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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

As I enter my fortieth trip around the sun  I’m actually thankful that my 30’s are over and I thought I’d share some recent reflections that have been heavily influenced by a most profound experience I had just a few weeks ago.   Even as I write this it is still hard to put it into words.  In short it was a 5-day exhausting  journey towards Love.  Like most journeys I made some incredible friends along the way.  A lot of these thoughts flow directly out of that experience.

Do I really believe that God loves me?  Sure.  But the whole me?  Errrr….

In the not-so-great movie “First Knight” Sean Connery plays the legendary King Arthur and Richard Gere plays an unremarkable Lancelot.  While the movie is quite lame in its butchering of fantastic mid-evil fantasy there is a single quote that has stuck with me since I first saw it.  King Arthur is extending to Lancelot the brotherhood of the Knights of the Round Table and he says to him in the richly accented voice that is Sean Connery, “I can’t love people in slices.”  I’ve used this quote numerous times.  However, it is true that I have lived my life as though God only loved those parts of me that were presentable and attractive.   Worse yet, I have done the same to others precisely because I had believed the lie that I wasn’t lovable.

As I’ve ventured to let other people I trust into my inner world a common experience and belief surfaced… namely that we are not truly loved by God.  At least not fully and unconditionally loved as we sometimes say we belive.  We’ve all been waiting for proof that we are in fact unlovable.  The real problem with that is we all tend to see what we want to see and thus believe what we want to believe.  Everything we experience gets interpreted through this perverted lens of un-lovability and our presuppositions are all proven true.  Over time this lie becomes a psychological security blanket of sorts.  It is safe to not be loved.  In “Touching the Holy” Robert Wicks writes, “without knowing it, we fear emotional and spiritual passion more than we seem to fear our rigidity and lack of courage.  We fear unconditional love more that rejection.  We fear the newness of the gospel, the good news, more than we fear being mired in attitudes and beliefs that have us frozen in the present way we view everything.”

In the words of the Persian mystic-poet Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love but merely seek and find all the barriers within yourself  that you have built against it.”  Or, if Persian mystics don’t do it for you, consider the words of Puritan theologian extraordinaire Jonathan Edwards  “Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.”  Pick your spiritual tradition.  Most of them will point to this inner battle we all have towards our own heart’s reception of a love that is already available to us.

This is why I say “fighting against grace is the ultimate form of self-deception.”   I am not the image others project onto me and I’m not even the image I project of myself.  In theological terminology I am made in the image of God.  I am.  My hope is to live a life from the inside out by embracing the truth that I am made in the imago Dei.  Once I came to the realization that people’s judgments of me were not real things, (see 1 Cor. 2:15)  nor even my judgments of myself, I was truly unfettered by the weight of condemnation.  When we project our own internal judgments of ourselves onto others we immediately shut down our ability to receive love from them… we fight against the very thing we so desperately need.

Every event, every person and every thing has been orchestrated and redeemed by God.  I no longer have to despise any parts of my own story.  Sure there are lamentable experiences and decisions, and for those I have and still do lament.  I just don’t condemn myself for the lament anymore because the degree to which I’ve held my own story in contempt is the same degree I’ve held the Author and co-author of my story in contempt.  As the apostle Paul wrote  “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.”

When the heart is done with fighting and gives in to the relentless love offered freely by God in Christ our pasts are integrated into our present and our hope is set for the future.  As a good friend of mine would sing, “It’s all a part of me, that’s who I am.”  It is all grace.

As a birthday present would you do me a favor?  Strongly consider the truth that you are lovable and you loved.  

Grace and Peace to you… every slice!

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?

 

(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.

So my 30’s are almost over… one more trip around the sun and I’ll be 40.  Some consider that to be halftime… I should be so fortunate.

There is a part of me that is quite thankful my 30’s are almost over.  We had our first child when I was 31 and becoming a parent proved to me just how inflexible I had become in life.  Children have this way of either making you more flexible or breaking you.  I broke.  And then I became more flexible.  Now with three sons I have to remain flexible both in body and in soul.  Of course  something happens to the human body and soul as we age… we become less flexible – usually.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  At least not entirely.

I’m attempting a rebellion against the 2nd law of thermodynamics and I’m learning – if ever-so-slowly – to become more flexible in body and soul.  One of my overall goals is to be in the best overall shape of my life when I turn 40 in August of next year.  I know that I won’t be able to run quite as fast as I did in high school and college, but I will be able to lift more, go further, and challenge myself in ways that require flexibility of the soul.

“Why?”  I’m glad you asked.  Let me explain… is this the mid-life crisis return to the narcissism of youth?  Well, actually there might be a tinge of that, but I don’t think that is what is at the heart of it all.  Knowing our own hearts is certainly one of the hardest endeavors we experience this side of eternity.  There seem to be so many layers upon layers of motivations, desires and impulses that  we can soon lose the very heart we were so desperately seeking.  “Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts” the Psalmist cried… and I’ll barrow that prayer.

Part of my motivation is to simply “be” the person I hope to be by the grace God has given.  “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.”  Another motivation is to be around longer and stay healthier to see my boys become the men of grace God will make them out to be.  My lovely bride appreciates my efforts and it is a common value we both share.  Another part of me hates it when I hear things like “well, just wait until you’re in your 40’s.”  Or when parents tell their kids that while they may enjoy a high metabolism now they’re destined to an adult life of obesity… yes, to my amazement I’ve heard these words uttered.

I finally read “The Paleo Diet for Athletes” and realized that while I have been doing a lot of things right I still have a lot of room for improvement regarding my diet.  So I committed to a stricter version of the diet for at least one year along with increasing both endurance and strength with Crossfit, Spartan Races, my own workout routines etc…

I  shared this personal goal with my wife and a few close friends and a fascinating thing occurred… most of them have begun to grow in their own motivations for change in the same areas.  Even more fascinating to me is that I’ve noticed how this renovation has energized me to make improvements in other areas of my life… as a teacher, as a coach, as a father and a friend.  So I’m putting my commitment “out there” for others so that hopefully you can find more strength for your own “mid-life crisis.”

Assuming you’ve continued reading this far, what are the areas in your life in which you hope for more? 

(a few thoughts i had while on personal retreat at Well of Mercy)

i sit on the porch observing the rain as it falls loudly on the ground and comes to rest on the canopy of trees around me.  i notice the pools widen and the earth soften from each drop.  i smell the freshness in the air.

however i can’t fully know the rain as an objective observer.  only seeing, listening, smelling.  to fully experience the rain myself i have to get off the porch and enter the downpour.  to be merely a casual observer of a thing is not to know a thing.  the critic can sit and observe but to love requires entering into a place free of illusory controls.

to feel the impact of the rain on my own skin, and to receive from it both the cold and the cover, the nourishment and the expense, i must enter in… entirely.

the incarnation is not simply a one-time event to be celebrated at Christmas.  it continues.  Jesus the Christ is our Emmanuel – God WITH us.  there is never a situation or experience where we are left to ourselves.  he has entered in and has not left us alone.  he feels the impact of our pains, joys, aches and hopes.  he knows intimately the many complex layers of our lives and is unafraid, undaunted, and relentless.

who knows better the inner terrain of our hearts than the one who has formed them?