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.

I was heading toward home tonight when I began to see some small signs along the road.  Signs that just struck me as a bit funny.  When I got to the traffic light I couldn’t miss the branding of this auspicious event.

women's sale

Do you think it ever occurred to them that folks might  find humor in the way this event was branded?  I realize that there is a possessive involved in the grammar, but still — I immediately thought of those sages of the academic community.  Jake and Elwood.

And all of this from a “Free Church.”

Thanks for giving me a laugh as I travel along the journey.

 

Do you ever become discouraged by current events in your community, country and world?  Do you wonder why things are the way they are?  Why people treat each other, treat you horribly?  I was reading St. Paul this morning and his discussion about what happens when people reject God and his plan for this world and for their lives.

 

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.  They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,  slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents;  they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.  Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

That describes an awful lot of what goes on around us on a daily basis, doesn’t it?  I was particularly struck by “they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.”  People can be so cruel, so cut throat.

As Christ followers are called to live out a different lifestyle.  As St. Paul also wrote:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh ; rather, serve one another humbly in love.  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  .  .  .  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.  .  .  .  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by why things are the way they are, why our culture is the way it is. But we don’t have to become like the culture.  We are called and empowered by the Spirit to live differently.  Will we follow that calling?  That is a choice we must make every day.

Why Do You Read?

Pilgrim in Progress —  July 23, 2013 — 4 Comments

book case 2Many years ago I become aware of two different approaches to reading.  I suspect I discovered it in a book or a lecture, but I can’t remember where it was, or by whom.  When you read a book, do you do so to “use” the book, or to be “changed” by the book?

Those who “use” a book are looking to for things that validate their beliefs or opinions.  They are looking for excerpts that they can utilize for a project they are working on or to memorize for future interactions with others.  Their goal is to find some nuggets or pearls within the book that they can take away and utilize for some other purpose.

Those who are “changed” by a book allow the book to “get in them”, to become part of who they are.  They are people whose life trajectory or attitude is altered by their interaction with the printed page.  In some cases the change may be great and in other cases it may be small.  But they let the book do its work.

If you were an author, which type of reader would you prefer?  One that read your book to be changed, or one who read your book to use the parts that they found appealing?

In my travels around the area I occasionally come across something truly unique.  Today I was one of those days.  I spun the car around and went back to get another look.  A camera phone doesn’t do justice to the experience that is “The Bunker.”  Welcome to Tichigan, my friends.

 

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I wish I would have gotten a few more pictures — especially a close up of that tank!  I guess it give me a good excuse to go back.  I sure would like to see what the inside looks like!

I

IMG_4655It happened to me again last week.  A total stranger began pouring out their soul to me.  This time it was a man at the hospital.  He was clearly disturbed — wiping his eyes and putting his sunglasses on while waiting for the elevator to arrive at the fifth floor.  He was fidgeting, nervous, desperate to get out of the building.  So I struck up a conversation with him.  He told me he needed to talk to someone, but he didn’t know where he was going to go, or what he was going to do or who he was going to talk to.  And so I said – “talk to me.”  At first, he was taken aback, but then we talked.  And he scared me.  He scared me because he hurt so much and because there was a battle raging inside his soul — a battle between good and evil.

He told me about the woman he loved deeply who was lying in a hospital bed, sick.  Whose mental status rendered her incapable of making medical decisions.  And although the two of them had been living together for ten years, he was not able to be part of her decisional care.  His heart literally ached because he had pounded his chest in anger until it was bruised.  He wanted to be part of her care, he wanted to take her home, to love her, to provide for her — and he wasn’t being allowed to.

And then he began to talk about being a sinner.  The worst of all sinners, he told me as he began to list the sins that he clearly felt made him an awful person.  So I tried to enter into that with him.  I talked about grace and sin.  And I joined him at the front of that line of sinners.  And then he said he had to go.  He said he had an agenda, some things he needed to do.  But before he left, he gave me his phone number “in case I ever needed to talk.”

I was left to observe that the world is full of hurting people.  Desperate people.

What is one to do?  How does one bring light to darkness?  How does one bring hope to desperation? How does one bring healing to hurt?

How does one help people realize that they are “an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”? (Dallas Willard’s definition)  How do you help them understand what that means and how it changes their life?  And finally, how does one do it while standing in a hospital corridor in front of a gift shop filled with meaningless trinkets?

I did my best to be present in his pain as my mind raced, wondering — how was I to fully enter into this conversation?  How could I, in this God ordained, unexpected moment, bring the Light of the world and the presence of God’s kingdom into his reality?

I struggled, you see, because I was raised in a religious culture where the answer was always to say “the sinner’s prayer,” to “ask Jesus into your heart.”  And then magically, everything would be alright.  Except, of course, it wasn’t.

I have learned as I have grown older that this world is a broken place and that pain and suffering is continually present.  And I have learned that the gospel isn’t a prayer.

What is the gospel?  Literally, it is the “good news.”  Do you know what the good news is for Alan?  It is that the kingdom of God is available to him, even to him, who believes that he is the worst of all sinners.

And why is he blessed?  Because even in this, the worst of circumstances, the kingdom of God is available to him.

Isn’t that what Jesus really meant when he announced the coming of the kingdom?  Let’s suppose I decided to write a modern paraphrase of the Gospel of Matthew — couldn’t I write:  “blessed are you when your live in girlfriend is lying in a hospital bed in a non-decisional state — for yours is the kingdom of heaven?”

And what is the kingdom of heaven?  It is the presence of God with us in the here and now.  It is God entering the sphere of humanity to walk with us in our frailty, in our weakness.  It is relational.  It is God’s power available to us.  It is grace fueled.  It is “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

The kingdom of God is not some faraway place that we get to go to someday if we have followed the proper religious protocols!  The kingdom of God has already broken into our earthly reality and is available to everyone – everyone who will receive that kingdom.  Everyone who will take up the mantle of disciple and fully trust in the living God.  A trust that is characterized by a radical shift in our thoughts, actions and motives.  A shifting of dependence from ourselves to God.  This is not an intellectual ascent to a set of salvific propositions, or the utterance of a formulaic prayer, but a trusting embrace of a risen Savior.  It is embracing God with the entirety of our being:  our hopes, our dreams, our future, our ambition, with all that makes us uniquely us.

It should not come as a surprise that a radical shift from self-sufficiency to God-sufficiency leads to an entirely different perspective on those concerns which dominate our daily lives.

Jesus said to his disciples:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them .  .  .  .  “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin .  .  .  .  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’.  .  .  .  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.

And what is the result of joining Jesus in living out the kingdom life in the here and now?  Jesus put it rather directly to his disciples when he said:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.   And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.   You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

As I look back I’m still not sure what I should have told Alan or what I did tell him.  I do know that I tried to enter into his pain.  I tried to assure him that God loved him and that God created him with worth, value, eternal purpose and meaning.  That God had things in store for him to do.  That he should go back up to that 5th floor and sit in the chapel and listen quietly and let God speak to him.  I tried to tell him that God wanted to walk with him in this crisis, to hold his hand just like he held Deb’s. And that together, they (he and God) would make it if he did that.  I don’t know if that’s enough.  I don’t even know if that’s right anymore.  Bud I do know God cares.  I know He cares about a desperate man in a desperate world facing a desperate situation.  And so I pray for Alan.  That somehow God will intervene in his life.  That God will fight that battle — that spiritual battle that is raging within him.  And in that spiritual battle between the Truth and a lie, I pray that he finds the Truth.

Late this afternoon I stopped at a coffee shop to finish up my work day.  It seems that a lot of Christians like to meet a coffee shops to discuss and discover deeper aspects of their faith.  Today was no exception.  It’s not that I was trying to overhear their conversation, because I wasn’t.  I was trying to concentrate on my work, but their voices kept breaking into my reality.  In fact, their conversation was inescapable for anyone in the shop  — including those of us seated on the other side of the room.

Two men met up just as I was arriving.  One appeared to be a recent college graduate who was looking for a job.  The other appeared to be around 30.  There was a bit of banter about C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia as they stood in line — even the barista joined in with commentary of her own.  They continued to discuss Lewis as they sat down but soon branched out to cover other authors of religious writings.  From there they moved to Scripture and theology.  There were three things about their interaction that I found interesting.  Early on I noticed the role that each individual took.  The older took on the role of wise mentor guardian to the younger.  The younger implicitly accepted anything and everything that fell from the lips of the guardian.  Second, any author whose writings fell outside outside of the guardian’s fairly narrow evangelical view was deeply suspect and to be avoided.  Third, the guardian was very sure of his Biblical interpretation and his theology.  From time to time he would wax eloquent with great passion correcting and then instructing his young charge on how he should believe.  There was no doubt or question, he knew the truth — and the truth is seen in black and white.

I remember when I was that sure.  When it was all so simple, when I had all the answers and the truth was black and white.  A time when I parroted the truths I learned from my guardians to the proteges that were under my tutelage.  A time before I really began to wrestle with God, with life, with the harshness of the world within which we live.  A time when I thought I was living by faith, but truth be told, was more likely living by someone else’s faith.  A time when I shied away from authors who were not aligned closely enough with my faith for fear that their influence might somehow “corrupt” my belief system and turn me away from God.  A time when my God was too small.  A time when my God was hemmed in by the boundaries of a specific theology of a specific subset of a subset within the universal Church.

But life broke my theological boundaries and God escaped.  And when I went to find him, I found riches untold outside the borders that I had constructed.  I found that instead of providing protection, those boundaries had stunted my spiritual growth.  That God had endowed men and women from other faith traditions with a wealth of wisdom, knowledge and insight through which I could draw into closer relationship with him.  I also learned to not be so sure of myself, of my answers, of my understanding.  And I learned to be patient in the pursuit of truth.  To allow time for God to speak, to lead, to guide.

I am glad I now live in a world of uncertainty, for it is a world where God can be God.  A world where God can go exceedingly and abundantly beyond anything I could ever ask, hope, wish or think.  A world where he can work in me and through me in ways that I could never imagine.  All I have to do is say “yes” to the journey.

Yes.

On to the  journey.