He was a young man full of life and passion for the things he loved: God, his family, his church, and his country. From early on in his life, Ben modeled a life of service and unselfishness. Driven by a strong, Christian faith, Ben constantly gave of his time and himself for the benefit of others. Ben made friends wherever he went and seemed to have this amazing ability to impact others, if even for a short time. For a career, Ben chose the military, having attended West Point. He went on to serve in the U.S. Army's Special Forces. As mentioned, Ben was a selfless individual who made a huge mark on the world in a short time.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Ben. In November 2007, while serving our nation in Iraq, Ben was killed in action. I became friends with his mother, Judy, sometime after his death and soon realized that I had missed getting to know a remarkable person. As time has gone on, and his mom has told me countless stories about her son and what an amazing young man he was, I have come to learn a great lesson.
So often, we think that the people who live the longest have the biggest impact because they have had so many years on this earth in which to touch lives and make a difference. But Ben's example has made me believe otherwise. Ben was not given a long life. He died in his early thirties. But Ben made the most of the time he had. Ben lived his one life well. To this day, seven years after his death, soldiers who served with him or knew him in some way, still contact his parents and let them know what an impact he had on their lives and how they were forever changed. Ben saw the bigger picture. Ben realized that his life was not his own, that it was not to be lived for personal pleasure but for God's pleasure. He wanted to honor the Lord he loved so deeply. And he wanted more than anything to experience His blessing and approval when he arrived in Heaven someday. Ben didn't waste any time in pursuing this goal. To him, this mattered above anything else. Ben's life was short, but it was lived to the fullest.
As more years are added to my own life, I realize that I should be constantly pressing toward the same thing as Ben: to live my one life well. None of us know how long God will leave us here on this earth. Today could be our last...but I think that most of us want our lives to count for something. We don't want to waste the time we have and instead, use it to touch others and make this world a better place while we are here. In looking back, I can see a lot of idle hours, time that was thrown away because I sought my own pleasure rather than God's. People like Ben inspire me to redeem that past, to begin anew and strive to do more going forward. None of us can go back and regain those lost hours, but we can make the choice to live differently starting today. To make decisions that actually change a life. Ben's favorite Bible verse was Galations 2:20:
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live,
but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live
by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself
Ben knew that it was pointless for him to give his life for temporal things. What mattered more was that He lived his life for God, that his faith was evident to those around him, that he gave himself for an eternal destiny. He believed that what he did here counted for Heaven, and he strove toward that end until the day he died.
Today would have been Ben's birthday...and today is also mine. As I thank God for the years He has blessed me with, I also ask Him to give me more urgency in my life. I want to be found working toward eternal goals rather than my own selfish objectives and desires. I want to be useful for God.
I feel very honored to have shared a birthday with such a fine individual like Ben. And as I approach another year of life, I hope that it will bring with it even more opportunities to leave an impact for my Savior on this world that is in such need of hope. I pray that I may be given the grace, like Ben, to live my one life well. * * To read a piece that Ben's mom wrote for this blog a few months ago, go to the May archives and click on:
Here on this blog, I am so often sharing glimpses into my personal past and what I have learned from it. But lately, I have been thinking on the following words from a song called, "The Best Days of My Life" by Jason Gray:
"...But if my heart hadn't broke in two,
I never would've run to You,
And You loved me in my loneliness,
And I found I was never alone."
We all have our "open to Grace" moment - that time when we realize that hope is stronger than fear, that light will overcome darkness, that God's love will have the final word in our lives. I want to hear your stories...to know what your "open to Grace" moment was. Please write and share with me about your journey and how God has touched your life! I look forward to being encouraged!
This world is so full of beautiful things! I saw this flower at our State Fair the other day and thought,"God has filled this earth with so many lovely evidences of His love and creativity!" The way that each of these ornate flower petals are sown together makes me realize that God loves beauty, and our love of the beautiful is a reflection of Him! When we appreciate all that He has made, both for His pleasure and for ours, we acknowledge the Source of all life and give back to Him the joy that began in His heart toward His creation. Yes...this world is full of beautiful things!
"Some people just need to know that they're loved," the Christian singer said as he looked out at the crowd. I agreed with him...
Don't we have moments when we think the love of God and others is an abstract concept? Haven't we all had times when we doubted its authenticity because the pain was so much greater?
Have you been told lately that you're loved? If not, I will gladly do so now: You. Are. Loved!! Loved not because of the messed up things you've done or the hurts that you've incurred in your past. No. You're loved because you are you: God's beautifully-created human being. And that love meets you right where you are...right now. You. Are. Loved. I hope this reality changes your life! It did mine...
As I ponder the concept of God's light shining in the midst of our storms, I am led to think of the words of the following song, "You Won't Let Go." God has promised to never leave us or forsake us, to always be there with us even when the winds of change howl, the waves crash hard, and the rain drives heavy. He speaks grace through the thunder claps. His love meets us where we are and offers us hope, no matter how dark the clouds may be. Regardless of what may come, He won't let go of us...
* I am on my way to see this artist perform LIVE this evening. So excited...
The day had dawned bright and sunny. We decided that it would be the perfect time to go out for opening day of the Alaska State Fair. For most of the afternoon, we walked around in the hot, blazing sun, looked at the hundreds of booths and said hello to the many friends we saw along the way. We ate delicious food and heard good music. It really seemed as though life couldn't have been more perfect...
But then, late in the evening, a storm rolled in. I could see it coming across the majestic mountains that surround the fairgrounds. Dark clouds they were! Black and filled to bursting with rain, ready to drop their moisture at any second. Then the thunder began to roll deep. And then the lightening began. Flashes of brilliance shot across the sky. The once-bright sunshine now seemed hidden. Where had the light gone?
And yet, as I turned to my left and looked up, the light still shone: right in front of me was a beautiful double rainbow - an image of beauty in the midst of the storm, sun trying to shine through tiny droplets.
I realized that this is such a picture of life: it can be so peaceful and serene but then the storms can roll in so suddenly. A calm and quiet soul can so quickly be turned into darkness, the Light of Him now covered by the clouds that hide. The rain falls hard. But, through it all, God's light still finds a way to us. Just like the rainbow, His grace and love still shine through the rain that falls. No storm comes into our lives without His notice, and no clouds arise without His light breaking through. And I also realize that, in the case of the double rainbow, His blessings often come in abundance during the storms. He brings a double measure of His peace; He restores the serenity that once reigned. The storm may continue for awhile, but the Light will prevail in the end. Clouds may hide it for a time, but it will always return. Hope will come again.
" If I've learned anything from life, it's that sometimes the darkest times can bring us to the brightest places. I've learned that the most toxic people can teach us the most important lessons; that our most painful struggles can grant us the most necessary growth; and that the most heartbreaking losses of friendship and love can make room for the most wonderful people. I've learned that what seems like a curse in the moment can actually be a blessing, and that what seems like the end of the road is actually just the discovery that are meant to travel down a different path. I've learned that no matter how difficult things seem, there is always hope. And I've learned that no matter how powerless we feel or how horrible things seem, we can't give up. We have to keep going. Even when it's scary, even when all of our strength seems gone, we have to keep picking ourselves back up and moving forward, because whatever we're battling in the moment, it will pass, and we will make it through. We've made it this far. We can make it through whatever comes next."
Life can be beautiful. In fact, it is. But life can also be ugly. Very ugly. What exactly is this two-sided thing called life? And why is it so hard to understand?
It's a paradox, really: beautiful, yet ugly. And we have to live life with both. Each of us has both residing in us, and we are constantly feeling the pull...the opposite pull, stretching us, making us into who we want to be but who we don't want to be at the same time.
There is the beautiful, the fully alive, the complete, the wholeness of the Divine. Yet, at the very same, we have the ugly, the broken, everything shameful and incomplete. This is the shattered identity that wars against our attempts at attaining the beautiful. This is what makes up life: we feel and know despair while still seeking hope; we taste the bitterness of our own sin while pleading for Divine forgiveness. And the only Mediator between those contrary ideals is the Savior, whose Grace leads us more toward the beautiful in spite of the presence of the ugly. We never get rid of both. No lost sinner presses toward the ugly that some small part of the beautiful does not remain. Neither does a God-following believer embrace the beautiful without experiencing the constant presence of the ugly. What then is life? Life is the ugly-beautiful, the realization that perfection, all beauty, won't be found until eternity. We must learn to live with both.
For the past several days, I have been listening to the song, "Love Will Have the Final Word" by Jason Gray. In a season of life where the happy-sad has provided me with mixed feelings that sometimes change from day-to-day, these beautiful words have comforted and reminded me of a great truth: I can still hope in the promise of redemption and renewal because God is there. Especially in the moments when the darkness reigns heavy, this hope carries me. I share Jason's beautiful lyrics with you now and pray that you may find this promise true in your own life.
Life moves so quickly. Too quickly, it often seems. Recently I have felt the pressure of life in the fast lane. Even as I know that this is a season of much doing, I still find myself wishing that I could savor it all a bit more. The hours turn into days, the days into weeks and so on, until a year has passed...perhaps many years...before you realize it. The special things that make our journey what it is: family, friendships, the beautiful created world around us - all of these can get lost in the fray. In our effort to hurry onward, to accomplish more, we can lose sight of what matters most. As I continue to tend to the busyness of my day-to-day things, I repeat this to myself often: God's blessings, His little evidences of Grace, are always around. I must slow the craziness of my mind, the pounding of my heart, the racing of my spirit, and make myself aware of these gifts once again. Life should never be so busy that I cannot pause and thank. For, it is in this momentary stopping that I regain my sight.
"... How can I return when I am lost in resentment, when I am caught in jealousy, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery? It is clear that alone, by myself, I cannot find myself...Confronted here with the impossibility of self-redemption, I now understand Jesus' words to Nicodemus: 'Do not be surprised when I say: 'You must be born from above.' Indeed, something has to happen that I myself cannot cause to happen. I cannot be reborn from below; that is, with my own strength, with my own mind, with my own psychological insights. There is no doubt in my mind about this because I have tried so hard in the past to heal myself from my complaints and failed...and failed...and failed, until I came to edge of complete emotional collapse and even physical exhaustion. I can only be healed from above, from where God reaches down. What is impossible for me is possible with God."
- Henri Nouwen *
* Taken from The Return of The Prodigal Son copyrighted 1992.
" One of the great challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God's forgiveness. There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offer us a new beginning. Sometimes it even seems as though I want to prove to God that my darkness is too great to overcome. While God wants to restore me to the full dignity of sonship, I keep insisting that I will settle for being a hired servant. But do a truly want to be restored to the full responsibility of the son? Do I truly want to be so totally forgiven that a completely new way of living becomes possible? Do I trust myself and such a radical reclamation? Do I want to break away from my deep-rooted rebellion against God and surrender myself so absolutely to God's love that a new person can emerge? Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring, and renewing. As long as I want to do even a part of that myself, I end up with partial solutions..."
- Henri Nouwen *
* Taken from The Return of The Prodigal Son copyrighted 1992.
For many years, I had read the story of the lost son. I took in the words of Luke 15: 11-32 and tried to discern Jesus' meaning. I sat through numerous sermons and heard the same message...over and over again: God welcomes home lost people. God forgives.
But recently, I have started to come around to a different view of this short but meaningful parable. Thanks to two books - AHA by Kyle Idleman and The Return of The Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen - a new message is emerging in my soul...
I sit in my room and listen to the whitewater river rushing past my home. Nine words come to mind: God wants to find me in my lost condition. I consider this radical thought. Perhaps it might be the key to a further spiritual awakening. For most of my walk with God, I did not see myself as a prodigal: I didn't walk off and live the world's way; I stayed near the Father. That story is for the really lost people, I used to say, for the ones who don't know God. I know God. But, in looking closer, I realize that the lost son left because his heart was far from his father even before he went to the "distant country." Before he had walked out the door and headed toward a reckless life, he was already lost. He was a prodigal in the father's home. He couldn't seem to allow himself to be loved by his father. He didn't think the father was enough...
I think back a few years: maybe I, too, was lost in the Father's home. Every week I sat in church, but my soul was darkened. There was no light. I was empty. I was lost, but I had left without fully walking away. The prodigal son and I were surrounded by the love of the Father but, He was somehow not enough. The wandering years in the "distant country" were the result. Not until the famine of the soul hit - not until I was in want, until everything else had failed me, and I had nothing left, did it occur to me that the Father's house is filled with countless blessings and that those who live there never lack for any good thing. He is enough. For so many years, I was very wrong about who He was. The Father had given me so much more than I deserved, yet I was blind to the love that was there for me.
In time, His relentless pursuit of my wandering soul led me to the conclusion which I now sit pondering: God wants to find me, even when I'm lost in His house. God wants to bless me with everything He has to offer, to give me His best because I belong to Him. In my spirit, He whispers to me, "...You are always with me, and all I have is yours" (Luke 15:31). I hear Him speak those life-giving words...I hear...but the prodigal in me still, at times, fights the freely-given grace. I still try to "walk away" even while I am with Him. The true embracing comes when I realize that God has never stopped pursuing. He has never stopped seeking me. He wants to bring alive the dead places in my heart, to bring light to those hidden corners where I like to hide. God wants to find me because He loves me. Yes...He. Loves. Me! Even when I find the "distant country" at times more appealing, He is always looking for a way to keep me - keep me where I belong: at His side, in my Father's house.
"...It often seems that the more I try to disentangle myself from the darkness, the darker it becomes. I need light, but that light has to conquer my darkness, and that I cannot bring about myself. I cannot forgive myself. I cannot make myself feel loved. By myself I cannot leave the land of my anger. I cannot bring myself home nor can I create communion on my own. I can desire it, hope for it, wait for it, yes, pray for it. But my true freedom I cannot fabricate for myself. That must be given to me. I am lost. I must be found and brought home by the Shepherd who goes out to me. The story of the prodigal son is the story of a God who goes searching for me and who doesn't rest until He has found me. He urges and He pleads. He begs me to stop clinging to the powers of death and to let myself be embraced by arms that will carry me to the place where I will find the life I most desire."
- Henri Nouwen *
* Taken from The Return of The Prodigal Son copyrighted 1992.
Today, I am on my way to yet another memorial service. I've been to several of these this year - each one as unique as the people themselves. This one, however, seems to be a bit harder. The man's death leaves behind a wife and several children. As I prepare myself to go and grieve with these friends, I ask the timeless question: why does God allow pain? For many years, I really feared the answer even though I asked it often. It seems as though a God of love shouldn't allow such things as often befall us in this life: loss, grief, death, betrayal, crime. Where is He when these things happen?
Over time, I have come to realize that, contrary as it may seem, God's purpose in allowing pain in our lives is actually for our own good, for our maturity. He desires for us to grow closer to Him and to each other. If pain did not exist, then there would be no need to run to the Savior. No reason to need a God to strengthen us, to comfort us, to love us, to be Himself for us. We would not come to understand what it means to have Him enter our suffering and give us hope.
A friend of mine who lives in Israel made a video sometime ago called "If God Is Love, Why Is There Pain?" I think he explains and answers this question well:
While I used to fear the seasons of pain in my life, I don't run from them as I once did. I have come to believe the truth behind that old saying, "Into each life some rain must fall." Without the adversity I once went through, I would not have come to appreciate and embrace the God who cares for me. I would never have come to know Grace. I am who I am because of the struggles I experienced and the lessons I learned while going through them.
As I go to this memorial service today, I am reminded of the fact that God will be a Husband to the widow and a Father to the fatherless. I am comforted by the hope that He will always be by our side and that He will never leave us, no matter how hard life gets. God always has a reason for the things He allows us to go through, and we must learn to trust Him, even when we don't fully understand. That act of faith, He will always bless.
We have all seen them at one time or another - that dreaded sign (usually located near a construction zone) that says "DETOUR." Instantly, we know that whatever travel plans we had before have now been changed. It will probably take us longer to get where we want to go; we may even feel lost for awhile trying to get there; we will more than likely encounter scenery and objects that we have never seen before...all of this will occur simply because we cannot travel our usual route, due to circumstances out of our control. We have been re-directed, most likely not of our own choosing. This tends to make us frustrated. We feel like we have suddenly been robbed of our control - now we're at the mercy of some pilot car to show us the way. Time seems to be ticking on by, but here we are: stuck in traffic on some road that we do not know.
Doesn't this sound a lot like life, though? It has its share of detours - sudden changes in direction that leave us confused and sometimes angry. The way in which we thought we were headed has drastically changed, and now we have no choice but to trust the Pilot car - God. To sit back and relax while winding through the unknown. I have had my own share of "detour" moments - times when I seem to lose all control, and my life felt like it was no longer my own. At first, I didn't like that feeling of being re-directed. It frustrated me to no end that, in my view, I could no longer get to the destination I wanted in the way I had originally planned. But, in time, I came to learn a valuable lesson: while at times unpleasant, detour moments can also provide us with beautiful and unexpected things. In construction zones, as well as in life, detours get us out of our usual grind and allow us to experience new scenery along the way, to notice special surprises and to gain fresh perspective.
Sometimes, I have found that detours take you places where you never thought you would ever go but, in the end, you are glad that you did. Perhaps it was in the act of having to trust the Pilot car - the God who leads - that we first learned to let go. To settle in for the ride and enjoy the journey a bit. To actually take in this beautiful world around us and appreciate it. To slow down our busyness, get off of our beaten pathways, and take a new road. Just maybe, in so doing, we come to see new things that otherwise would have been hidden from our view. In hindsight, we realize that we would be the emptier without them.
I stare out at the view in front of me: majestic mountains rise from the deep waters of Resurrection Bay; waves lap the shore with increasing intensity as the steady tide rolls in. As I sit in the rocking chair on that spacious porch, I take it all in. Rocking in rhythmic motion, I think of all the times I have come here. Memories come flooding back from when I was ten and eleven years old - I have had some happy times here: running along the rocky beach and collecting the water-smoothed stones; watching a dead jellyfish that had been stranded on the shoreline; observing the painting class as the artists brushed color onto a blank canvas, making it come alive with creative strokes. I have gone berry picking in the nearby woods and sat around many a smokey campfire at the neighboring campground. Yes...those happy times make me smile...
But, as I sit and reflect, I also realize that I have experienced some sad moments here at this place: I remember looking out at this same water -these very mountains - and wondering if my grandmother would pull out of her health crisis. Or if a dear friend's father would live following a near-fatal tractor accident. I witnessed a sailor struggle to swim to shore after his boat flipped over, sending him plunging into the ice-cold and unforgiving Bay. Indeed...those sad moments still weigh heavy...
And yet, I have come to believe that, regardless of what season of life I have been in, this place has always been one of great peace and healing. There is something about this scenic location that causes me to slow down, to breath deeply, to hear God. Somehow, even in my most painful moments, God's voice has found its way to me here - by these expansive waters. I am reminded that grace isn't just a concept - it is a way of life. Merely being aware of the idea of grace and then actually choosing to believe that it is true are two very different things. Becoming open to this amazing grace that I have been given by God is what sets me free - free to live fully, to love deeply, to listen closely, to believe wholeheartedly. Until I have come to a point of recognizing my need for a Healer, my necessity to have the wounds bound up, I will keep searching and coming up empty every time. The Maker of the very beauty I now behold in my view is the same One who cares for me...ME! The Creator who holds the universe in place, who has known and measured every drop of water in the Bay, who sees and sustains every bird, every fish, every single creature that lives off of this place, that same God loves and cares for me even more! Everywhere I go - even to the dark, inner recesses of the soul - that same God walks with me, never leaving my side, in spite of my attempts to leave His. Even now, in this precious moment, He is here, beholding all that He has made, including me.
I will never have these seconds ever again. I must choose to worship and give thanks right now. Here. Opening wide my heart to receive yet one more Grace-filled moment. Here is where the hurting, as well as the rejoicing, find hope: it is in coming to the realization that a God who chooses to love offers grace. Becoming open to Him, open to His gifts, brings healing to the wounded. In the happy seasons, and even in the sad ones, He will always find a way to us.
The waves continue to lap the shoreline. The mountains tower high toward the clouds. I savor every bit of this because God has met me here...time and time again.
" The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy. Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly. I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and see grimaces of hatred. There is always the choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness...and declared in a voice filled with affection: "You are with me always, and all I have is yours." Indeed, I can choose to dwell in the darkness in which I stand, point to those who are seemingly better off than I, lament about the many misfortunes that have plagued me in the past, and thereby wrap myself up in my resentment. But I don't have to do this. There is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift calling for gratitude."
- Henri Nouwen *
* Taken from The Return of The Prodigal Son copyrighted 1992.
Following yesterday's post, I thought this song seemed rather appropriate. It reminds us of the hope that is always on the horizon, the light that shines even when the thunder rolls deep, the rain that brings new life into the dryness of our souls. Once again, it is the promise from God that He will bring "springs of water" into the wilderness of our lives.