Tuesday, October 31, 2006

what anger teaches me

Anger is a strange and unruly emotion. Sometimes it hits us right away; something happens and bam! we're fuming. Sometimes it sneaks up on you, like it did for me today; you've made it for months after an incident without really feeling much anger, and suddenly, in the middle of your ordinary Tuesday afternoon, you are ready to give the tongue lashing of the century. And of course we all deal with it different ways--some by stuffing it, others by lashing out, others by offering an icy cold shoulder. However it comes and however we deal with it, none of us escapes it. Anger, it seems, it just part of life.

Some Christians have responded to the threat of such a disorderly emotion by declaring that no godly person should ever be angry. That ridiculous proposal doesn't even deserve another sentence here. Others have found the more balanced approach of saying that anger itself isn't so bad, it's what you do with it that makes the difference. A much better starting place, for sure, but the message is left woefully incomplete. We offer the wise advice to handle anger well, and then fail to mention what exactly it is we should do with it. Success in being angry is left defined (as are many things in faith) by what we manage not to do.

That isn't enough. I managed not to drive over and offer a vicious tongue lashing today. Excellent. But what should I do with the anger that threatened to ruin my afternoon? If God created us with a beautiful array of emotions, what are we to do with anger? How do we open our eyes to the places where God may have looked at that emotion and called it good?

Carter and Minirth define anger as "an intent to preserve 1) personal worth, 2) essential needs, and 3) basic convictions." It's a protective measure, a tool for guarding the saftey of the things most important to us. If that's true, then anger has a lot to teach us. Ever since I read that definition of anger a couple years ago, I have tried to ask myself in the midst of my anger, "What am I angry about? What do I feel like is being violated?" Doing so has taught me volumes about my own values and convictions. On the flip side of my rage, you can usually find the things I am most passionate about. If it weren't true, why would I care at all if anyone violated them?

I want to see anger continually redeemed in my life. I don't want to define my success with it in terms of the things I managed to grit my teeth and avoid doing. I want to use it to bring life, to let God use it to help me see truths about who I am and about who he is. In the long run, facing anger head on and actively using it for growth is the only thing that will ever really make it disappear. Everything else is just saving it for a rainy day.

Monday, October 30, 2006

theology is beautiful sometimes...

Since I am such a huge proponent of authenticity and raw honesty, this was definitely the best part of my homework for the day:

"Light at the sensory level is that which opens the world to us, that which removes the closedness, the hiddenness, the inaccessibility of things. Whatever stands in the dark remains alien and estranged from us. Jesus is spoken of as the light of the world (John 8:12) whom the darkness cannot overcome (ch. 1:5). These references suggest how, through Jesus, men are gathered into a realm of unobstructed openness at every level, a realm where all hiding, all estrangement, and therefore all fear are removed. For instance, it is not necessary in this realm for a person to conceal some bit of himself from others, in order to have a secure identity which they will not take and abuse. He does not have to hide behind pretensions and self-justifications. Christ reveals God to be light as well as life, and to be for us...the light as well as the life. And because he is unreservedly open both in himself and toward us, those who live in relation to him may be unreservedly open to one another. They may put aside all lying, all hypocrisy, all desperate secrecy and deception. In Christ they find not only the principle of life that abolishes all death but also a principle of openness that dispels all darkness and closedness, all distrust and alienation."

Arthur C. McGill- Suffering: A Test of Theological Method

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hindsight: Esau's tips on hunger control

Hebrews just keeps messing with me. That's what makes the Bible so beautiful. It gets inside and does its thing, and if we let it have its way, it brings life and light to all our dead, dark places. This book is no exception--chapter after chapter, it bowls me over. I love it.

Case in point. My journey into chapter 12 on Thursday morning followed a Wednesday of great struggle with temptation. It was the kind of temptation that is most discouraging because you are keenly aware of how little you really want to do the right thing, of how much you are believing sin's promises to meet a need or to satiate an often intense hunger. Ease the ache just this once, right? When the hunger is overwhelming, that seems perfectly sensible. But here's what I read that morning.

"See that no one is...godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears." (12:16-17)

A single meal. If you look back at the scene of the crime, found way back in Genesis 25, you'll find Esau exclaiming, "Look, I am about to die! What good is the birthright to me?" I'm sure he wasn't at death's door, but nonetheless the guy was clearly overcome by his hunger. He could see nothing else. So when his brother offered the ludicrous trade of birthright for stew, he took it. And that was the end of it. No matter how many tears of regret were to follow, all the rights of the firstborn were lost forever to his decieving little brother.

A single meal. Makes us want to shake our heads at Esau's stupidity. But that's where Hebrews messes with me. It demands that I ask myself (and the Bible should always be demanding questions of us) what my own overwhelming hungers are. What are the cravings in me that overcome me to the point of tunnel vision? What are the things that leave me crying, "I am about to die! What good is anything else to me?"

If I take an honest look at this verse as a whole, I have to admit that this is a crucial question for me. It should be for any of us, because of what Esau lost. It is crucial because, even though we may not have a weasely brother named Jacob, we do have a nasty deceiver that is ever so glad to suggest that we trade our inheritance as children of God for a bag of cheetos to tide us over until dinner. He wants us to trade our birthright of purity and true love for a single moment of sexual fulfillment. He wants us to trade in the inheritance of trusting relationships for the tension-easing lie that gets us out of a momentary squeeze. He wants us to trade a body free from addictions for a cocktail of relief.

Our enemy knows exactly when to meet us coming in the door, exactly when we are feeling so hungry we think we just might die. Unless we, too, have taken an honest look at those hungers and can escape the tunnel vision that accompanies ignorance, we are going to be surrendering our inheritance left and right. And though God delights in making things new, there are just some things we can't quite get back, no matter how many tears are shed.

I think this idea will be messing with me for a while. It leaves me asking questions about what my appetites are, and what truths might lie behind them. About how I can learn to distinguish my real desire from the easy-fix facade the enemy presents to me as a counterfiet. And about how much I have really taken in the awesome wonder of all that is my birthright as a child of God. If I really grasped that gift, I have a feeling I'd find myself saying a little more often, "Screw the cheetos--I stand to inherit a banquet hall!"

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Vincent's Blues (Seeing Vincent)

(written for a young man named Vincent whom I met at the teen center I helped run in college)

Vincent Van Gogh would have tinted his oils blue,
a thousand shades of sadness,
before he laid his lines thick in the shadows of your face.
Yours are the shadows of
your alcoholic father,
as if a shadow were something genetic,
As if the shades of his hopelessness
were inscribed on your newborn face.

In my mind, I watch Vincent lay down his layers.
I wonder how deep they are,
how long the paint will be wet.
I see another deep, blue line
and want to ask him where his highlights fall.

The paintbrush will not capture
your fifteen-year-old frame,
nor the styrofoam Sonic cup
and the smell of liquor it left on your breath.
There will be no canvas portrayal
of my awkward attempts to touch gently on your harsh realities.
Neither will Mr. Van Gogh be painting your mother's portrait,
though I wonder if she misses you tonight.

It would be easier for me to sit here
and hang your present condition like a sorrowful painting
on the walls of my wandering thoughts.
But I am no Vincent Van Gogh.
So I will throw away your empty Sonic cup
and gather the courage to sit down beside your
fifteen-year-old frame,
talk about the stories behind your shades of blue,
maybe even catch a glimpse
of where your highlights fall.

Mr. Van Gogh can keep his midnight blues
for the sky of some starry night.

Friday, October 20, 2006

think not of the old country...

The eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews has got to one of most inspiring passages in the Bible. It reads like a hall of fame list for the faithful among the ancients, for those who followed God past every “even though” in light of a strong enough “because”. A quote I have on my wall reads: “If you have a strong enough why, you can endure almost any how.” The men and women of Hebrews knew this well.

Take Abraham. Even though he did not know where he was going, Abraham went, because he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Even though he was way too old to have a son, he became a father, because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. Even though it seemed God was breaking his earlier promise, Abraham laid down Isaac on the altar, because reasoned that God could raise the dead.

Or consider Moses. Even though he could have enjoyed the pleasures of the court of Pharaoh, he chose to be mistreated along with the people of God, because he was looking forward to his reward. Even though he faced the Pharaoh’s anger, Moses pressed on toward freedom for his people, because he saw him who is invisible.

On and on through the lives of our ancestors, God asks the impossible, he commands the strange and nutty and sometimes seemingly unkind. Yet even though they didn’t always receive what was promised, his people of faith saw those promises and welcomed them from a distance. It was because they knew that this place was not their home-- they were looking forward to a better land, a heavenly country.

In the midst of all this, perhaps the most challenging verse to me was this: “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.”

Out of destitution and slavery, out of all our messes and hurts, and through many an “even though”, God calls us ever heavenward. Our “why”, our “because”, must be so strong that we never turn back. It is when we dwell on those places we’ve come from, just as the Israelites began to wish for the slavery of Egypt rather than the long journey through the desert, that we find ourselves turning back. We forsake what is better for what is reasonable and familiar and easy. Even now in my own life, I am having the hardest time pressing on through obedience because I keep letting my thoughts wander back to the land he’s called me out of, to the country from which I have recently come.

These heroes of our faith refused to dwell there. They laid aside any thought of their old country and pressed on toward the one God was preparing for them. And thousands of years later, what do we read about them? “God is not ashamed to be called their God” and “the world was not worthy of them.”

May we follow God in faith, whatever the odds, and may we consider his love all the reason we need to never look back.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


My parents own a VW camper van,
a real beater (brown, with a hand-painted yellow stripe down the side)
the kind you usually see propped up on cinderblocks
in some overgrown, midwest junkyard.
It is the child of my mother’s mid-life crisis,
purchased without consulting my father,
whose irritation quickly dissolved during their first camping trip.
I’m not sure how,
but that automobile has become a meeting place
for two people who,
all my life
have seemed painfully separate.

It takes them all kinds of crazy places,
that common ground on four wheels-
it sets up house in the high mountains they love,
putters across long stretches of desert highway,
drives them to small town diners
and into quirky encounters with other traveling eccentrics.
The thing breaks down all the time, of course,
and being a foreign car, and old,
it’s a pain in the rear to find both parts and an able mechanic.
The rest of practical America would cave in and buy a sedan,
to save the money, if nothing else.
But not my parents.
Unlike many other things in life,
they seem to believe, without question,
that the van is worth it.

In some small way,
that nasty brown van gives me hope,
suggests the existence of a promising principle.
In so many ways, I, too, feel a bit like a beater-
like I break down easily and am hard to fix,
like I fall apart all too often.
I imagine myself the kind of heart that should be propped up on blocks,
alone in some weed-infested junkyard
reserved for the relationally inept.
I spend most of my time
convinced that I live in a world that would much prefer
a Taurus-
more economic, stylish, and reliable-
a lot less putter and clank and exhaust.

But maybe, just maybe,
I have the hidden value of my parent’s van-
that secret treasure, that diamond in the rust.
Perhaps the Father has made me to be
a safe place for broken people,
an open door to shared adventure.
Yes, maybe I, despite the toil and cost and roadside fixes
will someday, by someone,
been seen as totally,
worth it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

truth and song

Days like this, I come to my time with Jesus with mainly questions on my mind. I have a lot of decisions to make, lots of concerns rolling around in my head, and like any human, I'd love some guidance. Still, I cannot help but come with an awareness that he is worthy of more than my panicked need for direction. He is not some sort of celestial mapquest to consult when I am feeling lost. He is my Maker, and relationship with him is about so much more than marching orders.

So this morning, instead of launching immediately into a prayer for answers to my questions, I sat there on my knees and began to sing some hymns: How Great Thou Art, Be Thou My Vision, Come Thou Fount... When I ran out of the ones that came to mind, I picked up the hymnal sitting on our newly delivered piano, and I flipped through the pages and continued to sing: The Wonderful Cross, What Wondrous Love is This... on and on.

It was wonderful, full of so many reminders of truth. In one of my favorite books (Hinds Feet on High Places), the protagonist, Much-Afraid, spends many chapters walking through trials and facing the discouraging lies thrown at her by her enemies. On one of these difficult roads when she cries to the Shepherd for help, he teaches her a simple but powerful defense against trial and discouragement and lie: he tells her to sing. And when she does, the lies are silenced and her heart is strengthened. This same principle has been so true in my own life. When I am much afraid, songs of truth keep my head above the flood waters.

One of the songs that spoke to me most this morning was "How Firm a Foundation", which includes these words:

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake.

When I come to spend time with God, I come to a God who walks with me through flood and fire, and who will never desert me to my foes. Sometimes I just can't see that until I lay aside my questions and lift my voice to sing.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

God and butterflies

The Grand Canyon is just plain huge. I mean it’s vast, enormous, massive, colossal… whatever string of adjectives relating to grandness might finally get you to the sum of its immensity. It just kind of takes your breath away when you walk up to the edge for the first time. The Grand Canyon redefines everything you knew about what a canyon could be.

Being the adventurous, outdoorsy type, I will never be content standing behind a railing when looking at such things. I don’t want to peak over the edge from behind bars and chain-link fencing, designed to protect kids and camera happy tourists who might fall off the cliff. So I wander away from the designated, safe overlooks and find the natural edge. I want to sit there on the threshold of chasm to take in the Canyon

But then there is that something in me that says that sitting there still isn’t enough. It still retains some timidity and tameness, and this Canyon is neither timid nor tame in its grandeur. To really experience it as I desire to demands something more of me: courage and risk. So I dangle my legs over the edge of the precipice. Butterflies fill my stomach and all my feelings of security are stolen away. This is scary.

And unsafe, really (my mother would kill me). But do I want to be safe? Is that what I want more than anything when I approach such places of wonder? Or do I want to force myself not only to view the Canyon’s vastness, but also to face its depth? Yes. Something in my heart wants to not only see its beauty, but also sense its danger. Safety and distant observation are not all I want to know of this Canyon. I do not just want to appreciate it. I want to fear it.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since returning from that gargantuan hole in the ground, and I am realizing that I want to approach God the same way. No matter how numb I sometimes get to it, God is much like the Canyon he carved- vast, deep, awe-inspiring, beautiful and dangerous. We forget sometimes that, without Jesus, we wouldn’t be able to approach God’s throne at all. I mean, Moses asked to see God’s face and had to accept that if he really looked straight into it, the sheer glory would kill him. Kind of like a freefall into the Canyon would. God is gracious and loving and kind, but he is also “terrible in splendor”. He is holy and powerful and…well, no string of adjectives will ever quite sum it up.

Despite that, God has been inviting his people into relationship with him since the beginning of time. He allows us to walk right up to the edge and glimpse something of his powerful glory. He lets us look into the vastness that is his character, the way an awestruck visitor stares out at a Canyon whose breadth and depth they will never quite be able to take in. I fear, though, that we do a lot of this from behind railings and protective fences. We want to appreciate God, to praise his beauty, but we aren’t sure we want to sense his danger.

Looking back, I know that I would have missed something had I not sat there on the edge half-terrified. I would have known the Canyon’s greatness only in part, only as a safe spectator. I do not want to make such a mistake with God, either. There is something of his greatness, his awe-inspiring is-ness, that I will only know if I walk right up to the edge and dangle my legs over his glory. Only then will I feel the weight of that glory, like I felt gravity pressing on my feet as they hung over the chasm. I want to know God in his danger.

I want to know him with butterflies.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

ah, the lengths you'll go to...

I am stubborn.

Really stubborn.

If it can be fixed, accomplished, recovered...if it is at all possible, I will not be content leaving it undone. Like the broken cabinet in our kitchen tonight. I would have been up all night if need be, unable to rest until the darn thing was fixed. Thankfully, it took me about five minutes. The storm drain, however, was a different story.

It was dark when Karen and I decided to play catch with the football in our friend's cul de sac. As Murphy would have willed it, the very first missed catch (which accompanied the very first throw) left us watching the ball slide through the one open space under the curb and into the storm drain. A deep, concrete storm drain running a couple hundred yards to a nearby pond. Most people would have thought, "Well, I'll be buying Brent a new ball tomorrow."

But I am stubborn. And so is Karen.

We tried the rescue first from the pond side, crawling deep into the concrete tunnel, until something flew in Karen's face and we retreated as quickly as one can retreat on hands and knees in a cramped tube of concrete. We tried that a few times, actually, hunkering down and trying to avoid the narrow stream of slime left over from recent rains. It was adventurous and hilarious, but less than successful.

In the end, it was Karen who showed us that someone really can crawl through the side of a curb. She slid into the drain from the street side, rescued the ball, and was pulled back out alive.

Honestly, I was relieved by this, as I really wasn't looking forward to crawling back up that tube for a hundred yards- which I would have done if necessary, but probably would have hated.

Main lesson learned from the day: Don't drop your football in a storm drain. But if you do, don't go buy a new one. Because in the end, crawling up a storm drain (a relatively dry one, at least)for a little way is pretty fun. Stupid, but fun.

Monday, October 02, 2006

life is too short...

...to not try and make the Grand Canyon a weekend trip, just because the drive is a-really, a-really long.

...to sit on the edge of the Canyon without actually dangling your legs over it and feeling the butterflies rise in your stomach when you do.

...to out-grow stupid accents and bad puns that I hope are as funny to me when I'm 80 as they are now.

...to miss opportunities to affirm the people you love for all of their precious qualities, and to not take the time to ask and answer the deep questions of the heart.

...to back out on road trip plans because you feel like you are too weary to have anything to offer.

...to turn down a bratwurst for fear of stinking up a three-man tent:)

...to skip a really good detour for the sake of making good time.

...to not make the kinds of healthy goals and resolutions that get us out of our boxes and motivate us to explore life, just because we're afraid we won't be able to keep them.

In other words, my weekend road trip to the Grand Canyon taught me a lot about the precious things in life. More to come on our rockin' jaunt to that really big hole in the ground!