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Advent: Treasure and Ponder

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It’s been quiet at The Happy Alternative, and I feel like I owe my humble crew of readers and handful of new followers an explanation for the “deafening silence,” as one friend called it. Slightly dramatic, I know. I don’t think anyone is checking every day for updates, but here are my thoughts… just in case.

Some people have asked whether I’m going through a hard time, which is understandable given my post in October regarding storms. I’ve had a few stormy days since then, but these dark winter days actually feel much sunnier. I’m starting to feel like my old self — that is, the new self. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I attribute these brighter days entirely to being more immersed in God’s Word, which causes me to talk to God more, which causes me to love him more, which causes me to worship more. So, no, the trickle of blog posts here isn’t due to storms. I’ll write my way through those any day!

Laziness and lack of creativity are partly to blame, but I think the silence is mostly due to what I’ll call The Mary Factor.

This Advent, you’re likely to come across one of my favorite verses during your readings. In Luke 2, when the shepherds come to see Jesus, they tell Mary and Joseph what they saw in the field: an army of angels shouting, “Glory to God in the highest!” Everyone is amazed, undoubtedly talking to one another about what happened in the hills of Bethlehem. “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” There’s the verse! When faced with the weight and wonder of these things, Mary didn’t blog about her thoughts and feelings; she treasured and pondered.

That’s something I do a lot. Which is why launching a website has always felt like a weird move for me. I’m pretty private. I don’t feel specially qualified to write about theology, sexuality, or anything else. I don’t like the pressure of deadlines, however self-imposed. And if I didn’t feel called by God to speak up about singleness and same-sex attraction, I probably wouldn’t. (I’m sort of the Jonah of blogging.) But I do feel called, so I write. Draft after blasted draft, I write. And when I’m not — in those long stretches of silence — I’m usually treasuring. Pondering things in my heart.

Advent only increases my desire to take in rather than spew forth. But because I have a guilty conscience about being the blogger who doesn’t blog, and because the internal nagging is actually intruding on my Christmas bliss, I want to make an exception, pull back the curtain, and tell you what I’m pondering this holiday season.

Namely, Jesus.

Every day I’m reading several chapters of Isaiah, which anticipates his first coming (or advent). I’m also reading the gospel of Luke, which boasts the longest account of his birth. Finally, I’m reading Hebrews, which explains and expands on his coming, with a plea to persevere in faith until he comes again. Taking in such truth and beauty in preparation for Christmas has truly rekindled my love, adoration, and affection for Jesus. And I do want to talk about him! We’re supposed to. But there are times when, like Mary, I need to first let things settle in my heart awhile. I think that’s what Advent is for. But we’re so busy buying, wrapping, cleaning, cooking, performing, and DOING, that we forget to treasure and ponder.

So that’s what’s happening here. Maybe in the New Year I’ll be a little less like Mary and a bit more like Paul, at least in terms of output. But for now, I’ve got a lot to treasure in my heart. I hope this Christmas season you’ll find lots to treasure, too.

Death Redeemed And Reimagined

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Today I spent a couple hours walking through the wreckage that is autumn. In the spring, my afternoon walks are ripe with resurrection imagery — buds, blossoms, butterflies. Everything whispers “new life” and I’m emboldened to hope in the risen Christ. It’s like a sermon: “Behold, I make all things new.” But today, smack in the middle of October, nature clearly pointed to death: bare branches, bone-dry plants (with a few clinging to dear life), tiny animals scrounging for scraps. (I imagined them prepping for the winter apocalypse.) As much as I love spring and the signs of life that come with it, the fall imagery was beautiful, too — just in a different way.

Which got me thinking, how can death be beautiful?

death2In Scripture, death is ugly — the costly wages of sin (Romans 6:23). But the death of Jesus gave death new meaning — even hope. Jesus, the best man to ever live — the only man who TRULY lived in the way we ought to, fiercely devoted to God and neighbor — this man who really lived, REALLY died. Like the beautiful, blood-red leaf that floats and spirals and plummets to the ground, severed from its source, the Son of God was slain. His corpse entombed for three days — a short season, but enough for the reality to set in. The tomb was sealed. The disciples mourned. The women blended burial spices together and knew where to find the grave. This was the real deal.

And yet Christians believe, somehow, this death is beautiful. Because this wasn’t ordinary — not like all other deaths that came before it. This particular death marked “the death of death” for all who believe. On the cross, every last drop of God’s wrath was poured out on the Son, who died in our place, and every bit of Christ’s righteousness was given to us, in what theologians call “the great exchange.” This death secured eternal LIFE for those who love Jesus — the one person whom death could never touch, because he was without sin, yet he submitted to it willingly. Yes, this death proved something: not only Christ’s love for the Father, but also his love for us.

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My second thought, as I crunched my way along the trail, was of dying to self — something all Christians are called to do. A few verses came to mind. Like when Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Another time, he said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25). Then there’s Paul, who said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). To die is gain. 

In all these passages, death for the Christian is redeemed, reimagined. I think that’s why today, despite my affinity for spring, I was able to see something beyond death — something more like beauty — in the images that pervaded the landscape. At the end of the trail (right after my phone died), I spotted a caterpillar on the pavement. I picked him up with a twig and watched another sermon crawl before my very eyes:

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Regarding Storms

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Tonight I sat on the porch and watched the storm roll through. The lightning was beautiful, the way it struck in silence, for a nanosecond brightening the drenched landscape, then disappearing again into the black. I did the thing where you count the seconds between the lightning and thunder to see how many miles away it is — how long before I get struck in my rocking chair, sipping a cup of tea. 

I needed something beautiful tonight. Life has been a bit of a storm lately. Cliché, I know, but a storm just makes sense right now. I’m OK saying this on a blog called The Happy Alternative — a blog about happiness — because I give myself permission to be sad, to FEEL my way through a valley. And lately I’ve been fighting for happiness, the same way I fight for holiness. Scripture calls it a “good fight,” and that’s what I believe. That’s why I exhaust myself trying to punch and kick and head-butt my way to happiness. I know we’re made for it. We’re headed for it. 

So I watched the lightning and listened to the thunder. It sounded less like thunder and more like a waterfall — three of which I’ve seen and touched in the past month, so it sounded familiar — mixed with aircraft zooming over. It lasted longer than the typical bolt, and seemed more like the “rolling thunder” we sing about on those rare occasions when we crack open our hymnals and belt out “How Great Thou Art.” His power throughout the universe displayed.  And in that moment I really did think of how great he is. 

I’m teaching Sunday school tomorrow, on the topic of Heaven and Hell. Tonight, in the storm, I sensed the God of both Heaven and Hell making something known. His power? His wrath? His stunning creativity? I’m too tired to figure it out, but it’s nice to feel something other than 1) nothing, because I’m always too busy THINKING, or 2) guilt and shame — two things I’ve been wrestling with lately and two things, until recently, I’ve rarely ever faced in my Christian walk.

This is just a season, I’m sure — a storm that blows over, clears the air, makes everything feel new. Tomorrow is Sunday — a new day, a new week — and, as always, I look forward to the new mercies that come with it. That’s a promise I’ve always held on to: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Such a ray of hope… in a book called Lamentations. God is full of surprises.

Hope and lamentation. That about sums it up, I think. Especially tonight, as I “word vomit” this stream of consciousness onto the computer screen (and the perfectionist in me pleas for me not to press “publish” because it’s not pretty and polished). I’m thankful to serve a sovereign God who not only allows the storms to roll through, but sometimes calms them too. Either way, I know he’s with me. For me.

Now my tea is cold. But I think the storm has blown over. 

7 Happy Songs (Part 4)

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1.  “Mmlj” by the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers. (I love saying the title out loud!) An acronym for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, this song reminds me that DAILY NOURISHMENT comes from the gospels. The lyrics are so joyful, and the singers have voices to match!

2.  “I Will Never Let You Down” by Rita Ora. *GIRLY POP WARNING* Yes, it’s a throwaway pop song — nothing deep — but it’s got one of those melodies (with pristine production) that chemically alters my brain and makes me HAPPY! There’s a science to it, I’m sure.

3.  “In the Dark I See” by Lights. Oh man, LIGHTS. Everything she sings is magic in my ears. This song made me fall in love. Just her and a guitar. I’m not sure what this song means to her, but I know what it means to me. (I tend to sing it vertically, to God.)

4.  “Brighten My Heart” by Sixpence None the Richer. This song does what the title suggests: it brightens! I love the poetry and simplicity of the lyrics, paired with a humble melody and Leigh Nash’s childlike vocals. It’s a prayer I’ve sung on many occasions. Keep it handy for a pick-me-up!

5.  “Grace’s Amazing Hands” (and pretty much everything else) by Dave Barnes. That voice… Yummy. But this song in particular stands out because it personifies grace so beautifully: her hands are “ugly” and “bruised” because of the hard work they’ve accomplished, but they’re “soft as a feather bed” to those who’ve felt their loving touch.

6.  “Extraordinary” by Liz Phair. I admit this isn’t the HAPPIEST song on the planet… But I’d put it in the “angsty happy” category — a sort of liberating breakup song. Maybe it’s the happy memories that accompany the track, but it definitely belongs on my list. Maybe it’ll make the cut for you, too!

7.  “Every Time I Close My Eyes” by Mariah Carey… Err, I mean, Babyface. But really, this song is all about Mariah’s “background” vocals. This diva can’t just shrink into the background. Nuh uh. Poor Babyface takes a backseat when MC brings her signature vocal runs on the bridge. It’s PURE GOLD! *Pressing replay now*

Oh, and you can find more happy songs here and here and here.

Interview: SSA, Singleness And The Church

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Last week, I had the pleasure of joining two great guys at The Rugged Marriage for a conversation about same-sex attraction, singleness, and the Church. We talked about other stuff, too — music and tea and something called “Florida Man.” Let me tell you, I’d much rather type my thoughts from the safety of my laptop than speak out loud, on the spot. But Alex and Chris made me feel right at home. Check out the interview here. And show the boys some love by subscribing to their podcast and following them on Twitter

7 Happy Verses

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Yeah, it’s pretty much impossible to narrow down hundreds of happy Bible verses into a list of seven. So, to make it easier, I’m pulling a handful from the Book of Psalms, which is where I often go when I need an extra dose of delight. Let the impossible begin!

1.  “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).  This is a good reminder: we’re not missing out on ANY joy when we walk with God. The Christian’s joy is FULL and it extends into eternity!

2.  “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve preached this to myself when I’m sad, especially at night. I realize this is poetry, but the hope of joy in the LITERAL morning really comforts me — not to mention the promise of new mercies (Lamentations 3:23).

3.  “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).  It’s true, God actually commands us to be happy. Don’t mind if I do! I like how Randy Alcorn puts it: “When God invites you to a party, say yes.”

4.  “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12).  Although this is a psalm of repentance written after David’s affair with Bathsheba, there’s an important truth here: we’re designed for joy, but sin separates us from it. The sins we think will make us happy actually destroy our happiness, and we need God to restore it. I’ve prayed this so many times. I’m thankful God listens.

5.  “Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart.”  The never-ending Psalm 119 (this is verse 111) is all about God’s law, which is meant for our joy, and not to be a burden (1 John 5:3). Keep this verse handy when you start believing the lie that God doesn’t want us to be happy.

6.  Psalm 139.  The whole thinggggg! David doesn’t use literal happy words here, but this song can’t be sung without unbridled joy! God KNOWS us, UPHOLDS us, CREATES us, DEFENDS us, CONVICTS us, and LOVES us. I think this psalm has given me more joy than any other.

7.  “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation” (Psalm 149:4).  Wait… God takes pleasure in ME? I’m glad this verse is in the Bible — and others like it, such as Zephaniah 3:17 — because I need a reminder in my goal to delight in God that he also delights in me. An allegorical reading of The Song of Solomon conveys this mutual love between God and his people beautifully… but I’ll save that for another blog.

Of course, the psalms also touch on unhappy emotions — and sometimes I need those verses too — but what I find interesting is that they almost always circle back to joy. The collection of 150 songs ends with a series of happy doxologies culminating in praise to God, much like the Bible itself. And our lives, too, if we’re doing it right.

Life As A Doorkeeper

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We’ve all felt it. When we stare up at the stars or survey the outstretched sea. When we study those grand historical narratives or read some great theologian’s biography. I’m talking about feeling small.

Sure, we could all use a hearty slice of humble pie. We all need that Isaiah moment when we recognize how unclean and undone we are before a holy God. But those feelings should be balanced with (or shortly followed by) the beauty, mercy, and grace of God. They should be felt in the wider context of the Christian worldview — humility without despair. That is, humility with happiness.

Years ago, a friend, a housewife, taught me how to do this (unknowingly, as is often the case). That day we sat on the sofa in her living room and swapped summer reading lists. She flipped to the first chapter of Melville’s Moby-Dick and shared a passage that stood out to her. In it, the narrator, Ishmael, discusses his intent to go whaling:

And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.

WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.

BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.

Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces…

“Sometimes I feel like Ishmael,” she said. “Just a passing note — wife and mother of three.”

She said this with a smile, some otherworldly contentment, as she closed the book. Of course, being a wife and mom is a beautiful role, and something my friend does very well. But she understood that life has bigger headlines than hers, and somehow she’d made peace with her “shabby part.” If you asked her, she’d probably say something like this: Our life on earth is a foreword, a preface to a much longer, far greater story. A story that’s not our own. We play our part, however big or small, with God’s glory always our goal.

Paul put it this way: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Whether you’re called to be a whaler or a wife and mother of three, “do all to the glory of God.” Doing so offers the kind of humility that’s accompanied by great joy in knowing that God would give us even the smallest role in the saga of salvation.

The psalmist said it like this: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” Just a doorkeeper — that’s all he asked, if it meant being part of God’s kingdom. And if that’s my part, if that’s my tiny role, I pray that God will give me the grace to be the best doorkeeper I can be.

The Love(s) Of My Life

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Living the celibate life means facing claims that, because I’m not married or having sex, I haven’t truly experienced love. Sometimes those claims come from the culture, or worse, my own heart.

While it’s true I haven’t experienced an exclusive love — the sacred “one flesh” union so many people enjoy — that doesn’t mean I don’t know what it means to love and be loved. I have to remind myself of that pretty often. And in a marriage-oriented, sex-obsessed world, it takes more than a pithy remark about love coming in many forms. Sometimes I have to LITERALLY start listing the ways I experience love through the people God has placed in my life.

The friend who sends postcards from wherever she happens to be — quirky, handwritten reminders that our friendship matters.

The “mahernas” who for years have shared my burdens, rejoiced in my victories, and made me eat (nay, drink) my vegetables.

The friend who lives far away but says “good morning” every day and finds things we can do together: read books, watch Netflix, memorize Scripture.

The couple that invites me over for movie nights and homemade (slightly burnt) dinners, and stays up late with me after their kids have gone to sleep.

The “stupid” friend I tell everyone about, with her Twiggy lashes and fancy hair, who laughs with me till my guts hurt.

The woman who leaves me little love notes, prays with me, and sends invitations even if she knows I’ll be out of town, just so it’s clear I’m WANTED.

The bride who made me her “man of honor,” and whose house is gonna be REALLY close to mine on the new earth, right by her brother (and the dinosaur ranch).

The one who puts up with me 40 hours a week but still wants to spend time with me out of the office, and who’d rather call me “friend” than “coworker.”

The ladies I’ve known since junior high but even now, in their thirties, make time for “hangover” once a month — sometimes more when we really miss each other in between.

The family that lets me walk into their house without knocking, raid their fridge, play their piano, cuddle up on their couch, and even takes me on family vacations.

The neighbors who became brothers through years of churchgoing, Nintendo playing, Survivor watching, Bible studying — who know WAY too many embarrassing stories about me but aren’t ashamed to say I’m part of “the fam.”

The friends who found me via blog and “stalked” me until we became real-life friends — the kind that sing together, take strolls on the beach, all that California stuff.

Then there’s family — my own blood, that is — my parents, brother, adorable niece, aunts and uncles in strange, faraway lands (aka Kansas).

Of course, there are many more, but I’m already over my word count (and probably your attention span and/or capacity for mushy stuff). But in my heart, the list goes on.

So yeah, as a single man, I can’t dote on the “love of my life” (unless you count Jesus, and most people don’t). But I can tell you what I know: my heart belongs to these folks. I’m theirs and they’re mine. Maybe it’s not the “Honey, I’m home” kind of love, the wedded bliss, or the goodnight kiss, but these are the loves of my life. This is love, and it’s the real thing.