Unseeing Narcissus

I’m quite adept at hiding from cameras. Take a look at the thousands of family photos we have and I’m in the tiniest fraction of them. And check Facebook and you’ll see that I have very few photos with me in then (though lots of the kids!). Shoot, the few I’m in usually have my wife or kids in them, too.

For a very long time, I’ve used the ready-made excuse of millennial narcissism to explain this. I mean, how embarrassing is it that selfie sticks even exist? The selfie has been my long-time target of haughty superiority. I don’t need to keep taking pictures of myself. I’m not nearly that vain.

But in a recent conversation about the amount of weight I’ve lost, my perceptive wife noted to me afterward that I’d deflected any recognition of the thirty-plus pounds I’ve lost so far. My response was that it feels like so little when I have more than that still to go. She, with that annoyingly prophetic precision, asked me if I’d noticed how much thinner I look in pictures. Well, no, not really, because I’m not in many pictures. I wasn’t before and I’m not now. But why is that really?

Easy. Because I don’t like how big I look. I can still remember being way skinnier. My vain memory lingers and the present reality is denied. And so why I have I really been avoiding the camera for years? Because I’m vain. And I would love the opportunity to deny the many years of overweightness should I ever actually get down to the weight I want to be at.

Narcissism, anyone? Anyone? I’m giving it out for free here…

The selfie-obsessed people are easy to jab at. The camera avoiders like me are sneakier. We don’t broadcast our vanity. In fact, we keep our narcissism tucked inside our white-washed tomb exteriors. And the sole reason for doing so is to keep being stuck on vainglory while simultaneously denying that I am.

I’m beginning to catch a very strong string of legalism. I’ve suspected it was there but—gasp!—I’ve hidden it under an outward proclamation of free grace! But on the inside, the legalist is running gleefully around like a kid on Christmas morning. I really hate that guy. I really hate living two lives, one for my audience and one in reality. I’m actually reading a book about an obscure Scottish Presbyterian theological snafu that was about this very thing. I expected to read it finding new reasons to gloat over the folks I know and read that seem to me like incredibly obvious legalists. Instead, I keep finding the critiques of legalism and antinomianism landing right in my heart.

I think it’s time to face my true reflection, not the one I keep trying to convince myself is the image I see.

Still Waiting for the Magic

I was recently reading a post by author Shannan Martin. Through various means, I know a bit about her life and my wife absolutely loved her book Falling Free (which I’m hoping to read it in 2017). And in knowing a bit about their lives, I understand the length to which they’ve gone to give up their clean, straight-laced lives for messy lives in the trenches. While our roads have been quite different, I’ve felt a kinship from afar in that messiness. So in this post, I was struck by these words:

We spent most of our time commiserating [with visiting friends] about loving people with complicated lives and how the mess so easily bleeds onto us. On paper, it seems like it wouldn’t be worth it. We unanimously agreed that life used to be simpler, not to mention quieter. But they hold the secret in their hearts and in their bones – life was meant to be lived near the margins. The magic is never far from the mess.

You don’t have to look far into our lives to see that we’ve made a mess of them by our decisions: Moving into the city. Having a lot of kids. Homeschooling those kids. Trying to pursue a vision of the church that finds its home in homes. Adopting two kids from foster care. Trying to define faithfulness to Jesus by something more profound than “Pray, read your Bible, and go to church”.

Yeah, we’re in the mess: Nostril deep and gasping for air. So, I wonder—if “the magic is never far from the mess”, then where’s the magic?

I find it wryly amusing that I write this now. In fact, things feel a little bit normal—for this week, at least. But even last week, I found two of my children barely bearable, much less loveable. It’s snowy and dirty and cold and so urban-ugly around my house. That won’t change for another few months. But even in all that, things feel okay. Sometimes it feels way worse. Sometimes I wish there was a reset button or that I could Ctrl+Alt+Del to get a reboot. Where did that virus slip in? Maybe I just need better antivirus software.

And lest this sound like a bitter diatribe about how crappy my life is, my life isn’t crappy. I can think of far more miserable times in my life. And we have a nice thing going at home right now, gearing up for a New Year’s fresh start, newly organized in the house and wonderfully planned for 2017. But it’s not magical either. I inwardly rejoice in the days I where I manage to go four solid hours without being royally annoyed at a child’s behavior or when I don’t have a child who is shut down because their vision of family life didn’t match mine or I don’t have the look of hatred through my child’s eyes because I denied them their idolatrous desires. I rejoice when there’s a day when we manage to feel like a family and not posers.

And then when I find myself going down this psychological line of reasoning, I get supremely annoyed with myself for looking for the magic. I can say, hands down, that the hardest, most life-impacting decision we’ve ever made was to adopt from foster care. I feel like I got walloped by a big cartoon hammer and the stars are still circling my cross-eyed face, even two and a half years later. But it’s not enough for me to be faithful, I need to be fruitful and (more importantly) feel frickin’ amazing. Because when you boil down why we adopted and why we adopted the kids we “chose” (I use that word lightly), it was because of a pitifully small attempt at faithfulness to a God who loves the fatherless. It wasn’t for money. It wasn’t for fun. It wasn’t because we found the most attractive, well-adjusted kids. It was, I’m sure, for some glory (look how holy I am!). But more than anything, it was out of obedience.

And here’s what angers me so much: I still relate to God the Father like the most ardent Pharisee, like the textbook legalist. I did my part, I took the tough steps, now where’s my reward, dammit? I jumped into the mess, so where’s my magic? I’m so angry because with all my pretensions and self-righteousness and theological training and good hair, I still expect the Creator of the universe to be in my debt when I actually manage to do something obedient. (And let’s be clear, I’m gonna ignore all of my disobediences, because who wants to talk about those, right?) When am I going to learn? When am I going to really believe that I’m loved and saved and delivered and cherished and preserved by the grace of God and by his grace alone.

And I just feel like a fool, like a complete child caught with his hand in the cookie jar yet again. Didn’t I outgrow that? Clearly not! “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Thanks be to God! He loves a fool like me because he wants to, not because I deserve it. He gives me the magic of life and breath and hope and a future that will never end. He’s given me his Spirit and sustained me through my long succession of mistakes, sins, and straight-up rebellions.

So, where’s the magic? It’s in a father that doesn’t cast me away, but instead chuckles and pulls me close, whispering, “Bill, my son, you are a fool, but you are my fool.” Truly, thanks be to God.

Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.

Your voice alone, O Lord, can speak to me of grace;
Your power alone, O Son of God, can all my sin erase.
No other work but Yours, no other blood will do;
No strength but that which is divine can bear me safely through.

Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest, And set my spirit free.

I bless the Christ of God; I rest on love divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart I call this Savior mine.
His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in His tomb
Each thought of unbelief and fear, each lingering shade of gloom.

I praise the God of grace; I trust His truth and might;
He calls me His, I call Him mine, My God, my joy and light.
‘Tis He Who saveth me, and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me, I live because He lives.