Epiphany at Waffle House

By Michael Rivera (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, I was walking around a lake in despair.  There were some compulsive things in my life that I couldn’t control.

For some time, I held hope that through prayer, reading, and resolve, I would be able to overcome the downward pull to make my way to perfection.  Yet I would find myself tripping over the same thing over and over again.

This walk around the lake was different.  When I had stumbled in the past, I always felt I had the tools to rebuild.  I would read more spiritual books.  I would study Romans 6.  I would take vacations to do nothing but pray and meditate.  Yet walking around this lake, it was the first time that I had the sense and realization that I would not be able to get beyond this on my own.  It was my taste of powerlessness.

I got in my car and went to dinner, stopping at a Waffle House.  I don’t know if he got there first or I but I sat down next to a black man and we got to talking.  He had been in the church of the science fiction writer out in Los Angeles and apparently made his way up the ranks.  Somehow (I forget the details), he made his way out and encountered the announcement of Jesus Christ and his life was changed.

I told him of my troubles being general not to give away personal information or open my heart to shame.

I don’t remember all what was said but I do remember very distinctly him looking straight at me, speaking softly with a radiant face, and saying, “Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.”

It wasn’t a detailed action plan or a manual on right living or motivation for better discipline.  Rather it was an existential experience–triggering an awareness of this One greater than myself who would one day restore me to sanity.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.

He left as I finished my dinner.  On a whim, I looked out to see him get into his car but I never saw him.  I tried to call him some time later but never found him.

Over time,  I stumbled upon a group who understood my struggles.  A brother over time helped me see where I got off course and how I could day by day, moment by moment stay in good spiritual condition.  I came to embrace the powerlessness I felt against the lure of my worst nature and trust a God who can use people in my life to enact genuine spiritual change.

The thing that devastated me as I walked around the lake so many years ago is no longer a concern.  Far from a sinless perfectionism, I find that there are many things I cannot control and over which I have no power.  Yet in those times, I see the shining face of the man at the waffle house saying gently, “Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus.”

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1800’s, many in the church thought the world was getting better and better.  Society would improve and wrongs would be overcome through social action.  This transformation of society would bring in a new millennium that would usher in the return and reign of Christ.

The Civil War changed that.  Whatever hope people had for the gradual improvement of society and the bringing forth of a new age through social action was dashed at this display of the hardened conflict of ideals manifested in the vast carnage of man’s inhumanity to man.

Henry Longfellow was not as much caught up in the theology of the moment.  For the poet Longfellow, this was personal.  His wife of eighteen years died tragically in a fire.  Then his son Charles, without discussion or permission, left to join the Union army.   On Christmas Day in 1863, Henry Longfellow, torn between a cynical lashing out and a helpless need for comfort penned these word:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Lashing out in hurt and anger is part of the human experience.  I don’t always get what I want and my version of life does not always prevail.  For Longfellow, the war raged on;  his son was badly injured.

Nevertheless, the poem ends with Longfellow’s willingness to unclench his fist.  He was willing to listen to a voice that was not his own head and  to humbly acknowledge  Someone bigger and a narrative more transcendent.

Why Am I Not Enjoying the Christmas Season?

By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands ([36/365] Christmas bokeh) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands ([36/365] Christmas bokeh) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My holiday season is filled with fun activities – a parade, concerts, dinners, and a carol sing, for example –  and I really want to enjoy them.  Yet it all feels like burdensome work and another item on the tyrannical task list.  Will our house be ready?  Will the bills be paid?  What gift will I find for this person or that?   And we need that final edit and photo for the family newsletter!

Charlie Brown’s angst of Christmas losing its meaning is old news.  After all, we live in a culture where, if anything, Christmas means too much – there is no end to Christmas specials helping us understand the multitudinous  pitches of “the true meaning of Christmas.”

Nevertheless, that isn’t where the problem lay.  Blaming culture is a cop out.   If I am disturbed, says an annoying quote from recovery circles, the problem is with me.

Current  Advent readings draw me back to what is true and substantive.   Unlike our Western propensity to see this dispensation solely as sparkle season, the Advent readings actually pull us to  a place of sparseness looking ahead with expectation but examining our hearts to question:  Is everything right?

Case in point is this morning’s reading highlighting John the Baptist in the deserted wilderness:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” says John as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Contemplative Christian spirituality is often seen in terms of attachments.  We are surrounded in culture with the prolific voices that are not God clamoring for our attention.  When these driving voices begin to take hold of our hearts enlarging beyond degree our attention on the trivial and the narrow, they become attachments.  When these attachments become strong bonds, they are called addictions.

Here are the major attachments so says some very smart Christians:

  • Wealth – My need to be secure.
  • Honor – My need to be well thought of.
  • Power – My need to be in control.
  • Pleasure – My need to feel good.

None of these things are necessarily bad in and of itself – we all by necessity experience all of these to some degree.  The problem comes when they become so enmeshed in my heart that I am completely given to the distraction and tangential and have completely lost sight of my call to love God with all my hearts, soul and strength and to love my neighbor as myself.

The American holiday season exacerbates the problem of attachments for me.  The extra expenses draws me to be preoccupied with money and making sure everything is budgeted correctly (Wealth).   In social gatherings, I want people to listen to me and think highly of my input (Honor).   I have a large task list of items that need to be done and I want the ability to move people to action or out of my way so I can accomplish my goals (Power).  In my weariness, I want these events to help me feel better, give me a thrill and help my tired soul feel human (Pleasure).

When these attachments don’t deliver the promised satisfaction, I find myself in a daze wondering when the whole, damn holiday season will be over with.

This is why John’s voice from the desert is such a clarifying voice:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”   When did Advent stop becoming the quiet anticipation for the coming King who sets all things right?  When did Advent suddenly become all about me and my responsibilities?

Bishop Robert Barron says, “Repentance means stop thinking about life as my project.  Start thinking that my life is not about me.  My life belongs to God and serves God’s purposes.  

“All my diversions and attachments are subservient to the idea that my life is all about me; my life is a project of self-satisfaction.”

In the quiet desert morning where John’s exhortations are taken to heart, I look up with a new hope,  I hear the distant promise, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light”.  Advent tells me it is not about me.  Advent tells me there is forward-looking hope that transcends the clutter and the chatter.

Bishop Robert Barron’s full sermon may be found here.

 

Why Gratitude Is a Matter of Life and Death

By Djembayz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Djembayz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I get easily put off by the topic of thanksgiving and gratitude.  I’ve sat through too many Thanksgiving services where parents toddle up their highly precocious and well-behaved kids to the microphone to say something like, “I’m thankful for my family, my fish named Bob, and that Jesus is in my heart,” to a gushing congregation.  

Very nice and precious and all that.  But some of us just aren’t that simplistic.   We live in the real, grown-up world.  We pay bills.  We absorb hurts.  We endure conflict. We fight depression and disappointment.  Life isn’t a cutesy precious moments figurine.

Nevertheless, in spite of the quick-fix hashtag Christianity of balloons and banners where God is like a pithy statement and a warm puppy dog, gratitude isn’t a tool only for the simplistic and childish.  It is a matter of life and death.  

I’ve felt for years that this word of Paul was the pivot upon which all humanity teetered one way or the other:

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21).

As a people and as individuals, we can either honor God as God (a truth that may be suppressed but never honestly denied) and set our hearts consistently towards appropriate appreciation of all that we are and have.  Or we can turn away and say “no” in a very real, consistent and direct manner.  It is this latter refusal-over-time that leads mankind to the foolish and darkened heart and the sort of degenerative behavior that Paul lists in the verses that followed.  These behaviors were what Paul thought in his day to be the worst expressions of the outworking of sin.

The cause and effect is important here.  It isn’t as if we can change or legislate deplorable behavior and outward expression in order to turn a nation’s heart to love God.  Rather it is the other way around.  If my heart departs upstream, I will find myself a thousand miles from home downstream and wonder where along the way I turned into a beast.

This is why I say gratitude is a matter of life and death.

Here’s how it works.  If I stop being thankful for a significant period of time and begin to become isolated from myself and others allowing resentment to creep into my heart, I begin to move towards self-pity because, after all, no one understands me.  

From self-pity, I go to entitlement and begin to use the dangerous phrase, “I deserve.”  From there, fantasy sets in to convince myself that it is my choice and right to get what I deserve.  From there, it is a short trip to contempt where I begin to use the nihilistic “whatever” or the harsher “screw it!” as I look in disdain at the less-than people around me.

Once at contempt, what is there to restrain me from any suggestion the devil has to offer?  The unthinkable becomes justifiable on my way to the hell of isolation, shame, and despair.

The fatal path is this:  resentment → self-pity → entitlement → contempt → destructive and hurtful behavior → isolation, shame, and despair

So what knocks us off this degenerative path?  What breaks the spell?  What is the antidote?  

In short, I think, it is gratitude.  I can set aside resentment because God has given me everything I need.  I find self-pity a worthless waste of time because I am richly endowed and find greater joy in being available for others.  I’m not entitled, deserving any more than what I have.  I appreciate, enjoy and utilize what I have.   And what right do I have to show contempt towards a fellow human created in the image of God?

Being older and having experience does not mean that I have mastered this.  It means I learned through trial and much error to recognize sooner the warning signs of when I am getting off track.  I have found the further I get down the degenerative path, the harder it is to resist temptation.  The trick is acknowledging God and intentionally practicing gratitude to get off the path as soon as I can.  Battling sin is always more successful the farther I am up the way.

Top That Testimony

By Taber Andrew Bain (Flickr: "Jesus Saves" in Neon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Taber Andrew Bain (Flickr: “Jesus Saves” in Neon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was in the One True Church, it was very important that we all had a testimony.  Once a year, we would set a tent up in the middle of a park to preach the gospel to ourselves.  We actually intended to preach the gospel to the community but few actually came as it was a long walk from the Thrifty drug store across the street and traversing a long stretch of grass to a tent surrounded by greeters in coats and ties was a bit off-putting.

Nevertheless, we had a good time because we got to hear the gospel, see our friends play gospel music or do a gospel mime, and hear the personal testimony from friends at our church.

Testimonies certainly are not limited to the One True Church or tent meetings.  Many Christians put emphasis on testimony for the simple reason that, quite frankly, we believe that Jesus changes lives for the good.  Having listened to many testimonies in my day, it seems pretty evident that He does.

In my earlier days, I had testimony envy.  I didn’t think my story was very dramatic.  In eighth grade, I didn’t have a lot of self-awareness of the extent of my sin (that came later).   My brother called me into the room to share a gospel-in-four-easy-steps tract and I was committed without any angst or reservation.  Perhaps the testimony of God’s working lay in the fact that I was so prepared and ready and that God kept me interested through so many years of ups and downs, triumphs, and discouragements.

But back in the One True Church, a bunch of guys were hanging out and the conversation turned to who might have the best testimony.  Could anyone tell of laying in the gutter in a drunken stupor drowning in filth whereupon a cockroach crept by tugging along a gospel tract?  Could anyone say they were on the edge of a precipice ready to jump when he felt the arms of an angel pulling him back to safety?  Was any like  Paul intent on destroying the church until he was knocked to the ground by a great blaze of light?

The winner in this conversation ended up going to a young man who worked in a convalescent hospital.  When working in the kitchen, he slipped and fell into the trash chute that led to the trash grinder at the bottom.  He caught himself on the side of the chute and would inch himself to the top but just as he would reach his arm out of the opening to grab hold of something solid, he would accidentally cycle on the grinder that would suck him further down into the chute.   Somewhere in the struggle, he received Christ.

“Dear Jesus. (puff, puff)  I admit (puff, puff) that I am a sinner.”

Click!  Whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

(Moments of climbing later)

“And I believe (puff, puff)   that you died (puff, puff)  for my sins.”

Click!  Whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

(Moments climbing later)

“Please (puff, puff)   come into my  . . . ”

Click!  Whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

 

Testimonies are a good thing in the Christian tradition because it is insightful on how a life can be brought from despair to joy.  However, a changed life is not unique to Christianity.  Testimonies abound from people whose lives were change by yoga, twelve step groups, or multi-level marketed vitamins and oils.

What makes Christianity unique is not simply that it changes lives but that it proclaims to the world an announcement that is so transcendent and so up-ending to the political and religious constructs of men and women that to call it revolutionary would be the ultimate in understatement.

The announcement in short hand is:  Jesus is Lord.  A longer version is that Jesus, an actual historical human who made footprints in the sand roughly two thousand years ago is in fact the singular monotheistic God who created all that exists and claims precedent and authority over every other political, spiritual, or religious system of thought.  “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” said Jesus which means, “The ultimate kingdom has the values and goals that I, the king, says it does and you need to be prepared to conform your values and goals to it.”

Heavy stuff.  Quite the announcement.  One that would be indeed treasonous if not preposterous unless He was indeed God incarnate in the flesh.

Reading the Bible from this vantage point will deliver us from seeing the Scriptures as a self-help book that helps us live more enjoyable lives.  Rather, it proclaims a transcendent declaration of God’s plan for the ages – from creation by Christ to consummation in Christ and the various historical stages in between – and His rightful expectation of and vision for the very creation He made.

Does Jesus go about doing good changing lives?  Of course.  But even if our lives don’t change as we hope, even if we are struck with horrific injustices from which we are not delivered,  and even if we are forced to faced our own mortality, the weighty announcement that Jesus is Lord is our hope that all will come to a glorious end.


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When The Sun Comes Over the Hill

Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When Jacob braced himself for the presumed final showdown with his angry brother Esau, he rose up to institute his strategy (Genesis 32:22) because that is what Jacob does.

His life was characterized as a man who remained in control.  He kept others off balance, a bent of his personality that focused on getting what he wanted.

At birth, he came forth clutching his older twin’s heal and was thus named Jacob or “one who snatches by the heal”.   He became the person who trips others up, who gets others off balance, the one whose words appear perfectly sound but somehow fuel a self-serving interest.

He tricked his older brother Esau out of his birthright and inheritance.  He stole the patriarchal blessing meant for the older twin.  He managed the work-for-wives and work-for-cattle program with his uncle Laban to always come out ahead.  Now it seems he had manipulated himself into a corner.  Esau was charging towards him and that could only mean bad news.  Even here he employed a strategy to cut his losses.

“Do not fear, thou worm Jacob!”  (Isaiah 41:14).  For God must have seen in Jacob a heart that wanted the things that God valued.  To Jacob, His calling mattered.  God’s inheritance mattered.  His sacrifices to God mattered.  God’s blessings mattered.  God Himself mattered.

Jacob was left alone on the mountain to face himself and think.  At this point, a man appeared out of nowhere (Genesis does this) to wrestle with him – perhaps an angel  some say or perhaps a preincarnate appearance of Christ others say.

The match was a lesson in prevailing but not in a way we might think.  Jacob didn’t overthrow his opponent.  Rather this mysterious man deadened Jacob’s thigh (the strongest muscle in the body symbolizing the best of our strength) so all Jacob could do was cling and hold on.  All night, where God went, Jacob went, clinging in utter dependence.

The picture isn’t suggesting that strategy, taking action, and working towards our goals are bad or that we should resign ourselves to a life of passivity.  But what it does suggest is that the best of our strength is not the means to prevail before God.  Rather, it is in our dependence,  our trust, our clinging to God in need, and our leaning upon Him.   We pray not because we are overcomers to stir up the flesh to action.  We pray because we are the helpless widow who would be lost if God didn’t intervene on our behalf.  (Luke 18:3).

Jacob didn’t walk away perfect.  Later in life, he was prone to self-pity – another form of manipulation.  Nevertheless, he was different.  In this realization of weakness, limitation and true humility, his name was changed from Jacob, the heel-snatcher and manipulator, to  Israel, the one who prevails with God.

The story began with Jacob rising up the hill to accomplish his plan.  Now, as Jacob limped down the hill, interrupted, stripped of his control, and leaning on his staff, it was the sun that rose upon him.  (Genesis 32:31)  The sun had finally come over the hill.


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The Dogs of Rage

By Jose Rocha from Rio de Janeiro, Brasil (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jose Rocha from Rio de Janeiro, Brasil (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Each morning in the darkness, a very large dog and a mid-sized backup dog stare me awake for their trip to the doggy park.    One of us grabs coffee and the rest pile into the car.

I jog the perimeter of the park and do mild attempts with a twenty-five pound kettlebell.  The dogs do dog things prancing in the morning mist lit by a lone street lamp.

Soon two headlights creep up the gravel road along side the park putting the dogs into high alert.  The dogs of rage have arrived.  Nothing is said.  The hour has come.

The dogs of rage burst into the small, secluded puppy area, a mere chain link fence away.  They are kept in isolation.  They cannot socialize.  They give off an aura that incites confrontation and outburst of emotion.

The dogs on both sides of the fence thrust into attack running up and down along side the barrier, mouths foaming spewing a thick volley of doggy trash talk.  It is a battle yet a game.  It is a struggle for dominance fueled by anger of the deepest innermost rage to accomplish a seemingly sublime goal that in the end is insignificant and offers no benefit to the world about them.  Kind of like football, come to think of it.

We let it play out and I thought about a man who always seemed to be contentious and on the attack.  I saw him harshly confront a young lady over an innocent side comment she made the week before reducing her to tears.  When I asked about this man people rolled their eyes and said he was just this way.  A thoughtful brother told me that there was a part of this man that the Lord was working on that has merit and beauty.

I don’t know what made the man the way he is.  But I did see him once break down and weep at the thought that he was reading the very words of Jesus.  And another time I saw his generous spirit helping someone in need.

The dogs reached their cardiovascular limits.  They lost interest in the fight and breathed heavily in the morning air.  The big dog and the mid-sized backup dog followed me as we jogged down the hill to do another lap around the perimeter.

I’ve thought of the many times over the years where my mind fell into a bad place resulting in an abusive burst of angry rage hurting those about me and shaming myself.  I thought I would be beyond this after all these years.  I’ve explored various helps from physiological to psychological to spiritual and certainly have found some help in self-management, identifying triggers, trusting God’s benevolence, and realizing the broken pathways in my thinking.

Nevertheless, when Jesus freed the demoniac, the demons fled into the pigs and tumbled over the side of the cliff with a sense of finality.  I think my demons still hide in the bushes waiting for an opportune time when I have my guard down.

I chatted with the owners of the dogs of rage, two sweet women.  They rescued these two black dogs from abusive situations.  The trauma was so bad that they will never be normal dogs.  The insecurity and harsh reactiveness is, at least for now, hard wired.  Yet each morning, the women look beyond the obvious exterior and see the beauty in two of God’s creatures.

That Sunday as we brought our broken and contradictory selves to the communion table, I heard this:

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch his treasure

Behold the Man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Witnessing For Jesus

tractI’ve never been very good at witnessing.  I’ve never very much liked it.

I was raised in a family where I was taught to interpret conflict or confrontation as something wrong with me (I’ve never quite gotten over that pathology) so putting myself in the position where cherished beliefs collide was not my idea of a good time.

When my brother witnessed to me, sharing a four-easy-steps gospel tract and I became a Christian, I would go into his room and read all the books he had on what Christians were supposed to do.  There were many things that appealed to me – reading and learning the Bible, prayer, loving others, confessing sin, and letting the Holy Spirit guide my life, for instance.    However, it was this insistence that I need to  engage in the practice of going up to people I don’t know and tell them what the’re not interested in hearing that caused me to take a deep breath, suck it up, and be willing to take up my cross.

I tried.  I really did.  When I joined the One True Church, I had lots of opportunities.  We would go out every Friday night to talk to people on the local ocean pier.  We would go into parks and knock on doors in neighborhoods, Bible in hand, ready to share promises and lead inquirers to Jesus.

But the most opportune of all was our college ministry.  The campus, after all, was a whole mission field of impressionable minds at life’s crossroads.  We would pray earnestly for revival to bring our University campus to Christ.  We had a Bible study, a prayer meeting, discipleship groups, and (you guessed it) times of witnessing.  I would spend hours at the book table armed with tracts hoping to be a part of Jesus’ Great Commission with very little fruit to show for it.

The problem is, I’m kind of the Charlie Brown of witnessing, the one no one really takes seriously.  My witnessing would be similar to his It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown trick-or-treat experience:

Brother:  I ran into these high school kids hanging out and I talked with them and three of them received Christ!  Praise the Lord!

Sister:  There was this obnoxious woman at the gym and I prayed for the love of Christ and after sharing with her, she became a Christian and is now going to church with me!  Praise the Lord!

Me:  I got a rock.

Brother:  I’ve been sharing with my boss and he got really interested in the Bible and is coming to the Bible Study.  Praise the Lord!

Sister:  I shared with the girl at McDonald’s and she got so convicted that at her break she came out and talked with me and wants to know more about Jesus.  Praise the Lord!

Me:  I got a rock.

I don’t know why some people encounter the work of the Holy Spirit opening the eyes and convicting the heart while I only get looks of incomprehension of incredulity.   I don’t think I was speaking Yiddish but perhaps I was just not as self-aware as I thought I was.

To some, witnessing isn’t quite as big of a deal.  They believe that God choose those who are going to be Christians an eternity ago and its just a matter of getting out the draft notices.  I suppose the postal service would suffice for this.

Others, on the other hand,  feel that if someone dies without knowledge of Christ to face an eternity of harrowing judgment, it really comes down to being my fault for not doing a better job of witnessing, persuading, and otherwise getting the word out.  I really like to believe that the God who crafted the intricacies of the atom as well as the expanse of interstellar space is not resting the central supply chain of His salvation message on my dubious skills of proclamation.

Jesus said some sow and others reap.  I’m still trying to figure out how to get the garden shed door open.

The Importance of Being Macho

vanI knew a macho guy and he drove a macho van.

I met Macho Guy when I was going to Surfer Dude High School where we both pretended that we were on the soccer team but spent most of the time sitting on the bench.   We sat in the back of chemistry class worrying that we needed to secure a girl friend before the following year to take to grad night otherwise, well, we just could not imagine.

Macho Guy had a macho blue Ford camper van.  This was back in the days when high school students didn’t tend to own cars.  Several times he suggested I should join him with his other older macho friends on a camping trip down to the south county beach where they did macho things such as fishing and drinking beer and climbing on rocks around the tide pools.

It got to the point, in our little circle of friends, that all we had to do was sit on a bench as if a rock, rest one fist on one leg, the other arm on the other leg tilting that shoulder slightly forward, and then saying with a chiseled, serious face, “Let me ask you something, babe,” and we all burst out laughing.  We knew we were making fun of Macho Guy.

Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what made it so funny.  There is nothing wrong with being manly and macho.  There is nothing wrong with doing manly and macho things.  There is nothing wrong with taking steps to look manly and macho.

Yet with Macho Guy, something just didn’t fit well.  Perhaps the hilarity was in his overcompensation.

By senior year, we both had girl friends and decided to drive together with our dates to grad night in Macho Guy’s macho blue Ford camper van.   It started at Macho Guy’s house where his ultra-permissive yet demanding mom insisted we begin the night with a toast of champagne.   His father, who always struck me as passive and emotionally withdrawn, quietly responded to her orders.  The three of us declined but Macho Guy drank on our behalf.

We got into the macho blue Ford camper van and we were off.  We headed for a port where we would get on a boat that would take us to a little resort island two hours off the coast for a dance and dinner.  The macho blue Ford camper van rattled away as we made our way up the freeway into the next county.

Arriving at the port did not go smoothly for Macho Guy.   When he parked, he did not simply bump the cement parking stop at the end of the parking space.  He did not merely come in so hard so as to lift a tire up upon this cement divider.  When Macho Guy pulled into the parking space with his macho blue Ford camper van, he drove completely over the cement stop with all four tires.

This is when we first suspected that there was something amiss with Macho Guy.

A bit shaken and cautious, we got on board and the boat churned towards the island.  Since this was an official school function, someone smuggled beer on board.  We told Macho Guy that it wasn’t a good idea for him to drink but he protested vehemently that he had been on boats all of his life and had drank on several occasions so he knew what he was doing.

Later at the pavilion in the transition between the dance and late night dinner, I went to the restroom to freshen up.  I washed, straightened, and combed the hair.  As I was leaving, upon a glance, I made the observation that the guy lying on the floor wrapped around the toilet bowl happened to have the exact same jacket that Macho Guy was wearing.  I marveled at the coincidence and headed towards the bathroom exit until reality hit.

In the early morning hours, we all rode the boat back to the port as the sun was just breaking over the horizon.  I watched the sunrise with my girl friend not realizing that we would all grow up and go our separate ways.  In the background, Macho Guy was protesting to his now ex-girl friend,  “Give me a break!  This was just one mistake!  One mistake!  Can’t you forgive a guy?”  But it was too late; she was looking to break up anyway and now had the reason.

After graduation, he had a stint in the military and a couple of marriages and then I lost touch.  The last time we talked he had just gotten engaged again and was going on and on about the secret of life was to be happy and that he was happy and he wanted to know if I was happy.  It still  just didn’t feel real.

There are those in life who from a young age have a firm sense of self, know who they are and what they are called to do, and go on to achieve definitive things.  These, frankly, are the few.

There are others who after a time of immaturity, let go of idealized images of themselves, make peace with their strengths and weaknesses, and spend their present moments accepting life on life’s terms, doing honest work, engaging in relationships, and providing for others.

And still there may be others projecting something they were never meant to be while desperately trying to find the road.

Fishing Alone

lonely_fishermanWhen Peter got up and told a group of anxious and ego smitten disciples that he was going fishing, he wasn’t just talking about tootling around in the boat.

He was quitting.  He was going back.

The sting of his failure was upon him.  Perhaps all’s well that ends well with the resurrection and all.  Nevertheless, Peter’s promises of loyalty and steadfastness now seem hollow, something that came out of the mouth of a younger, more earnest and idealistic man.

So his proclamation, “I’m going fishing,” is a step back to getting real,  a reality perhaps not far from cynicism on the way to despair.    I feel so much better now that I’ve given up hope, as the joke goes.

The early encounters seem so distant now.  John tells it where Andrew, Peter’s brother, excitedly brought Peter to Jesus with the intoxicating message, “We have found the Messiah!”   Matthew tells a later story where Jesus got into Peter’s boat to preach a beach-side sermon.  The gear was put up after a fruitless night of fishing.

“Throw the nets into the sea,” Jesus commanded.  Undoing the tidying up and putting away, Peter did just that and caught a huge cache so much so that the nets began to break.  For reasons unclear, this hit Peter viscerally.    In a moment of emotional angst, Peter ordered Jesus, “Depart from me!  For I am a sinful man.”

Jesus’ gentle reply won the whole man over, “Do not fear, Peter.  From now on you will be catching men.”  It was at this point that Peter and the disciples left all – the business, the way of life, the old way of thinking – and followed Him.

Afterwords, the years with Jesus flew by.  There was the miracles, the ministry, the confrontations, and the healings.   But this was all under-girded with the trust that they were involved with something greater than themselves.  They were really making a difference.  They were ushering in something that the thirsty and confused world really needed.

But in the end, it all fell apart for Peter and the disciples.  The fight and the resistance to evil was just not there.  The promises had no substance.  The picture of the godly revolutionary he thought he was was without depth or volume.

In short, there is nothing here for Peter.  It’s time to go back to the old life and the old ways.  It is time to say good-by to a three year fantasy.  It is time to go fishing.

They had another night of fruitless fishing.  From the shore, Jesus called, “Children, do you have any fish?”

No.  No fish.

Jesus ordered them to cast the net further out into the sea and this time it was filled to capacity.  Unlike the earlier miracle, the nets did not break.

Peter made the connection.  They all did.  In another visceral upsetting of emotions, Peter wrapped himself in his cloak, cast himself into the sea and rushed back to Jesus.  It was there over breakfast, that Peter’s call was renewed,  perhaps even enlarged.  From being a fisher of men, a rallyier of those to come to Jesus, he was to be a shepherd and caretaker of the sheep.

A late night e-mail from a friend reminded me that Jesus had earlier warned Peter that Satan would sift him like wheat.  And Satan did.  Peter failed spectacularly and in the future, he would fail again, publicly called out by Paul for his part in the Jewish-Gentile racism debacle in Galatia.

It is at these times that we may wonder if there was anything there at all.  When everything we thought we were and everything we thought we had and all the promises we swore to keep had somehow dissipated,  the natural thing is to conclude that there was never anything in the first place.  It was all a dream, perhaps a hoax.  It was the stuff of youthful zeal and it is time to be a grown up and get back to real life.  It is time to go fishing alone.

But Jesus goes on to say to Peter, that after Satan sifts you like wheat, to strengthen your brothers and sisters.   You are to feed the sheep.  You are to care for those around you.  It is time to take the grace you have received and give it away.  It is not time to quit.  It is time to be a shepherd.

In good times, I enjoy listening to teachers and keepers of doctrine and right thinking.  I enjoy zealots of change who want to get out and make a difference.  But in times that I’ve lost my way, have obscured sight of what life is all about, and want to lay on my bed just hoping that time will pass, it is Peter who I need.  Renewal comes somehow from those who have been there – those who have walked through failure and defeat but have discovered, instead of despair, the Lord waiting on the other side making breakfast.  I need to find a shepherd.