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Words Have Weight

Thoughts from a young husband, father, and pastor

what is happening

I promised at the beginning of the year that I would write more frequently here. And I did. But then I stopped. I promise you, this was not because I forgot or because I was getting lazy. I needed to not talk about much for a span of time and now I’m ready to say why. And I can get back to fulfilling my commitment.

What was happening was that my church was in the middle of being given a building.

My church started in a bar in Black Mountain, NC. College students and a bunch of folks not really comfortable with church started a church in a bar and we moved around a bit. We met in a college building. We met for years in the community room of a home for children. Two years ago, we moved to the local middle school. Every time we moved, it was because we needed more space. Our people just kept having babies and all those babies needed room. We needed room to all fit in one space together.

The middle school we moved into was a place that we felt (and still feel) committed to. Our community sends its kids to that school. The kinds of people that Jesus loves end up at that school. Middle schoolers are awkward and forgotten. They’re not elementary school kids anymore and they’re not high schoolers. They’re… middle. And Jesus loves awkward, forgotten, middle people. We want to be close to that school. Worshipping there would give us the opportunity to be physically close and also to give us more room.

Lots of room. Too much room.

The auditorium was a giant grey box that could fit about 8x more people than we have on a Sunday. It was loud and echo-y and sterile. No more beautiful light streaming into the community room or gym of at the home for children. No more playground for our kids to play after church.

It was the right place to be, but it was hard. So hard.

If you didn’t know, the Asheville, NC area is a pretty popular place to be. People love Asheville. I go to other parts of the country and I always, always, always meet people who hear where I live and they always let out this little sigh/moan “Oh! I’m jealous. I love Asheville.” I know. I know you are. And that’s why lots of people are moving here (there’s traffic here now, much to our collective chagrin). That means space is incredibly expensive.

And guess what people in this area with lots of babies don’t generally have a lot of. Yes. That is correct. Money. We’ve never had a ton of money. We don’t have a bunch of 50-year-old brain surgeons making $250K a year who like to give lots of money to us. We’re all basically in the front half of our lives. And careers. And baby-making phases. Our budget is modest, to say the least. I was just looking through our financial past through old documents and I had to shake my head. I can’t believe we made it. I mean, where we are now feels like luxury compared to where we were. But we still have a very modest budget that we’re not sure we’ll meet this year. And you know what never ever ever EVER would fit into that budget? A large downpayment and a mortgage for a property.

I just… never thought it would happen. Unless our annual budget miraculously quintupled, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable jumping at land or a building or something like that.

And then… some folks just gave us one.

A church just down the road from us invited us to move into their building and have their remaining members join our church. Their asking price for this building with a sanctuary and classrooms and a fellowship hall and some offices was… $0.

Zero.

I kid you not, I still cannot wrap my mind around this whole thing. I have an office where I can leave my stuff. It’s actually connected to the place where we will have church on Sunday, our fourth Sunday here. I have never been able to walk inside the room where I will preach on any day except the Sunday that I get up and do it. We’ve never been able to get our whole church together to have a meal whenever we wanted. We’ve never been able to put things in rooms for our kids… and leave them there.

I just… I’m still dumbfounded.

I told our church in January, when I announced that this was happening, that this is not something I prayed for. I am not that faithful a person. I just never would have dreamed to ask for something like that. I’m just speechless. The people here who decided to do this built this building with their blood, sweat, and tears. They poured their lives into this beautiful place and you can see it and feel it everywhere. They’re not in our denomination. They’re not in our generation. They have different musical tastes than us. They stand to gain nothing at all.

And they just… gave it away.

Do you know why? Because of Jesus. Because Jesus is so clearly worth it to them. They want this place to remain a church and not be converted or torn down so a new restaurant or housing development (or both) could be put in. They love Jesus and they want this place in the Swannanoa Valley to still be a place where Jesus is talked about and sung about and celebrated. And for them, this whole exchange was entirely worth it.

Because of Jesus. Jesus is worth that to them.

And me, on the other side of this whole thing, I have to agree. Who else is like Jesus? Who else would do something like this? I don’t know. I really don’t.

He’s so, so good.

I can barely believe it.

 

This was written from my new office. It’s located at 115 Rockdale Ave., Swannanoa, NC. Where our church now worships. In the sanctuary whose doors I can point to from where I sit. Which I still cannot quite grasp. But you’re more than welcome to come see for yourself.

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hey kids! come and die!

This year, I decided to go a different route for the calendar that my family has hanging on the wall. I decided to use a lovely liturgical calendar that orients the days of the regular calendar to the seasons of the Church calendar. It’s a beautiful calendar with a helpful illustration of where we are in the yearly, storied proclamation of the Gospel.

The other reason I wanted to use it is that the calendar marks out major and minor feast days and days of remembrance. To be honest, I don’t know most of the names on the calendar myself, though there are the big ones you’d maybe expect (like, recently, Thomas Aquinas). Not every day, but whenever I can remember, I go over to the calendar and look up the name that’s there, Google them, and tell my kids the story of one of our brothers or sisters (or sometimes a crowd of people) that have gone before us. My intention here is to help my kids understand that they are Christian, in the corporate sense, and that our people have a history that is old and massive. They are not alone with Jesus. We are together with Jesus.

Last night was a remembrance of the martyrs of Japan in 1597. Have you heard of them? I hadn’t before last night. Six Franciscans and 20 converts were murdered on crosses in Nagasaki. Happy dinner-time conversation, right? I explained to them that these people were told that the only way they might live is if they would stop following Jesus. But they decided that they could not stop following Jesus. Because Jesus was the best person they had ever met. So they were killed. I then explained that this still happens to Christians today. More than we realize. More than is really talked about it in this part of the world. But all over the world, in times past and times present, our family has decided, at the cost of their lives, that Jesus is more precious than anything.

My wife then explained that this would likely never happen to us where we live. But. But there are times coming to them as they get older where they will be told to that, to be cool or acceptable or “kind,” they must leave aside following Jesus and instead choose what is easier and more popular. But we want them to experience Jesus for themselves and know that a) Jesus is the best person they’ll ever meet and b) they are not alone if and when they decide to continue to follow Jesus.

It strikes me today that this conversation would be profoundly upsetting to some people. On one hand, American Christians do not face the same fate as these, our brothers and sisters. And we are either generations and generations or a foreign invasion away from that ever being a reality here. Also, is it even appropriate to shape young children this way, to begin to know the cost of following a God they were born into following?

The truth is that we are glad to live in a place where we do not fear for our lives. I talked about that last night. However, cultural pressure is only increasing in the West. It seems that the world that my children will grow to adulthood in will only be more openly antagonistic towards Christians who follow Jesus with integrity and openness. I don’t want them to be surprised by that idea. And I do want them to own their faith, to count the cost, so that when Jesus tells them to pick up their cross and follow Him, they’ll know what He means and they will already find His voice to be winsome and compelling beyond the voices of their peers.

And I want them to inherit the legacy of the Church that says we must continue to go out, to go to places where the name of Jesus is not yet spoken with love. I want them to see that we’re an outward-facing people who would die for Jesus and die for our neighbors. This is our story. And though the world cannot much comprehend that we actually believe that every person would be better off with Jesus, that they ultimately need him, I want my kids to know that their biological family, their spiritual family is resolute in this conviction.

When we were done with our short conversation, we talked about our friends and family who don’t love Jesus yet. We talked about how we love them. We want them to know Jesus. We’re friends with people who don’t and we like that they’re our friends. And my seven-year old said she wanted to pray.

“For the 26 martyrs? Well, they’re doing great. They’re with Jesus. They’re fine.”

“No. For the people who killed them. For the people who kill other people for following Jesus. I want to pray that they’ll stop doing that because they know Jesus now.”

I forgot to teach them that part. The “pray for those who persecute you” part. It just wasn’t in the front of my mind.

Turns out Jesus got in front of me on that one. He beat me to the punch.

May it ever be so.

what i watched in 2018

February is upon us. That means that it’s Oscars season, and that’s always fun for me. I decided to look back on 2018 and write a little about the movies I saw in the theater this year.

I really love movies. I love the experience of going into a movie theater and disappearing into another world. I usually go by myself in the middle of the day. People continue to be baffled by this, but I feel no more compelled to see a movie with other people than I do read all my books out loud. I don’t really care to read the same book as someone else as I sit down next to them, nor do I feel the need to watch a movie with a room full of other people. I purposefully pick times when the theaters are empty. This serves a number of purposes:

  1. It’s cheaper. One local theater, if you go before noon on Tuesdays, you’ll pay $5. In the 21st century, that’s a deal.
  2. I can get there exactly when I want (in time for previews) and sit precisely where I want.
  3. I can walk into the theater and experience no judgment for the movie I, a 33-year-old man, am going to see.

Anyway, I saw a lot of good films this year. I’m going to try to think back and place them roughly in chronological order. This is not everything I saw, but it’s most of it.

Get Out

Ok so I didn’t see this one in the theater. And it’s not from 2018. I needed to wait until I could see it in my own home, in the broad daylight. I don’t do scary movies, but I needed to see this one. And it’s not a “horror” movie. More of a thriller. And it was great. The performances, the writing. The inescapable pressure and even danger that accompanies being black in America is the over-riding focus of this film. If you’re white (and you probably are), you should watch this film.

Black Panther

This was and is a cultural phenomenon. It was a ton of fun and a story well-told. I didn’t love it as much as everyone else did on a strictly story basis. But everything else made it a can’t-miss. You can see why it was so special for people to see an African culture as the central heroes of the story. That’s a kind of move that’s rarely made and it’s great. It was also special for me to hear Xhosa on the screen. I haven’t heard much of it since returning from South Africa and I love that it was used as the language of Wakanda.

First Reformed

This one landed like an anvil on my gut. Ethan Hawke should have gotten a Best Actor nomination out of it and the Best Screenplay nod was well-deserved for Calvin College-grad Paul Schrader. This is not a fun film. I only watched it once and don’t really want to watch it again. But it was so, so good. It’s the spiral of a pastor as he faces the seemingly irreversible disaster of climate and culture. As he circles the drain into a very bleak darkness, the whole movies turns suddenly and in a way that kept washing over me for weeks. It was great.

Leave No Trace

I don’t know why people didn’t talk more about this film. It’s the story of a father with PTSD who decides to live in the woods with his daughter. They get discovered and they both try to reckon with the world they’re dragged back into. The performances are really good and the emotional tension in the story is not intense, but it’s clear and moving and you can’t help but feel compassion for people like the father.

Eighth Grade

If you have a child/ren age 8-18, you should watch this movie. I don’t know how else to say it. I’m not saying you should watch it with them, but some of you should if they’re on the older end of that spectrum. And then you should talk to them about the waters they’re swimming in. They need you, even if they can’t say it.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Sometimes the Oscars are stupid. And the fact that this documentary on Mr. Rodgers didn’t get a nomination for Best Documentary is just… stupid. It made me so grateful for the audacious kindness of this Presbyterian minister. And I felt called to follow in his footsteps. Spoiler: I have not done so very well.

First Man

Apparently, this movie came out at the wrong time of year. It’s been completely forgotten and I think it’s a massive mistake. Some Internet People created a fake controversy about the flag being taken out of the movie (it wasn’t) and so people boycotted it. People who boycotted this film because of fake news cheated themselves out of a really great story and some great performances. Ryan Gosling, I thought, really nails his depiction of Neil Armstrong whose real challenge is not getting to the moon and back, it’s dealing with the death of his three-year-old daughter. Some people just read Gosling’s performance as flat. To me, as a dad, I thought he communicated what it must be like to have to survive monstrous grief by keeping it locked in a vault. The moments when the monster gets out of its cage, though, showed the intensity of his suffering. The final scenes of this one had tears coursing down my neck, an unusual experience for me. Perhaps my perception of this was entirely shaped by being a father. I don’t care. In fact, I’m grateful. This was really good.

Roma

My money is on this one to win Best Picture. And if it loses to Green Book…. ugh. Cuaron will almost certainly win Best Director. And it’s easy to see why. It’s absolutely gorgeous. The shots are incredible. I felt more stirred by the visuals of this than the story itself, but the story was good too. There’s probably three scenes that, even right now, were so viscerally powerful and brilliantly composed. If you have Netflix, you can watch it at home. Put away all your devices and focus on this film. It’s worth your time.

Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse

I took my son to this one. He was a good excuse for me to go. I wanted to see it anyway. It’s a lot of fun. Like, a surprising amount of fun. There are legit superstars that voice minor roles here. Jake Johnson was perfect as Middle-Aged Fat Spiderman. But everyone was great. It’s an animated superhero story and if you’re not willing to go and just have fun with it, then don’t watch it. I had a lot of fun and I’d honestly like to watch it again.

If Beale Street Could Talk

I only saw this last week, but it was a 2018 film. And I was desperate to see it for months, so I feel fine about it including it. It’s… gorgeous. Honestly, it’s just a beautiful film. Barry Jenkins turned this James Baldwin story into a truly gorgeous film. It has stuck in my brain ever since I watched it. The performances are so perfect. Regina King is going to win an Oscar for her brilliant performance. The music is incredible. Jenkins’ style is just so unique and so, so gorgeous. There was something so crushing and hopeful about the story. I really loved this and I think it’s a shame that this isn’t getting more love.

Bonus: The Good Place

This is a TV show. I’ve said this in so many formats and I don’t care. I’m just going to keep telling everyone: WATCH THIS SHOW. The actors are incredible. It’s funny. It’s sweet. And it’s so, so smart. It’s a show about moral philosophy and getting to heaven and so much more. I just cannot believe this is on TV. It’s incredible. Ted Danson is a treasure and Michael Schur just knows how to make the kind of content our angry, fractured culture needs.


Because I’m a pastor, I always remind people: These are not pieces of “Christian art.” These aren’t Thomas Kinkade paintings come to life (thank goodness). There’s profanity and sex and people who don’t have a Christian worldview. But I think all of these tell us something about the way the world is and/or the way we wish the world should be. For that reason, and so many others, I’m glad I saw all of these. I’m already looking forward to what’s coming in 2019.

leaving

I’m in the airport to fly a few states north for another week of class.

I like going to class. I’ve wanted to have an excuse to go to class ever since I graduated from graduate school and was out of legitimate reasons to go to class. I like the reading and writing. I like classroom discussions. And it’s a week of hanging out with other people who don’t see me as “the pastor.” Well… they may see me that way, but they’re one too. So I just get to be another person in the room. It’s a nice break for me.

Traveling is actually something I really enjoy. In the fantasies of me somehow coming across many dollars, my first step is always to pay off my house and any other debts. And then I deposit money into my retirement account and my kids’ 529 accounts so they can go to college without accruing six figures of debt. After the responsible fantasies, I have my real fantasy: Travel.

Lots of it. To lots of different places. Also, some places I’ve been before. Some domestic. A lot of long plane rides. A lot of new mountains. My wife and I have a brilliant hypothetical time and I save a chunk for future travel too. People who have full-time jobs, single or otherwise, and no kids and no real obligations… I don’t understand why they aren’t some place amazing every other month. I mean, I know life doesn’t work like that. But you see where my head is.

So here I am. I’m traveling (ok, to Pittsburgh, but it’s still going somewhere) to school. You see how this works for me?

And yet here I am, not quite ready to get on the plane.

Here’s this sneaky reality: The older I’ve gotten, the longer I’ve been a husband and a father, the harder it is to hop on these planes.

I’m actually getting to a point in my life in both of those roles where it’s easier to hop on these planes. My youngest child will (mostly) go to sleep and stay asleep like a normal human. No one needs to be carried all day. My oldest child will be in middle school soon and, I’m pretty sure, is emotionally competent enough to lead all of my kids and possibly a whole army of them.

And I’m not one of those dads who can’t stand to be away from his kids, who can’t sleep. I was talking to some people about this and both my wife and I are apparently weird in that we’re really ok without our kids. Yes, I do celebrate a quieter home. And yes, there is a constantly-monitored countdown in my head marking when the last one will be out of my house (16 years, 7 months). I’m looking forward to life with adult children who are doing their own thing. I know I’m a bit more extreme about this and most good fathers think I’m a monster. I accept this.

But daggumit if those kids aren’t starting to slowly win me over.

I mean, I’ve always loved them. Before they were born, I loved those little life-wreckers. I think Stockholm Syndrome is setting in, though. It’s harder to say goodbye to their outrageously generous smiles. It scares me to leave. And, truth be told, I’m scared that, by the time the last one walks out my front door, they’ll have somehow left me a quivering mess on the floor.

Life-wreckers.

And no one has wrecked my life more than my wife. You know that stupid, sappy thing where TV characters say, “I’m more in love with them now than when we first got married”? It’s a truly stupid, cheesy thing to say. I don’t say stuff like that. But let me just say this:

More and more, nearly everyday, I find myself thinking, “I can’t believe she married me. I can’t believe I get to be married to her.” For no reason! I don’t know why it pops into my head at times, but it does. And… I may be saying that more now… than when… we first got married. (sigh)

But I’m NOT SAYING THAT STUPID CHEESY LINE.

So you see, I had to say goodbye this evening to do this thing that should be a double pleasure for me. And it is. And I’m excited. I’m going to savor it.

But I can’t help but take note that it’s harder to do this than ever before. And I’m already looking forward to coming home.

I’m leaving, but I’m already checking the details of that return flight.

I’m already ready to come home.

more means more

I do not do New Year’s resolutions. I think, basically, this is because I am so deadly cynical. New Year’s resolutions are trendy and mostly worthless after two weeks. “New year, new me!” is a stupid thing because, as we all find out very quickly, a new calendar is merely a new calendar. You’re still you. I’m still me.

But over the years, especially the past few, I have come to believe in the power of marginal gains. It seems that “better” really is “better,” even if it is not “best.” And the slow accumulation of “better” really does transform.

So here is one goal I have for this year:

Write more.

Maybe I won’t write a lot. But I want to write more here. I go through fits and starts in this space. I’d like to “fit” more. Or is it “start?” I don’t know. I don’t really understand that phrase.

I am back in school and writing more for school. I think that’s all the more reason for me to pay attention to writing more. I need to write for more than my assignments, just like I need to read for pleasure, for work that isn’t school work. I have several ideas I’ve been turning over in my mind and I’d like to actually work them out here. Also, I think I should do more of what I used to do and talk about movies and stuff. Because I like movies and stuff.

Basically, I just want to write more.

And be more organized.

And lose 10 pounds.

And read like 60+ books.

BUT THESE ARE NOT RESOLUTIONS.

Anyway… I want to write more.

Don’t call it a comeback.

But I’ll be back… more…

(But right now I really have to go because I actually have to do my homework. Ok sorrylaterbye!)

kavanaugh and the question

The nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was met by entirely predictable responses. Conservatives gloried in their moment to undo all that is unholy in the courts. Liberals warned of Brett Kavanaugh marching house-to-house and ordering women into slavery. The hysterical praise and hysterical opposition was as surprising as the forces of gravity that act on every body, including our politics, which are careening towards destruction.

I found the confirmation hearings to be so blatantly theatrical as to be totally unremarkable. Senators gave speeches and put on their happy/angry/smug faces as they basically were just banking B-roll for their campaign ads. Totally disgusting. Totally predictable.

And then something else happened.

Allegations of sexual assault.

That wasn’t predictable at all. Sadly, everything that has followed is just as predictable.

I am relatively strange politically. I’m mostly centrist, with odd very conservative and liberal divergences. This is mostly born out of particular Christian convictions coming to bear on specific issues. I have no political party, mostly because I find all of them opposed to the Kingdom at some point. I’m comfortable with this reality. If you must know, I generally lean right on the spectrum.

Judicially, I’m less fuzzy. I think strict interpretations of the law are better. I think words mean things and they mean what they mean. If you don’t like what the laws mean, change them. Until then, read them for what they are.

That being said, it seems like I’m inclined to like the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.

I say “it seems like” because I’ve basically ignored the circus. I find it all depressing now. So I wasn’t passionate about it and don’t have strong opinions on him.

The questions provoked by these charges, though… those I find interesting.

It’s interesting to ask how far into our lives the failures of our youth should follow us. And are there different tiers of crime that should or should not follow us?  Why do we seal youth criminal records if they should follow us? Those are interesting questions.

It seems that Professor Ford notified people of her accusations long ago but her accusations were not acted upon and then leaked at the most opportune time. Why? If political operatives can not be trusted to handle such accusations, are the accusations they deliver themselves trustworthy?

For conservatives, is his nomination worth the effort? He is surely not the very last conservative, strict constructionist in the judiciary. Why not just drop him and find someone whose views may be objectionable to progressives but does not have this stench about them? I am entirely for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I think abortion is unethical. Evil. A perpetual act of coercion against the most vulnerable aided by persistent moral blindness rivaled only by some of the worst atrocities in history. But I recognize that’s a point of view shared by only half of the country. If/when that decision happens, need it be accompanied by the stench of this? Why not just find someone else?

These are all interesting questions. (For the record, “What will happen to all the men now?” is the least interesting of all the questions. Give me a break [insert the largest eyeroll emoji in history]. Men will find a way to be fine.)

To me, none of these questions should be the first question, the most important.

The question really should be: Is it true? And that question should be asked in good faith, absent uninformed and reactionary antagonism.

The question of the truth of the accusations is really what matters here. If they are true, then Judge Kavanaugh has almost certainly lied, on top of doing something terrible many years ago. He could have been so blackout drunk that he does not remember. That is its own piece of information that we do not know.  If the allegations are true, than a horrible crime was committed and there are untruths swirling around a man appointed to a very powerful position. The truth would be devastating.

If the accusation is not true, then someone has leveraged the worst kind of lie to harm a political opponent. It’s a lie that endangers women, who are often accused of lying but almost 100% of the time, are not. The falsehood would be devastating.

As someone who is inclined to want to see someone like Kavanaugh on the bench, I have to say that I wish people on “my team” would ask this question more clearly and without objections like “But it was so long ago!” and “Who will be accused next?!” Frankly, I don’t wish this because of all the men they’re worried about. I wish they’d take the accusation seriously because I have three daughters and a wife and female friends and a congregation with lots of women, too.

I want to live in a world where, if one of these women that I love came forward and said that a powerful man did something dastardly, they would be listened to with concern and care.

“Why did it take so long?” That’s a bad question. Sexual assault comes with immense trauma and shame. If someone says anything, it requires a heroic level of strength and determination. I mean, for crying out loud, look at all that is coming this woman’s way now. You think people hunger for the glamour of being pilloried in the press?

Behind bad questions like those is a fundamental mistrust amongst all political people today that the people with whom they fundamentally disagree could possibly have good motivations. And I think this is a terrible state of things. Like I said, I think abortion is evil. But I don’t think that people who love abortion love murdering babies. I think they love women and want to see them break through systems of poverty and oppression. Now, I think they’ve miscalculated the nature of the other Person involved (the baby). But I think their motivations are good.

To assume, without examination, that all progressives are perverts (I’ve read this on people’s social media) and that this is transparently a power play is a real disservice and not a way I would like to be treated. Therefore, I don’t think people should think/act that way towards progressives (see: Rule, Golden). In addition, to fail to see that progressives hate false accusations of rape precisely because of how it hurts the cause of many many real victims, which they would care about more than Supreme Court seats, is to fail to see the remnants of Good left everywhere. Even on the Political Left.

In addition, to assume that, because a man is conservative and possibly anti-abortion, he is incapable of moral evil is a failure to apply the doctrine of Total Depravity. Not everyone is as depraved as possible, but every person is touched by depravity at every level of our being. We should view ourselves, even the ideologically “pure,” as capable of real moral evil. We should be suspicious of ourselves at all times. And of our tribe.

I have no idea if Judge Kavanaugh did this thing. I know that this woman has several indicators of telling a true story (Boz Tchividjian runs an organization that fights and protects against sexual abuse).

But I want to know the answer to The Question.

He may be a much better man now. He may have been very drunk and did an evil thing and he’s grown up and become a much better person. That’s entirely possible.

That’s not what I need to know right now. The most important question is not what happens to all conservative men running for high office, or judicial philosophy, or questions of the crimes of others or how this relates to sexual progressivism or any of those other things.

The question that’s most important is really very simple:

Is it true?

Imagine, if you would, the terror of the scenario described. Try to imagine being a 15-year-old girl, pinned down by a larger, older male student. Imagine onlookers who could help, but won’t as it seems like your body will be violated in the must intimate and disturbing way. Imagine the raw terror of that and then getting away but knowing that this closed, elite little society is more likely to tell you you’re crazy or were drunk or do anything but believe you because “He’s not that kind of guy.” Imagine only being able to describe that trauma years and years later to your husband and therapist. And then imagine that guy somehow, improbably, becoming incredibly powerful and important. And you finally feel you have to say something about what happened.

Is it at least theoretically possible, is it feasible, logically possible that such a scenario could have happened? It’s at least possible, right?

Did it? Is it true? I don’t know. No idea.

We should be asking that honestly and seriously, though. And we should aim to find out the answer if at all possible.

Is it true?

on car camping and accepting limits

When I was very young and just beginning to read chapter books, I vividly remember reading a series of stories revolving around dogs. They were adventure stories that usually centered on one human protagonist and their dog. I’m almost certain this was the first one I read. I read a lot of these. Maybe all of them. All of them that were available to me, certainly.

I was a kid growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, reading about freezing cold winters and mountains and wilderness. All of these things were foreign to me. I wanted them so badly, though. My chief ambition in life at that point (I was in elementary school), was to somehow become rich enough to buy a mountain, ride around on horseback and hunt, alone except for my very awesome dog.

Yes, my chief ambition was to live alone in the woods. So yeah… I’ve always been like this.

Eventually, my family moved to a place where we could actually see snow (all the way north to Atlanta) and I grew closer to my dream. I went to college and, lo and behold, it was in the mountains of North Carolina. I got to see all the seasons. I went hiking. I went sledding for the first time ever.

And I went backpacking. I would never have done this in Florida because Florida is flat and hot and disgustingly humid. But I went real backpacking in North Carolina. Two nights. Then a week or more in northern Wisconsin in the winter (it was frigid, yes). Then three weeks in the wilderness of Western North Carolina.

I loved it.

Being in the wilderness is good for humans because it reminds you what is real and what is fake. You’re also reminded that you’re small and fragile. Death isn’t too hard to come by. Peace and quiet is.

I graduated from college and really wanted to make sure that my family went backpacking for the rest of my life.

Then I actually had a family and I stumbled upon a different reality: I was tired. I was too tired to not sleep in my bed. I had to work every day and make money and pay bills and when the weekend came, I was trying to survive children who didn’t really care about “weekends.”

Backpacking was a fantasy.

But then some friends introduced us to the world of car camping. We could sleep outside in a tent that we didn’t have to carry. We could use coolers and camp stoves and have bacon and eggs and hot coffee for breakfast. We could eat well and be relatively comfortable and still be disconnected from a life lived inside. This… this was doable.

We just went camping for a second time at Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. We’ve gone camping lots of other times. It’s still work. I’m still not quite sure how we fit all our people and stuff inside our family vehicle. But we did it. And we enjoyed it as we almost always do.

We’re not backpackers. We’re car campers.

We had to accept what we are in order to enjoy it. And we have.

This, I think, is much of what the most recent years of my life has been about. I’ve had to learn to accept where the boundaries of my life are, the fences, and accept the safety and shelter within their borders.

For much of my early life, I had people telling me I was the best preacher they’d ever heard.

The truth? I’m fine. Some people really enjoy my preaching. Some people really don’t. Most people fight hard to stay focused and/or awake every Sunday.

I’m not amazing.

For much of my life, I got the best grades in the class, or nearly there. I had ideas that I was really something special.

The truth? I was above average at school. I was not really special. I’ve been around really special minds before. I’m not them.

I can list for you a dozen areas where I had expectations of extreme greatness or pleasure or experience for myself and my family. And because I’m sufficiently imaginative, I could very easily (and often did) live in these fantasies for days and weeks and years on end. But the fantasy of it all, the self-delusion, did not make my life better. It made it disappointing in all these silly, annoying, powerful ways.

I am naturally inclined to believe I’m a backpacker. But I’m not. I’m a car camper. And car camping is awesome.

Of course, the flip side of this season of my life is finding ways to understand that I’m also more capable than I tend to believe. On one hand, I am prone to have grandiose assumptions about myself. On the other, I am prone to take lazy cop-outs. I am both at the same time.

Physical training these last few years has taught me: I can probably do more than I first believe. I can do a little more than is comfortable. At least for a little while. I can push. And usually? It works out. I can do that little bit more than I first thought possible.

Or I can decide that doing slightly better, reading that little bit more, that one day extra is truly better than settling for what’s comfortable. It turns out that better may not be “best” but it actually is “better.” And in that way, I can take one step closer to “best.” I can grow up a bit. I can grow.

These are dynamics at play inside me all the time. The tension of seeing the benefits of some limitations and discerning when those limitations are only temporary descriptions of the present.

Sometimes, life is better inside the fence. And sometimes the fence needs to be knocked down. Maturity is learning the difference.

It is difficult work, this “maturing.” I’m not sure I’m very good at it.

One immense comfort to me as I weave, ineptly, between these two poles, is the growing sense that God is unsurprised by my scattershot relationship with these fences. And more than that, God is patient with me. As much as anything else about this process, I have learned that God changes people very slowly.

I was born into a tradition in which people changed immediately, miraculously, entirely. I do believe God chooses to work that way sometimes. But I’ve learned it’s far more likely that his miracles will be unveiled a millimeter at a time, with all the frenzied pace of a glacier. Much of the time, you can only see he’s been working when it’s all over, you look behind, and you quietly whisper, “Oh so that’s what you were up to.”

I try to take my spiritual life seriously. I try to not rest back into complacency. I experience fits and starts at doing this successfully. My confidence in myself is not very high. However, I’ve never been more convinced of Jesus.

God is a good hero to my story. And I have increasing confidence to be a hero for others as well. Where before I may have wanted to shout someone onto the right path, now I find myself pausing and thinking, “I wonder what God might be up to here.” Maybe sometimes I should say something. Maybe sometimes I should say less.

Weaving left and right. Between the poles. Fence post to fence post.

I am a car camper.

But maybe God might make something out of me after all.

I am what I am right now. But it seems like God is who he is forever.

We’ll see what he’s up to.

It’s bound to be good.

unexpected gratitude

I recently watched the movie About Time again. I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched it at this point. Probably five or six. Maybe more. I was on an airplane where I could stream a film via my phone. I was going to watch a newer film that I’d been wanting to see, but I knew the run time was longer than the flight and I wasn’t keen on being left hanging. I knew this one, I watched it. 

If you read my blog when it was hosted on tumblr, I reviewed the movie when I watched it several years ago. And if you remember that review, kudos to you. Also… you should probably read more so that your brain won’t force to you to remember rubbish like that. 

I’m not going to review the film again, but rather review my response to it.

If you don’t know what it’s about, About Time (by Richard Curtis, who has several more famous film credits to his name) centers on a man named Tim (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who is told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men of their family can travel back in time, specifically the times they have lived in, not beyond in either direction. Tim uses his abilities, or hopes to, in order to fall in love. 

On balance, the film is not a romantic comedy. The crescendo of the plot is not Tim finally getting married to The Girl, Mary (played by Rachel McAdams). The romantic portion of the film occupies perhaps 40% of the run time. The last half of the film is about more than romance, though not less than love. 

This is not a technically astounding film. It’s not challenging or Oscar-worthy. It’s overly-saccharine at times. The logic of the time traveling falls to pieces, so you have to let that one go. There are moments when it’s hard not to wonder if Tim is actually being kind of gross. He’s definitely being manipulative at some points (though those are unconsidered questions).  

But, as I watched this movie again, I realized that I… I love this movie. I properly love it. I watch a decent number of movies, more than many people I know, and I know when I’m watching “good art.” I know this doesn’t rise to the bar in many respects. But I love the performances. I love the charming secondary characters that do just enough. I love the lighting, the settings. The music gets to me. 

More than anything else, what I love this movie for is the way that it makes me reflect on what should be the most important things in my life. It makes me think about my mother and father and feel grateful that I’m their son and that I had a childhood with them that I largely do not remember (who can remember all of their childhood?), but has filled me with trust that I was loved. It makes me realize that when my time comes to have to say goodbye to them, I will do so wishing I could be small with them, just one more time. Many people will not feel that when their parents die. 

As a father, it makes me want to stare at my own children and try to consume every molecule of them, breathing them in through my nose, and letting their fragrance, their essence linger. I love my children. The tricky thing about having kids, at least for me (and I admit I could be a particularly bad father), is that while raising them, you can lose sight of the love because you’re working so hard to keep your head above the water, trying to make it to each bed time. The moments when your child is unveiled before you and you suddenly say, “Good Lord. They are amazing. I would die for them in a second,” those moments are not every day. They are not all day of any day, really. And, somehow, this film can provoke that in me. 

And of course, when I watch this film I do think about the great romantic high point in my life: My wife. My wife, who deserves to have music played over her smile, so brilliant is its light, so magical and illuminating. My wife is the real-life version of a lot of characteristics in fictional love interests. She really does take a stiff like me and drag me into joy. It must be a tremendous amount of work for her all the time. I’m such a stiff. But she seems truly carefree and disposed towards the good and the lovely in a way that seems almost fictional. I watch About Time and I’m amazed because… I have a real-life movie plot. I’m ludicrously, wondrously prosperous in love.

Now, life is not a fairy tale, of course. As mentioned above when talking about my kids, loving these people is hard. Incredibly difficult at times. Shouting and tears and heart-break. It’s all part of my picture. Movies like this one take the highest high points and make them occupy the bulk of the run-time and breeze through the difficulties of stories. And of course, life is not like that. That’s what makes sappy films so irritating at times.

The value of this film for me is the way in which it reminds me that my story contains far more reasons to be deliriously happy and grateful than I often realize. It’s actually not  as hectic and tense and hard as it often appears. Time speeds past me, often with my chin in my hands, a frown on my face, staring at the ground. Spinning all around me, everyday, is evidence of a very good story that I should be grateful for.

That’s what lurched out of me when I watched About Time again. It left me… crying. Like, real crying. Tears (plural!) rolling down my face as I tried not to ugly-gasp in my empty house. I was so surprised and caught off-guard by what this stupid movie was doing to me, but so grateful for the way it made me grateful. 

My suggestion for you is not to watch this movie and fall in love with it like me. It very well might not even work for you like it does for me. You may watch it and have a very simple response: “This is stupid.” I get that. Truly. 

My suggestion to you is instead to find the things (movies, books, activities, photos, whatever) that provoke this kind of joy and gratitude. Pay attention to the things that make you love and give thanks. And you know what? You should just put it on your calendar: Pay attention to that thing. Whatever it is. Force yourself to regularly be reminded. Allow yourself to be provoked by even a cheesy movie so that you can think about things that are bigger than its silliness. 

There is something of the heart of spiritual disciplines to this. Our hearts, my heart is naturally in a state of drift away from the place where I give thanks to God for all his gifts and respond sorrowfully to the fact that I spurn them. But spiritual formation is about the pathways God uses to quietly pull me back. Sometimes, most of the time, this does not involve me sobbing on the couch. But I know there are certain ways that God has used again and again to get my attention, redirect it, and cause me to see. Walking in the woods. Reading. 

And now, I think that I’ll probably add “watch About Time” onto my list of occasional practices that I should keep up. It seems unexpected and inexplicable and more than a little silly. But I’ve found that God is more like that than we realize. Sometimes he’s so gently, wonderfully sneaky. It would be like him to use something such as a movie like this to make me, an overly-serious, self-aggrandizing person, cry (not so) quietly on the couch. Grateful. Grateful to God for all of his goodness and kindness. Who knows how long he has been trying to get that through my stony heart lately. But he cracked me with a movie. Finally pierced my armor of self-importance. Finally shook my gaze of all that I do not have. Finally got me to remember to give thanks and take heart. Finally.

And honestly… it’s about time.

do hard things

I am 33 years old and sorting through the various threads that have woven themselves into my life from the very beginning of things. We’re all in this process, I guess. The older we get, we realize the things that are inside of us are even older than we realize. Those of us who have even the best of home lives (which I think I do) realize that there is no way of life without its baggage.

The same is true of life in the church.

I grew up in what we’d call “charismatic” churches. For those outside the Church world or entirely unsure of what that word means even though you heard it a bunch, I grew up in churches where The Scary Things happened. Well… not exorcisms and snake handling. Not that. I mean the things that freak out safe, modern, rational Americans: speaking in tongues, prophecy, visions… that kind of thing. It wasn’t some weird spectacle in our churches. It was pretty normal.

It turns out I’m not a very good charismatic, though. I always felt like a weirdo (and to be clear: I am a weirdo) and wasn’t quite sure why I felt drawn to sit quietly and meditate on the Bible while all the louder, showier things were happening. Maybe my heart is especially hard, but I always felt like I was being profoundly moved in church. Just… not on the outside. My experiences with God were intense, but they were quiet.

That always made me think there was something wrong with me.

As I grew up, I met lots and lots of people that connected with God in these quiet ways that seemed more centered around quietly thinking and praying through the Bible. There’s lots of tribes of them, but Presbyterians is where I landed and… I found fellow weirdos. I felt more comfortable and at home in church than I thought I ever would.

I do not regret growing up in charismatic churches. In fact, I’d like to extract some of that DNA and inject it into every Presbyterian I know. I mean, just like a little slice of it. I think we’d be better off. But that’s a different story.

One thing about growing up in charismatic churches was that it always seemed like God was interrupting people’s lives with mystical experiences. I mean, some people seemed to be popping into visions like a dude lost in a strange hall, looking for the right door to go through. Or they spent hours in prayer, shocked that it had indeed been hours. Or they’d just erupt into ecstatic prophecy. My impression was that this happened all the time and that these people really loved Jesus correctly.

Those kinds of experiences weren’t mine. I always figured something was deeply wrong with me.

And you know what? Some part of that doubt about myself has stuck with me.

I know now that spiritual growth, spiritual formation is more often about the quiet endurance of waiting for Jesus and slowly, painfully growing into grace. I know this through a more careful reading of the Bible and greater attention to the writings of the Church through time. I know this.

But some piece of that doubt, some kernel, some strand… it’s stuck with me.

What is wrong with me?

Now, there really could be/kind of is something wrong with me. I’m an imperfect person who often doesn’t fan the flame of loves in my heart like I should. I’m up in my head to a fault. But I also think I’m relatively normal. Rationally, that’s what I believe. I still often find myself asking myself and asking God, “Ok but… are we sure I’m not a freak?”

I’ve realized that one of the pieces of baggage that I picked up with the way I grew up is that I somehow believed that following Jesus would be ecstatically easy. That spiritual experiences would descend on me like the rain and I would climb ladders of rapture until I died surrounded in some spiritual glory cloud. None of this would require effort except perpetual days and nights spent lying on the floor waiting for the Glory. I somehow learned to believe that spiritual growth should be automatic and easy.

That’s a nasty lie.

We have no account of that kind of spiritual life in Scripture. We don’t have it in church history. Shoot, those people that I got that impression from probably would say that I didn’t get that from them!

But that’s what I believed. And that’s why I always thought I was messed up. It was never easy for me.

And here’s the other tricky thing: Many people, exposed to this kind of thinking and the shame of not measuring up to attaining the Glory, react into an attitude of “screw you, grace means that there’s no ladder and I’m full accepted and I don’t have to do anything.” There’s a great deal of truth in that statement except that one bit, “I don’t have to do anything.” Like grace means you’re delivered out of mystical accumulations into grace-secured spiritual ease.

Oddly, the kind of attitudes I’ve seen in both camps often leads me to the same place: Expect the easy.

Spiritual growth will be through mystical experiences that just fall out of heaven on you: EASY!

Spiritual growth is about doing nothing but believing the right things: EASY!

I’m trained both by culture inside and culture outside the Church to look for the easy road and my expectations have been shaped to the point that I really do believe that following Jesus should be basically (or literally) effortless. And, again, that just isn’t the testimony of Scripture or of the Christian people. The truth? Spiritual life flows graciously from a gracious God and demands that you, aided by the Holy Spirit, relentlessly murder all the little parts of you that demand to be King. That is a lifelong, slow, painful process that involves a lot of work. It is monstrously slow work to be molded into the image of the Son.

It turns out that when Jesus talked about losing/giving away your life to follow him, he really didn’t mean “Oh this will be a breeze, a lark.” He meant that it would be a slow and difficult journey.

And you know what? It’s still better than all the easy ways out.

Can I give you an example? This week is Vacation Bible School week for us in my town. Confession: I don’t like it. I don’t like doing it. I am still someone who likes the quiet room, and this is three and a half hours with 12 dozen noisy children. There’s singing out loud with motions (hate that), silly games (I’m the worst silly person), and times to talk to talk to these kids in their vocabulary about things that I would normally use at least high school vocabulary to discuss (Johnny: FOCUS UP. PLEASE). VBS is hard for me.

Everything in my past tells me: If it is hard to do, it’s not God. Don’t do it. You don’t have to do that. Grace. Experiences. Don’t.

The Truth: Figuring out how to shed my baggage, my self-importance and love kids who are not my own and be silly and play, those things murder all these parts of me that demand to be King. It’s good for me.

I dread VBS every year. And by the end of Day One, I usually say, “Well. That wasn’t awful.” By the end of the last day, I legitimately love all the kids I get assigned to and I’m glad I spent time with them. And even though I’ve learned this lesson for something like seven years now, I go through the same process. Every. Year.

Because following Jesus can be hard for dummies like me.

If you’re out there, laboring under the impression that this all should be easier by now, let me just encourage you: do the hard thing. You’re not broken or weird because it’s hard. It’s hard for all of us. But do the hard thing.

Is it hard to confront the people who have hurt you? Yeah? Do the hard thing.

Is it hard for you to go to church this Sunday because it’s been a long week? Yeah? Do the hard thing.

Is it hard for you to pull out your Bible and read it? Yeah? You too? Do the hard thing.

Jesus has put you in the position where you never have to earn his love, his favor. You are already well-beloved. You are! That’s amazing. Now you’re busy trying to convince all of you to believe that. It’s hard, hard work. It really is. You’re not alone. I’m with you. Lots of other people are with you.

Most importantly, Jesus is with you. He’s not going to give up on you or change his mind about you because this thing is hard. Run to those hard places and find him there waiting for you, delighted in you despite your hard-headed ways. Go to the hard places just so you can find him there waiting to surprise you.

Do the hard thing. It’s what we’re called to and it’s where we find Jesus.

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