Life in the Key of E

Many years ago, sometime during high school, I set out to learn guitar. This was in the days before YouTube, so all I had to work with was an antique book of my dad’s. Utilizing that, and eventually the internet, I picked up four or five chords and was feeling pretty good about myself. E (or perhaps E minor, I forget which I learned first) was instantly my favorite. When I played it the sound just resonated with me. As time went on I would learn a couple of basic songs, but mostly I would just wing it, combining different cords to make up a tune. Often this revolved around E.

After a couple of decades I’m still at basically the same skill level that I attained in college. Sure my strumming has improved and I picked up a couple of tricks, but I’ve learned no more chords and still for the life of me cannot remember any actual songs. This has been a source of great frustration for me. I don’t like to fail, and it has bothered me to no end that my mastery never reached the level of others I know. Most guitar players can pick one up and play a favorite song or two, even those that know fewer cords than I do. The majority of my time with the guitar is spent simply playing the E chord, with variations thrown in by lifting one finger to make it E minor. I think it sounds pretty good, and I thoroughly enjoy jamming out in this way, but I definitely feel like a loser in regards to the guitar.

In recent years God has allowed me to see how this parallels my life. I’m a very thought-oriented person. Because of this, I tend to decide who\how I should be and then set out to make that happen. I will work tirelessly in pursuit of the course of action I believe to be best, and throw myself headlong against any obstacle that threatens it. To the great surprise of my adult self, that doesn’t always mean success. There are areas that I was certain were to be my primary focus but I’ve seen very little growth or success in them over the years. This is especially sad because I was doing them in service to God, for His Kingdom. However, there are areas I’ve completely ignored that have flourished without me even paying them direct attention. Those taken-for-granted skills and interests developed naturally despite being secondary in focus. It’s almost like I couldn’t help but be good in them. You might say they just resonated. And, funny enough, they also opened more opportunities to speak with people about Jesus than any of the areas I had tried to force open.

So, what am I trying to say? Follow your heart and be the truest version of yourself? No, that crap comes from Disney movies. Your heart is wickedly deceptive and can’t be trusted to steer itself (Jeremiah 17:9). What I am saying is that you were fearfully and wonderfully made by an infinitely wise God. Seek Him, be yourself, and let Him use it in mighty ways. Don’t feel like you have to pattern yourself after this pastor, or that leader, or some successful person. “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” (Piper) Be satisfied in Him, content with the strengths and weaknesses He’s given you, and play your song. Even if you don’t know a “real” song like the cool kids.

Giving God Control(?)

Many times we tell God that we’re giving Him control, then continue trying to drive life ourselves. It’s like asking an expert to guide you through a new city, then holding onto the steering wheel the entire time. Below is an excellent portrayal of this attitude in action by my talented sister Lauren Adlman.

Why God

I’m proud to introduce the first collaborative effort between myself and my sister, Lauren Adlman. This is a cartoon reminding us that the very things we see as failures and shortcomings God is using for His perfect will, and ultimately for our good.

God Wants Only Your Good, Even When It Doesn’t Feel That Way

One thing that has surprised me as a parent is how often interactions between my kids and myself mirror my relationship with God. Parenthood really gives you a unique opportunity to be on the flip side of the interaction, where you’re now the one trying to work for the good of someone who you love deeply but has no ability to understand the reasons behind your actions.

This weekend we were unexpectedly provided with the opportunity to see this play out in an even more potent form than normal. As a family, we’ve become very active in (nay, addicted to) Pokemon Go. There was a special event, so we charged up everyone’s phones and tablets and headed out to catch them all. It was a great day, things were going smoothly. We’d just stopped at a drink machine to get a little refreshment and were headed back up the hallway of a local church to meet my sister-in-law. A few steps is all it took. My four-year-old son, Caleb, took off running to close the ten feet or so between him and mom. And then he fell. Straight down, with no time to react, he landed directly on his face with both hands to the sides. Screaming ensued, as did parental panic, and Pokemon was over. One of his front teeth was clearly knocked back significantly.

Thankfully our pediatric dentist office has someone on call for emergencies (we didn’t even know they did that), so after describing the situation to the dentist on the phone we headed over there. Long story short, there are two options and the one which makes the most sense is pulling the affected tooth. Caleb wails like he’s getting a root canal when they just clean his teeth, so we knew we were in for fun. We tried to talk it up as much as possible to sooth his fears, but he knew something was up. We hated the thought of it, but still, it had to be done. As we laid him back he was of course scared, and the dentist applied some stuff to numb the area. I kept asking him to look into my eyes, forcing myself to smile and telling him I loved him. I tried asking him about his favorite Pokemon, though he was having none of that. We watched as the dentist pulled a large needle around his back where Caleb couldn’t see it (have I ever mentioned I hate needles?). Still I kept my focus on Caleb’s eyes, both of us assuring him that we loved him and that the dentist was helping make him better. The pediatric dentist was awesome and applied the needle without Caleb seeing it. It didn’t hurt him, but he could feel something was being done so his fear and panic rose. Still we held him, stroked his hand, and told him how this was going to make him better, and how much we loved him.  Finally the moment of truth came. The dentist maneuvered the pliers into place, again very slyly. Seeing what was coming, we told him one last time the dentist only wanted to help him, that we loved him, and that he would be okay. As before, Caleb was numbed but could tell something was happening, and let out a scream the likes of which you’ve never heard (and that dentist will never forget). A few seconds later, which seemed to last an eternity, the tooth was out and Caleb was sitting up in mommy’s arms. We told him it was all over and that now he’d be better and able to eat.

I walked away to check on our eldest, who was in the playroom waiting, and I was physically sick. In fact both me and Amanda were, but we forced it down in order to be there for Caleb. He will likely never know how we felt during that half hour and thereafter. He doesn’t understand how emotionally wrenching it was to make a decision for his health, knowing that it would mean physical pain in the immediate and probably emotional pain long-term as it takes years for the adult tooth to grow in (kids can be cruel). He can’t know how much it hurt us to hold him down, forcing him to participate in something he was scared of and didn’t understand. He didn’t have insight into how nauseous and light-headed we felt actually watching what was going on in his mouth (that he couldn’t see), and wishing there was any other way. Within five minutes he was up and playing, no noticeable difference other than gauze hanging out of his mouth. He was even running to get toy tokens for his suffering, as we begged him to be careful and avoid any further accidents. But two days later I still see his bloody mouth when I close my eyes. I hear his screams and my heart breaks all over. I know without a doubt that we made the right decision, and seeing his recovery and happy play confirms that. But I will always be plagued by dad-guilt for having to put him through it and participate in it. My wife had trouble sleeping that night, and every once in a while we just stop and talk about how horrible it was.

And so it is with God. I know times that I’ve been in pain, facing situations that seemed completely unnecessary. There was no discernible purpose or uplifting silver lining. It just hurt, plain and simple. I saw in the Bible and heard from Church that God loved me, that He wanted the best for me, that it was all for my good. But I felt how Caleb must have lying there, looking through his teary eyes at his dad saying the same thing.  “You say that, but I don’t believe you. If you really loved me you’d put a stop this.” But to truly care for Caleb I had to see him healed, and God also allows for lesser pains in our lives in order to accomplish the saving and healing of our souls. After we got home I took Caleb to the side and assured him that mommy and I love him and Carson more than anything in this world, and that we would never do anything that wasn’t for his good. God does the same for you. No matter the hurt, no matter how cruel you think it is that he’d want you to give up some part of your life, whether you understand what’s going on or not, He loves you in a deep and tremendous way. He hurts with all of your hurts, and I’m sure He longs for the day when you can see all the intricacies behind what seems at the moment like simple indifference. Even greater than my pain of watching Caleb lose a tooth, He watched His Son die in order to accomplish your salvation. Just as Jesus Christ trusted God the Father in that trial, being fully convinced of His love and plan to work for good, we can trust God in the same way and walk forward in confidence knowing that our situation is in His loving hands, no matter how we feel.

The Faith of Atheism

The extent to which Christians are criticized for their faith always surprises me. In current American culture, and especially in science-based fields like IT, one is viewed as unintelligent or at least ignorant if they believe in any kind of religion. It is automatically assumed that if you find faith to be a credible notion then you must lack in basic deductive reasoning or logic. The only way to arrive at answers is by science, and to think that science could lead to God is laughable.

Take a moment to examine the foundations of this world view, though. In order to follow it you place a great deal of weight on two pillars, people and science. You must assume in the first place that it is at all possible for humans to fully understand the mysteries of the universe. Secondly, you must assume that science is a capable vehicle for arriving at those answers. I won’t claim to know what the full intellectual potential of humanity is, but it’s safe to say that at this point we do not know everything. I think any reasonable scientist would agree with that. As to the method, I’m as much a fan of science as anyone. In fact, I thoroughly believe that as we uncover more that science will lead us right back to God. However, science can only provide answers based on the answers it already has. Science is constantly disproving its own findings from decades before based on new information that has recently been acquired. It’s just the nature of how it works, and that’s okay. The trouble comes when people think, with a great amount of hubris, that people (who don’t understand everything) can use science (that hasn’t uncovered everything) to make definite declarations about the universe, its origins, and all it holds. Also, there’s the issue of scientists being bought or swayed to produce skewed results in support of a particular idea. They are only human, and it does happen.

So, to bring it back around to faith, people such as myself believe that God created the universe and all that’s in it. Take a moment to stand up, walk outside of the man-made rectangle you’re sitting in (where it’s so easy to feel in control), and literally think outside of the box. Look around at nature with all of its complexity and intricate detail. Take in the hundreds of types of life just within your yard at home or the grounds at your work. Then think about how, to date, not one other life-supporting planet so perfect as this has been found in all the known universe. Think about the vastness of space with all of the planets and stars it contains, most of which we’ve not viewed yet. Then tell me how you’re not living a life of faith by depending on people, who are equally as fallible and weak as you are, to not only understand all of that fully but to also rule out the existence of something they don’t understand in all the areas we haven’t yet observed.

Let me give you another example. Let’s say that based on today’s knowledge and the research of the world’s top minds you come to the conclusion that there is no God (what other reasonable conclusion is there, right?). Going on that information you live a life with no regard for God and die at an old age, having spent your years pursuing the things of this world. It’s possible you achieved fame, wealth, and enjoyed a long list of pleasures. Eighty years after your death science has progressed enough to explore all of the universe, to examine the basic building blocks of life, and finds conclusive evidence of God. You and all those who confidently followed the minds and science of your day will have missed God completely. There is no second chance to seek Him out. By contrast I will have lived a peaceful life of faith, crafting my actions on the advice of a God I believe to be infinitely wise, and then end my days without regret. Each of us will carry the same things from this life past the grave, nothing. But I have the hope of eternity with a loving creator after having spent what is, in retrospect, a very short time on this earth. If things go the other way and I’m the one that’s wrong then I’ve still lived that same peaceful life following wise teaching and, hopefully, doing good to those around me. I’ve lost nothing because we both end in nothing, and I’ve made a much smaller gamble.

In the end the atheist lives their life based on faith just as much as the religious among us. They like to think it is an intellectually superior position based on concrete evidence. However, in truth it is built on imperfect systems that were created by even more imperfect people. I choose to place my faith instead in a mighty God capable of creating all these things, and to view science as a way to find Him and the glories of His creation rather than as a way to dismiss Him. He is revealed through creation, through history, and through His work in the hearts of men (including my own). His name is Jesus Christ, He sacrificed Himself to set you free, and I’d love to tell you about Him sometime.

Giving Yourself Permission To Lose

One of the most profound turning points in my life was the moment that I gave myself the permission to lose. Please do not confuse this with apathy or a lack of ambition. It’s more of an upfront decision to roll with the punches, coupled with a focused vision on what is worth pursuing. Let me explain.

By nature (or maybe nurture) I am a very task-oriented person. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist. I want to be the best in every area of my life be it work, ministry, family, or simply recreation. I can’t simply play a video game, I have to be able to play it on a competitive level. I can’t just work in my area of expertise, I feel the need to develop a comprehensive understanding of all technology. I also want to be able to play instruments, fluently speak other languages, read a long list of books, etc, etc, etc. Being task-oriented, I cannot start one of these and just let it go. I have to finish it or it weighs on my mind. I also cannot stop everything else in life for that one task, so I spin up tasks in multiple areas. All of this combined, over time, becomes a huge drain on my mental and physical energy. Not only that, I begin to feel like a failure in each of these areas when I fall short of expertise in all of them. At this point you’re probably feeling stressed just from reading this. Imagine waking up and feeling the burden to accomplish all these tasks while still feeling the sting of not accomplishing them the day before. Living that way just isn’t sustainable.

Then one day I was praying during my devotional time and the thought occurred to me, what if I choose to lose? I’m not a quitter, so the idea of giving up on anything was repulsive. However, as I thought about it I began to realize that by pursuing this laundry list of interests I was already leading myself to failure in those things that matter most to me. Just as our parents always told us, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. We are all dealt a finite amount of time and energy. By choosing to involve myself in everything I’d taken away the option to truly invest myself in anything. It occurred to me that in order to win the right battles, sometimes you have to lose the wrong ones.

From that point I began to ask myself what I was really after in life, and I started to set aside those things that didn’t contribute toward those goals. This has lead to a laser focus in my life that I did not have before. At work I focused on strengthening my skill in database technology. To do that I had to let myself lose in the areas of Linux, programming, web development, and others. I don’t need to be a leading expert in every technical field to do my job well and have a fulfilling career. I also decided to lay off on video games and learning the guitar so that I could focus on learning Spanish. Ministry to the Hispanic community is a driving passion in my life and it became clear to me that these other hobbies were eating up the time and mental energy that I needed to devote to Spanish and Bible study.

I want to be careful not to portray the wrong idea. I’m all for challenging yourself in new areas and having diverse interests. It’s all too easy to get into a rut, which leads to other issues. There will be a day when I pick up the guitar again or study programming in C#, but today is not that day. If I master Spanish and therefore complete a critical piece of a primary goal, then I’ll move on to music. The point is to be aware of what you’re going after in life and to make sure you’re not sabotaging those goals by splitting yourself in too many directions at once.

There is another facet of giving yourself permission to lose that has more to do with humility. Sometimes we become overly aggressive/competitive in our desire to be the best. Or, even worse, we don’t even jump in because we’re too afraid that we’ll do badly. Giving yourself permission to lose up front frees you to both enter the activity and enjoy honing your skill in it, regardless of what the people around you do. Decide up front that even if you look like an idiot you’re going to do it anyway. And once you move past there and begin to develop some skill (and you will), do it in humility. Make your goal to be the best you can, not better than others. And help develop others along the way, even if that means they become better than you.

Get out there in life, stay focused on what is important, and enjoy giving it 100%. Set yourself up to win in what’s important by giving yourself permission to lose.

Love God and Love People

There are a multitude of verses in the Bible and endless topics of conversation that can be drawn from them. However, we often forget that complexity is not the point. There is a simple message that ties it all together: love God and love people. Below I have recorded the verses that, to me, sum up God’s heart and His intention for our lives. These are the simple guide points that direct my life. They by no means detail every responsibility of a believer, but rather provide the overarching themes under which those finer details are to be carried out.

Matthew 22:37-40

37 Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and most important command. 39 And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40 All the law and the writings of the prophets depend on these two commands.”

James 1:27

27 Religion that God accepts as pure and without fault is this: caring for orphans or widows who need help, and keeping yourself free from the world’s evil influence.

Consider It Pure Joy

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4; NIV)

What on earth is James talking about? Consider it joy when you encounter trials? I think most of us would agree that trials are something to be avoided. They are certainly not something to accept, much less be joyful about. This flies in the face of everything our culture believes. Many of our actions are built upon the idea that if we work hard, do good, and are smart then trials in life can be avoided, and they should be.

The problem is that our focus is in the wrong place. This life we live, and the circumstances we encounter along the journey, aren’t about us. It’s about God, His Kingdom, and His purposes. When we encounter trouble, discouragement sets in because the life we had planned is interrupted. We mourn over the loss of comfort, peace, stability, or gain. On the contrary, God says that losing this life for Him is gain (Matthew 16:25). His perspective is an eternal one, knowing that our time in this life is very short and that its purpose is to prepare us for a much longer time in His presence.

Knowing that, James’ words start to make a little more sense. When we encounter these trials, our flesh (the part of us bound to this world) suffers. During that time, if we place our faith in Jesus for who He is and what He has promised, our faith grows. Not only that, but as the flesh decreases in its dominance over us the Spirit increases.  The affect of that might seem quite small at first, but don’t miss the power. Believers who have begun surrendering to Jesus in their trials can testify to the outcome James points to. When once you’ve made it through a trial and allowed God to use it in your life for His purposes, you know that you can take on the next one. And when the next one comes (and it will) you’re looking forward to what God is going to do through it. So as time goes on trials are transformed from something that you once dreaded into something that you EMBRACE. Now perseverance has started forming in you. Those petty fears that kept you from serving the Lord in this area or that melt away. Not only are you no longer afraid of the circumstances surrounding that decision but  you have JOY, knowing that God is going to use them in you and those around you.

Let me be careful to point out that this is not some natural tolerance or toughness you build as a result of going through difficulty. You don’t have to be saved to be tough. In fact, sometimes that’s a sign of drifting away from the Lord because we’ve come to rely on ourselves instead of God. In contrast, this is all about surrendering to God and letting Him work, not making it about our actions. We recognize that we are weak and rejoice in the fact that our weakness is used to bring Him glory (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Can you imagine the Christian who is not deterred by trials but rather fueled by them? Who doesn’t grow weaker as they endure life but stronger? Trials are guaranteed in life, no matter how much wealth, health, power, or privilege you have. The only question is whether you’ll allow them to drive you further into the flesh as Satan intends, or allow God to produce perseverance in you as He intends, making you “…mature and complete, not lacking anything.”