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This picture was taken during my dad’s last visit to North Carolina. The last time I would see him alive.

One of the many things I’m thankful for regarding my Dad is that over the last four years we had taken the time to say everything we could to one another.

My close friends know this story well… through their counsel and loving guidance I wrote my dad a very long, and difficult letter. Four pages, hand-written and brutally honest. Well, it was brutally honest from the perspective of a kid who was confused by his father’s emotional and physical absence during those fun years we call adolescence. I’ve since come to recognize my blindness towards his experience of the same story. Indeed a large part of my being able to see his side of it was me taking the time to write out the letter with all of the gut wrenching honesty I could muster.

So at the behest of my counselor I finally sat down and wrote this letter in one night. It was all “true” and it was not at all pretty, but the odd thing to me was that I felt absolutely nothing as I wrote it, or even after I had finished. Shouldn’t I feel anger or sadness or something? No. Just coldness. So the next day I read it to a close friend out loud over the phone… and it took me what seemed like an hour to get all the way through it because I could not control the avalanche of emotion. She sat with me in my pain and offered that fantastic gift of deep listening. The next day I read it to my counselor in person… same thing. His response: “30 plus years of holding all that down… makes sense to me that it would feel cold and numb at first… now you’re making up for lost time.”

You counselor types can be a bit sheisty. “Now,” he says, “I want you to read this to your dad.” {long silent pause}       There was no way. I loved my dad and to say these things to him would be devastating. As a dad myself it would be earth shattering to hear of the heartache I had caused regardless of the circumstances. Well, to make a long story a little shorter I did read it to him about a month later when he was visiting from Texas. Leading up to this I’d had this vision in my head of me getting into the letter and him simply standing up and walking out of the room. For a 12 year old’s version of the experience this vision made sense. However, my dad’s response exploded my expectations along with the box I’d placed him in out of my own self-protection. I was able to read through the four-page letter with composure until the last sentence was complete, and then with an exhale 30 years in the making I buried my face in my hands and wept. When I caught my breath I noticed my dad was no longer on the other side of the room, but rather on his knees in front of me, weeping with me as he put his arms over my slouched shoulders.

This was a gift I never imagined possible. About two years later I wrote him a “follow-up” letter of sorts that basically said “thank you” and outlined some of the ways his response had helped move me towards wholeness.  His response: “you’ve never been anything but deeply loved.”  And while there was still the geographical distance between us (NC and TX) and plenty of father/son banter over politics and religion, there was much more depth of understanding in our relationship. I no longer saw him as the absent father and myself as the confused and angry teenager.  As sons and daughters we forget to consider our parents as humans in process and development.  I began to see us both as hikers on the same trail… just his limp was a little more accentuated than my own.

Then this past summer, as his health began to decline, many of my friends asked if I was on good terms with my dad. I’d pause, consider the trail we’d hiked together and with a tear-filled smile say, “We’ve said everything we can to one another. All that’s left is, ‘I have nothing but love for you.'”

I sure do miss him.

During this time of Advent what better gift to give your loved ones and yourself than the gift of reconciliation? It’s not an easy trail to climb, but it is well worth the effort.

To my friends and counselors on this trail… thank you.  You mean more to me than you know.

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There is a small city in east Texas nestled within rolling pastures and boasting a population of just over 600 people.  Seriously, as you drive into town the sign says “Population 612.”  And I thought I grew up in a small town.  John Cougar Mellencamp has nothing on this place!

I’ve been to Cushing twice now.  First, in 2008 to see my dad’s new hometown and meet his wife whom he had recently married, and then three weeks ago (July 2014) to see my dad for the last time.  His cancer had returned and his health had taken a dramatic turn for the worse earlier this year.  He had been telling us not to worry because he would be out to NC for my niece’s wedding in September.  They had bought his airline ticket and a dandy new suit complete with Texas cuff links and tie.  Meanwhile he told one of his close friends that he didn’t think he would live through the following week.  He was correct.  He died in the early hours of July 15th.

My siblings and I all spoke with him on the phone the night of the 13th, and we left town on the 14th to go and see him as we knew his time was short.  The 16 hour drive proved too long and just before we crossed the Mississippi, he crossed the Jordan.  My sister Laura and her family were a few hours ahead of the rest of us and arrived at his house approximately 40 minutes after he passed away.  Dad never did like to wait on us.  As we’ve reflected on it we all seem to agree that he really didn’t want us to see him in such a state.

When we received the news of his passing, my brother, two of my three sisters, one of my two nieces and my two oldest boys (9 & 10) stopped along the highway just inside the Louisiana State line.  We wept together, hugged, and then caught our collective breath and traveled on to Texas to say goodbye in whole different way.  The whole drive out there was an incredibly rich time with my family; we laughed, we wept, we prayed, we talked and we sat in silence…together.  Later my wife and my sister-in-law would fly in to join us.  

We pulled into Nacogdoches around 5:00 A.M. on Tuesday the 15th and slept in our hotel for a few short hours.  Around 8 or 9 I took my sons to the lobby for their not-so-nutritious-but-free breakfast.  The boys ate their waffles that had come out of a waffle maker in the shape of Texas and I drank my coffee while checking my Facebook news feed.  Then the tears started to come.  It seems odd thing to me that of all things Facebook would be the cathartic straw on the camels back, but when you come from a line of emotionally constipated males you take whatever works.  As I read through the comments and posts about dad, the prayers of loved ones and the condolences of friends it hit me… he’s gone.  No amount of mental preparation can stand in the wake of tears born from the depths of this kind of grief.

As the tears rolled my phone rang.  Technology and grief – there is a fascinating relationship worthy of exploration.  My dad’s wife Vicki was calling me from their home phone which, thanks to my Samsung, had a picture of my dad’s Facebook profile pic.  When I saw it… whatever early-morning peace was being had by the other travelers in the hotel lobby was evaporated by my now uncontrollable lament.  It wasn’t just crying.  It physically hurt.  This grief was more visceral and intense than any I’d ever experienced in my life, and my boys were watching.

Then came the 30 minute drive out to Cushing along TX route 21.  Mark, my brother, was driving as we winded through the lush and hilly countryside  towards Cushing to help make arrangements for the funeral.  My brother has always been the biggest fan of U2 I’ve ever known, and as he played their song “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own” the grief hit me again.  This time with more force than before.  Something about the scenery, the music, and the thought of my dad driving his Harley through the countryside was simultaneously beautiful and desperate.  There seemed to be a deeper level of sadness that resulted from being with my family.   A kind of reciprocal  grief that, on the one hand was excruciating as I watched the sorrow of my loved ones (especially my boys), but somehow comforting and altogether good on the other.  I really don’t know what to call this odd mixture of shared grief and gratitude… perhaps this is “love bearing all things.”

Cushing was my dad’s home.  It is a small town filled with people who genuinely loved my dad in the last years of his life.  During the viewing and the funeral there were stories upon stories of people who knew my dad and had become close friends with him during his 7 years there.  Towards the end of the funeral service people walked through to pay their last respects.  I was struck by the teenage boys, the elderly couples, the middle-aged moms… all of them in tears.  Tears for their friend who had lost her husband, and tears for their own loss of a friend.  Part of the story here that I won’t go into full detail on is that before my dad moved to Texas he had all but totally isolated himself from friends and even some of his own family.  That he was able to find friendship, love and embrace in a small but hospitable place like Cushing is a strangely remarkable picture of redemption.  

There is so much more to tell.  To say it has been difficult to finally sit and write this post would be a gross understatement.  While I’ve written and spoke on the themes of hope and fear, or death and loss, nothing has brought me to the crucible of grief like the death of my dad.  Paradoxically, nothing has given more depth to the hope of the resurrection.  Death is not “natural” nor is it final.  Does the idea of hope even make any sense apart from grief?  That will have to be another post, but in the meantime  my family and I “do not grieve without hope.”

One of the messages I received the day after dad passed was from a good friend who had suffered the loss of her dad at a young age.   One of the things she said was “No two ways about it. No matter how much you tell yourself that  ‘he’s not in pain anymore’ or that ‘he’s in a better place,’ it hurts like hell.”  I could not have said it better myself.  And that is the point… I didn’t have to.  My friends and especially my family have grieved this loss together, and we’ll continue together.  Thank you to all of my friends for your text messages, phone calls, Facebook posts etc.  Your reaching out has helped and your invitation to be present to our pain is very much appreciated.    May my heart become a more generous place for going through these valleys of grief… and may God bless the generous people in the small town of Cushing.  Thank you for loving my dad so well.  10553634_10153051259956632_2717171370709773303_n

I was asked this question a few years ago on an application and recently came across it my response … thought I would share it … feedback welcome.

In the final analysis this question is really one of awareness.  I have this crazy notion that God is the creator, redeemer and sustainer of all things, and as such he is always ever-present.  So then it comes to me to hear his voice and know his presence with me in those “all things.”  Therefore, I believe that there is no activity under heaven wherein I can’t significantly encounter God.  However, that may or may not be a pleasant encounter.  To some degree that depends on where my heart is towards him and the activity in which I am engaged when that encounter takes place.

For myself, I tend to encounter God significantly in the following ways: corporate worship and the Lord’s Supper, personal times of prayer and meditation, and reading the Scriptures with my children.  Taking communion together as a body is so rich and meaningful it is hard to not to encounter God in a significant manner.  The tactile nature of eating and drinking combined with the picture of one body made up of radically needy and broken people coming together to receive life and grace is a moving experience to me.  I consistently have personal prayer and Scripture meditation early in the morning partly because it helps me center myself first thing for the day but also because it is one of the few times the house is quiet enough to really sit in silence (I have three rowdy boys!).  Sometimes it feels empty and vain.  Sometimes I sense his presence and pleasure so that my soul is awakened to his work.  Showing up is the real battle.  My other consistent time of prayer is post-workout.  I’ve worked-out in some form or fashion my whole life and it something I really enjoy.  There is something significant for me to come to the end of my physical abilities and in exhaustion find his peace and presence.  Part of this experience is remembering that I am “from the dust and to the dust will return,” which is both very sobering and very hopeful in light of the gospel.  Reading and praying with my three boys has been one of the most life-giving activities for me in the last two years.  We read from “The Jesus Story Book Bible” and many times it is just too much to read aloud as I am overwhelmed with emotion at the simple beauty of God’s “never-ending, unfailing love” for his children.  Also the discipline of Scripture memorization with them has challenged me in the mental exercise of setting your mind to the truth of Scripture.  So these three ways for me represent the three mains spheres of life where God encounters me:  Church/community, personal prayer and meditation, and my family life.

Following are some thoughts I posted on a discussion board at Gordon-Conwell for a course I’m taking:  Theology of the Pentateuch with Dr. Gordon Hugenberger.

The initial question was as follows:

Kersey Graves is a 19th century religious critic who had particular penchant for lambasting Christianity (and religions in general). His book, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors, depicts Christ as a non-historical, mythical figure, and has a conspiracy theory approach to interpreting Christian text. In essence, self-styled scholars like Kersey Graves suggest that either the bible is a complete fabrication, or that it’s major themes and concepts have been plagiarized from more ancient religions. 

Here is an excerpt from The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors: 
” ‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed. It shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel.’ (Genesis 3:15)

 This text is often cited by Christan writers and controversialists as prefiguring the mission of the Christian Savior… Some of the saviors or demigods of Egypt, India, Greece, Persia, Mexico and Etruria are represented as performing the same drama with the serpent or devil… Again, it is related by more than one oriental writer that Chrishna of India is represented on some very ancient sculptures and stone monuments with his heel on the head of a serpent…”

How do we respond to the dissenters that contend that the Old Testament plagiarized myths from the ANE (i.e. Creation account, Flood of Noah, Messianic prophecies, Ten commandments etc…)? 

My response:

I love this question because it points out a theme that keeps recurring in my studies… namely, that different people can be looking at the same information, the same “evidence,” and come to completely different conclusions.  How is this?

In some sense, people are going to see what they ‘want’ to see and believe what they ‘want’ to believe.  If we come to that information with our minds already made up, whatever our conclusion may be, then we’ve simply allowed the information to serve as a support to our presuppositions.  My first response to these “dissenters” is to probe into what is in it for them to hold this view.  Usually in my experience it has nothing to do with being convinced of the formal reasoning and research of a Kersey Graves or a Bart Ehrman.  The “dissenters” I’ve conversed with are usually looking for a reason NOT to trust the Scripture.  If in fact that is the case then it hardly matters how I respond to their views on whether or not the Scripture plagiarized ANE literature.  Usually this simply means they’re looking for an argument to get in so that they can feel more at ease ensconced in their own position.

This seems to be the approach that Robert Puckett is taking:

Gilgamesh hardly wants deconstructing because he does not tell you “Don’t sleep with your girlfriend or boyfriend.” Unlike Noah Gilgamesh is not a preacher of righteousness who makes demands on your life. He does not say, “God’s going to destroy the whole world with a flood because of your sinfulness.”  Since regarding the Bible so much is at stake, we have to be aware of our bias, that we have a benefit in deciding against it, of charging it with being a false authority.

Do the Scriptures say “not to sleep with your boyfriend or girlfriend?”  I digress.  The issue is the same in that will we allow ourselves the liberty of coming under the authority and guidance of sacred Scripture or will we simply be enslaved to our own devices.  That is not a fun mirror for us to look into at times and we shouldn’t be shocked when others choose to look somewhere a little more palatable.

This is not to say that people can’t in good faith question and explore these issues.  Indeed they should.  Faith is not believing what we know to be false.  Rather it is a gift to see what is real.

While I like the place that Robert English lands I don’t care an awful lot for how he arrived:

“In the end what they say is more reasonable. But no matter how convincing their reason, I still believe. I think it comes down to which tree’s fruit tastes better to you. If you have a taste for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil reason is the way to go. You can be like God and come up with your own explanations. If you like the Tree of Life, you get to believe what God says and trust that he is right.”

This seems to be a little too reliant on personal preference.  Not that it’s wrong per se but I don’t agree that what the “scholars say is more reasonable.”  Which scholars?  Some are.  Some aren’t.  Some have convincing theories on certain subjects and then lose their rationality on others.  If we simply boil it down to a choice between two trees then we have no rationale to say that one is “better” or “healthier” than the other.  This only lends itself to the above position that I’m going to see and believe what I want to in the end.

Another approach might be to actually listen in the moment to what the human behind the dissenting is really saying.  Could we as “Evangelical Christians” (a term that has really outlived its usefulness) actually humble ourselves enough to trust that the power of the Risen King is actively engaged in our conversation and in our listening.  Do we really hear people?  Do we see them and feel their pain?  Can we model for them what the suffering Savior has done to reconcile them to himself?

 

My family and I have entered into a new season and like most transitions there is discomfort opportunity for growth.  After my serving as an elder in our church  for two years we’ve taken a step back due to several intersecting experiences:  moving to a new city, new job, new focus in my studies, and new relationships to name a few.  I’ll come back to some of these relationships in a bit.

I’ve always believed in the importance of knowing the history of  the faith tradition to which we belong.  By having a grasp on the story of our faith communities we are better able to appreciate their beauty, and to question their presuppositions.  When we’re able to step out of our particular ecclesiastical stream and survey the full landscape we are much more likely to have  a gracious demeanor towards those who swim in other streams.  This has a way of challenging our own judgmental moods and prejudices while simultaneously stirring our hearts towards humble gratitude for the people in which God has providentially placed us.

Since this season has presented itself I’ve implemented something I’ve wanted to do for some time and that is to interact with and visit various churches outside of my own ecclesiastical stream.  My aim is to visit and network with churches of different stripes in order to experience what the Spirit is doing here as well as explore some questions I have on the ecumenical movement… is unity in the Body simply a pipe dream or can it take on a visible manifestation to the world and to this city?  

One of the great people I’ve had the privilege of meeting this past year is author, professor and minister John H. Armstrong.  His recent book “Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church” has been a great catalyst for me to test what he calls “ecumenical mission.”  The vision towards unity in the Body will require pew fillers from all traditions to get out, engage in conversation and pursue friendship.  (Thanks for the strong nudge John!)

Lesslie Newbigin said that “The business of the church is to tell and embody a story.”  How are we doing at telling and embodying this story?  Is there any overcoming our constant fragmenting over various titles and subplots?   I hope to meet more characters in this story and to rediscover my own place in the messy and diverse family we call the Body.

(I began this post the week after the shooting in Newtown)

Eighth graders can be very perceptive.  Not  that they always are mind you, but they “can be.”  Or, at least the ones I teach.  We spoke this week rather candidly regarding the tragedy that occurred last week month in Newtown and I was pleasantly surprised by they way some of them are thinking through the matter.

Since we happen to have school in a…. well, school, we spoke about our own vulnerability to acts of violence.  This is a scary subject for anyone but like most fears this one seemed to dissipate somewhat by having an open and honest dialogue.  It is when our fears are brushed under the rug and we attempt to ignore them that they fester and morph into full on paranoia.

The truth is that what happened at Newtown could happen at any given school, or any other location where people gather, any given day.  So what are our options?  This is where a student showed his more perceptive side and replied, “we can choose to trust people rather than being afraid and looking at everyone as a threat.  We can’t live our life being afraid of everyone.”  Well said my young Jedi.

The act of violence that claimed the lives of 27 people in Newtown, like most national tragedies, has brought out the best and the worst in people.  While some of my friends disagree with me on this, I do think that to use this as a means to push a political agenda, whether for or against gun control, is to add abuse to the ones who are already suffering unimaginable grief.  To politicize their pain in order to manipulate the emotions of the electorate is unconscionable .

Of course this applies to the Christian divas of the world who care more that they have a relevant answer of certainty to this act of evil than they do for the people suffering.  After all, we have to have someone to blame.  Right?  If we don’t have someone to blame this tragedy on then we might actually get uncomfortable with the real laments and grief of real people.  God forbid that our hands and hearts should have to feel such weighty things!

We want easy answers.  There aren’t any.  We want security.  There isn’t any.  At least not the kind of answers and security we’re looking for.  One thing that came from our discussions was ‘what can we do now?’  What happened in Newtown could happen in any town.  There is a story about a baby born in a cold, smelly barn and this baby was born to peasants in an unimaginably hostile time.  To reflect on that story and all of its implications for this life is to grasp the only secure hope we have for a more peaceful future.  8th graders get it.  I don’t know why politicians cant.

I’m no SEO expert but I’m quite sure that by the mere title of this blog post I’ll get some viewers that I wouldn’t normally attract… my up-front apologies.

Not that they asked, but the folks over at The Good Men Project are doing a lot of things right by my estimation.   For the most part I like what they stand for and a lot of what they have to offer the world.  A recent post of theirs entitled “Cleavage or Soul” does a great job in pointing out the difference between what the media portrays as attractive to men and what most men actually want in a woman they can love on more than a physical level.

The mere fact that this well-written post even needs writing shows that there are indeed those men who are lost in their own shallowness and view both women and themselves in a one dimensional category that precludes any sense of personal complexity.  Most men realize this because at one time or another we have all been that shallow, and most recognize their own capacity for said shallowness.  Thankfully, as the writer noted, “good men love women. But we love women in all their complexity, for the things they do, for their intelligence, their wit, their athleticism, their creativity, their power, their force of personality.”  Very well stated.

However, it is the author’s very next sentence really encourages me:  “We seem to have forgotten that along the way, and our brain-numbing intoxication by pornography in all its forms threatens to end us—not because it is morally wrong but just because it distracts us from the truth and scatters our power. It’s one big acid trip fantasy with no connection to improving our lives, being good fathers and husbands, and advancing our careers”.  At first reading this I thought he was saying that it wasn’t morally wrong but only that it distracts and scatters (bad imagery).  But he says quite plainly that “it is morally wrong.”  This is a very bold statement considering the world we live in!  Porn is morally wrong precisely because it does “distract from the truth…scatters our power” and more.  It dishonors the God who made people in his Image, and it then destroys the very lives of the people who are made in that Image.  I hope this boldness is a reflection of an inner quality that defines what (in my humble opinion) all “Good Men” possess … courage.