Six Years Later

Pilgrim in Progress —  December 8, 2018 — 3 Comments

Almost exactly six years ago I wrote a post titled “When Doing No Longer Satisfies.”  This was part of a review I was doing on a book at that time.  In that review I wrote:

Reading this book has given me the opportunity to reflect back on my own journey and better evaluate where I have been.  I can see more clearly where I get “stuck” and why it is that I am getting “stuck.” . .

But I think I am finally getting what it is that God is showing me, where he is trying to take me.  A journey that I would like to share more about in the next post on stage 4 and “The Wall.”. . . Journey with me to the wall, wont you?  Together let’s learn how to take it down – one “brick” at a time.

Allow me a wry smile as I reflect on those words.  I had no idea of the journey that lay ahead.  And I never did get that next post on stage 4 and the wall written.  Until now.

I quoted the authors in that post who stated:

There may even be a time in which we sense the loss of God.  God appears to have abandoned us, disappeared without a trace.  .  .  . This is clearly the most alarming place of all the journey.  While the doubts or crises are there, we frequently feel as though God is not there when we need God most.  .  .  .  It sets the stage for the inevitable, humbling, crumbling experience of rediscovering God again.  .  .  .

Truer words have never been spoken.  This is a frightening place on the journey.  I went over 4 years without hearing from God.  All that time feeling abandoned and alone.  I use the past tense, because in the past few weeks I think I feel His quite presence re-emerging.  But I came to this place of hearing through a strange paradox.

I gave up on God.  I began to tell close friends that I wasn’t sure I believed in God anymore.  That I was thinking of walking away from God.  And every time I had these conversations, something deep inside of me felt more sure there  was a God.  Something foundational about belief felt strengthened.  It was intuitive, a “gut” feeling of God’s presence in response to my relinquishement of faith.

I’m still trying to process this, but it is as if I faced my greatest fear — rejecting God.  And He was not only unmoved by that, but responded in love.  I am wondering if this is a glimpse of the key truth I need to pass through the wall.

On to the rediscover of God. . .

 

Many years ago I started a journey into youth ministry by attending a Sonlife training weekend.  I remember hearing a discussion about the “brightest bulb” theory of youth ministry.  I want to attribute that to Mike Yaconelli, but I’m not entirely sure that is correct.  The idea of the theory is that in youth ministry, the church goes out and finds the “brightest bulb” that they can and plugs that bulb into their youth ministry.  Then they let that bulb burn as bright as it can until it burns out.  Then they discard that burned out bulb and replace it with the next brightest bulb that they can find.

Except the bulbs are humans made in the image of God.

But this was the late 80’s/early 90’s.  Youth ministry was viewed as an entry level job on the way to being a “real” pastor.  A time to “pay your dues.”  Youth ministers were viewed and valued more from a utilitarian perspective than from a perspective that imbued them with intrinsic worth and value.

This week when I learned that another mega church pastor’s life had imploded, I was reminded of the brightest bulb theory.  Except that this is now the 21st century.  And the brightest bulb disease has now overtaken all levels of the pastorate.

I wonder if this is an unfortunate side effect of the church growth disease.  Churches that want to grow look for a bright bulb that will drive attendance at Sunday morning services.  As attendance grows, so do the programs, the staff and the physical infrastructure.  And soon the pastor’s job flips from church growth to servicing the church’s overhead.  And the focus moves from God to money.  When the budget shortfall begins or when the pastor falls into disrepute, what is one to do?

It’s time to find a brighter bulb.

Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

This indecision’s bugging me
If you don’t want me, set me free
Exactly whom I’m supposed to be
Don’t you know which clothes even fit me?
Come on and let me know
Should I cool it or should I blow?

The journey of the last four years has left me wondering what to do with God.  People speak of “hearing from God” or  “following God” and I wonder what that means.  God doesn’t speak to me.  I have feelings and I can read, but neither of those is hearing from God.  Both are mediated by my own psyche and therefore notoriously unreliable.

Of late I have become completed disenchanted with the idea of God .  Or at least a God that is active in the affairs of humanity and who is personally engaged with his children.  Given my own personal experience, I am finding myself much more prone to believe in a Deist God.

Should I stay, or should I go?  If he doesn’t want me, then set me free!  Exactly whom am I supposed to be?  C’mon and let me know!

A few weeks ago I gave voice to a couple of friends of mine that I’m not sure I believe in God any more.  That I am considering “walking away” from God.  This confession brought about an interesting outcome.  I found that in expressing my willingness to walk away from God, I discovered there existed some type of existential foundation for my belief in God.

It is a strange thing to be torn between belief and unbelief. But I think it might just be the best place for me right now.  Because I think that in letting go of belief, I just might find belief.

What a long strange trip this is.

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I am currently on a quest to understand what it means to grieve.  Often we only contemplate the meaning or presence of grief when someone close to us dies.  That someone could be close by nature of genetics, or by nature of relationship.  In addition, the death of a pet also often evokes grief.  However, at its core, grief is about loss.  That loss can come from a plethora of places.  A broken relationship.  A relationship lost.  One that never became what it should have.  Dreams that haven’t come to fruition.  The list could become practically endless.  Perhaps the loss in your life is extensive and you struggle with how to carry on under this weight of loss.

Over the past two years, I have come to the realization that some things in my life will never be as I had hoped or dreamed.  That some decisions cannot be taken back and have changed the trajectory of life forever.  How does one move from wishing for what was and moving to accepting what is?  Depending on the nature of the loss, this journey from what was, to what will never be, to what can be, will likely look very different for each individual.  Yet I also suspect that there are certain shared elements in the majority of these journeys.

I do not know that there are many true experts who can become our guide on the journey through grief.  This is certainly not an area that one would typically choose to immerse themselves in.  Never the less, I have set about seeking competent guides for this journey.

Recently, I pulled off my bookshelf The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions reveal Our Deepest Questions About God by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III.  I started reading it quite some time ago, but it has languished unfinished on my shelf.  I picked up where I had left off, at the beginning of chapter 11 and read:

Ungodly desire is a flight from desire;  it is a refusal to embrace loss as a deepening of the hollowness that makes more room for God.  Despair refuses to dream, to hope, and to move with courage toward what we will one day become.  It flees to an illusory safe harbor where, isolated it holds onto whatever pleasure comes from the fantasy of nonexistence.

This is why suicide, the choice of nonexistence, is often preferred to hope:  It allows those in despair to shield their hearts from the agony of becoming.  Ungodly despair refuses to walk through the valley of the shadow of death;  it refuses to agonize any longer with the pang of uncertainty, loss, and the irrepressible desire for redemption.

Godly despair is the collapse of self-will;  it is the surrender to a reality of becoming that we are powerless to consummate but in which we are granted an opportunity to play a part.  Instead of a suicide note that puts a stop to the loss, it is a howling prayer that sees no explanation for our pain but reflexively knows something beyond an answer is what we desire.  Although ungodly despair demands an answer for the loss, it would refuse to accept an answer even if it were hand -delivered by God.  Godly despair cries out for perspective but allows the hollowness of loss to move the heart to seek God.

 

Embracing loss.  Becoming.  The agony of becoming.  Valley of the shadow of death.  The agony of uncertainty.  Loss.  Desire for redemption.  Becoming that we are powerless to consummate.  Howling prayer.  Reflexively knows.  Refuses to accept an answer.

These are words and ideas that resonate deeply.

For me, becoming has been a very long and slow process.  In fact, I have come to wonder if becoming is an endless process, one that is never fully consummated during our life here on earth.  But perhaps it is not the seemingly endless journey of becoming that bothers me as much as the seemingly endless agony of uncertainty, loss and the vanishing prospect of redemption.

And so I find myself suspended between what Allender & Longman describe as Godly and ungodly despair.  Wishing I was in one world, not fully in either.

And so the journey continues, the journey to “embrace loss as a deepening of the hollowness that makes more room for God” and “the surrender to a reality of becoming that we are powerless to consummate but in which we are granted an opportunity to play a part.”

Laughter

Pilgrim in Progress —  May 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

Laughter.

Psychology today says “Scientists do know that laughter is a highly sophisticated social signaling system, helping people bond and even negotiate.”  Dictionary.com says that laughter is “an expression or appearance of merriment or amusement.”

But I have learned that these definitions do not always hold true.

When we first met our son in China almost four years ago we noticed that he laughed a lot.  He laughed uncontrollably.  He laughed at everything.  He laughed at inappropriate times.  He laughed when he was sad, angry, scared, worried, afraid, excited.  Laughter was his response to literally everything in life.  And laughter was often the precursor to rage.  To a full on raging meltdown.  Laughter became the signal of awful things to come.  And so I have learned to hate his laughter.  I can’t help it.  After experiencing hundreds of traumatic experiences foreshadowed by his laughter, my entire being recoils when he laughs.

Until today.  We were on our way to his weekly therapy.   He was riding in the back seat reading a book that made him laugh.  And for the very first time since we met him I think I heard his real laugh.  Not the I’m afraid/worried/scared/angry/mad laugh, but a real laugh.  And it was beautiful.  It brought my heart joy.  It brought my heart hope.  Solomon said that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”  Four years of hope deferred are the reality of my life and my heart has grown sick.  But for an instant, I caught a glimmer of hope.  And it was good.

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It is with a variety of emotions that I return to blogging.  It has been just over two years since I last posted on this site.  An astute observer will notice there were zero posts in 2014 and only two in 2015.  As December of 2013 drew to a close, I had no idea of the journey that our family was about to embark on nor the impact that it would have on each of us.

In sum, during 2014 we adopted internationally, I took a promotion with the company I was working for and we moved halfway across the country.  Three major life events in three months.  Not a good idea.  Under normal circumstances, facing change this enormous would be daunting.  We soon found, however, that our whole family dynamic was undergoing a dramatic and unexpected shift.  Add to that the need for me to travel out of state followed by the sale of the company to private equity and a consequent continual increase in pressure, shifting expectations and non-stop change.

Finally, I just walked.  The best thing for me and for my family was to move on.  And so I did.

All in all, the past 3 ½ years have been more difficult than I could have imagined.  All the hopes, dreams and expectations that we held in December of 2013 came crashing to earth.  From castles in the sky to rubble and refuse amidst a pit of despair.

But from the ashes of despair, hope rises.  From a faith that has been crushed and broken, new seeds begin to sprout.  A worldview shattered, a new one emerging.  A past paradigm once accepted, now discarded.

Pilgrim in progress, Paradigm in process.  The journey moves on.

I was listening to Mason Proffit singing “Two Hangmen” today and the words caught my attention.  I was surprised how these lyrics that were written into an entirely different context fit into my experience in American Evangelicalism.

Too often those who dare to think thoughts outside the excepted boundaries find themselves facing the proverbial hangman.  How many times have I seen people called to account for not following some set of rules.  How many excoriated for daring to suggest that a belief or set of beliefs might be obsolete or incorrect.  Or perhaps culturally bound.  How many have I seen ridiculed for relinquishing the rope and choosing hope.  For  choosing love over law.

There was a time I was zealous in my evangelical fervor.  A time when, God help me, I might have played a part in that hangman’s role myself.  But then I began to see the loopholes, the innocent who were being hung.  I have personally been on the receiving end of the hangman’s noose on more than one occasion.  No one is immune from this.  Not even the one who has accepted and carried out the duties of the hangman.  I just wish there had been someone there to cut me loose.

So If you find yourself in the Evangelical hangman’s noose, give me a call.  I will come and cut you loose.  And if need be, I will hang with you.  For we have a God who chose love over law.  Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

 

Two Hangmen

As I rode into Tombstone on my horse, his name was Mack
I saw what I’ll relate to you, going on behind my back
It seems the folks were up-in-arms, a man now had to die
For believing things that didn’t fit, the laws they’d set aside
The mans name was “I’m a Freak”. The best that could see
He was the executioner, a hangman just like me
I guess he’d seen loopholes from working with his rope
He’d hung the wrong man many times, so now he turned to hope
He talked to all the people from his scaffold in the square
He told them of the things he found, but they didn’t seem to care
He said the laws were obsolete, a change they should demand
But the people only walked away, he couldn’t understand
The marshals name was “Uncle Sam”, he said he’d right this wrong
He’d make the hangman shut his mouth, if it took him all day long
He finally arrested Freak, and then he sent for me
To hang a fellow hangman, from a fellow hangman’s tree
It didn’t take them long to try him in their court of law
He was guilty then of “Thinking”, a crime much worse than all
They sentenced him to die, so his seed of thought can’t spread
And infect the little children, that’s what the law had said
So the hangin’ day came ’round, and he walked up to the noose
I pulled the lever, but before he fell I cut him lose
They called it a conspiracy, and that I had to die
So to close our mouths and kill our minds, they hung us side-by-side

And now we’re two hangmen, hangin’ from a tree
That don’t bother me, at all
Two hangmen, hangin’ from a tree
That don’t bother me, at all

Today is the day of the “Father’s Blessing” at my daughter’s school and she has been looking forward to this day for weeks.  It’s  a wonderful idea, but as a father, I’m feeling a bit of pressure!  Today I will pick her up from school and join the other students and fathers from her class at at a nearby church.  We will enjoy lunch together and after lunch each father will read/give a blessing to their child.  We have been instructed to “keep it short” because there are so many blessing to give and so little time.  There is a chance that my blessing will be longer than they would like, but I’ll take the heat.  My daughter is worth that risk.

 

A Father’s Blessing

On that December 12thmorning in 2005 when I first held you in my arms, your mom and I had no idea what the future held. We named you “Katherine MeiXing”, your middle name being Chinese for “pretty star.” We were excited and scared and had absolutely no idea how to be parents. As you toddled around in your “squeaky shoes” and played “floppy baby” in the hotel, be began the process of discovering who God created you to be. From early on it became apparent that you had a kind, sensitive and caring heart. Whenever a baby would cry, you would stop what you were doing and want to make sure that they were cared for. It didn’t matter where we were, or who it was, you wanted to make sure that someone met that need. Just days ago when one of your brother was sad and hurting, you ran upstairs and brought him some of his special things to comfort him in his sorrow. This heart of compassion is a gift given you by God and a gift that our broken world desperately needs. Kate, always let God’s heart flow through your heart to heal the hearts of those around you. In doing so, you bring the presence and reality of God’s kingdom to the hurting world around you.   

God has also given you physical gifts. Shortly after you came to our home you began climbing up on all the boxes in our home. I took you to a “dad and me” gymnastics class to get your wiggles out. At first, I think you liked the donuts afterwards more than the gymnastics, but then you began to blossom into a confident athlete. And while your natural athleticism shines through, gymnastics has also taught you to be courageous, committed and persistent. You have learned that when things don’t go your way you have to pick yourself up, get your courage up and try again.

This summer our family went through a lot of change: we traveled to China, adopted your littlest brother and moved to Colorado. I will never forget that when we told you that we were leaving Wisconsin to move to Colorado, you told us how hard it would be for you to leave your friends and your school behind. Only a few minutes later I found you in your room with your Bible writing down verses related to being courageous in difficult situations.

Kate, God has given you many gifts and I am so pleased to see the confident young woman you are growing up to be. As you dream of what your future may hold, whether that is exercising your creativity as a “fixer upper” or coaching others to be their best in gymnastics or providing a home for babies that have no home through adoption, know this, Kate. God has created within you a heart full of creativity and kindness. A heart that is brave and strong. A heart that is made to love Him and to love others.

And so Katherine MeiXing, my pretty star, may God bless you abundantly above and beyond what you could ask, hope or think as you bless others with the blessing he has given you.  

I love you,

Dad.

In my post last night I wrote:

At times I struggle because I have chosen to put my family ahead of my career.  At times I find myself wondering what might have been if I had made career advancement my goal.  Tonight I had no struggles, but instead gratitude.  Gratitude that I could share the adventure, share my heart, and share the love of God’s Son with my son.

Today I stopped to grab a bagel for lunch and read a few pages in “Renovation of the Heart.”  I hope I can communicate to you the connection between what I wrote last night and the words of Willard I read today.

Regarding ideas, Dallas Willard wrote:

Ideas are very general models of or assumptions about reality.  They are patterns of interpretation, historically developed and socially shared.  They sometimes are involved with beliefs, but are much more than belief and do not depend upon it.  They are ways of thinking about and interpreting things.  They are so pervasive and essential to how we think about and how we approach life that we often do not even know they are there or understand when and how they are at work.  Our idea system is a cultural artifact, growing up with us from earliest childhood out of the teachings, expectations, and observable behaviors of family and community.  .  .  .  it is extremely difficult for most people to recognize which ideas are governing their life and how those ideas are governing their life.

This is partly because one commonly identifies his or her own governing ideas with reality.  .  .  .  Another illustration of “idea grip” would be how most people think of success in life in terms of promotions and possessions.  One’s culture is seen most clearly in what one thinks of as “natural” and as requiring no explanation or even thought.

It is this particular “idea grip” that still has a grasp on me.  And I do think that what ideas are seen by most as “natural” define the true reality of our culture.  We currrently live in a cultural that places a heavy emphasis on job titles, promotions, responsibilities and the like.  We judge people by the job/career that they have and by the possessions they have accumulated – the house, car, boat, lake home, furnishings, artwork, etc.

Yet when I spend time pondering the teachings of Jesus, he places no importance in these ideas.  And instead I find that the ideas which he promulgates are seen as “unnatural” within our cultural setting.  And so today I realized that my subconscious is the midst of a battle of ideas.  A battle between the prevailing cultures definition of success, and Christ’s definition of success.  Which idea will win?  The one that I feed.  And that is why I am reading Renovation of the Heart.

Now, the simplicity of spiritual formation lies in its intention.  Its aim is to bring every element in our being, working from inside out, into harmony with the will of God and the kingdom of God.  This is the simple focus.  We must keep it constantly before us and not be distracted by other things, no matter how good they may appear.  (Willard)

On to the (spiritual) journey.

My son, who is seven, came down with some kind of “bug” this week and had to stay home from school the last two days.  On this occasion it made sense for me to be the one to take time off work to be with him and it turned into an unexpected adventure.

Earlier this year he and I started to read the Chronicles in Narnia together.  He leans heavily against my shoulder and hangs on every word.  Occasionally he will stop me and ask me to point out a word, which he then studies with rapt attention.  Or he will ask me what some creature is: say a Naiad, or a Dryad, or a Centaur.  At this point we will usually turn to the laptop to find a few exemplars and then move along.

Yesterday, when he was the sickest, we only read two chapters.  Today, he was on the mend and he was on a mission to devour the story together.  And so we read the final eight chapters of “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.”

Of course I love the opportunity to sit ever so close on the couch and share a good adventure together.  But even more, I enjoy the opportunity  it brings for me to build into his life.  To paint a picture of good and evil, right and wrong — and our place, our mission in the midst of it.  I seized the opportunity to show him the parallels between Narnia and our world, between Aslan and Jesus, between Edmund and each of us.  I even warned him that I might cry, as I often do, when Aslan gives his life for Edmund.  And I explained how I was like Edmund and Jesus was my Aslan.  I don’t think he really gets it yet, but he did keep looking to see if any tears wear running down my cheek.

After we finished the last chapter and I put him to bed I had a few moments to reflect.  At times I struggle because I have chosen to put my family ahead of my career.  At times I find myself wondering what might have been if I had made career advancement my goal.  Tonight I had no struggles, but instead gratitude.  Gratitude that I could share the adventure, share my heart, and share the love of God’s Son with my son.

The journey adventure continues.