Awaiting a Superbloom in My Spiritual Desert

How I’m making the most of a spiritually dry season.

Oops, it’s been four months since I’ve written. Things went off the deep end soon after. Or rather, life became shallow. I slipped into depression, became irritable and hermit-like, and suffered from a rollercoaster mix of insomnia and sleeping all day.

This translated to a spiritually dry season; a long, dark night of the soul. Prayers were cast into the void, doubts cracked my heart, and in worship each lyric felt like a lie I flatly sang into the heavens. In my mentorship of youth, any Biblical wisdom I passed on felt scripted rather than from the heart. At night, I wrestled with my thoughts lots, besieged by darkness. 

I believe the cause of the dry season to be related to both medication side effects as well as burning myself out in excessive ministry work inspired not by God but my own ambition to please others (enneagram 2 probs). I believe the reason of the dry season to be that I needed to be taught some lessons.

I’m the guy who reads Lord of the Rings but skips all the songs and my style of reading the Bible ain’t much different, so I wouldn’t count myself a diehard fan of the Book of Psalms. Maybe I’d find songs less clunky in their original Hebrew or more comforting if David and other psalmists hadn’t been so addicted to militaristic metaphor. Yet, every once in a while I’m stuck in a context that charges a psalm to kick me with conviction or knead comfort into my heart. Psalm 13 comforts me in this time.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

David, beloved and deeply flawed David, feels rejected from God’s presence while darkness attacks him. Weeks ago, an intercessor prayed over me and felt God wanted her to convey just how much He loved me — deeply flawed me. I was overwhelmed at the way she passed on the message, though I’ll keep the exact words to myself. I left that prayer night feeling affirmed and capable; a child of God defined by spiritual royalty.

Then, just days later, it felt like He’d forgotten me. I felt hollow, humiliated. Many days, despite my head knowledge of God’s unfailing love and my continued vocalizing of His praises, I was afraid … afraid that I would be “stuck” in my dryness and forever removed from connecting with my church family. On these days, I feared my enemies would declare victory over frail me. I wondered why Christians experience dryness if the Spirit truly lives in them despite promises of living, eternal water.

While my heart stalled, I continued to pray and pursue, but I focused most energy on what is often considered opposite to the heart: my head. 

In spiritually dry seasons, I struggle to rely on faith alone. In these harsh deserts, I am pounced by challenging (and scary) questions of logic, ethics, and fact. Frankly, I’m peeved when Christians say apologetics don’t matter because “apologetics never saved a person” or that we shouldn’t question the Bible because faith means we don’t question God. When people like me are floundering, apologetics can comfort. When people like me return to the fold, we find that asking tough questions strengthened our faith. 

(Sidenote: Think about some of God’s most faithful servants. Job questioned God’s ways, Jeremiah questioned His goodness. God responds in two different but effective ways. These ways did not include striking the two dudes dead or rejecting them from His presence. They both got answers that added depth to their perception of God’s ways.)

In this season, I’ve been devouring books and articles on Biblical interpretation, apologetics, prayer, and loving well. I’ve been engaging in complex theological and philosophical discussion with the sharpest Christiana and agnostic minds I know. I’ve been reading my Bible more than ever before, highlighting so many cultural context and linguistics notes that my Bible is now more neon than white. I’m finding answers to questions I once feared to even approach, and that builds my faith.

I’ve also practiced more often the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, and stillness.

While my heart feels limp, I’m pumping my brain full of knowledge. It sounds contradictory considered my thin spirituality, but I have rarely felt more excited about God.

I remain confident that this seeking sheep will wander back to the flock to be embraced by his shepherd. When the sheep finds his home, he will be a more effective servant in ministry. He will know more answers, be more curious, and have more evidence that his shepherd is faithful. 

I stopped my medication about 10 days ago and it takes 20 days to leave the system. I’ve been resting, establishing boundaries and saying no for what feels like the first time in my life. I’ve tweaked my Twitter to follow wise Christian leaders and I abandoned my old Facebook that daily steeped me in negativity. I’m rejecting feelings of guilt and learning the difference between doing “good things” and “righteous things.” 

I’m feeling the stirrings during my prayer and worship time. I’m waking up at dawn for worship, prayer, and Bible readings. I’m discerning something that may be a difficult but exciting call to action (and sacrifice). It sucks to be in the desert, but that desert can become something beautiful — a superbloom. 

I hope that superbloom includes more blog posts (: 

Surrendering to Sabbath

Is Sabbath still relevant in the New Covenant? What even is Sabbath? I dive in.

It’s when I’m sitting on Monterey’s sea cliffs — doing nothing but feeling the breeze, smelling the salt, and watching the waves — that I feel shalom. At peace, whole, one with God. It is my Sabbath.

In these days, I move slowly:

  • taking my time to wash my hands and treating it like a massage.
  • reading each line of the Word with savor.
  • sipping coffee and holding it in my mouth, appreciating the warmth and flavors.
  • walking with little steps to observe all the curious people around me — God’s children.
  • driving extra miles to bask in the wonders of abandoned coastal routes.

Incorporating Sabbath into my life has increased my confidence in The Plan, boosted my productivity for the rest of the week, countered my idolatry of ambition, and deepened my love for my Father.

It’s debated by scholars whether Christians are held to the Sabbath under the New Covenant. For me, it really doesn’t matter (though I lean toward nah). This is a day I choose to have.

Regardless, there are Biblical points to consider when thinking of Sabbath in our modern context.

Let’s start with what it was.

Despite being one of the ten famous commandments of Mt. Sinai, Sabbath was created before sin even existed in this world: Genesis 2:3 tells us that God designed the world in six days, then rested on the seventh. He “blessed it” and “made it holy.” (Due to the Sabbath’s roots in creation, I choose to spend the day in nature to dwell on His art.)

Later commandments affirm that holiness:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11

Many interpret the Sabbath as a day for simple pleasures and fun, but the day was clearly dedicated “to the Lord” and intended as “holy.” It is a day of God-centered rest and preparation for the pursuit of His callings. In honor of that, my Sabbath includes loads of prayer, Bible reading, and worship music. I often take off my cochlear implants so I can sit in silence and solitude with Him — two of my favorite yet most difficult spiritual disciplines.

It’s a gift, not a burden.

OK, silence and solitude are two of my most difficult-to-perform disciplines, but so is Sabbath itself. I skip it many weeks. Despite all the joy it gives me, my flesh still rebels before the day has begun or when I design my weekly schedule. I idolize ambition and career. I pride myself on being available at all times for work messages (and for youth group mentorship). To release a day to Him — to put aside my phone and computer — is frightening.

1 John 5:3 confuses me when in this mindset: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”

The following verse helps to counter my fears because it rings with promise:

“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your own pleasure on My holy Day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah 58:13-14

According to some fancy scholar, the Hebrew word used for “your own pleasure” means “one’s own daily business or personal affairs.”

Like … a job or volunteering commitments. Interesting.

Isaiah writes that honoring the Lord by focusing Sabbath on Him results in joy. Clearly, this is not a burden, but a blessing. When I treat the Sabbath as a commandment, it is a burden. When I recognize it is a gift with promised blessings, I love it. (I guess I’m just selfish that way.)

The Sabbath reminds us that God blesses us through His grace, not our labor. God, through Isaiah, describes a life of Sabbath as one with magnificent blessings of delight.

What’s Jesus gotta say?

In Matthew 12:1-8, the Pharisees are up to their usual shenanigans. They’re trying to catch Jesus red-handed in breaking the Laws. They accuse Him and His disciples of unlawful acts during the Sabbath — eating heads of wheat from a farmer’s field.

Jesus answers simply, recalling that David and his companions ate bread meant only for priests, because it was necessary. He then follows up with a radical statement.

“Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-8

Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, cites Hosea 6:6 to clarify the law was made for mercy, not for oppression via legalism. Keep in mind He declared the law is summed by, “You shall love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love.

The Pharisees missed the Sabbath’s point — it is a time for good, not for misery or burden. (This theme is later revisited when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, in Mark 3:1-6.)

The Sabbath was made for us.

 “… the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Mark 2:27

We must be still and know God will handle all matters of the day if we center ourselves on Him. With Sabbath, our lives grow easier, not harder, because his yoke lightens our load. I know that’s an absurd idea in a world where we’re barely keeping afloat despite our hard, constant work. But having experimented with Sabbath despite my way-too-overburdened lifestyle, I can confirm the truth. God has shifted and plucked the lines of my life to ensure Sabbath does not throw my life astray.

Are all Sabbaths the same?

I don’t think so. It should contain essentials, like being God-centered and restful, but I believe it’s also dependent upon your heart.

God didn’t hand down a huge list of do’s and don’t’s for Sabbath, other than a few examples (like those in the aforementioned Exodus passage). He seems less concerned with the surface rules and more with the status of the heart (I glean this partly from Matthew 12:1-8).

Something unusual about my Sabbath is I try to avoid going out of my way to help people, unless someone in my immediate vicinity needs it. Sounds very un-loving, huh? But, see, my heart has a special problem: I help too much. (Any other Enneagram 2s here?) I’m addicted to helping people, and that’s where I source most of my value. I don’t feel loved unless I’m helping. And I don’t pursue God’s calling for me, but simply what seems “good” and “right.” It’s all unhealthy.

It leads me to neglecting my most important identity as a beloved son of God, burning myself out to the point of being unable to help effectively, and disrespecting the body God crafted and rescued from death many times.

Sabbath helps me to dwell on God’s love for me and refocus/reenergize myself for the rest of the week’s ministry. Remember what I said earlier? “The Sabbath reminds us that God blesses us through His grace, not our labor.” When I put God’s Sabbath above my obsession with helping others and working hard, I fight those idols.

On Sabbath, I trust God will take care of my friends and youth mentees for me. I trust He will take care of me. He does. The world doesn’t stop spinning when I sit on those Monterey cliffs and watch the seagulls. It’s on those cliffs that the world continues spinning, and I meditate on God as the creator and controller. I am but a servant who has been commanded to rest. So, I do.

I Love That I Love the Bible

My last post shared what I’d never confessed to my Sunday school teachers: I used to hate reading the Bible.

But then I prayed for God to help me desire His word. I realized I couldn’t love the Author of Life if I hated His writings. And simple as can be, He answered. By the next day, I craved the Bible. Driving down the highway, I’d suddenly give in to the urge to pull over at the next exit and read. I’d skip days hanging out with friends to read. I’d even spend services not listening but reading (oops). Many days, I study the Word for three to four hours, highlighting and noting like mad.

Here are my favorite revelations.

Not Really a “Drab, Dusty Narrative”

Ah, the humor, cleverness, wisdom, mystery, eloquence, tragedy! How did I not see all of this in the Bible before??

My April mission trip to Jordan continues to help me visualize the Biblical people, lands, and rituals. I see the Sea of Galilee while reading of Jesus walking down its shore, I feel the harshness of the sun beating upon his neck during His temptation, I taste the food of Bethlehem and know it was what Mary and Joseph once ate.

The cultural notes of my Bible help me realize how hilarious and even sassy Jesus was, how laughable the remarks of His disciples were (this emphasizes their future growth), and how mind-blowing the fulfilled prophecies were (and are).

A Misunderstood Text

The cultural notes also helped me approach the texts that most intimidated me. For example, I looked into the at-first-glance harsh words of Paul in the letters to the Corinthians and learned that they simply could not be read properly without

  • knowing the audience and their specific problems, without studying the linguistics of keywords
  • examining the difference between Gentiles and Jews
  • studying the societal expectations of sex/gender in those days and at those places 

I went from thinking of Paul as a misogynist to realizing how counter-culturally for women he was. Additionally, I went from seeing him as an arrogant scrub to seeing him as someone who struggled with the knowledge that he didn’t match up to Greek standards of rhetoric and popularity, yet he continued his mission. Like me, he was a decent writer and not-so-decent speaker.

It’s also been personally revolutionary to study the rhetorical traditions of rabbis in Jesus’s time, which helps me to know when He used sarcasm, hyperbole, irony, etc. Without that knowledge, it’s difficult to pick up on what is literal or not, what the meaning of certain parables are, why He told parables to begin with, and why He sometimes acted odd (by modern standards) in the way He discipled or corrected others.

I also gained a new appreciation for the words of the Bible, like the “wholeness” described by the word Shalom.

And prophecies? Wow. They’ve never been cooler. It feels almost impossible to track the myriad parallels between generations, Old Testament and New — prophecies and metaphor galore!

Yes, Even the Well-known Stories Give Me Joy

You can hear a story a million times and still be affected differently. It’s like watching Star Wars or Harry Potter. Sure, you know what’s gonna happen on your fiftieth watch-through, but you still find value.

I’m now reading the old Sunday school stories with the intention to learn something new. The Word is living, and one reason we can say that is because it produces different “tasting notes” each time it is read. New ingredients are detected; components hit differently.

  • As a child, I heard the story of Jesus feeding thousands with small baskets of bread and dish. I marveled. As an adult, I focus on Jesus telling His disciples to rest, but not before feeding those He demanded care for — but yes, rest. I felt conviction.
  • As a child, I saw Peter as pathetic and even treacherous. As an adult, I see his brokenness, confusion, redemption. I cry when Jesus pushes Peter to self-realization each time He tells him to feed His sheep: “See it, Peter. See it, hold it — you’re changing.” Where I once saw Peter with distaste, I now see Peter as … Brad.

(A question I often ask students in my youth group is: “Which Bible character do you most relate to?” I give them a few days to think before answering. It reveals much. Try it!)

It Moves Me

The Word is God’s love letter. It conveys His broken heart and jealousy at the turning of our backs. It identifies our connection with Abba by using intimate words like son or daughter and friend, and empowering words like heir and royalty; it contrasts those words with what we should be if not for liberation, like slaves and enemies. It chronicles the repeated offers of redemption and our repeated betrayals and the ultimate grace — check out Stephen’s address.

Scripture weaves its way into my every prayer. When the Spirit overwhelms me, I find His words drip from my tongue — words I didn’t try to memorize but somehow dug their way into my soul. A prayer injected with scripture is powerful. It’s imperative for any intercessor to know the Word; we are commanded to test what is said in prayer for alignment with Him.

As a sword, the Word pierces my spirit with chilling truth. As a honeyed law, I do now delight in it. As the words of a Father, it comforts me.

My Plan and Materials

  • The goal is to read the Bible through entirely … then start again. Reading random verses doesn’t do it for me. The Bible is wondrously rich when read as a single chronicle — the Author of Life compiled our story into a complete volume. How rad is that?
  • I’m doing machete style, so starting in the New Testament and then backtracking to the OG OT material. For me, reading in this order emphasizes the liberation under the New Covenant more so than the traditional chronology. My brain just works that way.
  • Most of the time, I use the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Sometimes I read an NLT apologetics edition. (NIV is not my favorite translation — I prefer ESV or NLT depending on the need — but the cultural notes make me drool.) I urge anyone studying the Word to get an edition containing cultural notes.
  • If anything confuses me, I don’t shrug and move on, but instead, I read commentary from trusted scholars and pastors. I super recommend the Bible Project videos.
  • Get some highlighters. This speaker I met had memorized the entire Bible and when asked how he did it, he said, “Just highlight everything you want to memorize.” I’d take it a step further and write notes on why you highlighted each bit.
  • Unless there’s something important going on, I leave my phone out of reach and on silence. I heave my hefty Bible around for five reasons:
    • The Bible app results in habitual switches to social media
    • It feels respectful to speakers/pastors to put away my phone
    • It encourages people in public to ask me about my faith (has happened!)
    • I love making notes by hand because they more deeply sink into my brain
    • I’m a writer … I love print
  • On weekends, I read at a beach or park. On workdays, I break up readings: Morning before work (often, Psalms and Proverbs), during lunch break, and at night by candlelight. This prevents reading too much without absorbing meanings.
  • I pray for God’s help in absorbing the readings because I have serious brain fog. I now get super stoked to share what I’ve learned each day with those around me. Teaching people is the best way for us to learn!

I Hated That I Hated the Bible

When I raised my hand to declare that I disliked — no, hated — the Law, I surprised even myself. It was at a retreat discussion about Pslam 19 which describes the Law as sweet like honey. To me, the Law tasted bitter.

I’d subconsciously suppressed that the Law and the entire Bible as an extension was something with which I wanted only a loose connection.

  • I found the stories dusty and drab in their straightforward narrative styles.
  • I feared reading the offensive Books of Law and conquest because they made me uncomfortable. Paul wrote stuff that seemed to conflict with my personal values regarding women.
  • I thought I knew all the important stuff because I grew up with Sunday school stories. I’d lived life by a moral compass manufactured from those base-level teachings, not bothering with evidence or details, nor the less-famous Bible passages.
  • I justified my inability to open my Bible by reading a dozen Facebook memes per day that contained one-liner verses about love (and certainly not wrath!).
  • My inability to faithfully and consistently read the Bible led to frustration and anger at myself. I felt like a failure as a Christian. It was a sore topic.

I don’t think I was alone. We speak openly in the church about how few Christians actually read their Bibles. It’s really no wonder why people outside the church question whether we even know our own scripture. It’s because many of us don’t.

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Found in an Arabic-speaking church.

 

Only 11% of Americans have read the entire Bible, according to a LifeWay survey. They follow this with, “Those with evangelical beliefs are more likely (49 percent) to read a little bit each day than those without evangelical beliefs (16 percent). Protestants (36 percent) are more likely to read every day than Catholics (17 percent).”

It’s not only about reading the verses; so many of us neglect to study the written, cultural, and theological contexts of the Word. Without studying the context of societal sex roles and privileges of the early church in Ephesus, one could say women shouldn’t hold leadership positions. Without taking prophecy fulfillment and surrounding scripture into consideration, one could say Jesus encouraged arming ourselves with weapons with the intention to “defend” Him. Without studying theology and the exile from Zion, we could say we are promised a materialistically prosperous life if we are faithful to God’s plan.

I began analyzing my broken, distant relationship with the Word when I went to Jordan and saw the profound effect the Bible stories and their lessons had on Muslim, Syrian refugees. They:

  • were hearing scripture for the first time, with fresh ears.
  • knew the cultural implications — the countercultural, radical messages — were shocking because Middle Eastern culture really hasn’t changed that much. They viewed scripture through its proper lens.
  • believed in the miraculous more than most Western Christians I’ve met.

Their eyes grew wide while we shared that Jesus said a man’s disabilities weren’t a punishment, that the Prodigal Son was warmly received in his homecoming, that a God-who-became-man wept over the death of a human and then sacrificed Himself for those who hated Him.

Honestly, I couldn’t think of a single time (until recently) that I was surprised by a Biblical story or teaching.

During our free time, the team in Jordan visited sites from the Bible like Mount Nebo and Umm Qais. From a distance, we viewed the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. I stared at these places, felt their ancient dust, and urged the old Sunday school stories to come to new life.

It didn’t work. I had no special connection to those stories.

That changed when, after a tough day of serving refugees, I finally opened my Bible to read Luke 3:3-6 which tells of Jesus bringing new life to the Jordan Valley. In a place of oppression where thousands streamed in to escape slaughter, Jesus continues walking and working. I saw proof in the gleeful laughter of the children refugees, in the Christian church that selflessly sacrificed for Muslim neighbors, in the sparked eyes of those who heard His stories. Finally, I looked over the Promised Land and felt my eyes water.

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The Promised Land.

I’d like to say I returned home and began reading my Bible, but that took months. I’d pick up the book and set it down without bothering to open it. I’d open my Bible app and almost immediately switch to Instagram. I frustrated myself. I hated that I hated the Word.

Finally, I came to the realization I needed, painful as it was: I couldn’t love God properly while hating His words.

As someone who at least tries to love God, this distressed me. So, I prayed.

God, I want to love you. And I really don’t as much as I want to. Help me to not only accept your Word, but crave it. Help me to absorb it and need it and want it.

When we earnestly, selflessly, and faithfully ask for things that contribute to our spiritual growth, God will give the gift.

And so He did.

In my next post, I’ll tell you what changed.

I Am a Prodigal Son

My favorite Jesus-told parable is the prodigal son — the lost (and found) son. It’s a vivid illustration of the brokenness of man and grace of our Father. It’s the story that influenced my return to God’s arms.

The story in a nutshell.

In the parable, a wealthy man’s youngest son demands an early inheritance. In ancient Jewish culture, that’s tantamount to a son wishing death upon his father. It is a rejection of all the work the father invested in his son’s life as well as thievery of 1/3 of the father’s resources. The expectation would be for the father to beat the son.

But no, the father grants the wish because he has respect for the son’s freedom. In “thanks,” the son squanders the money on fleshly pleasures. The father is a good father, and so he wisely foresees the son will eventually learn his lesson and return.

Eventually, the son does realize his goof-up while fantasizing about eating the pods eaten by pigs — impure animals in a society that held purity as the highest priority. As a feeder of pigs, entering a synagogue for help seemed unrealistic.

So, he turns to his pops, planning to declare, “I am no longer worthy to be your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”

Instead, the father sprinted out (undignified for an old man) to embrace and kiss his beloved son, fitting him with a beautiful robe. The father slips a family signet ring upon his found son’s finger — a restoration of familial authority. Then, he threw him a party.

(The story goes on to detail the bitterness of the older brother.)

The part where I realize my favorite parable was uncomfortably relevant.

I didn’t realize the story’s power until I heard the gasps of Muslim Syrian refugees when they heard the son demanded his inheritance and fed the pigs, or when the father/Father showed extraordinary grace.

(As an honor culture in the biblical lands, they get it. In Jordan, I certainly realized how much I’d neglected the cultural context of the Bible. I’ll discuss that more one day.) 

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The Bible stories don’t feel so far off in these lands…

In Jordan, I realized how far I’d plummeted into ingratitude. I’d been blessed with new life through way of miracles and I spent that blessing mostly on ambition and fun for several months. I felt entitled to pure power and euphoria after a childhood of suffering.

I sacrificed little, fell into obvious temptations, and ruined healthy relations through deficient discipline. I was chillin’ with the pigs and denying a beautiful plan God had in store for me. (What does “prodigal” mean? Essentially, wasteful.)

Devastated by these realizations, I prayed something similar to, “I am no longer worthy to be your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” I prayed for a cleansing of my heart and instead received refinement. It was torturous, yet a fast-track to restoration.

God jammed His hand into the soils of my heart and uprooted the corruptive weeds — traumas, unrecognized rage, shame, fears — that had choked His fruits.

Finally, I was humbled. Now that I have the heart of a servant, He has been rebuilding my identity as His son — He slips the signet ring of authority upon my finger and covers my shoulders with a comforting robe. There has been a call to ministry. I don’t yet know the specifics: “Not yet,” goes the reply when I pray for vision.

It’s this call that has reignited my dedication to leaping out of me and into Him. I must prepare.

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Let’s pretend this is God shining grace on me and not just the glow of a jellyfish tank. (Photo by Nathan Kawanishi)

I am a prodigal son; I am told not to be ashamed that I fell away, but to instead focus on the showered grace. There is the frustration that I will fall into a season of foolishness once again, yet there is also the love found in knowing I’ll be joyfully forgiven seventy times seven.

As I shack up in my Father’s house again, I am discovering and rediscovering the spiritual disciplines that strengthen my joy, prune my branches, and prepare me for ministry. Perhaps the ministry is simply sharing those lessons. Who knows?

(We know who knows.)

It’s Time to Reboot

Sometimes a blog becomes a source of guilt. This beloved site that pulled me through the most difficult season of my life has now gathered (pixel) dust. I tried rebooting a few times, but I dunno… It’s time, though. As fulfilling as it has been to write my column at Cystic Fibrosis News Today, I need a space to discuss things unrelated to my disease, especially matters of spirituality. So…

***

It’s been a wild couple of years. I was promoted to head the columns division at BioNews Services, moved to Santa Cruz, became a church youth group volunteer, founded a chapter of the Lung Transplant Foundation, co-founded a disabilities ministry at church, helped to get a crowdfunding company off the ground, competed in the Transplant Games of America (and won two medals!), went on a couple of mission trips, and delivered a couple of sermons.

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Photo by Kathleen Sheffer Photography

I traveled to Serbia, Japan, Jordan, western and eastern Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Singapore, Germany, Hawaii, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, Southern and Northern California. Up next is Malaysia, a return to Hawaii, then Tennessee.

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The locals were stoked to slap this bad boy on my head in Jordan.

Sounds great, huh? And it has been, really, on the surface level. I’m grateful to have a body capable of sprinting through all of this. But in all of that beautiful chaos, I lost many of the lessons I’d learned through my transplant and deafness experience. I read through old blog posts and realize some things unclicked in my brain.

That makes me sad.

I can gain earthly accomplishments and chase adventure adrenaline, but it’s really all meaningless in comparison to the inner peace and joy I once had. I viewed my “unbreakable joy” as something that could not be tampered by outside forces but I neglected to recognize I could dent it through my own choices. When I was weak, I flowed with the current; now with my newfound strength I fight it, try to rip control from it. Now, I love having the illusion of control over my life.

At times, I sort of miss actively dying.

I miss being forced to move slowly and take notice of all the beautiful things surrounding me. I miss when I didn’t care about material possessions or ambition. I miss when drama seemed harmless compared to matters of life and death. I miss living each day like it was my last.

I began this blog to chronicle what I learned as I died. I reboot my blog to chronicle what I learn as I try to restore my mindset of dying.

I am on a mission to dive deeper into God; to reestablish meekness and habits of Sabbath, to rediscover my passion for unceasing prayer and sacrifice without selfish thought. It’s a tough journey, and tough journeys are made better with accountability. The hope is that by being honest with readers, I will be kept on track. 67650057_10219331294777407_3448588752748806144_o.jpgFor the sake of accountability, I feel I must be transparent with you: I’ve embraced a life that has included gossip, deceit, guilt, occasional drunkenness, fluctuations of pride and self-loathing, lust, and rejection of Sabbath. Those patterns need to end.

This all isn’t to say this hasn’t been a season of great growth in my faith as well. I’ve learned plenty of life-charging lessons amid both the fun and awful, and I’m stoked to share them. It’s just that I’ve dropped lessons along the way, as though my tiny brain can only handle so much at once!

In this blog, I will write of the practical and philosophical lessons learned along the way while also confessing as I did above. This will involve peeks into my recent history as well as present-day accounts. I will share victories from God and doubts from me. I will share steps forward and backslides.

I’m excited for this next volume in my life journey.

“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
–Psalm 51:10-12

Brad Strikes Back

I’m dead-beat. Bone-tired. Wasted.

But I ain’t dead-dead and I ain’t lung-tired. And with my lung transplant, I guess you could say I’m recycled, rather than wasted.

Maybe these jokes don’t make sense. I am exhausted, after all.

My glasses are battered, and so are my shoes. I like ’em that way.

The last time I bought glasses, in August 2016, I was in end-stage CF. I had a panic attack in the eyewear store. Dad was telling me to just get on and pick a pair. I saw the glasses and thought, “I might be buried in these. I might really die in these glasses. Do they leave your glasses on for open caskets? Do I even want an open casket funeral?”

I tried on dozens of frames and looked into my reflection, seeing my dead face peer back each time. The employees at that store saw a man leashed to an oxygen tank, melting down with shuddering breaths and shaky hands. Later, I purchased, from an antique eyewear shop, the same Ray-Ban frames I’ve had since 2011.

In December 2016, I bought myself a pair of egregiously expensive Nike running shoes. I hadn’t run in years. I pitied myself, the day I tried them on. I even cried. Maybe I’d never run again. Was I being overly optimistic by buying those shoes? Would I survive to get my lung transplant? Why buy myself nice things if I was going to die soon anyway? I frightened myself with these thoughts, and then I donated most of my bank savings. I used most of what remained to buy my loved ones really rad Christmas gifts — my grand finale, at the end-stage of CF. Haha. “Finale,” “stage” … get it?

My lung transplant surgery, the encore, would happen two weeks later. I’d put those shoes to good use, and view the most wondrous sights through those glasses. I’d trek through the mystic Grand Canyon, climb up Yosemite’s misty falls above the tallest trees I’d ever seen. I’d take runs to cafes so I could meditate with coffee and plan my life sprint — how I’d make the most of my second chance at life. Now the shoes have holes and stink terribly. But I can’t get rid of them. They cost a lot, ya know? Plus, the sentimentality is priceless.

Brad in Yosemite. (Photo by Rick Dell)

I’ve been sprinting since my transplant. I’m an editor, a writer, a crowdfunding marketer, the Lung Transplant Foundation‘s Northern California Chapter president, a church youth leader, and a soon-to-be foster care support member. People warned me that I’d burn out eventually. I guess they were right. I’ve burned out. But it’s a nice burnout. As I said, I’m not “lung-tired.” CF doesn’t rule my energy anymore.

After my transplant recovery, I felt like Captain America did when he got that Super Soldier Serum. My energy and focus seemed limitless. Seemed. Past tense. It turns out, I’m a normal person, and normal people can’t keep up sprints for long. But for the chronically ill, feeling “normal” is refreshing.

Most of the time, I’m not afraid to die anymore. It would be OK. I’ve had a good run. I’ve fit 10 years’ worth of experiences into one year. The other night, I accidentally shocked Mom when I casually remarked that I couldn’t decide if I wanted to save for a retirement fund since I could die in the next few months for all I know — why not live a fun life and blow money on good food and travel? No one should say that to their mother. She wants me to plan for a life marathon, not a sprint. But we know reality.

My best friend is dating a guy who works for a business called Better Place Forests. Clients adopt a tree, and when they die, their ashes are spread around the tree. I like that more than a casket. Caskets are dead wood, but trees really live; reaching higher and higher.

I won’t need to worry about glasses if I’m ashes. Maybe they can place my broken shoes at my tree, though, with the epitaph: “Here lies Bradley Dell — he sprinted.”

Follow my adventures on my Facebook Page Adamantium Joy.

This was originally posted on my column, Victorious, at Cystic Fibrosis News Today.

Springs of Various Sorts: Gratitude for Transplantation

2016 was war. 2017 was peace. 2018 is euphoria.

Spring 2017

It was a historic rainfall in Silicon Valley, the likes not seen since the days of Noah and his big boat. Los Gatos Creek spilled over and the neighborhood electricity blew out — a true tragedy in Tech Titan Valley. Mom sparked candles perfumed with vanilla, and I gently yet stiffly laid on our comfy couch with a groan and a sigh. And closed my weary eyes. I was fully deaf since spring 2016 because of amikacin barrages, but the words (typed to me a few weeks prior) of my transplant mentor, Kathleen, whispered through my mind: “Rain purifies the air. It’s a transplant patient’s best friend.”

It was my first day back at home since my double-lung transplant two months earlier. The fentanyl withdrawals had washed away along with much of the physical and emotional hurt from the surgery recovery. I felt the tight, tight, tight muscles of my body surrender to the calm of the moment. And finally, while the world outside flooded, I soaked in tranquility.

The rain brought destruction, then beauty. I was reborn in union with spring. Wildflowers bloomed along the crooked cracks in sidewalks, a fresh burst of radiant petals each time I braved the outdoors for a strenuous “stroll.” Walking took maximal effort because of melted leg muscles. I literally had to re-learn walking after my septic shock several months earlier. Stairs were the ultimate challenge, but I was getting there. One step in front of the other. What is a new life without first steps?

Spring 2018

Yosemite National Park is really something.

Yosemite Valley flooded days before I visited it. The rain brought destruction, then beauty. The wet froze into crystal, which melted into wondrous waterfalls pouring from all directions; from colossal cliff walls guarding the crowned jewel of California. Mighty trees stretched their freshly greened fingers for the sky and animals frolicked in the fat bushes and along glimmering lakes.

The waterfalls result from melted ice funneling down mountain peaks. 

The Dell family and our friends of many decades rented a cabin for a few days. I’d seen one of the friends only once since my 2011 Make-A-Wish trip to New York City — as opposite to Yosemite as you can get. And I am opposite to whom I’d been then. I’m now breathing perfectly, hearing better (thanks to cochlear implants), eating plenty. “You didn’t eat a thing back then,” said “Aunt” Kerry as I devoured steak and potatoes, chased with boysenberry pie. I’ve been playing catch-up for seven years of barren appetite.

I also couldn’t walk far back then — not without griping about chronic back pain and wheezing. And I’d walked even less so the past couple years, before and soon after the transplant. But in Yosemite, my most intimidating physical challenge (outside of the medical realm) towered far, far above me: Vernal Fall. One hundred and forty-eight floors’ worth of hiking, according to my FitBit.

Hiking up the step-stones to the falls. (Photo by Rick Dell)

I climbed and climbed and climbed. At points, I clutched handfuls of my pants and hauled my fatigued legs over tall step-stones. I came to a thickly misty area beside the falls aptly named “Mist Trail.” I pocketed my cochlear implants and glasses so they wouldn’t get drenched, and paused for a long, magical while. I struggled to breathe, deaf and nearly-blind. It was how I should be, if not for miraculous interventions.

In that purifying misty oasis, it was just me, God, and my donor. Mist mixed with tears and wind kissed it all away. Two years ago, God swore He’d pull me out of my devastating storms — deafness and end-stage CF. It seemed impossible. But as with all strong storms, there was beauty at the end.

A rainbow stretched beneath the mighty cascades of Vernal Fall. A rainbow: the symbol of God’s promise to Noah, post-flood.

Vernal Fall and its rainbow. Vernal is defined as, “of spring.”

I nearly turned back — my sister already had. But my child life specialist’s Facebook message from the week before pierced my weariness: “You keep winning and overcoming struggles.” Those words were potent; since 8th grade, she’d seen me cry out in terror for mercy more times than I can count. She knows the raw reality of my battles. And she’d always calmed me, kept me pushing. I gazed through mist at the dozens of remaining step-stones leading to the top of Vernal Fall.

Veni, vidi … vici.

Atop the cliff, nothing could smear my smile, nothing could touch me. Numerous times, I’ve said that the brutal war for my life was “worth it” for single moments: at the edge of the Grand Canyon, in the depths of Antelope Canyon, atop the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. And now, above Vernal Fall overlooking the vast valley of Yosemite and its infinite gushing falls.

2016 was war. 2017 was peace. 2018 is euphoria.

Euphoric, atop Vernal Fall.

Follow my adventures on my Facebook Page, Adamantium Joy.

This was originally posted on my column, Victorious, at Cystic Fibrosis News Today.

Looking Good vs. Feeling Good

Not a big fan of my looks, but the spirit is more important.

“Ay, there was this gorgeous girl in McDonald’s yesterday and she was with this really ugly guy. I’m like, ‘What theee??’ They start sign language-ing and then I know why she’s with this guy! Only reason she’s dating him is ‘cause she can’t get anyone better ’cause she’s deaf!”

I don’t know why my driver instructor (long story as to why I have one) chose to tell an ableist story right after I told him I was deaf. Might have had to do with him pretty obviously being high on something. And I guess I wasn’t exactly shocked since he’d also told racist and sexist stories.

Despite these considerations, I couldn’t help feeling hurt. ‘Cause self-image is something I’ve been struggling with. I didn’t realize how much of my confidence was derived from my six-year relationship with someone “out of my league.” But I reflect on the past, before Kristina, and remember loathing my body. Standing in front of my mirror before school, disgusted, muttering insults at myself about how pathetic and hideous I looked. Even picking at my skin to remove blemishes ‘til I bled. And I thought I wasn’t a “good man” because I was so physically weak. A big bundle of insecurities.

I’m not at that level of self-hate these days, six months after breakup, but regardless, I recognize that my self-hating developmental years are a foundation for how I view myself today. And today… yeah, I don’t like how I look, and I feel people think I’m weird for having cochlear implants. And I can’t stop thinking about how I haven’t gotten any matches on dating apps (which I don’t even fundamentally agree with so I dunno why I’m even on them). And I can’t stop guiltily thinking of how many times in the past I uttered the mantra, “Everything will be easy after I get my transplant and cochlear implants.”

Here I am, transplanted and implanted, worrying about things as shallow as looks.

My pastor’s wife, Julie, once visited me in the hospital and said she felt convicted to remind me that my body is a temple. That was several years ago and she was referring to me not taking care of my health. But her words ring through my mind today, beating back my doubts and refocusing me on spirituality.

A temple can be a cathedral or it can be a cave; what matters is what is produced from it — love, kindness, joy, gentleness, integrity, all that. My body is a temple and so it is defined by fruits of the spirit. Not by how “chiseled” my physical features are or if I need to rely on technology to hear. Reflecting, I think I have a pretty decent spirit. I can always do better, and I strive to, but I’m on a good track. And, spirit aside, my body is as God designed it to be — broken yet restored whole to further His plans. That’s pretty cool.

I’m trying to focus on others rather than myself: Tell that dude he’s really pulling off that leather jacket. Tell that girl her pink hair is rad. Tell my bro his workout efforts are really showing lately. Tell my buddy she’s hilarious. Building others up builds me up, too. Concentrating on loving others does wonders for my emotional stability. When I’m loving others, my spirit is full. When my spirit is full, yeah, “everything is easy.” Kind of.

As for romance, if God really has a gal out there for me, they won’t care much about my implants and they might think I look pretty ok. So, why worry?