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.

Even with Our Kids

One of the banners I’ve been touting for a long, long time now on my journey toward home-based churches is that ministry is mutual. I tire of the traditional church model that basically says you only do diligent ministry if you get paid for it. Otherwise, you attend a class or bring candy to the trunk-or-treat or coach some Upward basketball, and you’re good to go! Otherwise, let the paid guy do the work you (the customer!) paid for!

No, ministry is one to another. Serving one another, doing good to one another, caring for one another, bearing one another’s burdens.

But it turns out (as usual) I didn’t press that far enough, didn’t see that the “one anothers” stretch even farther than I had imagined. Today, my wife went to Facebook to confess her sins to others, to be an open book to a world that tries to hide anything unsavory. She posted, “This mama just finished a bratty tantrum by literally screaming at my kids for their noise level (oh the irony is not lost on me). I went to my room to breathe and cool down. When I came out a few minutes later, [one of my daughters] was finishing putting the three little ones down for nap. I want to be like my kids when I grow up, ready to serve quickly even when things aren’t going well, loving even the one who was just unkind to me.”

Slam. My wife is so much more open than I am and sees so much more clearly her sins and her savior. I love her for that.

So, I’m all slammed because I rail at the kids all the time, they’re so undeservedly loving toward this daddy, so quick to forgive me in those rare times I do ask their forgiveness. I’m already ripped raw when our dear friend Carrie Quillo chimes in with this encouragement (among the many other ladies who spoke encouragement) in the comments: “I pray that you will see that the Holy Spirit is making you like that. You saw your sin, you saw [your daughter’s] love and God used it to turn your heart back to love and service to your kiddos. Ministry is mutual even with our kids.”

Even with these little people who disobey me all the time, who rebel, who fight with each other, who test limits all the time, who have so, so, so, so, so much they need to learn from me, their wise and discerning father?

Obviously, I still don’t believe my own manifesto. Parent to kid is a one-way relationship, right?

“Ministry is mutual even with our kids.” Amen, sister.

“Failure”

Seth Godin nails an important idea that being a failure and feeling like a failure are rarely the same thing. You should read it, as he makes the point so well.

As a Jesus follower, we all tend to write up a series of mental (or actual!) rules that we measure ourselves by. The problem is that we often set standards that are either too lofty or not required of us by King Jesus or just plum ridiculous (I will read the whole Bible in three days!).

For me (and the silly people like me), I tend not to make many of these types of rules for myself. Why? Because I’d feel bad all the time because I’d surely miss the mark constantly! Psh. So in order to avoid feeling like a failure, I require nothing of myself and truly fail in loving my neighbor as myself because I don’t even try.

So to the me’s of the world, I say: Stop trying to avoid feeling like a failure. Avoiding the feeling isn’t the same as avoiding failure. And in trying not to feel like you’re failing, you’re actually just failing and feeling good about it. Which is absurd and maybe even wicked. Repent of your false righteousness and hear the Word of the Lord.

But others (some whom I love dearly) makes an insurmountable list of goals, such that can never be attained. And thus they “fail” and are crushed under the constant sense of failure upon failure.

To them I say: Instead, walk by faith. Remember that God is preparing beforehand the good deeds he intends you today. And he is actively growing you up, turning your toddles into strides. As ridiculous as it is for the toddler to think he can walk without falling in one day or the ten-year-old who wants to chop wood with the strength of his daddy, it’s that ridiculous to think you can overcome every weakness by tomorrow or next month or next year. Growing my nature takes time—physically or spiritually. Trust the farmer of your soul.

Hospitality

Disclaimer: I’ve never read John Calvin on…anything. (I struggle to read those guys who were alive more than a hundred years ago.)

BUT apparently he took a little rant on the increasing number of inns sprouting up in his day. He thought that inns “prove…that the principal duty of humanity has become obsolete among us.” In his mind, the Christian should open his home free of charge to welcome strangers, citing Genesis 18 where Abraham quickly welcomes his three guests without compunction.

Socially speaking, it sounds crazy that we would open our home to strangers to board for free. Crazy and stupid, probably. But most of the life Jesus calls us to sounds crazy and stupid. I wonder what it would be like to “assist strangers, from whom there is no hope of reward.” More than tossing some coins at the dude standing on the corner with a cup in his hand, could we welcome in a stranger? Could I welcome someone without hope of return?

Abraham rushed out to the three strangers, imploring them to be washed and to rest under the tree and eat his food. Love compelled him.

God in flesh—he rushed out to us as strangers, imploring us to be washed by his blood and to find rest from our tainted works and to live by eating his flesh. Love compelled him.

What exactly compels us?

HT: Aaron Denlinger

Exhortations for Today

I’ve been working on some daily exhortations to have auto-sent to myself, with the hope of reminding myself of who I am in relation to my Dad and his son, King Jesus. Here’s a rough version of what I’m thinking about right now:

You, Bill, are a beloved son of God. Your very future has been secured. But that future isn’t here yet. Until then, you’ve been called to be like Jesus—be dying to find life. You live by faith and you die by faith—your faith is so small, even smaller than a mustard seed. Why don’t you believe? Why do you forsake your first love? Why do you forget everything I’ve done for you? So, choose this day whom you will serve. Do not forget my son, your first love. Don’t be lukewarm and be spit out. Instead, turn from your sins and set your eyes on my Son, of whom Aslan reminds you. And remember that your faith looks like this:

·         Love your wife as Christ loved the church and live with her in an understanding

·         Don’t frustrate your kids and drive them to anger

·         Don’t work for your boss—work for me instead

·         I am in the Light of the World, the light that makes you shine in this dark world

·         Remember who you are—and be that

Word Power

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Do we really believe that words have such little power?

I now pronounce you husband and wife.

We find the defendant guilty.

This child is declared adopted for life by the petitioners.

The state of war between the United States and the Government of Germany is hereby formally declared.

You disgust me.

I love you.

I hate you.

I’m sorry.

Let there be light.

Your sins are forgiven.

It is finished.

Words have no power?

Bull.

Lukewarm

My wife and I were having one of those tough conversations Monday night where we really dig deep into the things about our lives that we hate. You know, the stuff we don’t ever won’t to talk about because even acknowledging it feels like too much to bear. No, it’d be better to just let sleeping dogs lie and act like they’ll never wake up.

Well, we woke them up.

I haven’t stopped thinking about that conversation since it happened. Which is probably no big surprise since I process everything internally and usually over long spans of time. And I’ve learned that I process things better in writing than in speech. Annoying sometimes, but true.

The crux of the conversation Monday was that we’re sinking and have been for a long time. Sinking in loneliness. Sinking in worldliness. Sinking in hopelessness. Sinking in selfishness. Sinking in debt. Sinking in To-Dos. Sinking in kids. Just sinking.

As we talked, I kept getting mental flashes or maybe glimpses of Jesus’ words to some of the churches in the revelation given to John. First: “You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” The “coincidental” (ha!) background to that thought was earlier in the day when Courtney was recounting all of the amazing things God had done in our lives over the years. Miracles and divine encounters. God reaching into our history. Our oldest was blown away because he didn’t think those things happened anymore, only back in Bible times. And interestingly, since he’s been born they truly seem to have disappeared.

So there it is, laying there. God once did all these things for us. Then we got all analytical and cold, forsaking the love, the energy, the passion we once had. And it’s like he’s still working things together for us (in some clear ways over the years), but more in the background and less tangibly. In some ways it feels like when the Spirit of the LORD departed from King Saul. And that’s not really one of those guys whose path I’d like to follow.

The other passage that stood out: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth… You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

That’s probably the best way to describe my heart: lukewarm. And it’s been that way for so very long and I didn’t even realize it. Not cold and dead, but not hot and fiery and alive either.

Room temperature.

Tepid.

Meh.

Over the past several years, I’ve lived this seemingly obedient life. I’ve done the whole church thing. I married a woman after God’s own heart. I’ve had lots of kids and filled my quiver. I’ve pursued the orphans. I’ve moved my family into a place that most flee. I’ve pursued seminary. I’ve been a pastor. I’ve started a church. I’ve opened my home. I’ve worked hard at a job.

But it’s not been real. Not deep down. And it sounds so horribly cliché to even talk about it. “Going through the motions”. Yeah, that’s it, but so much more devastating than that. Because I’ve dragged a whole clan of people—nine others to be specific—into a blind alley at night, with no way to turn around and darkness on every side. And I’m ready to handle it because I’m armed with what—a smartphone and an empty wallet?

“I’m just not so sure how well this plan was thought through.” Exactly.

So, here I am, eleven years of marriage, six biological kids, two foster/adoptive kids, living out of place in the ‘hood, chasing a pipe dream of a home-based church, working in a cubicle, treading water, riding a stationary bike, chasing the carrot that’s always just out reach.

Does it sound like a mid-life crisis? Probably. I’d really rather put a more biblical name on it: sin. I’ve been chasing who-knows-what for so long that I left my first love behind. And I’ve dragged my family down into the depths with me, like the dad charging ahead dragging his toddler by the wrist.

My only hope here? That Jesus is knocking. Not same lame-o “Jesus just wants to come into your heart and save you” but like he actually said: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

Really? He still loves me, even after everything? He really is still there, desiring to come in and feast with me, to share with me everything?

It floors me. And it’s the only hope I can cling to, because I feel like a total wretch. Shoot, I am a total wretch. But not forsaken, not too far gone, not lost. But definitely wandering afield, blind to the dangers around me.

And now? Now I’m praying. And trusting hard that what was true 2,000 years ago is still true now. That he really is there. That if I come near to God, he will come near to me. I’m praying for wisdom and for true repentance, not just words but deep conviction and genuine action from that. And I’m praying that I can actually lead my family toward the Promised Land instead of the barrenness of the wilderness. 

“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.”

Is this earnestness? Is this repentance?

God, I hope so. May it be so.

More specific thoughts to come, if the Lord wills…

Bittersweet

Not much to say today. Got hit with the news this morning that some friends–husband, wife, and two sons–were killed in a car wreck last night.

Like that.

Gone.

I haven’t had much contact with them over the years, but the sporadic contact was always characterized by one word: encouraging. And in the way that builds up your soul.

Gone.

Like that.

Death stings today. It’s bitter. But sweeter than bitter. Because death’s sting had been dulled. These four are with Jesus today in paradise by grace through faith. I rejoice for them as I hurt for those of us still waiting.

I don’t have tears. But I ache in my soul. I wish I’d thanked them for their kind words. I wish I smiled as easily as he did. I long for more than piddling along in an empty life.

They are part of God’s tapestry. Part of my tapestry. And I doubt they knew before now. But I’m grateful to God for them.