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."