Honor Thy Mother

“Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16). This same verse (more or less) appears in both Deuteronomy and Exodus. It’s one of the ten commandments passed down to Moses, and it’s one of the most important lessons we can learn as children of God. Not only to honor our human parents, but also our divine parentage.

When I count the blessings in my life, one of the first things I always consider is the people who have helped shape me. By that measure, yesterday was an apt day to consider my good fortune, and to pontificate on how lucky I am to have a loving, supportive mother.

I love and respect my father, but it is also true that he and I don’t always see eye-to-eye. We have very different political leans, and his worldview is consummate with someone that was born in the 1950s and raised in the Midwest. We get along fine, as long as we leave some topics untouched. It doesn’t even matter who is right or wrong within those realms, only that we are very different.

My mother on the other hand, while born and raised in that same time and place, sees the world very differently. I would say that she sees the world like me, but of course that is ridiculous. I see the world like her. I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of our respective worldviews, but will only say that it is rare indeed when we disagree on a core value.

I will also say that I prefer this verse in Proverbs to the aforementioned verse in Exodus. “My son, keep your father’s command and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. Bind them always on your heart; fasten them around your neck” (Proverbs 6:20-21).

Two people of this planet had the greatest effect on my shaping as a person. One, who I’ve written about before, was my Papa. He taught me patience, kindness, gentleness, resourcefulness, and imagination.

My mother taught me nearly everything else, and almost exclusively by example. That includes dedication, love, thoughtfulness, endurance, cleverness, and wit. She encouraged me to be artistic, to be lively, and to be funny. She showed me how to never take things too seriously, unless they were serious things. She had tremendous influence on my decision-making process and skills.

Her lessons truly are bound to my heart, and I carry them with me always. In fact, they are inseparable from myself, because they comprise me. Those lessons are inextricable from my person.

That is the lesson I want to carry in my mind this week, as it pertains to my Almighty Father. What I need to do in order to truly be His child is not just layer the lessons of God on top of what I already know. Instead, I need to find a path to letting those lessons change me in such a way that He comprises me, just as the lessons of my mother make up who I am.

The Middle of the Road

We all have vocal ticks. Favorite words that pop up again and again and again, because they feel good in our mouths. They make us feel smart when they’re big, elegant sounding words.  They make us feel safe when they’re fill-words, like “um,” or “like,” that give us time to think. They can even make us feel connected and intimate with someone when we mimic their words.

Someone once pointed out to me that I use the word “mediocre” quite often. It’s one of my favorites. I love the way it tastes, like a perfectly-cooked hamburger. It even sounds a little meaty! 

But why would it come up so often? Good question.

I think it’s because that’s how I used to see the world. Worse yet, I think that’s how I used to see my own life.

I’ve written before about expectations, but I want to elaborate a little. I think the biggest danger of expectations is that they can handicap our ability to feel joy, pleasure, and comfort in things. They impede our ability to feel surprised or impressed by the quality of something, especially when our expectations are elevated to unrealistic levels. This can be true of a movie we were anticipating, or a meal, or a week at work, or even of a person we meet. When we expect a perfect experience, we are bound to experience naught but disappointment.

When I think of some of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had, I don’t remember having had elevated expectations leading into them. When I think about times when I’ve had high expectations, I can remember being disappointed. But when I really think about it, the only variable that was different between the sets of experiences was myself. The wonderful experiences probably weren’t really any appreciably different than the disappointing ones. I just didn’t have an attitude that was predisposed to being appreciative and joyful.

I have been practically living in the Epistles of Paul these past couple of weeks, and I want to share three verses and explain how I think they relate to mediocrity and expectations:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This verse is about being reborn as something new, and something free from our previous selves. Just because I lived under the shroud of heavy expectations doesn’t mean that I have to continue to be burdened by those things. I can be reborn as something great, and I can choose to see the world differently–as something that is designed to be appreciated.

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). To me, this verse means that as a Christian, I am called to greatness, and not to mediocrity. Through God all things are possible–including greatness–and living with that in mind can give purpose, meaning, and joy to things I once would have seen as mediocre.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). This verse is about freedom from sin, but I also think it pertains to my own freedom from the burden of expectations. My own previous self was tethered to disappointment and sadness; I was shackled, and true joy was just out of reach. The freedom that Christ’s love has given me has set me free in the sense that through Him I know peace, hope and joy are within my reach, and that I can find those things with an attitude of thanksgiving and appreciation.

I don’t know what I don’t know

I had an argument with a colleague once, years ago. This colleague was upset with the performance of an employee who was under my supervision. Part of my underling’s duties was to restock the shelves with stock from a secondary location, and she was struggling to do so. My upset colleague had been taking care of that section of the business for several years at that point, and her knowledge of the inventory and backstock was firmly in the purview of her area of expertise.  My subordinate, on the other hand, was fairly new to the job; her areas of expertise were in other arenas.

The main thrust of my contention, therefore, was that my subordinate was being asked to do something very, very difficult, if not impossible. She was being asked to look at empty shelves, and to simply know what was missing. As humans, I think this is one of the most difficult skills we can possibly acquire: to see what isn’t there. Our brains are hardwired to see the patterns in front of our faces, but negative space is much harder to evaluate.

How does this pertain to my spiritual journey? I think the best I can do at this point is simply admit what I do not know.

I keep coming back to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (Someday soon, I will take the time to write a very long essay about Paul’s story, and what it means to me.) In chapter 3 of that book, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

This is how I see myself at this point. I have come quite far, I think, towards understanding and believing the things I had spent so much time and energy denying and forsaking. I see the world differently, and I prefer this new view. But at the end of every day, I still feel like an infant along this journey. There is so much I don’t know, and even more frustratingly, I don’t know what I don’t know. I can’t see the negative space yet, because I am no expert. What’s more, each day brings with it a new question (or several questions). Will I ever be an expert?

For those on a journey towards understanding an infinite, omnipresent, omnipotent other–and one whose love and forgiveness are incalculable by human standards–is there such a thing as an expert? There are those whose knowledge and experience far outstrips my own, and whose journeys are farther along the path than my own. But I do not think I could possibly trust anyone who believes that they know everything there is to know about God. How could I trust anyone who claims to have it all figured out, when like me, they cannot know what they don’t know.

Imagine a man who lives on a plain, and spends time every day shoveling dirt on a mound. For an hour a day he spends devotional time building his mound. Eventually it will look more like a hill. If he lives long enough, It could even start to look like a small mountain. If his horizon is clear, he might think that his mountain is the tallest in the region, and if his worldview is narrow enough, he might even think that he has made the largest mountain on Earth. But he cannot see the Rockies, or the Tetons, or Everest. He doesn’t know how terribly small his mountain would look next to those scales. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. If he is wise, he might guess that his effort in building his mountain is what matters, but that there are other, greater mountains. If he is unwise, he might think that standing atop his small hill he is closer to God than anyone else.

I look forward to growing every day, but I think my viewpoint right now is that any mountain I might be able to build will look infinitely small in the eyes of my Lord. My understanding of Him is limited by my mind and spirit. There is so much I do not know.

Cheerful giving

This past Sunday during a small group session, we were speaking about the potential that each of us has, in God’s grace and in our own lives. I said that one of my greatest struggles in realizing my potential is giving 100% of myself to anything.

I don’t think this is an uncommon problem. For myriad reasons, we as humans are tentative to give of ourselves unconditionally. Am I fearful of failure, and so I give only that which I think I can afford to lose? Perhaps. Am I anxious that I will find myself rejected by people if I show them my whole self, unguarded? Definitely. Do I feel as though I should only pay back in kind what people feel comfortable giving to me? Maybe. Ultimately, my reasons and motivations are probably irrelevant. I believe that every time I’ve ever truly failed in my life has been due to my reluctance to give of myself fully. Every lost friendship, every failed relationship, every task I’ve ever left incomplete, every door of opportunity by which I’ve passed. I own and carry these failures because I couldn’t dedicate myself fully to them. I’ve been vigilantly en garde, thinking that if I protected myself by holding back, my failures would be diminished, and my heart would be less vulnerable.

I could not have been more totally wrong if I’d tried. I know that now. It doesn’t help me make peace with those past mistakes. What’s done is done, and all I can do is look forward to being better.

I was reading Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians early this morning, and I came across a verse that spoke to me directly. In chapter nine, Paul is speaking directly to the idea of giving to the church, and to the importance of charity. But, I think, his advice applies to all aspects of my life. He writes:

“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).

We all know the aphorism: we reap what we sow. If I plant and properly tend corn, corn will grow.  If I plant weeds, those will grow too. What I had failed to understand, though, is that the effort and extent with which I sow those seeds will dictate the abundance of my harvest.

In terms of every interpersonal relationship I have–friendships, romantic entanglements, family, mentorships–giving of myself fully will mean more rewarding relationships. If what I seek is someone willing to give all of themselves to me, then I must first be willing to give all of myself. This means being honest, courageous, loving, accepting, and vulnerable. It means letting people see all of me, fatal flaws included. It means bringing down the shields, and allowing myself to be vulnerable.

Most importantly, though, it means that in order to fully find myself with God, I must give 100% of myself to Him. There can be no half-measures. I cannot have one single toe out of the water. I cannot go most of the way, and leave a guarded part of myself behind. I’ve written before that I desire borderless trust, and the only way that I will ever find it is if I seek it wholly. I must trust that if I cheerfully (and without reluctance) give myself to God, that He will give me everything I need in return.

Alive in me

For three days in a row now, I’ve woken up with the song “Alive In You,” by Jesus Culture and Kim Walker-Smith stuck in my head. The oddest part of this is that I haven’t listened to that song in weeks. It just “popped in there,” Stay-Puft Marshmallow-Man style. So, message received: I’m thinking about it, and talking about it.

You are God, You’re the Great “I Am”
Breath of life I breathe You in
Even in the fire, I’m alive in You
You are strong in my brokenness
Sovereign over every step
Even in the fire, I’m alive
I’m alive in You . . .
It’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me

It’s a beautiful song, and Kim Walker-Smith has a spectacular voice. Today, I want to hone in on two lines in particular: “Breath of life, I breathe you in,” and “It’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.”

One of the most difficult concepts of Christianity (at least to me) is that Christ remains alive within all of us. Reading “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis helped, and I’d like to revisit some thoughts.

Lewis reiterates that there are three things that help bring the Christ-life into our hearts: belief, baptism, and Communion. Two of those I have, and the third–baptism–I am still seeking.  He goes on to clarify what having that Christ-life means: “When they speak of being ‘in Christ’ or of Christ being ‘in them,’ this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts.”

What the above song is reiterating to me is that I have a relationship with Christ wherein I get to live through Him, and He blesses me by living through me. He will guide my actions when I put Him at the forefront of my mind and heart, which will thereby allow me to be worthy of carrying out His will. One of the most powerful lines in the entirety of Lewis’ masterwork comes in that same chapter, when he says “[A Christian] does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”

Perhaps I needed a reminder of that, and that’s why the song kept rattling around in my mind. I need to renew my commitment to putting Him first and foremost in my thoughts, and allow the rest to come to me.

Get busy livin’, or get busy . . .

Yesterday during an evening church session, the group was talking about unrealized potential, and trying to discuss how to help each other find ways to optimize that potential.

The message boiled down to two simple questions: what is holding us back from reaching our full potential? And also: what is keeping us from helping others realize the potential in themselves? The message was a good reminder that we often need each other to see our best qualities and gifts. I’ve said before that we are not designed to solve our problems alone, and I really believe that to be true.

Since I began my journey of faith, I’ve approached a select few people to share in my journey, and that has been a big step for me. Before, because I was prideful, I thought that I could handle all of my problems on my own. A little dose of humility has taught me that I don’t know what I don’t know, and that I need help from people who are more mature in their faith than myself.

I heard a phrase yesterday during the evening church session that stuck to my brain. Near the end of the message, my old friend Nate tossed out the words “breathing to death.” It was a throwaway line that he used for effect, and I get the impression that the people surrounding me had heard that phrase before. To me, though, it really wrapped up my feelings about my previous life. I was just going through the motions, and not really living. Every breath was just a tick of the clock, counting down to nothingness, and I was just biding time.

We read from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter one, which is a chapter that seems to come up a lot in my life. (I feel a great affinity for Paul; having been a sinner and blasphemer myself, and now being someone that writes about my newfound faith, I feel as though I have a lot in common with him.) This verse stood out to me: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth . . . It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:26,30).

When I think of what I was when I was called, I shudder to think of how far astray I had journeyed. I have always been a straight-edge type of guy; the drugs, excessive drinking, and promiscuous sex that are so pervasive in our culture have never held any appeal to me. My sins lie more in the way I have treated people, and the way I had forsaken God for other false idols.

I am truly grateful to have recognized that I cannot realize my potential alone, and I am even more grateful to have found people that are willing to help me along my way.

The Two Commandments

Most people know the ten commandments, or have at least heard of them.  Dictated by God himself in chapter twenty of the book of Exodus, they are, paraphrased and in order:

Put no other Gods or idols ahead of the one true God
Do not misuse the name of God
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
Honor your Father and Mother
Do not murder
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not bear false witness
Do not covet your neighbor’s house
Do not covet your neighbor’s wife

This week, two people reminded me of what Jesus said in the book of Matthew, Chapter 22. One of the “expert” Pharisees, determined to catch Christ in a mistake, asked Jesus which of the commandments was the greatest. Jesus replied with this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second law is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40).

The first person to remind me of this was a Pastor, and a friend. We were discussing a question I had about how to find balance in my life. Since I first came to faith–I mean truly accepted Christ as my personal savior–I have had questions about how much of my former life and personality should remain. What aspects of that person’s life am I able to retain? Do I want to keep any of them?

Pastor Mark had read my post about baseball (and core values), and he brought up Paul’s letter to the Galatians to illustrate a point about how simple it is to keep this at the core of every aspect of my life. In chapter five of that letter, when prompted by bickering factions regarding which aspects of the Law to which they ought to adhere, Paul replies “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free . . . For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5: 13-15).

As Pastor Mark points out, adhering to these two principles–Loving God first, and my fellows as myself–will allow me to grow into that balance organically. Allowing Christ to guide my soul to God with a heart of service will help me walk by the Spirit, and if I allow that core value to be my guide (putting Him first, next, and last) then the other behaviors about which I am uncertain will become more clear. The things that take me further from Him will slough off naturally, and the things that make my path to Him clearer will enliven my heart.

The second person to remind me of that lesson is a new friend. We are just getting to know each other within the context of faith, and when I prompted this person with a question about favorite guiding verses, my friend replied specifically with the above-mentioned passage. This person strives to make this core value the center of all decisions, and keep it at the center of her heart. I admire that greatly.

I knew, even in the moment, that it was no coincidence that in the same week two people had brought this “core” concept to my attention. I knew it from my own readings, but I also needed a reminder, I think. My faith is growing stronger every day, but I am still learning how to live with that faith as my center, and how to be guided by the Spirit, and not by my own mind.

Every day, in every single prayer that I say, I ask God to grant me only that which I need, and for Him to help me understand the difference between what I need and what I simply want. This week, he delivered that daily bread in the form of the aforementioned message.

On Violence

I am not good at memorizing verse. Honestly, I’m not particularly good at memorizing things in general. I recall one class in college–I think it was English 381–where the professor gave qualifying students an alternative to taking the final. If we had a “B” grade or better, instead of taking the sit-down essay portion of the final, we could choose instead to memorize a Shakespearean sonnet. The most famous of these is eighteen, but I chose number sixty. (You can check them out here if you want to do so.) I struggled mightily to get through my sonnet. It was just fourteen lines; I had two weeks to memorize them, and I barely managed, and only then by some lenience from the professor.

The strange thing is that I have an excellent memory for people, places, directions, basketball statistics, conversations, and concepts. I’m also a fair writer with an exceptional command of the English Language. But I struggle to memorize strings of words.

Those circumstances make this all the more remarkable: I memorized this one little couplet of verse on the first read, and it has stuck to my mind like paste:

Do not envy the violent
    or choose any of their ways.” Prov 3:31

It may not seem like much, but that one verse has enlightened my point of view and perspective in some ways. I think part of the reason it stuck to me so readily is because I was ready to hear it, and it is important to my understanding of my own heart.

The violence being discussed in this section of Proverbs is still present today, though not in my own life. They’re talking about raiders, rapists and pillagers who assault travelers. But though the violence in my own life–in all of our lives–is far less conspicuous, and far less dangerous, I think it is still foolish to assume it is innocuous to my soul.

Violence is found in movies and television, where death and destruction are nearly omnipresent. They are found in pop-culture, where songs promote guns and gun violence. It is found on the news, where we are constantly bombarded with stories of shootings and slaughter. It is found in sports, where we exalt players who intend to harm each other.

For some people, I think that those things are no problem whatsoever; they see it, they think about it, and they move on. For me, it’s been a little different in the past.

The problem with them in my own life is not the violence itself, but the glorification of violence, and the mental process of dwelling on it and letting it take over my mind. Watch too many Kung Fu movies, and I start thinking about learning Kung Fu so that I can do those things. I have never had a need for Kung Fu, and I am sure I never will. Hearing about home invasions and the second amendment might lead one to think about buying a firearm for protection. Statistically, I am more likely to hurt myself or someone I love with a gun than I am to actually use it for protection.

American Football is the meanest and most poignant example of this glorification. The players are absolutely trying to injure each other, and anyone who says otherwise isn’t watching the game. And we cheer them for it! I have cheered them for it! Last season, I realized that, and finally understood that it was hurting me to see those things. Now, having read the aforementioned verse, I understand why. I envied that violence, and my mind was at odds with my heart and soul. Knowing that, I’m not sure that I can ever watch that deliberate violence with fandom in my heart again. If not, it’s no great loss.

Ultimately, I am fortunate enough to live a life well-insulated from such violence, but that does not mean that I have not been guilty of glorifying it and dwelling on it.

With that verse in mind, I went and saw a movie I had been anticipating for a while. “Free Fire,” starring Brie Larson, Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley, is a shoot-em-up thriller set in the 1970s. I watched, I enjoyed, and I did not glorify that violence. The spell was broken, because I understood that on no level was the movie a path for me, but just a source of entertainment–it is entirely a work of fiction.

A New Hope

Today, for Star Wars day, I think this simple verse is the perfect message:

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah 29:11).

When we are with Christ, every day starts with a new hope, new love, new joy, and a new future. Today, and every day, I am most grateful for that.

 

On Normalization

Today, I’m going to write about two “manly” things: baseball and fire.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last week about the concept of normalization. When I started this journey, my life was in a state of great unrest, and I was constantly under an extreme amount of stress. The entire fabric of my personality was figuratively coming apart at the seams.

When I first started flirting with the idea of accepting Christ in my life, I was around 19 years old. At the time, I was a big baseball fan. It’s an old game, and I found it somewhat romantic. Fifteen years ago, I had something of a revelation when I was looking at a baseball, and an analogy popped into my head that I used before to mentally wrap my head around my id as it relates to God. Even though my faith in God didn’t stick at the time, I still think about that analogy. I was a young fool, but I think there was something to the idea, so I’d like to revisit the analogy now.

A baseball is made up of individual pieces, stitched together to make it whole.

You could say that the core of the baseball is the most important part. The cork and rubber core is what really makes a baseball do its thing when it comes off the bat. In a person, I think this is analogous to our core beliefs. They are what motivates us, even subconsciously. When a ball is struck, the core flexes, and then the resilience of the cork and rubber pops it back into shape, and gives the ball it’s momentum. In much the same way, our core beliefs are our driving force, even when we are affected externally (hopefully not with a bat.)

You could say it’s the yarn bulk of a baseball that’s the most important. It gives the baseball its shape and heft and size, and transfers the momentum from the bat to the pliant core. In me, this is the traits and desires that fill out my personality. The good parts of me, and the bad. The part that makes me myself. Even in the most difficult of times, my personality remains more or less unchanged.

You might say that the most important part is the leather covering. It’s what covers the ball, and in this analogy it’s representative of the physical aspect of our bodies; the outward appearance. But it’s not really what keeps the whole thing together.

I would argue that the stitching is the most important part of the baseball. It’s what keeps the leather stitched together at the seams. It’s what keeps the yarn and cork and rubber inside, and it’s what keeps the ball from falling apart when adversity strikes. Even one tiny flaw in the stitching can result in complete destruction. The stitching in this analogy, of course, is faith. (The discussion about who made the ball can be left unsaid, I think.)

Faith is what holds us together when we are struck–when we are under duress–and that faith was what I was missing when I started coming apart at the seams. It is also what stitched me back together when I was left unraveled and in shambles.

But what I’ve been thinking about lately is what happens when we are all put together, and we’re just a whole person, sitting there. The ball can’t do anything by itself. It must be handled, thrown and struck to have a purpose.

My moods have more or less stabilized. I draw strength and focus and determination from a different place, but a lot of me is still in tact. I don’t think I’ll ever come apart that way again, because I’m ready for another strike. I am also ready for a new purpose.

When I first started this journey, my soul was on fire. I became driven towards a goal, and towards a purpose. Now, that bonfire has quieted some. I don’t still feel that desperate need, even though I am intent on pursuing God and Christ’s love. I have rebuilt my support system, reconnected with lost friends, and become a child of God. How, then, do I make sure that my fire doesn’t fade into dying embers?

I came across this verse when reading the other day. “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6). The word “revive” inspired me. When a fire is dying, it must be tended and rekindled. It requires maintenance, and that maintenance is something I’ve talked about here before. Fuel must be added, care must be taken, and bellows must be worked. This, I think, is what people mean when they talk about growing with God. They are constantly working at tending their fire. They are taking on ever bigger challenges, tackling ever-more-difficult concepts, and building still larger fires. Perhaps in this analogy, they are actually constructing a kiln to make their fire hotter, and to give it purpose.

Tonight, and every night, I will pray for revitalization as I tend my own fire.