Saturday, April 26, 2008

You Make this Promise Every Day… Without Realizing It

It was another bright morning, the warmth of the sun a welcome change from the cold winter. I sat on my stoop sipping my coffee, feeling a deep sense of peace in the quiet neighbourhood. Across the street, a robin sang from his perch near the top of the large maple. I smiled and watched him dance across the branch, his voice clear and unmistakable. Since spring had finally broken through, he’d been up there every morning. When I’d first spotted him, I’d been relieved. Birds meant spring. And spring meant new things, new hope, and warmer weather. More than just a symbol however, I’d come to enjoy his song. Strange that a bird could offer some form of reassurance, but he did. And now, every day before I began my morning prayers, I found myself looking for him. I watched him sing for a bit longer and finally turned to my Bible.

I was going through the Gospels again. I tried to do that every six months, because like no other part of the Bible, it was the stories of Jesus and how he lived that always carried the greatest impact for me. Sometimes it helped me spot tendencies in my life that I hadn’t seen, and it always cause me to reflect on human nature. As I re-read the story of Jesus walking from village to village, I noticed a paradox. While Jesus was incredibly unpredictable, he was also amazingly consistent. People were drawn to him, and not always because they agreed with him. But why?

It's a common tendency for people of faith to forget the Bible is stories of real people. It's especially true of Jesus. We apply the “God principle” to everything that Jesus did. (i.e. people were attracted to Jesus because he was God) When we do that however, we miss some of the subtle teachings that are not recorded in the red letters (words he spoke). This emphasis is perhaps why so many Christians associate faith with talking, because they believe that somehow the Gospel is centered on verbalization. Perhaps that is why so many Christians talk so much about their faith, but have no center or rest within their souls and become so defensive when people don't agree with them. When our faith is not centered in its relational core with a God who loves us unconditionally, we often fall prey to the ‘tyranny of assertiveness’; to this necessity of insisting not only that we are right, but detailing exactly why we are right and why others are wrong.

People were drawn to Jesus for many reasons, but there is no question that his presence had something to do with that. In that sense, I am not talking about the presence of God, but the promise he made with his presence, the same one we make every time we’re with people.

Every time I interact with someone else I am making a promise. Our tendency is to focus on the people we know – family, friends, work acquaintances – but our influence is far greater than that, and so is the promise of our presence. It often doesn’t involve speech, but make no mistake, who we are is the promise we make every day of our life. And we make that promise to every single person we interact with.

Most of us don’t think about this too often, life is too busy and too full to dwell on the promise of our presence. And sometimes we dwell on it too much, so much so that we become tired and start avoiding people, or we become phony as we attempt to ‘promise good things’ to every person because we think we're supposed to but don't actually believe it is possible.
And therein lies the problem.

We must be aware of how our presence affects others, but if we focus on it too much, we will eventually become phony and our relationships will inevitably be shallow.

So what do we do? How do we attract and encourage people as Jesus did, without burning out or hiding ourselves in groups of likeminded people (think fundamentalist churches or mosques that ‘avoid the world’)?

I believe that the answer lies in our inner makeup, in what we truly believe. The only individual that will never leave my story, my life, is me. Therefore, whoever I am, in whatever circumstances, always emanates from who I Truly am. Not who I say I am or even who I think I am, but the wellspring of my thoughts and experiences that flow out in my words and actions to the world around me. In this, we often fail to realize how much control we actually have over our lives. No matter what condition or circumstances we find ourselves in, we always have a choice. We choose what we believe. We choose how we act. We choose so often that we even forget we are choosing.

I think part of the reason so many religious people become intolerable is that they stop making choices and they stop examining what they actually believe.

Your presence is formed by what you believe.

Your beliefs determine your life.

Your life is the promise you make to God, and the promise you make to people around you.

Many of us think we know what we believe. For example, I may say that "I believe in God. I believe in equality. I believe in loving my neighbours." If that were the case however, this planet would be a far different place, wouldn't it?

Most of us actually don't know what we believe. We don't realize how much 'junk' is in our belief structure. I may think that I believe in loving my neighbour, but if my neighbour is rude and plays loud music at night, I won't love them. A man may say that he believes in equality, but in the house everyone else knows that only what he thinks matters, that a man has more value than a woman and should therefore always take the lead. I may say that I believe in helping people, but only if I get a chance to give them a pamphlet or talk about my faith. If they are completely uninterested in my religion, I will love someone else who may be more receptive to my ideas. The list goes on and on. And all of it affects the promise we make with our presence.

Not everyone will know about our junk, because everyone has junk in their belief pool. However, eventually people will KNOW, even if they don't know, and they will respond accordingly. Jesus was very clear about what he actually believed, what he knew, and so the promise of his presence was consistent with his own self-awareness. How amazing would that be? To be with someone completely comfortable in their own skin? No wonder people were drawn to him.

There's another application here, one that my scholar friend, Mark, and I were discussing a few days ago. How is it that so many Christians, especially fundamentalists, can read the Bible and pray, and still be so shallow and unforgiving and harsh and demeaning? Again, our thought was that it all boils down to what we REALLY believe. If I believe that prayer and Bible study, which are both good things, are the key ingredients for growth or movement towards God, than I probably won't worry about the rest of my 'junk.' If I believe that I am a "new person in Christ", and don't have to examine who I am or the things I've done or the state of my relationships on a regular basis, I am probably going to become self-righteous.

The signs of a person who is walking towards God is not whether they swear or smoke, or drink beer and watch movies. The signs of someone walking the 'narrow path' are an increasing tendency towards love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If those things are increasingly evident, if the promise we are making is that our lives will reflect more daily those qualities, than we know we are on the path towards God.

To make our promise, our presence, more like Jesus, we also need to check and see if we really believe we can do it alone. Is God necessary? If he isn't, eventually we will find ourselves becoming proud of our 'growth', and soon enough we will no longer grow. It is this combination of both confidence (in God's love) and humility (in awe of God's greatness) that keep us along the narrow road. They help us to look within, and yet focus on those around us.

My prayer this week is that we will start to become more aware of what we really believe. Don't be afraid or discouraged. We all have some garbage in there. Bring it into the open, talk about it, pray about it. You're not perfect, nobody is. Ask a friend or someone you trust who will BUILD YOU UP to be honest with you. When you admit your weaknesses, it automatically pulls you towards humility and enhances your presence. You will notice immediately how people will start to become drawn to you. Just be sure that the humility leads you to God. Jesus walked the same road we do. He understands. If your self-examination leads you to self-flagellation, it will soon turn to low self-esteem and pride.

Every day we have an opportunity to impact the world around us. Every day we make a promise to friends and strangers alike. What is your promise? What is flowing out of your heart into the rivers of life around you? Make it your goal this week to find out, and if it isn't what you want it to be, or what you think it should be, choose accordingly, and start making the changes that will push you closer to God. And to the people around you.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Monthly Mailbag

Hey everyone,

Thanks for your patience this past week. As you may or may not know, I went back to school this past year and I'm just finishing my first year of Grad school (I also work a 'day job' 30 hours a week). Because of these final papers, there've been a few delays on the site. My apologies for that.

By the way, when school finishes this next week, I'll be working hard over the next four months sending my writing out for publication and getting new representation. I said goodbye to my last literary agent 18 months ago. Don't worry, I always think of this site, and you readers, first. I'll be active here through the summer.

On to the mailbag...

There were a number of questions and comments concerning my column "Stop Apologizing", so I'll print the longest one here, because it seems to have resonated with others.

Dear Steve,

I understand what you are saying and there is a fine line between degrading yourself or lowering yourself to being "meek" and "longsuffering". I myself have a very difficult time at my do you be a witness where they purposely use you as "entertainment" how do you be a witness where they say and do things constantly towards you. When it's management and bosses, and they purposely treat you do you respond in a Christ like manner? They did that to Christ and he didn't apologize to them....He apologized FOR THEM.
I do feel my self esteem lowering, my confidence being smashed, I do feel empty days when I walk around with my spirit crushed....and I can't apologize for them.....I keep going to Jeremiah 17 and reading where it says, "Lord let those who persecute me be ashamed..and the rest of that scripture." How do we find a middle ground? I apologized one day to one of them because when I heard her saying something to someone else "about me" I was having a *before Christ* day and I confronted her. Later I went up to her and I apologized and she put her hand in my face and said she didn't want to hear it. SHE was the one that was in the wrong I apologized and she put her hand in my face.
ERRRRRR What do we do? I have been praying for about a year and a half now that God would move me somewhere else.....but I have been there for fourteen years....
Tina, Dayton, Ohio

Hey Tina,

I'm truly sorry about this situation. Believe me; you're not alone in trying to figure this out. How do I be a Jesus follower without giving away my self-esteem? Am I not supposed to be meek? Let me say a couple of things. (By the way, I love your willingness to do the hard thing and ask forgiveness. That must have hurt. I'm not sure you needed to do it, but your soul will be better for it, simply because it was so difficult.)

Meekness is often misunderstood. In the gospels, for example, when Jesus talks about walking the extra mile with a Roman soldier, it has nothing to do with being generous, it is about being equal. The same is true of turning the other cheek. To offer the other side of your face to the soldier would require them to hit a Jew with their open hand, a sign of equality. Jesus wasn't teaching that we take a beating, but rather passive resistance. (Think Gandhi) Strength without violence.

Most people don't realize it, but our workplaces can often be emotionally violent places. If you can't leave your job, financial constraints or whatever, than you have to create some emotional apathy. What I mean by that is you have to emotionally distance yourself from the people at work who cause you distress. I was in a similar situation, and in the end, the best thing I did was simply leave. The toll was too great. I now make a third of what I was making, but my time at work is not only healthy, but in many ways, I am recharged there for other aspects of my life, including my writing.

As to your other question, Christians are often persecuted in the West, not because of their faith, but because they confuse taking their faith seriously with taking themselves seriously. What you should strive for is the former, not the latter. When we take ourselves too seriously, or refuse to allow things such as swearing or rude comments about religion to simply roll past us, what we're in effect doing is attaching our ego to our faith, and allowing others to assign us value. Example, someone makes a joke about Christianity or you as a Christian. My advice is to simply state what you think, but do it with a smile and a laugh. Who cares what they think. Don't take it personally. Many people have been hurt by religion, have been hurt by the church, so be gentle about it. Don't apologize for your faith, but don't feel the need to always 'advocate' for God. He's big. He can answer for Himself.

You might also want to learn to ignore what others say about you. People at work know they can tell me anything, and they also know I'm the last to hear anything. We have to be conscious of who we allow to assign value to us. Ideally, we get our value from God, who loves us unconditionally. This is the first step. After that, we will allow people to speak into our life, but we must choose them carefully. Learning to ignore things you hear is the next step.

When we are dealing with our coworkers or anyone, we must address the emotional issues in ourselves and those around us before we can get to any spiritual issues. A girl who's been abused by her father does not want to hear about the kindness of God the Father. Most of the time we don't know what people are dealing with, so a smile and gentle answer and an easy laugh are always the best route. We need to learn to read below (not between) the lines.

As it is, the only way we can do this is if we are completely secure in our relationship with God. We can always tell if our relationship with God is a bit rocky when we start getting upset by the comments people make about us, especially when it comes to our faith or doctrine. (The more insecure we are about God, the more we tend to insist on the rightness of our doctrine) And sometimes our longing for those around us to be Christians is as much influenced for our desire for a peaceful homogeneity, as it is to see God work in their life.

Either way, we don't need to apologize for our faith or who we are, but we do need to laugh at ourselves. The more comfortable I am in my weaknesses, the more people around me become comfortable in their own insecurities. Forget about reputation, and learn to listen to that inner voice that will tell you when to stand up and when to let it go. My only caveat is that if you feel a drain in your self-confidence, than chances are you are not standing up for yourself.

Jesus never says love your neighbour. He says love your neighbour as yourself. If you don't like who you are, than guess what you will manifest towards others? In the end, your willingness to make yourself vulnerable will make the difference, especially if you can do it with a smile.

Hi Steve,

I am so blessed to get to read your stuff. Every time I think of canceling internet due to costs of everything rising, you write something that lifts me up and puts reality back in focus. Guess direct TV will go to chopping block. LOL thank you,
Lisa, Texas

Thanks Lisa,

Wow. That's pretty humbling. Just know that you give as much to me as anything I may contribute. (I've had Direct TV... believe me, 'tis a HUGE compliment... lol)


First you write that we should aspire to our dreams, and forget about trying to pursue the things that are difficult. I think you said that we should go after what we're already good at. And then you tell us to do the 'hard thing.' I don't get it.
M., Seattle

I don't either. (Just kidding.) These are two different issues. You have been gifted in a certain area. If you don't know what that gifting is, than you need to figure it out. (The first step is to take the personality test on the top corner of this page, but I can give you other tools if you'd like) Some people believe they have no talent or ability whatsoever. Nonsense. Everyone does, even if our culture doesn't magnify it. (Like beauty and singing... American Idol?!) You may have the gift of mercy or hospitality, or something more 'showy' like public relations. That is what you need to pursue. Don't think you have to be a CEO if you're good at public relations or working with kids. Be what you are good at. Be what you love.

As for the hard thing, that involves our daily living. The day-to-day things in our lives that we know are good for us and those around us, and still refuse to do. Especially as it involves relationships. I referenced this in my column about Skimming, which I'll address more in the next letter.

Hi Steve,
You talked about Skimming and going for a run or exercising when you don't want to. Is there anything else YOU struggle with?
D., Thornhill, ON

So, you're saying you want me to be more open. Lol Sure, I can tell you where I Skim. I do it with people who subscribe to fundamentalist thinking, I tend to label them and dismiss them. I shouldn't. I Skim when it comes to my budget, or organizing myself for school. Sometimes I Skim when it comes to my family or friends. I spend a great deal of time 'in my head' and so I'm not always very good at proactive maintenance of relationships.

I also Skim when it comes to church. I don't like this idea of 'weekly sessions.' And I don't like the idea of 'you must go.' I think church is a good idea, in that meeting with other Christians and worshipping together are necessary, but because of my past, I can forget the importance of going, or in the very least, understate its value when I talk about it. In that sense, I Skim.
Honestly though, we're always at risk at Skimming in every area of our life. The best thing is to think about it, see where we need tend to take shortcuts, and do our best to do the hard thing. Life is messy, and we're bound to screw up, but somehow God loves us anyway. When we start to truly understand that, my friends, tomorrow becomes a great idea.


Authour Note: Thanks, everyone, for your questions and comments and also for your kind words and notes. I've already started work on the next column. It will be up shortly.

Sneak preview...

You made at least ten promises yesterday, perhaps as many as a hundred. Did you know that? It was only a moment, but you made a promise to someone without ever opening your mouth...

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Greatest (and least mentioned) Sin of Our Time

The end of the road seemed a mirage. Another two minutes. Every pounding step brought me closer. My breath came in short gasps. I hadn’t run all winter, and I was paying for it now. The bright morning sun flashed as my legs quivered with every step. I wanted to stop, but I’d set the goal and I wasn’t about to back down. One minute to go. Every step jarred my insides. I gritted my teeth and pushed ahead, my thoughts lost in the void of the pulse pounding finish. I glanced at the building on the left. Final sprint. I pumped my arms, blanked out the pain, and finished the route.

I bent over and leaned on my knees, desperately trying to catch my breath before slowly walking down the hill. As much as I hated to run, as much as I dreaded the pounding and pain, I knew how much it mattered to the rest of my life that I didn’t stop pushing myself. Over the years, I’d learned that the hard way. We only controlled certain things in our life, and when we didn’t push the things we did control (like exercising), when we continually took shortcuts, the results were irrefutable. A weakened and victimized personality. In many ways, it was the personality of our culture. A culture that talked about greatness but in reality marketed it like any other commodity. I smiled as a grandmother pushed a baby carriage past me, as I moved over on the grass beside the sidewalk to stretch.

In the distance, a procession of cars slowly made their way up the road. I didn’t recognize the funeral procession right away, as it’d been a while since I’d seen one, but as the cars cruised past me, I couldn’t help but wonder who had passed away. I couldn't help but wonder about their life and about the other people riding in the cars. In many ways, death was the only thing that seemed to slow down our cultural machine. If people needed a justification to slow down on their frantic treadmill pursuit of the latest, best and most relevant (and it certainly seemed that way), than death was the one thing that even coldest, cultural commoditizer had to acknowledge. Even death, however, was often turned into product. How many times had we seen people capitalize on the death of someone else, turn it into publicity or policy, or in the case of families, turn it into a personal gain?

I’ll never forget when my grandfather passed away. He’d come into a significant sum of money his last year, and I watched, still a teenager, as it changed him. Many people, most of whom had never shown interest in visiting or helping him, appeared out of the woodwork. Suddenly he had acquired value. And this old man, who I’d known and loved as a kid, seemed to change overnight, estranged his family and divided his children with his newly found ‘nobility.’ He disowned my dad because my father refused to worship at the feet of his new wealth. When he passed away, barely a year after ‘inheriting the world’, a significant portion of his wealth went to total strangers, and long lost family members. (They'd been lost until there was something in it for them.) I asked my dad about it a year later. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to experience that kind of rejection. Not only the rejection of his father, but the cultural discounting of all those years of going to his dad’s house and helping him out, only to see that when his dad had a chance to finally help him and his family, he watched that money go to complete strangers instead.

I still remember my dad's sad smile when I asked him about it.

“It’s blood money, son. I don’t want it.”

I’m not sure I ever respected my dad more than I did at that minute, because I understood what he was saying. He hadn’t helped his father, or been a son to his father, because of what his father would give him. And no matter what had happened the last year, nothing could remove the twenty odd years before that, of family visits and trips to the farm. My dad had done it the right way. He hadn’t committed the greatest and least talked about sin of our time.

He hadn’t Skimmed.

You won’t find the word ‘Skimming’ in any of your theological references, although it’s mentioned often enough in Scripture. You probably won’t find it in the latest cultural criticisms either, although it will be inferred in some manner.
So what is 'Skimming'?

When I used to work as a lifeguard, occasionally I had to clean something out of the pool. I’d use a large Skimmer, a long pole with a wire net on the end of it, to clean the surface of the water. The water underneath could still be dirty, but in removing the leaves and large floating chunks from the surface, it appeared clean. In life, Skimming refers to the act of scooping the 'keys' or ‘important parts’ out of something – a relationship, a job, a religion, a person – and in so doing, losing or dismissing the entirety of its essence. It is a 'quick fix' approach to life, and it is in keeping with the ‘wide and shallow’ worldview pumped through the veins of our culture into our own.

We’re all guilty of Skimming to some degree. Even the deeply religious who might agree with the assessment that we live in shallow culture often miss that the fact that the church is just as shallow. And it’s shallow for no other reason than it is composed of people.

All humans naturally seek to benefit themselves. Pure altruism does not exist. In that sense, we are all born looking for the quick angle, the fast buck, the easy job, the no-work-all pleasure relationship. We’re all born Skimmers. What’s happened in our culture is not that ‘this generation is worse than the last’, but that in our highly individualized and market driven society, the tendency to Skim has not only been given a wider expression, but even worse, is promoted and celebrated as something to strive for. (This is best emphasized in the 1987 film Wall Street and the famous speech given by Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas), the rich magnate whose “greed is good” speech emphasized what every corporation already knew: the natural function of greed pushes us to new levels.)

Just walk through the self-help section of any bookstore. Ten Steps to Getting You on Track. Five Keys to a Better Relationship. Seven Quick Tools to Influencing Others. The 'key' to this; the 'secret' to that. Haven't you ever wondered why our culture loves lists so much? Not only on shows like Letterman, but in sports and relationships and music and movies and, well, everything. Some people would have you believe that ‘lists are practical.’ Sure, sometimes. But our obsession is much greater than that, and it goes back to our love of Skimming.

Who wants to read a book or an article that doesn’t give you a list of ways to make things better in your life? Religion knows this well. Ever wonder why the evangelical church, and her more obnoxious cousins ‘the Fundamentalists’, are endlessly producing policies and doctrinal statements. They’re Skimming. How else do you explain the absolute nature in how they interpret Scripture, which was written as narrative?

In the Gospels, Jesus consistently attacks our tendency to Skim – to place people and questions in absolute black and white, and absorb ideas within the context of relationship – to the point of arousing hatred among the religious leaders. Jesus arouses such hatred, that even after they have executed him, years later the Pharisees will appoint a leader to kill and terrorize his followers. (Which backfires when the Pharisee, Saul, their appointed leader, later becomes the Apostle Paul)

Skimming is so prevalent that nearly everything you do will involve it. Nearly every relationship. Nearly every thing you do at work, and nearly every leisure activity in which you partake. Simply put, since you were a child a part of our brain has been programmed to believe that everything we do or experience should be bigger, faster, stronger, wider, longer, more, more, More, MORE.

Part of the reason we talk about sex so much is that it is easy to Skim Sell. The pleasurable feeling is easy enough to manipulate. We can make some money off that, can’t we? Or in the case of churches, we can establish control through sex, can’t we? Use this powerful God-given feeling, and than establish it as a tool to control people. It’s the same in politics. Skim, Skim and Skim some more.

No wonder people are miserable.

No wonder people are depressed.

We’ve been handing out pieces of candy and then convincing people we’re selling them vegetables. In fact, many of the world’s top minds spend their entire lives working hard to blur the line between want and need. The expenditure for advertising in the US alone is nearly 300 billion dollars.

Because it is our natural tendency, when we can justify Skimming through religion or marketing we will, because we know that we’re going to get a positive response from people. However, that does not make it right or beneficial.

When we look at people for example, our natural tendency is to judge them based on their appearance or how they speak. When we leave our opinion there, or when we don’t recognize what we’ve done, we’re guilty of Skimming. As far as I know, the only counter to Skimming is the long hard road of self-awareness and relational challenge. It means not taking any shortcuts. It means leaving yourself open to change.

This is why Fundamentalists are often the worst Skimmers. They would rather lock themselves into safety than deal with the messy world of relationships. A fundamentalist (who could be Christian, Muslim, liberal or atheist) is incapable of nuanced thought, does not have time for thought provoking ideas except the ones they like, and are more interested in promoting homogeneity than freedom, even if it leaves people in pain. To not Skim requires great humility. It requires a degree of brokenness. It requires a sense of something bigger than ourselves, of learning not to think too highly of our own ideas because we understand that no matter how self-aware or generous we appear to be, our own motives aren’t pure either.

There’s no easy answer, no ‘quick list’ to combat this natural human tendency, but here are a few things to help you see if you’re Skimming in certain areas of your life. Start by asking yourself these questions. Are you willing to sacrifice principle for efficiency or speed? Are you willing to change your mind about that which you hold most dear? Are you labeling people in your life or do you believe people can change? Are you willing to do the HARDEST thing in every situation? And if not, why?

Ultimately, Skimming is not something we can apply to others. Only we can truly know if we are taking the ‘hard route.’ The evidence however, should be plain. People who don’t Skim carry themselves with both humility and compassion, with generosity and integrity. People who don’t Skim don’t complain very often, if only because they are used to doing the Hard thing. People who don’t Skim don’t make snap judgements on people, and are able to accept mystery within their faith. And finally, people who don’t Skim give us a slight picture of how God views us. No human can replicate God’s love, but we can try, and the people who have learned not to Skim, tend to do it better than most.

This week, remember that death comes to us all, but that we have a choice for which we will be remembered. We can never escape our culture completely, but with our heads bowed and a with a deep sense of God’s prevailing love, we can move into a place that looks for relationships before judgement, for effort before results, and the heart before everything else.


Authour's Note: To understand why we Skim, understand it from this simple example.
Try selling a book that asks people questions about life and does so through story, but offers no hard and fast rules but places everything in context and asks us to accept things that either make no sense or are just plain hard. And than have this book emphasize that we will never have all the answers, and that it will be the shape of our heart and how we love people as the deciding factor by which our lives will be measured, but than offer seemingly contradictory stories about who and how we are to even love people at all.

Yes, this is the Bible, a collection of sixty-six books, mostly told through narrative and poetry. If you thought it was a book of rules, than you’ve just had your first lesson on the art of religious Skimming. It isn’t the ‘rules’ of the Bible that will produce change in your life, it is the passionate story of a God and His People, of God become Man, and of understanding just how much this God loves you.
Author's Note II: I've heard Fundamentalists use this argument in terms of relationship (that is, to not Skim) and direct it at their spouse/girlfriend. It has been used as a tool to keep women in line, to keep unhealthy marriages together, etc... As soon as they do that, of course, they're guilty of religious skimming (using the Bible to control others). The Hard thing is not always the Religious thing. Let me say this clearly. You can not push this on others, rather, it a process of self-reflection. This is not about someone else. This is about you.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Make Your Life Easier... and Do the Hard Thing

Nobody gives up their dreams easily, especially when it comes to relationships. People can talk all they want about doing the hard thing or the right thing, but when you're in that moment, it is anything but easy. I know, because I've been there too...

Five Years Earlier...

I couldn't stop staring at the picture on the computer desk. Two strangers looked back at me; her blonde hair nestled against his shoulder, his arm rested comfortably around her waist, both with easy, happy smiles on their faces. The faces of two people on the verge of marriage, on the verge of a new lifetime, two people riding the crest of hope and possibility.

I didn't recognize them.

Six years had passed since that photograph, and with all the bumps and scars of a rocky marriage, a previous separation, and the years of putting it all back together over and over again, the time had come. Like Humpty Dumpty, the cracked shells of a once promising and fruitful relationship had long since soured, had fallen off the wall too many times, and it was time to confess the truth. It could not be put together again.
I flipped our picture face down on the desk. I could feel the tremors in my stomach and up into my throat as I waited for her to come home. I watched out the window as the sun began to sink low on the horizon, the orange glow slowly fading into the blue, its final bit of light an almost throbbing horizontal wedge of reds and whites, as if someone had tipped over the lamp in the corner to lend the world one final moment of brightness. I checked my watch. It wouldn't be long now.

It was hard to even contemplate what I was about to do. The separation had been hard enough the first time, but what would happen now? There was no second chance, no Disney ending here. Just the painful reality of a failed adult relationship. Even worse, it violated almost every core belief I'd ever held. I was heading towards an unmarked trail, and I could not be sure about where I would end up.

The door opened softly behind me.

"Hi." She said.


There was a pause, and I flipped our engagement picture back up. She stood in silence behind me for what seemed like a long time.

"I can't do this anymore." I said finally.

"I know. Me either."

I forced myself to stand and we headed into the living room. The sun had faded, the last of its dying light now cast into the sky for a few brief moments before the night would enshroud the world in darkness. We sat beside one another on the couch, and without so much as a word, embraced in a long and heartfelt hug as we cried and wept together. Night had come. The day had ended. And neither one of us knew what was next. All we knew was that it was the right thing to do, that we were slowly tearing each other to pieces, and that life was meant to be more than this. Insults and indignancy would come, especially from the church where we'd both been leaders. It would come from those who inevitably saw themselves as more and better, not only from Christians, but from the world of low self-esteem and unmerciful and un-nuanced thought. It would come from all those who saw the failings of humanity as strangely unmatched with those who believed in a purposeful and loving Creator.

It wasn't the opinions of others that worried me though. What scared me was the unknown, this life I had turned towards. I hadn't planned for my marriage to fail. I hadn't planned for a life in a city outside my hometown. And I hadn't planned for a life outside ministry and the church. And then, perhaps, there was my greatest fear. That somehow this change in relational status would provoke God's wrath, or that, more clearly, I would lose sight of my faith and the One to whom I'd been drawn even as a young boy.


The past five years have mostly been a journey along an unmarked trail, it's true, and ending my marriage was the hardest thing I've ever done, but time has proven it the right decision. That night, we both made the tough choice, and we are both better for it.

That said, I would never recommend divorce, as much because I understand its pain and its scars as anything else, but sometimes it is the right decision. I believe it saved my life, and the life of a good woman (happily remarried now) from being one of discontent and frustration. However, more and more I see this tendency within the church of carrying forward this notion that divorce is evil... that the institution of marriage is more important than the people in it... that God loves the idea of marriage more than He loves the people within the marriage. My point is that doing the hard thing, doing the right thing, does not always mean that the religious organizations will agree with you. Doing the hard thing is not about acting religious or making religious choices, but making the choices that will allow us to pursue our God given purpose and passions in our life. (And not for our own gain. Not to make ourselves look better, but to better affect the world around us.) Still, if we want to get to that point, we must learn this truth:

If you want to make your life easier, you need to learn to do the hard thing.

Even as I mention this, I'm certain that every one reading this can think of one or two things that they have been avoiding. And I'm not necessarily talking about something as huge as ending a relationship. Sometimes the thing we're avoiding is considerably smaller. Like going to the gym. Or making that phone call to our friend or family member. (Or setting a budget - every time I hear the word 'budget' a little piece of me wants to shrivel up!) Within each day, we will face one or two opportunities to do something difficult, something we do not want to do, EVEN THOUGH IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

Much of our trouble in this world comes from our unwillingness to do that thing, to have that talk, to end that relationship, to speak to our boss or coworker, to do our homework. Instead, we believe the myth that all things happen for a reason, and proceed to let it walk us down the path of laziness and complaint and bitterness and sorrow. So many people speak as if they are victims in their lives, and it is because they are. They have failed the litmus test every human is given, the one we take each day when that assignment or conversation or person comes across our path.

Will we do the hard thing? Will we make our lives easier and more abundant in the future, by doing what we know to be right? Will we train ourselves to see the world as a place of opportunity, instead of seeking places where we can hide, be they physical like our homes, or metaphysical like booze or work?

To do that however, to do the hard thing in life, we have to learn to love it a bit. We have to teach ourselves that it is in the challenges of life -- when our hearts beat fast, when the unsurety of our future paralyzes our thoughts, when fear is about to cast its final stake -- it is in those moments we need to smile and take a deep breath. It is in those moments, more than any other, when you begin to live, when you throw 'existence' and 'shame' to the side, and when you start to grasp not only who you are, but what the world can be.

I'm not talking about someone who holds an addiction to crisis, who needs to be continually fixing some 'important issue'. For that person, the right thing, the hard thing, will be to let it go, to pass the torch to someone else, and learn how to truly relax.

As the years have passed, I occasionally think about our decision that night, our decision to start over with someone else. Some nights are longer than others, because I have yet to join someone else on their life journey, and the possibility exists that it may not happen again. That said, I have no regrets. I laugh more than I used to laugh, a lot more. And I don't seek to escape as I once did, or run from new ideas. Possibilities and dreams ride within the freedom I now extol, and I have grown to love the challenges that wait around the corner. God has carried me this far, into new relationships with friends and colleagues, and into a much greater understanding of his mercy and grace.

People say many things when it comes to change, but doing the hard thing is never easy. There are days I don't want to workout, days I don't want to write, and times when I simply don't want to talk to people. But as I have learned to push myself, to create a blank spot in my mind so that I stop thinking about the negative possibilities and just leap, I've noticed how much easier it is to navigate life. I've noticed how much the world bends when I am willing to bend it, and what a great impact that can have on people.

My prayer this week is that you will examine your life closely. Take two things that you know you need to do, be they conversations or something else, and do them. Don't dwell on what will happen, just walk. Trust that your feet will guide you, and that God will be there where ever you end up. If you do that, even if the steps you take are small, I can promise you that the very world you live in will begin to change. And while the sun may fade for a while, while its rays may be lost for the evening, it will, as it always does, rise the next morning with new hopes, new dreams, and perhaps, a new life.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Death of Fear

One Life, Many Lifetimes

When I was kid, I wanted to be a hundred things when I grew up. It became a running joke around the house, much of it dependent on the last movie I'd seen or the last book I'd read. When I was eleven, I wanted to be a professional break-dancer, because I'd just seen the movie, "Breakin'". At various times I also wanted to be a professional boxer, professional baseball player, TV commentator, actor, writer, wildlife biologist, radio personality, teacher, or homicide detective. I also wanted to be Indiana Jones, but when I found out he was a professor, I wasn't that interested. Mainly I wanted the whip and the hat. I also wanted to play in the NBA, but I was intuitive enough to know that at 5'6" (until my growth spurt punched me up to 5'9" in Grade 10) with very little athletic ability in the way of jumping or speed, I probably would never be good enough or tall enough.

These days, my dreams haven't changed a whole lot. I still want to be a thousand different things. At thirty-five however, my choices are somewhat limited. For example, I'd be a veteran player in professional baseball, perhaps the most un-athletic of the major sports. Wildlife biologist, well, I'm not sure I have time to go back to school for that one. The same is true for being a homicide detective with a witty repartee and weathered fedora. (On the plus side, Indiana Jones may still be available since Harrison Ford has decided to return to the whip and hat at the age of 87) Sometimes, this gravitational pull towards so many things is not helpful. A number of people my age have already established themselves in one field or another, and I have moments when I wish I wasn't so "spread out", moments when I wish my interests were more limited. It'd be easier, but in the end, it wouldn't be me.

My situation is not uncommon. In our culture today, many of us will hold down four or five positions over our working life. Unlike my parents' generation, who worked many years for the same company, there are very few gold watched being handed out. These days our culture will give us one life; the same as any other generation, because that is all what we humans are given. But it will also give us many lifetimes. And therein lies the rub.

Not everyone is filled with multiple dreams (or such a short attention span) but within all of us lies two or three issues, two or three driving forces or ideals around which our lives coalesce. That is, two or three themes upon which our lives will continually orbit. These themes are the echo of our learning, our childhood, our experiences, our desires, our needs and our hopes, and they manifest themselves consistently, even if we are unaware of what they are. Self-awareness begins when we recognize what these themes are. And once we recognize who we are, we have the ability to mobilize ourselves towards that, which is intrinsic within us. That is, once we know what dance we do best, we know what music to listen for so that the dance matches the music. When that happens, when we have congruency between who we are, and what we are moving towards, we begin to find the contentment that all of us seek.

One life. Many lifetimes.

What fear does, and what makes fear so powerful, is that it tells us that this lifetime, this temporal space of time, be it five months or five years or fifteen years, IS our life. It tells us that if we leave or move from one lifetime to another, even for a minor adjustment such as a job promotion or a change in living quarters, we are in effect dissembling who we are. Fear is a toxic mix of half-truths and bad experiences, locked within a temporal and non-teleogical philosophy (no God, no Ultimate Good). It is, in my estimation, the most insidious of human enemies because it masks itself so easily. It is often difficult to recognize outside the corporal walls of self. (We rarely know when fear is the true motivator behind another's actions, especially when it is well masked within the cores of rationalization and justification).

I mention this because understanding who we are, and moving towards that GRAND goal, is always blocked by one thing. One enemy. And that enemy, is fear. Fear is capable of turning the staunchest defenders of faith and mercy into sword wielding Bible beaters, of turning the most optimistic people into doubters, of arresting the entire lives of a certain individual through one or two reminders of past failures. Like a virus, it spreads both genetically and orally. Many of us act as its carriers without ever realizing it.

And the only way to rid ourselves of it is to understand that so long as we live, we will encounter fear. Every single one of us will at times be afraid. However, it is in those moments, when our hearts beat a little faster, when our stomach clenches, that we must press on and do the thing that fear is telling us NOT to do. (Unless, of course, it's telling you not to walk across a busy four-lane highway with a blindfold on. That's not fear, that's basic intelligence.)

Understand that "Fear" is most vulnerable when it reveals itself physically in us. Every time you take a stand against it -- when you make the call you don't want to make, when you confront the person, when you tell the truth, when you accept the challenge -- your confidence grows. Soon enough you begin to see change in your life, because the things that once stood like roadblocks now look like speed bumps.

One life. Many lifetimes.

The transition from one lifetime to another is sometimes clear. A new job. A break in a long-term relationship. Other times, however, it is more like a long bend in the road instead of a simple fork. Whichever way our life changes doesn't matter, because for those who seek to grow, we will face the same obstacles, the same roadblocks, the same dissidents and proletizers who will work hard to pin us to a single life. They will offer up phrases such as "the real world" or "suck it up" or "that's life" or any other number of word combinations designed to keep you in one square your entire life. It's understandable, because it's easier when everyone knows who we are and what role we're occupying. The goofy uncle. The ultra neat homemaker. The cranky niece. The radical feminist. The crazy dreamer. We label others, and when we do, we label ourselves.

When we label ourselves, we limit ourselves.

One life. Many lifetimes.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be many things. I still do. But whatever I do, I will always be the same man. I will change and I hope to grow, I desperately hope to follow in the footsteps of my Hero and look more like Him. But that doesn't mean I must stay in the same lifetime to echo the life of Jesus. In fact, it probably means that I should be even more open to change -- not only in life, but also in thought and deed -- because what matters isn't the tie or dress or apron I wear at work (my apron is a nice, incandescent green, by the way) but the heart of the life that beats beneath it.

We can dress ourselves up in different clothes or occupations, we can wear the politics of our job or religion so that we look a certain way, but no matter what lifetime we exist in, the life beneath it is the only one that matters. Because that is the life that will touch those around you. That is the life that will make friends and care about others wherever they are. That is the life that will admit its mistakes and humble itself before God and others.

One life. Many lifetimes.

It's easy to lose sight of our purpose in the hectic pace of our society. It's easy to get discouraged by those who seek to pin us down. And it's easy to allow fear to drive us from following the path and passion of what God has called us to. My prayer is that you will begin to live in the present. That no matter where you find yourself, no matter how many changes you go through, no matter how many lifetimes you have lived, that you will not allow fear to stand in your way. But that you will recognize that you have been given one life; a life capable of greatness and humility, of love and honour, and of joy and contentment.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

How Do I Change my Life?

When I was younger, I was always reading books and watching movies that I thought would help my writing. I wondered what it meant to 'be a writer.' I loved writing, of course, and I pursued it vigorously. I filled my shelves with how-to books, and any film or teaching on writing I inhaled as if in deep need of fresh oxygen. Too often however, their words of wisdom seemed, well, so ordinary, as if I was merely studying to be a plumber or carpenter. They talked about craft, about grammar and plot and theme. While helpful, none of them addressed the magical aspect of writing, this somewhat fantastical idea of writing I'd held in my head for so long. The more I read, the more the dream of writing began to lose its luster.

When the movie Finding Forrester came out, a film about an older novelist who mentors a young aspiring writer, I went to the theatre eager to absorb this new drama, hopeful for a return to the mystical wide-eyed days of my youth. I was sure that this Hollywood film with Sean Connery would surely deliver something to bring back the magical aspects of my dream.

It never happened.

However, it taught me something profound, something that I have re-absorbed many times these past few years.

In one of the key scenes, Connery's older writer gives his young protégé his first advice about writing.

"Writers write."

It is, in so many ways, an inane comment. However, like most young writers, I was so caught up with the idea of writing, that I devoted very little time to the craft itself. I was in love with the idea of the cafe writer, of passing great wisdom, of seeing that wisdom wonderfully extricated in my own ability with the quill. In my mind I could see people sigh and shake their heads in wonder as they nestled into my words. With all my dreaming though, the actual act of sitting down and pounding out work somehow got lost. It took a couple of years before I realized that to be a writer meant one thing first and one thing only.

Writers write.

A very dear friend sent me an email a couple of weeks ago. She commented on my change in life, and my newfound contentment. She asked me what my secret was to letting go and creating my new life. I didn't reply to her email immediately, mainly because I wanted to think about it. The other night, I met a woman who asked me a similar question. How did I change my life? How did I know that it would work in this manner? The more I thought about it, the more I realized the simple truth of the older writer in Finding Forrester... writers write.

To change your life, you simply need to change it.

It sounds like a ridiculous answer, I understand. We are a culture that is forever seeking the 'keys' to everything. We love lists and proposals, and we love it when everything is broken down for us into a simple policy we can apply to out life. Perhaps this is the reason we have turned the deep resonant faith of one who follows Jesus, into a largely ignorant piety that no longer asks any questions. We have become content with the "list". My friend who wrote me is not like this, and hers is a sincere question I often hear echoed when I talk to people. Still, my answer remains the same.

To change your life, you simply need to change it.

Most of us fear change, we fear uncertainty. Some of us believe things will happen eventually, and get stuck in their daily routine. But those who wish to change their life do not wait, but begin the process by doing something differently today that they did not do yesterday. We place a high value on intelligence and social standing in our world, but for those who would change their life, the opportunity is always there. Why? Because most people lack the will to do ANYTHING different. Most of us travel the same path upon which we have been headed since we were seventeen. Any changes in our life are largely incidental.

There is a great myth in Western society that the void in our lives can be filled by increasing the pleasure content. That is, we work hard during the day, and buy a bigger van or house or TV to watch at night to help 'even things out'. Only things never quite work that way, do they? We get stuck in a trap of increasing our income and workload to afford a life of pleasure and sensuality, a dishonest and shallow life we've created to overcome the loss of passion and purpose. We read self-help books and listen to inspiring talks and movies, hopeful for the next list or set of 'keys' that will help us achieve a breakthrough. And yet, the only thing we need to know is this:

Those who wish to change their life, need simply to change it.

We in the West are lucky, as we are so rich as to be able to even consider change. But the message of who we are and who we strive to be is translatable. It is the gospel message. It is not about power and income; it is about passion and purpose, the same passions and purposes that God gives to all His children. Poor or rich, our goal in life is not to follow a list of rules or ideas from some commentator, no matter how encouraging they may seem, but to tune into the echo of our own heart, and the heart of the One who created us, and learn to walk in step with that rhythm.

It is an extraordinary thing to change your life, but it is easy enough to do. One need only take a step in another direction, and with the occasional glance into the heavens and the reassurance of God's love, keep moving towards the thing that beckons us forward. We do not need to fill our lives with the melodramatics of what was or what can never be. Better to walk towards what could be, and go from there. Chances are, so long as you keep moving, you will change your life. And with it, begin to realize some of the dreams you buried so long ago.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Will The Change in Seasons Mean Change in Your Life?

The rain sweeps in like a fine mist, and beneath the cool air I can taste the frshness of a long awaited spring. The piles of snow melt like summer glaciers at the end of the driveway and I can't help but sigh a grateful prayer of thanks for the coming wave of spring. It feels like I have been cold all winter, the endless snow storms and huddled walks in my parka, from one cold environment to another, have left me somewhat exhausted. Hopefully those days are gone, and the record snowfall of 2008 is behind us.

It's hard sometimes, for people in say, California or Italy to appreciate the change in seasons, espcially from winter to spring. When the weather is perpetually nice, it's difficult to understand what a simple pleasure it is to walk outside without a coat (and that's assuming you are lucky enough to own one) There is a sense, at least for me, that during the winter the weather exerts a great deal of control over my life. How cold is it? Is it snowing? What about my car? How will I get there? The winter offers nothing but questions for seemingly every proposition. In the spring however, so many of those questions are put back into my hands. Transportation. (I can always walk or ride a bike) What I wear. Safety concerns. There is a sense in spring that I regain some measure of control over my life. Perhaps that is why we tend to find the change in season so exhilirating.

Unfortunately, for most of us it is merely an illusion. Many of us will have the same spring we had last year. Not because we're happy, but because we're so afraid to change. Even the most content, joyous person in the world must occasionally change their life, because the inevitable nature of humanity is dynamic. We can become greedier, more egocentric, more selfish. We can become more lonely, more discouraged. More depressed. Or, we can become more unselfish, more giving, more patient and more merciful. The key here, is that the choice of being static is not up to us.

People often say "You haven't changed at all", but we understand that of course we change, even if we look the same. (Especially for those of us who shave our heads) But HOW have we changed and what part of ourselves are we nurturing towards growth is what matters.

I bump into so many people every day who are eking out a life, existing instead of living. Sure, it was a long winter. And we do need to rest. But we can not rest too long, because when we do, we slowly stop making the choices we need to carve out the life God has planned for us.

That part we have to do ourselves. God walks with us, but we still have to walk.

Here's an idea. Think of one thing you have always wanted to do, and have never done. Something challenging, something that addresses certain fears (e.g. skydiving) or certain goals (e.g. write a column for a newspaper). Resolve yourself to attain that goal by the end of this year, and start by taking baby steps towards it (research, writing, etc...) I think you'll find that every time you address a particularly desirable (or undesirable) challenge you unveil a key aspect of your own personality. This is growth. The more we learn about ourselves, the better suited we will be to put our fears behind us, and to cut the chains from past experiences that do nothing but weigh us down. The other important part of learning who we are is to allow God to examine our hearts, to humble ourselves before the One who created us.

I know there are commentators who discuss spirituality and growth and self-improvement, and who do so in a wonderfully encouraging way. But to focus only on ourselves is to miss the point. It is in this that Jesus matters. Without this constant source of love, and yes, confession of my own frailties and weaknesses, my growth will inevitably become ego-centric. And to grow inward is not to grow at all. Learning to bow my head, and look at the dirt in my own life, and ask God to forgive me (knowing that He does) gives me not only the confidence, but the humility to become the person He longs for me to be.

Spring without a new set of challenges merely indicates a change in the season. But if you're willing, you can make this spring the stepping stone for a whole new life. My prayer is that you'll step out in both confidence and humility towards that which God has for you, and along the way, enjoy the weather.


Authour's Note: I just wanted to say thank you for making this past month the most successful in the short 14 month history of this website. I am humbled by your readership, and want you to know how much you give me in return. Thanks so much everyone. Blessings....