Recycle: Picking Up the Tab…

tab

This afternoon I was in a “conversation” with a friend of mine about what it means, as a Christian, to witness to others. We have two very different theological positions. And we are members of two very different Christian tribes. As a result, we also have two very, very different notions of what it means to witness to those God brings across our paths. I always appreciate my discussions with my friends who have differing perspectives than I do. It opens me up to ideas that I would normally run from and often reinforces convictions that I already hold. If all of the voices speaking in to your life sound the same, you ultimately do yourself a disservice to yourself and to others around you. 

That being said, our disagreement was rooted in his argument that in order to witness to someone else, you must always offer a clear, spoken opportunity for that person to repent and be reconciled to Jesus. Basically, people have to give their heart to Jesus if witnessing to them is going to mean anything. I respectfully disagreed and offering the idea that often evangelism is less about an individual giving their heart to Jesus than it is about us giving Jesus’ heart to someone else…it’s not always proclamation, sometimes its the witness of your life in love and mercy and grace. This concept is sometimes called “relational” or “lifestyle” evangelism. I do believe it is important to verbalize the Gospel implicitly, but relational credibility is built over time and consistency and your verbal witness without your relational credibility is virtually useless to most we come across. 

A while back, I wrote about an experience I had while living in Annapolis, MD that explains what I was trying to convey to my friend. I hope that my experience will serve as an encouragement to those of you that desire deep meaningful connection to people over the notion of initiating cold conversations with conversion in mind.

The simple act of consistent kindness is the key to many locks in this world…


 PICKING UP THE TAB…

49 West

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of living in Annapolis, MD. If you have not had the pleasure of visiting, it is one of the most beautiful, picturesque places you could imagine. I compare it to living in a postcard with the ever-present sailboats in the area surrounding city dock, and the colonial architecture and imposing guard that is the United States Naval Academy dominating much of the downtown atmosphere. I miss autumn in Annapolis with all of its beautiful colors and smells and crispness. I miss sitting down near the City Dock around dusk watching the boats as they sauntered in and out of port.  I miss the juxtaposition of the liberal-leaning St. John’s College with the conservative bastion that is the USNA (think Athens being across the street from Sparta).

Also…I miss 49 West.

49 West is a coffee shop/bistro located on the main street as you head down to the City Dock. It’s home to an eclectic mix of beatniks, intellectuals, young professionals, musicians, artists, tattooed non-conformists and other characters that bring a spice and vibrancy to a mostly conservative town. I would frequent 49 West because the food was excellent and the people watching was almost always epic. You were close enough to downtown to be in the middle of the action, but no so far that you were overrun with tourists. It was perfect.

Not surprisingly, the majority of people who call 49 West a frequent haunt would not characterize themselves as Christian or “churched”, but would describe themselves as being generically spiritual. You could often overhear philosophical discussions while eating or even religious debates from the Johnnies (St. John’s students) in response to their unique educational development. There was a certain existential search that is typical of any place that attracts artists, intellectuals, and generally, people who love the community that a bohemian coffee shop can provide.

One particular evening, I was sitting down to a meal by myself. It was a Thursday night, which was typically when the place would bring in jazz musicians to perform in the back room.  It was always busy with people packing out every table, filling the room with laughter, discussion, and the clinging, clanging and chiming of good food being consumed. Thursdays were always full of life and occasionally…drama.

As I was eating, I noticed one of the female waitstaff walk very purposefully to the front door holding a receipt book. She walked out the front door and looked up and down the sidewalk for  a moment and then came back through the door with a look of concern. I realized, with the help of context clues, that someone had walked out on their tab. If you have ever worked in food service, you know that this is not a good thing. Her manager came up to her and I could see that they were talking about the situation. He said something and you could tell by the look on her face that things had gone from bad to worse. I am guessing that the tab was going to come out of her tips. And then, as sometimes happens, I heard Jesus somewhere in the back of my skull…An inner conversation had begun:

Jesus Inside My Skull: Rick, pay for the meal.

Rick: Why don’t you give me a better paying job?

JIMS: Are you kidding me?

Rick: Sorta.

I knew that this was Jesus, because I am usually on the selfish side of money issues. As a matter of fact, I have found that if you have a thought or impulse that is obviously good in the moral sense and it makes you uncomfortable, then that thought is almost always Jesus’ idea. I typically question the origin or motive of a good deed when it makes me uncomfortable and it turns out that this discomfort seems to be a hallmark of a God-breathed notion clashing with my selfishness. So, I motioned for the downcast server to come over to my table, which was convenient because she was my server for the evening as well.

Her name was Sarah.

She asked if everything was ok and if I needed a refill. I let her know that the food was fantastic and then I asked her if I could pay the bill that was left behind. I cannot describe the look that came over her face. It was the kind of distrusting, confused look that emerges when a random dude is making a weak attempt at a flirting. I ensured her that I wasn’t hitting on her, I just thought it was the right thing to do. She looked up for a second and then turned around and walked towards the kitchen area without saying anything. I assumed that she was going to blow off my offer, so I started to eat again. After a few moments, she walked by my table and sheepishly slid the ticket near me…almost ashamed to do so. I looked up and she mouthed thank you as she walked away.

So, I picked up the ticket and looked at the damage left by the dine-n-dashers. Damn. I was already splurging on myself that night, so I could’ve really used a water-and-caesar-salad sort of tab. Not so much. These people had set out to eat very well without obligation or consideration for anyone else. Unfortunately we often gorge ourselves at the expense of others. I set out my debit card and she picked it up and brought it back to me with another earnest thank you written on her face. I started to sign the tab when Jesus started piping up again.

JIMS: Why don’t you tip her?

Me:  Ok…what are you thinking?  10%?

JIMS: No. Actually I was thinking that you could tip her the balance of the bill. And then do the same on your bill. That’s what I was thinking.

Me: You are aware of what I do for a living right? I mean, because you are the one who called me to do it. Are you kidding me? I don’t think Dave Ramsey would ok this.

JIMS: Yes…I know what you do for a living and now let’s see if you’re serious about actually doing it. It’s what I want you to do because it’s the not just the right thing to do. It’s what I would do.

So, I did what Jesus asked me to do and I walked out feeling large in the heart and small in the wallet.

About 2 weeks later, I was eating an early dinner  at 49 West on my day off.  It was the first time I had been in since “Break the Bank Thursday”. I had a delicious Rosemary Chicken Sandwich, a slice of cheesecake and class of wine. It was pretty quiet in there that day and I remember enjoying the laziness of it all. After finishing up, I asked for the tab. My server Josh retrieved it and showed me the balance.  I reached for my wallet and Josh stopped me cold.

Josh: You need to put your wallet away.

Me: Excuse me?

Josh: We know what you did for Sarah that night that she was left hanging, and that was really a stand-up thing to do.  You just need to know that you will never have to pay for another meal as long as I am working here.

Me: Wow.  I don’t know what to say.  That’s not really necessary, but thank you. I really don’t mind paying.

Josh: One good turn deserves another. And I’ve never heard of someone doing something so nice for no reason at all. 

It was a really amazing moment.  One where you realize that God might really know what he is talking about after all.  So I just assumed, like always, that God was teaching me to be generous so he could show me what real generosity was.  I thought that this was going to make a great sermon illustration and that ended the lesson.  It was at this point that Josh asked me a question that always makes me uncomfortable…especially when I really start to connect with a person:

Josh: So what do you do? Are you a student or a young professional?

Now, I am a pastor.  I love being a pastor.  I am proud to serve people in this way, but there are certain situations in which I feel that my job title will short-circuit my ability to connect with people who aren’t so high on church.  This was one of those moments when I wished I could say, “environmentalist” or “mountain biker” or “real estate novelist” (pretty sure Billy Joel just made that one up).  So, with more than a little anxiety,  I looked at him and said:

Me: I will tell you what I do if you don’t judge me.

Josh: Huh?  What does that mean?  Wait…are you in porn?

Me: No!  No…no…no.  Think the other end of the spectrum.  I work in ministry. I work in a church.

Josh: Oh. Really? Huh. That’s cool. Even though I’m not really into religion and stuff I can respect that. But I do consider myself a spiritual person.

JIMS: That seems to be going around…

We talked for a little while longer and Josh reassured me that my choice of profession/philosophy was cool with him, so there would always be a free meal waiting for me there.

Over the next few weeks and months, I would go to 49 West and enjoy the food, meeting new friends, and jazz music. I got to know most of the staff and they playfully referred to me as Preacher Man…which thrilled me to no end. Occasionally, someone would ask my opinion on philosophy or politics or gay rights and I would share what I thought about how Jesus would respond to all that stuff. Nothing too heavy…just honest community in diversity. It was a chance to share Jesus’ heart without having to bludgeon anyone with a 15lb. Bible. I enjoyed it very much.

And then, one day I found out why Jesus really wanted me to pay that tab.

I walked in one day and the cafe was mostly empty. I could hear the clinking of dishes and the chiming of silverware in the back, but there wasn’t really anyone around. I made my way to the back section to use the restroom when I saw Sarah, Josh, and another server whose name I cannot recall. I shall call him Simon.  I could tell that something was wrong because Sarah was staring at the salt shakers on the table and the others were consoling her and rubbing her back. I smiled awkwardly and decided to mind my own business and went into the restroom. I came back out and Josh waived me over:

Josh: Hey…do  you have a minute?

Me: Sure.  What’s going on?

I walked over to the booth in the corner where they were sitting and I realized that Sarah had been crying. She looked very tired and very done with the whole situation..whatever that was. The guys informed me that she had a very messy brake up with her boyfriend the night before, and she was having a really hard time coming to terms with it. They also mentioned that he was kind of abusive and prone to putting her down and disrespecting her. She said that she knew it was wrong to be with him, but she felt so emotionally wrapped up in him she did not know how to stay away or move on or even function apart from him. They were trying desperately to convince her that her ex was toxic and she should cut her loses. So Josh, looked at me after a moment and said:

Josh: Rick, could you give her some advice? I mean, try to keep Jesus and the Bible and church out of it if you can. But you seem to always have good things to say and we are having a hard time trying to help her. She respects you and so do we.

Me: Well Josh, that’s hard for me to do because Jesus and the Bible and the church are why I see life the way I do.  But I will try to be generic but I can guarantee it.

Josh: We appreciate it man. We just just don’t know what to say to help her.

This is where life becomes very sobering, very quickly. Each of us that believes in Jesus has a tremendous opportunity to speak healing and hope into a world that is so damaged with sin and human frailty.  These three trusted what I had to say about their lives. That is an unbelievable honor. Our words can create and destroy if we are not careful, and I just did not want to blow this opportunity to justify their trust and encourage their own, “spirituality”.  So I just started by asking Sarah a simple question:

Me: Sarah, do you feel like this guy really loved you?

Sarah: I’m not sure what that means.

Me: Well, I believe that love is seeking to put the needs and feelings of the other person ahead of your own. It’s something that desires to give itself away. Not just a physical thing, but a real deep sense of wanting what is best for the other person. Is this what he gave you?

She sat there for a moment and to quote John Mayer, played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shakers.  You could see the obvious struggle in her own mind between what she knew to be true and what she felt to be safe.  Finally after  a couple of minutes, she answered:

Sarah: I don’t think he did. I think he loved himself too much to love me.

JIMS: Rick, tell her about what love is. Tell them all. 

Me in my Skull: Workin’ on it…

Me: Sarah, do you ultimately want love? I mean do you want to be with someone who will seek to put you first? Do you want to be with someone who you love and respect so much because you are so grateful for how they actually want to fight their selfishness for you.

Sarah: Yes…even though I don’t deserve that. (Her shoulders started to shudder as the emotions spilled over on all of us)

Me: Then can I show you something?

I knew that there was a Jesus/God/Church stipulation on my advice, but I knew that God desperately wanted to show these kids of His the real breadth and depth of love.  So I walked back out to my Jeep and grabbed my Message Bible.  I flipped over to the oft-used 1 Corinthians 13 passage.  You know, the love section that everyone reads at weddings?  I was pretty sure that she had never read it before, and I just wanted to show her what she was missing with this guy and maybe missing in her life in general.  So I sat down and laid the Bible down next to me. Now the beauty of this was that most MSG Bibles have a cool, hip covers, which are great for covert ops.

Me: I am going to ask you to read something.  Is that ok?

Sarah: It’s the Bible isn’t it?

Me: I cannot confirm or deny your suspicions. 

JIMS: Niiiiice. Maybe I should have called you to be a comedian…

Fortunately there was a bit of laughter to break the tortured tension.  She nodded in approval and smiled painfully through her work mascara streaked eyes and I slid it over to her.  The passage had already been highlighted in my copy, so she immediately began reading:

1 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. 2 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. 3 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. 4 Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head,5 Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, 6 Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, 7 Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end. 8 Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. 9 We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. 10 But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled. 11 When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. 12 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! 13 But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

She sat there reading, and I could see her heart breaking and mending at the very same time.  Her eyes welled up again and her chin started to quiver as she finished the passage.  She looked up at me and shook her head side-to-side. Then she started to look back down at the floor. I wanted her to know that this was waiting for her. This is the love that was waiting for all of them.

Me: Sarah, this is what love is…this is what you deserve. If this isn’t what your ex tries to look like, move on and move up.

She started to weep quietly and nod her head in a I-know-you’re-right, sort of way. Josh slid the Bible over to himself and read the passage.  I could see his eyes absorbing what was on the page and his heart drinking it in. He looked up after a moment and said, quietly awestruck:

Josh: Wow. I didn’t know the Bible was written like this. 

He then slid the Bible down to Simon and told him to check it out.  Simon read it and said:

Simon: That is the most $#*%ing amazing thing I have ever read.  Is the whole book like this?

It was as surreal a moment as you could possibly imagine. Now, I would like to tell you that all three of them dropped to their knees and gave their hearts to Jesus. After all, that is how we normally measure a successful witnessing opportunity. Turns out, that often it is less about an individual giving their heart to Jesus than it is about us giving Jesus’ heart to someone else.  We sat there for a few more moments, and I asked to pray with them. They allowed me to, and I asked for strength and love and courage for Sarah. I often pray with my eyes open, and they just stared at the floor taking it all in.

I realized I had bought far more than an abandoned meal weeks earlier.

I went into 49 West a couple dozen more times in my remaining time in Annapolis. We would have a few more discussions about life. I ate a few more delicious meals and heard some great jazz music. I think about my friends there from time to time and hope that they get around to reading the rest of the book. I pray for 49 West & someone who is willing to pick up a burden that is not theirs with no agenda other than loving people.

Often, we miss, or even worse, dismiss the prompting of Jesus in our hearts.  We talk ourselves out of the simple obedience that leads to those real encounters in which Jesus literally uses us to be Himself with skin on. If you would have told me that I would be sitting in 49 West with its wait-staff exploring the mystery and beauty of God’s perfect love, I would have called you crazy.  Because that is what it is. Jesus asks us to be a little insane. Believing that you are worth Jesus to God is by it’s very nature, non-sensical.

But, so is paying a debt that is not your own.

JIMS: Hmmmm…sounds like someone I know.

The Power of a Praying Toddler…

IMG_7942Earlier this week, I shared with you about my battle with depression and self-hatred in college and how the words of author Philip Yancey helped to guide me towards a different path. I was honestly scared at the prospect of opening up in a completely vulnerable way than I had ever attempted to do before.

I’ve come to learn that if you want something you’ve never had, you have to be willing to do things you’ve never done. What is the old wisdom about the definition of insanity?

The response from those of you who have reached out to me has been encouraging and confirming in ways that I hadn’t expected. Many of my college friends, people who I had discarded, voiced their thanks and love to me. Many others shared a bit of their own personal journeys and I am honored that you would entrust that piece of who you are to me. Believe me, I don’t take it lightly.

Also, I have a had a dozen or so people ask how I came to a place where I felt I could share about my failures and inner struggles. Each one expressing that they want to be able to share their stories with others around them, but they still felt the sting of self-recrimination in a way that kept them from “…shifting out of idle no matter how loud the engines of change seemed to rev inside of them…” to quote one person. The fear of moving forward was something that they desperately wanted to overcome and they wanted to know how I got to the point of forward momentum.

I wanted to share with you that for me and my journey, it started with how my 3-year-old, Carter (Biscuit is my nickname for him), would start his bedtime prayers at night.

Right around Christmastime, I was trying to teach Biscuit how to pray to Jesus. Basically, I would pray and then he would mimic some of what I said and then throw in a mishmash of his thought and giggles and wants and nonsense words. It was great fun watching him learn how to talk to Jesus with his own style and own voice. And while it was mainly fun and goofiness, it was also the start of teaching him how to talk with God and I thought it was important.

After the holidays, Biscuit started to ask if he could pray first during prayer time which I thought was a good idea. He no longer needed my modeling and he is always eager to show that he can do things on his own. Daddy I can do it myself is maybe his favorite expression these days. Something happened though almost as soon as he started going first. His prayers would start with a sentence that I did not teach him and was obviously to me, God’s word’s speaking through his squeaky little voice. He would begin by saying:

“Dear Jesus, help Daddy not to be scared anymore and I love him.”

The first time I heard it, I became overwhelmingly emotional. The preceding weeks and months had been some of the most difficult of my life. I was fighting through loneliness and depression in a massive struggle and I was losing. I use the word struggle loosely because, to be honest, I was fighting the darkness less and less. People would reach out to me and I always found a way to disconnect from their offers of help or community. I was losing the same battle that I had always lost and I knew it consciously. Meanwhile, I thought that I had worked hard to keep my heartache and sadness from leaking into my time spent with Carter. Instead I was trying to focus on fun and snuggles and fort-building and going on adventures. We try to save our kids from the dirty details about our struggle, but I realized that he saw right through to my heart…or at the very least, God did.

I’ve lived my whole life in a state of being scared. I’ve justified my dysfunction and relational paralysis and my intentional decision to keep people at a distance with my fear. I’d even started to have a Stockholm Syndrome dynamic with it. Even though it held me captive, I became familiar and comfortable with it.  Fear was the one constant I could count on when it came to how I operated. My fearful dysfunction became my default mode of functioning and I eventually just accepted that it was just the way I was. Instead of understanding that my fear was an invasive, destructive force in my life, I allowed it to be grafted into my identity. It was absorbed into my emotional DNA. It was no different to me in my mind than the lisp in my speech…something that I’ve worked to correct, but ultimately just a part of what made me, me.

But when Carter prayed that his prayers, it started to awaken a new reality inside my head and my heart. I couldn’t quite understand what it was at the time, but God used Carter again to help reveal that too. He was using Biscuit to break my heart to fix my mind.

My boy prayed that same opening in every prayer we shared together for almost 2 months straight. Every other detail of what he would say to God would change based on what we did that day and how hyper he was at that moment. The only consistent aspect of what he said to Jesus, was to ask Him to take my fear away while expressing that he (Biscuit) loved me. Over that span, I slowly started to come out of the darkness and began to share more openly and honestly with those closest to me about my struggle and my past. I stopped avoiding offers of community and conversation and began embracing the support that was around me. I was starting, very slowly, to fight back. When I decided in a clear, conscious way to fight my fear, Carter stopped praying about it. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s just what happened.

During that time, I knew that God had used my boy to speak to me and love me and inspired me. I didn’t have any doubts about that. At the same time, I didn’t quite understand what had changed in my thinking or understanding that pushed me to actually start doing what I had never done in community before. And then it was made crystal clear to me on a Sunday after I picked him up from childcare after church.

Every Sunday at our church’s Eleven20 service, I wear a name tag. It’s not an official tag, just one of those Hello My Name Is things that you fill out. Normally I throw it away after we are done, but I had it on when I picked him up one Sunday. Now, Biscuit doesn’t really like stickers or tags on him. As a matter of fact, on most Sundays, the teacher will place the tag on his back because he will just take it off otherwise. He doesn’t like the free stickers from Publix and doesn’t want a gold start for good behavior. It’s just not his thing. That’s why it was surprising when he took my name tag off and put it on his shirt saying, “Now I’m Daddy. I’m Rick!”

I laughed and didn’t think much about it.

After lunch and a nap together, I was getting him ready to head to his Sunday Night Splash group. He loves to play and learn with the kids, so I always try to get him dressed in something that he can have fun in, usually athletic shorts and a t-shirt. So I started to remove the plaid button up shirt he was wearing to replace it with one of his t-shirts when he told me to stop. He didn’t want another shirt. “This one is just fine Daddy!” he explained. I told him that he would be uncomfortable in his buttoned shirt and that a T-shirt would be more fun for his class. He refused again and I asked him what the issue was for fighting me on changing shirts. I was getting frustrated.

imageI wasn’t prepared for what he said back to me. He looked up at me with those deep blue eyes and pointed to the crumpled name tag on his shirt and said,

“I want everyone to know that you’re my Daddy!” 

He wasn’t being belligerent. In fact, he didn’t care about the shirt at all. It was the name tag that was important to him.  I stopped for a second staring at my name. The weight of realizing that my little boy was proud to wear it was washing over me. And that is when it all came together for me.

Who I am and what I carry not only affects my life, it affects his too. The option to wear my name is his. The responsibility of what that means is mine.

He wanted people to know who his Daddy was because it was something that made him feel happy and proud and special. He had a childlike faith in me and it wasn’t because he didn’t understand who I really was. It was because he loved me for what I was, not what I had done or failed to do. I was the one who hadn’t been able to see myself clearly.

The deep truth is that he (Carter) and I are connected in a way that no one else on the planet is to me. He is the flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. A part of what make’s me who I am, will influence who he is…just like the lisp that he speaks with too. That’s why the love and affection I feel for him is the most intense thing I know outside of God’s love. It’s also the most burdensome thing too. Biscuit is the part of me that I have never allowed myself to love. Maybe that’s why we love our kids so much, because we want to give them what we could never give ourselves. Unconditional love. We feel they deserve it in a way that we never could.

From that point a few months ago, to this moment now. I have tried to be consistent with the hard work of accepting grace and offering it in return. Even when it comes to offering that to myself. Whether it’s counseling or medication or therapy or reading resources or the consistency of spending time in safe community with trusted friends, I can tell you that it’s all stuff that I am emotionally uncomfortable with. That’s why I know they are the right things to keep doing. I am willing, for the first time in my life, to do everything that is uncomfortable emotionally on behalf of my health, heart and head. And the truth is that it is getting easier. The fear is no longer a part of my identity. It’s becoming more and more like a wound that is starting to scar. It’s still there, but instead of pointing to where I am, it speaks of where I’ve been.

I’m not a success story. I don’t want to give that impression and I want to make that very clear. I am still flaky and introverted and struggle with commitment and returning phone calls. Some of that may never completely change. But I refuse to let fear be the root of those things. I do feel that I am beginning to resemble a grace story…and that’s always a God story.

All because there is a toddler who is wearing my name.

Who is wearing yours?

RG

How A Philip Yancey Book Saved My Life….

jesusknew

DISCLAIMER: Before you read this, just know that I had to vomit a few things out of my heart and the post is pretty non-linear and maybe even totally confusing, but I needed to share it. Also, there will most assuredly be grammatical errors and other issues…bear with me.

I was recently digging through my library looking for an NT Wright book that I was wanting to reference for an Sunday Morning Group that I lead when I stumbled across Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew. I, for some reason, sat down and thumbed through the pages of the book and was met by highlighted pages and margin notes from the first time I read it as a sophomore at Howard Payne University. That was 18 years ago for you math majors out there.

Now for the vomiting part:

College was a difficult time of me. For the better part of my young adult life I have battled severe depression. The roots of this depression are another post that I am not ready to write, but its effect on my academic and social life were severe and overwhelming. I struggled in school because I have a fairly severe form of ADHD that was left undiagnosed until last March. I could ace tests and quizzes and projects at the very last second, but I had a horrible time trying to keep my attention stable in class to take notes and a worse time trying to read what was required outside of class. It is a horrible thing to feel that would rather be anyone else other than who you really are. I started to spiral and eventually stopped going to my classes. I was prone to isolating myself in an attempt to control the breaking of the damn that was occurring in my head and my heart.

College was a place that I wanted to have a new start from life by creating a new confident me. I did this by trying to be a person that I wasn’t. I told a lot of lies about who I was and what I wanted to be. They weren’t substantial lies in my head…white lies about what I had done and who I knew and what I thought or knew. The reality though is that there is no such thing as an inconsequential lie. I destroyed many good friendships simply because I couldn’t believe that the people around me wanted who I actually was instead of what I felt I wanted me to be to them. These people would have loved and encouraged me through anything I was going through. But instead of that, I ran from that community. I wasn’t running from them who they were. I was running from sparing them the inconvenience of knowing who I really was.

Running always seemed a better way.

I realize looking back almost 20 years that I wasn’t just running from my friends and family. I was running from a God who was deeply disappointed and angry at who I was and who I was becoming. I had been given a certain set of gifts and talents and I was squandering them. The Parable of the Talents in Matthew’s Gospel was coming to fruition in my way of thinking. Rather than trusting that God wanted who I was, I was trying to create someone who I thought would be a better candidate for his calling. In particular, I was running because I was convinced that the end of the story was ultimately what would be my end: “And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30). 

I was an emotive, spiritual and relational train wreck when Yancey’s work came into my life. And although my life continued to self-sabotage in the weeks and months and years after reading it, it started to lay the groundwork for my slow road to grace and out of the self-loathing that has characterized the better part of my young adult years. Jesus used this book to give me a path to His Grace not by helping me to see myself differently, but to start to understand who I was in the light of who God really is as revealed through this life and character of Jesus.

I knew The Bible and it’s stories. I had given my heart and life to Jesus in High School with the help of an amazing group of friends and youth workers. I was encouraged and nurtured by a wonderful church that actually allowed me to live into my gifts as a teenager. And even though this was the Body of Jesus supporting me, I still didn’t understand who Jesus really was in light of what I thought a Christian should be. I knew who Jesus was positionally. He was God’s Son who was at the same time God Himself. He came to teach us how to be like him and eventually gave his life on the cross to pay for my sins. He was now sitting at His Dad’s right hand and wanted me to work to bring other people to Him. I knew all of these things. I knew who Jesus was…but I didn’t understand what He really was.

When my framework for believing in Jesus is based on managing the contrast between Jesus’ glory and my brokenness, I always felt the need to run. It was a preemptive smiting if you will. I needed to understand Jesus’ character in love and grace and resurrection is what makes Him glorious. By the time I got to college, I realized that I was too broken and dysfunctional and self-conscious to let him use what I really was to bring others to Him…so I had to be someone else. Someone that I would have actually liked. I tried to reinvent my person instead of understanding what it meant to be reborn in his love and grace. That’s a battle I still fight. I’m just trying to be more honest about it than I’ve been in the past.

Fast forward to a few days ago.

I sat reading some of the margin notes and I recognized the familiar refrain of breaking mingled with cautious optimism that expressed the hope that maybe Jesus did not look at me the way I did. Some of my thoughts, looking back, were hilarious and presumptive…and some of them were heartbreaking. Not only because of what I think about where I was at the time, but because I still wrestle with the same issues.

In one particular section of the book, Yancey is explaining how Jesus not only spent time with sinners, but he actually liked them. At first, this doesn’t seem like that much of a revolutionary statement, but I remember crying when I read this. The page still has the wavy spots on it from my blubbering and pizza stains from dinner that night. I think I knew that Jesus loved me. But it was like a family member says they love you because that’s what family is supposed to do. Liking and loving in that sense are two different things. One is a choice and the other one is an emotive expression. I believed my college friends loved me…but how could they like me? I did not understand that the Body of Jesus actually offers both.

Scribbled in the margin of the book in my chicken-scratch are my thoughts:

I don’t feel this. God I hope that I am wrong. Could Jesus really like me not just love me? How would that change my life if I actually accepted that? I hope that one day…I will actually be able to like myself. Maybe I won’t always be like this…” Hope mixed with broken.

I left college in 1998 because I convinced myself that I needed a new start. I fully intended to return and finish my degree. But then a church position turned into a camp job that turned into and bookstore/coffee shop gig which turned into a grafting into the UMC tribe which turned into a series of other ministry opportunities and finally, 16 years later, I am still a first semester sophomore building up the courage (and finances) to go back.

Honestly, along the journey I have consistently fought a tendency to push others away. More times than not, I have isolated myself and settled for trusting in the lie that people might ultimately love me, but they won’t like me when they find out who I really am. I’ve hurt a lot of people along the way because I’ve trusted in my feelings more than the Grace of God working through their lives to me. If you are reading this and are one of those that I have pushed away or hurt…I am deeply sorry. I should have trusted you more than I trusted my dysfunction and fear. You are worth Jesus to God and I hope to one day make up for the time I’ve lost with you. Not to be cliche’ but the problem was never you…it was a broken me.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to work through my past and face those issues and demons which have always enabled me to sabotage my relationships and my community. It’s been terrifying to be honest. Digging deep seated hurt out is invasive and painful. As I gain healing and root out those embedded lies that I have adopted, maybe a time will come for me to share those lessons and truths and hope with you. That’s the way that God brings resurrection to our deepest pain. What I can share is that for the first time in my life, I believe with unshakable confidence that God not only loves me, but that He actually likes me. I also believe that about those that God has placed in community around me…not just friends and family…but my co-workers and church leaders who have been the avenue for grace in some very dark places over the last year. I am so thankful for having found The UMC Tribe in my early 20′s. The concept of grace nurtured here has given me mission and ministry and hope. Thank you for loving me and being proof of the Kingdom in my midst.

And thank you to Philip Yancey. Your book saved my life by teaching me one small truth in particular:

God not only loves me through Jesus…He actually likes me too.

RG

Position vs. Posture…

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A couple of days ago, I was sitting near a young father and his two young girls at Mitchell’s Coffee Shop. I watched as the 4-year-old was playing a children’s game on her Dad’s iPad. Dad, got up to walk to the front counter and then I watched the same child explain to a 3-year-old how an iPad works. The 4 yo explained that the home button was a door bell that woke up the people on the inside. When you touch the screen, the people on the inside would hold on to the tips of your fingers while you moved it around. When you took your finger off the screen the people let go.

She then explained that when you leave the iPad alone for long enough, the people grow tired and eventually turned the lights off.

I thought it was a brilliant way to describe what was happening that made perfect sense to someone who had no frame of reference to how the iPad actually worked.

Even though it was utterly wrong.

And…if I were to interrupt to explain how the iPad was actually working, the info would have been completely useless to those girls and probably less sensical that what seemed like a completely valid explanation based on their understanding and experience. In short, those girls believed what they wanted to believe because it made sense and answered the main questions in a way that they were comfortable with. That didn’t make them evil or stupid or sinful…it made them honest.

We are the same with God and how he works. You…no matter who you are or what you believe are most assuredly, someone else’s heretic. Give grace and peace to those whom you disagree with…because God has offered you the same consideration.

Following Christianity alone will give you a position to take against other positions. Following Jesus on the other hand will teach you about assuming a posture of humility and charity with the recognition that the position is never of greater value than the person with whom you are interacting with.

Because the simple truth is that God offered his Son’s life for people, not for their ideas.

RG

Believe in Your Dad, Not The Ground…

Believe in Dad, Not the Ground…

 

Last night at GRAVITY, we discussed Chapter 6 of The Ragamuffin Gospel. The idea at the center of the chapter was the notion that true trust in God is born out of a deep love for him.  Manning puts it this way:

“You will trust God only as much as you love Him. And you will love Him to the extent you have touched Him, rather that He has touched you.”

The notion here is that a God that is relegated in our experience to the realms of theory, religious ritual or our intellect is a God that we can admire, respect and even espouse to believe in.  But it is not a God that we can place a deep sense of faith in.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…evidence of things unseen.  That assurance, that evidence, is the byproduct of an intimacy that convinces the heart of a great affection towards the object of our faith.  God in Jesus.  So the question becomes has to be asked; can we truly trust and love a God that we do not have intimacy with?

My 2 year old, Carter, understands this concept.   He has made it a habit to climb up onto any high thing when I am present.  It can be a coffee table, a chair, a table, a counter…it doesn’t make a difference to him, just so long as it is high enough to provide a launch point.  He will wait to catch my eye and then almost simultaneously, he will launch himself out…giggling, flailing about and dropping like a 40 lb. stone.

 

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Sometimes I am ready for him.  I catch him and we will laugh and wrestle and he will, invariably, say, “Daddy let’s do that again!”  Other times though, he will jump and I have to react and drop any and everything I am doing to catch him and stop a catastrophe in the making.  Not fun.   He, of course, is laughing and giggling all the same.  Ignorant of the danger his leap placed him in, ignorant of the laws that govern the universe stating that little boys that go up must come down.  He’s not thinking that the ground is not made out of the same substance as Mommy and Daddy’s bed.  At that moment only one truth matters to Carter:

He believes in his Daddy more than he believes in the ground.  

He knows without reflection or hesitation or measurement that I will catch him.  It’s a definitive for him.  This assurance came over time.  Carrying him for countless hours, playing with him and keeping him safe everyday, tossing him in the air and catching him securely (while Kelley’s heart skipped a beat) and moments where I assured him with my words and out-stretched hands that I would be there if he jumped.  Now, its a given. What used to be a hesitant fall forward with a whine is now a leap with a giggle.  What was falling is now flying.

I want to be like that with God.

I cannot describe the feeling of catching my son, knowing that he has utter, unshakable trust in me.  No matter what my hang-ups or imperfections or failures or character flaws are, Carter sees only the me that gives him the confidence to fly…everything else doesn’t matter.  I have a tiny glimpse into why faith received such an enthusiastic response from Jesus in the gospels.

I have been wrestling with trust over the past few months.  I look at so many areas of my life that are being suffocated under the chains of my self-sufficiency.  Areas where my own lack of confidence in myself bleeds into how I perceive God and his goodness and what I am called to do.  I have so many questions about today and tomorrow to answer.   I try to control my family, my finances, my relationships, the way others perceive me, my doubt and every possible outcome of each.  I try to control the ministry I have been entrusted with, trying to anticipate what will work…what real success is and how I can justify the church paying me to do what I’m doing.  I spend so much energy and heartache trying to control what is not mine to control anyways…

I want desperately to leap.

I want to stare at the horizon instead of the ground.  I want to fly.  I want to trust with absolute abandon that The God who saved me and is saving me in this very moment thinks that I am worth Jesus to Himself.  I want to go from wanting to willing.  To use the biblical narrative, I want not only to get out of the boat to walk to Jesus, I want to do a cannonball and get everyone else wet in the process.

Maybe you can relate…maybe not.  But know this, your Heavenly Father does not drop his children.  He is not caught off-guard when we leap or stumble or fall.  He is not prone to bouts of inattentiveness or distraction.  We do not have to catch his eye…we are already the “apple” of it.  We are precious to Him, in ways that we cannot even begin to comprehend.  And our faith in Him is the natural expression our of acceptance of that truth.

I know that God has a deep, incomprehensible love for me…for you…for all of us.  It’s a love that not only redeems and repairs and restores, it also receives with open arms as we leap and fall into flight.

Believe in your Dad…not the ground.

Please remind me to do the same.

RG