Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about passivity and courage.

I spent last weekend in the Smokies at a men’s retreat. Both of these words came up in our conversations.

Do we want to live in cages? Are we willing to trade being truly alive for safety and security?

Are we willing to lay claim to those people, ideas, organizations, places, resources, and problems that fall within our sphere of influence?

Doug, the pastor of All Souls Church, did the teaching. He spoke at length about how after the exodus from Egypt but before entering Canaan, the Israelites sent out twelve spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the land and return with intelligence on its inhabitants and resources. Once the spies returned, ten of the twelve declared that the land couldn’t be taken. The inhabitants were too strong.

This news floored everyone who was listening. Had they traveled all the way from Egypt only to turn around because God defaulted on his promise to Abraham?

Caleb quieted the people, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). Joshua agreed with him. Two against ten.

No one listened to them. The Israelites railed against God:

‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’ (Numbers 14:2-4)

God cursed that generation of Israelites. Only those under the age of 20 at the beginning survived the 40 years of cleansing in the wilderness that followed. Caleb and Joshua were the exceptions. They rejected passivity. They chose to trust in God’s faithfulness. His power. His promises. God decreed that they alone of that generation would come out of the wilderness alive.

My favorite part of that story is what happens forty-five years after Joshua and Caleb explored the land of Canaan and followed God “wholeheartedly” (Joshua 14:8). They put their whole hearts and lives in God’s care.

Moses has died, and Joshua is the new leader of Israel. Caleb goes to see his old friend at his camp at Gilgal, and he says:

“And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country of which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the LORD said.” (Joshua 14:10-12)

Caleb lost no strength or vigor. He still went to battle. Can you imagine facing an 85-year-old with 70 years of training and technique on his side? Can you imagine his wisdom and experience yoked together with his physical strength and his courage? All of the people Caleb knew in his youth were dead, yet he was still a young man.

His vitality was bound up in his wholehearted trust in God. His strength was preserved because he believed in the face of staggering opposition that God would follow through with his promises.

I imagine him with a mane of white hair and fire in his eyes. I bet he had a handshake of iron.

I’d like to hear him pray.

Joshua granted Caleb’s request. Caleb took his clan and chased the Anakim from the land. They were supposedly descended from giants, the Nephilim, the “sons of God” who bore children with daughters of men (Genesis 6; Numbers 14). The giants ran from Caleb and his kin.

I want to live with that kind of boldness. Caleb was truly alive his entire life. He lived alive. He never grew old.

I want to follow God “wholeheartedly.” I want my vitality when I’m eighty-five. Courage and boldness are close to God’s heart, and as we travel to God’s heart, we will discover them in ourselves.

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My junior year of college, I read Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, and one particular passage still haunts me: 

The truth was that Samantha didn’t want to go to Lourdes and I didn’t want to take her. Why not? I don’t know Samantha’s reasons, but I was afraid she might be cured. What then? Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life? (374)

We pray to see God. We pray for signs, wonders, and miracles to confirm that He is real and sovereign. We ask for an experience like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus—something dramatic and irrevocable.

Let the scales fall from our eyes, and let us witness resurrections and restore sight to the blind. Allow us to speak in the tongues of angels, to cast mountains into the sea, to walk through fire unscathed. Make us freaks of faith. Sear true belief into our souls.

Tom Moore, Walker Percy’s protagonist, knew us better than we know ourselves. He didn’t deceive himself. His daughter’s miraculous healing would destroy his complacency. He wasn’t ready, and he knew it. Consumed with fear of change, he avoided an encounter with the Living God.

Do I truly desire authenticity? Am I ready for the many forms of martyrdom that follow miracles?

Jesus will wreck my comfortable life even as he saves my soul. Do I want the risen Son of God or a fairy tale?

Am I willing to take my cross and watch suffering turn my life to ash or do I want the easy hell of lukewarm faith?

If I let Samantha die, I never have to change.

I give up

April 2, 2009

I sometimes get frustrated with being left-handed. 

As I write, my hand drags across the fresh ink and smears the words. No matter how lucid or pithy what I’ve written is, the messiness bothers me. Anything worth writing should be clean and legible on the page. I’ve developed a complex—writing slower and slower and taking great care to keep my palm from dragging through my words. 

Despite my fastidiousness, my skin is always darkened with graphite or ink, half a word printed on my pinkie finger or the side of my hand because I was too engrossed—as I should have been—with capturing my thoughts to worry about something so trivial as the cleanliness of the page. I take pride in a well-written page, good penmanship, but I am left-handed so smudges and smears come with the territory. 

In other words, no matter how I careful I am, I still make mistakes. Gritting my teeth and trying harder, sticking with it for just a little longer because just maybe—trying to muscle my way through an uncomfortable situation, conversation, or friendship is exhausting. I become vulnerable to spiritual sickness. Ideal results dance in my head, and I start to believe that I am responsible for making them a reality. 

Perhaps letting go, walking away, giving up—perhaps surrender sometimes connotes the deepest faithfulness, especially if it involves the death of pride—“Father, I cannot do it by my own power”—and confession of my weakness and need of God’s guidance and protection.

I am often unable to take care of myself, and on a regular basis, I stumble into problems and messes that require more than I have to offer. 

Humility can be unbearable until we make a lifestyle out of it.

A dogged commitment to living apart from God can come disguised as perseverence in the interest of justice, reconciliation, or evangelism. We care more about “results” than we do about dwelling in God’s presence.

In what scorched places in your life do you need to throw up your hands and declare before your Maker, “I give up!”?

Confess that you want clean pages, but you’re left-handed.

No amount of effort makes us holy. Effort can kill us quicker than complacency.

The Sunflower Principle

March 30, 2009

My choice of a sunflower is arbitrary. As far as I know, all plants grow toward the light.

People are no different.

Take a pretty girl, tell her over the course of her life how pretty she is, and she will grow in the direction of the attention she receives for her physical beauty. She will know how to dress, how to tan, pluck and preen, how to position herself to receive the most direct light. Her view of herself and her posture in relation to other people will reflect the validation that she receives.

Take a boy, a natural athlete, and give him slaps on the back, trophies, and encouragement. His identity will be wrapped up in his physical prowess. He will position himself to receive more validation, more attention. 

Our behavior is no mystery. We all want attention, so we grow toward the light. A fine ear for music, precocious acting ability, an attractive sense of humor, brains—we follow natural relief to praise.

How many beautiful men and women do you know who have remarkable integrity or character? Be honest.

Has anyone else noticed The Sunflower Principle?

I am a recovering cynic, so I may very well be wrong.

How many exceptional athletes do you know who take really good care of the people in their lives?

I know I’m making a generalization, but I have noticed trends.

Why do you think really pretty women and really handsome men are so rarely unselfish, compassionate people? Why are so many professional athletes unsuitable as role models?

Please respond with a comment. I’d like to know your thoughts.

courage

March 27, 2009

Courage.

Whenever I hear the word, I think of orange sherbert with an oily sheen in a metal tin. I think I carried this image away from The Wizard of Oz. The Cowardly Lion joins the journey to the Wizard to ask for some courage.

Boldness. Audacity. Cojones.

Isn’t that a great compliment to give and receive? “He’s gutsy.” We love to share the stories of moments when we shored up against evil or injustice or fear. Standing in the void.

I’ve heard courage described as the rarest, and therefore the most precious, of virtues. That makes sense to me. 

How many people do I know whom I would call courageous? What does that look like?

Courage changes with the person. We all have our own fears. The people whom I most respect are the ones who push into their fears, their wounds, and their insecurities.

Sit down and don’t move until you’ve written down ten of your fears. Or ask yourself what conversations you don’t want to have? Think about that person whom you need to call. Just the thought is enough to make you sick at your stomach.

Ask that girl out. Break up with that boyfriend. Move to a new city. Quit your job. Sing on a stage in front of people. Tell your friends that you love them. Write letters asking for forgiveness. Throw away pictures. Buy a motorcycle. Get your hair chopped off. Get a tattoo. Take guitar lessons. 

I am tired of being paralyzed by fear, hedged in, pushed down to my knees by the odds of failure or embarrassment. 

Courage. I want it. To admit that I was really angry or clinically depressed. To confess that I am in need, that I am lonely, that I am sick of being sick. Buy that trendy hat and wear it ragged. Be ruthless in your authenticity.

Courage is the spirit coming alive within us. Courage to fight despair and cling to hope. Courage to crack and cry out, “God, I cannot do it on my own. Where are you?”

Courage, oh, Father, give myself back to me. Make me fearless. Help me to stand for the right and as I ride the prow of the ship to take the spray in the face. Help me to stand firm in the face of death. Let not my enemies triumph over me. 

Give me courage to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Courage to live with grace and power.

Mr. Millson

March 12, 2009

I first met Mr. Sid Millson in the 8th grade. After breaking the tibia and fibula on my left leg playing cornerback in the fall, I decided to rehab my leg the following spring by running track. Mr. Millson was my coach. He asked me run the open 400, 4×4 relay, and 4×8 relay. I ran with a limp, but I still won most of my races.

I got to know him better my sophomore year when he was my Biology teacher at David Lipscomb High School. If someone acted up in class, he would say, “I oughta beat you like a red-headed stepchild,” until a kid named Carter raised his hand and said, “I am a red-headed stepchild, and that kind of offends me.”

Those are the moments you cherish later on.

He had a tragic story. His mother fell through a rotten dock while pregnant with his younger brother. She skewered one of her legs on an old piling. Their family was in a remote area, so Mr. Millson’s dad decided not to take her to the hospital that night. Her leg was already so infected the next day, the doctors later had to amputate it. That was the first of many surgeries for his mother, and the first of his many stories that broke my heart.

He also told funny stories. Some friends asked him to house-sit when they went out of town. While snooping around in a hallway closet, he found a Flowbee. He’d seen them on tv, a combination hair clipper and vacuum. The idea was to suck the hair away from the scalp, making an even cut possible. Either Mr. Millson didn’t follow the instructions or the device malfunctioned: it ate into his scalp and blood went everywhere.

Mr. Millson didn’t have much hair left by the time I was in his class. He kept it buzzed and for good reason. An older man in the congregation he attended growing up would go along on the youth functions. All the boys loved him because he still knew how to have a good time. They decided to go swimming one day. The older gentleman stripped down to his suit and dove in. When his head broke the surface of the water, Mr. Millson saw something he would never forget—a thick cord of hair attached just above the man’s ear. It was plastered down the side of his face and reached past his jaw. The man’s wet combover looked like a misplaced ponytail. On that day Mr. Millson swore that if he ever lost most of his hair, he would shave off the rest.

He designated special days for cooking. He boiled some crawdads that I caught in the creek. He tantalized us all year with descriptions of his Creamy Cricket Soup. It wasn’t bad. He made the best omelet I’ve ever tasted. Secret ingredient: heavy whipping cream.

My senior year, I had Mr. Millson again for Environmental Science. After double-checking the floor’s load-bearing capacity with the architects of the new wing of Harding Hall, he installed a plastic swimming and put tilapia in it. We were going to grow some tilapia and eat them. That same year, we took a field trip to a water treatment plant in Smyrna. That’s the only time I’ve smelled an odor so foul that I choked back vomit, but it was still better than sitting in a classroom.

Mr. Millson was humble, eccentric, and generous. He couldn’t help but be himself and in doing so, he gave us the freedom to be ourselves. He took me under his wing and gave me two pieces of advice that have shaped how I view and engage in relationships with women:

1) “Rather than ask what you’re going to get out of a relationship, ask what you have to offer her. Leave people better than you found them.”

2) “Become the kind of man who will attract your ideal woman.”

In Mr. Millson, I saw someone who had borne the worst life can pile on a man—abandonment by his father, growing up in an orphanage, divorce, single parenthood, his second wife’s cancer.

In Mr. Millson, I saw someone who didn’t blame God but rested in him. Mr. Millson shone with God’s love.

He discipled me. He poured his life into me. He was my first mentor.

Introduction

While I was teaching at David Lipscomb High School, a close friend of mine from college was working as a barista in a Nashville coffeeshop.  Justin is good-looking, intelligent, and creative.  He made mostly As majoring in Communications, minoring in German, and earning quite a few credits in Missions classes.  Why would he be working a job with no potential for advancement?  Why would he be working in, ahem, the food industry? 

Well, because his gentleness, kindness, and true concern for others gave him special clothing of light in a dark corner of a dark industry. 

Yet, when people asked him what he was doing, what he’d been up to, his mention of Fido, the coffeeshop, was a conversation stopper.  Because he wasn’t embarking upon an illustrious career or going to graduate school, his education was somehow a waste.  He had missed the boat to a meaningful, respectable life.  Surely, he was lazy or immature; otherwise, why would he stay on at a dead-end job?  I don’t remember his feelings much pressure from his parents to “get a life”; they are extraordinarily supportive and open-minded, which is probably one of the reasons why Justin was contented to work somewhere he was needed, regardless of his job’s lack of prestige. 

I remember one conversation we had in which Justin expressed his frustration with people who, with a frown or dismissive, mouth-only smile, made him feel like a failure for earning a small income at a place he loved with co-workers who needed his love.  A light bulb went off in my brain:  We really don’t have to live up to other people’s expectations.  I wrote a short reflective piece called “Letting Go of the Desire to be Impressive.” I hope you enjoy it. 

Letting Go of the Desire to Be Impressive

Yesterday afternoon, which was a Sunday, I was buzzing on a double latte from the Frothy Monkey when I decided to shave my head.  We are in the middle of Lent right now.  I like the idea of a season that should be characterized by major changes and major sacrifices in our lives.  Do the people who have everything and do everything they want enjoy greater happiness than other people whose lives are more restricted by jobs and families and even bad health?  My good friend Aron Wright sings a song with a chorus that goes, “I guess some people get to do what they want…I guess some people get to do what they want…while we pay…while we pay.”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I lead a pretty cushy life.  If I can afford to pay $1.65 for a small cup of coffee on Monday morning during my planning period, then I can’t have too much to complain about.

I was thinking about how I need a haircut.  I was also thinking about how I get tired of trying to look good or presentable or attractive, really just pouring energy into maintaining appearance.  Physical appearance.  Girls have it worse, I know, but that doesn’t mean guys don’t get sick of the expectations placed on them to be charming or smooth or powerful, any variety of stereotypical masculine characteristics we choose to build our facades.  I can’t speak for all the men I know, but I can speak for myself.  I say “facades” because most of the time my braggadocio, sarcasm, and striving to be funny are a cover-up. 

Most of the time, I feel like a wreck. I’m not saying I’m about to hyperventilate and have a nervous break-down. Guys get tired of jockeying for attention from girls.  Of dreading work and longing for vacations only to have them tainted by the dread of going home to the daily grind.  Of cultivating some degree of physical strength while knowing that our bodies will eventually weaken and finally fail.

I think we all get tired of looking like we have it all together.  Adjust your tie, fix your cuffs, put on your most convincing, fakest smile, and shake everybody’s hand.  “Oh yes, Bill, the golf game’s great.  Family’s great.  Business is great.”  But, Bill, let’s not talk about my daughter’s anorexia.  Or my wife’s depression.  My own struggle with pornography.  Let’s not talk about how tired you are because the burden of caring for your parents fell to you.  Let’s not talk about the rumors: you’re having an affair and your son has a drinking problem.”

I get so tired of having to be “impressive.”  Maybe I put this pressure on myself:  to make something of myself, to choose a career, to fulfill my potential.  Yes, God gave me certain talents and abilities.  People tell me they enjoy reading what I have written.  In the past, I have taken the compliment as a firebrand. 

It’s as if I am riding a horse at a comfortable trot, and somebody comes along and says I have a natural ability.  I am a good rider.  What do I do?  I put that firebrand to the flank of the horse, and off we go at a helter-skelter gallop.  I work so hard at trying to be brilliant at what I’m doing that the horse starts frothing at the mouth.  I’m killing the horse, I don’t notice the flowers’ perfume or the magnificent old trees on the edges of the pasture.  I don’t appreciate the sweetness of the breeze, the touch of the sun on my skin, or the immense power of the animal underneath me. 

I stop enjoying myself because I strive to earn a compliment that was given as a gift. 

Last night at a Spirituality Practice Group at Bongo Java, I realized how much I strive to earn grace.  Scott Owings, the Minister of Spiritual Formation at Otter Creek Church, has been leading us in some Ignatian Contemplation exercises, that is, St. Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuit order in the Roman Catholic Church.  St. Ignatius believed in the importance of “imagination” in the Christian disciplines.

This particular exercise involved imagining that an artist had sculpted my likeness for public exhibition.  The artist gave me a key and as much time as I wanted to examine the statue.  I imagined an old fashioned key with two teeth on it and a trefoil handle.  It let me into a room with hardwood floors.  Each step echoed in the dark.  In the middle, illuminated by light coming through the windows, was my statue.  I tugged the sheet, and it slipped to the floor.  I looked at the statue.  Exaggerated cheekbones; prominent, blade-like nose; deep eye sockets; a mouth opened and hard with effort.  I was naked above the waist and flinging a spear. I talked to the statue.  The statue talked to me.  Jesus came into the room and asked me why I was filled with so much rage, why I felt the need to take power for myself and use it.  “Why won’t you sit at my feet?”  

Why won’t we just sit at his feet? We can no more earn or lose his love than we can stop the sun from shining or change the tides. I’m learning to sit still and receive God’s love for me as the extravagant gift that it is.