An Overdue Reflection on the Year 2013
2013 was the most difficult year of my life. I spent the whole year sick with chronic sinusitis and developed fibromyalgia at some point as well. In total, I saw nine different medical specialists—an internist, an allergist, an immunologist, a gastroenterologist, a psychiatrist, a physical therapist, a massage therapist, as well as my original otolaryngology surgeon—and read about a dozen books on nutrition, fitness, immunology and alternative medicine. (It’s some kind of cruel joke that I got my undergrad degree in microbiology and now my immune system doesn’t work.)
In addition to these physical challenges, my wife and spent the year trading off night shifts with our two-year old, who still can’t sleep through the night—we’ve taken him to doctors and read dozens of books on this also, so don’t email me your quick fix. Additionally, one of my best friends and co-workers had to be removed from ministry for character issues, there were about a half-dozen new incidences of adultery or divorce in community groups I directly oversee, Jessie and I faced some significant financial challenges toward the end of the year, and finally, perhaps not surprisingly, I struggled with discouragement and depression every day of the year. It was, and has been still to some degree, one of those seasons where it didn’t seem like things could get any worse—and then our plumbing would get clogged by a piece of bark falling in from the roof vent, causing the basement to flood and, of course, our only toilet to be rendered useless for the four of us and our community group that had just come over ten minutes ago.
Thankfully, the Lord has been very close to us throughout the challenges, and I’ve had a few life-saving friends and mentors keep me alive and sane through it all. If there’s one thing I learned in 2013, it’s that reality’s fierce as a mug.
The hallmark of the twenty-something is the inability to deal well with reality. For many young Americans, we grew up with parents and teachers telling us we could be and do anything we wanted, if we just put our minds to it. Having grown up in church and Christian school, I was told that “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.” Forget that the context of that great verse is Paul’s quiet persistence in the face of trial after trial, wound after wound, and tragedy after tragedy. For us, doing all things through God meant winning basketball games against the Jewish school or planning to be an astronaut when our grades were more suggestive of a career selling women’s sneakers (my first job).
Then in college, I remember my American History professor at the University of Missouri saying that any one of us could truly change the world if we just learned from the past, committed ourselves to something significant, and took great risks. He had everyone stand up in the class to commit to a world-changing life, which I think was meant to include visiting Africa once, not getting married or having kids, smoking pot occasionally, and eventually starting a non-profit or running for Senate. I felt like I was taking crazy pills, but I was standing up nonetheless. Nothing says “meaningful individual commitment” like peer pressure.
But soon, the first big wave hits most American young folks: getting a full-time job. (Thankfully for me, reality set in at a younger age with some significant loss and suffering.) Some of your friends decided to go to grad school to perpetuate their adolescence and increase our national debt, and others were content to move back in with mom and dad and work a few short days a week at the mall. But there you were, slaving away for The Man, packing your lunch and counting up the decimal points behind your vacation days. Reality’s a mug: bills don’t pay themselves, you’ll never be able to spend more than about two hours with your friends at a time, and for everything that exists, there exists insurance for it, so that after a third of your income goes to taxes, a third goes to necessary living expenses and the final third goes to insurance on your necessary living expenses. First world problems, to be sure, but hardly the life we committed to back in History of America: 1920 to Present.
Two of my mentors, Kevin and Rich, have been quick to point me to the demands of my reality. Doctor Rich was the first one to invite me to embrace my reality. He reminded me of Psalm 16, where the king says:
LORD, you have assigned me my portion and cup;
you have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
See, everyone is surrounded by certain fences. My marriage rightly has a fence around it, having children places another set of hedges around me. My work as a pastor requires me to stay in a certain yard, and my chronic illness keeps me from running too far in any one direction. But what does David say? These fences, boundaries and limits are what secure us, keep us safe and allow us to thrive. The truly good life is lived within the fences.
It might be fun, and it’s entirely possible, to spend more money than I have in my checking account, but after a while, the reality of credit card bills will need to be faced. It’s tempting to work long hours, go out late with friends or stay up till 3am reading Grantland and eating ice cream, but the reality is that our boys will still come in and physically open our eyelids around 6:15 the next morning. But all these boundary lines are pleasant because they lead us to a delightful inheritance. Our limits force us to defer gratification in almost every area of life, but these fences also ensure that our portion and lot will be far greater later in life if we live within them now. The truly blessed life embraces its reality now to enjoy the gratification later.
And then from Kevin, the Sultan of Sling, I have come to see how much disillusionment threatens to crush our souls and our societies. (Listen to a great recent message on disillusionment here.) Ever since the snake in the Garden, we live in the world of disillusionment—we expect a false and non-existent reality to greet us each morning, but instead we find this brutal, harsh reality prying open our eyelids instead. If it always seems like life shouldn’t be this hard, it’s because life shouldn’t be this hard. We were created to live in perfect harmony with God, one another and the world, but sin shattered that Eden, and the shards remain in every aspect of our bloody being and nature.
The disillusionment of our lives and our world lead us straight to Mount Calvary. Here we have a perfect Man giving up his Spirit and suffering the pain, abandonment and horrors of darkness that each of us deserve. The prophetic cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” is the haunting question of life in a broken reality. It shouldn’t be like this. But, as the message of Calvary goes, one day it will no longer be. The dark, bloody reality of the cross was overcome by the sunny, renewed Reality of the resurrection. In the words of a great children’s book, all the sad things are becoming untrue.
Our hope and prayer now is that the challenges of 2013 produce a depth of perseverance, character and hope in us in 2014. As the great apostle wrote in Romans 5:
We [now] rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
We are praying that the increased demands of reality, our new vision for recognizing and living within our fences, and our increased hope in Christ allow us to go further together than we ever could have apart from the pain. Our God works through process, whether in the wilderness on the way to the promised land or in the bruises on the way to glory. But he is always with us. The abandonment at Calvary means eternal presence for us who’ve given up the resistance.
To return to the Psalm, the old king’s conclusion is truer for us today than it was 18 months ago, and for this we thank and praise the Lord.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body will also rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.