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…]

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.

You can change

March 31, 2009

You can change.

You are not simply a product of your past or environment, bound with invisible chains to your sins, failures, and family secrets.

Grace means transformation. Grace is real. Grace is true.

The fire of the Holy Spirit can sweep through your life and burn up all the garbage. You can live in freedom. You can taste purity and peace.

What you treat as unbreakable bonds are cobwebs to the risen Christ.

You can change. He can make you holy—washed white and entirely new.

Start asking, and he will come to your desire for him like a moth to a candle.

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.

Mom and Dad

March 28, 2009

Two Foxes :: 

1) My mom.

She is right most of the time. On the one hand, when I go to her for relationship advice, she asks questions like, “Do you think she was thinking this?” and I have to say, “Mom, for me to even guess at that is counterproductive.” On the other hand, she knows intuitively when something is amiss, when I’m too nonchalant, not excited enough. She likes to say that “It shouldn’t be work in the beginning. It should just be fun. Plenty of time to work at it later on.” So simple and so true. My sweet mom.

My mom is an ace at hospitality. She loves cooking for people. She’s told me that is one of her outlets for creativity.

Birthdays and holidays are always a big deal. For Valentine’s Day, she bought me a leather chair and ottoman at an estate sale. My parents, my older sister, and my nieces came to visit me and brought it.

She’s always thinking about other people. She’s both unselfish and generous, to the degree that I want to protect her so that people don’t take advantage.

I love how fiercely she loves my two sisters and me. I have never doubted that love. parents

2) My dad.

He used to scrape the ice off our windshields so we could drive straight to school without waiting on the defroster.

My dad and I went to Haiti together, and it was a blessing to see one another in a different context. He got to see me when I feel most alive—traveling and serving. He told me how proud he was to see me work so hard and take charge and keep a sense of humor. We got into an argument—our arguments are more discussions than antagonistic—when I talked about buying some Cuban cigars. He thought that might offend some people in our group. However, that conversation led to another conversation in which we agreed not to doubt one another’s sincerity in faith matters anymore.

 

My dad is a rock. He can be so silly and quirky too. He takes really good care of things. I’ve only ever seen him use one riding lawnmower. He bought it used and has used it over 24 years! He always does what he says he will do. He’s a man of his word. I like making him laugh until he cries. He can be mischievous: he was always pulling April Fool’s pranks.

Despite those gags, I trust him. I remember reading Wild at Heart in high school and thinking, “Gosh, what are my father wounds?” The only thing I could come up with is that I wish he’d taught me to take risks. I’ve had to teach myself, but that doesn’t leave very much room for complaint. A Christlike attribute of his: He has the humility to say, “I’m sorry,” and “I don’t know.” I’ve never lost respect for him for saying either.

 

I get embarrassed at Christmas because my parents are so generous. When we all would go back to school after Christmas and everyone was discussing their presents, I never wanted to say anything because it was always a conversation stopper. I thought our family would seem materialistic.

One time I was listening to my parents go back and forth accusing each other of snoring. I started laughing. They both turned to me and said, “What?” “You both snore!” I said. They always wanted me to come in and kiss them goodnight when I got home. That’s how I knew. 

 

I’m proud of my parents. If you want to make your dad or mom cry, tell them you’re proud of them. Works every time.

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.

Last September, I was in Destin with my family. What began as a verbal skirmish between my brother-in-law and me after a game of Wii Tennis—competition can bring out the best or worst in men—became a full-scale battle that ended with my telling my family that I thought our style of dealing with conflict was unhealthy, insensitive, and passive aggressive. 

I observed that our family nurtured no open dialogue to accommodate hurt feelings. We swept everything under the rug. Hurt feelings often went unacknowledged and were given a change to grow into resentment and bitterness. Rather than give one another the freedom to express hurt feelings, we found ways to mitigate our own discomfort and wounded one another further by saying, in effect, “You’re being hypersenstive. Get over it. Shouldn’t you have moved past that by now?” 

I’m not saying that I was in the right. Deciding who was right or wrong was missing the point. What I wanted was openness and honesty.

The problem with how I often communicate is that I am so adamant about justifying my point of view that I alienate the very people whom I meant to persuade. I have listened as certain street preachers who in a genuine desire to see people come to know the immeasurable riches of Christ spit out caustic rhetoric that scorched the ears and hearts of passers-by. The pendulum swings, and we wound the very people who wounded us in an effort to convince them that wounding people is wrong. We kill people to save them. Before he became Charlemagne, Karl the Great conquered the Franks, and he gave them two options—baptism or execution. 

I am very close to my parents and two sisters, and I wanted to enjoy even greater depth and sweetness in those relationships by practicing more empathy and better listening. I probably just sounded pissed off.

I went to my room, got down on my knees, and I prayed, “God, give me a word. Give me a ray of light.”

I listened for awhile, and He spoke in that strange way of his that is sometimes the sound of wind in high branches and sometimes the quiet presence of an old friend, but this time was like something overheard from across the room. I almost missed it. He whispered, “Be the change you want to see.”

I need to talk less about what I wish were different and instead kneel before the Father and ask Him to transform me into a sensitive, empathetic son and brother who listens well without scrambling to protect myself.

Be the change you want to see. 

Leo Tolstoy had this epiphany long before I did: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Gandhi, too: “We must become the change we want to see in the world.”

Do you wish the people in your life did a better job a taking care of you? Do you want to receive more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

Stop focusing on what you cannot change—other people. Start focusing on what you can change by the grace of God—yourself.

Be the change you want to see.

Deepen no darkness

March 25, 2009

Abba,

Give me strength and courage. Make me an oak and a lion.

Give me the Spirit of Christ, that I may receive wounds without giving them, that I may be a vessel of healing even to my enemies—those who embarrass, humiliate and betray me, those who snatch away my peace, those who erode my confidence, and those who obscure my joy.

Help me to relinquish the expectation that others should meet my expectations. 

Help me to listen well, with one ear to the heart of each person I am with and one to Yours. Help me to keep honest silence. Take my fears into your warm hands so that I can release my brothers and sisters from any obligation to calm my fears. Make my confusion fruitful. Create in me a clean heart, that I may be a safe place for others to air their own confusion, fears, and grievances.

Let me force no confessions, create no dissonance, and deepen no darkness.

Amen.

Foxes from the last several days: 

· I talked to a good friend from Nashville on Sunday night. How strange it is to know someone your whole life yet only brush the surface. Each one of us is a mystery. Each one of us is created Imago Dei—in the image of God. I’ve known her my whole life, yet “for who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” We surprise each other, we surprise ourselves. Our minds and bodies both make us human. Together they contain the galaxies of our souls. What a simple pleasure to make forays into someone else’s galaxy!

· This friend and I are both writing children’s books. Mine is entitled “Grabbling.” I drew from a story that my grandmother tells about fishing with her hands in Mulberry Creek. When I read the first draft to her, she just laughed and laughed—one of my favorite sounds. Putting the story down on paper and thinking about it brings me great pleasure. Also, the prospect of receiving Rachel’s book in the mail to read for the first time. E-mail, cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter are poor substitutes for receiving a package in the mail.

snake

· I spoke briefly with my friend John tonight. He and I haven’t talked since Christmas. When I think back over a sequence of minute events over the past two weeks that led to our conversation, I remember that I no longer believe in coincidence. We needed to talk, simple as that. Some of my stories and scars may give him hope. Thick trees and cool grass and bright flowers put down roots in the scorched places of our hearts. Ash feeds the soil. Our suffering feeds our own sanctification and can even be a catalyst for healing in other people’s lives.

· A tiny garden snake on the sidewalk in front of the house.

· A pedal falling off my bike and Lindsay coming to pick me up.

· Listening to my friends Aron Wright and Daniel Ellsworth play the WDVX’s Blue Plate Special.

· Eating the last of Justin’s candy cigarettes.

Reconciliation

March 21, 2009

I once thought of reconciliation the same way I thought of a broken bone healing.

My eighth grade year, I played cornerback, and my job on a sweep was to “scrape the alley” to the right of the tight end, get one step ahead of the blocker, and make the tackle. During practice one day, the running back was trying to block me, and he stepped on my left leg.

Pop!

I found out later that my tibia and fibula had snapped about ten inches above my ankle. Over the next twelve weeks, casts of different sizes, colors, and materials came and went. When the last one finally came off, a knot had formed over the break. “Overcalcification,” the nurse explained. “As the bone knit itself back together, it overcompensated.” She assured me that over time my body would absorb the extra calcium, the knot would disappear, and my leg should be even stronger than before.

I thought that relationships should heal the same way—stronger than before. After both parties come together with broken hearts, take responsibility for the hurts they inflicted, and ask forgiveness of one another, trust fills the rift, and the sweetness, intimacy, and laughter return. Agility and grace return. That relationship no longer walks with a limp.

This depth of wholistic, joy-infused healing certainly does occur in some relationships. I have experienced it. I thought that it was the highest expression of faithfulness and obedience, and thus pursued it with the same fervency that I tried to muster in every aspect of my life. After all, Jesus calls us to be peacemakers. Making peace means becoming a reconciling people. Reconciliation is what we do. I expected all my injured relationships to be stronger than before.

However, what happens when the other person never apologizes? Never admits fault? Denies any wrongdoing and steamrolls one’s vulnerability?

What happens if the person shows no interest in reconciliation and multiplies the offense with more insensitivity and selfishness?

We cannot wait to forgive and move forward into the fullness of life in Christ until the people who hurt us have asked for forgiveness. Sometimes, reconciliation comes with no sweet reunion or tears of relief and gratitude mingled with the other person’s. Sometimes, reconciliation is being cordial, feeling a sincere desire for the other person’s well-being and the relinquishment of our own bitterness and resentment.

Certain relationships never return to us. They walk with a limp out of our lives. God calls us to acknowledge our part in the wounding and breaking and to confess to Him, and if possible, the other person, our sins against that person. He never says, “There’s something wrong with you and your faith if you’re not able to fix every relationship.”

What a relief that He calls me to participate in reconciliation as far as I have the power to do so. He knows I have no power to suck the venom from another person’s heart. 

Praise God for the toppling of impossible standards and the graceful letting go of broken relationships.

I am his child, not his handyman.