Shortcuts

We weren’t going anywhere.

Stuck sitting in a Thursday morning traffic jam is not a fun thing when you have places to go and people to meet.

That’s probably what prompted the white pickup truck behind me to finally pull off the road and begin making his way brashly through the closed-down construction of the new lanes. Bypassing the line, I watched him weave past potholes and trenches and “road closed” signs until he finally stopped, dead-ended as his “shortcut” came to an end.

As I caught up to him and passed by at last, I smiled triumphantly.

It got me thinking, though. Don’t I do that sometimes, too? Don’t I get impatient with my circumstances and try to jump out of line and take a shortcut?

Don’t you?

Sometimes those shortcuts we take end up taking us places we don’t want to go. Sometimes they end up making us wait longer than ever. Maybe sometimes it’s best to just sit where we are, be a little patient, and trust that God’s still on His throne.

Even traffic jams have to move eventually.

Spillage

She was only trying to help.

I smiled at the girl behind the counter at the cafe as she filled up my sun-colored mug with fresh, black coffee.  Everything looked fine at first, the hot liquid steaming from the mug, delightful aroma filling the air, and she was quite generous with the portion.

It looked fine, but setting it down on a wobbly table revealed the problem quickly.

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Small Pleasures

The World Market food section is a lovely place for the senses.

I am walking through a cornucopia of brightly colored packages of marzipan and imported biscotti, surrounded by the scent of exotic teas and coffees from other lands. All of a sudden, my senses dim and center on a single package, the other trinkets and goodies quickly forgotten as my drifting eyes lock in on a treasure not seen since that little gift shop in Frankfurt.

Bueno.

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Praying WITH God

I am surrounded by water.

A sky of cobalt is above me, rays of morning sun stream through the space between downtown high rises, and all around this concrete jetty are the black lapping waves of the Caloosahatchee River.  A cool breeze nudges the tinkling wind chimes on the deck of a nearby boat as a haphazard collection of birds welcomes the day with a song, and a shadow drifts across my page as the mast of a small powered sailboat passes through the path of the dawn, dragging its life boat and owners’ schedules behind it.

The bridge in front of me makes a gentle arc across the river; a highway of asphalt beckoning cars to bring their owners across the water for a busy day ahead.  Their engines provide the background noise, the audio canvas over which all other sounds must somehow stretch to take their turn in my ears.

There is no salt smell here, just the ever-so-faint odor of brackish river water making its way to the sea.

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Language (dis)connection

All around me are people, squished and squeezed and packed in tightly, seat by seat, row by row, waiting for takeoff.

The woman next to me looks so lost, like she’s frightened a bit and just wishing the trip was over. It seems she knows no English, and I am struck by how my own experience these last days in Lebanon helps me to empathize with her. To be alone in a sea of incomprehensible words, unable to read the signs and instructions around you, to be forced to rely only on the most basic of grunts and gestures – that is a frightening thing in any culture.

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Small town snapshots

Small to mid-sized towns have a certain charm about them. Perhaps it’s the sense of homey community, or the feeling of history behind each landmark.

With big cities, it’s easy to get so focused on the new things and the energy of mass population that you lose sight of the place itself.

Not so with the small town. It draws you in, whispers stories from the shadows. The small town not only *has* character, it IS one.

Fishes in the Sky

I’m sitting in a straight-back chair with a fastened safety belt, 35,000 feet up on a hot summer day. All around me are clouds; the white, puffy, cotton-ball clouds that give young imaginations the best fodder you could ask for.

I remember clouds like this from summer afternoons as a boy; from long, hot, lazy days filled with lemonade and basketball games. No matter what games we played, though, it seems we almost always found time and a patch of grass to just lie down and watch. Dragons and ships and fish and who knows what else we’d see; anything could happen when the clouds were just right.

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Living in the mystery

Confession time: I’m an analyzer.  Ok, make that an over-analyzer.  I am the type that has a deep drive to take every fact or experience and try to fit it into a category or framework; some sort of structure to show me what it all means.  It’s the never-ending push to understand, to know, that drives this desire to analyze, dissect and pick everything apart, so I won’t be lost on the dim plain of chance.

Let me explain it this way…

Imagine you’ve stumbled upon an abandoned battle field that now lies silent in the late moments of dusk. The sun has fled the horizon but the moon isn’t yet out, and the last shafts of daylight are reflected and diffused by a low-hanging cloud of battle-smoke and fog.  The wounded have long since been taken away, and now all that remains is a slowly shifting landscape of indefinable shapes; figures walking the field slowly, though for what purpose you have no idea.  Here you stand on the edge of the plain, wanting to walk through, but here’s the problem: simply don’t know what lies ahead.  You stare for a while, seeing the dim outline of several paths through the mist, but can’t discern where each one leads.  What’s more, you don’t know whether each one is level or rocky, whether you can run with abandon or must instead creep along to avoid pitfalls.  You just… don’t… know.

Not only that, but what to make of the figures and objects you see through the fog?  All you can see are shapes, undefined masses in the mist, with no way to see whether they are inanimate or alive, friend, foe, or neutral.  If you don’t know what the path looks like, and you don’t know much at all about the scattered details on the horizon, how can you possibly decide which way to go?

For me, and I believe for many, if not most of us, this scene is a constant part of our lives.  Each person will see it a little differently of course, but the feeling of not knowing what to expect, of lacking solid understanding about what the scattered events around us mean… well, it’s simply part of the world in which we live.

Now, the way we handle this varies widely.  Some will approach with abandon, running recklessly through the field with no idea what lies ahead, maintaining the attitude of “it’ll all work out in the end”.  Others will stop at the edge and sit, waiting and waiting for answers until their days simply fade away and end with them never having moved at all.  Still others will begin to walk, then retrace their steps and try another path, only to repeat again and again in a cycle of indecision.

Even among those who claim to follow Christ, it usually seems to work the same way.  The only difference is some will run recklessly while confidently proclaiming that God is with them, and others will spend their waiting time in prayer and Scripture reading, trying to find a black-and-white plan they can believe in.

Here’s the problem with this… God is not merely black-and-white.

To be sure, the Bible reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8) and, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Num 23:19), but there is a HUGE difference in acknowledging the unchanging constancy of God’s character, and trying to fit all of His plans and actions into a neatly predictable package.

No, God is a God of wildness, of mystery.  He is a God who loves His children fiercely, and does desire all sorts of good for them, but what seems good on this side of eternity may not always be the case on the other.  There is nothing wrong with praying for answers, seeking guidance and direction, and asking God for specific things in our lives, but when we try to fit God’s actions into a mold that assures our comfort and success, when we try to assign to His ways criteria that always make sense to us, then what we are doing is approaching the eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe and demanding that He work in ways that we approve.

We must remember that the same God who gave His people water and mana in the desert also later sent them famine and drought.

The same Jesus that healed the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda also left other invalids there, unhealed.

The same God that came to Solomon, saying “Ask for whatever you want me to give you” (1 Kings 3:5b) and then granted the young king’s request far beyond his wildest dreams, also came to righteous Job and said “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man and I will question you, and you shall answer me.  Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand…” and on and on (though in the end He did restore to Job all he had lost, and more).

This is a God of tender kindness and awesome judgment; a God who always keeps His promises, but in His way and time; a God who lets His children wrestle and argue with Him, but will not be pinned down, and it is because of this, that He is worthy of awe, respect, worship, and love.

In my life, I find more and more that as long as I am raging my own private war against uncertainty, I become more and more miserable.  It’s like boxing the wind or resisting the tide: I can struggle for a while, but in the end I am the one that must admit defeat, every time.

True peace comes when I am able to embrace the truth that life and God are never completely predictable, never fully knowable this side of eternity.  To the degree that I embrace the marvelous mystery of this thing we call existence; to the degree that I can learn to not fight the current, but ride the rapids; to the degree that I am able to trust in the character of God, I can be content.

Ultimately, standing at the edge of the foggy unknown, I am not the one who can – or should – try and know the path or the objects on the field.  All I must learn to do is stretch out my hand to the mist and wait for the grip of the One who does know, and when it comes, simply close my eyes… and walk.

Phillip Gonzales
7/25/2009

Who I Really Am

It’s 2:00am on the morning of American Idol auditions, and I am remembering who I really am, and I’m switching my audition song… again.  This will be the third time I’ve changed my main “audition song” in the past 24 hours.  Mostly I’ve been thinking about what is a good fit for my voice, what I think the judges will know, and what I know how to sing, but none of those are the most important thing.

They say over and over again in the FAQs, message boards, etc., that the most important thing is to “just be yourself”, to be “authentic”, and it occurs to me that even without trying, the tendency to quietly slip into the molds we think other people want us in is ever-present, and has caught up with me already.

You see, I am a Christian.  More than that, in fact, because that term has been so diluted and confused with all the “cultural Christianity” and misconceptions of what true salvation is.  I am a Christ-follower. I gave up my life long ago, only to have it replaced with a new one the follows a different path.  Now, for me to “be myself” means that in everything I do I seek to bring honor and glory to Jesus Christ.  Therefore, if the most important thing is to be authentic, then the most important thing is not for me to pick the song that I think will push me forward, but the one that Jesus places in my heart to be a true and faithful witness to Him.

All around me, such dreams, such fears, such hope, such insecurities!  All around me are calls from the peddlers of ideas, all trying to sell some idea of how to find personal worth and feel like I have value.  Here’s the thing… the drive to “be something” has at its core a desperate need to prove to the world by my accomplishments that I have value.  It says that my worth is determined by my status, fame, money, achievement, etc., and that to really matter I must make a good showing for those around me.  Think about this… thousands and thousands of people will audition tomorrow, and many more thousands in other upcoming locations, because they are following their dream and want to “be something”.

Have you realized though, how there are HUGE problems with this mindset?  If I am to be evaluated on the basis of my accomplishments, whose criteria am I measured against?  How do I know what it is and when it changes, and how long my “measurement” will last before having to re-prove myself again?  It’s madness!  In the midst of trying to “be something” comes the subtle fear that whatever I achieve or become, it won’t be enough, because there will always be something greater, someone better.

No, this is not how I am called to live; not who I am called to be!  I am called to be one thing: a true and faithful witness of Jesus Christ.  My worth is found in my position in Him and His possession of me, period.  Whether I win or lose, whether I triumph or fail, whether my name is known to many or few, I have value and worth and identity in Him, and that is all that matters.

When “tomorrow” morning comes (it’s really just later today), the most important thing is not that I sing with passion and vocal clarity, that I hit the notes right or make good eye contact.  The most important thing is not that I pick the song the judges want to hear, that I remember all the words and pronounce them right.  The MOST important thing is that I am a true and faithful witness of Jesus Christ in everything, from my presence to my answers to the song that I sing.  Disregarding all other things, all other hopes, all other ideas or criteria or advice, I must be true to myself, and come what may, the only way to do that is this: to be true to Him.

Phillip Gonzales
7/9/09

Almost there…

Only 5 hours to go before American Idol auditions begin!  I’m not really nervous, just wanting to do my part to make this whole experience all that god wants it to be.

Not so long ago it would have been my biggest dream to be a STAR, but now, truthfully… my biggest dreams are to bring glory to Jesus Christ, bring hope and joy to people, make a large-scale impact for good in the world, have and love a wife, and raise a family.  Everything else is only a means to those ends.

Now, I also know that only the first one of those has eternal significance, so on the one hand it would seem that I should try and let go of the others.  However, when I think of God’s promise in Scripture… “delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4), I believe that as I am faithful to delight myself in Him, He will change my desires to match His will, and those that remain He will fulfill in His time.

This means then, that it’s not my job to try and do the work of changing my heart from the inside out, only to seek Him and His righteousness, and let Him work it from the inside out.  What freedom then comes when I can let go; what joy!

Be still my soul, and wait for the Lord.