From This Dirt

“What heights of love, what depths of peace,

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease."

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What am I so afraid of? What am I striving for? I hear you say that you love me. I see you demonstrate it over and over. The man in the mirror believes it but the kid inside is scared. Afraid it won’t last.

I mask worry with work. Beating my body to exhaustion while watching joy pass outside. There is no sabbath. Only childish confidence in camouflage. Your love searches for my joy. But I don’t believe you, so I hide. And the years pass by. Moments are stolen as memories are made. I can see how much I hurt you, but I am so fragile that your pain disappears in my shame. I return to work, merely to stay warm. Darkness is cold.

How will it end? Will it end? This victory comes only through surrender. This is a battle I can’t “win.” Only when fear of darkness is swallowed up by the light of love can I be set free. When that light floods the deepest valleys and warms the cold places, “fears are stilled” and “strivings cease.” Here, I will find my rest. Here, the warmth of those early hours will reveal just how deeply fear and striving have shaped my imagination and animated my life.

Rest is disruptive. Deep peace is so disruptive that I am finding it takes more than courage to embrace it. It takes more than intellectual understanding to enter it. True rest is for the weary. Poverty seems to be the prerequisite, and weakness the way in. I wonder if that’s why the way forward is so long, slow, and deep. Perhaps love exhausts us so that we might inherit, and therefore truly posses, what can never be earned.

Oh to find rest in the heights of love and be plunged to the depths of peace. Hope found in Christ alone. “He is my light, my strength, my song.”

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“Maybe I’ve done enough, your golden child grew up,

Maybe this trophy isn’t real love, with or without it I’m good enough.”

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- Sleeping at Last

Maybe it’s grace. Maybe it’s wisdom. Then again, maybe it’s the midway point on the journey, and we just get tired enough to finally set some things down. I am not sure what allows the honesty of who we are to finally show through to the point that we see it in ourselves and in others, but it’s remarkably freeing and beautiful. 

This afternoon I saw it in Stephen Christian, the sort of sage wisdom and freedom of authentically living your true story.  Our conversation meandered from music to marriage, from family and parenting to the future of the church. Midway through lunch however, the tone changed.  I asked Stephen if it was “drive” or just the wind that carried Anberlin to Universal and then around the world. His smile widened, he shifted in his chair and looked down, then back at me.

“Drive,” he said. “Are you familiar with the Enneagram?”

I smiled and nodded in agreement. His smile again let me know that we were now in a different conversation.

“I’m a three, the achiever.”

The “3” conversation will have to wait for another time.  What I will illuminate here is a phrase, an intentional posture from a healthy “3”.   Every night, when Stephen tucks his kids into bed,  the last thing they hear their dad say is, “There is nothing that you can do to make me love you more. And there is nothing that you can do to make me love you less.”

Those are expensive words bought with years of laboring, learning, and fighting every impulse wired to earn approval and win affection. They are outpouring of a heart aching for those words to be true, both for his girls and for himself. Those are the words of a great father and an honest son.

My conversation with Stephen continued, but those words reverberated in my mind and settled into my heart. It took me 45 minutes to cross the bay and get back to the city, and by then they had melted into soul ground that I didn’t even know was parched.

I am not a “3”,  but I still hold both my trophies and the longing to be embraced without them. I am midway in life and they are heavy. Today, I saw a man who set his down, and I heard a Father’s voice say - “There is nothing that you can do to make me love you more. And there is nothing that you can do to make me love you less.”

Let those words refresh parched ground.

Real Love

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On Friday, February 15th, at 2:30 in the afternoon, the lives of two moms will change forever. One will receive a son and one will release him. Both hearts will stretch so far that they’ll tear. But the tear will heal. The selfless love of these two moms makes it possible for one little boy to experience something of a wholeness, so uncommon and so costly that when we see it, it brings us low.

That’s what happened to me a few months ago when I took this picture. I was standing a few rows from the front at Arbor Church in Tampa, Florida. The church was singing a beautiful worship song but I couldn’t sing. The words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. They were right there on the screen, “What a wonderful name it is, the name of Jesus Christ my King”, but I was speechless. Just to the right of those words were two moms. One the biological mom of a beautiful, joyful little boy named Kayden and the other his foster mom. Standing there together confessing those words with one heart and one voice.

The story that brought them together is amazing. It is a real story of real hurt, real brokenness, and real love. Real love that laid me low when I witnessed it. The honesty flowing from their lips and their lives shut my mouth. Imagine the millions of reasons why these two moms should never have been in that room. Let alone together in the same row, in the same church, worshiping the same God with the same heart. Set aside the remarkable love of a young pastor’s family opening up to embrace foster children. How is it possible that a mom, forced to surrender her son to the care of the state, would choose to worship with the woman who she would soon willingly release her son to in adoption? How is that possible?

How about the radical love and humility necessary for foster parents to reach through the system to embrace a hurting mom so that she might experience wholeness and healing? How about the grace required from all sides to walk forward together? Imagine navigating all the hurt, all the fear, all the doubt, and all the pride in order to stand together as one. Do you see it? That is the life and beauty of the gospel.

Every force of evil fights against that kind of love. But it won’t prevail. And it didn’t. Love overcame and made a spectacle of evil. That’s what I was witnessing. That’s why I asked my daughter to take the picture, so that we could bear witness to love that overcomes. Not in some flowery, instagram #blessed way, not even close. I am talking about love that spends everything and stops at nothing to set things right. Love that crosses “prudent” social norms to see brokenness transformed. To see life and beauty here and now.

That’s real love. It is not safe. It is not easy. It is disruptive and doesn’t leave us the same. Counterfeit love is all around us. Shallow love. Self love. We’re used to it. But we know the real thing when we see it; when we experience it. It bears witness that it’s possible and invites us to believe.

Love leaves a witness. May the story travel.

Good Spaces and Good Places

Andy Crouch describes the airport in Charlotte, N.C. as “a place the good news whispers just a bit more audibly.” (Culture Making) Places like this are good for the soul, and good for the soul of our cities. By design they nourish the best in our design, functioning almost like greenhouses. They are good spaces that remind us of the very good and invite us to embrace it.

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Place matters. Dirt is good. Beauty is very good. The material world, with all its scars, is still part of the story. And not a lesser part. Our bodies, the very roads we travel, the work of our hands and the spaces we rest, worship, and play … they are all a part of a magnificent creation. The places we build and the way we cultivate space give visible expression to our beliefs regarding dignity, beauty, generosity, pleasure, responsibility, community, equality, and even justice and mercy. The gospel lifts our view in these areas and leads us to a higher sense of stewardship that produces actual fruit in places where the whisper of the good news can be heard.

I found one of these places in Tampa at Buddy Brew Coffee. Actually I heard the whisper from Buddy Brew just over four years ago when I was still out west in a land that pairs perfectly with good coffee. The first whisper came in an email from Buddy Brew’s pioneering founder, Dave Ward. It wasn’t in the brand or even a conversation about coffee that I first heard it. It was in the way that Dave wrote. His words were razor sharp, and near the end of the email the tone changed and took on an almost pastoral appeal as he signed off, “In Him.”

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Dave Ward is a gospel guy. His life and his smile are seasoned with God’s grace. His company is too. That is no small thing. The whisper of good news can be heard in Hyde Park, on Kennedy, and floating through the halls at the Oxford Exchange because Buddy Brew is there. It echos through the beauty of each space and in the peculiar kindness of the staff.

That whisper led me to an old wooden staircase in the back of the Kennedy location. It carried me up to Buddy Brew’s corporate headquarters to meet Dave for the first time and to hear the story behind the place and the brand. Both have the energy of a start up and the honesty of family. The floors creak and the antique fixtures invite you to get to know them before they’ll open up. But in every old corner you find pioneers dreaming and working out their vision to “Brew Good & Do Good.” The thing I love the most about the story? It’s true.

Dreaming and working out vision. That’s what it takes to create places where “the good news whispers a bit more audibly.” It takes time, intention and investment. It takes pioneers. It takes new hearts, transformed minds, and the careful and intentional work of loving hands to actually create and curate these places. They don’t just happen. It takes listening and learning. It takes humility and boldness, failure and resilience. It takes wrestling with big ideas and avoiding contests with anything less. It takes training, staff meetings and money. Yep, money. It takes spending more money than you have to in order to care for people, source responsibly, provide quality and cultivate beauty. Brewing Good and Doing Good doesn’t just happen.

Dave Ward is a visionary leader seasoned with grace. We need more pioneers like this. We need more places like Buddy Brew Coffee, but the cost of those words taking on flesh is a high. In January I will sit down with Dave to talk about the reality of creating good places when my LAB podcast launches live from Buddy Brew’s Kennedy location.

Until then, raise a mug and join me in celebrating Dave Ward and the team at Buddy Brew for dreaming, working and living out their vision. When you have a chance, stop by and thank them for filling Tampa with the life and beauty of the gospel.

On My Way

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"I’m on my way, but you may get there before I do.”

I can still hear the sound of Bryan’s voice cracking as he spoke into the phone. He’s a force of a man. The Irish son of a California cop. He’d stayed on his feet through fights that would level most of us … but not that day. There was no fight left.

The call came as I was working in my little country school district office with orange walls and no windows. The air was stale but you could hear a pin drop in there. Bryan’s voice was shaky, but he spoke clearly.  “Zach, Liz’s dad just died. He had a heart attack and is being transported to Newberg Hospital.  I’m on my way, but you may get there before I do.”

I looked at the clock, got up and  began to make my way to the hospital. Though I was moving as quickly as possible, it felt like slow motion, wading through a chest deep feeling that time was moving but I wasn’t.

I was doing my best to stay ahead of the fog, but I could feel it settling in. On the drive, a million thoughts passed through my mind. I tried to imagine how things might go once I arrived. What to say. What not to say. What to do. Finally I arrived. The hospital doors hesitated in front of me, staying shut just long enough for me to realize that none of that mattered. Once they opened, once my friend was in my arms, we were together in a place where words and works can’t go.

Being stripped of our wisdom and strength is a strange thing. There is a terrifying beauty to that kind of honesty. So terrifying that we spend most of our lives fortifying ourselves from true vulnerability. And yet it is beautiful, because it is familiar. The moment we are born we are received by hands more capable than ours and in Christ, His capable hands will welcome us once again when we die. But “midway along the journey of our lives”, we forget. Most days, our wisdom and strength are sufficient. Most of the time our hands stay busy with immediate things until they are interrupted.

When Jesus says, “you must be born again,” He invites us to be received into hands more capable than ours and to rest there. He longs for us to experience the mystery of those hands holding us throughout the journey of our life until our strength finally gives way completely.

I found those hands holding me as I held my friend at the hospital doors that day.  All I could do was silently pray, “Lord, I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on you.”

There are places where no words or works can go. Places where no pre-arranged plan, no earthly power, can meet the needs or take away the pain. I don’t know where the next place like this will be for me, but I am aware that I am already on my way, and that you may get there before I do. So may we both be reminded that the same hands that hold us today will hold us when we get there. May we find rest in those constant and capable hands.

Soul Shine

"Love is a binding force, by which another is joined to me and cherished by myself."

Thomas Aquinas

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I’m 39 years old and up until a few weeks ago I had never had my shoes shined. That wouldn’t have been a big deal if I hadn’t met Jimmie Marshall. Jimmie is one of the most wonderful parts of our Tampa adventure. We met at the Oxford Exchange. Oxford Exchange is part restaurant, part workspace collective, part coffee shop and part bookstore.

It’s right across the street from the University of Tampa and near the heart of downtown, a beautiful white brick building with dark wood floors leading to a grand staircase that takes you to the Shaw Library where I do most of my work. As you enter you pass the bookstore and follow the foyer down to the coffee shop and an open common area enjoyed by some of most prominent culture shapers here in Florida. Just the other day I met Governor Rick Scott while having coffee with a friend. It’s that kind of place. Were it not for Jimmie Marshall, I would feel really out of place working there.

Jimmie operates his shoe-shine business in the foyer area, and I will never forget the first time I met him. Let me insert some back story. A friend here in Tampa knew I was looking for a quiet place to work. He not only recommended Oxford Exchange but vouched for me to get access to the library. Most days I ride my bike to work, not because I love riding a bike but because a bike is what I have. A typical commute means gliding along Tampa Bay getting passed by a Lamborghini, a Rolls Royce, a Bentley, lots of Porsches and maybe a Ferrari. I’m not kidding. Tampa is crazy; Mercedes are like Honda Accords out here.

Picture me peddling away in my jeans, boots and ridiculous helmet, heading for my first day at my new office. My commute is about 5.5 miles, and by the time I arrive I’m sweaty. Given the length of legs and the height of my bike, I’m lucky to dismount without falling over. My dismount routine includes an awkward little hop. When I don’t get it just right, I dump the whole thing, basket and all. Luckily that day I got it right. Remember all the cars that passed me? They are now all parked out front, proudly displayed like kings and queens on a chessboard.

Once I’ve taken a moment to cool down, situate my lunch bag, backpack and helmet, I open the doors and my shoes hit the marble floor. Looking like an extra from a Macklemore video, I pass all the beautiful people who own all the beautiful cars. By now I want to die, hide or turn around and head right out the door. In Portland, I could be a young Phil Knight, an important writer/activist or design firm owner. In Florida, I don’t even look lost, just strange. About the time I feel most out of place, Jimmie Marshall turns around and with grace and warmth he creates a place for me. From that moment on we were friends. In fact, he joined my family for Thanksgiving this year.

A couple weeks ago I was having one of those weeks. My knees felt like buckling under the weight of beginning a new work. The pressure to meet all the expectations I create for myself and the realities of relocating across the country had gotten the best of me.

It was Wednesday morning. I went to work doing my best to be glass-half-full guy and orient forward, but I was tired.

Jimmie and I exchanged our usual morning greetings, and he started to share a story from the previous day. All of a sudden he stopped and invited me to “get up in the chair.” I resisted. First of all, I didn’t have the money to pay him. Second, there was no way this friend was going to shine my shoes. That’s when it hit me. That thing that happens when you know you’re about to learn a lesson. A biblical weight kind of fills the moment. You can sense it and I knew my job was to stop talking, stop resisting and obey. I stood up and took two steps to the shoeshine chair, ascended to the high seat and placed my feet on the brass footrests. Jimmie took a knee on a perfectly worn rug and began to apply polish to my boots. I just sat there. I couldn’t speak. I was afraid if I did I would just start to cry. Jimmie is a craftsman; he worked back and forth with the leather like they had an understanding, his attention to detail transforming both soul and shoe.

Those were some of the sweetest and strangest minutes of my life. I wish I had words to describe the impact his care had on me. I don’t. All I can say is that for a few minutes I was completely quiet and powerless. My shoes needed work but Jimmie knew I needed something more than that. When he finished, I stepped down and confessed I didn’t have the cash to pay him. He just shook his head. About that time another customer came by with a bag of shoes. He dropped the bag and stressed that he needed the shoes in 15 minutes.

Jimmie humbly responded, “I can have them in 35 or 40.” I thanked him again and started to get up in order to let him get back to work. He had already started in and as I started to walk away, I heard him whisper, “Blessed are the feet of those who carry the gospel.” I walked away fixed and broken.

By the time I head home each night, Jimmie is usually gone for the day. When I pass that chair I almost can’t look at it. It has a humbling holiness to it now. When I was a stranger, I was welcomed. When I was weary, I found rest. Being loved like that leaves a forever mark. Oh, to rise and love like that.