Living in a mansion

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We recently took a tour of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. It is the largest home in North America. A mansion in every sense of the word. There are 250 rooms filling up 178,000 square feet. It was built by a man named George Vanderbilt and he spared no expense. The architect he used also designed the base of the Statue of Liberty and the man he had design the gardens on the property is the same person who planned out Central Park in New York City. Astoundingly, it wasn’t even Vanderbilt’s primary home but a vacation property he called his “little mountain escape.”

It is an amazing place. From the gargoyles and the huge lions at the entrance to the indoor swimming pool, elevator, and bowling alley, it is impressive. Especially considering it was built at the end of the 1800’s. Vanderbilt’s personal bedroom has wallpaper made out of real gold and a light in his closet that turned on when he walked in. Even the servant’s quarters were cool. We felt like we were in the castle from Beauty and the Beast. Minus the talking candlesticks…

As we walked around we talked about how Jesus said that in His Father’s house there are many mansions and that when He went away He was going to prepare a place for us. When you put your faith in Jesus you have the promise that to die is to leave this old decaying tent and move into that perfect place. We were getting to see the largest mansion on the earth, but our little princess Lenya has been living with the King in a far greater mansion.

As of today, she has been there for 70 days. I don’t know how heaven’s time works. Perhaps for her it has just been a few moments and by the time we get there it will have seemed like we were never apart. What is for certain is that life in that place is much better than anything this world has to offer because, even if for no other reason than this, it is eternal.

On the tour they told us that not too long after construction was finished George Vaderbilt died unexpectedly from an appendectomy gone wrong. His wife and daughter suddenly found themselves in a big, cold house separated from the one who built it. That is so like life. Not even one of the richest men in America could keep himself from death’s icy grip. The good news is that if we have received the free gift of everlasting life offered through the gospel, death will bring us to Immanuel’s land where there is no night. And the mansion that Jesus has prepared for you will blow the Biltmore out of the water.

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Arrows

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I love that the Bible describes children as arrows in the hand of a warrior. They are weapons to be launched out as bright lights in a dark world. As parents we are archers and our job is to do all we can to help them hit the target.

The honor of being a mom or a dad is that you are entrusted with one of God’s special little arrows. He wants you to fit each one to your bowstring, aim carefully, pull with all your might and then whenever He calls you to, you must let it fly. Our number one concern should be that while we had them in our hand we did everything we could to help them reach heaven at the end of their mission.

Jennie and I have been blessed by the Lord with four little arrows. Three are still in our quiver and one is now in the target. Lenya flew straight and true. Though her flight on this earth was far shorter than we thought or would have liked, she struck the dead center of the bullseye with great eternal impact.

We are not going to take a second we have with Alivia, Daisy or Clover for granted for we aren’t guaranteed how long we will have with them either. As long as God sees fit to trust them to our care they will be planted in the house of the Lord all their earthly days, and our absolute highest prayer for their lives is that, like Lenya is now, they would dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, matters more than this.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth. (Psalms 127:4 NKJV)


A distant shore

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Her pink bike is in the garage with her helmet hung by its strap from one of the handlebars. It has white-walled tires. Just like mine. Every time I walk by it I take a deep breath in and let it out slowly as I think about how spring will come and the snow will melt and we will go on family bike rides in the evenings, but her bike will stay parked in that spot. Her helmet will stay there too, dangling from the handlebars. Lenya will not ride that bike again. Eventually Daisy will use it and then Clover, but not Lenya. Not ever.

She isn’t going to play with her toys anymore. Neither will she wear any of her dresses or other clothes that are hanging in her closet and folded in her drawers. She used to transform all the pieces from this wardrobe into three or four wild and wonderful outfits, and as many messy piles on the floor by lunchtime each day. Her room is far too clean and tidy now. Everything stays as we put it. Her Jesus jar is empty because she brought her tithe to church the weekend before she left us, but the money she saved up in her “spend” jar will not be spent by her.

I know this all to be true because my daughter has gone to heaven. She is on a distant shore. Though we can’t see her she is near. Heaven can’t be that far away because when you leave this earth you are able to be instantly with the Lord. At most it is a day’s journey away because Jesus promised the thief on the cross that, “today you will be with Me in paradise,” and when He said that they had already been on the cross for hours. Maybe it’s extremely close, just unseen to us presently. Doesn’t that seem to be how Stephen makes it sound, in the book of Acts, when, in his final moments, he gave us a description of of glory that seemed to appear before his eyes right before he died? I wonder, and long to find out. Perhaps if we knew how close Heaven was we would be more motivated by it and live to fill it more ardently than we do.

In Lenya’s final moments on earth her mother’s voice was in her ears and she was held by her father’s hands. Those were frantic, desperate and frightening minutes to us as we sought to keep her here through CPR. God chose instead to bring her to His country. A place without sin or pain or fear. No, she can’t ride her pink bike on the cracked pavement of this tired world any longer, but I don’t suspect that brings her much concern as she swims with dolphins or rides down the beach on a horse with a tropical wind whipping her hair up behind her. Or maybe it’s a unicorn. If she has the option I guarantee you she is picking the unicorn.

It is true that Lenya died. It is also true that she is more alive today than she has ever been. More alive than me. I take great joy in thinking about the fact that she is in a place without death. We had to attend her funeral but she did not. She never attended one in her life and she never will. She is in the land of the living.

What anchors us in this storm of our separation from her is the promise that she is with Him and He is in us. The more we are filled with His Spirit the greater our connection to her grows. I would lose heart if I did not believe that I will see the Lord. But I do. Someday soon my ship will set sail for the distant shores of that perfect place, where Lenya lives and laughs and plays, and I will finally be Home.


The Vanishing Point

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While on a recent trip to the coast Alivia snapped this polaroid of Jennie and I staring out into the mysterious and gloomy sea on a foggy day. When she showed it to me it seemed to perfectly encapsulate life for us right now. Our eyes are straining to see something that we can’t. The sun is hiding behind clouds and refusing to shine. Life is unfolding in muted colors and in a minor-key.

It has been six weeks since Lenya left this world. She is not gone, just out of our sight. In his book Heaven Randy Alcorn compared it to standing on a dock watching a ship sail away and head to the horizon. Though it seems like it is gone, when it finally disappears from sight, it is not. The ship hasn’t actually vanished, it has just gone somewhere else. To those at the port the vessel is heading to, it is just the opposite. The ship appears where you lost sight of it and grows as it draws near.

That is how we see this through the lens of faith. Our daughter set sail for Heaven 42 days ago. Though we can’t see her, we know that she is with the Lord. Her departure was also an arrival–a Homecoming.

Our eyes are teary and red, standing on the dock where we last saw her, struggling in vain to see even a small speck of her on the horizon. It feels like each day she is drifting further and further away and I hate the passing of time for it. I dread the thought that tomorrow it will have been 43 days since we snuggled and laughed and it seems she will slip away. In one sense that’s true, time is taking us away from our past together with her. But in another more real sense it is doing just the opposite. The day is quickly approaching when we will embark on the same voyage that she did and set sail for Heaven ourselves. As the hours and minutes pass we are getting closer and closer to our future together. Time is our friend, not our foe.

So even though it feels like “goodbye,” it’s actually, “see you soon.” And that brings great comfort to our melancholy hearts.


The happiest place on earth

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One of the girls’ Christmas presents this year was a visit to Disneyland. We were supposed to fly to California the day after Christmas and spend a day riding rides and meeting characters, and if Lenya had her way, eating lots of cotton candy. Things turned out very different. Our airplane took off without us as we stood shedding tears in a snowy cemetery.

A smaller, stunned and broken-hearted version of our family eventually made it to California. We hadn’t kept the trip a surprise so they had all been talking about it for several months and had mapped out which rides we should go on while we were there and in what order. Though she wasn’t with us, we headed to Lenya’s first choice and rode it right off the top. It was all bittersweet. We have terrific memories of her all over the park, from previous trips, that we cherished and were stung by as we laughed, smiled and cried our way through the day.

One of Disneyland’s nicknames is, “The Happiest Place on Earth” and, even though adults love to bag on this title because of the long lines and dollar signs, I think it is pretty fantastic. Especially when you experience it through the eyes of your kids. The sights, smells and sensations are all carefully crafted to be warm, bright and exciting. That was Walt Disney’s whole idea, to build a utopia for children of all ages, a perfect little world where fantasy is reality and dreams do come true–if you wish upon a star. Of course it’s all fake. There is a dude inside the Mickey costume, you can’t live in the castle, and it all closes at end of day.

The good news is that Jesus said that there really is a place like the one Walt tried to create, where every dream comes true. It’s not the Magic Kingdom, but the Messiah’s Kingdom. It’s called Heaven. He promised that there is room for us in His Father’s House and that He would bring us there one day. My daughter Lenya is there with Him right now. The Bible also promises that the day is coming when all of Heaven will come down and be permanently fused to the new Earth. When that day comes there will be no unhappy places on the planet. All of earth will be as cheerful as It’s a Small World, but much less creepy.

What gave us great joy as we waited in line for Dumbo, one of Lenya’s very favorite rides, ate six dollar churro’s, and took photos that have a conspicuous absence in them, was the thought that Lenya is in the place Disneyland is trying to be. Paradise. Though we wished desperately she could be there with us we held on to the comforting reality that she was not missing out on the fun. We were. Our sadness was for us and not for her. We wanted her there with us to laugh at the silly faces we made for the camera at the end of Space Mountain, to meet Ariel and to spin furiously in the Mad Hatter’s Teacups because it would have been better for us. But returning to this fallen earth would not mean more fun for her but far less.

The reality is even the happiest place on earth, on it’s best day, can’t hold a candle to Heaven. Disneyland is like a cross between the DMV and the Dentist compared to the slightest sliver of what Heaven will be like. David said that one day in God’s courts are better than a thousand elsewhere. She is with the Lord in a perfect place and she has been made perfect too. In the Kingdom she is in there really are princesses living in the sparkly castle, and she is one of them. And maybe just maybe the animals really do talk where she is. We miss her with all our hearts and I have no doubt that she is looking forward to the day when we will see what she is seeing and experience what she is experiencing. I can’t wait. Until that day I want to reach as many people as possible so they can go there too.


30 days in Heaven

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It has been 30 days now since my second born child Lenya stepped into eternity. Her last breath, which she took in my arms, was immediately followed by her first breath in the arms of her Savior and Creator Jesus Christ. Scripture promises nothing less than an instant transition to Heaven for the believer–to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. In her final moment on the earth, like Stephen, she saw Jesus, at the right hand of the Father, standing to greet her as angels brought her into God’s presence. Her consciousness which was lost to us on the earth was transferred seamlessly into a place Jesus made specifically for her in His Father’s house where she is safe from harm and waiting for us to join her.

I believe every single letter and every single word of the paragraph I just wrote. Tears streamed down my face as I typed them out and I had to walk away from the computer before I could continue because I started to hyperventilate–I am trying to write about the single most traumatic and painful moments of my thirty years of life after-all. But I believe what I said with all my heart. Thirty days ago, for Lenya, life was upgraded. She was brought to a place that is FAR better than the one she left. The last thirty days for her have been the best of her life. No doubt each day has been better than the one that came before it. She is in Paradise.

Our life, on the other hand, was downgraded. Life on this earth, which groans for redemption, is even more bitter without her. I have never longed for heaven more in my life. She is experiencing fullness of joy and pleasures evermore but we are being hard-pressed by grief and horrified by the prospect of living without her. Death is ugly. But it has been defeated. It’s still got a nasty bite but it’s venom has been removed, therefore we do not lose heart. We choose to look at all this not through just what we can see but what we know to be true. Not just by sight but by faith. I don’t have the strength to go through another thirty days of this, or thirty minutes for that matter. But God does. Lenya is with Him and He is with us, supplying us with strength we need and leading us in triumph. I choose to look at all of this and trust not what is temporary but what is eternal. Not what is in front of my eyes, but what is written in God’s Word.

I wish I could have heard her beautiful voice squeal for joy at the sight of that Land or watched the light of God’s glory illuminate her face for the first time. I wonder what it was like for her to taste a blackberry in that Country. Did she laugh that she ever could have thought one here was sweet? I will have to wait to find out. But she will be there waiting for us and leaping to greet me as I arrive at the distant shore she has already sailed to.


Don’t wait until you die to go to church

Psalm 23:6 “…I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.”

When you die, as a believer, you move-in to God’s house. Jesus promised us that straight-up. He said that in His Father’s house were many mansions and that when He left the earth He would prepare a place for us there. We also know from scripture that life in God’s house is paradise. Think of that! Jesus intentionally used that word to describe it, knowing full well what images it would bring to mind.

There are great places on this earth, even though it is marred by sin, places like Fiji, Hawaii, or the Caribbean that we would call paradise. God’s house will be full of pleasure and joy on an even greater scale than these tropical locations–and we won’t just be visiting–it will be our new home.

David looked forward to heaven with longing. He wasn’t looking forward to traveling through the valley of the shadow of death, but he was confident of what he would find on the other side. His peace came from knowing that the moment he was absent from the body he would be present with the Lord and he would dwell in His house forever.

Psalm 27:4 “One thing I have desired of the Lord, That will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord All the days of my life…”

The marvelous thing is that you don’t have to wait to die to experience the joy of heaven. David knew that through being planted in God’s house all the days of his life he could get a taste of what would be his to treasure in eternity–beholding the beauty of the Lord. To the degree that we are planted in His house in life we are prepared for and sustained until we travel there permanently through death.

You see, heaven is not just a place, it’s a person. Even though we can’t see Him face to face on this earth we can experience His glory, like nowhere else, through His church. Don’t wait until you die to go to God’s house!


blessed to be a blessing, annoyed because you’re annoying

You can become blind to things you see every day. Whether it’s the places you pass on the way to work or the items on your desk, if you see it frequently enough it can eventually hide in plain sight. One of the easiest ways to prove this is to have someone new over to your house. When they are sitting in your living room sipping iced tea just watch their eyes. They will scan the room, drinking it all in and if you look at what they look at you will see things about your own home you hadn’t noticed for a long time, if ever.

We never look at our own stuff with such careful scrutiny. We don’t need to, we can navigate our way through in the dark. That’s why a toy left in the wrong spot or a piece of furniture that’s been moved will always result in a banged shin when we go for a glass of water in the night. Even when the lights are on you can multi-task at home better than anywhere because you don’t have to pay careful attention to get around but can rely on our mental map of what we believe is there.

It can be the same way with our own idiosyncrasies and weaknesses. You can become blind to your quirks just through the sheer frequency of raw impressions. You are always around yourself. Those who are with you less frequently than you are (that would be everyone) see things about you that have become invisible to you over time.

One of the best ways to figure out what your blind spots are is to invert it and use other people as a mirror. What things do those around you do that really get to you? Is it when people interrupt frequently? Talk about themselves constantly? Chew loudly? Gossip incessantly? Your nerves reveal a lot about you for this simple reason, sins we struggle with always look uglier on other people. Chances are there’s some sense of conviction driving your high level of irritation. That’s why David was so ultra ticked at the dude stealing the poor mans sheep in Nathan’s parable–it struck a serious nerve in his life. Being consciously aware of what annoys you can help you discover what you do that’s annoying.

If you try and pay attention to this you will be shocked (and appalled in my case) at the things in your life that you do out of habit without really thinking about how you come across to others. And knowing is half the battle. You can’t ask God to change a problem that you don’t know is there.

Psalm 19:12 Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults.


don’t talk about yourself that way

I don’t know about you but I am my own worst critic. There is a definitely a healthy amount of competition for the title but I am painfully aware of my shortcomings–to a fault. My failures as a leader, a father, a husband and most importantly as a child of God are never too far from my mind and can easily consume my thoughts and rob my peace if I let them. I am a personal perfectionist. At times I am reticent to show myself the same grace and room to grow that I would urge upon anyone else.

Maybe all this doesn’t apply to you and it’s not a struggle for you. But if it is, here is something that has helped me. First of all you have to realize that this struggle I am describing, well at it’s core it’s a pride thing. Sorry, but it is. Holding yourself to a higher standard than you hold anyone else has got pride written all over it. You are made out of clay not iron. Stop being shocked and indignant that you are weak. Embrace it, humble yourself and receive the grace God wants to give you.

Most importantly you need to fire yourself from the role of critic and hire yourself as your own personal coach. I’m serious. And it’s a huge upgrade. Critics are worthless anyway. All a critic does is pass judgment on the work of another. There is no cost or sacrifice to criticize. You don’t have to be invested. Criticism is cheap. Coaches on the other-hand have something to contribute. Their job is to move a person or team from one place to another. There is a goal in mind. They are not just heaping scorn or praise on you for the sake of it but rather seeking to bring you to victory. Urge yourself on to the greatness God’s Holy Spirit has put within you.

You have to shift gears from criticizing yourself all the time and learn how to coach yourself towards where God wants you to be. Part of this will involve learning how to correctly talk to yourself. In my heart the voice of a critic often rises up; slamming my performance and condemning me for not doing better. But that’s not helpful. A good coach doesn’t sugar-coat a bad performance, and sometimes the post-game talk can be bitter medicine but it is never hopeless. It’s good to be broken over your sin but not helpful to wallow in self-loathing. So instead of merely tearing yourself to pieces, admit your failures and them spend time coming up with a plan for next time.

And next time you find yourself rising up in judgment against yourself remember something, you are the blood-bought son or daughter of the King of Kings. Don’t you dare talk about yourself that way!

Psalm 43:5 Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.


just break the ice

On a recent movie night, my family watched the movie Big Miracle. It is based on the true life story of three gray whales that were trapped in ice in Alaska in 1988. They got separated from the ocean by a ice wall that formed keeping them from their pod that was headed to Mexico and when the rest of their pocket of water froze they would die. The whole community and world (including President Reagan and the Soviet Union) came together to save these three mammals.

If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to have it spoiled please stop reading….but like Dolphin Tale, Free Willy and The Mighty Ducks this movie, for the most part, had a happy, feel-good ending. The citizens dug a path of breathing holes through the ice, some guys from Minnesota showed up with a heater, and the Russians smashed the sea wall down. Just another day in Point Barrow, Alaska. Before the credits rolled the whales were breaching on the ocean side and showing their iconic little flukes for the cameras before floating off to join their posse in Tijuana.

Feeling incredulous I pulled out my phone to go to Wikipedia and see if this all was real. I discovered that it indeed had happened. It was referred to by the gov’t as “Operation Breakthrough.” The big difference however was that in real life they never knew if it worked. Once the wall was broken they never saw the whales again on the land side but they never saw them surface on the ocean side either. There was no photo-op, or tingly, fireworks-going-off, tears being-shed-climax to all the work that had been done to free them. If the whales had survived they didn’t seem to care enough to say thanks…they just swam off into obscurity.

I thought how unsatisfying that would have felt for the laborers. Here they had worked so hard to save the whales and they never knew if they had been successful or not. For all they knew the whales ignored the path and drowned. What a letdown!!

All of a sudden it dawned on me that often that’s how it is for us. God calls us to be faithful in circumstances and do our part even though we don’t always get to see the results. That person you are kind to might not ever soften. That prodigal child might not come around in your lifetime. Those seeds you plant might not ever seem to hit good soil. But that’s not to stop you!

We can’t save the whales. But we can break the ice. We can’t force anyone to come to Christ, but we can break down obstacles and make them an easy path. And even if we never see the whale-tale up in the air or have a blow-hole-filling-the-sky-with-mist happy moment, we might just get to heaven and find out that those we thought were stuck in ice had a happy ending after all. We were never promised closure on this side of eternity anyway, just do your part and keep chipping away at the ice in front of you.

1 Corinthians 3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.