Monday, October 09, 2006

With the Game on the Line

I glanced up at the red bulbs on the scoreboard. 26-21. Not a big lead and a lot of time left, but we'd controlled the game so far. If we could get by St. Pat's we'd be on to the finals. I could hear the faint cheers of the raucous crowd, the squeak of the sneakers on the hardwood floor, the heavy grunts from my team as they hustled back on defense.

"Be aware!" I yelled.

The ball moved fast. Wing. Hi-post. Back to the wing. Suddenly she was free. Standing outside the arc she launched a three, and when it connected the home crowd went crazy.

Two point game.

We threw the ball in and suddenly I heard screaming from the other sideline. Only it wasn't cheering.

"It was a three! It was a three!"

I glanced up at the score board. 26-23. The ref hadn't signaled the three point effort, and so the scorer had given the other team credit for only two. A break for us. But the other coach wouldn't stop screaming. Her hair whipped across her face as she threw the clip board to the floor. It echoed across the gym like a gun shot.


The whistle halted the game as the refs came to the scorer's table for a consult. I told my team to huddle up and get a quick drink. Sweat covered their faces and jerseys. Lauren was limping. Steph couldn't stop her hands from shaking. We'd played a tough game the previous night and earlier that morning, and with two players missing, the girls were dead tired. The refs were still talking at the scorer's table.

Last year the Senior Girl's basketball team had won twenty games for the first time in over a decade. But in the two seasons before that we'd won only twice. This year's team was better. They worked harder. They were smarter. And most of all, they were good kids. I desperately wanted them to taste the success I felt they deserved. Last year we'd finished third at this tournament. This year we were good enough to win.

I looked over my team, their heads hung in tiredness, and slowly walked over to the scorer's table.

"If it makes a difference, it was a three." I said.

The refs nodded, and the other coach, her long hair wet across her forehead, seemed to look past me.

"Thank you for your honesty."

I nodded and walked back over to my team. I told them what I'd done, and Sarah, with her red hair and bright eyes, just looked at me.

"Win in fairness. There's more to the game then the game." I said.

I meant what I said, but I was reasonably certain that we'd win anyway. The girls masked their shock, and when they went back out continued to play disciplined, efficient basketball.

Until the middle of the fourth quarter.

Up by ten points, I watched in frustration as the tournament's physicality and our short bench finally took its toll. Our lead whittled. Ten. Eight. Six. Five. Three. Two. Suddenly they were ahead. I couldn't seem to hear anything, I was lost in the madness of the last two minutes, of analyzing and yelling and cheering and moaning and squinting and hoping and planning. With less than ten seconds left and our best player with the ball and a chance to tie, I watched as she drove in and was fouled. I glanced up at the clock, but the scorekeeper forgot to stop it and it rolled down to zero.

"They didn't stop the clock." I said to the refs as they came to the scorer's table to make the foul call. The older ref, a big man with a bulging stomach and little hair on his head, looked over at me.

"There was about four or five seconds on the clock when she was fouled." I said.

Time was precious here. If Steph made the two free throws, than St. Pat's would have time to bring the ball down the court. But if she missed, it'd give us time to get a rebound.

"Okay." The older ref said, his voice a bit too squeaky for his large frame.

"What!" The other coach was screaming again. "There wasn't that much time! I saw one second on the clock."

The other coach looked at me, and I could see the lie in her eyes. So much for fair play. The two refs conferred, and split the difference. 2.3 seconds left. I glanced up at the red bulbs on the clock, and covered the sinking feeling in my stomach as I walked back to the huddle.

"Okay, guys. Do your best."

When Steph missed the first free throw I knew the game was over. She missed the second one intentionally, but with only 2 seconds on the clock there simply wasn't enough time to get the rebound and the horn sounded to end the game. I couldn't stop thinking about the point I'd conceded earlier in the game. How my honesty might have cost us a shot at the tournament championship.

My heartbroken young team gathered around me at the end of the game.

"You all played your guts out, and you know what happened at the end. Some people need to win, but sports are about more than winning. They're about excellence. About integrity. About effort." My team looked at the ground, their sweat soaked socks and shoes lying haphazardly beside them. Lauren's feet were a mass of bandages. I sighed. "But I know that right now, none of that means too much. I'm proud of you, though."

I looked at them and then moved away, respecting the team's need for a little time alone, away from the coach. Two hours later we played for 3rd place, but I couldn't bring myself to care, and I rested my starters as we lost by fifteen. I finally arrived home just after dinner. I did not know what to do with myself. I sat in my living room, unable to stop thinking about the game, or about the other coach and the look on her face when she lied about the time left.

I wondered why it meant so much to her. Why it meant so much to me. And why was I still thinking about it, anyway? It was just a stupid game! I went to the kitchen and poured myself a fresh mug of coffee before drifting outside. The trees outside my apartment had begun their autumn transition into a fresh burst of red and yellow. And I glanced up at the cold blue sky, watched the steam rise from my coffee. I watched a cardinal flirt from tree to tree and sipped from my mug.

In many ways, I'd always believed that sports were a microcosm of society. Coaching was a way to impart truths about life, and playing was a good way to learn them. Within the accelerated boundaries of a game, you learned life lessons that could hold you in good stead when the real tragedies of life drew near. Maybe that's why I was so upset. Maybe it was because what I'd seen earlier in that day echoed across our society, and my frustration with those who would not play fairly.

People lied and cheated all the time. Cheated on their taxes. Cheated on their insurance. Cheated on their tests and lied to their bosses. Lied about how much they made and about who they were. And too often, I thought, it worked. Too often they were rewarded, just as the other coach had been rewarded for her lie. And sometimes it just made me tired.

How can I compete, Lord, if we don't have a level playing field?

Part of the appeal of sports was the idea that it was supposed to be a level playing field. I took another sip of my coffee, watched as a blue jay flickered to the same tree as the cardinal. Their wings flashed as the jay's caw caw agitated the cardinal who flushed from the tree and flew out of sight.

I wondered if the girls had learned anything today. And if they had, was it positive? Had they learned that the right way to play and live was to do it with honour? Or had they learned the undeniable advantage of cheating and lying? We always assume that young people pick up the positive messages like everything is a Disney movie. But the truth is that there is an advantage in life if you are willing to lie and cheat to get ahead. The bigger truth, of course, is that the cost is the corruption of your character. That however, is often hard to see.

I finished my coffee and moved back into my living room. I had no idea what effect this game would have on my team, but we would find out soon enough.

P.S. Six days have passed since that game. Two regular season games against difficult opponents. Two blown fourth quarter leads, the last one an eleven point lead with 3 minutes left. We always think that being honest and fair pays off right away, but all that seems to have happened so far is that we've learned how to lose. After the last game I did not know what to tell my devastated team. I wish that life was more like a Disney movie some times, but we must keep the bigger picture in our minds, understanding that character is forged in the fire. The same character that will hold us when life leads us down the road of tragedy and heartbreak, as it always does at some point. And its there we will see who we are, and make the decision about who we want to become.

No matter how old or young we are, whether we play sports or not, we face those decisions every day. At work. At home. May God help us to see past the moment to the eternal, and to that which matters most.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Interview with a Stranger

Interview with a Stranger (learning why I hated prayer)

I know why you’re running.

You try going off the path to avoid the stranger, but his words catch you off balance and you skid to a halt. Some of the ducks that had waddled up on shore take flight in a flash of wings. The stranger stands calmly, and only glances at your tank top and shorts, and the sweat glistening on your skin from the shortened run. You take a quick look along the pathway, but it’s quiet today, and there’s no one else in sight.

Do I know you?

Yes. You don’t remember me yet. But you will. I was a minister once, like you.
You shake your head, and start to run around him, when he calls out again.

I never used to like prayer much, either.

This time you stop and turn slowly. Twenty minutes ago you stood in front of your mirror and convinced yourself that you needed a run. You hadn’t prayed in a long time, and even your time in prayer was leaving little but the salty taste of unfulfilled dreams. So you’d stopped. Your life had been a swirl of events lately, and you could feel the footsteps of discouragement coming closer. A run always helped, but how could this stranger, know any of that?

The sun flashes off the swirling water and you shiver as the wind blows hard against your moistened skin. It couldn’t be true, could it? Prayer is something you do. Something you’re supposed to do. It’s never even mattered if you like it. Of course, no one has ever thought to ask you either. An elderly couple is walking their dog, and you smile at them as they pass. Maybe this stranger knows something you don’t. It couldn’t hurt just to talk.

You move closer.

He smiles when he sees you turn and you walk along the path together, although he stays just behind your left shoulder.

You haven’t prayed much lately, have you, Steve?


You can’t be present without time in the Presence, he says.

It sounds like he’s quoting a bumper sticker, and he waits to see whether you’ll accept it. Two seagulls cry as your presence forces them away from some bread someone has left for them near the path. You don’t even see them.

He starts talking. His voice is softer, steadier than you remember, although you still aren’t sure how you know him.

When he was a kid he was scared of his father. He grew up in a traditional Catholic home. Prayer was nothing more than an apology. And appeasement. He says that last part ruefully, as if he still feels sheepish about it. God was angry and very disappointed with us humans. With him. Again he smiles, although this time it is tinged with regret. When he first moved to a Pentecostal church, he felt different. Free. It wasn’t like the Catholic Church at all.

What does that have to do with prayer? You ask, unable to hold your tongue.

Our faith rests on our image of God, he says, unperturbed by your question.

You bite back a sharp retort. You hate his abstract answers, but he’s pulling you in deeper somehow.

You move closer.

People in the Pentecostal church prayed, he says, loudly and often, but what surprised him was how ritualistic they were. In their own way, even more than the Catholics. He hated their rigid belief structure, the way they hid behind the language of the church. It didn’t seem like they were free, he said, it seemed more like they were afraid. And he’d known fear quite a bit when he was younger, not just with his family, but in a lot of ways.

You motion for him to sit with you on a bench near the water. You watch the wind lifts tiny caps on the waves as the afternoon sun gleams off the river like a thousand crystals. Is he right about the fear?

You move closer.

I wasn’t able to minister anymore, he says, and so I left. His chin drops to his chest and tears lay trapped in his eyes. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I didn’t know how to relate to my wife or the people around me. As he tells you what he’s lost, you want to cry for him, too.

He wipes his eyes but doesn’t stop.

My wife and I argued so much, he says, that I would often leave at night and go to a coffee shop or a sports pub just to avoid conversation. When I came home she was sleeping. Always sleeping. She didn’t care. Years later he learned that she was never sleeping. Always awake. The memory haunts him still.

Another elderly couple walks by but this time you can’t take your eyes off the stranger. He’s gotten to you, you realize. You need to hear his story.

You move closer.

Three years pass, he says, and he realizes that when he goes out, when he drinks, when he’s loud, when he’s talking a mile a minute, it all feels the same. He stopped going to church, but he goes back. He doesn’t know what else to do.

He smiles again and asks you a question.

Have you ever felt separate from your own life? As if your body was living and you, the real you, was somewhere else? Or maybe dead?

You frown and then nod. You know that feeling all too well.

He waits for you to answer, but instead you stand up and start walking again. He falls in beside you. The smell of freshly cut grass and the afternoon buzz of insects bring a quick sense of pleasure, but the frown returns when you realize that he’s watching you. And for the first time you realize that his story may be painful for you. But you need to hear the rest.

You move closer.

I have run most of my life. We all run in some ways, but I didn’t understand that I was running. And even when I learned the truth, it was so hard to stop. Any distraction was better than facing the truth.

You want him to be quiet. Your stomach is clenched tight as you turn onto your street. You can’t stop him. If you don’t face it today you never will. You take a deep breath.

You move closer.

Did you know that God loves you?

His question startles you so much that you lose your balance and nearly fall off the sidewalk.

Of course I know that.

He smiles, this time with an enigmatic twist to it. Well, he says, I said that too. I just didn’t believe it. I couldn’t stop running until I accepted that. Everything changed when I stopped trying to earn God’s love.

You frown. He is starting to sound like a hippie, like being a Christian means no work. No effort. He grins at your expression, and you realize he is doing it on purpose.

You move closer.

The funny thing about prayer, he says, is that it used to be easier. Easier to cry and moan and yell and scream and chant. But talking isn’t prayer. Prayer is also quiet. Prayer is listening. Prayer is confrontation.

What! Your voice carries down the street. You just said prayer was listening and quiet. You just said you don’t have to earn God’s love. How is prayer confrontational?

He smiles and nods.

When you see God, you see yourself. When you see yourself, you see you sin. When you see your sin, you see your need for God. Prayer, time in the presence of God, forces you to face yourself. It forces you to own your decisions. To own your sins. And to own God’s love. Perhaps more than anything, it forces you to be present in your own life.

You realize that you’re standing inside your apartment, but you don’t remember going up the stairs or letting him in. Despite your churning stomach, you brace yourself to let him finish. Besides, you’re starting to remember how you know him. Why he seems so familiar.

You move closer.

So why do you pray, I ask.

This time it’s his turn to be startled.

Without prayer, we are blind. We lose the big picture. The eternal picture. Without prayer, temporal things become eternal, and life becomes heavy. The greatest thing about prayer is the more we learn to lean on the Creator, and the more we own the details of our life, the more freedom we enjoy. It’s a strange paradox, but the more we commit to the big picture of what God wants, the simpler life becomes. And we can not only enjoy our life, but be fully present in it as well. He pauses. You know what I’m talking about, Steve.

He smiles and suddenly you recognize him. Same eyes. Same face. Different smile. Softer.

The floorboards creak as you step closer to the mirror, and the stranger disappears. He's right. I know what he’s talking about.

I step onto the balcony and watch the trees sway in the summer breeze. Slowly I peel off my running shoes as I begin to pray.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Unworthy... The Scars of Divorce (Old Photos)

It was in the top shelf of my closet when I noticed it. With a yelp I pulled it from behind the circular saw, still in the box, that my old in-laws had given me seven years earlier.
It was my camera. I lost it pretty much the day after I'd moved three years earlier, and the only reason I noticed it today was my annual fall cleaning. The film in the camera was pretty well used up. I left the mess in my apartment, and headed out to Wal-Mart, a bit giddy at the unseen pictures in my camera.
Digital cameras have taken so much of the joy away from taking pictures. I'd always felt like taking my film to get developed was like getting a present. You never knew what gem you'd turn up. These days, we look at the display and if we don't like it, we take it again. No mystery. Fewer disappointments, perhaps. But no fun, either.
It took me three hours, including a forgotten wallet, a Wal-Mart under renovation, and half of the afternoon spent in traffic before I was finally sitting in my car and opening the two packages. One roll of film had nothing but trees and stones and dirt roads. I had no idea what I'd been thinking while using that film.
I opened the other package, and I could feel my breath getting shorter as I flipped through the photos. They were pictures of my last trip with my ex-wife. The photos were like a walk through an old country lane I hadn't visited in a long time. We were smiling. Laughing together. Unaware that in less than a year our marriage would be over for good.
I carefully tucked the photos into a side pocket of my lap top and sat still for a moment. I stared out across the parking lot. I was parked in the corner of the lot of yet another new Wal-Mart, a massive thing the size of a shopping mall. I watched the people coming and going, the couples especially. Some even held hands. Others talked like most couples talked, as if there was no need to be grateful or thankful or especially courteous to the person next to you because it was no big deal.
"It is a big deal." I muttered.
I felt the emotion rising to my face, but I turned the car on and drove away before it could really do its work. It wasn't that I thought I'd ever get back together with my ex-wife, I think it was remembering how much we shared together, and the dream of growing old and being with someone, of having someone to wake up beside you every morning. Of being intimate. I don't mean sex, I mean intimacy. Of that emotional sharing where you can tell each other your deepest secrets and hold each other close.
I slowed down as the line of traffic in front of me thickened. The sun had begun to set, but it was still bright our, and beyond the trees along the road I could see the blue of the sky. I don't think that my ex-wife and I ever had that kind of intimacy. Back when I was married, I was scared of a lot of things, not the least of which was being honest and vulnerable. The thought of telling anyone my deepest fears was ludicrous. And even after our separation, when I thought we'd put things together for good, it seemed beyond me. I remember her saying to me so many times, "You have a good heart, Steve, and I know that one day you'll be the man God wants you to be."
That always used to upset me, of course, because it's the perfect back handed compliment. But even then, I would wonder if she was right. Would I be the man God intended me to be one day? Mostly I doubted it. And today, seeing those pictures again, I could feel the questions going through my mind again. Was I a better man now than I used to be? Had I grown at all? Or was I still the same selfish, judgmental man my ex-wife used to accuse me of being?
I turned on my off-ramp and headed home. I lingered on the stairwell, debated going for a walk, and decided to go upstairs instead. The thing about divorce is that the scars are always there. And today, I could hear my ex-wife's accusing tone, could see clearly the mistakes I'd made, and threaded through it all was the worry that I was no different than I had been.
It amazes me sometimes how much we believe what people tell us. We believe what our partners tell us especially, the people we love. And when they say things, even if in some way they are right, the damages last a long time. I'd always wondered at how women believed the men who abused them. How could they believe they weren't worthy of real love when the man they were with was a jerk? Parents did it too. I'd worked with enough kids to know. A lot of people spent their whole life trying to be what their parents told them they could never be.
When I first learned that God loved me unconditionally, I believed it. But I'm not sure I accepted it. Like many people, when I thought back to my own life, I wondered, after everything I'd heard, how that could possibly be true.
I shook my head and unlocked the apartment. I wasn't sure what I'd do with the photos. Because in so many ways my ex was right. I hadn't been a good husband. Especially that first year. And though I'd tried to do better, the divorce was proof that I hadn't done enough. That I hadn't been enough.
There are a million reasons not to believe in a loving Creator and most of them have to do with hurt and guilt. The truth was that although some of her words were right, God's words were right too. I was a new creation. Holy and loved and forgiven. Perfection was not part of my faith. Rather, it was weakness and imperfection that made Jesus the answer to all of my troubles, and the reason I considered Him not only my Hero, but the Son of God.
The truth is, I think, is that on many levels many Christians do feel guilty. Like me, they feel unworthy because they perceive the church to be a place where only perfect reside. But it isn't. The church is the place where the broken come together to encourage one another. The church is the place where God repairs the broken souls of His people. And it came to me that it doesn't matter if we have done things that we regret. We all have. But to live under the condemnation and false guilt of a perceived perfection is to deny everything Jesus stood for, and everything He did.
I moved to the kitchen to wash my hands. It was hard being divorced. Hard as much for the realization of my own failures as for the death of my dreams. But I knew it would pass. I knew it because I understood that God was in the forgiveness and redemption business, even if some people were in the guilt and condemnation business. And while I didn't like the pain of reminder, I knew that sometimes it was okay to cycle through our memories. To remind ourselves who we'd been and what we could be. And for all that I wanted to be someone else, I wondered if maybe it wasn't the end that mattered as much as the journey, and that it wasn't about the perfection of my life, but the redemption of my character. I wasn't sure that I had changed in the last four years, but the old photos had reminded me of not only what I'd lost, but what I hoped for. And for now, I would point myself in that direction, and let God do the rest.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Fearless (Part II) Conquering your Fears...

Fearless (Part II)

The evening was winding down. I was still upset over my earlier decision to drive downtown as if it was somehow significant, and my idiocy on the roads. Driving down a one-way street? Good thing you didn’t have to pass a driving test to get into Seminary. Just thinking about Seminary made my pulse go up, and I moved to couch and flicked on the TV. I was procrastinating, but I wasn’t in shape to answer any more emails.

I’d begun to think of some of the things I’d written to people, and I began to wonder, not for the first time, what I was doing. What if I gave someone bad advice? What if I misrepresented God? What if they realize I’m not who they think I am? And what if I caved and fell into sexual sin, all the while talking about abstinence. The questions began to ricochet in my mind like tiny daggers, each time drawing blood. I turned the TV off, listening to the silence. I stared at the piles of books on my shelves, many of which I’d kept since my time in ministry. Theology. Counseling. Discipleship.

“I can’t do it, Lord. I can’t. I will mess it all up. Use someone else, Lord, please. I am not strong enough.”

My voice rang hollow in the empty apartment. Nothing but silence. I remembered a verse in Corintians where the Apostle Paul said that he boasted of his weaknesses so that Christ's power would shine on him. Pah. That was rubbish. People didn't need weakness. They needed strength in their leaders. And i didn't have the strength to be MORE.

The silence began to weigh me down. And then, inside my heart echoed a soft voice. It wasn’t audible, but I could hear it as clearly as if I was speaking to someone on the phone.

“I haven’t called you to be MORE. I have called you to be honest.”

A weight fell over my chest and shoulders, which sounds crazy, but I could feel it. I’d always understood that being a Christian held some mystical qualities, but I’d grown cynical about the “presence of God”, which seemed to happen more in front of TV cameras these days then anywhere else. Or with some polished preacher with a cleft chin and slicked hair talking about it in his five thousand dollar suit.

I thought about my fears, which had plagued me for so long. Fear of failure. Fear of hurting those around me. Fear of being selfish. Fear of trying new things. And most of all, the fear of not becoming who I was supposed to be, the fear of failing the One who made me. I felt my insides well up and begin to choke. A few nights before I’d had a long chat with a friend of mine that had ended in tears about my inability and my sadness over feeling like a failure.

And then, as if the Almighty had reached down and wrapped me in His arms, I began to feel warm. This was crazy I thought. But I stayed where I was, and confessed to my Hero that I was so very afraid. Afraid of disappointing him and the people around me. Afraid of not being the man I should be, or could be. Afraid that I would never have what I hoped for, afraid that I would end up alone.

I stopped when I realized that I’d been praying aloud. And I heard His Voice in the silence.

“I know.”

That was it. No other answers or impressions, except the strong sense that the King of Kings had heard my cries, and that He understood. I wasn’t alone. I sat in silence for another twenty minutes. My hands were shaking. Finally I pushed myself up from the couch and went into the kitchen to get a glass of water.

I had long worried that a foray back into the ministry would not be right for me, because I’d understood the fears that had built up inside me over the years. And I knew how easily it was for me to become proud, to not ask people around me for help, and how much I enjoyed the attention of other people looking at me for answers. And mixed into that cocktail of pride was the genuine fear of not being strong enough or wise enough to be who God had called me to be.

I made a quick decision, grabbed my keys and wallet and headed out of the apartment. I was not sure what time would bring, and I knew that along the way I would offend some people in my quest for transparency. I’d seen so many people, who like me had allowed fear to dominate their lives. Not this time, I thought, not this time. I started thinking about the possibilities of the future, and by the time I had unlocked my car my chest felt lighter.

We all know that we are only human, and for some of us, that is an easy thing to accept. For some of us, our pride wants more. But we all struggle with fear, don’t we? Whatever those fears are, they can so easily destroy the life that God wants for us. Not because we’re not good enough or because we sin too much, but maybe its because we don’t believe enough. We don’t believe that God really wants what’s best for us. We don’t really believe that He understands how difficult life can be. And instead of judging by His eternal, grace-filled standards, we judge according to our own proud and fallen nature, and allow these fears to control us. But that which we hide, that which we don’t face, will eventually emerge from the shadows, and when it does, what will we do then?

The sun had almost fallen, the shadows deepened alongside the car. I backed out, my heart pounding, but for now at least, my hands were steady. A small chuckle emerged from lips at my own silly fear. Later, I would answer the emails. For now, it was time to head back downtown, and see if I could go the right way this time…

“For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline." -2 Timothy 1:7

Fearless (Part I) Conquering yours Fears

Fearless (Part I)

The sun winked out across the river, highlighting a large sailboat festooned with two large white sails. I wonder what that would be like, I thought, slowing my car as I sped along the parkway. I’d never been on a sailboat. I checked the mirror, but I was alone for now, and I slowed down even more, my gaze running between the tree covered hills on one side and the white capped waters of the Ottawa river on the other. More than a few boats were out today. Small ones. Mid-sized craft like the sailboats, and even a few luxury boats. Even from my car I could see the people relaxing on the decks of the larger ones, and I turned my gaze back to the road with reluctance. That’s the life, I thought.

A truck had pulled in behind me, and reluctantly I sped up. The parkway was one of the major attractions for visitors to the Ottawa Valley, maintained by the city and closed on Sundays for runners and cyclists, and it was cut into the land like a nature trail. I’d only driven it a few times, but today I’d figured I needed to do something different. I was a small town kid, and moving to Ottawa, a city of over a million people, hadn’t changed that. I rarely drove downtown.

I pulled off the parkway, and looked at the signs, but I was already lost. I sighed and then started laughing. Well, some things hadn’t changed. Still a moron with directions. I turned left on an unfamiliar road, when suddenly the road began to merge. What the…

The traffic was coming directly at me! A line of cars in all three lanes. My throat caught. I was headed up an off ramp, with no where to go. Sweat dripped from my forehead. Stupid! I berated myself for even trying to come downtown. I’d always hated the unmarked one way streets that seemed to dominate downtown Ottawa. There was a reason I never drove here. Keep it together, Burns! I slowed. Ten seconds before the wave of cars. Oh, God! Why hadn't I just stayed at home? Of course, the whole reason I’d come was an email I’d received the night before…

I stared at the screen, rereading the email three times before moving on to the next one. I could feel my throat getting dry, and I abruptly logged off and headed to the kitchen for a glass of water. Not again, Lord. Not again. I poured myself a large glass, gulped it down, and then poured another. I stood in the kitchen unable to move. The silence of my apartment was overwhelming. So were the memories.

I finally forced myself back into my room and sat back in my chair, where I felt the accusing glare of the blank screen. I’d started blogging about a month earlier. At first, I’d thought it would be a good way to perhaps see the response from others from my work. Writing is solitary work, and most of the time our feedback is minimal. The blog was a way to get some immediate gratification. But like any task that involved writing, over the past few weeks it had changed. And grown. At first, I’d been surprised by some of the responses I’d received, and immensely grateful. It was so encouraging. But as I thought about the latest set of messages, it wasn’t gratitude that filled me, but fear.

I sipped from my glass and glanced out my window, where the fading twilight cast a dark pallor through the glass. I could hear the crickets beginning their nightly chirp. Nearly a decade had passed since my time in ministry, but the last few months of that year still haunted me. And they haunt me still, I thought, taking another sip from my glass.

The first two years in ministry had been filled with excitement and a pressing sense of God’s leading. But too quickly it became insulated. When, I couldn't say. As a pastor and leader, I became increasingly fearful of saying the right things and doing the right things. It had been hammered into me.

"You are the ONLY Jesus people may ever see! You must not only be spiritual, you must be MORE"

I began to close off from the people around me, because the pressure to be MORE, and the fear of failure, hounded my every step. Slowly my laughter began to die out, and I found myself becoming smoother and more polished. People were coming to church for a reason, and my job was to be there for them, to be MORE. I couldn’t let them see my struggles, and the only way you could talk about it was if I couched it within specific acceptable terms. I could say that I struggled with abstinence, but there needed to be a laugh on the end of it. (“Yes, I struggle, but it wouldn’t ever really happen to me, don’t worry”) As if temptation existed, but not really.

I became afraid to let people know what I was thinking, that they’d see me for who I really was, and that they’d realize that I wasn’t MORE, or that I wasn’t holy after all. The quest for perfection drove a stake into my faith, and finally I broke down. I couldn’t handle the pressure. And so I quit.

I sipped from my glass and stared at the blank screen. I’d just received my acceptance into Seminary, and through a winding and sometimes torturous road, I’d found myself back on route towards the ministry. And the tingling I felt a decade past had come back. The email that I’d received was like many I’d received in the last few weeks. Questions about God. Questions about faith. Questions as if I had answers. And while there was nothing I enjoyed more than talking about my Hero, I’d begun to feel that tingle again.

What if they realize that I’m not MORE? What if they realize that I’m not really that holy? Not that spiritual? What if they see me for who I really am, God? What, then?

I sipped from my glass, but there was no water left. I could feel the fear building. I thought about going out somewhere, but where? I looked at the clock. 9:48 pm. Starbucks would be closed, and I avoided going to clubs on the weekend unless I was with friends, because it brought in a whole new level of temptations. I walked around my apartment, suddenly feeling claustrophobic and trapped.

They don’t know about me, God. I can’t speak for You.

Fear gripped my soul. I tried to pray, but all I really wanted to do was run away somehow, which made no sense, because I didn’t want to leave my apartment either. I thought about the plans for my work, about my dreams. Suddenly it all seemed so big. So… unachievable. And worse, was the budding sense of responsibility for the people who’d been so encouraging about my writing, that I would fail them, that I wouldn’t be there, somehow.

I finally put the glass down and headed for bed, but sleep was slow in coming. I hadn’t answered my emails. Hadn’t written in days. And guilt weighed me down like a lead cape.

The next morning, little had changed, except for the silly idea that doing something I didn’t like to do, something that I was afraid to do, might help. And it was with that in mind that I decided to go on the parkway and head downtown. To overcome your fears, you had to face them.

…The cars whipped closer. Five seconds. At the last instant I noticed a spot just before the merge, a lined out triangle the length of two cars between the ramp and the highway. I pulled my car in just as the first wave whipped past me, the stares from the drivers incredulous and angry. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. Finally there was a gap in the traffic, and I quickly turned my car around.

I exhaled as I headed back home. Such an idiot! What a stupid idea! Driving downtown to face your fear! I made it to a small park about five minutes from my apartment. I put my head in my still trembling hands. I could still feel my heart pounding away.

Was this it the, Lord? Would I always become afraid every time I tried to listen and obey your call?

That night God would answer my questions in a way I hadn’t expected, and in a session of prayer that would rock the very foundations of my future…

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Jesus Never Turned 34

The breeze whipped across my back as I bent over to catch my breath and then continued walking along the river. It felt good to run, as it always did, and now I let my gaze travel alone the river itself, and the ducks swimming in the reeds, watching as the fading sunlight glinted across the calm waters. Occasionally I passed a couple out for their after dinner walk, as well as a few young families. I watched one dad as he lifted his little girl, pointing out the geese swimming in the shallow water just off the shoreline. I felt quiet tonight, not sad exactly, although watching the young father caused a twitch in my stomach. Today wasn't like any other day. Today was my 34th birthday.

Happy Birthday, Steve.

I continued along the path, my eyes drawn to the sun twinkling off the water and the happy sounds of the kids playing in the shallows. I'd told friends that turning 34 was like crossing an intersection without a stop sign. But it was still a birthday. As a kid I'd always looked forward to celebrating them, but as the years had passed, I found myself looking back as much as I looked ahead.

I remembered my 25th birthday. Newly engaged and excited about my life, my wife had thrown a great shin dig at her apartment, and my friends and family had come to enjoy a wonderful time together. I remembered my 30th birthday, having survived an early separation my wife and I were back together, this time, we'd thought, for good. And she'd thrown a truly memorable surprise party with all of our old friends and acquaintances that had left me in tears.

And then there was today.

The night before I'd celebrated a quiet evening with a few close friends. And the week before, a similar gathering with close family members. But today it was difficult to think about anything but how much my life had changed. How my expectations and dreams had changed. Most of the time, I could stay focused and positive on what God was about to do, but on this day, I could not help looking back. And as I did, I began to think of someone else, someone who'd never celebrated his 34th birthday. And wondered what it was like for Him...

I stopped for a second to look out across the water. There was something about the water I'd always felt calming, and I found myself wondering what Jesus had felt the first time he'd stepped on the boat with his disciples.

Until the time he was 30, Jesus stayed at home, working at the shop, helping to support his family. But for the next three years, throughout his ministry, he spent most of his time traveling. Most Christians did not think of Jesus as person anymore. They thought about Him as God only, a strong Divine force, or something equally abstract. That's how I used to think about Him. It was easier to think of Jesus as something other than a man. Considering His humanity somehow it made me think too much about the things I went through, and how I handled them.

I turned along the path. An older couple smiled at me as I passed by, and for a moment I repressed the silly urge to tell them that it was my birthday. I'd often wondered if Jesus thought about the things I thought about. We don't know for sure, but I sense from my understanding of Scripture that Jesus knew that he would never have a family, that he would never hold a grandchild in his arms. Or that he would even hold a wife, a confidante, someone to share His life with. And yet, at the not so ripe age of 33, he followed his path, obedient to the end. And for that, he took all of our sins upon himself.

Clouds moved across the sky, for a moment hiding the sun as I headed up the sidewalk towards my apartment. Some men claimed that they were born to be single, like the Apostle Paul. I'd never felt that way. I still didn't. In fact, I wasn't at all sure that I was anywhere near where I was supposed to be. Wife-less. Child-less. In an old apartment building in an unsavory neighborhood. I wondered if Jesus thought about that too. If He wondered what His father was doing. Surely he must have wondered if the cold nights on along the Sea of Tiberias, when He was cooking fish over a small fire, if it was exactly what the Almighty had in mind for Him.

Maybe not.

I stopped outside my apartment, watching as the sun flickered off the houses on the other side of the road, and the two families sharing a meal on the picnic table. I'd never expected to end up in this place when I was 34. No, I'd expected something quite different. (And far more extravagant!) So many people I'd talked to wondered at where they'd ended up as well. Life had not brought them what they expected either. I'd often thought that it was the disappointment of life's expectation that was the hardest thing to deal with. Especially for those who'd believed God would or should, somehow bring them more.

I pulled out my key and headed up the walk. I started thinking about Jesus around the fire cooking the fish with his disciples, laughing together and sharing stories. I thought about Jesus restoring a woman to her community, a woman the people had been ready to kill. I thought about the way he touched every life around Him.

And I started thinking about my own life. It was difficult at times. No point in sugar coating it. But if anyone looked hard enough we could always find the blessings in our life, too. I thought about my friends. My kids at school. The teams I coached. The great joy I received from writing. And I thought about my relationship with the Living God which, through all of my tribulations, had grown and matured into the bedrock of my life.

Thoughts swirled in my head as I marched up the stairwell. My hero had faced the challenges of life, and though He'd never turned 34, He'd shown me the way. I smiled, as I began to think about the future. Life would always hand out its share of pain, and the heartache of disappointment, but I could sense His reassurance that my life did indeed, have a purpose. He'd walked this way, too. And though my birthday had reminded me some of what I'd lost, I began to see that there was more in this unexpected life of mine. Not only for the future, but for today as well. The road was already marked for me, the one my Hero had walked so many years before. And all I had to do was follow in His footsteps...

"I have come that they may have life. And have it to the full."

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Death of a Salesman (Tired of Selling Jesus)

"You suck, Burns!"
"Yeah, just pitch it. I'm taking you over the fence again."
I squinted towards Dan, who I'd been hammering for the last hour. Twilight had set in, and the blue summer sky had turned dim. Our catcalls echoed across the empty schoolyard. Box ball, baseball with tennis ball, was something of a tradition for the boys and me, and every week we got together at least twice to play. I was twenty years old.
The past week I'd just been accepted into Eastern, a Bible College about three hours away, and I was excited about my future in ministry. The guys had found out, but they hadn't said much. Not yet, at least.
Finally, Dan straightened, and the ball flashed towards the wall. I flicked my bat out and poked it off the fence for another double.
"Ohhh, Baby! Almost another one!" I said, laughing as I gave Josh, my teammate, a high five.
Dan got the ball back from the outfield, still unhappy.
"Heard you got the call from God. Going to spread the good news."
I ignored his sarcasm.
"Yeah, start in September. Should be great." I said.
"I'll bet, religious boy." He made a couple of rough jokes to the others, who started laughing.
"Hey, Steve. Why do you want to be in heaven if the party is in hell!?"
"No, you got it all wrong-"
"Yeah, stupid pretty boy. We're all gonna be laughing it up in hell while you're alone in heaven"
The laughter rang out across the parking lot, and a slow burn worked its way across my face. For the next twenty minutes, the tirade was endless. They'd gotten to me and they knew it. Finally, I'd had enough. I picked up my bat and walked away.
"Where ya going, Christian boy, to heaven?
More laughter.
"Well, I know where you guys are going!" I yelled over my shoulder.
At the time, I thought it was typical for North American Christians, especially jocks. But it wasn't. It was something else altogether...

...I looked down at the congregation and forced a smile on my face. Three years had passed since that day on the school yard. I was twenty-two, and pastoring at a small church in Southern Ontario. My first few years as a Christian had been exciting and fast paced, but the past few months I'd hit a wall. Discouraged and worn down by the demands of the people inside and outside the church, my faith had slowly begun to shrivel up.
"Tonight I want to talk about the joy of the Lord, folks!"
I heard a few scattered 'Amen's' in the congregation, as I bent to my notes. For the next thirty minutes I gave a well-prepared, exegetically correct sermon on how serving God brings joy into your life. The problem though, was that I no longer felt that way. When I'd finished, I looked down at the congregation.
Please, God, give them this joy I do not feel.
I didn't understand it then, but that was the beginning of the end for me in ministry for many years. I would hold on for another year, but finally I left. I could no longer reconcile my experience from what I believed. I could talk about Jesus and the Bible, because I knew it well, and sometimes I would enter fierce debate about it, defending Christianity as if my life depended on it. But I'd stopped going to church. Stopped praying. Stopped reading my Bible. If people asked, I was a Christian, but Jesus... well, I was tired of selling Jesus. I 'knew' he was true, and what I should be doing, but witnessing was impossible. I can't tell you how many arguments I had with people about the validity of His claims.
And yet, Jesus meant nothing in my life. He gave me no joy. I claimed to know Him, but mostly it was memories of better times, of what should have happened. Finally I gave it up altogether and stopped talking about God.
It wasn't until I became honest about what I believed that God began to move in my life.
Today I see many Christians selling Jesus. They might have felt like a follower years ago, but it's been a long time since they experienced God's love. And it's scary, because we start to think that there is really something wrong with us. But it's natural, because the nature of humanity is religion, and the nature of God is relationship.
Even now, I'm tempted to talk about God's love. Not what it means to me, but what it should mean. I'm tempted to talk about God. Not because of what He means to me, but what He should mean.
And every time we do that we push the real, living God further away. We feel that somehow we should be living in a certain way, reached a certain goal, and that if we haven't reached it, we are spiritually immature.
Many Christians don't like to talk about their faith and feel guilty about it. I'll tell you this, I talk more about God than I ever have in my life, and I am less concerned about it than I've ever been.
"Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks."
If God is in you, and you're in an authentic, all guts, relationship, you will talk about Him. But don't force it. Don't 'try' and evangelize. That's phony, and it will burn your heart. Instead, be honest with God. So you've made mistakes. So you sin. So what?! God knows. He loves you anyway! Be honest!
We are all works in progress, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we realize that God gives grace to the humble, the sooner we'll stop selling Jesus and start proclaiming His great Name. Not because we "should", but because our experience with Him is real...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The First of Many

Well, this is a test run of sorts, as we attempt to put this together. You can find my regular blog at