispers this great truth. Jesus has come. Jesus is coming again. Jesus is with us even now.


Pho & Mouthwash: Gratitude By The Numbers

Tomorrow we'll feast. It comes easy, doesn't it? All the eating, all the gluttonous intake? It's pleasure and pain beautifully wrapped up in one another like bacon and asparagus, or something like that. Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie. In our home, there will be some Korean BBQ and shrimp kabobs mixed in for good measure. Yes, the feasting sure does come easy. But if you're anything like me, the actual giving thanks part of Thanksgiving can sometimes be a tad bit elusive. Life is busy, everything feels a mess, and it's hard to pay careful enough attention to really muster up some genuine gratitude. Jenny and I have been keeping tabs on our spending for the past few weeks, down to the very last penny. We're trying to get a picture of our spending habits and plan a little better for the future. But the experience has been eye opening in unexpected ways. It's usually easier for me to wax poetic about big grandiose ideas like gratitude and thankfulness. Typically, on a day like this, I'd attempt to scratch out a blog post about the spiritual importance of giving thanks, with some eloquence and gusto. But instead, I'm going to keep it simple. I'm going to list for you just about everything I've spent money on in the past five days.

$20 at Kaiser Hospital. I have a case of iritis, meaning that my left eye is inflamed. If left alone, iritis could actually lead to partial or even permanent blindness. But I have health insurance, so I pay $20, get some meds, and will be all better in a week or two.

$7.23 at Target. I bought some mouthwash and a bag of BBQ chips. I enjoy BBQ chips. But they can really funk up your breath. Hence, the mouthwash.

$5 at B2 Coffee. B2 is, in my opinion, one of the best coffee joints in our city. Hipster central but the coffee tastes delicious so I'm completely OK with it.

$1.09 at McDonald's. After dinner, I convinced Jenny to share a McDonald's ice cream with me. She didn't want to but eventually relented. I ended up eating the entire thing myself.

$8 at a parking garage in San Francisco. I went to the Noah Gundersen show at The Chapel in San Francisco with a friend of mine (I'd pre-purchased my ticket for $15). We drove around in search of street parking for about 30 minutes. We finally gave up and split the fare at a parking garage near the venue. The garage was actually full but the guy let us double park for some reason. Nicest parking garage attendant I've ever met.

$10 at a Pho place in San Francisco. Dinner before the Noah Gundersen show. My medium sized beef combination bowl was $8-something but I left a hefty $1-something tip.

$8 at The Chapel. Beer at the Noah Gundersen show. A decent IPA. Don't remember exactly what it was. Expectedly overpriced.

$2 at Target. I bought some breath mints. Yup, mouthwash and breath mints within a couple days of each other. What can I say? I like fresh breath.

$36.87 at Trader Joe's. Jenny and I bought some groceries.

$10.49 at Safeway. More groceries.

$21.47 at Sprouts. Aaaaaaand more groceries.

$36.28 at Target. I bought some Drano, windex, a floor sweeper, and hair product. Because my bathrooms, floors, windows, and hair should all look impeccable at all times, I guess.

$36.65 at Chevron. Gas, what else?

Just five days. November 21-25, 2014. This is my life. Pho and mouthwash. Concerts and groceries. Beer and hair product. I truly live in plenty and not in need. I'm grateful. Sure, our deepest gratitude should never be for the temporary luxuries we so readily enjoy. No, our deepest gratitude ought to be reserved for more meaningful things - faith, family, friendship, things like that. But sometimes the simple things are great reminders that gratitude should always be in our hearts and on our lips, for both the big things and the little ones. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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Dear Mark Driscoll

Dear Mark Driscoll. We don't know each other personally. We've never met. I read a part of a book you wrote once. I've watched a few of your sermons online. I've read articles and blog posts about you. You may never read this. And that's OK. But I'm compelled to write to you today.

I've been paying attention to how things have been unfolding at Mars Hill. I've watched from a safe distance, not close enough to really feel the pain and confusion of these difficult times. But I have a few friends who've been faithful members of the Mars Hill community for years. Like many others, they're hurting. While I cannot know the hurt they know in the same way they know it, I'm praying for and hurting with them. I'm not sure how helpful it is but it's what I have and it's honest.

Mark, over the years I've disagreed with you on a number of points. I've thought you to be belligerent and abrasive in both your approach and tone on a number of occasions. I assume you mostly meant well but you've clearly hurt some people along the way. Your own resignation letter makes clear that you are keenly aware of some of this - you specifically identify prideanger, and a domineering spirit. I'm grateful for you honesty. And I'm not here to spew more vitriol your way. You are already weathering an unbearable barrage, I'm sure.

Sadly, the deadliest arrows have been the ones hurled at you by us Christians, your very own tribe. I am writing you to admit to having launched some of these arrows myself. And for that I am truly sorry. Chances are, you and I will never really see eye to eye on a number of issues, theological and otherwise. But that's beside the point. Because really, the point isn't to see eye to eye but rather, to see through our differences to a deeper place where the unwavering presence of God resides within both of us. I've failed in that regard. I've made a caricature out of you. And any time one human being makes a caricature out of another human being, both parties become something a little less than human in the most Imago Dei way that God intends. I've participated in this dehumanizing work against you because I too am full of pride, anger, and a domineering spirit. Thanks for saying it out loud and forcing me to look in the mirror.

I don't know what your future looks like but I'm in total agreement with you that your journey is far from over. Jesus died and came back to life for the absolute worst of us. And the beauty of "the worst of us" is that it includes all of us. We're all screwed up, broken people in need of permanent repair. You're not alone. You never were. You never will be. I hope this season away from public ministry, however long it may be, is transformative and life changing for you and your family. I hope Jesus repairs, restores, and rejuvenates you in unimaginable ways. I believe he will. He's really good at it. 

As I think of you today, I am reminded of Paul's words in Colossians 3v11-14. So I will end with them, because they're more healing than anything I could possibly say. Grace and peace to you and your family, Mark.

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.