Easter Hallelujah

April 7, 2009

God the Father desires to forgive us.

He loves redemption and restoration. He looks for ways to withhold His righteous judgment, as evident in this passage from 2 Peter 3: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The story of Hosea illustrates that God’s love always precedes his wrath. 

He looks for ways to satisfy his holy wrath and set us free from bondage. In the death and resurrection of Jesus—in Easter and everything it represents—two facets of God’s character emerge.

Think of the seasons. Spring follows winter, rebirth follows death. Summer, harvest, and feasting follow rebirth. Though different, ice and snow and warm rain and sweat both bring cleansing.

God does not send his children out into the desert to die. He plans to call them back into his gardens better prepared to choose a life by his die.sunset

I also think of the cities of refuge in the Old Testament where fugitives could seek refuge. I think of fields left fallow so that the nutrients in the soil might replenish and the celebration of Jubilee every fifty years to forgive debts and redistribute wealth—to give everyone a clean start. 

God has woven into every process and practice of the natural world and Judeo-Christian culture ornate designs of death, cleansing, and rebirth. We will see baptism in every minute detail of our existence if God opens our eyes.

The prostitute Rahab is in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Moses killed an Egyptian in a fit of rage then led the Hebrews to the Promised Land. David seduced Bathsheba, had her husband Uriah, one of David’s Mighty Men, killed, and then conceived Solomon with her. Solomon built the temple. 

God redeems prostitutes, murderers, and adulterers. His power is most evident when he restores those people with the most rotten souls. Every one of us is “the worst of sinners,” and every one of us has hope. 

God can turn pedophiles, rapists, and cannibals into saints. He loves pornographers, pimps, and you.

Accepting Jesus is a lifelong confession of our sins, our bloody hands and our need of a sacrificial lamb and a joyful surrender to God’s ineffable love, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the sweet grace of an empty tomb.

Hallelujah.

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Passivity: Part 1

April 6, 2009

In his novel A Separate Peace, John Knowles wrote these words from the point-of-view of his narrator, Gene: “It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak.”

I know too well that kind of sarcasm that cloaks disappointment, anger, resentment, or bitterness in the form of passive-agressive insincerity.

For example, if the rest of us were waiting for our friend Cody to show up so that we could leave for the lake, I might say when he finally pulled into the parking lot, “Cody, thanks so much for being on time!”

Rather than press into the real issue—my friend’s willingness to disrespect our time by keeping us waiting—I expressed my frustration through indirect, facetious remarks. I spoke in poison-tipped code.

I fell into the trap of passivity.

Passivity is a hound biting at the heels of most men I know. We run from conflict. Passivity requires honesty, and honesty requires vulnerability, actually telling another person how her behavior makes you feel.

What if I had taken Cody aside and explained how his habit of showing up late and keeping everyone waiting made us feel like we were unimportant? We saw no respect or honor in his behavior. His tendency to justify this behavior added insult to injury. If we were all able to follow through on our agreement to meet at a certain time and place, why was he exempt? After several dozen apologies, we found it difficult to believe that he cared. His saying “Sorry I’m late” began to look like a preemptive effort to deflect our irritation rather than accepting responsibility for his actions and agreeing to change.

How often do we love our friends enough to reject passivity, sit down with them, and start difficult conversations? 

“I think you have a drinking problem.”

“I’m worried about how much weight you’ve lost in the past few months.”

“I’m uncomfortable with your girlfriend spending the night.”

Passivity sucks out a man’s strength and vitality. Boldness swells his heart.

[More on this subject to come…]

Agape

March 18, 2009

Am I prepared to love her, him, them, knowing that they may never change? 

I have no power to change them. I could try wielding my anger, disappointment, and frustration, but I know dislike similar treatment.

Am I prepared to love without conditions, small print, or strings attached knowing that they have the freedom to ignore and reject my love?

Is my love a gift or a contract?

rustydoor

Ebenezers and Deserts

March 14, 2009

I was a month into my first semester at Lipscomb University.

After sleeping in, I walked over to the Student Center to check my mailbox. Through the glass on the rectangular brass door I could see the card. I already knew what this card meant: my new satchel from L.L. Bean had arrived. It was going to be a good day.

The person behind the desk in the small office handed me my package. I opened right there, threw away the mailer and bubble wrap, and walked upstairs. No one was around. Strange. Uncle Dave’s and the coffeeshop and the bookstore should be humming with activity. Where was everybody?

My grandmother, who was working in the bookstore back then, must have seen me walk by because she caught up to me while I was standing underneath the portico looking out on Bison Square and wondering why it was deserted.

“Did you hear the news?” She touched my shoulder then wrapped her arm around my waist. I put my arm around her shoulders. This is the way we’ve stood every since I grew taller than her.

“No. What news?” Now I felt my stomach turn over with the first hint of anxiousness.

“Some people flew planes into the twin towers and the World Trade Center.”

My mind failed to wrap around this information. She had to repeat herself and explain that the videos were on every news channel. Where had I been?

What alarmed me more than anything else is that after she shared this news—events that changed our world and the very fabric of our lives forever—I felt nothing. No fear. No sadness. No warm rush of compassion. I was devoid of emotion. She may as well have told me that the cafeteria was serving corndogs. Hundreds and thousands of people had just died and more would die to save the survivors, but I found no response in my heart but a curious emptiness.

This apathy disturbed me. I wondered what had happened to harden my heart, and that day, I began praying a prayer that I continue to give to the Lord:

“Let my heart be pierced with other people’s suffering. Soften me, open me, to their pain and fear, their insecurity and pressing need to be loved even while their lives are wastelands. Give me the strength to roll up my sleeves and work alongside you to turn the rubble into temples, ebenezers, altars of praise. When their hearts and faith are scorched, may you bring them hope through me.”

I have a bad habit of praying prayers before I fully understand their ramifications. The same thing happened two years later when my friend Taylor and I decided to pray for humility. He prayed for my humility, and I prayed for his. We knew enough about how sanctification works to know that brokenness leads to humility, and neither one of us could pray for brokenness with sincerity. God answers such prayers, I guess because they align with His Perfect Will for our lives.

He desires that we walk with one another through the valleys of dead bones, through the dark nights of our souls. He has certainly answered that prayer from my freshman year of college by resensitizing me to a groaning world full of hurting people. I struggle not to feel overwhelmed by such deep need. We are all so needy. Everyone I know is starving for love, and here God offers his love as a free gift and a way of life that leads to peace and wholeness—to shalom—and we pluck out our own eyes even as we pluck out the eyes of others.

O! I am filled with such a longing to be in the temple of God, ringing His praises off the flagstones, and O! I am eager for the return of Christ when his kingdom will come in its fullness and he will use the corner of his white robe to wipe away every tear.

Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with myself because I feel like what I have to offer is never enough, and I can never cry enough tears to answer the thirst of every parched soul. God answered my prayer, and perhaps the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, and I am now too sentimental, too tender-hearted. I live in a new kingdom, and I don’t feel cut out for life as an alien in the old kingdom. 

Oh, Lord, thy kingdom come…Please let thy kingdom come. Before we all perish. Before fear, blindness, and pride, before the world we have created consumes us all. Give us water to transform every desert.

Please do something right now. We have nowhere else to turn.

Sweet freedom

March 13, 2009

When I was leaving my house this morning for work, I noticed a mockingbird in a skirmish with two bluejays. One of the bluejays gave up and flew away over the roof of the Church of God next door. The mockingbird and his other nemesis looped around and through the Blueberry Tree. They would both land as if to catch their breath before the mockingbird would lunge at the larger bluejay and they would begin their aerial combat all over again.

I’m unsure what kind of tree it was that was their battleground. My friend Caroline dubbed it the ”Blueberry Tree” simply because blue berries have begun to appear on the tips of its branches. Spring starts officially on March 21st, the Vernal Equinox.

Everywhere I see splashes of yellow, green, and pink. Delicate flower petals, new grass, and blossoms on the trees.

Rebirth.

We need it. Our moods are tied into the seasons. Sunlight keeps us healthy.

I wonder if the mockingbird feels it and responds in its own way—chasing the intruder around the block. That’s what was intriguing about the spectacle. The numbers were in favor of the bluejays, two to one. They are much larger than the mockingbird. Yet, he was routing them like a couple of amateurs.

He was bold. He was persistent. He was fearless.

He reminds me of Paul’s words to Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1.6-7)

Power and love and self-control. 

Maybe that’s where the metaphor breaks down. The mockingbird wasn’t loving on the bluejays. 

However, I still believe that we are the Blueberry Tree, the Spirit is the mockingbird, and the bluejays are anyone or anything that that tries to convince us that God is aloof, immobile, or impotent.

Again, I think of Paul:

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4.4)

Jesus did more than disarm the dark powers of this world. “He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2.15).

What does that mean for us?

Hope.

We were dead, but now we are alive. We move and breathe in sweet freedom.

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.

We’d taken a road trip to Memphis to hear Guster play at the New Daisy Theater. Rebecca‘s parents offered to let us crash at their house. Driving back to Nashville on Sunday afternoon, I tried to catch up on some homework. My Faith & Fiction class with Dr. Matt Hearn and Dr. Gary Holloway was reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal.

The book is Nouwen’s long mediation on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name. The painting changed Nouwen’s life, and his meditation changed mine.

I’ve spent the better part of my life believing that I am a constant disappointment to God.

He gave his only son to save us, and I repay him by cheating on him, fooling around with other gods. I always imagined him sighing like the parent of a college flunkie:

“Son, your mother and I have made sacrifices so that you could get the best education possible. This is the third semester in a row that you have failed your classes, and frankly, I’m disappointed in you. I’ve about had enough. We’re going to give you one more shot, but if you let us down again, you’re on your own. We’re pulling the plug. Do you understand?”

I felt like I was letting God down on the time. I tried and tried to do better, be more disciplined, keep a tight rein on my sins, but as Paul so eloquently explains sin at work within us in Romans 7: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Put simply, the Spirit used Nouwen’s warm, generous words to help me understand and experience my belovedness in God’s sight. He welcomes me into his heart. He tells me that I am worth the blood of Jesus. He calls me by name. He has been watching for me for months, and when he sees my familiar figure in the distance, He lays aside his dignity, picks up his robes like a skirt, and sprints for me. He embraces me, showers me with kisses. He pours out his extravagant love, and I am overwhelmed.

How can YHWH, the Creator God, the Alpha and the Omega, invite me to dine next to him at the wedding feast of the Lamb? When I slip through the door, believing that I am unclean and unwanted, He shouts, “Austin, come over here. I’ve saved you a seat.” He runs over, locks an arm around my shoulders, and introduces me to all the guests, “This is my adopted son, Austin. He is like no one else you will ever meet. He is one of a kind. I am so proud of him.”

The romantic poet William Blake, who is himself one of a kind, talked about bearing up under the ray’s of God’s love for us.

We will spend the rest of our lives learning to receive God’s love.

Nouwen sharing his heart was a turning point on that journey for me.

Riding in the back of that car on the way back to Nashville, I cried tears of joy, for God’s love is true. His love is Reality.

The parable in Luke 15 is really a story about a loving father. The gospel story of our loving father. Jesus is the way home. A phrase from the book put words to a vague ache I’ve felt for as long as I can remember: “the yearning for a final return, an unambiguous sense of safety, a lasting home.” We are all haunted by an existential homesickness. Whether we know it or not, we long to rest in God. He is our true home.

Nouwen understood this, and for that, I am thankful. I look forward to meeting him one day.

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.

 

Dirty, white sweatshirt

February 19, 2009

I was driving down Broadway yesterday. I’d eaten lunch at home and was returning to the office. A drizzle had fallen all day, one of those days when I don’t mind working because the weather is nasty.

A man and woman were walking across the bridge where Broad arches above the railroad tracks. Each was carrying a black plastic bag in one hand. The man was closest to the road. He was black. His left cheek was swollen, and he had a purplish bruise underneath his eye. Somebody must have punched him.

She was white and pudgy with curly blond hair down to her shoulders. She was wearing a dirty white sweatshirt.

They were smiling. They were holding hands. The pair didn’t seem to notice the damp or the overcast sky or people’s pity or disgust as they drove by. 

The outcasts of our society. Chances are, they suffer from addiction, mental illness, poverty, or a combination of the three. They can carry all their belongings in one hand. Yet, they offer one another a simple token of intimacy. Love finds us all. 

I could be one of them. I was one of them, at least in the existential sense. We’re all searching for a home. We all want to find love. Their affection gives me hope for all of us.

I want to participate. Here I am. Send me.