We held out for healing. We prayed for it. We laid our hands on his head. We called out for God’s kingdom to come on earth, in Zeke, as it is in heaven. But the healing we wanted never came, and finally, after far too long, Zeke took his last breath at 3:00 this morning, passing from life to death, and on into eternal life.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

Zeke is with Jesus. I’m jealous of them both.

I’m jealous of Zeke because he gets to rest from all of his trials. He gets to see what I can only hope for. He gets to know Jesus face-to-face. He is made whole, today, in the presence of his Savior and Creator.

I’m jealous of Jesus because he gets to talk to Zeke. Because of this disease, I was never able to have a real conversation with him. He could only respond nonverbally because the speech function in his brain was not allowed to develop. But now that he’s made whole, the first person he ever gets to converse with is Jesus. So I’m jealous.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

Our hope is built upon the resurrection of Jesus. We don’t imagine that Zeke is whole or that we will see him again because we are looking for ways to comfort ourselves. Rather, we comfort ourselves in the historical fact of Jesus’s resurrection and what that means about the future for all who believe in him.

Zeke’s bed is empty, and I feel that same emptiness in my heart. All of the pillows and blankets that protected his flailing feet and arms from hitting the bedrails are still there, but his body is conspicuously absent. My heart is wrung dry. My stomach is churning.

For half of his life he suffered from the effects of seizures. Now, for eternity, his body is made new, never to seize again. I rejoice that his suffering is over. I lament that he is gone.

My sweet boy, the next time I see you we must have a long chat.

I love you.

I rejoice with you.

You are missed.

I will never forget you.

New Year’s resolutions are a great idea. The start of a new year is the perfect time to make important changes in your life, changes that will help you to become the person you want to be. A healthier diet. Regular exercise. Reading the Bible every day. All of these are important things that will shape your character for good.

The heart of self-discipline is the ability to say “No” to the wrong things so that you can say “Yes” to the right things.
At the heart of almost every resolution is the issue of self-discipline, and the heart of self-discipline is the ability to say “No” to the wrong things so that you can say “Yes” to the right things. I need to learn to say “No” to the things that steal my time, my health, and my character so that I can become the man God wants me to be. And I think most of us want to become the person God wants us to be.

We want to instill practices in our lives that make us better people. We want to form good habits and participate in daily spiritual disciplines. We want to eat better and work out more. Hence, New Year’s resolutions.

The Problem

But I’ve discovered, after trying this every year for about 20 years, that turning on a dime is nearly impossible. Most of us are like battleships. We need a lot of time and energy to change course. Of all the resolutions I’ve made over the years, I was only ever able to keep one of them. (I read through the whole Bible in 2011, so I’ve pretty much punched my ticket to heaven.) That’s about a 2% success rate. Yikes!

Most of the people I know are close to that number with the resolutions they’ve been able to keep. While some people are significantly better at keeping resolutions, most of us feel lucky to have stuck to one or two in our entire lives. All of this failure makes me want to stop trying. Maybe you’ve reached that point. I know I have. I’m ready to try something new.

New Year’s resolutions don’t work because we’re not used to living lives of self-discipline.
Resolutions don’t work because we’re not used to living lives of self-discipline. It’s a me problem. I enjoy certain things in life, and have come to believe that I am entitled to them.

Whether it’s eating out or sleeping in, the pleasures of life are no longer something I enjoy occasionally, but rather pleasures to which I feel entitled every day, every meal. The problem isn’t that I’m not saying yes to the right things; it’s that I’m saying yes to the tiny pleasures of life all the time. Saying “Yes!” to these tiny pleasures, these entitlements, too often leaves no room to say “Yes!” to the things that create character in your soul.

I drink Coke at almost every meal.

I get on Facebook and Twitter dozens of times each day, at work and home, stealing time from my vocation and my family.

I read sports blogs instead of good books.

I watch Netflix instead of exercising.

This list could go on and on. While these things are not bad in and of themselves, and they can be part of a healthy and balanced life, what I’ve discovered is that the development of my character is won or lost in a thousand tiny decisions each day. Trying to cut out sugar, Coke, or Facebook all at once on January 1 just doesn’t work for most people. It has never worked for me. So I want to try something new, and I’d like to invite you to participate with me.

The Solution

The development of my character is won or lost in a thousand tiny decisions each day.
I’m calling 2014 the Year of No. It’s not the Year of No Netflix, or the Year of No Fast Food, or the Year of No Shopping. I’m not quitting anything cold turkey. 2014 is just the Year of No – the year of saying “No!” to something to which you feel entitled each day. It’s the year of celebrating small victories of self-discipline and self-denial. Radical, immediate life change is very rare. More often than not, life change is a long, slow process of saying “No!” to your entitlements which then opens up space for you to say “Yes!” to the practices and disciplines that allow for character development.

In Mark 8:34-35, Jesus said:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

I’m convinced that following Jesus is not a decision I make once, but is a long series of decisions made everyday. It’s not a prayer I pray once, but a persistent prayer of “No!” against the entitlements and temptations of my heart. You have to learn to say “No” before you can say “Yes.” You have to lose your life before you can save it.

I need to learn to say “No,” but I know that I can’t learn it all at once. I’ve tried that. But maybe I can learn to say “No” one decision at a time. I don’t need to cut Twitter out of my life, but I do need to learn to say “No” when I’m tempted to scan through it eight times at work or while my kids are awake. That’s what this is about: cutting back what is out of a balance rather than cutting it out of my life completely. I know myself too well to think that I can do the latter at this point, but I remain optimistic about being able to do the former.

The Plan

So here’s my plan.

Identify some of the things to which you feel entitled, and write them down. It could be anything. Eating out. Watching TV. Sleeping in. Drinking alcohol. Buying clothes. Facebook. Comments sections on news websites. (Okay, that one you should cut out completely!) Wherever you find yourself indulging, that’s where your entitlement lives. Identify your entitlements, write them down, and keep them somewhere you’ll see them everyday. Clarity is the first step toward victory, and writing is important for remembering.

Say “No!” to one of your entitlements every day. Have a glass of water at lunch instead of Coke. Stay off of Facebook or Twitter while at work. Put your phone away when you get home and interact with your roommates, spouse, or kids. It’s not about saying “No” to something forever; it’s about saying “No” to an entitlement right now so that you can say “Yes” to something better and more important. This is how you win the battle for self-discipline: denying one little entitlement at a time.

Share your experiences – the victories and the failures – using the hashtag #yearofno. At the risk of being both cheesy and self-congratulatory, I think it’s important to share this stuff with each other because self-discipline isn’t something I can do by myself. I’ve tried that already, dozens of times, and failed every time. We need each other for celebration and accountability. So when you say “No!” to that second dessert, or cigarette, or Netflix binge, share it on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #yearofno so we can all celebrate with you. (Of course, if your entitlement is social media, find an appropriate time to share it. Hint: Not when your kids are asking for your attention!)

It’s not about saying “No” to something forever; it’s about saying “No” to an entitlement right now so that you can say “Yes” to something better and more important.
This is not a resolution. This is not about quitting something cold turkey. This is about strengthening your will through tiny exercises of self-discipline. It’s about denying yourself in small ways every day so that you can become the person God wants you to be. It’s about denying yourself so that you can find true life.

If this is something that you would like to do, you don’t have to sign up for anything or even tell me. You can just start saying “No!” to your entitlements and use the hashtag on Twitter or Facebook. Then, if you see someone else doing it, you can offer them encouragement and support. Feel free to share this post so that other folks can know what you’re doing and participate, too.

When the calendar flipped from 2012 to 2013, I thought there was no way I could have a year worse than the one I had just experienced. In 2012 we lost Ember Church, I lost my job, and, worst of all, Zeke started having his seizures. While 2013 has had its share of blessings, I’d have to say that it has been just as hard and painful as the year before.

In 2013, we found out that Zeke’s seizures are more than seizures – that he has a rare, fatal, neurological condition known as Batten Disease. He has regressed significantly, and it seems to me that we will likely lose him in 2014. Shortly after his diagnosis, Breena and I made the difficult decision to leave Westerville, where we had been raising our family for the previous seven years, and move to Toledo, where both of our families live. We needed the support that only family can provide in such dire times. We had built a life in central Ohio – a life full of amazing people with whom we had shared so much of ourselves. Leaving is hard. Leaving because your child is dying and you need to be close to family for his last days…well, that’s something else entirely.

It’s been a rough couple of years. God is faithful.

Putting those two thoughts together gives me hope. He has been active in my life this year, teaching me, molding me, refining my character. Here are five lessons I’ve learned this year (four are serious, one is trivial).

1. God is a refuge in times of trouble, not a safeguard against them.

This is a lesson I’ve been learning over the past couple of years, actually. When “bad” things happen to “good” people, we tend to complain that God is being unjust or, perhaps worse, incompetent. Jeremiah made this kind of complaint to God in Jeremiah 12:1.

You are always righteous, Lord,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?

You see this sort of thing throughout the Psalms, as well. In fact, Scripture is soaked in this kind of complaining to God that the righteous do not get a fair shake from him in this life. But faithfulness to God is no guarantee of a painless life. This can come as a surprise to young pastors. It certainly did to me. (I’ve written about this here.)

Suffering can feel like a sort of exile, like God has abandoned me and now I am alone, exposed, vulnerable to the forces of evil that terrify the world. I’ve wrestled through all of this with God, especially in the wake of losing my church and now, more importantly, as we have walked with Zeke through his disease. What I’ve learned is that the deep, relational knowledge of Jesus Christ is forged in the furnace of suffering, loss, frustration, and disappointment. The secret of the kingdom of God is that redemptive suffering and failure are kingdom victory.

The secret of the kingdom of God is that redemptive suffering is kingdom victory.
God is present in our suffering in very deep and profound ways. Granted, it doesn’t always feel like that. But part of living with God is learning to trust him beyond what you can feel. He won’t necessarily keep the hard things of life away from you, but when they come, he is there. Without him, Breena and I could not make it. Without him, Zeke’s suffering would be meaningless. With him, however, we have found a hope beyond reason and a faith that transcends our emotions and our circumstances.

2. Suffering can be used as an excuse to be lazy, entitled, and self-centered.

The most dangerous element of our suffering is not that we will lose someone we love, but that we will become engulfed by our own self-pity and our identities will become submerged in a self-centered victimhood that robs us of the joy of giving and receiving love. The worst thing that can happen is for your suffering to steal your empathy. Devolving into victimhood is no way to honor the memory of those you have lost.

Breena and I are losing a child in one of the worst ways I can imagine, but that does not entitle us to live self-centered, lazy lives of burdensome self-pity. In the midst of our sorrow there has been tremendous blessing. God has even been at work in our trial to expand his kingdom. Our eyes have been opened to the suffering of those around us. We have, by the grace of God, become more empathetic. Though, at times, I can become self-centered and shut out the world in my victimhood, I have sensed myself becoming more aware, and more compassionate, of those who suffer.

It is a constant temptation to let my son’s terminal illness be an excuse for laziness. “Sorry, I don’t have time for that. MY SON IS DYING!” is a refrain that echoes through my heart and mind all too often. Sure, my capacity is severely limited by the extremity of my circumstances, but it is no excuse to be lazy in my relationships and responsibilities. Suffering exposes your weaknesses, and in that exposure, offers you the grace to grow in character in the power of the Holy Spirit.

3. Vocational humility is pleasing to God.

Losing my church at the end of 2012 was a big blow to me, personally. (You can read more about the story of Ember, and its closure, here.) I have always had high expectations of myself, vocationally. Church planting was the culmination of a long, arduous journey in ministry where I often put my own desires and dreams ahead of everything else.

Losing my church, and then losing my job, put me into a tough situation, vocationally, at the start of the year. The good people at LifePoint Church in Columbus took a risk with me by hiring me as a Video Producer and Graphic Designer. In terms of ministry vocation, this was a significant step away from being the Lead Pastor of a church, which I had been for a year and a half. In order for this to work, I had to swallow my pride and release my sense of entitlement to vocational ministry. I had to accept the fact that I was someone who worked behind the scenes, contributing in ways that were not as “significant” as preaching and teaching. It was humbling.

This was a very significant change in attitude for me. For too many years, I lived with a sense of entitlement, that I deserved to be doing “more” than I was doing. I wanted more responsibility, more opportunity, more chances for my voice to be heard. To let go of that was freeing, and I think it pleased and honored God. It is an attitude of heart that I am intent on maintaining because there is life in humility.

4. Positive character development requires active participation.

The opposite is also true. Negative character development requires passivity. In other words, you don’t need to do anything to either stay where you are, from a character development perspective, or regress. If I want to grow, and I do, then I need to be actively engaged in that process. Some of the things that I try to incorporate into my life are:

  • daily Bible reading 

    We may be saved by grace, but we grow through hard work and perseverance.
  • prayer journaling
  • solitude
  • reflection
  • study

There are other things that I could do, and some of the things I’ve listed might not be what you need right now. There are many spiritual disciplines that you can participate in, and I would encourage you to find the two or three that suit your temperament and situation in life. But I’ve found that the more faithful I am with these few disciplines, the more I become like Christ. I am changed, and I notice it. (So does my wife!)

Spiritual development just doesn’t happen by accident. You have to be committed to it. We may be saved by grace, but we grow through hard work and perseverance. This is a lesson I will be learning for the rest of my life.

5. Winning championships in sports is really hard.

This is the trivial one.

I follow three sports teams: the Detroit Tigers (baseball), and the Ohio State Buckeyes in football and men’s basketball. All three teams were very good this year – fully capable of winning a championship. None of them did.

After the sports heartache I experienced this year, I’m not sure if it’s worse for your favorite team to be bad or almost-good-enough-to-win-the-championship-but-not-quite. Watching and cheering for these teams has underscored just how hard it is to win championships. I’m trying to learn how to disassociate myself from these teams so that I’m not such an emotional wreck when they lose. So far, it hasn’t worked. I guess there’s always next year.

I haven’t read a book like this before. N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living is prose you experience rather than read. The cover image of breaking waves is an apt metaphor, not only for the content of the book, but also of the style. It breaks over the reader, engulfing him in words and narrative and life.

_240_360_Book.903.coverThe story is the story of Wilson’s life. Or, more accurately, the lives that led to his life and how those lives continue to impact his life. It’s a family memoir and reflection on the mortality of human existence. It’s the story of people you’ve never heard of, but who have lived fully enough to deserve their own biopic on PBS. It’s the story of how stories get passed from generation to generation to generation, and how those stories guide the paths of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

One of the most beautiful contributions of the book is Wilson’s insight about how people he will never know and can never thank gave up their lives so that others–including his grandparents–could live. He exists because someone seventy years ago died for a stranger, a brother-in-arms, who went on to get married and have kids who had kids who went on to write books and teach English and have kids of their own.

This book is the antidote to cynicism. It is profound and beautiful, and will give you a sense of awe for the little things, the forgotten things, the things overlooked and passed over in the busyness of life. It won’t solve your problems or even give you a plan of action, but it will change your perspective on the world.

BookSneeze® provided me with a complimentary copy of this book.

Page 3 of 7« First...2345...Last »