Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Dark Shadows of Christianity

The dim light from the moon filters into my room as I stare up at the ceiling. Another long night. I roll my head to the side and glance at the bright blue numbers beside my bed. 4:37am. It's been like this all week. I know what's bothering me, more particularly, exactly who's bothering me, but I don't want to think about it. I force myself up and pull on some jeans and an old sweater. There's no point in lying around if I can't enter the land of dreams.

I put some coffee on, stifling a yawn as I reach into the cupboards to get the sugar. A week ago I'd bumped into a former student. Sami had been one of my favorites, a bundle of energy who always seemed to be smiling, always willing to help with my disabled students. And unlike most guys in high school, he seemed comfortable with them. He'd come to me for advice more than once, and we'd chatted about a number of things, including religion. Although we talked about it, it was the one area upon which Sami never looked for my advice.

Sami was a Muslim.

He'd grown up in a kind and religious family, and he had about as much interest in Christianity as I had in Islam. This past week I hadn't been able to get Sami out of my mind, even as I confronted the dark shadows of my faith. Christianity stated, without apology, that unless something dramatic happened, my young friend was not going to spend eternity with God.

My coffee is finally ready, and I pour it into my mug, already loaded with cream and sugar. I take a sip, add a bit more cream, and head into the living room. The latest statistics show that nearly ninety per cent of all evangelical teenagers will walk away from the church when they turn 18. And the portion of the church that is conspicuously absent from most evangelical churches are the 18-34 year-olds, especially the ones without kids.

Every youth pastor has seen teenagers get caught up in the youth group and the excitement of church, only to see them go to university and disappear forever. They hit the 'real world', and once the sub-cultural bubble of the evangelical church breaks... well, they realize that church is for women and children. Nice for relationships and some community. Safe enough. But not too authentic. Or risky. They realize that the evangelical church is more concerned about giving answers than asking questions. Especially since the PAT answers we so often give don't make any sense. It reminds me of that great Jack Nicholson line.

"You want the Truth! You can't handle the Truth!"

I take a sip from my coffee and move to the window. The night is clear, and the cold presses itself against the glass. I'm thinking about Sami because even in this relativistic world, I would never suggest that Sami will know God simply because he's a great kid. And yet, I do not want to react like the fundamentalists, who often seem happy when the world 'plunges into the abyss of sin' while they cradle the hammer of self-righteousness and pride. If I'm honest, Universalism doesn't make sense to me, this idea that we can call god whatever we want, do anything we want, and everything will be okay. I can't help but think that if we actually believed in God, wouldn't it be insulting to Him if we didn't care who or what He was? Still, my heart breaks on nights like this, because I wish it were so. I wish everyone could know Him.

The point is that I can accept the truth of my faith, but I don't like it much. I want everyone to know God loves them. I want people broken and shattered by life to find their smile. I want the happy ending. And sometimes, when I think about Sami, I'm not sure about this faith of mine, this faith that says that God loves all of the world, died for all of us, but oh yeah, remember that student you loved, he's not welcome. Remember your brother, your dad, your daughter, they're not welcome. And it's in these moments I remember every jerk Christian, every idiot who accepted Jesus as their Lord, but have tested my patience with their lack of 'fruit.' The more I think about it, the sadder I get, and I step slowly back from the window.

When people ask me why so many college students are leaving the church, I have only one thing to say.

Maybe we're too busy making up answers to listen to their questions. Maybe we've decided that we've figured everything out, when it's obvious that we don't. Maybe we need to tell them how we struggle with this idea of a God who loves us and yet who leaves His wrath on so many. Or maybe we have to face that struggle ourselves.

Sometimes I think we're losing young adults because we seem so smug about being right. I know that it's as much about perception as reality, but for my generation, if there's one characteristic that marks Baby Boomers, its smugness. the insular idea that they've got everything figured out in their little bubble.

I open the door to the balcony and step outside. It's cold out, cold enough to see my breath as I glance at the night sky. Copernicus was the first to suggest that the Earth was not the center of the universe, that it made no sense that a larger body (the sun) rotated around a smaller one. The church forced him to recant his views, and had him thrown in prison. And yes, he was a Christian.

I'm like that sometimes. I think God revolves around me, a larger body revolving around a smaller one. In my bubble, in my world, I have everything figured out.

I shiver as I think about Copernicus and Galileo. I glance up at the moon, which is almost full, so bright it seems to light up the street. Stars twinkle in the night sky, cast across the heavens, shimmering so close it feels like I can reach out and touch them. It makes no sense to me that those twinkling little lights are the size of the sun. It makes no sense to me that the universe is unimaginably wide and deep and long.

But then, there's so much I don't understand.

I don't understand, for instance, why I was born in a rich culture, and most of the world is not. I don't understand how God can love the world so much that He sends His only Son, only to reject the billions who will never meet Him. Perhaps worst of all, I don't understand how I can love this Creator, this Creator who rejects so many, and yet I do. Not only that, but in the deepest part of my soul, I believe He loves me too. Not only me, but every human who has ever walked this planet.

A breeze slips down the back of my sweater and makes me shiver. My apartment seems warms and safe, filled as it is with familiar things. I've created my own environment inside, and I love how I've set everything to my liking. But out here under the night sky, the cold reality of the natural world and all its mystery presses down on me.

I turn and head inside. We will never have all the answers, because no system of theology has ever truly fit this Carpenter we follow. But we should never stop asking questions. Maybe the point is just that. That we don't know everything. That sometimes the reality of our faith is painful. And that in spite of the overwhelming sorrow it can cause, we must face the truth of what we believe. Maybe it's time for us to stop running, to stop trying to pleases the world around us, and be honest with ourselves.

I yawn, still thinking about Sami, but it's too late to go back to bed. I wonder if other people are asking these questions too, the ones that keep me up at night, the ones for which there is no easy answer. But somewhere in my spirit, I believe we honour God this way, don't we? We honour our Creator with thoughts on who He is and how to follow Him. We honour Him when we ask Him how this can possibly be so?

The week has been difficult, and I don't have any easy solutions. What I do know is this: God loves me as much as He loves Sami. I head to my bedroom and get on my knees.

Until God gives me the answer, there really is only one response...

"Lord, I pray for my friend, Sami..."


Saturday, January 27, 2007


A cold breeze swept into the room, and I shivered under my covers. As usual, I wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing. I huddled myself into a ball, but I knew that at some point I would have to leave the warmth of my bed to at least close the window. "Crap," I muttered, unable to get comfortable again. "Might as well get this over with." I slipped out of my bed and rushed over to pull the window shut, gasping as the cold enveloped me. Why had I left the stupid window open last night? I'd never been a pajamas type of guy, a hangover from my football playing days, but maybe it was time to start wearing them.

Too awake to get back to sleep, I dashed into the shower and let the hot water run over me, feeling my pulse slow down as my body warmed up. I've never been one for long showers, and the apartment was still cold when I finished drying off and quickly dressed and put some coffee on. I glanced at the clock. 7:32am. Too early for a Saturday morning.

I took my coffee out on the balcony, waiting for some early inspiration. The sky was gray, and the thick bushes below me, normally filled with life, were silent, the only sound coming from a car warming up in the parking lot. Smoke filtered from the chimney of the house across the street. Everything around me seemed dead, as if I was the only one alive. Normally I headed to my favourite cafe on Saturday mornings to work, but the thought of putting on coats and gloves and boots and hats and sweaters and packing everything up to drag out to my car and than bringing everything in the cafe and going through the undressing process made me wonder why I simply couldn't work at home today. I loved Ottawa, but the icy winter always made you think twice about going out.

The cold, dead air outside wasn't helping however. I needed the sounds of people around me to write. I sipped my coffee, waiting for a burst of life from somewhere. Nothing. Nothing but a gray silence. So much for that idea. I slipped back inside my apartment and began packing up my work.

It struck me how I hated putting so many layers of clothes on, and that from the time I'd woken up this morning, all I had done was cover myself. And not just with clothes. In the first book of the Bible, it tells the story of a man and a woman. They live in the garden with God, and He gives them only one command: Do not eat the fruit of a certain tree. They eat the fruit however, and suddenly they feel exposed. They cover themselves with leaves, and when God calls to them, He asks them, "Who told you that you were naked?"

I thought about this because it's obvious that we still love to cover ourselves, not only in the presence of God, but from the people around us. I stopped packing for a minute and looked around my apartment. It was filled with books. Shelves upon shelves of books, movies, music... my apartment suddenly seemed nothing but a swirling mass of narrative to get lost in, like a lost set of tunnels and caves to explore and discover.

And hide.

My books had been, for as long as I could remember, my security blanket. My covering. When despair and depression grabbed me by the neck during my twenties, I turned to books and writing to weather the storm. I withdrew into a cave, and for a while it seemed I would never be able to leave. When I was forced to come out, I would smile and laugh, sparkling like a piece of costume jewelry that looks good until you examine the metal closely. I worried over what people thought of me, anxious not to get too close to people who might happen to get a glimpse of the man underneath. The more I worried, the more I withdrew, and the more I withdrew, the more layers I added, until I wasn't sure who I was. For a long time I wasn't sure that I would ever be able to push myself into the open spaces again, to allow my naked self to be seen and heard, and to hear and see the people around me.

I slung my laptop over my shoulder and headed out, the wind biting into my face and hands as I trudged out to my car. Instead of sitting in it while it warmed up, however, I tucked my hands in my pocket and took a stroll through the lot. The icy wind felt good on my face, and I pulled off my toque, watching my breath frost in the morning air.

Perhaps the greatest (often unacknowledged) desire of humanity goes back to our time in the garden. The longing to be naked, to expose ourselves to God and the people around us. These days, I am tired of covering myself. (Most of my friends will tell you that it obviously extends to my fashion choices as well) I've grown tired of the shallow worries of what others think. I am tired of clothing myself with "I'm fine" and bending over to make sure others like the Steve I present to them. Deep inside is a longing to be naked and free.

My wife used to tell me how well I rationalized my own actions, how I consistently justified whatever I thought was right. Or how quickly I pointed out the exposed areas of the people around me, but refused to expose myself in any way. Especially in my criticisms of the church. Years later, I still hear her voice, especially in moments like this, and it warms me somehow. The truth of her words has impacted me more than she will ever know.

So much of our faith, this following after Christ, at times feels burdened by expectations. And sometimes I think we get lost in the struggle to "act like a Christian" and exhibit Christian behavior, whether it be listening to the right music or reading the right books or even having the right ideology. These religious trappings may feel good, but I'm not sure that it's exactly what God is looking for. Maybe the idea of the cross is that Jesus alone is our covering, and that the knowledge of God's love allows us to be naked. To be real. To be authentic.

The irony of my thoughts is that I've always believed these things about the church. There is one difference however.

I headed back to my car, enjoying the sudden burst of warmth. The difference between what I used to believe when I was married and what I believe now is simple. I used to believe that the church needed to allow itself to be naked. To lose the arrogance. To stop acting like hypocrites.

These days, I know better.

I am the church.

For the church to be naked, I must be naked first. For the church to be less arrogant, I need to be more humble. For the church to rid itself of hypocrisy I must work at being authentic. It's easy to sit back and scold people while warm and cozy in our money and fashion and sports and books and politics and knowledge and whatever we use to cover up the secret places of who we truly are.

I put my car into gear and headed out. If only we really believed that God loved us. That He loved us without prejudice. That nothing we could do would ever change that. Maybe then, we would feel the freedom to strip naked and stand up under the harsh gaze of our society and human pride. And maybe then we would find the intimacy in our relationships that we so desperately long for. Especially our relationship with the One who made us.

I took a deep breath as I slowed the car at the stop light. What this meant, however, was that I needed to do it first.

"It's okay, Lord, I'm ready."


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The War Against Boys

“Okay, now everyone take the hand of the person next to them.”

I glanced over at Brooke and tried to hide the surprise on my face.

“What are we doing?” I whispered.

Brooke shrugged.

“They always do stuff like this. Church unity or whatever.”

It was my first Sunday at Faith Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church near my home. Ever since I’d come back from college, I’d been looking to find a church. I’d decided that God was something I wanted to pursue, and so Brooke, who’d grown up in the evangelical church, said he’d come with me to find one to my liking.

This was my first stop.

I watched in consternation as the people in the church all started holding hands. Even the men were holding hands. And apparently, it didn’t bother them! I glanced over at Brooke, a fellow jock, but he made no motion to grab my hand. At least he hadn't lost his sanity. The whole thing felt like I was suddenly back in grade school and the teacher was forcing us to dance the Virginia reel – with a girl. By now, of course, the thought of dancing with a girl wasn’t as repugnant as it had been as a ten-year-old. I looked over at my friend again to see how he was responding to this bizarre ritual, but it didn’t seem to faze him.

Brooke and I played together for the Welland Indians, an all star baseball team for guys aged 18-21. Brooke was a legitimate college talent, recruited by American schools for the last two years. Sturdily built, with an athlete’s jaw line and ready laugh, there was nothing feminine about him. It amazed me how easily he let this whole hand holding thing pass.

Fortunately, I found other reasons to stay at Faith, and soon became involved in Youth Leadership. But I’ve never forgotten that first Sunday, my first impression of the church, and how the years have desensitized me to all the feminine aspects of church life, much as they had with Brooke. And as we look at a gender gap that has done nothing but grow wider over the last century, it’s time to take a look at what we do in church, and see what we can do to change things.

The balcony outside my apartment reminds me of a southern porch, big and wide, its timbers old and worn. Tall bushes strike up to my third floor apartment between the buildings. And in the distance, a large patch of trees rise from the swill of dilapidated structures like some sort of magical green forest. I've spent many nights out there. I love to sit out and watch the orange fire seep across the horizon, watch as the violet sky fades to black, wait as the stars appear in the night sky. It’s the reason I immediately took the apartment when the landlord showed me the place. I felt the inner writer in me come alive as soon as I stepped outside.

I’m standing out there now, although not for long. The wind is particularly cold, too cold to do any reading or work this night. Still, I’m enjoying the soft snowfall and the sparrows’ song from the bushes. I’ve been asked, more than once, why I tell people that I’m a writer when my day job is working with disabled students. It’s a good question, but my answer is always the same.

Writing is a vocation, a calling. It is not a job. Writing is a mindset, an attitude, a personality. It is a worldview, a passion, a love. I would be no less a writer if I wrote a diary than if I wrote literary fiction or won a Pulitzer Prize. For me, there is always separation between culture and perception and involvement. As a writer, I am an observer, and as such, I work hard to preserve that sense of otherness. Have you ever wondered why artists and writers are so neurotic? So quirky? We have to be, because the culture we live in, no matter where we are, is always looking to assimilate us, and it is impossible to write, to create art, if you’ve been swept up into the cultural mainstream.

I tuck my hands deep in my pockets. The snow has begun to fall harder now, thick fluffy flakes that cover my jacket. I think about sticking my tongue out, but I’m pretty sure there’s an age limit for my gender when it comes to that sort of thing, so I decide against it. As a pastor, I remember how the church had similar struggles in wrestling with the idea of culture, in not getting caught in the swamp of a mainstream consistently trying to push God to the sidelines. It’s a much bigger debate than I have time for tonight, but the truth is that the war against boys started many years ago in Western culture.

And the church has joined the wrong side.

It’s with reluctance the cold finally sinks in and I head back inside to make some coffee. I can hear the murmurs of protest as I talk about those ‘poor boys’.

“Men have everything! Steve just wants the church to go back to when women were nothing! Sure, give a little, and the next thing you know, men will be telling women to ‘submit’ all over again!”

I sigh, because even as the arguments run through my mind, it’s easy to see how the church has become swept up in the cultural mainstream. No wonder a pastor’s job is so difficult. If a pastor believes in a more masculine church, he has to quantify his thought process to four hundred people, many of whom haven’t even bothered thinking about it.

I smile as I shake in the sweetener and add some cream to my coffee. Fortunately, I’m a writer, and I don’t have to worry about that. But then, maybe that’s the problem, isn’t it? Do you see the bias? “Don’t rock the boat” is not a particularly respected idiom in my gender. And in our culture, it starts in the schools. I’ve spent the last six years working in public schools, and I can tell you that the approach is becoming increasingly soft and feminine.

From the “quiet, please and sit still” approach in the classroom to setting softer boundaries to cutting phys. Ed out of the curriculum, boys are being left behind in the schools, and every study backs that up. My question then, is in a time when the church is crying for more men, more Godly men, why are we consistently tailoring church for women. From books to services, it has even affected our theology.

I head into the living room with a glance out the window to watch the snow. It's slowed down some, and seems to drift and float now rather than fall, as if pulled gently from the sky. Someone asked me recently how I could possibly say that church is geared towards women. My response was simple. Name one thing in the church that, as a rule, is inherently uncomfortable for women? I can think of about twenty things that make men cringe.
I take my coffee to my desk and open up my laptop. The problem is not just this culture. (When was the last time you saw a man portrayed on television as a respectable father in a sit-com) And the problem is not post-modernism. The problem is us. The church you see, well, we started our war against boys a long time ago. Nothing will change, however, unless we are willing to back away from our preformed ideologies and become an observer. We need to see just how feminine we have made Jesus, whether it's in our language or our choice of colours. Most importantly, we must give men permission to be men. Flawed, rough and courageous men. Until we do, the gender gap will continue to grow, and the only people holding hands will be women.

Monday, January 22, 2007


The café is half-full, and the hum of conversation circles the room. Every so often, people stroll in through the doors, and inevitably, it’s another couple. I can’t help but look into every face, hoping for a sign of recognition. A smile. Something. Sunday nights are never easy for me, though I am not sure why. More than anything however, it is the sense of aloneness that affects me. During the week, with my time split between work and my class and my writing, the rhythms are much quicker and more engulfing, and they take me away from the quiet somberness that inflicts itself upon my Sunday nights. And now, if another couple walks through those doors holding hands and laughing, I’m pretty sure I’m going to ask them to stop it already.

Can they please be "so happy together" somewhere else?

It’s a ridiculous thought and nearly drags a smile onto my face. But anyone who's ever been single, except for the occasional happy eunuch, knows exactly what I’m talking about. The Bible says it is not good for men to be alone (written of course, to mean specifically men, because every woman who has entered the café tonight has come with a friend or boyfriend). I concur. It is not good for me to be alone. Unfortunately, my agreement with Scripture does not seem to be changing my circumstances. At least, not tonight, which is when I am hoping for my prayer to be answered.

I think it's worse for single people when you've opened the door to the possibility, when you've met someone who you think will contend for the 'lifetime companion' award, only to have that door slammed in your face. And sometimes, you don't even know why. Is it God? Is it fate? Both answers are difficult, and meditating on them for any length of time produces an even greater sense of loneliness, as they do now. Somehow, it is much more difficult to convince myself that singleness is okay tonight, and for the moment I am lost in an aimless, internal rant against women and marriage and love. Screw everyone, I want to shout. I. Am. Fine!

I decide to step outside and spend a little time breathing the fresh air and searching for new illumination. Once out the doors, however, it is almost too cold to think. I spastically wander around the front of the café like a man who has just escaped a mental institution but suddenly realizes he does not want to leave. Rest assured, I do not have to worry about attracting company.

I’m not sure that I want to hang out with me, either.

Within three minutes, I'm back inside. Considering that it took me that long to put on my jacket and coat and scarf and toque and gloves, and takes me that long again to undress, I’m pretty happy that no one asks me to leave the store because I’m scaring the customers. Which is fine, but does nothing for me, because I feel like I’m scaring myself.

The crazy thing is about my aloneness is that it’s a clear case of ‘mea culpa’. It’s not like I can’t call someone. It’s not like I don't know any other humans on this planet. My cell phone, a recent development and artistic cave-in, is in my pocket. Strange, in a society so concerned about getting connected, how disconnected we have become. Strange, that in such a rich society and a global community where everything is at our fingertips such as ours, how many people feel so alone.

How many people are lonely?

Unfortunately, perhaps because of our wealth, we have a tendency to react negatively to people who are lonely. Just reach out, we want to tell them. Just call someone. What do you want us to do about it?

I'm thinking about this because there is a ridiculous aspect to my lonely feelings. In spite of the fact I have some tremendous friends, there nudges the thought that maybe I don’t deserve their friendship. That maybe they will reject me. That maybe I will never marry and will spend my life writing in cafes and watching happy couples walk by.

I am back at my laptop, hidden behind a post. My coffee is lukewarm. The couple at the table next to me is holding hands and smiling a lot. I look at their hands, but somehow they repel my invisible separation ray and remain locked together. I turn back to the screen. Studies show that the richest continent on the earth (North America) is also the loneliest. Tragedy and poverty and need force people to depend on one another, and in turn, drives community by forcing people to interact. Riches and wealth and security do the opposite. (I always wonder why no one ever mentions this when they preach the prosperity gospel. “Come, be rich and be lonely!”) I am not preaching poverty, although one could argue that Jesus did.

A girl walks by and I’m praying that she doesn’t smile at me. I might end up giving away my home tonight if anyone simply talks to me. As I watch the people around me, I can’t help but wonder if they feel the same way I do. I wonder if in spite of their outward cheeriness, that if they feel inside like they're the only person in the room. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if I’m approaching my Sunday night struggles the right way. Maybe the idea is not to sit and wait for someone to affirm me. Maybe the idea is for me to affirm someone else.

It strikes me how easily one can lapse into egocentrism. How easily we allow these crazy thoughts to enter our heads and allow loneliness to settle onto our spirits. Especially me. Sure, we all have moments where self-doubt and loneliness collide. Some of us more than others. And reaching out to others does not guarantee that all of our struggles with it will be cured. But at least, I think, it's a start.

I pack up my computer. Before I leave I look over at the happy couple and their hands, still locked together. Good luck, guys, take care of one another. I head out, and in a strange moment of magic, my loneliness vanishes as I pull out my cell.

Time to reach out and touch some people…


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Church is For Women

The door jingled as I walked inside Blessings, hopeful to find the new Donald Miller book. Soft music filtered from the speakers. On the left a number of tables had been set up, filled with little figurines of Jesus and cherubim and small plaques. I strolled through the nearly empty store and said hello to the older lady working behind the counter. Two other women, who looked to be in their mid-thirties, were whispering softly as they glanced through the books. Every time I entered a Christian bookstore I had a strange sense that I was walking into a women’s section of the library. It hadn’t bothered me in the past, as I was more at home in quiet bookstore than I was in a garage. Lately, however, I’d started to notice things. Mainly, I’d come to notice just how feminine the church had become.

I headed to the men’s section. I browsed through the titles, and went to another aisle before realizing that the men’s titles were all located on just the one shelf. Ah. Slim pickings. As usual. It wasn’t the publisher’s fault. Every Christian writer knew that women purchased more than 85% of any books sold through Christian retail. No wonder they tailored their stores – with the soft music and rose colored walls – towards women. Still, it made me shake my head. When I finished my shopping and headed out a few minutes later, I wondered what the chances were of one of my friends actually walking into a store like this.

I pulled my jacket up as I headed back to my car, the cold wind slicing through my clothes and whipping up the bottom of my leather coat. I jumped in my car and rubbed my hands together, urging the heat to kick in. Lately I’d been doing a fair bit of reading about the church, in particular the place of men within the church, and lately I’d begun to notice some discrepancies, discrepancies that had me and many others worried. Particularly the lack of men, especially ‘manly men’, in the church. I’d never really noticed it before, but there was a reason for that.

The car had warmed enough and I put it in gear and headed to Starbucks to do some work. The statistics for church attendance were alarming. George Barna had found a gender gap of over 13 million (more women attending church) in the U. S. As well, twenty to twenty-five per cent of married women in the church were going alone. Any one who had worked in a church understood this. I remembered my time as a pastor. I remembered the women who came alone, and I remembered how much we (the pastoral staff) leaned on the women to run the programs. Except for the deacons, it was hard to find men consistently in the building. Perhaps one of the greatest misperceptions of the modern church was the idea that it was patriarchal. More like a frosted cake, below the frosting of ministers and clergy, still predominantly men, most of the church's programs were run by and for women.

I pulled into the parking lot and found a spot right near the entrance. I hustled into the café, and then promptly chided myself for being such a wimp. A bit of a cold spell and suddenly I was a girl. I ordered my coffee, and found a spot at the study table, watching the people pass as my 1987 laptop ‘warmed’ up. This whole idea about men ‘missing’ in the church was something of a revelation to me, understandable I suppose for the fact that I related to the men and women who attended church quite well. I was artistic. I liked small conversations. I liked teaching. I also enjoyed singing and music and learning. Unfortunately, most men just weren't built that way. I decided that the next Sunday I would step back and take a closer look at the Sunday service, which so many authors seemed to suggest had only become increasingly feminine.

It was snowing. I pulled my car carefully through the parking lot, past the entrance, and waved to a few of my friends. It was mild enough, but I hustled towards the front anyway, reminding myself that today I was going to try and see from an outsider's perspective. A 'manly' man’s perspective.

The first thing that struck me was how NICE-ly everything was arranged, how NICE the people were, and how it fit with the elevator style music softly leaking over the sound system. I hung up my jacket and strolled into the sanctuary, greeting people along the way. By the time the service started, I’d already had about ten small conversations filled with warm fluff and lots of smiles. After brief announcements, we started singing. We sang for a good thirty minutes before one of our pastors and some others delivered some more announcements, all of which were presented in soft, smiling voices. Our senior pastor finally rose to speak, and after a short prayer, delivered a forty-five minute teaching that was both interesting and long. I say ‘long’, because as I imagined myself as a non-artistic man in the congregation, I wondered how good it felt to be back in school for an hour and a half every Sunday morning. Not only school, but taking a feminist course on relationships and submission and passive interaction.

When I finally left, after saying goodbye to half a dozen people, I began to understand what the writers were talking about. Sunday service was nothing more than adult school. Most of my teenage friends had despised high school. And then there was the soft music, the emphasis on relationships and small talk, the almost desperate longing for people to be NICE. And through it all, if you listened closely enough, you could almost hear the unconscious murmur... Don't rock the boat. We're all safe here. What was dangerous and manly about that? Where was the adventure and pulsing life that men longed for?

I decided to head home after service and write down some of my thoughts. By the time I walked into my apartment, I felt a strange sadness come over me. Sad because I truly understood why so many men did not like church, why they felt so emasculated every time they walked through the doors. It was easy to judge men who didn’t want to go on Sunday, but the reality was that church -- as we practiced it in North America -- had not been designed for them. At any level. Church, for whatever reason, had become an exercise for women and artists and passive types who relished security over risk, who longed for relationship over greatness, programs over projects. Something had happened between now and that daring New Testament church that was filled with ‘manly men’, risk takers and adventurous types who understood that becoming a Christian did not mean more tea and crumpets. I wasn’t sure what we could do about it, but it was something I needed to think about, because the more we excluded men from our churches, the more feminine they would become...


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Where Have All the Men Gone

For the past six months I've been reading a variety of books and studies dealing with the absence of men in churches. The statistics are staggering. Many of you know women whose husbands and boyfriends refuse to come to church, and women complain that many man in the church are 'soft' men.

Where have all the 'manly' men gone? Where are the risk taking, adventurous, dangerous men?

Over the next month I'll be writing about this, but I'd love to hear your input. Why do you think men have left the building? What can we do to attract more men? And women, I'd especially like to hear your views on this.

Are the men in church soft? Is the church too feminine?

I'll give you my thoughts, of course, but first I'd love to hear yours...


Monday, January 15, 2007

Without This, We Die (A Letter)

Note: I thought at first it was simply a dream. But when I awoke yesterday morning, I found this letter resting on my coffee table. I have been thinking about it ever since...

A letter from an Old Man.

To all who have ever struggled upon the sadness of life.

Dear Friends,

I hope this letter finds you well. Sadly, I know that for many of you it does not. Despite all of our advances in technology and science and education, pain and despair have made steady their increase on this world. And upon you. Even those of you who will not admit it.

Believe me, I know about pain. My joints ache constantly, and my family, oh how I miss them. A man should not have to bury his children. I-Well, they're all gone now. And yet, despite their loss, more than anytime in my life I feel alive, even as I look to my 91st year upon this earth. Alive! And before I leave, I'd like to share with you my story...

It was to be like any other day. The endless nights and weeks of a life endured was about to end, and I was glad for it. Something happened however, and that day I finally discovered that which had been missing for so many years, the day my life changed. Yes, I know it sounds dramatic, unreal even, but though I now sit here as an old man with little more than wisps of white to cover my head, I have breath for the first time. And life! Oh, wondrous, joyful, heart breaking life! I am writing you today because though I am not one of you anymore, I remember well my time with you, and wish to give you the answer you seek.

For many years, I was part of your group, a group that I joined unwillingly as a young man. I had heard of your numbers, yet I did not know that I belonged with you until slowly it dawned on me that I did. Most of us joined the same way. But by that time, it was too late.

We were a search party that did not know what it searched for. A rescue group without anyone to rescue but ourselves. We were lost, without understanding why. The one thing we shared, our bond, was the one thing we all lacked, an unknown vacuum in the places of our soul. And yet, we could not define what "it" was or how we knew something was missing. All we knew was that it was, and the graying skies seemed a shallow echo of the void in our hearts.

Even in those days when the pantry was filled with food, when the promise of work was secure, and when those around us brimmed with glad tidings of merriment, we could still feel its absence. We could feel it stalking us in the night, before we slept, and in the mornings when we awoke, arising before us, before we had time to set our daily escape. We were not willing for this, and we worked hard to keep even the merest thought of its lack from our lives, drowning ourselves in the shallow happiness of temporal criticism and daily successes. We pledged to all of the culture's ideals, and traveled in the newest sensations of all we had accomplished, but in the end it caught us.

And so we died.

Oh, we lived many years, and of our friends and acquaintances, there were but one or two that knew about our early demise. We ran, but never surrendered. We heard, but did not listen. We held to long occasions that stirred our emotions and our senses, but ignored our hearts.

I am writing this letter to you today because my time here is coming to an end. I remember what it is like to die and yet remain in my body. Only this past year I was rejuvenated, and for the first time since I was a young boy, I have known joy! And I have discovered the One Thing missing from my life, the unifying absence that defined our group and has killed so many.

And that one thing... is hope.

I chuckle even now as I read the sad smile on many of your faces. You thought my answer to be much longer, for old men are usually long winded, aren't we? You expected a verse of such great languor and artistry that you would stare at it for hours like an unknown jewel, a verse such as you could plumb its depths without ever finding its source.

I have no such words.

But I can tell you this, if there is one thing that our world is starved in, it is hope. This lack affects all of us. Every creed. Every race. Every class. Every continent. It knows no boundaries of time and space, of culture or language. It is universal in its necessity, and universal in its absence.

My hand fails me, even now, trembling like the old fool I am. I must cut this short, but before I do, please allow me to give you some words of advice.

Of this life without living, some of you know better than others what I am talking about. You hide your pain from the world around you. At night, before you sleep, you wish that you would not wake, and then feel guilty for your thoughts. For others, you have given up long ago, "melodrama" does not feed the family, nor does breath wasted on the fruitless pursuit of something greater. For some of you, you feel guilty about asking for more from this life. To all of you I say this. Be still! The years pass swiftly, and soon you will awake to find yourself even as I am, old and weathered by a life marked by its longing for escape.

But, you ask, what is hope? Where do I find it?

Hope is a vision of the future that allows us to live within the Present. A vision that gives us courage to stand when we wish to lie down, that gives us strength when our energy fails, that gives us will when today refuses to pass into tomorrow. But hope is not secured in wealth or power or security. It is not secured in anything that ties us to this world, for by definition, eternal longings can never be tied to temporal solutions.

This past year I have watched many more join your ranks, and the list grows. For some, they join because they must, because they do not know nor have even heard of what lies beyond your group. For others, they have chosen to ignore hope's voice in favour of the day that is today. And there are others who have been so broken by yesterday that they can no longer hear about tomorrow.

Of all in your group, I pity them the most.

However, and I my heart begs for you to hear this, there is an answer!

Stop running and be still! Embrace your life. Embrace your family and friends and the people who cross your path! Look to all that is good in this world, for though our world is broken, it yet holds the imprint of nobility.

Most importantly, remember that God loves you. Oh, how He loves us! His kingdom here is the reason you live. In the corner of your heart, It is His voice you hear. The whisper of His reassurances fills us in a way that only they can, even as the temporal things of our daily life fall apart. And, oh people, they will fall apart. It is our destiny that life is imperfect and unfair. Do not be surprised by it, but expect it, and in those moments, ask God to speak loudly so that you will hear His voice even in the midst of your pain, and so discover the well of joy. And in so doing, discover that which you have missed for so many years.

Well, I must go. My hip aches, and my hand cramps. I have so much to say, but it is for you to find. Be still, my friends, for hope lives! It lives, and you are closer than you realize to its majestic imprints on your life!

I love you all, even as God loves you and so desperately longs for your company. May you find that which I have found, and may your days be celebrated within the braced assurances of all that God has for you...


Your Old Acquaintance


Friday, January 12, 2007

Another Cup of Coffee

"Good morning, Lord."

The cold winter had seemingly disappeared again as I stood on my balcony, breathing in the spring like air that had melted most of the snow. It was one of those days, when the world slowed down a little bit, enough for you to see where you stood. Or if you were still standing. I'd been thinking about re-entering the ministry lately, more as the weeks and months progressed, but wasn't anxious to dive back in. I'd been there before. I remembered what it had done to my faith.

I took a sip from my morning coffee and listened to the birds chirping in the tall set of bushes alongside the building. I wondered if this weather confused them as much as it was confusing me, if the mild winter had upset their migration patterns or eating habits. The past week I'd felt... off at times, unable to explain it even as I thought about the future, about working in 'paid' ministry again. Maybe that's what got me thinking about the past.

When I'd first entered the ministry as young twenty year old with nothing less than dreams and goals of worldwide success, I'd been rudely chastened. I might have been working for the God of the universe, but nobody on this planet, especially the teens in my city, seemed to recognize that. It was frustrating. So I worked harder, combining Anthony Robbins with ultra-charismatic Theology. I confessed the greatness of my ministry, the success, claimed all the victories, and drew... about twenty or thirty kids every Friday night. It was so disheartening.

Eventually I resigned, started another ministry, and resigned after that. One of my difficulties about being involved in paid ministry was the expectation of success, measured of course, by attendance. The other issue, though more subtle, was the way Christianity so quickly evolved into a cause, something I worked for. And let's be honest, it's a great cause. The political and theological and emotional angles are all there. You can minister for the sake of Christianity without ever thinking about the relationship between God and man.

I leaned forward in my chair. Most winter mornings it was too cold to sit outside, but not this winter. I'd taken advantage of the mild spell to spend a little more time on the balcony, a personal quirk that somehow sensed God a little easier when I was outside. I started praying for my family and friends, but this morning I wavered halfway through my prayers.

"Hi ya, Lord. I hope you're doing okay."

It was a strange, nonsensical prayer in so many ways. Yes, I was praying to the ALpha and Omega, the King of Kings, the Creator and Master of the Universe. But these days, more than ever, I sensed a sadness in my prayer time when I thought about God as a cause or, on some days, more like a vending machine. I sensed a Person who longed to get to know me. And strange as it sounds, I had the power to say no. It was up to me whether I let Him into my house.

Finally I stood, the chair creaking beneath my weight, as even the mild winter air became uncomfortable. I wanted to reassure God that if I did go into ministry, that I wouldn't forget Him again, like I had the first time. I wanted to tell Him that He was the most important thing in my life. I wanted to pray a super-spiritual prayer filled with words from the Bible, one that conveyed just how serious I was about being a Christian and why God would never have to worry about me being anything less than a superlative servant.

Strange, though, that more than anything, I sensed a smile on God's face when I said "Good morning." I heard the echo of a heartbeat very similar to my own, the quiet stillness of a close friend listening to another, and the unrestrained joy of a parent's voice upon hearing their grown up child's news for the day.

I sipped my coffee and glanced up at the graying skies. I knew what to do, what was expected of me, and even what others did. But this morning, well, this morning was something different. God had taught me something new. I sat back in my chair, and with a flicker up at the gray skies, started talking.

"Well, I had a good day yesterday, Lord. I'm having my article published this year in Discipleship Journal, isn't that cool..."

Sometimes we don't treat God with the reverence He deserves. Other times we don't realize how easily He forgives. But often times, well, I think a lot of times He just wants to visit with us for a while, and have another cup of coffee...


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Looking For Lepers

"I'm shallow?"

"Yeah. Sometimes." Pat said.

I stared at my friend and let her comment sink in. It was not a pleasant experience. We were sitting at the study table at Starbucks, and the hum of conversation filled the cafe. Yet for the moment I heard nothing but the clanging bells of dismay.

Pat and I had been friends for about four years. We'd met at the Starbucks, and though we didn't get together on a regular basis, we knew each other well enough for her comment to hit me in the stomach. She tossed her long hair to the side and bent back over her text book.

"I don't think I'm shallow." I said, still trying to register the weight of her words and the collapsing feeling within my solar plexus.

She smiled, as if it was no big deal.

"Like I said, you're not always shallow."

The value of friends is that unlike self-examination, explaining to her how spiritual I was or how I went to church or how I'd been a pastor or how I had a degree in Theology and read big books about God, meant nothing.

As I drove home that night, I started praying in the car. Even then, a part of me wanted to scream. See how spiritual I am! I bet you're not praying in the car! Instead, I asked God to forgive me, because I certainly had ignored this side of myself. And when she'd mentioned it, I realized it was true. I realized it from the way I went from confusion to "I am?" and by the sinking feeling in my stomach.

The Ottawa winter had finally come, and the car still hadn't warmed up by the time I pulled into my building. I'd forgotten my toque, and by the time I unlocked the doors my head felt like it had been wrapped in an ice pack for the past hour. One of the things about Jesus that made him such a compelling figure, and hero, was the way he continually looked for the people in his society who didn't belong. The lepers. The women. The sick. The un-righteous.

The lepers in particular, were a group of people who had been ostracized from society because of their debilitating, contagious disease that attacked the nervous system. Their bodies and limbs became deformed, and once you had leprosy, you were not allowed to return to your family or society. Jesus made a point of not only healing lepers, but hugging them and holding them as well.

In our society though, much as it was in Jesus' time, the beautiful received all of the attention. The beautiful and the charismatic and the successful. I suspected that it had always been that way. I left my coat on and walked through the living room and off onto my balcony. The air was crisp, and the cold wind whistled by the building, causing me to shiver. When I was a kid, and even through my adolescence, I was never that popular. Oh, I wasn't a true outcast, but I was a short, pudgy kid until I was 17 before the weight room and a developing sense of humour helped push me into the more popular part of the teenage hierarchy. Before that, however, was another story. I'd never even kissed a girl until I was 17. And as I stood there, I wondered if a part of me was still afraid to let it go. That if I still worried about being moved 'down' that same ladder.

My ears felt like two slabs of ice, but I pushed my hands in my pocket and forced myself to take it. I glanced up at the stars twinkling in the night sky. I let my gaze move down through the trees until I saw what I was really looking for, a blue lit cross from a downtown church that hovered in the horizon. I thought about how often I'd defended my faith with such vigour, political arguments and apologetic arguments and theological arguments. But there wasn't anything spiritual about that, especially if my friends noticed a capacity for being shallow. If I noticed the successful, good looking people before I noticed the lost, the lonely, the hurting.

At that moment, my heart ached. Maybe I'd remembered my past, or maybe I'd filled myself with so much pride that instead of allowing Jesus to work through me, I'd taken it upon myself to be more spiritual. And failed miserably.

I stared out at the blue cross, somehow radiant in the quiet stillness of the cold night, and with a quiet prayer asked God to help me with my eyesight. I needed his eyes. Eyes that would see the people who really needed my help, because from now on, I was looking for lepers.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Refusal to be Ordinary

Everything was blurry. I jerked my head from side to side desperately trying to be free from the cloud of images flashing in front of me like a frantic music video. A couple talking at a café, a group of crying children, two women fighting, a crowd rioting in the streets.

What was this? Where was I?

Suddenly the images stopped, and the picture faded to black. Slowly it began to clear, only this time the camera was still, and I was somewhere else.

A hockey arena?

The air was cold and I pulled my jacket in tight. The squeals and sounds of skates scraping over the ice mixed with the peppered sounds of cheering from the stands. The arena itself wasn’t big, it looked like the local arena you'd find in a small town, and I walked slowly to the bleachers where a small group of adults watching the little kids flop around the ice. It was hard not to smile, the way the youngsters would take two strides, whack at the puck, and fall over. There was no positioning either, the whole group of them flying after the puck like baby ducks following their mother. My gaze focused on one man standing apart from the others. He was tall and dressed in casual white slacks, but you could tell he had money. He held his coffee tightly in one hand. The other hand he’d cupped over his mouth and was yelling instructions to his son on the ice.

“C’mon, Billy! Skate! Don’t let them push you around!”

A couple of the other parents looked embarrassed by the man, but they remained silent.

“C’mon, Billy! Do you really think that you’ll make the pros if you keep flopping around like that!”

The man, who looked to be anywhere between thirty and forty, had a hardened, tired cast to his face. I imagined a smile would’ve taken great effort. I still didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there, but I figured there had to be a reason.

“Your son out there?” I asked him.

He pointed to a little boy wearing number five on the back of his sweater.

“Good skater. Needs to work on his shooting.”

I nodded and watched the kids play for a while. They were all so tiny. I watched the man’s son, too. How he could discern his boy's individual skills? They all looked the same to me.

“Start ‘em early, and maybe they can play in the NHL.” I said, laughing as a whole group of them fell down.

The man turned, his dark eyes blazing.

“Exactly.” He turned away, and fixed his gaze back on the boys. “I didn’t make it, and now I’m stuck in this life. But not him. He’s gonna play in the pros if I couldn’t. One of us is going to make it.”

My eyes widened, and suddenly the images started flashing again. I felt myself thrashing and suddenly everything was still. I looked around in puzzlement, and realized I was in my bed.

A dream? What a weird dream?

I got dressed and put the coffee on, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the man in the dream, especially after the long conversation I'd had with myself the night before. What had he said? I didn’t make it, and now I’m stuck in this life. When the coffee was ready I poured it, mixed in the cream and sweetener, and headed out to my balcony.

The skies were gray this morning, the air mild and damp. The one thing I couldn't get my head around was the timing of my dream. Last night had been the kicker, but the past five months I’d been thinking about how I needed to change things in my life. How maybe it was time to be a ‘grown-up.’ Maybe these dreams of being a writer, a speaker, an actor… maybe it was time to let those go and just settle down, find a good woman, settle down and have a family. Heaven knows that I wanted to be a husband and father. Especially on those lonely weekend nights, when I would sit at my table at Starbucks editing yet another of my unpublished books, watching couples and young families stroll through the door.

Let it go, Steve, it was just a stupid dream!

I sipped from my coffee, letting the sweet warmth linger in my mouth. But there was something… wrong about my dream that kept coming back. Like it was a warning of some kind. A warning about what though?

I took my time getting dressed and showered. School was out for the holidays, and it felt wonderful to relax and plan my day. About thirty minutes later I packed up my stuff and headed to Starbucks. Thankfully, the lineup was small and I was soon back at my table with a fresh coffee. I stared at the blank screen for a while before finally flipping my laptop down and fixing my gaze out through the huge window. I couldn't stop thinking about my dream. The rain had started to fall, and people in the parking lot scurried to their vehicles or bustled inside. What about them, I wondered. Did they feel stuck in their lives like the man in my dream?

What about me? Did I feel stuck in my life?

I took another sip from my freshly ordered coffee, idly wondering why I could not reproduce that taste at home. As I worked the dream around in my head, still watching the people as they passed in and out of the store, I realized why I hadn’t moved towards a less ‘artistic’ lifestyle. Every time I thought about taking a desk job or starting a family ‘because it was time’; I felt the sting of betrayal. A betrayal of self. No matter how often I longed for the ‘normal life’ or wished for a female companion simply because I was lonely, I could not bring myself to commit to it. And not because those weren’t good things.

I flipped up my laptop and began to write. The man in my dream had given up because he felt his life was over. That he was stuck. I realized that if I gave up my dreams, I would never be content. I didn’t want an ordinary life! It seemed that somewhere along the way we had taught ourselves to settle for 'good', instead of 'great'. I knew that some people thought I was a bit crazy, that I was a bit different, but as I sat there sipping my coffee, I wondered… would I want to be somewhere else? Because if all that could be said for my life today and my hopes tomorrow were that things were ‘steady’ and ‘secure’ and ‘smart’… I wasn’t that interested. I wanted a revolutionary life. I wanted to reach for all that God had for me.

I left my laptop lying open and strolled outside. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, and I walked out onto the parking lot, letting it fall against my head and face. I thought about the man in my dream. I thought about the people I met every day who seemed resigned to their life. As if they’d been dealt a hand, and couldn’t do anything about it. I felt their sadness as the rain trickled down my face. So many people had bought the lie. The one that said 'ordinary' was okay. That security was more important than your dreams. That following Jesus was about proper behavior and being nice, not risk and adventure.

I walked back inside, my face wet, my mind decided. There’d be no going back, no consideration any more. I wasn’t sure what God had in store for me, but from now on I was going to pursue my dreams without holding back. Oh, I still hoped for a family, longed for it in fact. They were as much part of my dreams as being a writer, but in the meantime, I wouldn't settle. I wasn't the richest guy in the world, but I'd no longer be intimidated by men working only for money, guys making three times my salary. Yeah. i was crazy, but at least I was living my dream.

I moved to the counter.

“Lydia, I’m going to need another coffee.”

"Another one?"

"Yeah. I might be here a while."

I breathed in the freshly perked smells and the sounds of laughter and conversation. Pursuing my dreams was no fairytale, and I'd had to make some difficult choices, but I'd made my decision. God had given me my dreams for a reason, and an ordinary life was out of the question.


P.S. May God grant all of you the courage to reach for your dreams, whatever they may be.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

New Year's Doesn't Always Mean a New Year

The wind is cold as I trudge back to my car with my coffee. It’s been a mild winter so far, but as I glance up at the gray sky, it's obvious that the icy winter has finally returned. I shiver as I wait for the car to warm up, unable to stop myself from reflecting on this past year. New Year’s is, in many ways, my least favorite holiday of the year. Christmas has its own ghosts, but the enforced celebration of a new year inevitably turns me back to the year before, and like a company review, forces me to analyze the life that was, in this case, 2006.

Most writers are unavoidably self-analytical to the point of neurosis. It comes with the territory. To observe the world of humanity is also to observe one’s own role in that world. What we see is often not pleasant. And as a Christian, introspection seems to fit hand in hand with that same tendency. This year, when I look back, I see so many things I wish that I could change, accomplishments that didn’t happen, goals that were not met. Like most New Year’s, this will be one where I will once again rededicate myself to working harder, pushing farther to grow and learn and become all that I am supposed to be, all that I should achieve. At thirty-four, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince myself that this year will be different from the next, that I will achieve any of the hopes and dreams I felt as a child.

My tires crunch over the snow crusted parking lot as I head home. The traffic is light still, but in a few hours I know that the streets will be packed with a swelling mass anxious to ring in the new year. Maybe that’s what worries me the most. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to work up any enthusiasm for my gathering tonight with my friends. Will this year really be a new year? Or will it be an updated version of last year?

When I was young, I had so many dreams about what I would do when I was ‘grown up’. As a young Christian, I had dreams of a world wide ministry and marriage and family. By this time, I figured I would be well along that path. None of that has occurred, and while I have begun to step back towards the ministry at last, it has been with a shaking trepidation and little thought of my earlier expansiveness. New Year’s reminds me of all that has occurred this past year, and my failure to reach all that I envisioned.

As I park my car in the tiny lot that serves as reserved parking for my building, I still can not decide if I’ll even bother going out tonight. The truth is that I don’t want to celebrate a new year. I’m not ready. I don’t have a family. I haven’t accomplished enough. My books have not been published, and while my knowledge of the world has grown significantly, my influence over that world has not. Not enough, anyway. And I feel it, too. I feel it when I meet a woman. I feel it when I talk to ‘successful’ men my age making mounds of money or in line for the right promotion or about to have their third child in their happy family. And being a Christian sometimes doesn’t help. Sometimes it’s at the church, more than any other place, where I feel the shadow of my inadequacy.

The coffee is good, hot and sweet on my tongue. Thank goodness for the consistency of Starbucks. I take a few sips and finally push myself out of the car. The sparrows are singing up a storm in the bushes adjacent to the parking lot, and I wander over quietly, so as not to disturb their song.

And that’s when I start to pray.

As difficult as it is, I know that there are many positive things in my life. My job. My family. My friends. Beautiful people to which I would gladly entrust my life. And it is in the midst of my prayer of thanks that the revelation of New Year’s hits me. Every year really is a new year. Much like our lives, God wipes the slate clean for us, and asks us to join Him. He does not bully or rip me with guilt, but tenderly holds out his arms and asks me to consider Him, and to forget the past year’s mistakes and failures.

I sip from my coffee, and stare at the sparrows fluttering loudly in the bushes.

“I’m here, Lord.” I whisper, unwilling to break the hush over my soul.

For the next few minutes, I sense it. Sense my Father’s love for me and His desire for new beginnings. Oh, I know some of us like to shut up these moments and call it melodramatic nonsense, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s in these moments where my soul truly breathes. Still, it catches me by surprise. I can not say a word and my gaze fixates on a little gray sparrow fluttering and singing near the bottom of the bush. With all the sparrows comfortably nestled above her, she seems content down near the ground to sing and hop on her branch.

Within a culture that is so comparative and competitive, it can be difficult to think of ourselves as successful, especially when we compare our lives to our original dreams. And while it is good and necessary to dream, sometimes we forget that God is more interested in our character, in who we become, than what we have accumulated. Especially for men, I think.

I did not have a book published this year. My earnings did not increase. I do not have a world wide ministry. And yet, I became a better son this year. I have learned much about friendship and servanthood. And as a man, I am making strides at tearing down the poser who so often wants to assert himself in place of the real me. Maybe, just maybe, this past year was a good year, and maybe, just maybe, next year will truly be a new year.

I watch my sparrow near the bottom of the bush, still hopping on her branch. For a moment, she’s still, and I wonder if she will try to move up to a higher perch. I can see the gray stripes on her breast as she quivers, and suddenly, she starts singing again, content with her perch. With a smile, I finally head up to my apartment. Looking forward is always good, and without dreams we die. But contentment can often be found if we are willing to sit still, and start singing.

“Happy New Year.” I whisper as I pull out my keys… “Happy New Year.”

May God grant all your dreams this coming year...