Sunday, October 30, 2011

Though He Slay Me

Andree Seu, whose writing I have enjoyed for years, has another stellar article in the October 22 issue of World magazine. Here are some exerpts from “Not Turning Back.”

“Scott and Janet Willis lost six children in a single day when a piece of metal fell off a truck and punctured the gas tank of their minivan…
   By the ball of  fire that consumed their minivan on Interstate 94, Scott…said to his wife…the best words he could have said: ‘It was very quick.  And they’re with the Lord now…’
    Surrounded by emergency responders, Janet kept praying out, ‘I  will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth,;’ with the accent on ‘will.’  I believe it is the same way Jesus must have cried to His Father, ‘I will put my trust in Him’ (Hebrews 2:13), not from a lotus position, but in torment…”

     I was talking with a friend recently who asked: “If I pray and ask God to help, but I don’t really have confidence that He will, is it still faith?”  My response: “The fact that you asked God to intervene in a situation that you acknowledged was beyond your control is an act of faith.  When the Roman centurion said ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,’ Jesus did not berate him.  Jesus blessed him."
  I wonder if prayers offered during stormy days of doubt don’t honor God more than prayers tossed lightly toward heaven during sunny days of ease.
   Back to the article…

   “Gone is my ability ever to say that the Lord does not expect us to praise Him at all times….Banished are my quid pro quos, the restrictions I put on God’s discipline unawares; the time limits I set Him for pulling rescue out of affliction; the lines I would not let Him cross; the right I reserved to judge His justice..  The Willises have placed their stake here: ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him’ (Job 13:15).
   ‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear’ (Isaiah 54:1).  A command to sing at such a time would be cruel counsel if it were not true that in worship we find deliverance… Praise in the face of devastation releases blessings obtainable in no other way…
    What a privilege to meet someone [the Willises] to whom the Lord has entrusted so much suffering.”

And if that’s not a life-changing way to view trials, I don’t know what is. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Slouching Towards Halloween

I need to give some background before I weigh in on Halloween.  Context matters.

As a child, I was raised in a Christian community that did not observe Halloween at all.  We might have given something to oddly arrayed children on our doorstep, but we never dressed up, never went out, and tried to do our best not to support the holiday. I didn't really care; my mom didn't give us kids candy anyway.

As a young adult, I learned a lot about the holiday from people who had done more than dabble in the occult.  Whatever you might think of the legitimacy of their attempts to connect with the dark side, they were pretty serious about what they hoped to accomplish, and Halloween was their Christmas and Easter rolled into one.  They told very dark stories about what happened during this holiday, the kind that keep you up at night.

As an older adult, I have moved out of that community and come in contact with a lot of other sincere Christians who view Halloween as just another holiday.  I have revisited my long held opinions over the years, and while I have not changed much in my opinions, I have realized there are at least two ways Christians view Halloween that are strikingly different, but solidly supportable.

1)  The Bible says that, because of Christ, death and the grave have lost their sting.  Any victory they have over people is temporary and hollow.  The Bible also says that while Satan is like a devouring lion, he is nothing in the face of the power of God.  To some Christians, Halloween is a time to mock the hollow power of the grave, to laugh in the face of death. Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal; why can't modern day prophets mock the false idols and gods of our culture too?  The only thing the Bible tells us to fear is God, and if we can't laugh in the face of death and the grave, then we don't understand the power of God.  Sure, people dress up in the costumes of the denizens of why not dress up like Cinderella and trivialize the impact of the dark?  Evil's power is felt most strongly when it control us; why not take the one holiday that celebrates evil and make fun of its attempt to be so macho and scary?  We are the people of light; we ain't afraid of no ghosts!

2) The supernatural world is very real, and the the realm of darkness is dangerous and destructive.  God is a God of creation, order, goodness, life and light; evil promotes chaos, destruction, death and darkness.  Halloween trivializes the seriousness of the stakes.  It's one think to mock evil's false pretense; it's quite another to join the celebrations in which we scare ourselves and mimic the things that we know to be wrong with the world.  We get upset when the the Easter Bunny and marshmallow peeps distract people at Easter, because there is a real message that goes with Easter, an underlying truth of eternal significance.  We get upset at the commercialization of Christmas, because it distorts or obscures a message the needs to be heard.  And yet at Halloween, we contribute to the trivialization of a reality that ought not be made silly  - and certainly not celebrated. 

There are middle ground positions, but I think that captures the poles.  I have friends who defend both sides with equal vigor and capability.  My point is not to tell you which one is the right one (though I suspect you know where I stand). If you observe Halloween differently than I do, more power to ya'.  Just don't gloss over the fact that our decision ought to be well informed and purposeful.  

As a postscript, here's my short list of reality checks:

1)  If you believe in the supernatural world, you cannot just say, "Oh, it's only fun and games and dress up.  Lighten up."  You have to grapple with the fact that it is the one holiday that highlights the entropy and chaos in the world.  You may end up legitimately choosing either of the above approaches, but you can't do it lightly.

2) It is the holiday that gets the most overtly destructive responses from people (see here, and here, here, here, and here).  When killing cats, committing arson, and just in general making law enforcement buckle up are things that logically follow from the holiday, something is not all right.  Here's what you get in Canada: 
56% — The proportion of all criminal incidents reported during Hallowe'en 2006 that were violations against property.
18% — The proportion of all criminal incidents reported during Hallowe'en 2006 that were violations against the person.
11% — The percentage increase in Other Criminal Code violations such as weapons-related offences, public morals and disturbing the peace reported during Hallowe'en 2006 compared to a week earlier (i.e. October 24, 2006).
38% — The percentage increase in violent offences such as robbery, aggravated assault, assaults causing bodily harm and assaults against police officers reported during Hallowe'en 2006 compared to a week earlier (i.e. October 24, 2006).
22% — The percentage increase in property violations, including general mischief and arson reported to police during Hallowe'en 2006 compared to a week earlier (i.e. October 24, 2006).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Feeling Like A Train Wreck

Great article from on issue of grief and loss:

Like anyone grieving a loss, I felt like a train wreck at times. Why hadn't we gotten our miracle? Everyone kept saying we would. What went wrong? I needed my mom. Didn't God understand that? 
I've learned that grieving does not have a time frame; it's more of a day-by-day process and can be done as long as needed.
Someone told me not to grieve – "She's in heaven; you should rejoice." But a deep connection had been severed. I couldn't help but cry. Some days I couldn't stop crying. Sometimes when I would try to confide in others about how I was feeling, they would change the subject, almost as if they were afraid of the subject of grief or didn't want to bring me any more pain. I felt alone at times. 
But again God never left my side. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Photoshopping My Life

I went hiking on the Boardman River Saturday evening with my mom and two of my boys.  Since the peak of the color tour passed about two weeks ago, I wasn't really expecting much from Mother Nature, so I was pleasantly surprised when the autumn colors sprang out from unexpected places.  SmartPhone in hand, I hiked and took pictures with the second app I have figured out (Angry Birds was the first one). 

When we got home, I uploaded them to iphoto and let Mac do its magic.  My mom murmured kind words about my pictures, then said with a hint of sadness, "That's even nicer than it was."

Any you know what? She was right.  The pictures make our hike look a lot cooler than it was.  I clicked buttons and slid bars until I made a picture that, to a large degree, was not true.  The only picture that accurately captured the event was one where Vincent did NOT want his picture taken.  When you see his face - that's how it was.  

I was on a mission trip once in which a father and daughter were among the group.  When I saw photos after the trip, the smiling, affectionate freeze frame put the lie to a trip that was full of tension, avoidance, and drama. I remember thinking, "Hey, at least they have their pictures. I hope it makes up for the trip."

As a Christian, I give allegiance to a worldview that grounds itself in words more than images. "In the beginning was the Word..." Jews eventually became know as People of the Book, and Christianity arose from the soil of language as expression, not image.  In fact, the 10 Commandments make clear that God was not interested in His people trying to capture His reality or nature through images.  Could it be that God was protecting us from our ability to distort and manipulate reality through the use of images?  

The Bible  contains lots of beautiful poetic imagery and word pictures to describe God, but that's not the same thing as the actual image. When Jesus incarnated as the express image of God, even that was temporary, not permanent.  

That command about images always seemed odd to me, but I'm starting to feel differently. Is it possible that the Bible (and by extension, God) stresses the importance of words to capture history and history's God because both the power and the frailty of images are greater than that of words?  Sure, images move us - one of them is worth 1,000 words, I suppose - but that great blessing can also be a great curse.  

For the record, I love the fact that my hike with mom is recorded in pictures.  If nothing else, the pictures will keep her life close to me even though the moment is passed.  

But I will also remember, whenever I see the pictures, that the day was not quite that sunny, and the colors not quite that bright, and the lake not quite so blue.... and wonder what else about my life I have not remembered truthfully, and why real life is so bland to me that I must photoshop it to treasure it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Roller Coaster Rides and Horror Shows

    Because of the book publication, I've been asked several times recently what I think about  how we handle death.  I have responded that we need to be more bold looking at it.  We need to not shy away from death, not try to get the viewing and the funeral over as quickly as we can.   So many other cultures (throughout history and now) have stopped the course of life when someone died. People didn't just go back to work Monday.  People didn't just reenter the flow of life as if nothing but a blip had occurred. 
     People mourned in a way that disrupted their life.  Something had changed; it could not be minimized or ignored.  Someone who mattered could not longer be spoken to, and hugged, and experienced.  Life stopped for a bit; history slowed down; the universe felt the loss of even one person. 
   Perhaps it is a reflection of a society where human life has been trivialized and economized  and naturalized   that we barely have time to stop for death, an event that simply doesn't matter in the overall scheme of things.   We are all atoms in motion, chemicals in a bag, in a universe of blind, pitiless indifference.  
   So I was heartened to read this in a recent article at First Things: 

Death in times past was not necessarily less tragic to those who lost loved ones, but death was more prevalent, more public, more visible, and more a natural part of life than it is today. Our society is truly death-denying. Fitness centers, alternative medicines, an endless supply of diets are the order of the day. Consumers want the fountain of youth. You may object, of course, that death is all around us. The news and the movies are filled with death. But I suggest that this phenomenon itself is a further sign of a death-denying society. Death has become so commonplace as to be unreal. We can ignore death because it happens to others and not to us, or it is simply pretend. We can gloss over real fear with pretend fear. This is why people ride roller-coasters and go to horror shows. 

 Preach it.  The life of pretend is for children, or for Peter Pan, but not for men and women who have grown up and seen the world for what it is.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why Behavior Matters

In the ongoing interest of looking at life honesty, it is worth noting the current debate over how to best treat the AIDS epidemic around the world.  From The Greening of AIDS Prevention
If our aim is to reduce HIV infection rates (and that’s a big “if”), then why are we so reluctant to talk about partners’ being faithful to one another, or to mention the dreaded A-word, abstinence (which was known in Uganda as “delaying sexual debut”)? Why do we restrict ourselves to drugs and devices (such as condoms)...  
     HIV rates are declining in most of the world, except for our country and our friends in the U.K. and also in other European and Western countries, including, I think, Canada and Australia. Therefore we must be doing something wrong in AIDS prevention both here and in the U.K. (and elsewhere). In both countries, MSM (men who have sex with men) comprise the sub-population with the highest HIV-infection rates. Our prevention strategy is to make gay men knowledgeable about AIDS risks and prevention, and for prevention to be based on condoms and drugs. There is little or no attention given to influencing behavior in the direction of greater caution." 

I'm posting this not because I want to harp on sex, but because I get frustrated that honest discussion about issues such as AIDS gets ignored when it infringes on our lives.  If it's true, it matters, no matter what the topic.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

   WTCM AM 580 was kind enough to do an interview with me about the book.  Thanks, Norm Jones and WTCM, for the opportunity!  And if you live close to Traverse City, you are welcome to come to the Good Work Collective on Union Street on Monday, October 17, from 6:00 to about 7:30 pm.  I have asked a number or area organizations that offer helpful services to those in grief to help sponsor a book release event.  As I believe grief recovery is best done holistically, I have invited organizations that can help people spiritually (Church of the Living God, Traverse City Christian School), mentally and  emotionally (Forest Lakes Counseling, Pine Rest, Michael's Place, and Peace Ranch), and physically (Aurora Physical Therapy, Great Lakes Clinical Massage, and TC Total Crossfit). Throughout the evening you will be able to get to know the organization and the representatives, as well as learn a little more about the book.  
   Grief is universal; everybody grieves.  This evening will look at that grief honestly, then point the way toward the hope that we all can find.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When Jesus Smells Like Freshly Baked Bread

"Imagine being taken over to some family’s home and being told in advance that this family had really tapped into a deeper and truer and more beautiful way of relating to each other. But then, when the front door opens, all you smell are stale socks and a little pyramid of cat poo that’s lurking in the corner. The smell itself is already an argument against everything you’ve been told about these people, and anything they might have to say to you. But imagine if that door opens and you get hit with the smell of baking bread–you are now prepared to react differently. This is not to say that the wonderful smell establishes truth all on its own, but it is a testifying witness.
And this issue goes a lot further than mere pragmatic examples of efficacy in persuasion. If we Christians have the truth, and that truth is beautiful – more beautiful than any other message or religion out there – and then we present it in stammering, clumsy, irreverent, or ugly ways, well, we’re hypocrites. We’re living unfaithfully to the Truth. But if we live in a state of celebration and joy and gratitude, and if our words and our art and our presentations of that truth hit people like the smell of baking bread, then we’re getting somewhere."
   Too many times I have heard the phrase: "I just have to speak the truth about Jesus. If it's offensive, that's not my fault."  Sometimes that's true: the message of the Cross can be a hurdle all on its own. But what if it is your fault?  What if the Truth is obscured by the ugliness of your presentation, or maybe just the dullness, or just the lack of a concerted effort to know what you believe and why?  
   Claiming the right to be offensive can be an excuse to avoid the hard work of self-examination.  It's a way to dodge the possibility that the messenger might sometimes obscure or distort the message.  Nobody wants to think they have boarded up or dirtied the window through which people would see Christ.  Nobody wants to think the hurdles on the road to the cross were placed there by them.  
   It's hard to see yourself accurately, but the Kingdom of God is not for the timid.  You have to be strong to see yourself for who you are at, and you have to be ready to do the hard work of becoming something new. 
     On the other hand....  If you have ever met someone who knows how to blend the Truth of Christ with the beauty of their life, you know you have been in the presence of a true disciple.  

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Article in the Record-Eagle

Thanks, Traverse City Record-Eagle, for doing a story on my book.  I had a great conversation with Marta (the staff writer) last Wednesday at Good Harbor, and she did a nice job encapsulating an hour and fifteen minute conversation into the article.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Holy Instability

First, a quote from this article in Christianity Today:
We can stop pretending God is nice, as if it's his job to make our lives well-adjusted or religious or even spiritual. Jesus did not say he came to give us happiness, only blessedness. He did not promise an easy life, only an abundant one. He doesn't call us to be religious or spiritual, but to love God and love others. We can save ourselves a lot of grief if we recognize that up front. 
This means at least two things: (1) He's not going to spare us from heartache, suffering, and chaos. (2) He's actually going to bring heartache, suffering, and chaos into our lives sometimes.
We hear about the first often, and we've been rightly told that when evil embeds itself in our lives through death or disease or destruction that the truths of the gospel remain: God is still Emmanuel, with us. He is, even in the worst circumstances, taking that worst thing, like he took the death of his Son, and turning it into something redemptive. It's only a matter of time.
But the biblical picture shows us that sometimes God doesn't merely react to the evil chaos in our lives, he sometimes creates what might be called holy chaos. Like he did to the Pharisees. And to Peter. And to Paul. And to the disciples at Pentecost. He does things in our lives that leave us confused and bewildered for a time.
In this, too, we are wise to remember that God is still Emmanuel, with us. In this case, he's not merely using chaos, he is instilling a holy chaos into our lives."
    I'm still wrapping my mind around a God who not only allows, but sometimes brings holy disruption.  It's...unsettling...but would I really want it any other way?  "Jesus: The God Who Coddles" is hardly a tagline that promotes allegiance.   
  Here's an analogy.  I go to a gym that uses instability as a training tool.  They don't use machines at all; in fact, they try to destabalize as many moves as is safely possible so as to engage as many muscles as possible.  If you're going to work out, why not do it right?  It works; the results for their clients are impressive. It's not a gym that coddles, but it's a gym that makes athletic men and women out of boys and girls.
  I want a God who destabalizes as many moves in my life as is safely possible.  If I'm going to ask Him to make me strong, why not do it right? And when, in the end, when we see how Jesus made spiritual men and women out of boys and girls, we will give Him the praise He deserves.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How Could I Not Have Remembered?

From a recent, unpublished journal entry:

     The family reunion in June  2011 presented an event both anticipated and dreaded:  the first Weber reunion service for dad, grandpa, and my cousin’s child who had died shortly after birth several months before.
   When we gathered Saturday night, it was the first time at a family reunion that I remember people openly crying.  Aunts and uncles shared poignant stories about dad’s final months.  We revisited fond memories of Grandpa, and talked about the memories we wish we could have made with my cousin’s child.
      I felt sad, but solid.  Hurting, but healthy.  After so many years,  I seemed to have found my long sought peace.
Until I saw the pictures.
  My mom had assembled a photo album spanning dad’s life, including the final months.  My uncle Calvin handed it to me and said, very quietly and carefully, “Have you seen these?” I hadn’t – or at least I didn’t remember seeing them before. 

     A ghost stared back at me from those pages;  dad had been a wraith at the end of his life, a scarecrow covered with cancer-strained skin.  This could not have been my dad.  This was not how I remembered him.
     The whole world seemed to shift.  The moment was surreal, and even as I write about it I can’t fully explain what I mean.  I thought briefly that I was hallucinating.  I blinked, looked away, looked back, but the pictures had not changed. My dad had been one of the walking dead. 
    How could I not have remembered?
     I picked up the album and walked out of the room. I found an empty stairwell, sat down, and sobbed and stared for a long time. This time, I looked at all those final pictures carefully.  I had dodged them once – no worse, I’m pretty sure I had seen them and blocked them from my memory.  After all my complaining about how other people buried the memory of my dad, I had done the same thing.
      I wouldn’t do it again.  I wanted to see them honestly this time.  I soaked them in through my tears, absorbing them as best I could.
            When I was done, I stopped Vincent from bouncing off a wall and said, “Let’s go for a walk, bud.”  I missed my Dad more than I had in years; I needed to spend time with my son.  I needed to build a memory of a strong, healthy dad for my impressionable youngest boy.  Vincent laughed, and talked, and eventually made me carry him as we walked through the shuttered, late night downtown  of Berea, Kentucky for an hour and a half.  I needed the darkness.  I’d had enough light for one day.
    But when I returned to the light streaming from the windows of our reunion site, Vincent riding my shoulders triumphantly, I walked through the door to find a game of Scrabble, and deliciously fattening late night snacks, and a fantastic family, and the soft laughter and gentle smiles of those who have learned that the good moments in life are meant for enjoyment, and the bad moments in life will one day pass, and that while we may all seek the darkness at times to cover our frailty and hide out tears, the light will always beckon us back to life.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

No, I'm not alright

    I just bought Switchfoot's new CD, and I suspect there will be more than one post that results from this.  
    Whether it was purposeful or not, the CD follows a story arc.  The last song is the anthem of hope ("I still believe we can live forever..."), and the first song is a rallying cry for everyone who wants more from this life ("I've tasted fire - I'm ready to come alive.")  In between are 10 songs about the challenges and struggles of ordinary life.
     "Thrive" caught my attention this week.  I have found that I am at my worst when I think I'm okay, but I'm at my best when I know I'm not.  There's plenty of analogies.  Sports players who think they have arrived are a nightmare to coach; husbands who think their wives have no idea the quality man they have are the biggest jerks; the friend who thinks they know everything about a topic are the most obnoxious to talk to.          
     The best kid to coach is the one who thinks has nothing to offer, but wants to make a difference.  The best husband is the one who knows that the love his wife has to offer is necessarily full of grace and forgiveness; the best friend is the one who's humility permeates his approach to life.
   Here's the chorus of "Thrive":

No I'm not alright

I know that I'm not right
A steering wheel don't mean you can drive
A warm body don't mean I'm alive
No I'm not alright...

    We live in a culture that fills us with the message of self-esteem.  I'm not convinced that is the answer to the problems that plague us.  There is something freeing about being able to say, "You know what?  I'm not okay.  I'm flawed, I'm tired.  I'm not good enough."  This seems counterintuitive, but how can we find the cure for what ails us if we don't recognize the problem?  We tend to look all around us for the cause of our loneliness, our unhappiness, our depression, then assume the cure needs to be offered to others.
     But of course, if we are the problem - if "the sickness is myself" - well, that's an entirely different person who needs a cure.
      "Thrive" ends on a different note:
I get so down but I won't give up,
I get slowed down but I won't give up...
I want to thrive, not just survive.

     To thrive - to really be healthy - we must be honest enough to look at ourselves and understand our need for a cure - and a Savior.  Only then do we thrive.  Only then do we become truly alive.