Saturday, January 28, 2012

Grief and the Art of Motorcycle Racing

     Bikers know what it means to “lean in” to the bends in the road.  If they want to turn right at a curve, they lean right.  At the same time, they countersteer by actually pushing the handlebars the opposite direction.  Lean right, but turn left.
   I have been known to do the opposite on both counts.  I intuitively tend to lean away from the curve (why would I want to be that close to the ground?), and I steer into the curve.  I even did this once with a friend’s three-wheeler.  It ended badly, but I’m happy to report the tree was fine.
   Those who learn how to “lean in” ride safely through the curves and continue on, the bike’s dirty side down and shiny side up.  Too often riders lay it down, much to the delight of thousands of people looking for entertainment on “Ridiculousness,” and much to the chagrin of the one who walks away with scars. 

    I have noticed there a many things in life in which the counterintuitive choice is the right one.  I intuitively want to lash out when I’m angry; kick the cat when it wakes me up at 2:00 in the morning last Monday; buy shiny things with credit cards; and eat whatever I want (hello, BWW!).  After all, it feels natural.  But when I do, I soon find I can’t handle the curves of life. The shiny side of my relationships, finances, and health go down in a hurry as I slide into the ditch, battered and scraped and in need of help.
    When I make the correct choice that goes against my initial response, I survive the curves.  I don’t hurt people when I’m angry; I don’t have to apologize to my wife about the whole cat incident; my credit stays good; my weight remains in the same area code.
    That’s a much better journey.  But in spite of all the positive results, counterintuitive is still hard.  It’s good, but it’s hard.

     Recently I was talking with some friends about grief.  One was grieving the death of a career and a dream: the other the death of a marriage. They approached me because they knew my father had died, and that I too was no stranger to grief.
     In the aftermath of loss, our initial, intuitive response is to lean away from the pain.  Even worse, we simultaneously steer our lives the wrong way and miss the curves.  This does not end well, as the curves in the road to grief recovery are not curves you want to miss. The ditches are deep, and very dark.
    But that’s what happens when we avoid leaning in and steering well.  In more practical terms, this involves leaning in to the depths of ourselves by thinking, talking and writing about deep emotions and poignant memories, and steering toward instead of away from God and others,
     The night may be dark, the road full of potholes, the driving conditions poor, and the turns hairpin. 

Lean in anyway. 

Somewhere down the road, grieving souls are lying in a ditch, waiting for someone who can nurse them back to health, set them back on the road of life, and teach them how to ride.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Every Song is a Sermon

"A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver."  - Proverbs 25:11

Communication is powerful.  The Bible warns about the power of our speech, suggesting we have the power to give and take away life with our words (Proverbs 18:21).  If you have ever received an insult or a poorly timed thoughtless comment,  or been brought from the depths of despair by a generous word, you know what this verse means. What we say matters, even in the things we think are just mindless amusements.

We can't escape the fact that worldviews are embedded in the arts and entertainment around us.  When the message is true and good, we walk away better people.  When the message is false and distorted, we walk away a little more broken than before whether we feel it or not.

Every song is a sermon. Every movie is a message.  Every book has a mission.

From a longer post at

The church historically has worked itself into quite a few knots over what to do with culture.  There’s Jerusalem, and there’s Athens:  should they intersect or not?   To update Tertullian, what does Hogwarts have to do with Narnia, or LMFAO with Third Day? 
The Apostle Paul’s dove right in to Greek and Roman culture,  plundering the works of their own mid-level philosophers and using them to represent truth about the Kingdom of God.  While at the Acropolis (Acts 17), Paul quotes from a Hymn to Zeus written by the Hellenist poet Aratus (“For we are indeed His offspring”);  he also references Epimenides (“In him we live, and move, and have our being”),  who is credited with building the altar to the unknown God.
Cultural may be fallen, but cultural expressions of belief and faith can be redeemed.  We need the wisdom to “understand the times, and know what to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).  Acts 17 also shows that while cultural apologetics will not take away the offense of the cross for everybody,  it can clear roadblocks on the way there for some.
We, the people of the Word, must be mindful of what we say, but we must also be alert to the messages we absorb.  There is power there.  We are being changed daily in one way or another.  We cannot go through life mindlessly absorbing and regurgitating the messages around us.  The solution is not to withdraw into frightened Christian cliques. We need to engage the messages and the messengers; discern what God would have us do and say as we bring redemption to a broken world; and take truth to a culture that so desperately needs to hear Christ's message of hope.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Deep Calls Unto Deep

Be prepared for the thing that crippled you to be the thing that brings the greatest glory to God.

     Ever notice how God is not content to heal people and let it go at that?  The lame man in Acts 3 did not just walk and leap after he was healed. He praised God for his healing, and as a result everyone around him was astonished.  Private experience became public ministry.  Though the Bible does not record what he did later, I suspect he told his crippled friends what happened.  They too needed hope.

     God knows the best help for the crippled comes from those who have experienced what others are going through.  We have a Savior who has experienced  our lives, who can identify with our struggles and pains.  He has called us to mirror Him to others.  He has healed us for the glory of His Kingdom, not just for our personal health.  We, too, must be prepared for God to use us to “save” those with whom we can identify. We see this principle around us all the time.

Recovery groups are headed up by people who have recovered.
Divorce Care class is often headed by people who have experienced the pain of broken families.
The best budgeting advice I’ve gotten is from people who had Ramen Noodles and water the whole way through college.
The best marriage advice comes from people whose marriage has been through the fire.
In the aftermath of my father’s death, I received the most comfort from others who were equally fatherless.

     “Deep calls unto deep,” said the writer of Psalm 42 as he was begging God to help him out of his despair. The word means literally “abyss”:  the things deepest in me call to the things deepest in you. One translation reads, “hollow howlings hang in the air.”  The deepest things in us call out for the depths of God.  Sometimes He answers by connecting the hollow “deep” within us  directly to Himself; sometimes he connects us to a “deep” within others that was once hollow as well, but has been filled by God.  

     Sheila and I had a rough start to our marriage.  We didn’t know each other; we didn’t know how to communicate; we were both selfish and immature.  But God was patient and faithful, and here we are 20 years later, by the grace of God.  When we counsel couples planning to get married, we tell them about everything we did wrong, because the things that crippled us may cripple others, and we want to do some preventative medicine by letting them hear a story of healing.  In fact, we can usually find fresh examples, and we have to tell them.  God has mended our brokenness; we must tell others that God will do that for them too.
     Recently, I walked into a room where a friend was talking to her husband on the phone.   When she hung up, she said, ”Sometimes you just have to laugh.”  I asked why, and she said, “Because otherwise you have to cry.”   Then she added without my asking, “Marriage is hard.”  And so we talked.  Deep calls unto deep.  

      My father’s death felt crippling to my emotions, to my prayer life, to my perspective on the sovereignty of God.  You know what I can do now that I couldn’t before?  I can empathize with people. I never talked with people before who had lost a loved one; I didn’t know what to do or say.  But since then I have been in situations where people have seemed to gravitate to me to discuss death.  At first I was confused: “Do I have a sign over me – ‘Talk about death with Anthony’?”  No, God was sending them my way.

     Last fall, in the food court at a mall in Grand Rapids, I met an ex-student I hadn’t seen in a while, and she mentioned that her grandfather had died.  I told her about my dad, and she asked me very tentatively, “Did you have dreams after he died?” Did I have dreams? Absolutely.  She was the first person I had talked to who also had dreams.

      And for about 10 minutes in the food court at a mall, deep called unto deep, and the healing crippled walked together for a time, grateful for a God who knows how to heal.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

With a Quiver in our Voices

From John Polkinghorne, in Socrates in the City:

    "We live in a  world that is remarkably fruitful and beautiful, remarkably chilling and frightening and destructive. It is a very ambiguous sort of picture, and somehow or other, the bad things are the cost of the good things. That is not an argument you can utter without a quiver in your voice. The world is too complex and strange for that.
    A Christian understanding of God's relationship to suffering is not that God is simply a compassionate spectator looking down on the strange and bitter world that God holds in being. As a Christian, I believe that God is participating in the suffering of the world, that God is truly a fellow sufferer. The Christian God is the crucified God. That is a very deep and mysterious, though, I believe, true insight." 

     I was in Columbus, Ohio once when a massive ice storm rolled through.  The next morning, the world appeared to be covered in diamonds.  I loved it - until I had to drive.  The following morning, after a day in which the beauty of the ice brought destruction to dozens of vehicles, the Columbus Dispatch quoted one resident who said something along the lines of, "The world is so beautiful but so full of pain."
    All of creation groans, as if it remembers what it once was and once again will be.  As we wait for the day when all will be well, we embrace the moments of glory that give us such lovely glimpses of heaven in the midst of a broken world.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hiking the Transcendent Trail

    While hiking after a northern Michigan snowstorm, I was reminded why Christian theologians (as well as philosophers such as Plato) have developed an argument for the existence of God that builds from the presence of beauty in the world.  The formal argument reads something like this:

"There are compelling reasons for considering beauty to exist in a way that transcends its material manifestations. According to materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations. Although one can make plausible evolutionary explanations for finding beauty in potential sexual partners and in healthy animals that might be food or predators, the experience of beauty is much wider than these categories and includes visions of things for which there can be no direct evolutionary advantage (like clouds seen from aeroplanes, or images from telescopes). According to classical theism, beauty is a quality of God and therefore exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations. Therefore, to the extent that premise (1) is accepted, theism is more plausible than materialism."
   Saturday, I found the visuals to go with this argument while hiking with my boys along the Boardman River in Traverse City, MI.  For a couple hours, I was immersed in the stunningly unnecessary beauty of creation.    
     The idea that all of reality can be reduced to nothing but atoms in motion may pass some kind of muster in a philosophy classroom, but not in midst of the raw beauty of nature.  Yes, there is ugliness too.  I get that. In fact, in a materialist universe of blind forces and chance, I understand gratuitous evil and decay.  
     But what do we do with gratuitous beauty?  What do we do when sticks, frozen water, dead chlorophyll sacks, dirt and a distant star take our breath away?  We enjoy it, and remember that our existence is greater than the sum of the details. Thank God.

Monday, January 9, 2012

In Memory Of My Father

  My Dad died of cancer nine years ago today. He sickened in the fall and died in the winter, as if nature itself understood.  Not long after he died, and with those images in my head, I looked out a window in Traverse City one October and penned the following: 

Yellow leaves fall hesitantly,
smothering the once vibrant grass
as the black squirrels gossip their way from
cooling earth to darkening sky.

They grow cold together.
And as the leaves fall to their death
the squirrels fall asleep,
not knowing that others have fallen,
and that I'm not feeling the best myself.

   I am much improved since those dark days.  His death was a storm, and his ghost has cast a long shadow, but the sunlight breaks through.  Since his death I have written to him, knowing that he can’t read it but taking comfort in an imaginary world where I am Odd Thomas and he is looking over my shoulder as I type.
   Here is my letter today:

Dear Dad,
    You knew who I was, so you will understand why this story is important now.
    In high school I lived for basketball.  It was my identity.  Each day's quality depended on how pick-up basketball went at lunch, and whether the girl I liked at that moment noticed the poetry-in-motion that was my game. I probably liked basketball  a little too much, and myself too little.
        I still remember when you sat me down and said you would not be attending many of my games my senior year.  You wanted me to know that you loved me because I was me, not because I could put a round ball through round metal opening. 
    We would sit by the wood stove in the winter, playing Stratego and Risk,  but never basketball.  Never the idol.
     Thank you.
    I wish you were here today to tell me you loved me, not because I have “accomplished “ something, and not because I’m perfect, and not because of the fleeting self-esteem builders I do,  but because of who I am.
   I am a son whose father loved him. 
   I will always miss you, and never forget you.

And God said:
 “Go down, Death, go down, go down to Columbus, Ohio, down in Broad Street, and find Brother Leon. He's borne the burden and heat of the day, he's labored long in my vineyard, And he's tired-- he's weary-- Go down, Death, and bring him to me….” And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away his tears, and he filled the gauntness in his face, and the angels sang a little song, and Jesus rocked him in his arms, and kept a-saying: “Take your rest; take your rest....”
My  personal touch added to “Go Down, Death,” by James Weldon Johnson

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Joy of Trouble

  The book of James was written about 15-20  years after Jesus’ death.  As the first letter to circulate among the early followers of Christ, it was addressed to a large group scattered all over the world, not just those living in a specific locale (i.e., Corinth). 
     Two key cultural events that had a “scattering” effect:  Persecutions had begun around AD 45, and a major famine had hit a large portion of the world.  The persecution had scattered the Jewish Christians, and the famine had hit what has recently been referred to as the “99%”  pretty hard.
    In this context, James writes the following (this is my paraphrase from multiple translations and commentaries):
                                 From James 1  and James 5
    In spite of what you might think, there is joy in facing the tests, trials, and dangerous temptations of life.  When your faith is tested, your endurance has the opportunity to grow.  Endure so that you can experience the full effect of  these experiences; you will become mature and complete, not lacking anything.     When tempted to sin, you have to stop saying, “God is tempting me.”  God cannot be tempted by evil, and he doesn’t tempt anyone to do evil.  People are tempted when they are lured and then carried  away by their own desires and lusts.  If they nourish the lust conceived in them, they will eventually give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, will bring death to them.    Blessed is the one who patiently endures both temptations to sin and trials of hardship because, having passed the tests, that person will receive the victor’s crown of life that the Lord has promised in this life and in the life to come to those who keep on loving him.     As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. As an example of patience in the face of suffering, look at the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Or think of Job’s perseverance, and what the Lord finally brought about for him.     There are people teaching you falsely about the character of God as it relates to trials, temptations, and suffering. Don’t be misled and deceived.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.  Every  good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights who shines His light on you.  He does not change like shifting shadows.  God gave us life through His word of truth, that we might be the beginning of a new kind of creature – his most important and prized possessions.    Be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains?  You too should be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return, when you will finally be delivered from all of these hardships.  Stand firm, and don’t give up hope; His coming – and your deliverance and reward - is near.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How the West was Broke

      I have posted before about the societal implications of couples willingly choosing not to have children.  A lot of the feedback I received can be summarized succinctly: "You're an idiot."  That may well be true, but it won't be because I am wrong about this issue.  Pointing out the the cultural erosion that happens when one generation does not create another generation is not a matter of opinion.  It's just a fact of life.  
    I understand that couples can have legitimate reasons for not having kids, sometimes through choice and sometimes because biology has not been favorable.  I have friends who desperately want to have children but can't, and others who have foregone parenthood not because they don't want to be parents, but because they believe they have a higher calling on their life that precludes them from having children. You are not the subject of this post.  
     I am posting about this because, if statistics are correct,  more and more people have decided that they want the pleasure and privileges of sex (and ideally marriage) without the responsibility that naturally follows.  It makes sense, really.  Western culture increasingly presents freedom and choice as the Holy Grail of life, and what could possible keep us from these two demanding masters more than children? (Or so the thinking goes).     
     Unfortunately, this unfettered self-interest is not without consequence.  From Mark Steyn, in National Review Online: 
     "The developed world... is barren. Collectively barren, I hasten to add. Individually, it’s made up of millions of fertile women, who voluntarily opt for no children at all or one designer kid at 39. In Italy, the home of the Church, the birthrate’s somewhere around 1.2, 1.3 children per couple — or about half “replacement rate.” Japan, Germany, and Russia are already in net population decline. Fifty percent of Japanese women born in the Seventies are childless. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of Spanish women childless at the age of 30 almost doubled, from just over 30 percent to just shy of 60 percent. In Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, 20 percent of 40-year-old women are childless. In a recent poll, invited to state the “ideal” number of children, 16.6 percent of Germans answered “None.”      The notion of life as a self-growth experience is more radical than it sounds. For most of human history, functioning societies have honored the long run: It’s why millions of people have children, build houses, plant trees, start businesses, make wills, put up beautiful churches in ordinary villages, fight and if necessary die for your country . . . A nation, a society, a community is a compact between past, present, and future, in which the citizens, in Tom Wolfe’s words at the dawn of the “Me Decade,” “conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream.”     Much of the developed world climbed out of the stream. You don’t need to make material sacrifices: The state takes care of all that. You don’t need to have children. And you certainly don’t need to die for king and country. But a society that has nothing to die for has nothing to live for: It’s no longer a stream, but a stagnant pool."
    Politicians talk a lot about all the sacrifices we have to make for "the future generations of our children."   That's if we have them, I suppose.  One way to avoid living a life that considers the long term is to simply not contribute to the long term.  If nothing will matter then, I suppose nothing matters too much now. 
    This is street-level nihilism.  Neitzsche thought we were killing God; he did not realize we were dying too.