before I begin
As with all the other articles on this website this article was written mainly for my own benefit so that I can remember and assess what has happened during 2003. It is worth mentioning that reading "The Journey So Far" would put this account into a more understandable context.
As I approached the one year anniversary of my trip home from Brazil (December 20, 2002) I was reminded of all the opportunities I have to remember and be grateful to my God. My stay in Brazil was incredibly difficult, yet rewarding. I knew deeper sorrow and confusion than I ever experienced in my life, but at the same time I saw more clearly and came to understand the grace of God more profoundly than ever before.
During my frequent musings about my time in Brazil my heart is filled with fondness and foreboding, with longing and listlessness. Through the year since I returned it seemed that the more time I spent brooding the larger the perceptual dichotomy grew. I was simply confused about how to assess my time in Brazil. On one hand, merely deciding to endure the rigors of life in Brazil for fifteen months was one of the biggest steps of faith I had ever taken. Yet, on the other hand, I struggled with sin, wavered mightily in my faith, and was paralyzed by fear and paranoia for much of the time that I spent there.
I cannot express in words either the joy or the shame that I feel at the thought of Brazil. I have discovered, though, that this shame is not a shame that leads to hopelessness, but a shame that leads to repentance and life and further heightens the joy that I already had in Christ. I find this a marvelous revelation because it has taken me a year to comprehend. During the past year I felt that I have stumbled in and out of God's favor based on my faithful (or unfaithful) obedience to His teachings. In reality, I have always been in His favor and if I had realized that then I would have been freed to obey Him in faith as I truly desired.
Let me begin this section by saying that, except for waiting for my visa, my decision to go to Brazil was fairly easy. To understand how such a decision can be categorized as "easy" you have to understand the context in which the decision was made. I was riding the huge spiritual and emotional wave generated by God's merciful breakthrough in my life. I was in college, untethered to any real responsibilities. And for the first time in my life I was in relationships with men (Lewie Clark, Mark Kincannon) who were making large spiritual investments in my life. God used all these things to so stabilize my faith that São Paulo, Brazil seemed to me as a small step on the narrow path to His glory and my joy.
Contrast that with my decision to leave Brazil. I had purposely invested all my time to be able to minister to the Brazilian people. I was puzzled that God would call me home when I was just being able to communicate freely in Portuguese and could navigate the city fairly well. I also had many questions about the unknown back in the United States, not to mention the questions about my relationship with Holly. I believe that God answered most of my questions with a simple statement, "I chose to send you to Brazil beyond all human council and I can choose to send you back." That reminder of God's sovereignty, along with a prophetic dream, was enough to push me back to the States.
Even before I had fully decided to come home I knew I wanted my home coming to be some sort of surprise. After I chose to come home I told no one except my old college roommate and his wife, Josh and Rachael Newton. I arranged with them for airport pick-up and a night's stay at their apartment. I even told my parents that Josh was having problems with his car and to let him borrow mine, all the while knowing that Josh would borrow the car and deliver it to me. The plan to get my car was crucial because I strongly desired to go to Fayetteville.
I wanted to go to Fayetteville and reflect on God's work in my life while I was in college there. I also wanted to rehike, for the first time, the Butterfield Trail in Devil's Den where God had done His decisive work in me. Even now I am filled with an ineffable mix of joy and sadness at the thought of that place. I greatly anticipated the few days I had to spend there.
All the plans went off without a hitch and I arrived in Fayetteville on the 22nd of December. I quickly made my way to the campus so I could take a self-guided tour. As I walked, however, I was a bit confused to find that my emotions were shallow, hollow even. I thought I would be flooded with memories, with gratefulness to God, and joy about His grace and mercy in my life. I even imagined falling to my knees and crying. Undaunted by this apparent misperception, I finished my tour of the campus and began my tour of the city. I sighed in the cold, crisp air as I drove on those familiar streets hoping to find a spark of the joy that I had anticipated. I visited my old apartment, my old church building, my old hangouts. Yet I remained largely unaffected. I soon returned to my hotel room and purposed to rise early and hike the Butterfield the next day.
When I rose the morning of the 23rd the sky was dark. The forecast was freezing rain, snow, and sleet. Although Devil's Den lies in a valley that would be difficult to escape in the case of inclement weather I decided to take the chance and hike anyway. I also decided to forego the required registration at the ranger station in order to get as early of a start as possible.
I hiked with great physical vigor, but my emotions were feeble. Rather than gratefulness and joy, I was consumed with anticipation of the next day and the nagging thought that I would be trapped in the valley once I got back to my car. I had desired my time to be meaningful and contemplative, filled with praises to my God, yet I was impatient and hurried. I was greatly confused by this. My solution to this confusion was greater physical exertion. I hiked faster, took fewer rests, lowered my head. I tried to pray and reflect, but my mind just wouldn't focus. I pressed ahead. Snow formed in the moist, cold air. Sleet came next. I put my hood and up and quickened my pace. Five hours and fifteen miles after I had stepped out of my car I sat down in the driver's seat once again. I was physically exhausted and bereft of the thing I went to Fayetteville to get, a bigger picture of God.
I drove back to Little Rock immediately after my hike. Even though my time in Fayetteville was disappointing I was excited at the prospect of surprising my family on Christmas Eve. However, it was still the 23rd so I had to bide my time and spend one more night with the Newtons.
I spent the next day reacquainting myself with Little Rock, preparing for the surprise I was going to give my family that evening, and maintaining my cover. Nobody, including Holly, had any idea I was coming home. I told Holly that I was going to Rio de Janeiro for Christmas, but that I would try to find an Internet Cafe and chat with her if possible.
I had my laptop with me at Josh's apartment so I used my dad's account with Southwestern Bell and got on the Internet to chat with Holly. It was incredibly difficult to have a conversation with her thinking I was in Rio. I kept laughing as I typed. At the end of our chat she was completely convinced that I was sitting in an Internet Cafe 5000 miles away.
After I packed up my laptop I gathered the rest of my things into my car, said many thanks to the Newtons, and headed to my parents house. I knew my parents house would be empty because our family meets together at my grandparents house every Christmas Eve. I arrived at my house and unloaded all my things. The sensation of entering my house was very strange. I don't know how to describe it other than it felt like waking up from a dream. I sat for a bit, read some Scripture, prayed, then headed to my grandparents house to surprise my family.
They were floored. The looks on their faces, their reactions, it was all fantastic. I hate being the center of attention like that, but it was worth it. After things settled down we had a very pleasant evening.
I spent Christmas morning the next day with my immediate family. After we ate breakfast we went out to my other grandparents. I had a great time, but I was really anticipating surprising Holly that afternoon. After what seemed like an eternity, the time finally arrived.
I had it all set up weeks in advance. I told Holly that I was going to send my sister to meet her and give her my Christmas gift at Treasure Hills Park. I chose Treasure Hills Park because we had spent some of our precious little time there before I left the country. That and the fact that the outdoor setting would allow me to lurk in the distance and watch undetected. That afternoon my sister sat at a picnic table near the pool at the park while I sat near the top of a hill obscured by some play-ground equipment. Holly arrived and came to the table. My sister gave her the gift, which included a letter, and left. I watched breathlessly as Holly read the note and opened the gift. I thought my heart was going to come out of my chest. When I saw that she knew was the gift was, a gold ring with an aquamarine (Brazil is famous for its aquamarines), I walked down the hill and surprised her.
She was, quite literally, speechless. We just hugged for a long, long time, barely saying anything. When she was able to speak again, about the only thing she would say was "you're here!".
The sweetness of that moment only lasted few days. This journal entry explains how I felt:
I also feel very strange in my relationship with Holly because I don't feel great heart-ache at the thought of life without her. In fact, I don't feel that way about any of the relationships in my life. My time in Brazil did something to me. I don't know if it is good or bad. I feel severed from any feeling of relational loss. I feel like I could lose anyone in my life, or everyone in my life, and it wouldn't drastically change my heart state.
That excerpt sums up the way I felt for a long time after I came home - the confusing numbness that I mentioned above. It haunted me for much of 2003, but, as I have discovered, God was using it for His glory.
One place where I knew God was working was in the community of men that enveloped me soon after I came back. Under the headship of Christ and through the practical shepherding of Lewie Clark, these men were forming a community of love that has challenged and reshaped my definition of church. While I maintained my physical presence at my former "church," it was during my times together with these men that I really felt the Holy Spirit move. It was during those times that I began to understand what it meant to be in the "body of Christ" as the church is so often called in Scripture.
These men challenged me to come up with a Scriptural basis for my view of church. Through the relationships in my community God has been showing me all the things I have taken for granted in the way a typical American "church" functions. These sentiments might seem very curious because I went to Brazil for the business of planting churches. Yet I can easily say that I had no articulate knowledge of how or why Christ uses community for His glory and how utterly broken the American definition of church really is. However, growing into Christ-likeness is a process and I am sure that a year from now I will be just as amazed at what I know of Christ as I am today. I pray so.
It's hard to sum up what God did in 2003 in shaping my view of His church. The missionary-martyr Jim Elliot summed up many of my thoughts in 1950 in a letter to his future wife, Elisabeth. He wrote this letter in response to a letter that she had received from a friend ("J") about church:
J's letter was interesting. Her attitude toward the church of God is like the multitude of Fundamentalists - 'anything will do.' The pivot point hangs on whether or not God has revealed a universal pattern for the church in the New Testament. If He has not, then anything will do so long as it works. But I am convinced thatnothing so dear to the heart of Christ as is His Bride whould be left without explicit instruncitnos as to her corporate conduct. I am further conviced that the twentieth century has in no way simulated this patterne in its method fo 'churchin' a community, so that almost nothing is really 'working' to the glory and pleasure of God. Further, it matters not at all to me what men have done with the church over there or in America, it is imcumbent upon me, if God has a pattern for the church, to find and establish that pattern at all costs.
The clergy of Fundamentalism is a direct descendant of papism, and in spite of what J. says, has no basic principle in Scripture - where the priesthood of all believers is taught. Furthere, J. says 'the worship service is most satisfying to me as an individual.' What in all eternity has that got to do with it? Have her personal likes an dislikes any right to dictate method in the holy church of God? It is this attitude that has brought hepeless confusion into our present order, for 'holy rolling,' and snake-handling are most satisfying to some folks as individuals."
As usual, Jim is scathing in his assessment. However, I feel it is fairly accurate.
Throughout the year God began showing me, as well as many of my brothers and sisters, that Jesus has given his church a pattern, and it is the pattern of His life. I began to see that we, as a church, have gotten away from Christ's methodology and theology - making disciples for the glory of God. He showed me not that services, etc. were unimportant. Rather, that there are other things that, Biblically, are more emphasized, namely love. Love is the work of the disciple - Christ-exalting, self-sacrificing, Bible-saturated love. This love is not a love in a vacuum. It is not a love that sits in a pew or a chair and merely observes. It is a radically active love that seeks the glory of God in deep, abiding relationships with other people. And it is a love that glories in Christ as its complete and only sustaining source of fruitfullness.
The year was filled with many questions. Has not Jesus called us to be his disciples? Are we not to truly be his followers? If Sunday morning activities were removed from the typical American Christian's life, what would be left? If the answer is "not much," something is dreadfully wrong with our definition of "Christian" and of "church," that it allows this definition to persist. This definition of Christianity and church is not acceptable to me and the community of which I am a part. We are compelled to see the glory of God manifested through the body of Christ. We are compelled to see the church proclaim the Gospel in a way that motivates and encourages radical, love-filled, seven-days-a-week disciples of Jesus, and does not merely maintain the nominal commitment of Sunday morning "Christians." I think that in 2003 God has faithfully continued to raise up a generation of His children (and I don't mean just college-age people) who are focused on His glory in this way.
towards the end of myself
My relationship with my girlfriend Holly Alford was another area where I struggled mightily yet still somehow knew Christ's grace. The same numbness that I had experienced elsewhere also plagued my feelings for her. This was a bitter providence. My desire was to love her to the utmost, to be a source of comfort and confidence as I showed Christ's love to her. Yet, because of my disillusioned state she rightfully questioned my commitment. This only added to my confusion and disillusionment and even bred resentment. I felt resentment because I thought Holly was complicating my life needlessly, and this resentment just poured more fuel on the firestorm I was already battling in my heart.
To understand this resentful leaning you must understand that I have always desired simplicity in my life. Even when I was trapped in my selfish ambitions before Christ saved me I still wanted to live a simple life. I just wanted to do it on my own terms. Before I was a child of God this desire for a simple life ran amok. I used it as an excuse to be a cynic, to deny relational contact, to become an island unto myself, all for the sake of "simplicity." All this was really just a cover for the fact that I was trying to protect myself from being hurt again, but this changed when Christ called me to himself. I took on the nature of God - love. And this love is not love not in a vacuum, but in community. And this love is a love born in hope, a hope that cries, "all things work together for good" - even being hurt. God changed my selfish desire for simplicity into a mobilizing lifestyle - a wartime lifestyle. Because of Christ my life has become a conduit through which His love flows to others.
Even still I struggle. I say with the Apostle Paul, "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good." I wage war against my flesh because it is trying to wrench itself away from Christ and from Holly. The way my flesh reasons, if I am single then I am more mobile, have fewer responsibilities, have more disposable income, and fewer distractions.
Thankfully, God's ways are higher than my ways and His thoughts are not my thoughts.
Time after time over the last year Holly and I came to breaking points. We hit relational obstacles that, if were not divinely overcome, would end our relationship. Yet each time they were surmounted. In remarkable ways God shone His light in my heart and revealed truth that both shocked and amazed me. In the end, the experiences that brought us closest to separation became the building blocks of assurance for our union.
We were married on November 22.
the disciple's tension and the glory of God
Throughout the year my feelings about marriage were mysterious to me. I heard my engaged friends talk about their anticipation of the bliss that will characterize their marriage. While I too had that anticipation, the anticipation of hardship was equally present in my heart and mind. I felt badly because my joy appeared to so much less fervent compared to my friends and even to Holly. When I read Paul's charge to husbands to "love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her" I was (am) staggered, amazed. How can a love like Christ's ever be wrought through me? Again, I struggle with my flesh, my lack of faith, as I remind myself of the difficulty that lies ahead as I seek to love like that and the consequences if I do not. Those feelings were not those of cold feet or remorse. I did (do) not question God's uniting of Holly and me. Rather, the faith that God is the author and sustainer of our relationship helps me through my struggles. Who am I to question whether or not he can enable me to die for Holly in love? That is great comfort, because I am in dire need of help.
Generally speaking, I find that the tension in my understanding of Christ is where my faith in strengthened. With that in perspective, the fact that my thoughts seem divided is not so mysterious. However, the fact that the division builds my faith is very mysterious. The words of the Apostle Paul help me again. He encourages his brothers and sisters in Christ that they are "sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things." Those words let me know that my experiences, thoughts, and feelings are just the process I am going through as I come to know Christ more deeply.
Furthermore, this tension is glorious. The glory of Christ is revealed in His disparate qualities. Jonathan Edwards provides unique clarity through his explanation of this idea in his sermon "The Excellency of Christ." He discusses the "infinite highness and infinite condescension...infinite justice and infinite grace...infinite glory and lowest humility...infinite majesty and transcendent meekness...deepest reverence towards God and equality with God...infinite worthiness of good, and the greatest patience under sufferings of evil...an exceeding spirit of obedience, with supreme dominion over heaven and earth...absolute sovereignty and perfect resignation...self-sufficiency, and an entire trust and reliance on God," and how they meet together in Christ. I cannot put into words what springs into my heart and mind at the reading of that description of Jesus. Suffice to say it is a Holy Spirit wrought joy that sustains me as I live my life as Christ's disciple.
in a nutshell
Until I wrote this article I could not explain what happened in 2003. Yet now I believe I understand my experience. My hike in Devil's Den illustrates many of my experiences surrounding my time in Brazil and my home coming. I don't have to look any further than the way that I hiked. This was not a tribute to God's strengthening me. It was a tribute to my personal effort - averaging three miles an hour (practically a jog) over rough, hilly terrain, in snow and sleet, and emotional duress. That effort was not the result of my faith filled enjoyment of Christ. It was the result of my perfectionist tendencies and sinful self-sufficiency.
What I had thought to be an inexplicable numbness I have now realize to be, at least in part, a product of my sin. Throughout the year I was doing things that I thought would draw me closer to God, but I am now convinced that I wasn't putting my whole effort forth. I had locked myself in a prison of pride so that my opinion was the final say, not God's. I took the gatekey of faith and threw it away, refusing to bend my will to God's will revealed in His word, refusing to find joy in Him rather than my fleshly lusts.
It's difficult to express why I took the wide, faithless road so often in 2003. In the end, I believe that when I was in Brazil God broke me at a very deep, relational level. The wound he gave me was so deep that it has taken a year to understand it, and therefore, it has taken me a year to understand my foolish decisions.
This wound stems from God's goodness. Let no child of God ever conclude from their circumstances, either sweet or bitter, that God doesn't love them. He wounded me to show Himself to me, to help me understand who He is - sovereign, triumphant, free, loving, graceful, benevolent. On the flipside of that vision is a view of myself that I am constantly being forced to embrace - dependent, sinful, weak, loveless, broken. All the difficulty and adjustment I have faced has been to magnify my enjoyment of God, the only true joy, and eradicate my enjoyment of myself.