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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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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!

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.

The only thing I really know about gardening is that to do it well takes a lot of hard work and dedication.  I’ve never had a green thumb but have known a few people who do.  Those who are really good at gardening are able to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors, and those who are great cultivate gardens so lush and plentiful that others are able to find nourishment as well.  To be a gardener is to give life.

Gardner is a good name.  The name Gardner is an ancient derivative of the German Gartner which was the occupational name for, you guessed it, gardeners.  This week my Aunt and Uncle, Bill and Sandy Gardner, will celebrate something all to rare in our world.  They have been married 50 years!

The amazing thing about this is not just the longevity of a marriage that has taken place in a culture of celebrity-worship — where the very concept of marriage is mocked and politicized into all sorts of unholy nonsense.  No, the truly amazing thing about my Aunt and Uncle’s marriage is that if you spend more than 5 minutes around them you get the obvious impression that they actually love one another deeply and enjoy each others company.

The Gardner’s have 2 children, Ron and Deanna, who both have marriages and children of their own.  This garden has given life.

What my Aunt and Uncle are probably less aware of however is the sustained impact they have had on the rest of us.  As part of their extended family I for one can confess having received from them a life-long witness to the hard work and rewards of cultivating love and faithfulness.  This garden has given light and reflected a beauty larger than itself.

Anyone who has been married longer than a week knows that there are difficult seasons.  Seasons that require tilling the ground and waiting patiently to see signs of life.  There are storms that have to be weathered.  Weeds require getting the gardener’s hands dirty and brow sweaty.  Blood, sweat and tears are sown into the earth.  Those who endure are able to see, smell and taste the fruit of their long labor.

I remember fondly our families getting together over the holidays and Bill and Sandy inviting us to their place at the lake during the summer months.  To them it was simply an assumed generosity with which they lived their lives.  But to an observant child it was an invitation to learn by experience what it meant to love vulnerably in the context of a faithful marriage.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Sandy, “thank you” seems so insufficient.   Know that the seeds you have sown have scattered far.  There is a Master Gardener reflected well in the life you have so generously shared.  I’m grateful to have stood in the warm shadows of your garden and I admire still your devotion to one another.  May the Lord of the garden grant you many more years of faithful marriage.

And you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.

Isaiah 58:11

The past few weeks I’ve been harping on my students about the importance of seeing the context of the larger Story of God in the Scriptures while looking for his work in their own lives.  There are patterns and themes in the Scriptures that reflect the same ones in our own lives and vice versa.  When one of them gets past the blank stares and glassed-over quietness they open up and share honestly their struggles and questions… this is really the part of the job I love!  Someone steps into the fray long enough to vulnerably share a chapter or two of their own story.

Last year I read a fascinating book titled Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships. by Curt Thompson, M.D.  Here is a snippet that I have found very useful:

“…we can be changed by allowing God’s story to intersect with our 0wn.  When we tell our stories or listen to another person’s story, our left and right modes of processing integrate.  This is why simply reading the Ten Commandments as a list of dos and don’ts has so little efficacy.  The same can be said for Jesus’ admonitions during the Sermon on the Mount or the apostle Paul’s instructions to the early church communities.  Isolating commands for right living apart from their storied context is at best neurologically nonintegrating and, at worst, disintegrating.  This is why telling our stories is so vitally important.

But narratives are not the only instruments within Scripture that can help us integrate our minds and lives.  Poetry is a another powerful literary tool.  It has several distinct features:

  • By activating our sense of rhythm, poetry  accesses our right-mode operations and systems.
  • Reading poetry has the effect of catching us off guard.  Our imaginations are invigorated when our usual linear expectations of prose (that one word will follow obediently behind another on the way to a predictable end) don’t apply.  This can stimulate buried emotional states and layers of memory.
  • Finally, poetry not only appeals to right-mode processing, but to left mode as well, given its use of language.  This makes it a powerful integrative tool.”

It’s no wonder then that poetry, as a literary genre, is so commonplace throughout the Scriptures.  Our lives are being written, our stories are being told, and we make much better sense of our these stories as we know the Grand One of redemption.  Paul wrote to the believers in Ephesus and said “we are his workmanship,” the “poema” in the Greek… we are the “poema” or poem of God.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
 For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light do we see light. 

Psalm 36:7-9

(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?

living in between

September 9, 2011

I’ve been blown away by the responses from my last post, and very honored to have read it today as part of the eulogy for my departed brother.  It was a tear-filled day for most of us and now the numbness is setting in… is this even real?  Am I going to wake up now?  I’m sure he’ll just call or text me any day now.  I know I’m not alone in these questions.  Many have expressed this kind of doubtful malaise that sets in after so much emotion and grief.  We still feel this loss but don’t seem able to stay connected to it in any meaningful way.

As hard as it is we should examine our grief rather than waste it.  I seem to recall Jesus asking the question on more than one occasion “why are you weeping?”  Regardless of the context I’m pretty sure it’s a safe bet that he already knew exactly why they were weeping.  It could be that he wanted them to connect deeply with their grief and examine their wounded hearts.  Words just seem so inadequate to express the emptiness and loss.  But why is it loss?  Because love is a reality, even in this broken place.  If we didn’t love Adam this day would have been a great day to simply enjoy the weather and then listen to politicians over promise and under deliver (sorry I guess that’s in their job description).   We do love Adam and that is why it hurts.  In the words of C.S. Lewis: “The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before.  That’s the deal.”  So we have all these memories that are flooding back and bring this strange mixture of joy and sadness.  Joy that we experienced these things and this person, and sadness that we won’t have the opportunity to share them with him again… at least for now.

If we are to have any substantial hope in this life it must be anchored to the next.  Death loses in the end for us because it has already lost to the One it could not keep.  While we give mental assent to this and even sense the longing for it in our hearts we still know the experience of death to be very real.  And very painful.  By faith we see the empty tomb in front of us and that is where our hope rests but we still have the here-and-now to deal with… work, school, bills, even funeral arrangements.  Our experience now is characterized by this tension between the joys of love and the sadness of loss.  Our experience then will have no loss and only the joy of love will remain.   It is in this tension that hope is born, and hope is a painfully beautiful thing.

And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.  –Mumford and Sons