I was still struggling to grasp my surroundings as we slipped off our shoes and walked into the expansive, open-air, marbled courtyard. There were dozens of students pacing the floors, kneeling in prayer, and sitting in study groups amongst the roman pillars “harvested” from the once-plentiful churches of this ancient city.

Al-Azhar.

The oldest university in the world (969AD).

The Harvard of Islam.

After stops in the UAE and Qatar, this (extremely) white, Midwestern christian boy somehow found himself standing in the intellectual center of the Sunni Islamic faith. Just another day at the office.

Our missionary host led us through the university’s square to an old, wooden door at the base of one of the mosque’s minarets. He had a friend employed by the school that was planning to give us the grand tour. But first, he had something special he wanted us to see.

CairoMinaretThe antiquated door swung closed behind us as we stepped into the base of an ancient spiral staircase.

It was pitch black.

As I instinctively reached for my iPhone flashlight, my new friend stopped me. “Leave it off for a minute. Trust me.”

So I took a deep breath and began to climb.

The steps were rough and uneven, worn down by hundreds of years of pious footprints. I braced my hands against the sides of the chamber, trying to keep from stumbling as each tread varied greatly in both width and height. I could hear the voices of my climbing partners ahead of me, but I had no idea as to how far I’d fallen behind. My pulse was pounding. My thighs began to burn with lactic acid. I struggled to catch my breath.

Still no light. Still no rest. Just more and more steps. And more and more darkness.

That’s when he hit me with the point of this whole exercise. From the blackness above I heard this story:

“One of my muslim friends who came to trust in Jesus told me this stairwell is the perfect analogy for Islam. Always climbing, climbing, climbing. Completely in the dark. Exhausted. Worn out. With no light, and no end in sight.”

The metaphor resonated. They have their law, but there is no Gospel. They have heavy demands, but no grace.

And strangely enough, that’s not all that unlike the way many of us embrace Christianity: an endless ascent up a pious staircase in a fruitless effort to reach up to God by our own efforts.

But God doesn’t ask us to climb to The Light. The Light came down to us.

The Word gave life to everything that was created,
    and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
–John 1:4-5 NLT

My one-day journey into the heart of this muslim city didn’t leave me angry or afraid, it left me sober. Burdened for a people who must quietly long to escape the pressing weight of their religious bondage, to exhale under the freedom of God’s gift of grace.

And that reminder is just as pertinent for you and me today, too.

God isn’t found at the top of an exhausting climb up a dark stairwell. Jesus came for us. I don’t care what religious system you may associate yourself with today, that’s the Good News for us all.

The older I get, the more emotional I become. Lump in the throat, watery eyes, sheepishly blame it on seasonal allergies (all year long) kind of moments. Maybe I’ve always been this sappy, perhaps it’s some leftover neurological messiness from my medical issues last spring, maybe my two teenage daughters are just morphing into daily reminders of time’s fleeting passage…

…or maybe it’s something completely different.

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I think it takes a fair-bit of living to really grasp just how desperate and broken you are:

To realize how much you’ve been hurt by other people and are capable of wounding them, too.

To understand that regardless of how wonderful and put together your life may appear and even feel at times (just check your Facebook feed), that you’re still silently plagued by “what if,” and “not good enough.”

To acknowledge the constant companions of fear, and shame, and insecurity, even amidst your life’s greatest successes.

I used to think that intelligence and enlightenment would eliminate my dependence, that I would eventually grow out of my need for outside help. But with every passing year, my newly gained experience simply reveals more and more of my desperate need for a savior (and my own incompetence in trying to play the role for myself). Wisdom has revealed my weakness.

So (this time of year, especially) as I’m inundated with epic melodies and timeless lyrics, like:

“Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine, oh night when Christ was born!”

Or…

“All is well, all is well
Angels and men rejoice
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love’s light”

(If you haven’t heard Carrie Underwood and Michael W. Smith’s new rendition of this, I challenge you to listen with the Christmas lights on and a fire in the fireplace without feeling a few warm, salty tears running down your face).

Or when I read the Christmas story to my kids:

“Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

…I can’t help but get a little choked up.

I have hope, in spite of my failures.

I have hope, but not in my successes.

Weak and in need of power, I run to Power that embraced weakness.

How can you help but get a little emotional this time of year? Or any time of year for that matter?

I don’t have to live in my insecurities. I don’t have to earn my identity. I don’t have to suffer in shame. I don’t have to climb my way up to God. Everything I need, in Christ, I already have. Love came down. Emmanuel. God is with us.

Merry Christmas.

Now please excuse me, I need to grab a tissue.

I must confess, I occasionally click on those silly pop-culture posts dancing in my Facebook feed like the cyber-version of the supermarket tabloids (don’t judge me). The most recent “where are they now?” featured an actor from one of my favorite TV shows of all time. My wife and I rarely missed an episode of House, living vicariously through the filterless, brutal commentary of the cranky, yet brilliant, diagnostician.

This particular headline teased the post-show whereabouts of House’s closest friend, Robert Sean Leonard (affectionally known as Wilson). I was curious as to what he’s been up to, so I clicked (I said don’t judge me). While his dramatic resume is rather rich, I was surprised to hear Leonard talk so openly of his love for being the “second guy.”

“I like being the best friend,” he said. “I love my role the way it is.

Since House’s wrap, those are the exact kind of roles he’s continued to pursue. His skills are critically acclaimed, but you’ll still almost always find him with a minor part. While most of us would would clamor for the gold star on our dressing room door and the much bigger paycheck, here’s a guy who actually aspires to be a supporting actor.

Weird.

But it got me thinking. This is exactly the way we were designed to live. It’s true. Tim Keller calls it “the dance.”

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We were meant to center our lives around God and to serve other people. That’s not just a nice, moralistic suggestion. It’s where we find our meaning, it’s where we secure our identity, it’s where we encounter our deepest joy. It’s the way God created us.

Yet most of us instinctively view ourselves as the main character in our own story. We fight to put our stake in the ground, to pen the narrative from our own perspective, to negotiate for headliner wages. We spend our days wondering why the world (and even God Himself) doesn’t do a better job of playing a supporting role to our brilliant thespianism. And most of us are pretty unfulfilled and frustrated.

When we approach life as if we are playing the lead role, we completely whiff on life’s meaning. And we will struggle to find any rest or peace.

When Jesus summed up the entirety of God’s Word into two simple concepts – love God and love other people – he wasn’t just giving us a nice command we should try and obey if we can somehow muster the spiritual stamina. He was showing us where to find our true selves.

We find joy when we stop seeing ourselves as the central character of the story. We were designed as beloved members of the supporting cast.

I’m Tired of Being Thankful

Erik Cooper —  November 25, 2014 — 3 Comments

John Madden’s famous six legged turkey is being prepped for Thursday’s NFL postgame show.

Church signs are splashed with Thanksgiving themed bible verses (which, let’s admit, is a welcome change from most church sign content).

Facebook walls are awash in “thankfulness challenges” and clipart quotes about turkeys and pilgrims.

My kids Thanksgiving school crafts adorn the refrigerator door.

Charlie Brown is once again convincing himself that he can actually kick that football.

And retail stores are filled with….well, who are we kidding? They’ve been decorated for Christmas since Labor Day.

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Thanksgiving is here! It’s hard to ignore. It’s everywhere. But can I be honest with you? I’m sorta tired of being thankful. Yeah, I am. I’m just going to take a few minutes here and call it like it is.

Thankfulness is hard.

You know why? Because thankfulness forces me to accept that I’m not the source of things. That there is something bigger than me. That all my blessings, my relationships, my resources, my opportunities, my food and shelter, my creativity, my inspiration, my parents, my kids, my friends, my coworkers, my money, my successes, my joy, my purpose, my identity, my meaning, my very next breath…

All of it.

Every. Last. Bit.

Is a gift to me.

And I hate that. No, I mean I really do.

I. Hate. It.

I don’t want to be thankful. Thankfulness means I’m in need. I’m needy!? Who wants to be in need? I mean, come on, really?! I want to be the author, the creator, the origin, not the recipient! I want to be in control, to be strong, to be powerful and put together.

I don’t want to be thankful. I want to be thanked.

Yet with every passing year, I become more and more aware of my true makeup. I am weak. I am broken. I lack. I need help. Geez, doesn’t that sound empowering?

Or is it?

In some great gospel paradox, with every downward step I seem to find myself rising higher. With every admission of inadequacy, I find myself growing stronger. With every acknowledgement of brokenness, I find myself a little bit more whole. With the loss of self-made meaning, I find more of my true identity.

Such is the mystery of grace.

So perhaps I’m not actually tired of being thankful. Perhaps I’m just tired. Tired of pretending to be put together. Tired of acting like I’ve got it all figured out. Tired of trying to be the central character of my own story. Tired of striving to become my own savior.

The strength, and control, and peace, and connection, and wholeness, and power I so desperately long to construct can only be created when I stop looking for it inside of myself.

I was made to be thankful.

So let’s eagerly humble ourselves this Thanksgiving, and find our greatest joy in our need to give thanks.

Our SUV bounced mercilessly over the rugged ground. To call these dirt paths “roads” would’ve been a generous misnomer, as stretches of definable terrain quickly gave way to an obstacle course of potholes and extreme turns that pushed our vehicle’s suspension system to its limits. We had already been driving for close to two hours, and we had at least another two to go. We were literally heading into the middle of nowhere.

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To give you just a taste of exactly how far we were from civilization, a local villager, bitten by a black mamba snake just two weeks earlier, was unable to make it to medical help before the venom overtook him. He died in the backseat of the car still hours from the nearest community.

This was old-school Africa. Grass huts, stone spears, National Geographic Africa. We were on our way to visit the Datooga, a nomadic tribe that live in the Mara region of central Tanzania. Some amazing things are beginning to happen amongst these people, which leads me to the real point of this story.

About halfway to our destination, we stopped the cars at the top of a hill overlooking the Mara valley. It was a breathtaking. As we paused to take in the view and a few stories from our missionary friends, a woman suddenly appeared walking on the road. She was carrying a baby, probably less than a year old, on her back in a some kind of homemade cloth wrap. The baby was obviously sick, as the skin underneath his eyes and nose was caked with crusted mucus.

She was taking him to the witch doctor in the next village for some type of mystical potion or incantation that would hopefully cure his illness. We asked if we could pray for her and her child, and after we finished the Datooga pastor traveling with us began to share the Gospel message with her.

“We would like to introduce you to Jesus,” I heard him say through the translator.

“He sounds like an amazing man,” she responded. “I will be back later today. I will make some tea. Can you bring him to my house? I would love to meet him.”

98% of the Datooga have never heard the name Jesus. I’ve read about people like this, about places like this – we call them “unreached people groups,” or UPGs for short – but in that moment I was staring into the real life eyes of what I had previously only known as a christian statistic thrown around at missions conferences.

I’m lucky enough to be part of a business that wants to help engage with stories like these. Not to force feed them an additional religion. Not to export our christian culture. Not to try and make them like us.

To introduce them to the only One that can resurrect who God originally created them to be. 

To “bring Jesus by for tea.”