Ten Years in the Making: Finding Purpose in the Midst of Pain

journeyI have written extensively about the catalyst, the moment, the inciting situation that kicked my writing into high gear. Although I had been interested in writing professionally for since I was a kid, I never really took this passion seriously until I needed it in my season of wandering through the valley of the shadow of death. I was an absolute mess and had broken relationships/ friendships all over the place as a result of my mess. In this season, I turned to God of course. But I also turned on myself – and it wasn’t good. I needed something to pull me out and therapy was too expensive. So I took out a notepad and started writing and I didn’t stop until I was able to make sense of what I was going through – pain that in many ways I brought upon myself because of my own emotional unhealthiness.

That was a long time ago. Nearly ten years ago. And as I said, the good thing, well there were many good things, about this whole situation was that I wrote and published my first book – Dancing on Hot Coals. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without that book – so thank you drama-filled 21 year old me! This book has revolutionalized my life in more ways than one, mostly because it allowed me to tap into a gift that was lying dormant, waiting to be awakened. Most of the opportunities that have come my way in terms of career, vocation, and even my family, is as a result of this book and the inciting situation that caused me to start writing in the first place.

At first, most of my writing revolved around me, myself, and I – my insecurities, my hopes, my dreams, my faith! But as I began to get interested in biblical justice, something started to shift in my writing expression. I gradually started to write about the intersection of faith and justice, wanting to illustrate the disconnect that many Christians in the West have between the belief that we profess with our lips and the injustice that we do with our hands – a disconnect that has roots in Gnosticism and dualism. Over the years, I have written more than 200 short pieces in this regard, with the hope of inspiring us believers to live differently and to embrace the totality of the Word of God, which not only calls us to live holy lives but also strongly admonishes to do justice and resist the temptation to exploit and marginalize others.

I have gathered what I consider the best of these essays and compiled them into a second book – Embracing a Holistic Faith: Essays on Biblical Justice, which also includes a study guide for deeper reflection. This book will be released on April 4th and I couldn’t be more excited! Essays include thoughts on the biblical basis of social justice, God’s heart for justice, politics, American ideals of freedom and more. Of course, I could use some nice reviews of the book, so if you are interested in tweeting/facebooking or writing a short review for amazon, let me know and I will send you an electronic copy of the book – for free (LIMITED TIME ONLY).

Otherwise, I hope that you will buy the book on the 4th!

See you then.

Waiting for Salvation (Times Are Different Now)

On and off for the last 4 1/2 years, I have been writing the same piece of fiction. I started it one evening in the fall of 2008, while I was still working at TCF. Lines were slow, and I was bored and so I opened a new Word page and started writing. At first, I imagined a short story of no more than 50 or so pages. But over the years I have allowed the story to take me where it would, and the story  has taken me to over 400 pages – and I am still not done! But I am close. Very close, in fact, I am almost ready to show the finished product to the world. Today, however, I will just unveil the first few pages. We’ll see how things go from there!

Introducing: Waiting for Salvation

Victor Gonzalez sat quietly as the cries of others around him nearly made him deaf. There were men in three piece suits sobbing like babies in handkerchiefs and women in flamboyant church hats fanning themselves as they wept uncontrollably as if they were in excruciating agony. Confused but obviously hurt children clung to the skirts of their mothers who were doing the fanning. But Victor didn’t know what all the commotion was for. At least not yet. The only thing more deafening than their yelling was the violent rain pounding on the stain glass windows, threatening to come in. And this was odd for December. Yet the weather seemed to match the melancholy mood of the hour.

A man dressed slightly more formerly than others stood up to speak. “Please turn in your Bible’s to John 14,” the man said. The man, whom Victor assumed was a reverend, waited until he could no longer hear the pages of the Bible ruffling. “Jesus said: ‘Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also.’”

The wailing of the congregants surrounding Victor increased. He still was at a lost as to what was going on. And then one by one, as if on cue, people started to make their way to Victor offering their condolences. Older ladies cried on his shoulder and hugged him so tight that they smeared their lipstick and blush on his crisp, clean white shirt. Men shook his hands, trying to be strong and hold back the tears that were forming in the corners of their eyes. And Victor just stood there, unsure of what to do. Yet he was too frightened to move, too frightened to figure out what was going on, because whatever it was didn’t seem good.

The crowd around Victor soon began to dissipate and emptied out the sanctuary. Victor thought that it might be time for him to leave too. He grabbed his Bible and his coat and turned in the direction of the door. That’s when he noticed the casket. How could he have missed it before? Though fear told him not to go near, his curiosity got the best of him and he moved slowly toward the white casket surrounded by large bouquets of fragrant stargazers and white roses.

“Victor, come on. Let’s go. Everyone is waiting for you.” Victor turned around and saw a woman. Her face was familiar, but he couldn’t place her name.

“I’ll be there in just a minute,” Victor replied.

The woman noticed that Victor was heading toward the casket and called out after him. “No, Victor don’t go there. Don’t open it!”

Victor ignored her. He just had to find out. Was it his wife, Flor? Or one of his four kids? He didn’t know what he would do when he uncovered this mystery, but he had to uncover it. He had to. He kept walking.

“Victor, please. I beg of you. Don’t open the casket! Come on now, listen to me. Don’t do it.” The woman began to sprint toward him. But Victor was now only inches away from it, there was no way she would stop him. He reached toward its lid, and started to open it. To his surprise, the woman was right behind him and forced it back down.

“I have to know. I just have to know,” Victor said.

“No Victor, you don’t. Believe me, it’s better this way.” By that time, others had come back into the sanctuary, and were making their way to the casket to escort Victor out. Two men surrounded Victor, placing their arms around him as they walked him up the aisle to go out the door. Victor was too tired to fight, so he started to go with them. Then he changed his mind.

“No! No!” Victor yelled, breaking free from the men’s grip which wasn’t an easy task. He ran back toward the casket and yanked open its lid. There was nothing there.

“Victor, Victor.”

“Leave me alone, I’m sleeping.”

“Victor, wake up! You are talking in your sleep again.”

“What?”

“Get up!”

Victor opened his eyes. The sun gleamed through the windows so brightly which made Victor want to shut them again.

“Victor!”

“What now? Can’t you let me sleep?”

“Get up, get dressed and go look for a job.”

Victor looked to his right. There sat Flor, flipping through Cosmo while watching the morning news. He got out of bed and hit the shower because he was sweating profusely. After getting dressed, and quickly flipping through the morning paper, he was out the door. “It was only a dream,” Victor muttered as he walked a half a mile in -20° weather to the bus, which was waiting for him at the corner.

“Good morning, Victor!” the driver said.

“Morning Frank.” Victor paid the fare and sat down. He was hungry but he knew that if he had taken the time to eat before he left, Flor would have been all over him. Victor opened his wallet to see if he had any more cash to get something once he got to his destination. He had five dollars left. That was enough for a donut and a cup of coffee, at least.

Victor jumped off the bus and found a street café right away. It was one that he used to frequent every day when he worked on Wall Street, so he knew he wouldn’t be surprised by their prices.

“Can I have a small cup of your house blend and an apple pastry,” Victor requested. He used to order a large white chocolate mocha made with soy milk and extra whip cream. But times were different now.

“Five dollars,” the vendor said.

“Perfect!” Victor handed the vendor his bill.

‘No, the coffee is five dollars. The pastry is two.”

“Wait, a small cup of coffee costs five dollars? It used to cost three.”

“Prices have gone up,” the vendor said. “We are in a recession, man.”

Victor was colder than he was hungry. And he knew that he would be out for a few hours looking for work and needed to keep as warm as possible. So he decided to go with the coffee alone, and prayed that he wouldn’t get a headache from not eating.

Prayer. Lately it was the only thing that kept Victor from losing his mind. Ever since he lost his job six months ago, his entire world had been turned upside down. The conversation with his boss was still so cemented in his memory as if it happened yesterday.

“Victor, can you come into my office please?”

“Sure thing, Alex.” A few weeks ago, Alex informed him that he was in the running for a promotion in the firm. Victor was ecstatic but knew that there was one other guy, James, who was being considered as well. But Victor wasn’t worried. He just knew that he would get the job. He had been on the job longer; in fact he even trained James when he first came aboard. On top of that, he earned the firm billions of dollars more per year than his protégé.

Victor walked into the office and saw two men and a woman who he did not recognize seated on the couch. All of the confidence that he had in securing the promotion left at this point, as the expressions on their faces weren’t very friendly or hospitable. Victor quietly took his seat opposite them.

“Victor, thanks for coming in today” Alex started. “We just want to let you know how much we have appreciated all of the work that you have done over the last seven years. You have proven that you are a man of excellence, of diligence and for that we are extremely grateful. But unfortunately we decided to go with James for the job. He is just a little bit stronger than you, I hope that you can understand.”

Victor was stunned; he could not believe his ears. James was not stronger than Victor in any area at all. In fact, Victor was the one to mentor James over the last few years, offering advice in closing deals when James was still timid and unsuccessful. He knew all too well what their decision really meant; they were choosing a white man over someone who was colored. They didn’t need to say anything, it was crystal clear! Though frustrated, he tried not to let his emotions show.

“I was not expecting that one,” Victor spoke. “I thought that I had really made a positive impression around here. Well, I suppose I can live with it. Thanks for considering me in the first place.” With that, Victor stood to leave, assuming that there was not anything else that needed to be discussed.

“Wait, hang on a minute Victor!” Alex said. “There’s more. As you know the economy just has not been what it used to be. It is really affecting us so that we are going to have to make some changes around here.”

“Ok, what kind of changes?”

“Well, Victor” one of the men on the couch started, “we are going to have to lay some people off. Unfortunately, you are among one of three who is going to be let go. We are sorry to have to tell you this, but we are sure that you will find something in no time. And if not, hopefully this economic downturn is only a momentary one. Perhaps we can have you back in six months to one year’s time after things smooth out.”

Victor was at a loss for words, he did not know what to say. How could things be so perfect in his life at one moment and then in the next, be so drastically different? What did he do to deserve such a shift, what could he have done differently? He knew that if he was white and perhaps not an immigrant that he would still have a job, but how could he say that without appearing like the angry latino man playing the race card? Sure he could pursue the matter legally but knew that it would be as useless as chasing a rabbit down a rabbit hole; useless and tiring in the end!

“Victor, I hope there are no hard feelings,” Alex said.

“Hard feelings? Why should there be?” Victor asked. “You only passed me up for someone who is less competent and who has less experience than me because he is white and I am not. Hard feelings? No. Angry, upset, and frustrated feelings? Yes.”

“You know, you people are all the same,” Alex said. “You always want to play the race card when things aren’t going your way. Maybe you didn’t know this, but racism has ended. We as a people have all evolved to a much better place of acceptance and tolerance. Hey, we even have a black guy running for president. So our firing you has nothing do with race, and everything to do with ability. And let’s just be honest Victor, your ability just can’t compare to that of James.

“Are you serious?” asked Victor. “Let’s go get the records over the last three years. Right now. That’s where the proof is.”

“There isn’t any need to do that. We’ve made our decision,” said the woman who was sitting across from Alex.

“Let me not waste anymore of your time. If you do not mind, I will be on my way now.” At that, he stood up to leave.

“Oh, and just one other thing,” said Alex matter-of-factly. “Don’t pursue this legally. If you do, you can kiss your unemployment check goodbye.” Victor couldn’t believe that this was happening. And he doubted that his being laid off had anything to do with the economy as Alex suggested. He wondered if they were only looking for a way to get rid of him. It wouldn’t be the first time.

A Good Nose Bleed Could Change Your Life

I still remember the day that changed the rest of my days completely. Curled up on the floor in the bathroom of the church I attended, nose dripping with blood because I had cried so hard, I honestly didn’t know how I could go on. Of course, being in my early twenties, I was overly dramatic and far too naive, still I didn’t know that and so, I was depressed. With very little hope and only a handful of people I could turn to, I picked up a pen and started writing.

Inspired by the truth and vulnerability in Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and out of a need to cope with the absolute hell that I was living through, I wrote ferociously. Though it was a time filler, something I desperately needed back then, it also gave me an opportunity to look at everything that had happened in my life up until then and figure out why. As I chronicled  the events, starting from my present moment of pain, moving to my childhood back up to my adulthood, I saw a lot of overarching themes. Rejection. Hurt. Feelings of worthlessness. Fear. Betrayal. And these were just to name a few. The more and more I wrote, the more and more I discovered just how messed up I was.

But my being messed up, although very true, was only a small piece of my reality. Yes, there were many points in my life were I experienced heartache and heartbreak, but these things didn’t have to be the theme, they did not have to define me. So what was the one thing that did? Because in all honesty, if my circumstances and what I went through dictated who I was or who I would become, I didn’t have much hope. But if there was something bigger, something larger than all of these themes, something, someone who could use all of the crap I had been through, and boy there was a lot of it, to refine me, to make me stronger, well…

I am glad that I found that someone early on in life, oh, and his name is Jesus. Bet you knew I was going to say that. You see, in spite of all of the mess, all of the tears, all of the pain, He has been there, ever present, ever true, pulling me out of it. Picture a car on fire with a person trapped inside and along comes this heroic firefighter, rescuing thr victim. That is what, this is who Jesus has been to me. My hero, my rescurer!

This hope did not exempt me from figuring out how I found myself in these wrecks in the first place. What happened in my life, what took place, that caused me to be at the same point over and over again? As I wrote, I just saw the same scenario playing itself repeatily, how and where did I get stuck?

I got stuck in a pattern of rejection and pain, and I came to realize that I would not get unstuck until I allowed God to speak to this hurt, heal it, and be conscious, diligent about not falling into the same pattern again.

I must confess that this healing was not an easy process. In fact there were a few more nose bleeds and moments of extreme agony that I wasn’t sure I could endure. Rejection sucks and healing from a history of it takes hard, intentional work. But as I stand, now seven years later, I can honestly say it was worth it.

Dancing on Hot Coals is the product of my experience. In it I tell the story of how God took this history of mine, of brokenness, despair, and extreme hurt, and used it for His glory. I have learned that in spite of all I have been through, that God is for me, no He is truly for me. My pain does not define his love for me, but rather he can use the pain to bring about a glorious future in my life.

My only hope and prayer is that by sharing it, I can encourage someone else. Specifically, someone who finds themselves in the same circle of circumstances I found myself in years ago on that bathroom floor. The Bible says that we overcome by the blood of Jesus Christ AND by the word of our testimony. My sincere hope is that my testimony can be a source of victory for you.

Dancing on Hot Coals is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and kindle formats. If for some reason, you can’t afford it, let me know, we can work something out.

Creativity Needed! I Could Really Use Your Help

Finding the perfect title for a book does not come easy, at least it does not for me. For years, I have been round and round about what I should call this book that I am working on. Every one that I have chosen seems to fall short and does not really capture all that the book is about – so now I am soliciting help! Please! Okay, so here is a snapshot of the book:

Happiness is not guaranteed. Victor Gonzalez was beginning to understand that. After years of working diligently to overcome the challenges that he faced as a result of the color of his skin, his heritage and his family, Victor finds himself standing in the very place that he did not want to be – a place of despair. When a worldwide economic crisis develops, he loses the secure job that he worked so hard for. His loss of financial security, however, causes him to lose much more – his wife, his dignity and his faith. Disillusioned, he turns to a life of crime, something he was trying to escape, by joining his brother’s drug ring in order to provide for his children. Soon he is making more money than he ever did as an investment banker but discovers that his estranged wife has been sexually trafficked. At a loss of what to do, Victor sets out to rescue her, save his family, and recover his faith in God again. 

Based on this synopsis, what do you think about the following titles?

Reflections on Purple Hibiscus – Religion Gone Awry

<a href="I finished reading Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie around 12am this morning. And I loved every piece of reading it. I was immediately lost in the plot and fell in love with this Kambali character – a 15 year old girl who is so much more than people often take her for. There is just so much that she does not say, so much that goes left unspoken as a result of living in fear of his father.

I never knew that I could loathe someone so much. Her father Eugene’s character is the epitome of evil, at least in my opinion. However, what makes this guy so fierce is his religion, in that he uses his religion as justification for the way he beats his family into submission. Yes, I said beat. At his hands, his wife has miscarried twice. He nearly kills his daughter, and cripples his son – yet all in the name of righteousness. Any form of evil, wickedness, rebellion, sin, or just plain disagreement with him warrants the severest form of punishment. For him, it is worth it, so that he can attempt to save his family from hellfire.

Now I know this is fiction, and I also know that a scenario like this is a little extreme, however, I also know that in a way behaviors like this are far too common to ignore. In too many instances, people use religion as a means to justify evil, wicked behavior and it absolutely disgusts me, so I know it must tick God off too! Far too often we use religion, faith, spirituality, to coerce others into action, to persuade people how to vote, to get people to give money, when all along we are only promoting our own agendas – it has absolutely nothing to do with God! And as a result, behaviors as such do grave injustice to the Gospel.

Do you want a sure-fire way to test whether or not something or someone is exhibiting godly behavior or just perpetrating evil? Here it is – I call this the Galatians 5 test:

If these characteristics are not present, I am sorry to say that neither is God’s Spirit. Because the thing is, it is impossible to walk in His Spirit, and not have these things present. Notice I did not say anything about prayer, Bible reading, church attendance, tithing, fasting or any other thing. These things are good, and absolutely essential to grow in God, but they do not testify to the inner workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Only his Spirit does, and no matter how hard you try, this you can’t fake.

So if someone is passing off as religious, spiritual, etc but their behaviors and actions say anything but, my advice is to run, fast, in the opposite direction very far away.

Make sure to check out my own book, Dancing on Hot Coals on Amazon.com.

Something I Learned From Today’s Garfield Comic Strip

Anyone who knows me really well also knows that I am an avid Garfield fan. I can’t remember when my love for this overweight, sarcastic cat began, especially considering that I loathe cats, but I do know that my love has been existent for quite a while now. My collection of 33 Garfield comic books should prove just how much I dig this cat. No pun intended!

Now I must tell you, when I read I comic strip I am not looking for any pearls of wisdom. I am not looking for a life lesson that I can apply to my life or any other significant learning. All I want is to add a little bit of laughter and a little bit a humor to my oh so serious life. But as I read the strip for today online, the wheels in my mind began to turn:

Like every other strip I have read, this one was funny. And so I laughed. But as I read it again, I thought about just how much it speaks to my life and perhaps the lives of others out there. When confronted with the societal injustices of our day, we are all compelled to do something. We all know that we should do, could do, ought to do something to change our world for the better. However, I find that all too often we get stuck at this place. Passion becomes a substitute for action, in that we somehow feel like caring about an issue is enough to bring about justice. But it doesn’t, not unless we are doing something with it.

For many of us, I think the problem is that we don’t know exactly what to do. We see the atrocities going on in Syria, the killings in Afghanistan, the famine in East Africa, the homicides in Chicago, the slaying of an innocent teenage boy in Florida and although we know that something must be done, we do not know what that something is. The needs of this world start to overwhelm us, and rather than propel us into activity, they render us useless, paralyzed into oblivion.

But what if we did the next thing. What if we picked up a pen and wrote a letter to our senator to influence them to support a bill that would increase humanitarian aid in international countries? What if we scheduled a meeting with our pastors and other leaders of our church to encourage them to create an evangelism and outreach plan to reach the neighboring community? What if we wrote, what if we prayed, what if we agonized, what if we protested? What if we just did the very next thing that was in our reach in order to move us from being passion oriented to being action oriented.

Maybe that one move won’t change the world, but perhaps in our moving we will unlock something in us that will. Hello inertia!

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Crisis of Identity that My Education Couldn’t Solve

Several years ago I had an epiphany that uprooted the foundation of my world. You may think that what I realized isn’t profound but I care very little about what you think. In a moment’s time my life was changed and I realized that my life is not defined by success or failure, what I wear or even the people that I surround myself with. Instead, my life finds its meaning in something a little less tangible than material things, and finds purpose in something surer than any human relationship that I could ever know – a deep and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ!

It is in my relationship with Jesus that my life has the meaning, purpose and depth that I often looked for in other things. It is because of his great love for me that I stand and it is this love that keeps me from falling flat on my face. Many people would agree with the truth of my discovery without batting an eye, but here I prove to be a little slower than most and so it took me a while.

It took me a while to understand the real impact that Christ has upon my life. It is an impact that goes beyond mere church attendance and memorization of a few Bible verses, as his presence influences every area of my life. I have walked with the Lord now for almost twenty years and have studied his Word to the point that I have earned degrees in it. Knowing this, you might think that I should know the details of these ideas just as much if not more than I know the intricacies of my face or the back of my hand. Yet these are things that no textbook can teach you. Such knowledge comes in less desirable ways.

Fire. This is the way that many lessons in life, especially the ones that count, are learned. It is a fire that purifies and makes you stronger. It is a fire that gives birth to blessings and a greater spiritual understanding. Yet it is a fire that burns like hell, as all fires do, and will bring you to your knees. It is a fire that makes you wonder why God chose you of all the people on the earth to inflict this excruciating pain! It is sometimes caused by harmful choices that you make. But then there are times that the purging flames are unwarranted, simply occurring because you dared to breathe and life happened.

This is an excerpt from my book, Dancing on Hot Coals. Get your Kindle or Paperback edition on Amazon.com for as little as $2.99.