From the monthly archives: April 2013

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Uncontrolled Burn: How We Can Have Hope in the Tragedies of Life


The memories of what used to be. The lingering smell of smoke. The red-ish tint to the sun. The loss of beauty and life. The complete loss of control of what is happening.

Two days ago at the Boston Marathon, all of these things took place within a few minutes, reverberating into the day and for many more years to come.

As more and more information on the attack comes to light, we will undoubtedly wrestle with the question of, “How could this happen?” – both logistically and spiritually. In response, we will bolster our defense and security at major sporting events. Tragedies cause our hearts to ask where God is. When we don’t think he is present, we take the security of our future in own hands. We will seek to come up with new systems that won’t allow something like this to happen again.

Amidst these questions, amidst the horror and the tragedy of what happened in Boston, there are similar and analogous characteristics to last year’s High Park Fire west of Fort Collins. 

While Fort Collins witnessed the effects of the fire, those in the mountain towns of Bellvue and Poudre Park experienced the brunt of the destruction on a very immediate and personal level. Many of them were only able to grab a bag of belongings and just pray and hope that their homes would survive. 

I was in another country when the High Park Fire took place last summer, from the origin date to the containment date. I didn’t experience a day of it personally. But after coming back, my wife and I drove through the Poudre Canyon and out to Masonville to survey the damage. It was breathtaking. Burn areas right up to people’s houses. The fire jumping over roads and rivers.

But it really started to set in for me last week when I was able to lend a hand to a landowner in Rist Canyon who had his home destroyed and a whole mountain side burned up. Approaching his property, they had already cleared hundreds of burned and deadened trees with chainsaws, with still many to go. We found out that he has been staying at a temporary residence about a half-mile from his property, which allowed him to be closer and work on his land more regularly. Rebuilding has been slow, and with late snows, full momentum on planting and seeing new growth still has not come.

I stopped to let his situation sink in. Since last summer, the High Park Fire comes and goes out of my stream of consciousness. For the last 10 months, this family has been displaced out of their permanent home. Every day serves as a reminder that they don’t have their home anymore. The owner, Dr. Pedro Boscan, shared feelings of fatigue and frustration with the rebuilding process. But there we were, 45 strong to help in whatever small way we could. A meager group to recoup the loss of 87,000-plus acres of burned forest. But great things always start small. Those tall Ponderosa pines and blue spruces all were baby seedlings at one point. And so that’s where we started again.

We planted more than 300 seedlings that day, and there is still more work than we can fit our minds around. But I realized afterwards, as Dr. Boscan was saying he was just hopeful that most of the seedlings make it, that there is never a time where you have your property “under control.” Another fire is unlikely anytime soon, but who’s to say something else won’t happen? My own house, for example, inside the “safe” city limits of Fort Collins, could be run into by a car, or a tornado could touch down, or a myriad of other things could devastate it. None of us can control our lives, our possessions, our world. 

Some of the verses that I have been thinking on lately come from Psalm 103:15-19:


As for man, his days are like grass;

    he flourishes like a flower of the field;

for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,

    and its place knows it no more.


As quickly as those trees can blossom, as quickly as those roots go down, there may be some other event to kill them. My life and the bounds of its days are not in my control, nor are any of ours. As I type that, I feel pessimistic and fatalistic. Because being out of control is hostile to my sensibilities. I much prefer to think happy thoughts, to hope for good, to know progress is possible and attainable through my effort. 

But without an anchor, a reason, for those hopes to exist, it’s just wishful thinking. I could wish the snow outside would stop, but those wishes are not effective on water molecules or the One who controls them. My only hope in today’s tasks, tomorrow’s worries and my dreams for the future rests on the solid Rock of God’s strength and goodness:


Once God has spoken;

    twice have I heard this:

that power belongs to God,

    and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. (Psalm 62:11-12)


God is the one before, during and after all our happiest moments and all our tragedies. He has promised to be in the tragedies with us, and for us that is our hope. In the uncontrolled burns of my life, when things are so beyond my grasp, I have the one thing that I need: the knowledge that the One who is in control is good and strong. Deep trust in him has never left anyone disappointed. As Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

Recommended Reading:

“Colorado State professor, volunteer firefighter loses home to High Park Fire” by Kaitie Huss (Collegian)
“From the Ashes, Neighbors Help Neighbors Rebuild Green” by Dan R. Fink (Huffington Post)
All Things for Good by Thomas Watson

Help Those Impacted by the High Park Fire:

Sign up for the April 27 seedling project
The Long Term Recovery Group of Northern Colorado

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The Boston Marathon and How We Experience Tragedy Today

I was sitting at my desk yesterday, working away, watching the snow pile up on the blue spruce outside my window. It’s hard to go wrong with snow-laden blue spruce.

Then the world changed. Two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Eyewitnesses reported feeling the shockwaves of the blast from multiple blocks away.

But I felt it – we felt it – roughly 2,000 miles away. The instant connectivity we demand ushered in a stream of news, images and information that was and is hard to understand and process. When the social networks and the web community focus on an event as jarring as what happened yesterday in Boston, we know. We don’t read a tidy newspaper. We get it all in a constant, non-linear feed. We process and gatekeep. We skim and click. We share and retweet. We experience by proxy what others are experiencing first-hand. At the same time. We become part of the story, even if we’re two time zones away.

It started with a solitary tweet from one of the news organizations I follow. Then over a 15 minute span, updates of the attack (can we call it that? Is that OK?) consumed my Twitter feed.

Someone shared a link to a Boston Globe video that captured the first blast. I gasped.

An acquaintance of mine who writes for Christianity Today re-tweeted the link to the Google doc with the phone numbers and addresses of Boston locals offering their houses and apartments to the stranded runners. Tears began to form.

I followed the Boston Police Department’s denial of having a suspect in custody.

Prayers were tweeted. Photos of the blast site with the words “Pray for Boston” were already filling up my Facebook feed.

Pundits were making politically charged remarks. Other pundits responded with disdain.

Then the casualty numbers started to roll in. First, only injured; then two dead; then three dead, one of them an 8-year-old boy; more than 100 injured, some horrifically.

Praises soon followed for the first-responders and bystanders who helped tend to the injured.

And just like that, a good hour and a half had passed. I was in Boston. I was on Boylston Street. I was at the finish line. I saw that 78-year-old man fall to the ground after the first blast, get up and finish the race.

Participating in History post-9/11

The 9/11 comparisons came quickly. Obviously, the scale isn’t all that comparable, but what I wondered was this: What would we have done if 9/11 occurred in a world saturated with Facebook, Twitter and smart phones equipped with HD video cameras?

I remember watching the second tower collapse. I was a sophomore in high school. My family was glued to the TV set. I believe it was Fox News. I remember getting on MSN Instant Messenger later that day and talking about it with my friends. We were coping after the fact. And in those early days of Web 2.0, there was no other way to connect with the unfolding of history except through chat windows, refreshing the Drudge Report and watching replays on the nightly news.

It’s one thing to watch the world change. It’s another thing entirely to be an active participant in and eyewitness to that change. We knew more about what happened yesterday than the runners on the other side of the finish line.

History was recorded as it was happening yesterday. This isn’t the first time such a phenomenon has taken place – sporting events frequently receive instant commentary and analysis on social networks – but the events in Boston seemed to be the most galvanizing since 9/11.

What are we to make of this? To be honest, I don’t know. There are upsides and downsides to the level of access we’re granted through the Internet and the various nodes to which we attach ourselves. In regards to Boston, maybe we’ll make hasty remarks that don’t reflect the reality of Christ in our lives. Maybe someone in Boston will read a prayer that got retweeted and ended up on their feed.

Or maybe we’ll learn more about what it means to be genuinely empathetic; what it means to stop and enter into the pain of others; to get some of it on us. As some of you may know, I’m a New York Yankees fan. But yesterday I was rooting and praying for Boston.

For more on the Boston tragedy, we recommend:
“When the Bombs Exploded in Boston” by Tony Reinke

(Photo credit: Flickr/Aaron Tang)

Missions Fund 2013: An Update from Japan

Last year, the support we raised through our Missions Fund helped send the Cervenka family to a suburb of Tokyo for an entire year. They are down to the last four months before coming back to the States for a debriefing, but a short-term team from Summitview (mostly Symbio folk) is headed that way in June to help them make the most of their remaining time.

The Cervenkas sent us an update of their work in Tokyo, and you can read that here. And if you would like to help the team going there in June, Lee Vary, who went to Japan with Torgun Lovely and Mark and Tiffany Schreiber back in November, is hosting a sushi fundraising party this Saturday.

Fellowship on the Frontier: Gratitude for Our Local Wagon Train

Deep breath in. Out. “You’re here,” I kept telling myself. “That’s all you can do. Just be here.” 

Two months ago, my husband and I received some bad news, news that was cause for legitimate mourning and news that most people wouldn’t fault us for retreating from social contact for a season. We felt terribly alone.

And, yet, we found ourselves at a dinner the next night with four other staff couples – people whom we love dearly and at any other time would have been excited to spend time with. I moved to the couch, sat down, trying to stay composed and excusing myself occasionally to go to the bathroom, cry a little, blow my nose, and return to my solitary position on the couch. It was a comfortable couch. 

I remember thinking that maybe it was a mistake to come, to venture out into the land of people so soon when my insides were still so raw. We debated all day whether we should attend. The meal being pot-luck style, we had agreed to bring certain items. Somehow, my sense of obligation tends to override any impulse to hide away in a corner of my house like the extreme introvert that I am, so we went.

In many other social situations, I might have been able to get away with sitting on the couch alone and keeping to myself. But not here. Our hostess for the evening has the keen ability to draw me out, to lovingly seek after my heart. When heaviness has invaded, she has drawn out the depths of my troubled heart on more than one occasion. It’s uncomfortable and a tremendous blessing all at once. 

She sat with me for a while and another friend joined us. I asked questions about what was new in their lives, trying to focus on anything other than what was on my heart. Eventually, with some patient prodding and my hundredth deep breath of the evening, I spoke the reality of our situation.

And I cried, mostly because I’m a serious crier. It was incredibly freeing to speak the words, to share my grief with other women whom I love and respect. I no longer felt so alone. 

As the night continued, I found myself being drawn into fellowship with these women, little by little. It wasn’t my most spectacular social effort, but God blessed it. At the end of the evening, I didn’t want to leave because I didn’t want to go home to our empty house (a complete shift from my earlier desire to be alone). 

Fellowship heals. Perhaps that’s the heart of the whole matter. 

As we considered themes for our study through the book of Joshua this year, we came to this conclusion:

The book of Joshua is a western myth. A band of people, led by one of these Ranger types, covering the open range between towns; entering rough territory with a clear mission. One thing’s for sure: They bring the Law wherever they go. It is as if our mythical western scene, minus the saloons and the train robberies, with all of its soul-stirring appeal, has walked itself out in reality. (from the Joshua D-Team Leader Resource)

Personally, I think of “frontier” like I think of the game “Oregon Trail.” You load up on provisions, you venture into lands unknown for the promise of something better, and you never go alone. Even on the Trail, families travelled in wagon trains. They had fellowship and community and greater safety in numbers.

And I’m grateful for our little wagon train as we continue along the frontier God has placed us, here in Fort Collins. It’s an exercise in faith and it’s not always convenient or comfortable. Sometimes, we end up crying on a comfortable couch in someone else’s living room. Sometimes it means we go out of our way to engage in the pain of others, to find ways to bless those who need a little extra help, to bake someone a pie, to ask hard questions and to pray in public places because that’s where you find yourself when prayer is needed. We are meant to be one body, to hold one another up when things are difficult, to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

He didn’t design us to be alone when snakes bite or we lose an ox in the middle of fording a river. He has put us together to encourage one another, to have someone to walk alongside because the wagons are too full of stuff we may or may not need and to lead hymns on a fiddle around a campfire in the middle of the wilderness. It’s beautiful and it keeps us moving forward.

We will reach the “something better” after our time of toil on the frontier. Our faith will lead us not only to the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” but to the actual fulfillment of the promises – and how great it will be to rejoice with one another when we see them fulfilled!

Lovingly Kicking Hornets Nests: The Importance of Keeping "First Things" First

Last fall, the boys and I were scouting our favorite 13 acres on the planet. We were looking for a strategic place to set up our tree stand. It was bow hunting season, early fall in northwest Wisconsin. The glowing beams of sunlight characteristic of fall's low-hanging sun became an apt representation of the day's perfection. Until ...

Their panic was palpable and accompanied by real pain. One of them had inadvertently stepped on a hornet's nest in a decaying log. Within seconds, both boys were covered in hornets – angry hornets. The hornet's safety had been disturbed and there was hell to pay. This is the way of hornets. And, deep down, we understand them. 

The apostle Paul seemed bent on finding those huddled places of safety and graciously giving them a swift kick. His letters are filled with incisive sentences that penetrate to the root of the “dearly held things” that made people feel safe apart from God. 

For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians 3:3–4)

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? (1 Corinthians 5:1–2)

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.  (1 Corinthians 8:1)

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6)

But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14)

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. (Galatians 5:2)

The Corinthian and Galatian churches were tempted with different things. The Corinthians used grace as a license for selfish pleasure seeking. They proudly relied on their own knowledge. Personal value was determined not by the cross but by associations and favored gifting. Gatherings were nothing more than a disordered popularity contest. These were expressions of the Corinthians’ pursuit of safety.

The Galatians were tempted to find safety in their religious performance. Christ's death and resurrection were insufficient to establish their acceptability before God and each other. Another “gospel” with additional requirements was seeping into their community. 

Kicking to Keep First Things First

As both churches settled into their nests, Paul started kicking and, it seems, the hornets became a little angry (2 Corinthians 7:8-9). Why was Paul so bent this way? Why would he import that trouble?

He answers that in 1 Corinthians 15.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1–4)

Many view these verses as the first creed in Christian history. They represented the foundational elements of the Christian faith – those things that must be shared by all who claim to be Christ's disciples. But they also represent that which should be the primary focus of every Christian community. All of life and practice flow downstream from these matters of first importance. They are our source of eternal safety. Nothing is to be added or subtracted to provide additional safety. Christians rest here and here alone. 

So our obedience is not an attempt at more safety; it is an expression of love for the one who finally established our safety. (Parenting, for instance, is not first about the behavior, education or “outcome” that validates us as parents: It is about our working for the Lord, as Colossians 3:23-24 says.) And every pleasure is a temporary rest and good only as it represents God’s eternal kindness (James 1:17). Understanding these things allows us to enter rest and to live generous lives of loving our neighbor as ourselves. 

If other matters usurp those of “first importance,” competition, envy, strife, self-righteousness, malice, greed, lust and all forms of evil begin to creep into a church. They destroy the joy of the people and the display of God's sufficiency. Paul loved the people in Corinth and Galatia; he adored God; and he believed Jesus’ gospel to be glorious and absolutely sufficient for our final rest. So he kicked the hornets nest and held out Christ. He got stung but he did preserve life. Welts are the characteristic marks of a leader chosen by God. Welts … and life. 

Now that doesn't mean that things beyond the cross and resurrection are inconsequential; they have their place. They just need to know their place. So how do we interact with those issues? I would suggest the following approach:

The Second Tier

Second tier matters are addressed specifically in the Scriptures. Expressions of our sexuality, roles/responsibilities in a family or church, responsibility to proclaim the gospel, use of our words, forgiveness, temptations of lust, greed and anger – these issues and many more are directed in the Bible. The directions are an expression of God's holiness, which, in the cross, we do not reject but accept. But they are not given as a roadmap to self-righteousness. Our approach to these directives must be cross-shaped. We strive for obedience and submission to the Scriptures here – not to be acceptable – because, in the cross, we have been made acceptable. The core of our appeal to obedience is to be the same as Paul's:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6)

Unity in these matters is essential because they are plain in the Bible. But performance in these matters must not establish a person's value. 

The Third Tier

Third tier debates have no explicit direction in the Bible. When you ask, “Where is it written?” of these things, you have no chapter and no verse. Yet they may represent wise application of second tier commands. How are we to handle disagreements over personal choices regarding education, career, finances and even food? Or what about disagreements in the broader issues such as gun control, taxation, the environment, nationalism or national defense?

Thankfully, Paul gives clear direction in Romans 14. Christian unity does not depend on unity in the third tier. In these issues each person must stand before God. Certainly there is room for debate, but those debates should be full of freedom and trust in God's guidance through the Holy Spirit and a clear conscience.

Kenny Rogers may have said, "You've got to know when to kick 'em..." Or something like that.

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. (In necessary things unity; in uncertain things freedom; in everything compassion.) – Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560–1624)

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5–6)

Keeping first things first is the key. Happy (gracious) kicking. 

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