This Year – On Conviction, Confession, and Thanksgiving

I had a terrible New Year’s Eve this year. It was so bad, I completely forgot about the holiday until after it was over (perhaps I’ll celebrate Chinese New Year to make up for it?). That evening is a shining example of God’s faithfulness to me and my impatience in return.

For those of you that haven’t heard my story (how many of you are left?), I was on a flight bound for San Diego on New Year’s Eve, coming from Las Vegas. In a freak natural phenomenon, the San Diego Airport was fogged in, and though we tried a couple of times our plane could not land there. After a quick flight up to Ontario (about 114 miles away), a couple more hours “trapped” on Ontario’s tarmac, we were released into an airport that was closed for the New Year’s Eve holiday (at least the restaurants were). Eventually our flight was cancelled, and we waited for our airline to find a bus to drive us to San Diego. No problem, right? It was only 7:30pm on New Year’s Eve.

My parents, who live about ten minutes away, were out of town, as were my closest relatives. The rental car companies had no “one-way” cars left to rent (at least not without an exorbitant fee). I became tired and cranky and hungry and impatient and angry. All I could think about was being home. And the dollar signs it would take to get me there.

My lovely wife did her best to prevent a Derek meltdown, and talking to my family on the phone helped. Then the little miracles started arriving. My parents had an extra car at home available for us to drive, if we could get there and get in. I thankfully had a key to their house with me. My mom called a friend who was also willing to pick us up at the airport and drive us to my parent’s house. We were finally at home in bed by 11pm. Perhaps the most unexpected blessing; the airline sent vouchers to apologize for the situation (a situation they did not create, I might add. Props to Southwest Airlines).

It has been a few days since, and I am coming back to my senses. Time to think through the inevitable New Year’s Resolutions. What did I resolve to do last year? Oh yeah – this blog! This year brought many unexpected twists and turns, most notably my wife’s long job search, my sudden immersion in novel writing, and the progressive dissatisfaction with where I am at. What could this New Year bring?

Let’s begin with conviction. I guess I can’t resolve to be more convicted, but I find this basic of element of my Christian life wanting. Instead I  listen to the voice stoking my own ego. No where is it more clear than in marriage, where my every move affects another person. While a pithy “pray more” or “read the Bible more” suffices for many on this category, they don’t work for me. Within this man is a battle of wills; the will of God versus the will of Derek. And the will of Derek likes to keep Derek distracted – dangling carrots like acceptance, success, and self-indulgence with a hint of immediacy so that I have no desire to do anything that does not suit me. When a plane flight re-routing is needed to wake me up again, I realize I need to look in the mirror more often. Then I can see the ugly stuff; I use food to make me feel better, I crave approval any way I can get it, I drive myself mad with perfectionism, and I make myself feel like a failure for not being successful enough. The Holy Spirit opens my eyes to the people and places around me in funny ways, reminding me that I need to be dependant on God for all things, and that in God I have nothing to worry about. I thank God for conviction, though I equally hate it. I feel like a little kid that tries too hard, only to realize that I don’t get it, and then to further realize that not getting it is a good and beautiful thing.

How about confession? I suck at confession. Sometimes I wish I were Catholic so that I would have a “safe” person to tell everything to. I know that is ridiculous. I also know that I can say anything to God. But I suck at confession because I fight repentance. I don’t want to do the hard things. And my community often does not want to do the hard things, either. They would rather hear me out and try to make me feel better. Perhaps the only way to resolve this issue is to choose to serve those most in need – to do hard things empowered and emboldened by God – and to let the confessions flow out of humility rather than pride. I bet drug addicts would have a thing or two to tell me about pornography and my thought-life. I bet foster kids wouldn’t hesitate to highlight my innate selfishness. And (thankfully) my wife helps me to see when I am too into me. Can I resolve to put my confessions into actions?

I was recently challenged to “fall back in love” with God. When I heard those words, I recalled the afternoons I would spend on a park bench next to a pond, watching the sunlight filter through the leaves overhead while sketching praises to God. Or whole days I would take to climb a mountain alone and talk to Jesus as if he were there with me, walking alongside me. Or those mornings I would run off with a journal and would ask questions – hard questions – because I was hungry to know. How incredibly thankful I am to have those memories. But why are they memories?

I forget who God is when I am no longer thankful; when I don’t acknowledge his presence in my daily activities. When I realize who God is, I am drawn in – and I fall more in love. Can I therefore resolve to run away with God – to be alone with Him and see what happens, even when I am surrounded with people?.

I want to be entangled with God. Isn’t that what love looks like?

I fell in love with my wife, and we are married and practically inseparable. I love having her around, knowing that I am called to serve and honor her far more than myself, and yet redeemed and valued through our relationship. I want to be like that with Jesus. It isn’t that I want to wear a big Jesus t-shirt or to make my faith a talking point with everyone I meet, but I want to be united to God in a more indelible way. Can I acknowledge that Jesus is there with me always and be madly in love with him? The fear of becoming completely irrelevant, or worse yet, self-righteous, translates into a life of compartments with so little romance. I want God in the now, even in those moments I am convicted and confessing, when I feel guilty or impatient or hungry, when I am doing completely “ungodly” things. To heck with the formalities. I want each step to be a fragrant praise.

I know, my resolutions are impossible.

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

What are you thinking about for this New Year? What resolutions have you made?

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Guest Blog Post: How I Became a Christian Again, Part 1

Thanks again to my wonderful wife for telling more of her story!

I didn’t go to church for 14 months – not a single Sunday, not even Easter or Christmas Eve. I was living in South Korea at the time, so it was easy to let the barrier of a foreign language justify my perpetual absence. But the truth was that I liked the convenience of that excuse; it could not explain the fact that I  never read the Bible or earnestly prayed to God in those 14 months. I had stopped doing all those Christian things two years before I moved to Korea, when I graduated college.
If I had to pinpoint a single thing that sparked my path away from faith, it would be my grandpa’s sudden death at the end of my sophomore year of college. But to that tragic experience was quickly added my parents’ separation and eventual divorce, and a rich and challenging semester abroad. Upon my return to the idyllic, meticulously-landscaped, brick-building filled campus of my Christian college, I felt as if everything about me had changed, other than the shared faith of my roommates, classmates, and professors.
I had tough, complex questions about God and faith that I wanted to ask, to see if others shared my doubts. Had they faced similar challenges to their beliefs, could they relate with my spiritual pain? But I felt I never got real answers back. Instead, I quickly grew frustrated at the cliched, nicely packaged, quip-py Christian answers to the tough, complex questions I had about God and faith. A few years later, when I watched the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie, I found I identified with Harry. There is a scene where he returns to Hogwarts and is now able to see thestrals, magical creatures only visible to those who have witnessed death. Harry is surprised to see the thestrals, especially after learning that the creatures had always been a part of Hogwarts. He was also saddened to realize that his friends were blind to them because they have not seen death yet. I too had felt that same sense of isolation; that the ugliness of life was still unknown to many of my friends in college, and therefore they couldn’t grasp the damage it was doing to my faith.
And so I started to distance myself from other Christians. I stopped asking questions because I was never satisfied with the answers I received. I began noticing other things as well – how Christians treated each other in ways they were supposed to as Christians, not because they were motivated out of love. The safety of a Christian environment led to a complacency of faith. I wanted to slap my fellow students in the face and scream, “This isn’t real. Just because you believe in God does not mean everything is okay.” The charm of my Christian college and its inviting, warm, and holy Christian atmosphere was quickly disappearing, and the strength of my faith with it.
Despite my disillusionment with the Christians and the churches around me, I never stopped believing in God. I became somewhat proud of this development of my faith. Sure, there was a God, but He wasn’t active in my life and that was alright. This kind of faith was more rational and less emotional, and I liked it that way. Besides, it was the emotional people, the ones who would cry while singing in church or the ones who would gush about all the wonderful things God was doing in their lives that irritated me the most. Why did I never hear God calling to me? Why did God not answer my prayers? Clearly, God did call to other people and did answer the prayers of other people. It must be me, I concluded. Those people have a different kind of faith than me. That’s okay, I thought. I tried to have that kind of faith, but it just didn’t work out for me.
And so I lived with that faith – the bare bones, fully stripped down to almost nothing kind of faith – for over three years. I’ll be honest, for good chunks of that time, life was good. My world didn’t come crashing down on me when I stopped going to church. I didn’t start taking drugs or drinking all day when I stopped reading the Bible and praying. The non-Christians I worked with and became friends with after college were great people. I felt accepted by them in ways I hadn’t by my Christian peers. Even more importantly, these people acted real, without the pretense of “I should/should not do this just because I’m a Christian.”
Yet there were times when I’d find myself thinking about my Christian friends, especially the one’s whose faith I had once admired. How could they believe in God so strongly? Why couldn’t I? Was there something different about them or something special they did? And I would wonder about God and His involvement in my life and if He still personally cared about me or not. Because there had been times in my life when I had reveled in my intimacy with God and I had wanted to keep singing praises long past the last guitar chord had faded into the walls. Why were things so different now? Had I been playing a game with my faith way back then? Had I been fooled by God into naively believing in Him or had I fooled myself into believing that what I had experienced was really God?
But life wasn’t always perfect and occasionally during the more vexing moments, I would try to pray, but quickly halt in the confusion of whether God was listening or concerned about my desperate pleas. And I would debate whether I could ever have a strong faith again because, if my previous faith had been true, what did I do to lose it? And if I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong, then how could I ever try to build a true and strong faith again?
See, I was confident of one thing – if I was going to turn back to God and faith, I needed to have a faith that would last the rest of my life. There was a tumultuous unsettling in my soul that knew my sliver of faith wasn’t sustainable, especially when I returned to the US. The decision was looming as I crossed off the days on my desktop calendar – either abandon all belief and faith in God or commit to a new faith, no matter what had happened in the past and what would happen in the future.
Looking back, it was probably a decision I should have prayed about. Instead as I packed my suitcases and cleaned my square box of an apartment, I listened to my gut. My gut was urging me towards God, one small step at a time, no matter how many steps or how slow my heart moved.