O Pioneers: Kingdom Outposts in Dark Places

I never thought of myself as a pioneer girl, but upon moving to the West Coast from the Southeast, I began reading the literature of the West. Wallace Stegner, John Steinbeck, and Willa Cather became my companions and guides into the pioneering experience of settling in the West. As a literature-nerd, I did not think anything of my sudden affinity for pioneers; however, now that we are almost two years into church planting on the West Coast, I am beginning to connect the dots. 

As we were sharing our vision for church planting in our neighborhood of California with friends, I found myself using words like kingdom outposts and homesteads. Even though Southern California has an elaborate and efficient set of highways, spiritually-speaking it feels more like the uncharted lands I had been reading about in the novels of the early settling beyond the established East. The spiritual ground in post-Christian California feels overwhelmingly hard and untilled. Abandoned, broken tools from past attempts are littered all throughout our city. People have left en masse in the past few years, longing for lower costs of living and greater political and spiritual alignment. It is hard to do ministry and raise a family centered upon Christ out here. Our spiritual climate eerily mirrors our physical climate: drought-stricken, dry, and brown. The same realities that initially compel many to come became the realities that send many packing their bags to head home. 

In her classic novel, O Pioneers!, Will Cather captures the opportunity and crushing openness that come with uncharted areas: 

“The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings.” 

Pioneering (or re-pioneering) the gospel in hard spiritual climates requires a different perspective and a different set of tools than ministering in places with an existing gospel footprint.

Outposts aren’t fancy, but they are functional 

In Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose, the reader follows historian Lyman Ward’s tracing of his family’s arduous, circuitous journey as westward pioneers. Lyman’s mother who came from an old-money established family on the East Coat found herself following her husband to rustic, one-room cabins in mining towns. The pioneering adventure forced her to pare down her accoutrements to the bare minimum. After some adjusting, she began to embrace her minimalistic life on the fringes of society. 

Those seeking to pioneer the gospel in spiritually-dark or ignored places could take a note or two from the pages of pioneering books. Early on in the church planting process, we realized that we were stepping away from well-oiled programs and bells and whistles. Sometimes I miss them, but we are focusing on functioning and existing as a kingdom outpost. To merely remain in such hostile or hard places is victory. To compare our little kingdom outpost to a more established church in a more suitable spiritual climate is an unfair task. 

Our power points are often a few second delayed. Our music set up leaves much to be desired. We borrow spaces and tents and chairs. But we are here, and God is moving. Maybe a few generations from now, more established spiritual footprints will enable more elaborate schemes. For now, we celebrate the slow and steady growth God enables. 

Pioneers link arms locally 

Pioneers, different though they may be, link arms and share tools. The harsh landscape and the cutting winds erodes away differences that divide and propel pioneers toward deepening partnership. They offer tools and tricks of the trade that are nuanced to their shared soil. They show up at one another’s places ready to lend a hand and sweat beside each other. For us, this has looked like linking up with other church planting families to provide a tribe of other like-minded families for our children. Many of us left biological families and support systems when we came to plant on the West Coast. We are learning to fill that gap with one another. We combine resources and collaborate on youth and outreach events. We don’t have energy or time to waste on competition. We collaborate to survive and seek to help build pathways toward thriving. 

Pioneers Know Their Need and their Supplier

Though the needs are many and obvious, so are the provisions and celebrations. The God who sent his Son to seek and save that which is lost, the one who leaves the ninety-nine to fetch the one, the one who sent emissaries out to the byways with an incredible invitation —he delights in pioneering work (Luke 19:10; Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 14:23). 

In the words of J.A. Vaughan, “Man’s impotence invites and gives scope for the opportunity to display God’s omnipotence….God is strong for us just in proportion as we are helpless.” The very nature of a hard spiritual climate provides the backdrop on which God’s power and provision stand out in all their glory. 

Above all things, pioneers are a people who feed on hope. And, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25). 

Resurrection (The Happiest Handkerchief)

As we approach Easter in the wake of yet another school shooting, it does not take much imagination for us to join the 11 disciples and the throngs of faithful women in their heaviness, powerlessness, confusion, and fear at the death of Christ.

As we read John’s account of the Resurrection this morning, the grave clothes stood out to me. The joy of Jesus unfurling the linens that had been wrapped about his mangled body by the hands of weeping loved ones captured my imagination. He knew they would never weep the same kind of hopeless tears again. While they would weep and grieve, as he had promised they would, they would do so under the light of the living hope that rose with him.

Because His body which was literally crushed on the cross for our sin took conquering steps out of the tomb, death cannot crush us, not even in a pandemic. We dry our tears in  the linens he left in the tomb!

Now we can say in our grief and confusion with the Apostle Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

We are not destroyed by death because Jesus destroyed death in His rising, infusing grief with a surpassing glory.

This morning I discovered a short poem by George Herbert which I have somehow missed in my reading before. What a timely gift from God to me! A special little Easter surprise that lifted my soul, as I hope it does yours.


From The Dawning, by George Herbert

Awake sad heart, whom sorrow ever drowns;
    Take up thine eyes, which feed on earth; 
Unfold thy forehead gather’d into frowns;
    Thy Savior comes, and with him mirth:
                  Awake, awake;….

                 Arise, arise; 
And with his burial linen dry thine eyes:
     Christ left his graveclothes, that we might, when grief
     Draws tears, or blood, not want an handkerchief.

That we can now dry our tears with God’s loosed grave clothes is such good news. It is the news that every human heart hungers to hear always, but especially in a season when death is dealing heavy blows globally.

In the Resurrection of Christ we have been given gospel hope and the happiest handkerchief. He is risen, indeed! Dry your eyes with his linens this morning! Death has not won; life in God has the last word!

Though we still live in the already / not yet of the kingdom of God, though we still live in the valley of tears, Christ’s resurrection provides the hope and the handkerchief we need to live until the days when tears will be no more.

The Cake That Cost Me

Even though the mix and the icing cost less than $10, my son and I made a costly cake today. It cost him humility and responsibility; it cost me sacrificial love and forgiveness.

Over the years as a family, we have learned about breaches and repairs, connection and correction. We know that we will not love each other perfectly, but we do seek to love each other well. Even with all that knowledge, we hurt one another. I am surprised how much those hurts smart.

More than a wound from a friend or a congregant, wounds in our family sting, less from lack of love and more from excess of love. Breaches with those whom we work the hardest at loving, for whom sacrifice the most, and with whom we spend the bulk of our time sting more. From a rational standpoint this makes sense: vulnerability is proportional to strength of love.

This family thing is both sensitive and strong. And I am so thankful it is both.

Today, some big feelings were felt. Some unintentionally hurtful words were said. Space was given. Repair was needed. But today, I needed my Redeemer to help me with the repair. He was so gracious to remind me of a few things that I know in my head but needed to be reminded in my heart.

Souls Don’t Open Up on a Schedule

I am continually shocked at the timetable of souls. We don’t get notices alerting us of construction in the human heart. We give ample space for connection in our home. We try really hard to be intentional with family meals, solo times with each kid, adventures, and check-ins. It’s easy to slip into a version of the parenting prosperity gospel (if we do these things well, our children won’t experience pain rather than we do these things to provide space for our children to process the pain they are promised in this life). But souls don’t always crack during the allotted crevices of time. In fact, they very rarely do. Those times do provide the security of relationship which fosters a home where fissures and fractures are free to show themselves.

Souls need space to surface. And presenting emotions are usually not the source. Deep-watered souls require time for deep-water exploration (Prov. 20:5). These things cannot be rushed; thus things must be cancelled, schedules rearranged.

After an initial sense of being inconvenienced and the annoyance that hurts surface when I am most fatigued, God was so gracious to remind me that fractures are really invitations for deeper fusion.

Seeming Inconveniences are Subtle Invitations

This was not how I imagined our Saturday going. It was such a long week, I was hoping for some peaceful alone time. These were my initial thoughts. But God was not surprised by our Saturday. In fact, he had even prepared me through a few simple phrases that jumped out at me in my prayer book: Lord, make “able to love, strong to suffer, steady to persevere.” I’ve been praying these words multiple times a day for most of the week. And God graciously set up an opportunity for me to practice them today.

I think of Christ and the hemorrhaging woman. Every one else was put off by Jesus’s stopping in the midst of the crowd. Jairus’s daughter needed healing, and time was of the essence. But Jesus had another daughter to see to, one whom wasn’t even aware she was a delighted in daughter yet (Luke 8:43-48). Love lets itself be “inconvenienced.” Love will take detours to help the one in whom it delights.

Love Absorbs, but it Still Addresses

I have learned so much from the reunion of Jesus and Peter on the shores of Galilee. Peter was more overcome with joy at seeing Jesus than he was initially impeded by the guilt he carried over denying him three times. Thus, in his particularly dramatic fashion, he strips off his cloak, jumps in the water, and gives Jesus a wet welcome!

Jesus intentionally prepares a fish breakfast over a charcoal fire (which was a subtle recreation of the scene in which Peter denied him). Even though Jesus’s agape love has absorbed Peter’s failure, he still addresses it with him. He does Peter the favor of not pretending that something had not happened. A relational breach had occurred. This was not for Jesus’s sake; it was for the good of Peter. Three times in love, Jesus went there, offering Peter a chance to completely own and be forgiven of his three-fold failure (John 21: 9-19).

Peter needed to see the care in Christ’s eyes. He also needed to see the kind of love that absorbed the real relational costs he created. Such an eye-to-eye, face-to-face encounter transformed him.

Jesus was torn that I might have the ability to repair with my children. Through him, I have access to costly forgiveness, agape love that absorbs but still addresses, and love that makes itself vulnerable.

That cake we made today? It was costly. But it was nothing compared to the cross. In fact, in little moments like these, I am able to act out for my children (and reinforce for myself) the glories of the gospel. The Apostle Paul calls it filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ (Col. 1:24). Today, for us, it looked like processing over tears, taking our tired, beat-up souls to the grocery store together, and baking a cake as an act of redemptive repair.

Loving these children is changing me. It presses me into the One who loves perfectly. It invites me into his pain. It also invites me his absolute joy of repair and reconnection.

Addendum: we ate the costly cake tonight together as a family. The cake was scrumptious. The look on my son’s face as we enjoyed it together was far better!

Was Ever Joy Like Mine?

Traditions are funny. Often, whenever I try to force their creation, they fight back at me; however, sometimes, when I am not even trying to create one, it just happens.

This is exactly how my yearly reading of George Herbert’s lengthy yet poignant poem “The Sacrifice” came about. I read it once and then found myself reading it again as Easter approached. Now it’s my own poetry tradition!

As Spring shows her glad face and Easter approaches, I look forward to its familiar lines and my notes scribbled in the many margins. The depth contained in such tight stanzas still shocks me afresh every time. The repeated line in each stanza, “Was ever grief like mine?” continually invites the reader into the agony Christ endured to offer us access back to His agape love.

Here are a few of my favorites:

“Oh all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, but only me:
Was ever grief like mine?…

Betwixt two thieves I spend my utmost breath,
As he that for some robbery suffereth.
Alas! What have I stolen from you: death:
Was ever grief like mine?”

After reading it last night, I found myself feeling stuck in the heaviness of the reality of the Cross and the cost that Christ paid for my redemption. I whispered to Jesus, “I am so sorry.” And he seemed to reply, “I’m not.”

Christ, who was once in agony, is now in ecstasy. His grief has been turned to joy. Redemption is accomplished. Christ resurrected. His children are coming to His embrace. These realities led me to want to write an accompanying poem to be paired with Herbert’s “The Sacrifice.”

The Relief

I heard her sobbing, shaking with grief,
She who from demons had found relief,
“I’m no gardener; I’m death’s chief!”
Was ever joy like mine?

I felt desperate hands clutching me in fear,
Shocked to see Rabboni again so near,
“Don’t cling; go call the others, my dear!”
Was ever joy like mine?

I found them locked in an upper room,
Huddled in confusion, mixing hope with gloom,
“Locked doors are no matter; let’s resume!”
Was ever joy like mine?

My tender Thomas was not within
Yet I heard his doubts, the honest Twin.
I offered my hands his heart to win.
Was ever joy like mine?

Walking at daybreak on a familiar shore,
Peter fled the boat like the time before.
Being led by an impulse he couldn’t ignore.
Was ever joy like mine?

I embraced him in a wet and welcome hug,
But his three offenses at his heart did tug.
Thrice I forgave what he struggled to shrug.
Was ever joy like mine?

We breakfasted over a charcoal fire,
A second chance to do his heart’s desire.
A shepherd’s calling he did acquire.
Was ever joy like mine?

I watched him shed a thousand pounds,
As I swallowed up the failure that hounds.
I welcomed him into grace that abounds.
Was ever joy like mine?

Forty glorious days with my friends,
Speaking of the kingdom that now extends,
Offering them living hope that transcends.
Was ever joy like mine?

I spoke of the Helper I promised to send,
The One who’d be with them until the end;
No better comfort could I recommend.
Was ever joy like mine?

With the Father, I watched from on high
As the Promised Spirit to them drew nigh,
And as they learned how on Him to rely!
Was ever joy like mine?

At the Father’s right hand, I still intercede;
For each of my children I gladly plead
Until with me, they will feel no need!
Was ever joy like mine?

What manner of love is this would walk through agony to gladly invite us into the agape love of the Trinity? Was ever a joy like ours?

Followers, Not Admirers

We are approaching Easter weekend. Outside of Christmas, these days commemorating the death and resurrection are among the most approachable and accessible to the watching world.

For at least a few days, even those who would not consider themselves devout slow down to admire Jesus. While this is a beautiful access point, it was never Jesus’s end goal in going to the Cross. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard, Jesus does not want admirers, he wants followers.

Born & Bored on the Same Day

People love a show; we always have. I remember being a little girl and watching the circus train arrive in our small town on the Jersey Shore. We would watch them unload the animals and scatter hay all over the muddy, trodden grounds. There was such a sense of eager anticipation that I thought my tiny heart would burst.

Entirely too much candy and popcorn would be consumed. There would be a few minutes of wonder. And then, we would head home and promptly forget about it for a calendar year.

Annie Dillard notices a similar tendency in the human heart in her book Teaching A Stone to Talk. She describes the crowds of people she joined to watch a full solar eclipse on Mount Adams. She remembers the screams of wonder, shock, and delight as the sun went dark. As shocking as it was to experience something so other-worldly together, she was equally shocked at how quickly everyone moved on:

“I remember now: we all hurried away. We were born and bored at a stroke. We rushed down the hill. We found our car; we saw the other people streaming down the hillsides; we joined the highway traffic and drove away.”

I fear that my heart often responds the same to the events of Easter each year: the build up, the anticipation, the emotion, the wonder, the disassembling and moving on.

We dress up; we prepare an extra full worship band; we up our signage game. Then we move on as admirers rather than pick up our crosses as followers. We are tempted to treat the resurrection of Christ as a day worth noting rather than the revolutionary day that it is. This day we remember, this day when a dead Savior breathed again, conquering death, this day demands a lifelong response not a check box on a response card.

Followers vs. Admirers

Pastor/poet George Herbert captures this conundrum we face at Easter so well in his poem “Easter (II)” :

“Can there be any day but this, 
Though many suns to shine endeavor?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.”

An admirer says this day is significant and moves on. A follower says there is no day but this. According to Kierkegaard, “An admirer…keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him.” He goes on to say the following convicting words about admirers of Christ:

“The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in word he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, will not reconstruct his life, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so the follower. No, No. The follower aspires with all his strength to be what he admires.”

I long to be a follower, not a mere admirer. I don’t want to be born and bored on the same day. I want to be born and bored through by the reality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

In the words of the Apostle Paul, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinth. 15:19-20).

The right response to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is to hidden in life, death, and resurrection:

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live now in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Access Goes Both Ways: Thoughts on Triune Love

I have an admission and accompanying apology to make.

I am that girl that has to be reminded to respond to an invitation. And I don’t mean one or two reminders. Evite and Paperless post need to stalk me via text and email multiple times before I reply. I think I have a mild allergy to calendaring and date-remembering.

One invitation won’t do for a girl like me who is so easily distracted by all the daily demands. What is true for small invitations like baby showers and birthday parties is also true for invitations from God.

Unfortunately, God has to send me multiple push notifications before I begin to pay attention to the invitations he is continually extending to me. Fortunately, God is the most gracious host. He patiently pursues me and points me back to the invitation at hand until I finally respond.

The Love Within the Trinity

God has been inviting me for a few months to come and check out the love that exists within the Trinity. He has been using the poetry of St. John of the Cross and the conversations between Jesus and his friends (the Upper Room discourse) and Jesus and his Father (the high priestly prayer of John 17) to show me a fullness of love I could never have imagined. The little flecks of Triune love that I have glimpsed show all the best human love to be flat and fickle in comparison.

Even as he is facing the imminent cross, Jesus is still able to bask in Triune love:

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him…I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17: 1-5).

Jesus left this fullness to come and make a way for us to be invited back into it! St. John of the Cross poetically captures this love in his poem “Of the Incarnation” :

“I have no will but yours,
the son to the father replied.
My glory is all in this:
I do, and you decide…

I go to be close to the bride
and to take on my back (for it’s strong)
the weight of the wearisome toil
that bent the poor back for so long.

To make certain-sure of her life
I’ll manfully die in her place,
and drawing her safe from the pit
present her alive to your face.”

In the Upper Room discourse, Jesus says something astounding to his disciples:

“If anyone love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

I’ve had to reread it multiple times in the past few weeks to believe it. Jesus told his disciples that the Trinity would come and make its home in them. Do you hear that mutuality?

As St. John of the Cross so poetically captured, Jesus died to make a way for us to have access to the love of the Trinity (from which and for which we were made and from which we were severed by our sin). But he also said that the Trinity wanted access to our hearts and lives.

Mutuality of Invitation

Jesus’s stance towards those who trust in his life, death, and resurrection is invitation. He invites us back into the Trinitarian love for which and from which we were born. The Apostle Paul lived in a state of wonder at these unbelievable invitations: Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27) and our lives hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3: 3-4).

But the Triune God also wants to make his home in us. As C.S.Lewis so beautifully writes in The Screwtape Letters, “He cannot ravish; he can only woo.” He waits for invitations into deeper parts of our hearts and lives. As Os Guinness writes in The Allure of Gentleness, “The human will is perhaps the one thing in the universe, because it is so precious and important, that God respects ultimately.”

The more God invites me to gaze into the beauty of the Trinity, mysterious as it is, the more I am sensing his patient presence in my own heart. I sense him eagerly waiting to be given access to more of me: my thoughts, my hidden shame and fears, my time, my tears, talents, time, and treasures.

I don’t think I realized until recently that I have been keeping the fullness of the Trinity cramped in the hallway of my soul. Such a large love needs full access to every nook and cranny of my life and heart. Letting such a large love and such an exposing light into areas of darkness seems scary until I realize that it is both opportunity and invitation. As long as the Trinity is crammed into a hallway, the life coming out of my life will be muddled, at best. But when God has access to all of me, his light will shine more brightly for his glory.

“If your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light” (Luke 11:35-36).

What an incredible invitation God constantly extends to us. May we respond in humility, awe, and obedience!

A Poem from Despair to Hope: T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”

I was introduced to T. S. Eliot in high school through a short excerpt in our required anthology. I think everyone else hated the entire unit, but I was hooked. The timing could not have been anything but divine. I had recently come to faith in Christ and was processing my sudden, unexpected, still-shocking-to-myself conversion. I started reading everything I could by him and was completely captured by his “Four Quartets.” He was writing in poetic verse what I had been experiencing but unable to voice.

Many decades later, I still find great solace in Eliot’s poetry. Every year on Ash Wednesday while others are getting ashes on their head, I am drawn to reread his poem, “Ash Wednesday,” written back in 1930. The first reading always leaves me befuddled. The second is the same. By the third, I start catching glimpses of the beauty contained therein.

Despair & Emptiness

If ever there were a poet for our despairing, God-haunted time, T.S. Eliot would be the man. With an entire generation, he saw the empty promises of progress theory go up in the trench smoke of World War I. It seems that soldiers were not the only ones to experience shell-shock; rather, an entire culture stared blankly at what was left after such a chilling experience.

“Ash Wednesday” is structured in six sections, moving from utter despair to the beginnings of hope.

Towards the end of the first section, Eliot writes:

“I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice.”

He has renounced the faith, yet that leaves him nothing upon which to stand. Even when he wants to rejoice, he has to build something upon which to rejoice. This is our modern age which is marked by so much talk of hope and unity and progress but has no foundation upon which to build upon.

We have been reduced to sending positive vibes to people, hoping in our weak words to manifest realities. We speak of endless possibility but are utterly swimming in inadequacies. We scream about heights but are barely treading water in the seas of our shame.

If Eliot and some of his post-first-world-war cronies could find faith, I find such great hope for our generation. Having been raised in a vacuum of truth and having beed fed a steady diet of self-help, our generation is poised to hunger for the solid truth of a Sovereign God.

Hope of Fullness

By the third section of the poem, we feel a subtle shift. The poet has not only named the Lord but called out for His word:

“Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
But speak the word only.”

In section five, the poet plays with the logos of John 1. He realizes that even if we refuse to hear him, the Word of God remains and speaks:

“Where shall the word be found, where the Word
Resound? Noe here, there is not enough silence…
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk
Among noise and deny the voice.”

By the end of the sixth section, the poet has moved toward hope, believing that God will hear his cry. He has moved from separation from God to vocalizing a desire to never be separated from him again.

“Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will….
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto thee.”

God is not far off from those who feel far off from Him (Isaiah 43: 6-7). Though he dwells in a high and holy place, he also domiciles with those who are lowly and contrite (Isaiah 57:15). The same Word of God which spoke creation into existence can re-create souls who seek him. He is full of grace and truth (John 1:14). God came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

These are the truths that an entire generation needs to hear. Isolated, empty, and failed by self-help, the coming generations are primed to hear the truth that changed T.S. Eliot and still changes the despairing today.

The stage is set. It is time to speak.

On Finishing Strong: A Tribute to Dick and Liz Kaufmann

I wrote this many years ago, but every word still rings true. I have many heroes in the faith, but most of them I’ve met in books. Not so with Dick and Liz.  While people were debating complementarian and egalitarian theology, these two were living and breathing gospel partnership in a way that still compels me. I love the way Dick would sit back at parties and let Liz be Liz.  I loved the twinkle in his eye as he watched her artsy self work to the room! I love this couple deeply and hope that I can point others to the glories of the gospel one tenth of the way they did!

Paul strikes me as the kind of guy who woke up in night sweats from intense dreams. I imagine that as Paul continued to change,  the subject of said supposed dreams changed as well.

I imagine him, when he was still living out of his perfectionistic and performance mentality, waking up fearing failure and exposure of weakness before the Pharisaical leaders. Then I imagine him sitting bolt upright in bed after having detailed flashbacks about his life of persecution of the Church that he grew to love and serve.

I imagine that towards the end of his life, his nightmares moved to fears of not finishing well the life that his dramatic Damascus encounter with Christ began.

While the nightmares of Paul are conjectures, it is known fact that Paul was deeply concerned with finishing well, with completing to the end the course that God had so clearly and deliberately given to him.

But I do not count my life of any value nor as precious to myself, I only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24. 

Lately I have been reading 2 Timothy and fighting to read it imaginatively as the letter it was in truth: the last letter of a dying man to his protege and son in the faith.

As I read over Paul’s constant and stirring urgings to timid Timothy to take courage and steadily stay the course marked out for him as a young pastor and the one to whom Paul was passing on the kingdom baton, they came to life.

One can feel the waves of relief radiating out from this personal and poignant letter. Paul, by God’s sustaining grace, had reached the end faithfully. He had done it. His worst fears of not finishing faithfully were assuaged.

As for me, I feel that the last drops of my life are being poured out for God. The time for my departure has arrived. The glorious fight that God gave me I have fought, the course that I was set I have finished, and I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:6-7 (JB Phillips translation).

While I am so thankful that Paul’s finishing well is recorded in the Canon of Scripture, I am also grateful that we have living examples of Pauls all around us, those running well to the end the course that has been marked out by them.

As I was reading 2 Timothy, I could not help but think immediately of a pair of heroes of the faith that I am privileged to know, even if only on the out skirts.

Dick and Liz Kaufman have not yet finished their race, but they have recently turned the corner into a new stretch. Our church, Redeemer Encinitas, recently declared Dick Pastor Emeritus.

On a double date with them over Christmas break, we inquired what in the world this actually meant. In a very typical Kaufman response, Liz told us through a huge grin, “I think it means something about your toes being close to the grave.”

While their toes are not as close to the grave as their joke made it sound, it was such a joy to celebrate the way they faithfully finished their official ministry course so well. In a world and a culture that love to talk big and start strong, Dick and Liz, by the grace of God and through great discipline in community, have maintained a steady pace over decades of ministry.

If you ask them questions (which you would be a fool not to do if you are ever with these treasures of experience and grace), you will likely watch as their brains run through a verifiable Roladex of stories of God’s faithfulness. Their ministry lives were not lived in ivory towers of ideas but in the mess of real life with real people.

Paul prodded Timothy to stay the steady course, “to preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2).

When I sit across from Dick and Liz or watch them from across the room, I see ordinary people who have done just that. It is an added bonus that they did so with a joy and levity that are contagious.


If you ask them the secret to their long and successful ministries, from New York to California, they would say, “You just share the gospel.” They would share stories of trial and error attempts to gather the neighborhood to hear the gospel from pot lucks to kids camps. They would probably, through peels of laughter, tell you the story of the neighbor who came to faith and then hid a gospel tract in her husband’s sandwich where he would be unable to avoid reading it.

The thing about Dick and Liz that compels me most is that they are not done. They live in a high rise apartment right in the thick of downtown San Diego and they are still looking for “open doors, “ as they say, to share the gospel with neighbors.

They are goofy and down-to-earth but maintain a gospel urgency and centrality to their lives that begs others to get on board and join them. They have taken aging and degenerative diseases in stride by the power of the gospel. They are heroes to me and the countless others who have known them or know them now.

I wish you could know Dick and Liz, but I have a feeling that you have you have a couple like them in your area who are silos of stories of God’s faithfulness through ordinary people and an extraordinary gospel message. By God’s grace, they exist, and they have a wealth of knowledge and perspective to pass on to us. They probably look like an ordinary couple or a quiet widow(er).  If you don’t someone who is finishing strong, it is well worth your intentional pursuit.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings to closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Romans 12:1-2

Here’s to knowing and emulating those who are finishing strong.

Compassion Fatigue & Our Tireless God

Compassion fatigue is a newer term that describes a human’s limited capacity to exhibit compassion in comparison to the countless news stories and real life tragedies with which we are bombarded.

Before globalization which directly result of modern advances in technology, a human’s experience and relationships were bound by time and space. Whereas one’s borough, parish, township or neighborhood used to contain all the people and events that might require compassion and action, today, the limits have been stretched to potentially include the entire globe. No wonder compassion fatigue as a term was coined; after all, one human heart can only be pulled in so many directions and carry so many weights before sinking under an inhuman load.

In a digitally-flattened world, compassion fatigue has become an increasing reality. Due to isolation and increased relational and financial strain, our hearts are already eerily  close to capacity. Thus, there is only limited remaining space to process the rest of reality. An unthinkably high death count in Turkey and Syria, horrible acts of racism, children ravaged by starvation, sky-rocketing unemployment rates, and countless other realities compete for the limited amounts of compassion we have remaining.

As a mother, on a very small scale, I wrestle with the tension of having three very different sons with three very different sets of gifts, challenges, and opportunities to love.  While I mean it when I tell them, “There is a room in my heart just for you,” I also know that those rooms are small, cramped and insufficient to meet their needs, let alone the needs of others around me.


Compassion Fatigue in the Early Church

Long before the term was coined, compassion fatigue was a reality.  Even in the early church, long before i-phones pinged with updates of acts of terror and news of natural disasters, followers of Christ wrestled with a limited capacity for compassion and patience.

Living in a world that was increasingly unjust and unfair to those who proclaimed faith in the resurrected Christ, the early church was growing weary and impatient toward one another. They were wanting to take matters into their own hands or to prematurely  judge rather than patiently wait for the Lord whose return they were certain was imminent.

Closing out his letter to the church, James exhorts its members to endure unjust suffering, exercising patience towards one another and leaving room for God, the ultimate and final Judge, to execute a lasting justice in his second coming.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord…As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. James 5:7 & 10-11.

Pointing to Job who wrestled honestly but faithfully leaned into the Lord, James reminds his audience that God’s end game is clear even when his ways are dark and mysterious. They had heard of Job and by reading his story, they had seen that the ends of God’s ways are always marked by his merciful, compassionate character. James invites them beyond hearing and seeing into experiencing such a reality for themselves.

The Many-Chambered Heart of God

The incredibly good news is that our God does not experience compassion fatigue. If his heart were chambered (speaking anthropomorphically), it would be infinitely-chambered as compared to our measly four-chambered hearts.

James uses two unique words in verse 11. The first, polusplagchnos (translated compassionate above), is used only here in the entire New Testament. Literally translated, it means many-boweled. While that conjures strange images to our modern brains, we must understand that in the time of the early church, compassion was thought to come from the bowels (think of that feeling that we experience when we hear terrible news about someone we love). To say that God is many-boweled is like saying God has a many-chambered heart, capable of full and unending affection.

The second word, oiktirmón, translated merciful above, is only used in two places in the entire New Testament: here and twice in Luke 6. It literally means exhibiting visceral compassion, deep pity, and lament. It is a spirit of compassion so deep that the entire body is moved along with it.

While James could not predict the specific outcomes of the specific circumstances of his audience, he could whole-heartedly proclaim any and every outcome would issue forth from the many-chambered, infinitely-compassionate heart of God.

In a world stretched thin and wearied by compassion fatigue, believers can take solace and strength for continued compassion from the inexhaustible heart of God. When our hearts are crowded, we can empty them confidently at his feet and make space for a God-enabled compassion towards those around us.

Living in His Largesse

Largesse is not a word we use often. In fact, most of us have no clue that it means, “generosity in bestowing gifts upon others.” While the word is distant, it bears great relevance to the life of a Christ follower.


I was reintroduced to the word and its accompanying concept when I recently reread A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I probably read this book twelve times as a child, but the story struck me in different places as an adult.

Sara, a formerly doted-upon and beloved daughter now orphaned, fights to remember her identity even as she lives as a starving maid in a decrepit attic.

“If I was a princess – a real princess, ” she murmured, “I could scatter largess to the populace. But even if I am only a pretend princess, I can invent little things to do for people…I’ll pretend that to do things people like is like scattering largess. I’ve scattered largess.”

Sara lives faithfully scattering her largess despite her poverty. After she is adopted by a wealthy neighbor, she continues to show largess.

The Largesse of the Lord

Long before the 12th century when the word became popularly used, the Triune God has been living with largesse.

Creation itself is an incredible act of largesse, an overflow of the fullness of love and creativity within the three persons of the Trinity (Gen. 1:27-28).

God’s early act of sacrificing an animal to clothe our fig-laden forebears is an act of largesse (Gen. 3: 21).

God’s promise-pregnant initiation toward Abram who lived in a city of moon-worshippers was an act of largesse (Gen. 12: 1-3).

God’s continued covenant keeping toward a continually covenant-breaking people was largesse (Ex. 34: 6-9).

I could go on and on about the Lord’s acts of largesse, as his every interaction with his fallen humanity is an act of mercy. However, his largesse culminates in his lowering of himself to us in the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God emptied himself of the glory that enabled his largesse (John 17:1-2). He became a servant and did exactly what the little princess Sara Crews sought to do (Phil. 2: 1-11). He lived with largesse out of perfect obedience to the Father. Even when he was starving in the wilderness and being tempted by his Father’s sworn enemy, he responded as one who knew his true identity as the Son of God, the prince of peace (Luke 4).

God, the Father, showed largesse in sending God, the Son. God, the Son showed largesse in sending God, the Holy Spirit to be with us in the already/not yet of the kingdom of God (John 14: 15-21).

Learning to Live in His Largesse

I know these realities factually and theologically (clearly, I just spouted out a few examples). But I have still often lived like an orphaned pauper. I have forgotten that I have full access to the abundance of God (which is intended not to be hoarded selfishly but rather to shed abroad in smaller acts of largesse).

I am learning that I don’t look like the Lord in his tendencies towards largesse because I am wildly uncomfortable with receiving his largesse. It’s hard to let him hold my gaze. It’s exposing to sit under such a steady and powerful stream of love. It feels vulnerable to be delighted in without protective layers of self-justification or merit to shield me from the warmth of such love.

But he keeps pulling me in, gently and patiently. He keeps loving me an everlasting love, and such love is slowly shaping me. I am more aware of my entitlement which arrogantly sees his acts of largesse as a form of payment I think I have earned.I am more aware of the small little acts of largesse I used to not notice (a particularly beautiful flower, a sweet smile from one of my sons, a hawk soaring overhead).

Lately, I am blown away by this act of his largesse: he is helping me live in his largesse. And it is a spacious place, no matter how tightening or trying circumstances.