The Lord handed over Israel because of idolatry: “You have not obeyed my voice… .” How had Israel erred? By worshipping Baal and Asherah.

Gideon is beating out grain in a winepress to keep the wheat hidden from the Midianites, who were taking by force whatever food the Israelites produced. He was working in secret. Living hand to mouth made Gideon shrewd and resourceful, yet the angel did not appear to him in the first year but the seventh year. Why did God wait to rescue his people? Apparently, both Gideon and Israel had some lessons to learn:

Disobedience opens the door to oppression. God gives us boundaries to create the best kind of life for us. When we outsmart ourselves and try to live life apart from him. We settle for less.

An angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, and speaks, “The Lord is with you…”

[Have no fear. The Creator God stands by your side.]

“…O mighty man of valor.”

[Remember who you are—a warrior. Claim your identity. Live in the truth of God’s power that resides in you. I gave you not a spirit of timidity but of power and love and self-control.]

The angel calls out in Gideon what God has already placed inside of him. He resituates Gideon in the truth: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is above all gods. His children have nothing to fear.

Gideon wrestles with the angel’s words. He even questions God’s faithfulness:

“Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6)

Gideon falls into the worn trap of blaming God for his suffering and that of his people. Why do we suffer if God loves us? If he performed signs, wonders, and miracles in the past and delivered his children from oppression, why has he abandoned me in this pit? If he is all-powerful, why won’t he soothe my pain, save my marriage, resurrect my sweet child from the dead?

The angel offers no answer. God gave Job no answer. I have a hunch that God will meet our balled-up fists banging on his door with similar silence. The answer, I think, is complex and only available to us in part. As revealed in Christ, our suffering becomes our glory. The cross we take up becomes an avenue of sanctification. I also think that we live in the world that we have created. We chose life apart from God. We rebelled. We broke trust, and now we live in a broken world that breaks us. We point the finger at God rather than at ourselves. 

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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.

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…]

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.

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.

 

Why do I want to be a hero?

January 29, 2009

I was sitting with my friends Ben and Kristen in a children’s bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. Kristen loves to ask questions, and she came up with a good one for us: “What one word would you use to describe little boys?” I chose “Rambunctious” but have since forgotten what the other two said.

“What about little girls?” she asked next. I said, “Pointless,” and that drew a dirty look. Ben made a prudent decision by avoiding sarcasm. He mulled it over for a few moments before offering, “Princess.”

I think he nailed it. I have an older and younger sister, and when I think about them and all the other little girls I have met throughout my life, including my two nieces, I think that “Princess” sums up who little girls are and want to be.

I don’t mean to be reductionistic or oversimplify gender. I do believe that much of what we think is true about gender, especially gender roles, is socially constructed, embedded, and reinforced. If I were a three-year-old little boy, would I choose a train or a barbie doll? Which would I carry around and play with if I were given a choice between the two and no one swayed my decision either by limiting my choices or offering subtle hints of disapproval?

My friends Jeff and Meredith allowed their son Jasper to choose for himself. He chose the train. Most interesting, however, is what he did with the engine and train cars. He made them talk to each other. He gave them names. They had friendships and unique dynamics. In other words, he did with trains what a lot of little girls do with dolls.gingkotrees

I believe that we are essentially relational. So, I guess I do believe that gender is essential to who we are. I studied Judith Butler and some of her colleagues in a Literary Theory and Criticism class in grad school. Yes, separating men and women into two rigid genders–masculine and feminine–can cause problems. What about hermaphrodites and transsexuals? What about the woman born in a man’s body and vice versa? I hurt for people who never feel comfortable in their bodies, who must feel like they must suffer for some cosmic mistake. I cannot imagine how painful their confusion must have been as children and adolescents, not to mention how most communities ostracize anyone who is different in that way.

I don’t have all the answers, and I must confess some of these issues are uncomfortable to think about. Yet, when I think about the little boy I was and all the little boys I have ever known, I am amazed by the consistency and regularity of how we all played and how we play even in our adult years. We created situations in which we got to be heroes. Our games and our exploits always drifted the same direction: competition, victory, conquest. Feats of strength and endurance. Exploration and adventure. Fishing and hunting. I was the only one of my friends who rode my bike with no hands all the way from the neighborhood swimming pool to the dead end on one edge of our subdivision. Who cares? Why was this accomplishment so important to me? Why did it earn me the admiration and respect of my friends?

Consider professional sports. We pay to watch grown men throw around a ball made from leather or some synthetic material. We create rules that they must keep. Sports are this artifice through which we get to live out our boyish fantasies of heroism. I wanted to score the winning touchdown, catch the Hail Mary pass. I wanted to sink the half court shot at the buzzer. I wanted to play the tennis match of my life and win the state title for my high school team. I no longer have the opportunity to be the hero, so I enjoy the experience vicariously. I’ve heard somewhere that sports are men’s way of acting out their impulse to go to war.

Why? Is all this a complicated ritual of conjuring purpose and meaning where there is none? Are we hanging an elaborate curtain between the stage and the existential void on the other side? I think not.