Embrace Discomfort

Two weeks ago tonight, East Pennsylvania became our new place, our new home, our new, well, everything.  From the moment we visited this place in January, we were in love with the region, with the pulse of the downtown district but especially, with the church here.

We have lived and worked in cities all over the world.  But I have never lived anywhere that makes me feel as ecstatic to awake to than here.  This is the happiest we have been in our lives.   And I will believe it even when the novelties wear off and the euphoria of this honeymoon stage shifts into the harrowing middle that inevitably comes to any ministry.

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By most standards, it must have been an unorthodox decision.

People flock to Florida from Pennsylvania.  They don’t leave Florida to go live in Pennsylvania year round.  It gets cold there.  Why would you ever want to give up a place as warm and comfortable as Florida to go somewhere as gelid as the northeast?  It snows there, ya know.  What, you’d rather shovel snow than sip piña colada‘s at the beach?  Did I mention it gets cold there?

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Call us nuts.  Call us crazy.  But there’s just something about waking up in a place far away from where we were raised and immersing ourselves in a culture that’s vastly different than everything we’ve ever known that makes me come alive.  Where you have absolutely zero roots and no one knows you at first.

On a daily basis, as we’re walking around, there are things going off within me that I haven’t felt in a decade since we were living in China – and this is a good thing.  It makes the mission field feel like the mission field.

But my favorite component of all?

The frigid climate.  The bodily discomfort.  The inconvenience of putting on multiple layers of clothing and still freezing your tuchis off.  That naked feeling of being an alien in a town that doesn’t yet know our names or our stories…

Contrary to what my American comforts tell me, ministry and the Christian life itself are predicated on discomfort and entering into the intimate reliance of the Spirit in the midst of that discomfort.  Difficulty is inescapable in any ministry regardless of where it is.  But what better way to bring the warmth of the Gospel to the sadness of a broken and cold world than to personally feel a bitter coldness coursing through your bones as you roam it’s avenues?

But what about the people, David?  It’s Philly.  This isn’t the Bible Belt anymore.  People are rude in the Northeast.  They say the jerkiest things.  You’ll realize this sooner or later.

Call me crazy.  But I’ve encountered rudeness from people wherever we’ve lived.  A time or two, I very well may have been the rude one.  And I’m from Arizona!  The people we’ve met so far have been some of the sweetest, most kindest people we have met.

Well, except for one guy last week – a Philadelphia parking lot attendant who walked up to me and dished it out pretty strong.  He was extremely rude and insulting to me in ways that were beyond inflammatory to me as a person.

At any other point in my life, and quite possibly, in just about any other place we’ve ever been, I would have been tempted to knock his head off his shoulders.  Or sink into a depression episode for weeks.

In this moment last week?  I slowed my thinking down.  I refused to let my emotions govern me.  I silently prayed to show him the love of Jesus Christ, I swallowed the insult, responded kindly, I laughed at myself, I wished him a good day and as I walked away, that man liked me and had a smile on his face that wasn’t there before.

It wasn’t until Paul stopped imploring God to remove his thorn that he saw human weakness, the difficulties of life on planet earth and the insults that were spewed in his face with strange new eyes – those that identify them as things to glory in (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Brusque remarks and uncomfortable situations and venturing deep into the wild unknown are the things that are all too human to want to avoid and ignore and to flee from.  But there is a whole other world of spiritual resurgence and ministerial renaissance when we sprint towards it, cannonball into it and embrace it with every fiber of our being.

Mansions Over Hilltops

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I don’t want a mansion over a hilltop
I don’t demand a mansion over a hilltop
You don’t owe me a mansion over a hilltop

You are my mansion
You are my anthem
Gazing forever upon Your radiant glory
In Your presence is heaven

I don’t want a robe and crown
I don’t demand a robe and crown
You don’t owe me a robe and crown

You are my robe
My only hope
Gazing eternally on the crown of thorns You wore for me
Being clothed in You is heaven

I don’t want golden streets and precious stones
I don’t demand golden streets and precious stones
You don’t owe me golden streets and precious stones

You are my gold
You saved my soul
Gazing perpetually upon Your dazzling beauty
Being Your living stone is heaven

A mansion though may be
A robe and crown though may be
Gold and stones though may be
Nevertheless, You are heaven to me

3 Things God Doesn’t Need Us To Be

Got pulled over by a church cop today.

Some minister in the Midwest I’ve never met who somehow accessed the Belleview Church Facebook page and by every indication, was cruising around looking for someone to flash his badge and gun at once the donuts were gone and he had nothing better to do.
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Asked me why there’s a cross on the wall of our sanctuary.  Thinking it an innocent inquiry, I explain it’s simply a visual reminder.  Then, all of a sudden, he goes from speaking my language to sermonizing down at me in 17th century blather.

Because there’s a decoration on the wall of a church building two thousand miles away  from him, where people worship (who he has never met and doesn’t know), to him, that automatically meant we were guilty of the following charges he ticketed us with:

              a).  Being idol worshipers who bow down before graven images

               b).  Changing and perverting the truth

               c).  Following after the Catholic church

               d).  Making “very light” of the New Testament

And then last, but certainly not least,

               e).  Being doomed (to hell)

When you’re someone who put yourself on a negativity diet because of how much you want a joyful mind and you intentionally seek after maintaining one, this kind of madness has a way of making your grip on positivity very slippery.   As respectfully as I could, I refused to have an argument with him about something as trivial as that and I invited him to do something God actually cares about (loving Him, loving people, seeking those who don’t know of His grace, feeding and clothing the poor).

I’m writing this post, not to cannonball into this swamp of negativity or to settle any scores; nor to give his outlandish condemnation any more time than the four and a half minutes it already wasted in my life today, but to simply say this:

Pure and simple, Jesus wants DISCIPLES.  AKA, followers.  AKA, apprentices.

It often begins that way.  But it’s so easy for us to become something else along the way.  The following three are especially on my mind tonight:

                                           Jesus’ Lawyer
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We’ve seen this guy a hundred times on Law And Order.  The high-powered lawyer who knows a ton about what the book says but uses big words with emotionally-charged tones and tries to bully someone on the witness stand into saying something self-incriminating.

This happened to Jesus constantly (Matthew 22:15, 23-29, 34-36, Mark 12:13-17, etc).  Lawyers and Pharisees and Scribes (the clergymen of the time) whose brilliant minds were overflowing with knowledge of what the Scriptures said.

But sadly, that precious knowledge never made its way to their hearts.  It was only to be used to start arguments and to throw Molotov cocktails at others (so they could flex how much they knew, so they could feel superior).

They would seek Him out just to ask Him loaded questions in public with the hopes of getting Him to say the thing that would condemn Him.

The Scriptures were never meant to be used as a Debator’s Handbook.  Or to be bashed over someones head like a wadded up sports page to a cowering puppy.

Bob Goff said it well – “I don’t want people to meet my opinions.  I don’t want to be Jesus’ lawyer.  I just want them to meet Jesus.”

                                 Jesus’ Attack Dog
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The person who in so many ways resembles a rabid Pit Bull, prowling around on a leash that’s getting yanked further and further loose from the post by the minute.  It’s foaming at the mouth.  It’s snarling with a menacing growl at anyone that walks by.

It spends the day salivating at the fantasy of mauling somebody.  Anyone.  For any reason.

How could truth so life-changing and so overwhelmingly good be delivered with such anger and malice?

This type speaks as if they are Paul and everyone else in the world is Elymas the Magician (as seen in Acts 13:9-11), only in circumstances in their life that don’t matter.  Like, oh I don’t know, if there’s a decoration on the wall of a church building for instance…

And last but not least, the aforementioned Church Cop
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They could be a fellow student sitting at Jesus’ feet just like everyone else.  But they would much rather be the Church Sheriff.  The reason they’re there is to confront others and to belittle them.  They are impossible to please.  And they love it sooooooooooo much, how big it makes them feel to pull someone over and talk down to them as if they were a child (especially if they are a person with a reputation for being wise) and to accuse them of not being as righteous or as knowledgeable as they are.

God forgive me, there was a time when I very well may have spent two hours wrestling with someone in the mud about something as absurd as what’s hanging on the wall – and getting absolutely nowhere.

But Jesus doesn’t want or need me to be a cop.  Or His lawyer.  Or His attack dog.  Or His enforcer.  He wants us to be His sheep.  His followers.  His children.

I turned in my badge and handcuffs years ago.  And the peace that brings is indescribable.

It occurs to me that the root of this grotesque identity crisis is the illusion that the church one associates with is the only one that possesses the truth – and that everyone else disagrees with Jesus.

But if we’re honest enough, we will discover that we all disagree with Him in some way.  That we all must learn to conquer those disagreements.  That so many of our well-guarded positions is the trivial nonsense that doesn’t matter to Him – while the things that do matter to Him could very well be the things we are neglecting.”

He wants disciples – gentle sons and daughters who exist to become more like Him than they were the day before.  People whose hearts and minds are orchestrated by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24) and not the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:18-21).

Are we truly a disciple?

Or, are we running around playing cops and robbers?

The Worst Minister Who Ever Lived

Someone once approached me and was going on and on about this older minister and spent several minutes pointing out to me all the ways he’s better at this than I am.   I’m certain they weren’t trying to insult me.  I didn’t take any offense at least.

With a smile, I simply replied, “I agree!   You’re absolutely right.   I’m not on that kind of level just yet.   And I may never be.   The only thing I do know is to be me and to aspire to have a heart that resembles Jesus.”

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Among the very few things I’ve figured out so far:

1.  This isn’t the Olympics.

It’s about pleasing and glorifying God.   How silly the thought – spending my lifetime debating and jockeying to determine which pile of dust is prettier than the other.   It seems far more fulfilling to keep my eyes on the Author and Perfector of the Faith.

2.  I’m a Work in Progress.

Everyone is.   It’s okay if I’m not as polished or as skilled in my 9th year as someone whose been at this since the Kennedy Administration.   He was once a young minister just like me and look how much he’s learned and how far he’s come! Never penalize or write yourself off because you aren’t as far along in your 7th chapter as someone else is whose in their 63rd.   As long as we live, we will always be that charred and broken vessel that the Potter molds and refines into something increasingly more beautiful.

3. No matter how much I learn, I will never be the greatest minister whose ever lived.

The fellow who preached The Sermon on the Mount and The Parable of The Prodigal Son is.

I could very well go down as the absolute worst minister who ever lived.  But as long as it was His beauty I was showcasing and even SOME of that beauty made its way into my soul, that will be just fine with me.

I’d wear it as a badge of honor: “I was the worst there ever was at it.  But I got to proclaim His greatness.”

The 3rd World Mindset

SURVIVED MY FIRST REAL HURRICANE THIS WEEK.  Power and water are out all over Florida in the wake of Irma.  Our power has been out all week as well.  Rumor has it, it could be up to two weeks before it’s restored in the area.

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Have spent the week throwing out bag after bag of spoiled food from the fridge, using flash lights and candles to get to the bathroom, waking up every 45 minutes in pools of my own sweat…

But you know?

I’ve enjoyed the power outage.   I’ve loved it.

No way to charge my phone at the house so I shut myself off from it for the entire night.  No television to slavishly spend hour after hour in front of.  No music or radios to drown out the medicinal silence that awaits me after overdosing on noise and more noise all day long.

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All the time in the world to do nothing but sit in the absolute silence and darkness, unshackled from distractions, to meditate, pray and dream about the things above.  Late quiet nights doing nothing but sitting outside and staring into the dark as I think and breathe and reminisce on good times from days long past.

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When I see my culture rabidly cheering and hurrying armies of lineman trucks, I get the excitement.  Those are the hardest working people on the planet and they’re doing a service to us.

But more than a part of me is disgusted by it – the thought of impatiently demanding (and often cursing) that these people jump to our personal time table expectations (all 2 million of us at once no less) – people who are risking their life’s not for national freedoms in a foreign war but for our luxuries and American comforts.  Rushing and demanding people who are risking their life’s fighting through long days and even longer nights (without any bodily power after so long) in part, so that pampered Americans can no longer feel uncomfortable.

I get we’re paying customers who need to get what we’re paying for.  But the anger, the expectation there’s been towards them (not always)…there’s just something about that picture that makes my stomach turn.

There’s disgust because I know I’m a part of it. I was raised in a country where I grew up thinking we’re entitled to the best and that I’m too important to be uncomfortable for even a minute.

I never realized how well off I was until I moved away from America and started spending time with people in countries across the world.

Had an old truck that kept breaking down.   Was glad to be rid of it.   Gave it to a guy from Belize and you’d have thought he was given a brand new Jag.   Drove that thing sputtering 35 MPH all the way from east Texas, through Mexico and into Belize.   He thought he had died and gone to heaven to have that truck.

When you spend 6 months, a year, ten years, some people, 40 years outside America, your sensibilities are no longer exclusively American, but now third-world.

As a result of those frigid Chinese winters and sweltering summers, often without heat and A/C…   Spending an entire year brushing your teeth with bottled water and bathing in front of the sink with a washcloth…knowing in the back of your mind at every single church gathering that at any moment, those doors could fly open and officers with machine guns could raid us and we could all be arrested or deported in the blink of an eye…

It conditions the mind to embrace the discomfort.   At times, to even hope for it.   When the power goes out now, you just shrug, open a window, drag the couch next to it and go to sleep with a bag of broccoli on your chest.   But it took me a lifetime to find contentment.

We all don’t have to leave America though.   That’s why I love things like power outages so much.

They bring us just a sample-sized taste of the third-world norm for a few days.   They enlighten us to just how much more less really can be.

As I got home just minutes ago, I braced myself for another warm, uncomfortable night of waking up in a pool of sweat at 3 A.M.

As soon as the door opened, the air kicked back on.

It’s just 77 degrees and I’m freezing my butt off.   And that, my friends, is the 3rd World mindset.

What do I have planned for tonight?

I’m gonna shut off the lights, pull out the porch chair and stare into the dark again.

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How My Grandfather Spent His Last Hours on Earth

Most people’s grandfathers were merely grandfathers.   Ones that snuck you extra cookies when mom wasn’t watching and randomly gave you wads of cash when you were older, just because “I love you” was the never-ending occasion and they considered spoiling you to be in their job description.

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My grandfather was that, alright.   But he was so much more.   He was my friend.   He was someone I truly considered as being an actual member in my closest circle of friends.  Like, in the same company as the peers who were my age.

A lifelong speech disorder knit our hearts closely together and made these two hearts of ours abnormally tender and sensitive to the hurt in others.

Can’t tell you how many times I saw the man gather the unexpected burst of courage to say something beautiful and soul-warming to a broken person, only to find himself inevitably trapped midsentence, his mouth convulsing and nothing but stammering gibberish sounding from his tangled tongue.  He’d hang his head in shame, slowly back away and return to his prison cell of silence with that portrait of piercing despondency burning in his eyes.

For nearly 90 years, that brilliant mind overflowing with thoughts and ideas was rendered silent in Bible classes.  He never once raised his hand to speak or to impart his insights.  He very rarely, if ever, voiced a public prayer.  At work, his job demanded him to speak on a radio and daily, he experienced that naked and lonely feeling of an opened mouth making no sound with all eyes on him.

Can’t tell you how many times something moved him at church – the poignant words of a song, a scripture passage, a statement made in a prayer or sermon, and each time that gentle heart was moved, he’d take the glasses off his face and cry his heart out.  The fact that a grown man seen blubbering that aggressively in public is constantly judged as a mark of weakness mattered never at all to him.  He was too busy experiencing the beauty of the cross of Christ or being lost in the outpouring of one human being loving another to even care.  To his grandson, he made it look like the most incredible strength on earth.

One of the very last memories I have of him was when I spoke at my hometown church.  I’m preaching my heart out when suddenly looking down, I see my grandfathers glasses come off from the front row for what would be the last time and I begin to hear his tears.  That’s how proud he was, how utterly astounded to see God doing something so dynamic with one of “us…”.

To this day, I’ll be speaking and I’ll look down and almost see him and my eyes are stung with tears.

On Monday night, I was talking to my grandmother on the phone and I heard the clock tolling eleven o’clock in the distance.  Instantly, a lifetime of memories and innumerable happy times spent in that house inundated my mind, yanking on every string of my heart.

It was then when she told me something about my grandfather I had never known before.

How even as he laid in his hospital gown, reduced to nothing, wispy little strands on his head, every crevice of his body exploding in hellish pain, vanquished by the ravages of cancer, he was still continuing their tradition of giving her a card at Christmas time, a tradition that began in 1947 and continued to that moment, and asking with noticeable urgency amid faded voice if she had remembered to make a thoughtful birthday card for my uncle so he could be appreciated on his day.

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That was how he spent his last hours on this earth.  Loving and caring about making others feel as special as they are.  And the shame in my heart at the remembrance of forgetting to call her on her birthday this year was never greater.

He passed away before that birthday celebration or Christmas could come.   He flew home nearly two years ago.   To this day, just the sight of his face or hearing his voice on old recordings makes my eyes instantly drown in tears.

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What I would have given for him to have been there when the news broke at my grandmother’s house that her grandson’s lifelong speech disability had suddenly come to a shocking end.  How much more would I give if he could have had such a privilege in his lifetime.  Or that he could have experienced it instead of me.  But for him, it never came.

The greatest gift he ever gave me was his heart.  One that was instant and fearless to cry and to wail and to weep.  One that helped me recognize the wonders God is accomplishing through me when before, I felt so small and insignificant.

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This is why every day, the very last thing I do before I start my day is to put his ring on my finger and to remember that even though he has flown far, far away, his tender, gentle heart beats in my chest.

3 Reasons Why Every Christian Should Meditate

IT began two years ago in the passenger seat of Rob Peter’s Mitsubishi Diamante.   Two ministers shooting the breeze with preliminary small talk, en route to chips and chimichangas on a balmy Ocala day.   We come to a stop at a red light.   There was a momentary silence.   And then it happened.

“…But, how are you really doing, David?” he asked with a solemn cadence.

Before the response could formulate in my mind, I felt the plastic smiling mask slither down my face, exposing the man who had spent the past month weeping in the shower every morning.   My masquerade of Mr. Happy Go Lucky could be feigned no more.

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“I’m depressed out of my mind,” I heard myself say out loud.   “And the only thing I want is to disappear.   And to never be seen again.”

We discussed the why and the how.   I gave him the rundown of the people and the circumstances that had driven me there.   He mentions Philippians 4 and I start quoting a famous statement from that excerpt.   And I, a gospel preacher, the son of a gospel preacher, blanked five words in.

“Whatever is true…whatever is…….  Whatever is……..  Righteous?   Whatever’s…………?  Whatever is…good…?”

He turns, looks deep into my eyes and rebukes me with gentleness in his voice.   “That’s your problem right there, David.   You don’t know what it says.   Your mind is so important and you’re fighting this with your own power.   We’ve got to know what it says and do it with all of our heart.”

He was so right I could feel it in my bones.   I was doing the opposite of what it says.   For me, I was living as if it said, “And finally David, whatever is false, whatever is horrible, whatever is wrong, whatever is negative, whatever is of bad repute, whatever makes you feel like a worthless, incompetent piece of crap, meditate on these things” – when there was a brand new world proliferating with what is true and honorable and right and pure to revel in.

And it was there when I began to grasp just how enormously important the mind really is.

That the mind is to our body as the cockpit is to a plane – and Satan and his forces want to hijack it and fly it into a high rise.

That when he seizes control of our minds, it’s like a malicious virus that infiltrates a computer and overwhelms it with a litany of disturbing pop-ups of Fear and Anxiety and Despair.

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It’s like a hoarder’s house with thirty years of garbage and junk stacked to the ceiling with Chinese takeout from November rotting in the refrigerator; green fuzz protruding from the lid.   If my mind were a house, it was that kind of a home.   And unless I threw all that garbage out, one rancid gag-inducing bag at a time, and swept the house clean, there was no getting better.

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That the Christian life really isn’t about cathedrals and church attendance or suits and dresses but our minds being renewed to be more like His.

The chapter of scripture Rob mentored me from is all about releasing our inner chaos through prayer and meditating on what is from the Spirit.   When we do, it promises the disciple that the peace of God will guard our hearts – and our minds in Christ Jesus.

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Prayer, I already practiced.   But meditation, I had never even considered.   Even at that time.

The word “meditation” conjured images in my mind of hippies burning incense and smoking peyote.   But meditation is biblically defined “to groan and growl; to be deeply absorbed in thought; to silently say something in your heart.”

I was shocked to discover how prominent it actually is in Scripture (Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:2, 19:14, 63:6, 77:12, Colossians 3:2, etc).

Three weeks ago, I finally meditated for the first time.   And it is now my favorite thing to do in the world.

As it is with prayer, it doesn’t matter how long you spend doing it.   All that matters is you go to a private place where you cannot be distracted – no smart phone, no television, no social media, if there’s a landline, it’s unplugged; just you and God alone (or just you and few others alone), and as I prefer, in the dark.

Here are three simple reasons why every Christian should meditate:

1.  It Unshackles The Mind
When I begin, my mind is often racing with negativity and anxiety.   Within minutes of intense meditation, I can feel the poison of all that anxiety draining from my heart as peace comes in.

There’s just something about muting all of the noise and escaping the frantic “Hurry!  Hurry!  Hurry!” of the world that I would rather have than food.   When replaced with nothing but silence and Scripture, all of the hellish things rampaging through our minds lose their power in governing our thoughts.

Paul attests, “The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”

2.  It Opens Our Eyes
A friend of mine was recently struggling with a person he was having conflict with.   But while meditating on the peace of the Spirit, he envisioned that person beaten and bleeding out with no one to help them.   From that moment, he no longer saw them as an enemy but as someone who is worthy of his compassion.   And it forever changed the way he felt about them.

This is where meditation often is difficult and even painful.   But it results in having new eyes in addition to a new mind.

3.  It Renovates The Soul
Wherever I’m lacking, I find a verse that addresses it and for 10-20 minutes all I do is whisper it out loud, over and over, until it’s the only thing in my mind.   Two weeks ago, it was the fruit of the Spirit and all I did was think “Love.  Love.  Love.  Love…”

Then everything I know that Scripture says about it.   Then I thought of the people I love most.   And then, the people I need to learn how to love.

When I came out of that time of meditating on nothing but the love of God, I felt like I had been to heaven.   I did not want to come back.   When I stepped outside, the world looked differently.   Life felt like a dream as it happened in real time.   Even people looked different.   I felt a burning love for everyone I saw that was not there before.

You’ll be in your car and someone will cut you off.   You slam on the breaks.   But you’re not leaning on your horn like you used to.   Your eyes aren’t bulging.   Four letter words aren’t coming out of your mouth – when heaven is all you care about and the love of God is all you are concentrating on, it transforms the way you respond.

Final Word
The impact that Rob forever left on my life was the discovery that my mind is a battleground.   Satan desires to occupy and to influence it just as much as God does.

Someone is sitting in the cockpit.   It might be your worst nightmare.   It might be those people from your past who made you feel like you were a waste of life.  It might be God, it might be the devil himself.   But whoever it is is flying the whole plane, either to Paradise unimaginable or to nosedive it into the ocean.

So how are you doing?

…But, how are you really doing?