Fight the Headlines

Have you looked at the news of late, at what new calamities the world can create all plastered on the front page as if we're all upon the stage of some Greek tragedy?

There is a crazed racket of noise voiced by the newspapers and news anchors on televisions, all repeating renditions of doom and gloom that leave little room for hope.

Wars rage on the very first page, and the page after that asserts that this or that spat will in fact become a war tomorrow.

And on page three are the refugees who flee those wars only to wash up on shores where they're not wanted.

Page four has more, from terrorist acts to economic collapse lined up by first drafts of a peace accord that went ignored while everyone went on fighting.

And all of this unease has high degrees of complexities, which means that we can't easily solve the world's pollutions with simple conclusions or quick-fix solutions. And so all of my disillusions only grow.

And I ask: What have we done to the world we come from? When hopelessness pervades the prayer that I've prayed is that we won't we have to lie in the bed that we've made.

And we cry out to God for Mercy. And his answer to us is His son, Jesus.

For on Friday a crown of thorns sat upon his brow but by Sunday an empty tomb held the promise that now the worst of kinds of news can be redeemed and infused with hope.

Jesus, Silence the news and the views of those who would tell us that the world will come to nothing for you are the thing the world will come to. You. Only you.

These headlines that roll on will not be the words that I stand on for my hope is built on the one who gave me breath and whose power conquered death!

Yes, death has been swallowed up in victory! So fear and these headlines have nothing on me. And in the face of whatever news I might be given I will declare this one headline: "Jesus has risen!"

Easter: Throwing Ourselves Into the Sea

I’ve never much identified with Peter, the disciple, I mean. Where he’s impulsive, I tend to be calculated. Where he’s the first to ask a question or submit his opinion; I’m often the last. I’ve always imagined him as a burly, working-class kind of guy, and I rather doubt I’ve ever been described as anything close to that.

Peter and I, we’ve been more like acquaintances. Politely distant. Someone about whom I’d say, He’s a good guy. I like him, without ever putting much conviction behind the sentiment.

That all changed a few months ago.

I was on a trip to Israel, my first. I’ve written before about what I saw and what I felt while I was there. The trip was full in every way imaginable, a full itinerary full of new experiences, hard stories, heartbreak, and hope.

On the very last day we all went to Galilee. For the first time in days we weren’t on a fact-finding mission or a cross-cultural collision, we were just tourists in one of the most beautiful and historical places in the world. I found myself mentally and emotionally exhausted and glad for the opportunity to set everything aside for a few moments and simply take in the scenery.

In the afternoon we were given about an hour on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We arrived just in time to see a rainbow, and we all ran around snapping pictures to prove we were there.

Finally, I sat down on one of the big rocks that littered the shoreline. I’d brought my Bible, but I didn’t have a plan. I half-heartedly turned to the concordance in the back and looked for any mention of the word “Galilee.” Soon, I was reading through John chapter 21.

Easter has come and gone. Jesus is risen, but he hasn’t gone anywhere just yet. He’s appeared to a number of people, including the disciples. But we find Peter, the fisherman, in a boat with a few others. They’ve returned to their normal lives without much success. In fact, they’ve been fishing all night, but as the sun rises they’ve yet to catch anything.

Then a man starts shouting at them from the shoreline. The man is Jesus, but they don’t realize it at first. He tells them to try again, tossing their nets off the other side of the boat. Suddenly, the net has so many fish in it that they can’t drag it back to the surface. That’s when Peter realizes that the man is Jesus. That’s when we reach John 21:7.

When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he… threw himself into the sea.

And suddenly I was crying, and I didn’t know why. (Tears are not necessarily an unusual occurrence for me, and certainly not on that trip, but over time I’ve learned that if I’m crying and I don’t immediately know why, God is usually working in some way I haven’t yet noticed.) I asked God why, and I began to realize that I was experiencing a deep envy of Peter, a holy envy if there is such a thing. I wanted to be that desperate to get to Jesus. Forget the boat. Forget the catch. Forget the distance. Forget my dignity.

Just get to Jesus.

I looked up at the Sea of Galilee laid out in front of me, the gentle waves lapping against the shore, and I watched the whole scene play out in my imagination.

I saw Peter’s leap and splash into the water. I saw him swimming ashore. I saw him standing there, his clothes dripping. I really saw Peter for the first time, and I wanted to know him a little better.

Then, to be honest, I forgot. By the time I boarded the plane for home the tidal wave of all of my other experiences and things that needed thinking-about crashed over me. A month passed by, and then another.

A deadline brought it all back. Our creative team needed to pitch an Easter idea. My partners, Jenny Potter and Andrew Schuurmann, set a meeting where we’d pool all our Easter thoughts together and see if anything floated to the surface. The night before the meeting I was frantically looking through my journal for some fragment of something that might constitute a viable idea and happened upon the entry from that day on the Sea of Galilee. Something stirred in me.

When I took it to Jenny and Andrew we weren’t even sure it was about Easter, but the more we talked about it the more excited we became. When the day came that we had to pitch our Easter ideas we brought three to the table. We told our boss (the incomparable Paul Johnson) that we had a favorite, but we weren’t going to tell him which one. The Peter story was the last one we shared, and as I started to talk about it tears were streaming down my face. Before I even finished he said, “I really hope this one’s your favorite because it’s the one we have to do.”

That green light gave us the chance to begin to dig into who Peter really was, to study him and find his story. In doing so we discovered that Peter’s story is our story; it’s my story.

When we first meet him in Luke 5 he’s a fisherman who can’t catch any fish. I can’t count the number of times I’ve failed, felt overlooked or foolish.

Throughout his three years of following Jesus he is behind the curve just as much as he is ahead of it. Though I’d like to pretend that I spend most of my life in a steady uphill climb to holiness, the reality is a lot more hit and miss.

In his darkest moment, consumed by insecurity and very real fear, he shouts that he’s never known Jesus. I know that there are times, more than I’d like to remember, when my actions have shouted the same.

But despite all of his ups and downs, his passion and love for Jesus cannot be denied. Yes. By the grace of God, yes.

Peter and I are no longer acquaintances; we are very real friends. And through him I have new eyes for Easter. I have new eyes for God’s sacrifice, his grace, and his power. I have a new desperation to get to Jesus. I have new hope that despite my darkest moments Jesus will welcome me as I stand undignified and dripping on the shore.

That day on the Sea of Galilee I wrote this in my journal:

Jesus, you didn't just call out, “Good morning! It's me!”

You waited. You let them discover you.

You let each of us do that, don't you? And then we throw ourselves into the sea of your grace and your forgiveness and your faithfulness and your love.

And you welcome us. Because of what you did on the cross, you welcome us.

My hope… my prayer… is that this Easter many more will make that discovery, that many more may throw themselves into the sea.

You can view the whole service at willowcreek.tv

Why We Tell Stories

We are storytellers. That's what we do. That's what we were made to do.

And each year, around this time, I'm reminded that the the story that I'm made to tell, the one that echoes in every cavern of my life, is also the greatest story the world has ever known. In the next few days, all around the world, we get to tell the story of Easter. At ROCKHARBOR we get to tell that story in unique ways, ways that stretch us, exhaust us, and revive us all at the same time.

As storytellers, we are remarkably blessed to do what we do, to be entrusted with this story. The honor of it is exhilarating and humbling.

But sometimes I forget. Amidst the pace, the panic, and the pressure I too easily forget.

Telling stories is hard work. And telling stories well is very hard work. In the middle of the process we sometimes lose the scent of the purpose we're chasing and, occasionally, forget that it's a privilege. For this reason, it's important to hold onto certain moments we've witnessed as we've told stories, those moments that have reminded us that what we do is so much bigger than us.

As I sat on the stage yesterday in the dark and the cold of a late-night rehearsal I was reminded of one of these moments. It took place a little less than a year ago, just a few weeks after Easter.

That morning the whole family sat at the breakfast table. I'd made bad coffee and failed pancakes, and I was frustrated. One of those metaphorical dark and stormy cloud loomed over my head. Then Finnden, our then-two-year-old son, looked at Karen and I and said, “I want to watch Daddy's words.” (“Daddy's words” is what he called the creative storytelling piece from last year because it featured a spoken word I performed.)

He'd seen it twice on Easter morning. The first time he'd watched it he'd sat silently, taking it all in, but as he saw it again during the second service Karen said he was very scared when “sin” appeared. There was something he'd intrinsically understood.

Since then, Karen told me that he'd asked to see the video of the performance at least a dozen times, but he usually asked while I was at work, thus I'd never had the chance to observe him as he watched.

He was entranced by what he saw, his eyes scanning the screen. But what was even more amazing was what he would say. From time to time he would quote a line along with the video or he would narrate a portion, talking to no one in particular. When dancers who represented the fall of humankind entered the scene he said with a frown, “Bad sin come now.”

But a moment later he smiled and said, “Jesus come.”

When the story talked about Jesus' death he shook his finger at the screen and said, “Jesus not done.”

And a few moments later, when Jesus rose from the dead, he exclaimed, “Sin go away!”

“People happy. Sin not hurting them!”

And finally, lifting his hands in the air, he shouted “I am new!”

The dark cloud above me disappeared, and in a sudden rush of emotion I realized my two-year-old son had, in his own way, just articulated the gospel. We had set out to tell the most meaningful story in the world to thousands of people, and one of the people who had heard it was my son.

That is one of those moments that I hold onto when, in the midst of the process, I lose sight of the purpose and the privilege of being a storyteller. We all need moments like these, and when we receive these gifts of grace, these stories, we must remember them, treasure them, and tell them.

Easter Week: Entering In

Yesterday morning I sat at the counter in the kitchen eating french toast and looking over my schedule. Perhaps I was glaring over my schedule if such a thing is a thing one can do. This week is the busiest and most stressful of my year. Our annual Easter celebrations are marked by creativity in a variety of ways, and the scale and scope of what my team and I must pull together is a feat of immense proportions.

Moving artists of any kind toward a finish line of any kind can be a daunting exercise under any circumstances, and these are not just any circumstances.

The coming week, Holy Week, will be one fraught with challenges, frustrations, and tears, but it will also be filled with intense excitement, new revelations, and cries of joy. I will experience the highest of highs and some very low lows. These things are inevitable, determined by the choice I've made to do what I do.

I do this because I love this.

And so I gazed at my calendar with a familiar mix of both anticipation and dread.

Suddenly, I was transported to the dramatic entrance of Jesus into the crowded streets of Jerusalem as multicolored cloaks and palm fronds paved the road beneath the donkey upon which he rode. Luke tells us that, just before this moment of jubilation, Jesus had sat on a hillside overlooking the city, weeping over the blindness of those within its walls.

What contradictory emotions he must have experienced! He was bringing the only hope worth hoping for while simultaneously marching closer toward his death. He was ushering in a beautiful new kingdom all the while recognizing that many of those who had been his cherished people would not ever acknowledge him as King.

The week ahead of him would be fraught with challenges, frustrations, and tears, but it would also be filled with intense excitement, new revelations, and cries of joy. He and his followers would experience the highest of highs and the very lowest of lows. These things were inevitable, determined by the choice he'd made to do what he would do.

He did this because he loves us.

My experience cannot compare to his, and yet, this small insight—this moment of solidarity with the one who has given me security—has allowed me to enter into this week with new eyes. And that is a gift of grace for which I am abundantly thankful.