Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Angry




I found the letter below (in red) on a Christian Ministry site, I won't say where, and had to post it. I might also ad that I threw up a little in my mouth as I did so. When I read this type of garbage, I'm wondering, as always, what eighty per cent of the world is thinking when they can barely survive. I'm also wondering why everyone looks so plastic and shiny with their expensive clothes and shiny cars on these "get rich" and "have faith" Christian web sites, when the goal, as stated below, is "distribution".

I guess what they mean by distribution is a consumptive, pietous approach that allows a certain group of Christians to stuff themselves with food to the point of bursting while condemning those who would dare have a drink of wine. These same Christians will get in their seventy thousand dollar vehicle, drive home after a night of feasting and "prayer" to their mansion, and look you straight in the eye when they talk about holiness.

Meanwhile, four or out of five people in this world can barely survive the day. I guess their 'faith' isn't very strong, is it? It must be their heathen ways. If only they would adopt the motto "I Am Rich". Maybe that's the answer.


And for once, could the people in North America and the West kindly shut up!!

WE ARE RICH!!!!!!!!




Dear Congregation,


It is wonderful to be back with our congregation! Pastor Terri and I had a welcome break and we thank you again for allowing us to rest. We've had some great speakers and I know you were blessed. And now, we are ready to jump into our new series, The Blessing of the Lord Maketh Rich. We've begun to study about what it means to be a "rich Christian."


We've discovered there are several things that have been holding some of us back: A lack of understanding and right teaching of biblical wealth, religious thinking, and the curse of poverty. But I would like to encourage you to dare to say "I Am Rich!" Remember, "Rich" and "Wealth" are not bad words—they are Bible words. It is as much God's will for you to be wealthy as it is for you to be healthy. He wants us to live beyond a "paycheck to paycheck," barely surviving lifestyle. He wants us to live life with the Blessing of Covenant Wealth on us.


Our motivation for accumulation is distribution. Be sure to be here every service as we continue to study about the blessing; how to receive wealth, how to conduct ourselves around it, and how to properly handle it.


Wealth is a blessing,



How this type of thinking must break God's heart. This letter, this understanding that blessing from God means being exceptionally wealthy, and yes, if you have a car and a home, you are exceptionally wealthy (you are in fact, in the top 5% of all the world in terms of personal wealth.) is a cancer in our society and a cancer in the church.

If you can not see why this letter is so wrong, if you can not see the faces of those who have so little, and if you can not see how much we truly are blessed with, than I can only encourage you to open your eyes. Kingdom living is about life, not luxury. Have we forgotten about Jesus, our (purported) Savior? What did he own? Looks to me like we have. How sad...

-Steve

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Can I get a Spot, Man?



The smell of sweat and cologne permeated the air as I headed to the fountain for a drink between sets. It was relatively quiet, but in less than an hour the gym would be packed with people (mostly women) running on the endless rows of treadmills and machines, and the free weight section filled with guys grunting and shrugging and laughing and watching. Always watching. Looking for the women. Looking to see who was bigger. Looking to see if they were bigger. In fact, the only people who didn’t watch were the ones being watched: the guys who were really big, and the women who topped out on the ‘hot’ meter.

I headed back to my bench and did a quick second set. I added more weight and did some quick crunches.

I usually tried to avoid the rush, although some days it was fascinating to watch the watchers. Today I was working on my chest however, and the competition for the three benches was always tight during the rush hour. So I’d come early. Only now I had a problem.

I looked at the weight on the bar and started scoping who was there, only I wasn’t looking at the girls. If you wanted to push yourself in the weight room, you needed a spotter for the heavy weights. I wasn’t huge, by any measure, but the weight on the bar was enough that I needed a big guy to help me. The only problem was that there was only one guy big enough to help and he WAS huge. And mean looking. For a second my mind drifted back to when I was a kid. Back then I was a skinny thing, and my favourite thing to do, aside from sports, happened every day after school…


“Hey, Dave! Ready!” I said, eager to start.

“Yup.”

“On your mark, get set, go!”

I took off from the line, running as fast as I could. Dave started better than I did, but I caught him at the seventy metre mark and than passed him. I beat him by five yards.

“Let’s go again!”

“Steve, man, I’m pooped. We ran ten of them. I’m going home.”

My blond friend popped me a quick high five and I stood at the start line, listening to the sounds of some of the older kids playing basketball on the court behind the school. Well, I’ll run a couple more myself, I thought.

I ran two more sprints and finally called it a day. Mom would be waiting. I walked to the store next to the school to pick up a Mr. Freeze. On the way back I noticed two squirrels chasing each other, and I watched them for a while until the brown one finally got away. I’d always liked team sports, but there was a part of me that never minded spending time alone. I especially liked running. It was fun for one thing, and you never needed to ask anyone for help either. Everybody knew how to run. I liked the team sports though. All you had to do was what the coaches told you to do, and for me at least, all the sports stuff seemed pretty easy.

“Hey, mom!” I yelled as I banged into the house. I gave her a kiss and headed to my room.

“What you do today?” She asked when I came back into the kitchen.

“Ran sprints with Dave. Brandon couldn’t make it. Won seven of the ten races.”

She smiled.

“I’m glad you think running is fun.”

“Mom, running’s easy! Nobody tells you anything and you can do it all by yourself. Of course it’s fun!”


I smiled at the recollection, as I thought back to the arduous five kilometres I’d ran the day before. Yeah, running is a real joy. I stretched my arms and looked to see if anyone else had come in the gym who could give me a spot. Nope.

I stood and slowly headed over to the shoulder press. Most people didn’t realize it, but there was a hierarchy in the weight room. When I’d first started lifting seventeen years ago, I’d learned to be deferential around the guys pulling the most weight. And while it was true that some guys ignored the hierarchy of respect, most of us looked at them like they were idiots and intruders anyway.

The big guy had just finishing putting 250lbs over his head on the shoulder press. Man, he just looks mean, I thought.

“Hey, man, can I get spot?”

“What?”

He pulled the earphones from his ears.

“Can I get a spot?”

“Sure.”

He followed me over to the bench.

“How many do you want?”

“Four or five, but I die pretty quick.”

It was the reason I needed such a strong guy for a spot. My muscles tended to seize and collapse quickly.

I pushed the weight up, and he kept his hands just below the bar, encouraging me. I got to five, was about to die when he took the bar and easily lifted it into the rack.

“Thanks.”

He smiled and went back to the other side of the gym. I wasn’t sure why I’d made such a big deal of the whole thing. I shook my head and removed twenty pounds from the bar. I hadn’t thought of it before, but in thinking about my younger years, I realized that I wasn’t really great about asking for help or how difficult that could be.

After a couple of minutes I laid back down to do another set. I lifted the bar off the rack, and suddenly the big guy was looming over me, his hands beneath the bar.

“C’mon, pal. You can do it.”

With his help I managed to squeeze out an extra couple of reps.

“That was great, thanks.”

He nodded and left. I sat there for a while and as I finished my workout, I couldn’t help but think I complicated I made things sometimes. And how I judged people simply because I refused to connect with them. Here I’d been afraid to approach someone because of my perception – he was mean looking – and yet he’d turned out to be both encouraging and helpful. It also struck me that asking for help, as difficult as it could be, could be pretty liberating.
I finally finished my workout. On the way out, I noticed the big guy headed to the fountain. I stopped and introduced myself.

“I’m Steve, thanks for the spot.”

“Junior. No problem, bro.”

I was still smiling when I got to my car. Yeah, I thought. No problem at all.

-Steve





Saturday, July 21, 2007

I'll Speak Anyway


Fellow writer and thinker Mark Groleau wrote a terrific article this past week on loving without an agenda or a watch, called Blackberry Jesus. This Spoken Verse is a tribute to the first anecdote of his article, Christians who leave pamphlets indicating they want to get to know you, who want to help, and what happens when you realize that they're lying. What they really want, is to expound on their agenda...


(This is Spoken Verse, intended to be read in the same manner as The Woman at the Well video on the side of my blog)




I'll Speak Anyway


I know you can't hear me but I have to tell this story. I'll speak loudly if not surely, and if you still hate me don't worry...

I'll speak anyway.

A while ago some neighbours moved in, they left a pamphlet in my mailbox about helping and doing what they could what they can,
they made an impression so I called but I wasn't impressive to them,
I was less than they had thought.
I wasn't enough, my habits weren't right and my beliefs needed correction
So they didn't want to help unless they could change me, but what I needed was connection
I realized then that they were looking for a sale. A garage sale or flea market or boxing day special with no returns, or reviews or information
The topic was important my salvation or so they said,
I gave them my book, but they never read ...or discussed or conversed
or hoped or loved, well if it was love it was perverse
And by perverse I don't mean sexual, I mean twisted warped bitter they had an end in mind, that's my end not theirs, they didn't even know that I was there
So what began so hopefully is just another day in the market. I'm a customer, consumer, shopper, a patron. If Wal-Mart calls with a Jesus sale I may listen, they know I'm their target.
My friends tell me I'm crazy to even think like this, think like what?
like there's hope, like the world isn't an abyss.
But it is, or so I say, and I say it with a sneer, it's not cool to hope too long for anything but bliss, that's anywhere but here.

I'll speak anyway.

The truth is I don't trust you anymore, You sell Jesus like He's made you better somehow, you belong to this club and now Jesus loves you more because you're in and I'm out
but why does that matter if I don't want in, if I don't think your product is right or the price is wrong or is it just wrong to have a price
The pamphlet looks thoughtful. It makes your shadow seem gentle, like your reflection is truer than you, truer how, truer as if now you can say that you offered
but if I called you late or called you wrong, if I wouldn't sing your song than what? Can I get through to you or am I through to you, now that you know I don't want you. I may need you, that's true, but you're not ready to give me you. And until you do, I'm not interested.

I'll speak anyway.

So keep your pamphlet. Keep your nice words and phony phrases, I know why you called. Called me yes you did though you didn't listen or read what I read.
So I know about you, but you're a fake you see. At least to me that's what it is when you sell Jesus on the corner like you're handing out fizz.
One last time please listen, I'll tell you who I am. I'm your neighbour. I'm not rich I'm not white I'm not black I'm not thin. I wait at the bus stop every morning for my ride to work. You've seen me there when you drive past, or didn't you know, you're in a hurry, you have to get ahead to be first, don't worry I'll be last. I've made some choices I regret,
not the choosing because without choice it isn't really me, is it? And yet,
I know there's something more... much more I believe it, no matter how many sales I find I hope you meet me there and if you're still not listening

I'll speak anyway.





Monday, July 16, 2007

The Pursuit of HappYness and the Reason Dreams Die


It’s happened more than once. I’m sitting at a café or restaurant, and the people at the table next to me start complaining. Sometimes it’s little things, their marriage or their family, little squabbles spoken with a smile and a laugh. Often times, however, it isn’t small. The laughter is there, but it’s forced, the smiles a weak attempt to cover their pain. It happens so often that there are days I become angry at the conversation, at all the complaining and arguing over subjects that seem to have little to do with their pain. People are not helping the poor like they should. Global warming is not being taken seriously. Government is not doing enough to help single mothers. It shouldn’t be like this, I think. People should be more thankful about what they’ve been given and stop arguing and complaining so much. That’s when I realize that I’m sitting at the table. That I’m the one complaining.

When I was a kid, I dreamed about making a difference when I was older. I dreamed about being someone who helped make the lives around me better. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would do that, but what I knew is that my life would matter. That I would matter. It was evident to me, even as a kid, that our world was in big trouble. Not, as many people reasoned, because governments were corrupt or because democracy was broken or because there were too many lazy people. Mostly it seemed to me, because there were too many people working very hard for very little, and too many people working very hard for everything else.


I could say all I want about the family next door with three cars and the nice home, but even as a kid I saw my friend’s dad coming home late, working extra hours at the office to afford such a rich lifestyle. I had friends who rarely saw their parents because they were always working. The question wasn’t laziness, it was something else entirely. But until we address it for what it really is, it’s time to stop mocking people who make money. It won’t win our world back. And it won’t bring the Kingdom to those who need it.


“It’s too much. The money should go somewhere else!” I said, unable to hold back the big sigh from escaping my lips. I was tired of the Benny Hinn’s of the world collecting millions of dollars without being accountable. Had we become so entranced by Western living that we’d completely forgotten the poor? Just thinking about it gave me a headache.


Jenny frowned and then smiled at me.


“I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.”


I nodded and gave her a hug goodbye. We’d been arguing for an hour. I strolled back towards the café, the sun warm on my back. Summer had arrived, but this year it’d been unusually mild for Ottawa, and I lingered in the parking lot, wandering to the edge of the lot among the trees. How could we do that? How could we be so greedy and still call ourselves Christians? It was all I could do to get my head out of my argument. When I finally strolled back inside, I was too tired to write. I’d used all my creative juice in my argument. I wandered around the bookstore for a while, picking through magazines and assorted books off the shelf. Summer was a quiet time for me, and even this year, transition that it was, it afforded a great deal of time towards writing and reading. I’d scheduled myself to finish an article today, but I didn’t have anything left. Instead, I took my coffee and bag and headed back out to my car. Maybe if I went to the gym for awhile I’d find some more energy.


Two hours and a good workout later, I was still in no position to write. No position to pursue my dream. The lack of production was discouraging. As long as I could remember I’d wanted to be writer. I’d taken a job with the school board specifically so that I could write during the night and summers when school wasn’t in session. And yet, the day had passed and I’d spent all my energy arguing with a friend.


On the way home I'd stopped at the corner store and rented the Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith. I'd seen it before, but watching again how this man pursued after his dreams only reminded me of how easy it was to forget what life was about. It was hard not to admire a man who'd gone through so much to become successful. There was a certain sadness however, as I watched the film. Happiness was indeed something worthy of our pursuit, but what did happiness mean? Who defined it? Was it a million dollars? Was it providing for our family? Or was it something more? So many people had pursued their dreams, worked very hard to become successful. Large houses. Lots of money. But what if we were buying into the wrong kind of dream? What if God wanted to give us even more, by showing us how to give it all away?
Either way, arguing was simply not the answer. We spent far too much time wasting our energy on argument instead of action, a laity of lawyers who did not realize what they were doing.
When I’d first started writing at a nearby Starbucks, long before it became my home base, I hated the coffee. It was too strong. Too expensive. Too… everything. It took me six months to get used to it, but when I did, I found I couldn’t go back to the mild, cheaper Tim Horton’s of my youth. And when people asked me about it, I knew I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t try. I would smile at whatever they said, even when some of my old hometown friends ribbed me about being a snob, and shrug my shoulders. I preferred Starbucks, or equally good coffee. Even if I had to pay extra for it. I didn’t bother arguing because there was nothing to say. And yet, I know many people, including my dad, who have switched to Starbucks. It wasn't my logic that changed his mind, but my passion.


I thought about my discussion with my friend earlier that day. Although I’d argued eloquently, or so I imagined, it hadn’t changed a thing. And yet, for the rest of the day I was useless. Jesus taught his disciples to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” Our daily bread. Although He was talking about how God provided for our daily needs, I wondered if God wasn’t also talking about our daily limits. In the West, because of the Greek-Roman influence, we often equated talking with doing. Or perhaps it was human nature. To talk about something was to do it.
Maybe the issue wasn’t that we working hard enough, or that we didn’t care. Maybe we were simply talking too much. Maybe we let our dreams die because we spent all of our time talking about them instead of acting on them. We had a million reasons not to act on our dreams. It wasn’t practical. It wasn’t the right time. It didn’t fit our schedule. But none of those reasons gave us any satisfaction. What they did was leave us sitting around the table, arguing instead of acting. Telling stories about what should be instead of living the life God called us to live.
I believe that inside of every one of us burns a lingering fire, a hunger for the life that we were called to, the one that says work hard, work to be happy, but work for the better of those around you.


More and more I am convinced the West is not rich because it is lazy and lucky, but that it is rich because it works for the wrong things. I am equally convinced that the scourge of loneliness and depression, among other things, is a direct result of our misunderstanding of what we should be working for. God has called us to something better. Something more.


I pray this week that God may reveal all that He has planned for us. That He will show us just how much we can make a difference, not in words, but in action. And that in doing so, we will achieve the fullness of life He so desperately longs for His children.

-Steve

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Wrinkle in Time... and A Strange Conversation



1993

The rain beat outside my window, the puddles glowing under the dim lights along the pathway around my dorm. A breeze wafted in through the screen, and I slipped my face close, enjoying the fresh scent of wet trees and cool autumn musk. It was hard to believe that I was even here, studying to be a minister. But then, a lot had changed in the past three years. After wondering what I was supposed to do for the longest time, at twenty-one, I’d finally figured it out. This was my list:

1. Finish school.
2. Work at a church.
3. Marry Tammy.
4. Start a family.
5. Move my way up the ranks until I became a Senior Pastor.

Despite my confidence in where I was headed, I felt funny tonight. Reciting my list didn't help, however.

“Who are you, Lord?” I whispered, listening as the rain dripped along the windowsill. “What am I doing here?”

Things had felt different all day, filled as I was with a strange sense of mystery and longing. I didn't understand it, but I didn't know what to do about it either.

I frowned at a bang from the hallway. Normally residence was pretty loud, but most of the guys had gone home this weekend, including my roommate. Just as well, I thought, I needed some time alone.

Another door banged shut, this time from farther down the hall. Then another. Maybe a couple of guys were still here, I thought. Odd that I couldn't hear any voices though. I slipped out of my room and headed down the hall.

“Hey, guys? Hey!”

No response. I called again, louder, but was met with an eerie silence. I could feel my heart thundering in my ears. Don’t be an idiot, nothing’s wrong! I forced myself to walk casually back to my room and stopped outside my door. Had I left the door…

I peered in the gap of the open door. What! I leaned back so hard I banged my head.

“Ow!”

“Hello.” The voice was deep but shaky.

I stepped inside my room. A man who looked to be in his early thirties was sitting on the bed. He had bags under his eyes, but his shaved head gleamed in the light. His shoulders and arms were thick, and he sat bent over as if a great weight pressed upong his back. There was something oddly familiar about him.

“Are you a Professor?” I asked finally.

"No."

"How did you get in here- Look, never mind. I don't mean to be rude, but I have a lot of work to do."

"You're not still street preaching are you?" He said.

"Of course I am."

"How many of your friends are Christians?"

"All of them of course. I live a clean lifestyle."

"Nice to see that you love everyone."

I could feel the vein in my neck start to throb.

"Hey, who are you? You can't just burst into my room-"

He smiled, and suddenly I recognized him. It was impossible. I wanted to say something, but what? There was no way this could happen.

“How’s Tammy?” He said.

He was looking at the white chalked “Tammy Rules” I’d scribbled across my vestibule the week before.

“She’s good.” I paused. “But you should know that...”

He squinted as if I’d hit him but didn’t say anything. He smiled at the pile of cafeteria cups near the door and turned his gaze to my computer.

“Have you guys started playing baseball yet?”

“Yeah! Just last week. Matt’s always over here.” I paused." So, you're me, right?"

I was sure that I’d been given some kind of a gift, a peek into the future. Or possible future. Or maybe it was just a dream.

“So, how old are you… am I?” I asked, finally.

“34.”

“Do I have a family?”

“No.”

“Am I married?”

“You were.”

I clenched my teeth together when I realized what he was saying. What!

“How could you do that?” I said finally, exploding. “I don’t care if it’s Tammy or not! Divorce is not an option! Only people without faith get divorced!” I was yelling, but couldn’t seem to stop myself.

He looked at me calmly, eyeing my clenched fists. A slow, sad smile spread across his face. I walked slowly to the windowsill as the blood ripped through my veins. What kind of man had I become? I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. I took a deep breath, slowly inhaling and exhaling, forcing myself to calm down. It wasn’t like this was written in stone. I could change it. God was on my side. I could do anything.

“Where do I live?”

“Ottawa.”

Ottawa? What was I doing way up there?

“Well, am I in ministry?”

“No.”

Suddenly another thought occurred to me. I felt my stomach tremble. I didn’t know how to phrase my question, or whether I wanted an honest answer.

“I’m only here for a short time, so if you have any questions, you better ask.” He said.

“Am- am I still a Christian? Do I still love God?”

He smiled.

“Yes. Very much.”

I shook my head. It didn’t make any sense. How could I still be a Christian if I was divorced? How could I love God so much and not be in full time ministry? He rose slowly to his feet and moved to the vestibule. He stared at the chalk and moved a hand towards it before abruptly dropping his arm.

“I-I don’t understand.” I said, finally. “I know what I’m supposed to do. So why… how… I don’t get it.”

“We make choices, Steve. Bad ones and good ones. Some people will tell you that everything happens for a reason. They're wrong. But sometimes God does need to take us to painful places to teach us things, because sometimes there’s no other way for us to learn. But make no mistake, we choose. Saying that it “all happens for a reason” is for people who believe in Fate, not God. It’s understandable, though.”
He sighed, his eyes glassy as if remembering a painful moment.
“People want to feel better about the hurts and bad choices they’ve made. But in the end, Fate provides little comfort. God asks us to face the consequences of our choices. He reminds us how much we are loved, and then shows us that tomorrow can be different, even with the scars.”

I didn’t understand what he was saying. Of course it was my choice. (Which is why I would never divorce my wife no matter how bad things were! Divorced people were a bunch of weak sinners with no faith. I was stronger than that, for heaven’s sake.)

He glanced up at the stack of evangelistic pamphlets on my desk. His eyes flashed as he grabbed the bunch of them and threw them in the garbage.

“Try relationships. Forget the street preaching.” He paused. “Time for me to go.”

He pulled open the door.

“Wait!” I grabbed his shoulder. “That’s it? Do you have any advice for me, or…”

“Guard your heart, Steve. Remember that every kindness and every act done for others sketches a permanent mark on your character. Every selfish act does the same. Always remember that God loves you, and that even in your darkest moments He will be there." He paused. "You're worried, and I understand that. But I think you'll like things at 34.”

“I still don’t understand. If I grow up to be you, than how can you help me?”

“I didn’t come for your sake.”

He slipped out and into the corridor before I could respond, but when I followed after him, the corridor was empty. It was quiet still, but the eerie silence had passed. I went back into my room and prayed for a while before going to bed. I pulled the pamphlets from the garbage. If this whole thing hadn’t been a dream, than what a disaster! In thirteen short years I’d become a soft, non evangelizing, divorcee who enjoyed hanging out with sinners. I grimaced and slipped back onto my knees.

Not if I could help it…

2007

The blue neon cross winked from across the treetops outside my balcony. I blinked, disoriented. Where was I? I stepped inside my apartment, which was filled with neatly piled boxes and books laying piles on the floor. I shook my head for a second and walked through my apartment until I was convinced that I was back in the present.

Had I been dreaming?

I kicked one of the boxes just to make sure it was real. My head felt fuzzy, and I stumbled towards the kitchen to put on some coffee. I waited until it perked and slowly added the condiments. I took the cup back onto the balcony. The night was clear, and the stars lay strewn across the blackened sky. I’d read an old saying once, about what the boy would think of the man he'd become. And tonight, for whatever reason, I’d met the boy I used to be. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem too happy about who he’d become.

I sipped my coffee and leaned back in my chair. It wasn’t about him, though, I knew that much. So much of our anxiety as an adult came from questions about our past, the choices we’d made. So many people expressed regret in their life, and so many seemed almost paralyzed by it. Including myself. The past year I’d found myself visiting and revisiting my choices over and over, at times growing so bitter and disillusioned as to wonder why I should bother with even trying to do the right thing. But looking back, I could see how often I forgot the good choices I’d made. And even in my bad decisions, while there were still scars, I could see the lesson. My younger self had looked at me with scorn when he’d learned I was divorced, but what he didn’t understand was how much my divorce had softened me, helped me to understand and love people around me. Only God could say for certain, but I was a different, kinder man than I’d ever been. While the divorce had left some painful scars, some of which might never heal, I’d learned some important things about myself. About others. About the Kingdom.

I stood and leaned against the balcony. Fate said that our choices were inevitable. But they weren’t, and anyone who thought about it for more than a minute figured that out. What kept coming to me about the strange conversation however was not the importance of our decisions, but rather our response to the consequences of those choices. It was one thing to get a divorce, but the lesson could only be found in our response to it. Family and relationships… sometimes things happened out of our control, but how did we respond?

I’d met a number of old friends from high school and college lately, and it was fascinating to see who they’d become. Some hadn’t changed a whole lot, some were doing well, and others seemed almost unrecognizable. Aging seemed to emphasize character, especially for those who’d grown bitter at life’s turns.

I sipped my coffee and glanced out at the cross. In two months I’d be back in school, once more preparing for the ministry. I wondered what I’d do if an older version of myself paid a visit? Would I be as angry and determined as the young man in the dorm room? I smiled as I suddenly realized the gift I’d been given.

I wasn’t sure where I was headed. I no longer had a five step plan. I hoped for things, a family, good friends, a chance to make a difference, but nothing concrete. More than ever though, I realized that I needed to make good choices, that I needed to be as unselfish as I could, that I needed to continually humble myself before God and ask for His wisdom.

I smiled at the cross twinkling in the darkness and headed back inside. There was a time I wanted the security of knowing exactly how my life would turn out. I wanted the suburban bliss of religious surety. Not anymore. Maybe things would’ve been better if I hadn’t made certain choices, if I hadn’t done certain things, but I couldn’t go back and change my life.

Over the past five years I’d grown to appreciate the mystery and fullness of God in a way I’d never known, and so while I still had regrets, for one night at least, my anxiety was gone.
I left the balcony door open as I went back into the kitchen to refill my cup. I’d never know or understand everything about my past, and I had no clue what tomorrow would bring, but I still had today. And for now at least, it was enough.

May God show us that while we can not undo the past, we can still get the healing we need. That while tomorrow is always a result of today’s choices, predictability is not promised along the narrow road of faith. And most important, that today is the day we are supposed to live in... and celebrate.

-Steve





Sunday, July 01, 2007

Giving Up On Life




I hadn’t seen Jenny in two years, and she greeted me in the foyer of the school like a long lost friend. She was smiling.
“I’m graduating, Steve. I’ve been going to the adult high school.”
“Hey, that’s awesome!”
I gave her a hug and we chatted for a few minutes until it was time for me to get back to my students. As I walked away it was hard to keep the smile off my face. I knew enough about her difficult childhood to know exactly what she’d accomplished by finishing high school.
It was refreshing to see such fight, such willingness to slog through the difficulties of life. That she was barely twenty didn’t matter. The rate of high school drop outs had been rising for rising for years, although the public barely recognized it. Teenagers now lived in another world, a world where adolescence was prolonged and adulthood came early.
So it was with a smile and great appreciation for the human spirit that I spent the rest of that day.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

There were three of them sitting around the table. Women in their forties, nervously twitching and fixing their hair and sipping their coffee as they talked. I was sitting at the next table, sorting through a barrage of papers and work. Slow jazz eased from the speakers. The two women closest to me were arguing.
“I don’t know why he did it. He’s a jerk. He’s always been a jerk.”
“Yeah, but not like that. What about Tyler?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You have to tell him some-“
“I know! What do you want from me?”
“Look, I’m not saying it’s your fault…”
I looked over at the third woman who’d been silent through the conversation. Wisps of red hair fell in front of her face, and she brushed it aside as if unaware what she was doing. Her gaze remained focused on her coffee as she picked at the lid.
“What about you, Kat?”
She shrugged.
“I'm not sure why you're so surprised.” She said, her voice tired.
Her gaze flicked upward as if she sensed my attention and I looked away, embarrassed. It was sad, I thought. I’d seen so many tired people lately, people completely exhausted by life, and in many ways it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t like they were going hungry, or that they worried about their everyday survival. The question wasn’t about survival, it was about living. Strange that in an educated and rich culture that we seemed unable to answer the most important of questions. For every person excited about life, I met two or three others who merely endured life as if it was a bad dream. The past two years I’d met a number of twenty and thirty year olds who spoke as if they were ninety. As if life had already passed them by. For whatever reason, they’d given up.

The women had left, and I wandered through the bookstore, sipping my coffee. I kept thinking about the redhead. A part of me had wanted to go over and give her a hug, tell her everything was going to be okay. But I wasn’t sure that it WAS going to be okay. The only guarantee life gave was that there would always be times of heartache and sorrow. That was a certainty. Contentment was not.
I strolled past a wide shelf of self help books. It struck me how polished these ‘gurus’ looked on their covers. Handsome. Distinguished. Pretty. I understood the importance of looks in marketing, but it seemed to me that something was missing. What it was, I wasn’t sure.
By the time I got back to my table, the café had nearly emptied. A college student had set up his laptop in the corner, and an elderly couple was quietly sipping their coffee on one of the couches. I sat there for a while, thinking about the redhead, thinking about the self help books and gurus and discontent of so many. Why had so many people given up on life?
It wasn’t an easy question, certainly not one you could answer in a few words, but it struck me that as a culture we were continually submitted to a barrage of advertisements. Everything was an advertisement, even the self-help books. But what were they advertising? If so many felt that life was only to be endured, it followed that something was wrong with the message itself.

It reminded me of a story I'd heard many years ago...

Back in the forties a young boy heard that the circus was coming to town. He was from a small town on the East Coast, and the circus was the biggest thing that had ever happened in his life. He was a poor boy, but he saved for weeks, doing any job he could find so he could afford to see it. Finally, the day came. He waited eagerly beside the road as the circus trains rolled in. He saw the monkeys and tigers and clowns and jugglers. He saw acrobats hanging off their swings and clowns making people laugh on the side of the road. He took it all in, the wonder of it so great he felt like nothing could ever equal his experience. He watched in wonder as the performers disappeared under a large tent on the other side of town. It was the greatest day of his life. Suddenly he realized that he hadn’t paid. He turned to an older man next to him.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where we are supposed to pay?”
“I’ll take it.”
The man took the boy’s hard earned quarter and the boy skipped all the way home. All that hard work was worth it. No matter what happened, he could always say that he'd seen the circus. The circus! He’d seen it all, and it was worth it.
It wasn’t until years later he learned that he hadn’t seen the circus at all. He’d only seen the parade.

The dominant advertisement in our culture is the parade, and sadly, most people don’t even realize that it isn’t the circus. We’re force fed this message of what we’re supposed to expect and what life’s supposed to deliver. After digesting this cheap substitute for so many years, we no longer know the difference.
Maybe so many people have given up on life because they are unaware of the alternative. Any alternative. When commercialism and materialism fail, when the picket fence fails to provide or fails to arrive, they are left with a wanton emptiness about what life is and what it can be.
On the flip side, religious people hear far too many messages of prosperity and God’s goodness wrapped in a package of cheap grace and Gap clothing, so many they can not comprehend a God who asks for more. And promises more.

The abundant life God promises, the reason to pursue life, is found in neither of these advertisements.

Of course, Jesus did not ask us to do the easy thing. He didn’t promise us the Disney plan for success: wealth, family and faith. Jesus, and the message of Jesus, was something different. So different, so radical, the powerful Romans had Him killed. And yet, what Jesus asked is nothing more than what we find ourselves asking in those moments of honesty that assail us every so often. He asks us if the parade is enough. He reminds us that the circus, the real thing, is something beyond our wildest dreams. He shows us that the Kingdom of God is not a Sunday or a part of life, but rather, that it is life itself. And when we discover that pearl, life becomes a dream worth living.
The stone the builders rejected is the cornerstone to our life. Maybe we need to re-examine why our lives feel so empty. Or have we become so deluded with the weakened advertisements of our culture that we no longer have the strength to even ask the question?
May God show us that He is the best reason to pursue life. May we all find the strength to take one step back so that everything around us becomes a little clearer. And may God show us who we really are, unique and treasured and loved, and who we were meant to be.

-Steve