Sunday, November 16, 2014

Three Simple Words


A little back story on how I came to write this post.  Our annual men's retreat was last week and the Saturday night speaker was baseball great Darryl Strawberry.  I'm a baseball fan and Strawberry's Mets had won the World Series 28 years ago just after my dad died.  So while I expected other speakers to be good, I was attending because of Saturday night.  Then Saturday morning with Bryan Loritts happened.  

The thing is, in his second session, he spoke on a topic he hadn't planned to use.  So in a way, neither of us planned to have that encounter ... but God certainly did.  His topic was forgiveness and, by the end, I was ready to do something I'd been putting off for well over two decades.  It comes as a very personal letter, but I've decided to write it here as part of the Crooked Path.  

I'm still working through my perspective on forgiveness, but Bryan made me think in a way I couldn't just push it aside any longer.  He helped me see that forgiveness doesn't have to mean restoration.  It also doesn't mean we forget evil done against us or stop prosecution or other legal action.  It doesn't mean we grant absolution in every case.  But it does mean that we don't let "it" control us any longer.  Some of you might think what I'm about to write is silly - something I don't really need to do.  But I'm doing it for my own reasons because leaving it unforgiven needs to stop.  Twenty-some years is long enough.  So, just a few weeks after I marked the 28th year without my dad, I'm putting this out there on my blog.  It's just three simple words ... but simple doesn't mean weak and it's time I wrote this letter.

Dear Dad,

I forgive you for leaving us too early.  I was just twenty-three and only married for six months.  The next year was pretty tough on any number of fronts.  No Sunday dinner with you and Mom and Pete.  No visits or laughing or joking.  No chance for my young bride to cement her relationship with you and for me to see you through her eyes in a deeper way.  Nope - all of that gone with a single phone call on a Saturday afternoon.

I forgive you for not taking good enough care of yourself to see seven of your grandchildren ... eight really since Stephen was just a baby when you left us.  They are some pretty terrific kids, especially the two girls (or should I say young women) who live in my house.  I realize you may not have lived this long, but the loss is still very real even if you'd had only a few years with my girls.

I forgive you for not being around when I finally finished my undergrad degree and pressed on to grad school.  I know you'd have been proud of the man I've become, but it rings a little hollow when I can't hear your response.  Just once, I'd have loved for you to sit in on a Sunday School class I taught.  Sure we'd have had our differences, but I know we'd have found common ground in the same God and Savior.  I know you would have challenged my thinking ... yet I can only project that because neither of us had the chance

I forgive you, Dad, not just for dying too soon but for all the years you put ministry first and for the lessons I learned that had to be unlearned.  I spent quite a bit of time with a very skilled counselor who told me to do this decades ago ... but it took a long time and an unexpected encounter at a retreat to finally break that dam.

I love you Dad and I still miss you.  But looking for your affirmation and praise can't happen anymore.  It's time for me to consummate the forgiveness and let it go.  You left a big imprint on my life for the twenty-three years I had you and in the twenty-eight since I said good bye.  Your legacy will continue still ... but my perspective will change because I've finally written those three simple words:

I forgive you.

Love,

Mark

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Little Perspective Please?



I'll tell you right now, I'm not quite sure where this is headed.  But the thoughts and images are strong in my mind, so I really feel like this is the topic for this week.  I'll do my best to get where I need to be, but it might be a bumpy ride.  So I'd encourage you to take a little perspective, please and know we are all more than the sum of our parts when we want to work collaboratively.



It's election season, just in case you haven't muted enough commercials, wanted to drive through a sea of vision-polluting signs or been tempted to send back unwanted junk mail with yesterday's coffee grounds.  There are few things more divisive in our country than an election.  In my own state of North Carolina, we've just won the dubious honor of hosting the most expensive US Senate campaign in history.  The two primary candidates and their backers have poured over $100 Million into a race for an office that lasts six years and pays $176K per year.  I know, I know ... it's never about the money, but if anything screams for a little perspective, this obscene and disgusting expenditure does.

The Raleigh Rescue Mission could have served over 3.5 Million meals with that amount of money.  Samaritan's Purse could dig about 250K fresh water wells.  And I could go on and on with organizations such as Compassion International, Doctors Without Borders, and thousands more worthy and dedicated organizations seeking to bring relief and hope to a world so often devoid of it.  Yet the $100MM spent in North Carolina for a temporary political battle is what we get.  And if I look at it in perspective, it makes me angry and sad.

I realize some will tell me I've given over to a "social gospel".  My response would be to say, "What is more social than the True Gospel?"  Perhaps I'd quote James talking about the nature of true worship - giving to the orphans and widows in their hour of need.  Perhaps I'd remind them that a full belly with clean water and sanitary sewers will be far more open to the Gospel than somebody who doesn't know where tonight's meal comes from and never thinks about tomorrow's food.

But to put it all in perspective, I'd say we've become a nation obsessed with power and control - and I don't care where your political, spiritual or ideological lines are drawn.  We think getting "our man/woman" in office is the fix.  We want our agenda to move forward without giving thought for the love we are commanded to have for everybody else.  In other words, we've lost (or vacated) our perspective on the altar of something different.  And I believe we've grieved God greatly in doing so.

I've lived over half a century now and I have many people I call "friend" who don't believe as I do on multiple fronts.  The "better" friends share a common faith, albeit across a wide variety of denominations, that our Hope is only in Jesus.  I don't think I mention that enough to them, so perhaps I'm the one who needs some perspective.

The Crooked Path has room for many, and the call from the Father is to invite people to travel.  We won't always talk or look the same (how boring would that be?) but we should be united in the goal to further the cause of the Cross and our mutual disdain for squandered opportunities to love our fellow man.  I believe that's where it starts.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Who Misses Whom?

28 years since the call.  And there have been other calls in the past three decades as well.  Some were expected (if that really describes it) and a few caught me completely by surprise.  All of them created a hole of some sort ... an empty spot that you really never fill.  Oh, the images in my mind take on a "softer" quality over time, but at the core they remain as mileposts of loss.  But lately, I've begun to wonder if they miss us as well ...


I think the answer, though it may be tough for many to hear (I include myself in this "many") is, "No.  They don't miss us."  Now, don't hear what I'm not saying.  I'm not saying they have no knowledge of us.  I'm merely pointing out that as they stand before the Presence, little else is of tangible consequence.  They have moved beyond what C.S. Lewis called the Shadowlands ... why would they even think to look back with any sort of regret or longing?

No, friends, it is we who are left who do the missing.  And if anybody tries to tell you he or she does not miss a loved one, even one known to be in the Presence, that person is in denial or flat-out lying.  I've got friends with living parents who are suffering from diminished capacities who know the "real person" is still there and they still grieve for what they see.  It's just part of being human and still living on this side of what is yet to come.

When Jesus' good friend Lazarus died, our Brother wept.  He did so out of human grief and also because Mary and Martha were grieving.  He explained the nature of Life and Resurrection (take out the indefinite article "the" in his response from John 11:25 and you'll see what I mean) in terms they couldn't deny yet failed to grasp.  And it's because they missed their brother, not because of any lack of faith.  Frankly, it's Lazarus who got the raw deal - he had to die a second time.

The Crooked Path is a mortal walk, but there is a sunrise over the last hill we can anticipate.  We grieve now and miss those who have left.  28 years later, I still miss Dad and would give most anything for even an hour's chat.  But he doesn't miss me - he's in the Presence and that's far too overwhelming and glorious.  I just take heart to know I'll see him again.  I know he still loves me even now and would be proud of the man I am becoming.  For now, that's enough to get me through another year.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Simple Kindness and a Smile

I had the opportunity to put a smile on somebody's face this week and I took it gladly.  It really doesn't matter what I did, but I can tell you it was unexpected by the recipient and it did cost me something.  But it also put things in perspective for me, and perspective combined with serving kindness to somebody is a very good thing.

As we made the decision to take the action, my wife reminded me we had seen something far more selfless on one of our favorite TV shows.  One of the contestants gave his earned advantage to another to the tune of $20K.  Now, I'll probably never be in that position, but the way it came about had the effect of restoring a little faith in humanity.

Now, ultimately, our humanity is what does us in.  But in the midst of all that, we have a Savior who shows us far more than a simple kindness.  He gave up his all to show us an everlasting kindness that offers true and permanent change.  In embracing what he gives, we have the opportunity to reflect that gift out into a world that needs our Redeemer desperately.

As I walk my Crooked Path, may I often take time to show simple kindness - and also the faith that I reflect in those acts - to many who I encounter.  That is, after all, something we are called to do ... and the smiles we get in return are worth it.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Empty Hands

We offer nothing - keep that in mind at all times.


The thought came to me this week after some conversations with people and a bit of ruminating on the subject.  My past definitely plays a big part in this, so it can get a little complex and perhaps even convoluted at times.  But if I strip away all the noise and back-chatter, I'm left with who I am and what I bring ... and the answer to that is nothing.

What I'm talking about is my relationship with God through Jesus.  It starts with nothing - an absolute soul-wrenching emptiness that can nearly drive a person mad.  Yes, there is that image of the Creator at the core, but I do everything I can at that point to snuff it out of existence.  And yet I can't, because I have no power over it - I am nothing.  It's at that point where the regeneration, the prevenient grace comes in and kindles that image flame.  Like a dreamer awakened from a tormented sleep, I reach out with these completely empty hands and accept the grace freely offered.  That "transaction" starts a process of relationship.

Now I'm in this relationship - however I came to it really doesn't matter - and I still bring ... nothing.  This gives entry to the biggest, most joyless lie in all of Christianity.  Somehow, our own desire (dare I say need) to bring something to the relationship causes us to formulate a bunch of rules, regulations, lists and other impossible standards that we spend more of our relationship time looking for more "transactions" that will bring us some kind of spiritual gain.  And I'm not intimating that holiness or obedience are bad things.  I'm just saying that they are always secondary - a natural offshoot if you will - of the relationship and done in a responsive way.  They don't put stuff in our hands ... those hands remain empty.

Empty hands, my friends, are a good thing.  If we look at two Gospel stories (the woman coming into Simon's home and the woman taken in adultery) we find two people terribly aware of their empty hands.  And in holding out their hands, they hear words of love such as "forgiven the greatest loves the most" and "neither to I condemn you - go and leave your life of sin".  Those are some powerful gifts from the Master - and they leave those women with full hearts and empty hands.  These weren't some emotional call from a preacher to walk an aisle.  They were people who, when presented with that kindling flame from God, knew they were loved beyond all love they had known before.

As I walk my Crooked Path, may I glory in my empty hands.  They are a clear indication that I have a Redeemer who requires nothing tangible of me to keep the relationship pure, giving me the freedom to respond with all I have because of his unending love.  He emptied himself so that I could have his fullness - not my own. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

First Place





"Dear Children, keep away from anything that might take God's place in your hearts."  (1 John 5:21, NLT)

It's a lesson we've heard since the first Sunday School class we attended.  God wants to have first place in our hearts.  Nothing else is more important.  We've sung songs about it, seen flannelgraph (just shows how old I am), and memorized verses like this one.  But somehow, somewhere things changed ...

As I find myself staring at my 2nd half-century, I want to ask the question again.  What, other than God, am I letting have the top spot in my heart; what really is my focus?  I think the truest answer comes with some introspection and that rarely comes easily.  So if I'm going to write about it, perhaps I need to dig just a little deeper.

Sure the multiple translations that render this verse as something about watching out for idols are good.  They are certainly faithful to the original intent, but I think the Beloved Apostle, sitting in exile on Patmos, had something a little more personal in mind.  Once again, I find that richness in the way Eugene Peterson frames the final words of 1 John in his transliteration The Message:

And we know that the Son of God came so we could recognize and understand the truth of God - what a gift! - and we are living in the Truth itself, in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. This Jesus is both True God and Real Life. Dear children, be on guard against all clever facsimiles. (1 John 5:20-21)

That's what John was warning the early church about ... "clever facsimiles".  And that's what I need to look out for as well when I examine my own heart and life.  I'd never overtly put something else in first place - but I might subtly do that.  It might even look like "serving God" when it really is filling my own ego.  And it happens when I forget the awesome nature and love that redeemed me in the first place.

So as my Crooked Path winds through my 2nd decade, I want to keep the my Father in my sight and my Divine Brother closer than ever.  And I want to do it in such a way that it leaves no doubt who holds first place in my heart.



Sunday, September 28, 2014

Out of the Desert

“If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you.”  (John 14:15-17, NLT)

It's been a little over 3-1/2 years since I walked into the desert.  I remember the day pretty clearly.  The scheduled meeting ended up including my manager and an HR representative. It concluded with me heading home midday with a "package of paperwork" and a bag full of worries.  Late 40's, mortgage and bills, four mouths to feed, clothe and house ... and unemployed.

Back then, I wrote about teaching a class on Lent and the Christian disciplines.  My wife observed (and rightly so) that I had been required to give up my job for Lent.  Looking back, it was a step into the desert - first the desert of unemployment and then the desert of recurring contract-only employment.

In the desert, the temptation is there to whine and complain and blame.  Just look at the story of the Israelites and their decades of wandering.  The desert actually became a kind if dysfunctional home for them.  They didn't know any better and they flat-out refused to turn to the God who was protecting and providing every day.  Their desert experience could have taught them so much, yet they spurned the lessons and history records the result.

I'd like to think my desert experience has been more productive, that I've learned some lessons.  For one, I've learned to trust more.  We never went without food or shelter during these past 3+ years.  God provided and we even began to "fill in some holes" that had been dug over time.  I started my own company that I use today to provide training and consulting.  We even managed to take a long-overdue vacation which turned out to be the best we've had as family (and the last one in our RV).

So now, as I sit here on the eve of "permanent employment with benefits" once again, I'm thinking about what I've learned and what I still have to learn.  Sure I'm walking out of this particular desert, but the lessons are far from over.  Just as an example, when I opened up BibleGateway, the verse of the day read:

"But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means." (1 Corinthians 2:14 NLT)

Isn't that just like God to show me who he is and that I still have things to learn.  The Crooked Path went through the desert him to teach me.  The journey and the learning continue even as I walk back out of the desert tomorrow morning.