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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.

I recently read a rather old book entitled The Book of the Pastoral Rule by St. Gregory the Great.  Written in the 6th century, the depth and breadth of his grasp on the human condition is quite remarkable.  I would even go so far as to say that he was ahead of our time in many respects.  Certainly there are where I would depart from Gregory’s theology but one (there were several) passage that stood out to me as truly astounding is on p.108 (if you read the translation by Demacopoulos).  Here Gregory is contrasting the “well disposed and the envious,” and how the spiritual director is to advise them differently.

Gregory writes:
“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing.  How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? … What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness?  And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”
Now Gregory grounds this thought in a beautiful and profound understanding of the union believers share in their faith and through the Church.
“For indeed, all are bound together in faith, just as many members constitute a single body… Thus it is the case that the foot sees by the eyes, and through the foot the eyes move…Therefore we observe in the inner working of the body how we should behave.”
Brilliant!  He continues…
“In fact, it is disgraceful that we are not able to imitate what we are.  Those good qualities that we love in others, which we do not seem to be able to imitate, are, in fact, ours also.  And whatever is loved in us becomes the possession of those who love them.  Therefore, let the envious consider how great is the virtue of charity, which makes the labor of others our own without any work on our part.”

I find this staggering!  So for Gregory the antidote for a heart issue such as jealousy is to provide something of far greater worth and beauty.  So by love we obtain the things that we would have otherwise envied.  I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this but my initial thought is that we American Protestants are (what are we protesting anymore?) so far removed from a holistic understanding of what the Church is at its essence that to make such connections from our union with each other to practical living is simply foreign.  This deflates the power of envy and jealousy at it’s root because we are so united to one another that we really do “possess” that which we would have envied.  This seems to push one towards a radical heart change (what we normally refer to as repentance) that is kingdom focused rather than the hyper-individualism we experience in most of our churches.  I’d love to hear some more thoughts on this…

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

Not that they don’t have their place or that I never use them, but I’d much rather run outside.  In the elements.  Preferably through the woods.  Treadmills keep you from doing what you are telling your body to do… run that way.  It’s even worse if you go to a big box gym and have to look at mirrors while your run.  The hum of a thousand treadmills and the smells of a thousand runners under one roof.  There’s inspiration!

No.  I think I’d rather find a trail or even a track or a road.  For me there is a sense of freedom and joy to be off the not-going-anywhere-machines and enjoying a go-anywhere run.  Even running around in circles on a track is preferable to the treadmill.  But we all do it.  Right?  We all get on treadmills of some sort and continue to pound out the miles never really getting anywhere.  That is until something comes along and disrupts our routines of living – or coping if you prefer.  It is most often the frightful and many times painful experiences that cause the disruption.  Relationships fail, jobs end, lives come to an abrupt halt.  Then a haunting awareness seeps into our otherwise foggy consciousness and asks us a simple yet profound question: “what are you doing with the time you’ve been given?”  Or in other words, “why are you on this treadmill to begin with?!”

However, it could be an otherwise joyous occasion creating the same effect.  The birth of a child, a new job, a new relationship… Albert Schweitzer said that “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out (treadmill). It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being.  We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”  It is in connections with “the other” that our lives are revealed for what they are and sometimes that revealing is not entirely pleasant.  Intimacy scares me.  I want to be known but I still want to control.  How’s that for an oxymoron?

“So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom”

Just a few days left in 2011.  It’s been quite an insane year for the Horn tribe… just see my previous post for a brief update.  I never seem to be able to get to all the books I hope to but the ones I was able to digest have not disappointed.  The top two are bookends of 2011 for me.  One I just finished and the other I read in the first week of January.  Without giving full reviews of their content I offer you a few thoughts:

Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places by Chuck DeGroat

I just finished this book about a week ago and it is the catalyst for this post because it forced me to re-evaluate my own personal journey in general and specifically this past year.  I can’t overstate how much I love this book!  Like all the other books I would make such a statement about (and they are few), the author touches a nerve that is both refreshing and at times  painful.  I honestly told my wife that this is the book I should have written… that is if I was a Ph.D., a therapist and a pastor.  DeGroat does a masterful job weaving his own personal experiences, as well as his interactions as a therapist, with a reformed theological foundation and uses the story of the Exodus to parallel our personal transformations.  One of my many favorite passages:

“So used to self-reliance, we may balk at the notion that we cannot rescue ourselves.  Relinquishing control, opening our hearts to a liberator outside ourselves, can fill us with fear.  If we’ve been hurt or wounded in a relationship, it is particularly difficult, perhaps, to imagine a God who will actually show up when we are at the end of our resources.  What’s more, this God does not invite us into a painless future, a quick fix.  The sea crossing leads into desert territory, which, as we will see, holds dangers that require us to remember the Passover again and again.  What will we hold on to in these times of trial?”

This will be one of the few books I continue to wrestle with and use as a resource when I need to be reminded of the freedom from “Egypt” that is mine.

Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions:  Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women by Dan Brennan

This was the first book I read in 2011 and there simply isn’t enough room here to fully nuance out the particulars.  Pitty it has taken me this long to write on the subject.  It was also the first book, other than the Bible, that my wife and I have read together.  One of the endorsements of this book reads, “A must read for people seeking to build authentic Christian community.”  I fully concur.  This book holds significant sentimental value for my wife and I as it has opened the door for us to have better communication as we’ve experienced the influence of friendships on our own marriage.  Side note:  sorry Dan, but I’m no fan of  the term “cross-gender” or any other adjective attached to the word friend.  I much prefer the simple beauty and natural neutrality of the word “friend.”  But I digress.  Here is what I love about Dan’s book… he attempts (and succeeds I think) at rescuing the idea of friendship from the vice grips of a over-sexualized worldview (what he calls “romantic myth”) and grounds it fully in a robust theological understanding of the Church and a hope-filled eschatology.  Validating my own experience Dan writes, “The sexual theology of our evangelical churches has been too small and defensive.”  Word.  He continues, “From a Christian perspective, the complex brother-sister bond as a nonromantic model for male-female friendships holds great power and promise.”

The power and the promise of this book is that it will disrupt your thinking and at times have you nodding your head as if “DUH!”  Then you realize the waters that you swim in are the very waters he’s trying to help you move through into a place of greater freedom to love and be loved.  Not everyone is going to agree with all of Dan’s conclusions or assumptions but navigating any friendship can be complicated and Dan is a great guide as this book reveals.

I’m way over my self-imposed word limit for blogging so I’ll simply mention two other books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year:

Notes from a the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World by N.D. Wilson – This is a one-of-kind book!  Great read!

Free of Charge:  Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf – Anything by Volf is worth digesting slowly and often.

What have been your favorite books this year?

Bring on 2012!

13 things I love about you

October 4, 2011

For my wife and friend on our 13th anniversary.

Marriage is a beautiful and imperfect reflection of Christ’s love for his church. I am grateful for what “God has brought together” and as we’ve attempted to grow in patience and forgiveness towards one-another He has met us time and again.  I offer the following as an honest yet brief beginning of the things I love and celebrate about you…

1. Passion for life.

2. Genuine love for people.

3. Authentic faith in Christ.

4. Mind for knowledge.

5. Honest heart.

6. Competitive spirit.

7. Wisdom in parenting our boys.

8. Desire for improvement – yes I do love this! 😉

9. Love of dancing.

10. Grace for the faults in others (especially mine).

11. Believing the best in others.

12. Empathy for the hurting.

13. Your rock star/Hollywood persona!  😉  You know you got it!

Happy 13th Anniversary babe!  I love you.  I believe in you and I believe in us.

Come away with me tonight?

hope and fear pt.3

August 15, 2011

See parts 1 & 2 here.

So it’s one thing when it has to do with the fears of a two-year old but what about us seasoned veterans of life?  We’ve been able to deal with childhood fears in healthy ways and vanquish the thought of the boogeyman in the dark closet…right?  Is it possible to live a “fearless” life?  If not, what do we do with those fears as adults that life reveals to us along our journey?

This weekend I had a very honest conversation with a good friend whom I’ve known for many years about these and other questions.  Our stories parallel in many respects as we think very similarly and would fall pretty much in the same theological fight clubs.  We both have young children and wives that still put up with us.  But the conversation was about how do we hope and trust in this God when it seems the most intimate and personal prayers and petitions we bring are met with silence?  When your marriage doesn’t seem “fixable” or your physical and/or mental health is deteriorating?  All illusions of control begin to slip away and that sinking feeling of despair and impending doom take root.  What then?

We covered all the “right” Christian responses:  “He causes all things to work together for good” etc.  Then you recognize that you can give verbal homage to these and other lofty verses while your heart is far removed from feeling their beauty.  The thing I really love about the Bible is how brutally honest it is and one thing that frustrates me about some churches is how little attention is given to said honesty.

Do a quick study of the book of Lamentations.  Not exactly “Your Best Life Now” kind of material but authentic human response and deep soul wrestling with historical events (for the historical narrative see the last few chapters of 2 Kings).  The poems of Lamentations suggests to me that God is not delighted in our Christian platitudes about sufferings but rather our honest and raw feelings towards them and towards Him.  Something tells me He’s big enough to handle them.

The other glaring point in our conversation was that…we were having a conversation!  The gift of a trusted friend with whom you can open up and bring your struggles into the light is a gift of eternal significance.  More on that later…