Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Myth of Quality Vs. Quantity

We recently had the privilege of having a visiting pastor from Uganda over to our home. It was the pastor’s first visit to the U.S and I was curious about his experience. I asked him: “What has been your biggest surprise about our country?” I assured him that I would not be offended by candor. His response surprised me and I have been thinking about it ever since. He said: “It seems that Americans live in a world of acquaintances.” He relayed a story that illustrated what he meant. He spoke of staying at a host family’s home on their arrival to the U.S. and having the opportunity to meet some of the members of that family’s small church group. At some point he had asked his host if they could go visit a member of that small group. The host replied, we can but I will need to call him to get his address. He was shocked that a person could call another person a friend (and be in the same small group) and not know where they live. He went on the share stories of the relative openness of Ugandan culture.

If I’m truthful his observation cut me to my heart and I haven’t quite been able to shake it. In that simple exchange he was able to summarize something I have felt, but haven’t been able to put into words. I live in a world of acquaintances. But I long for something more.

Perhaps I am an anomaly. The truth is the well that most people go to for deeper relationships is relatively dry for me. Apart from my immediate family I have no other family to speak of. I was raised by my mom and I have never met (save a short meeting with my father at age 8) any other member of my family. When my mom went to be with Jesus seven years ago, that was it. My wife is in a similar boat with most of her family though for different reasons. So it is pretty much just the Sims clan for us, though that is no small thing.

Because of my history I have clung strongly to the language of the bible. The bible oozes with the language of family. The Son of God was sent by the Father to redeem a people. Those people refer to each other as brother and sister. These words are water to a desert of a soul. My coming to Christ was so drenched with these ideas that it’s hard for me to even separate them. Christ died for me, now I have a Father and a family. I know that is the truth. I am more certain of that than I am that the sun will rise tomorrow. If I’m honest though, life with my new family is not what I expected.

To be fair in many ways it is more than I expected. The love and support that my brothers and sisters showed when our son died can hardly be put into words. I very simply have never experienced anything like it. People brought food and offered money and scrubbed our toilets and just sat with us in silence. The sum of a thousand thoughtful actions was overwhelming and unforgettable. This is precisely what I had always dreamed being in a family would be like and it shouldn’t be diminished by what I am about to say.

With the exception of certain short periods in my life, membership in the Church has felt more like belonging to a club than a family. It is for the most part a world of acquaintances (at least for me). I could count on one hand the number of people in my church that I could drive to their home without making a call for directions first. I am not laying blame here. I am just stating a fact and hoping to find some answers. Maybe this is because I don’t put out the effort; maybe I am just a bit of an ass that nobody’s really keen on being around, maybe there’s something bigger and more systemic going on. I suspect it’s some combination of all those things.

I heard someone say once about building relationships with your children: “The idea of quality time vs. quantity time is a myth, quality time can’t be planned, it just pops up in the middle of quantity time.” I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something there. Does real family life come from scheduling “quality time” with one another, or is it birthed in the little things, the ordinary things done often. Oh how I am longing for more of the ordinary things. At this point in my life I don’t really want another bible study; I want to spend some time eating turkey with my family. Am I the only one?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Science of Interpreting Dreams

Last night I had a dream with deep spiritual implications. The dream started with P-Diddy and myself hanging out at a party. After a while I could tell that P-Diddy was agitated and unsettled. He seem to be bordering on a mental breakdown. Being a good friend of his, I asked him if he was ok. He began to confess that he was feeling stressed to the point of not being able to go on. Apparently, being his closest friend, I was the only one he felt comfortable enough confide in. I was honored to be thought of so highly by P-Diddy. As I thought about P-Diddy’s predicament I was very tempted to give him advice that would somehow include me. The pull to want to be a part of his life was strong, like somehow his “cool” would rub off on me. Maybe people would start calling me P-Ian, wait that sounds a little too much like peeing…scratch that. Anyway I was tempted to inject myself further into his life, but alas I knew this was not what P-Diddy needed. P-Diddy did not need another leach sucking off of his life, that was precisely the opposite of what he needed. So I looked P-Diddy in the eyes and with a firm voice I said “you need to take your wife and go get away, take no one else with you and turn off your cell phone.” That was the end of the dream. I don’t know if he took my advice (or even if he has a wife for that matter), but there you have it. The spiritual implications are obvious, don’t you think?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Getting Comfortable in Auschwitz

When I was a younger man I spent some time in jail. One of the not so obvious lessons that I learned from this period of my life is that much of what we think of as happiness is a bit relative. I spent my time in jail reading and sleeping a lot. I would watch TV and occasionally go to the gym for volleyball. I am not trying to be cavalier; loss of freedom is not fun, but I found that over time I adjusted. Things that I wouldn't have thought twice about on the outside began to bring some level of happiness under those circumstances.  I would spend my days looking forward to my next meal (as bad as they were) or to commissary day when I could buy a bag of chips. Over time I settled into a routine and can actually say that I had some level of contentment.
The contentment that I found in jail was; however, very fragile. It could be shattered by the simplest of things, namely by pondering what I was missing on the outside. I learned, over time, not to think about what I would be doing if I had my freedom. I learned to focus on what was right in front of me and to never think about what might be. It is difficult to find joy in a jail house meal when you’re reminded that you could be eating steak just on the other side of the wall. Pondering my freedom brought pain, because freedom was not possible.
I see something in this story about the human condition. Is it possible that we have found normalcy in an unnatural place? I find myself eerily able to walk through life just focusing on the next thing. Where will I vacation next summer? Where will the kids go to college? How will I pay for it? What will we have for dinner tonight? These are the things that I focus on, and all the while there is suffering all around. I see news articles about wars and murders and famines and atrocities of all kinds. I see loved ones sick and dying. I see myself slowing fading away as the years go by. Death is the warden of this world and no one has ever escaped. Yet in the middle of all of that I am able to find comfort in my Big Mac, in my next jail house meal as it were. But perhaps this is the best we can do. After all, pondering freedom only brings pain when it is impossible. But what if it is possible?
What if in the middle of our slow march to the gas chamber, as we focus on our next step never allowing our eyes to drift up to look at the smoking chimneys ahead, something happened. What if a man grabbed us by the shoulders and shook us and said “there’s more to this life than the dirt you’re staring at”? What if he shook us and said “you don’t have to settle for the walls of this prison”?
In the middle of this prison of a world a man came and claimed to have the ability to set us free. He claimed to be able to free us from sickness and from poverty and from death and ultimately from our own sins. Others have claimed these kinds of things as well, but this man was different. He healed the sick and provided for the poor and raised the dead and proclaimed forgiveness of sins. He claimed that these miraculous works were simply a down payment on what he would ultimately do for this whole world. He came with power, but he died like a prisoner. Then after 3 days he was raised from the dead, showing that he was indeed able to deliver us from our warden; death. He bids us to not settle for this broken world and our broken selves. He is offering us hope, with power to back it up. He is offering us freedom. Call out to him, call out to Jesus. Don’t get comfortable in Auschwitz.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Women in Combat

She is no stranger to the screams that accompany the battlefield. There are no ribbons on her uniform. Evidence of her valor is marked on her body. She carries her wounds with dignity, never a complaint. When in the company of fellow warriors, there is a bond, no words need be said. She is a veteran of many campaigns. When new recruits pass by her there is a hushed tone and respectful salute. She is a faithful soldier. When her captain calls her to charge the hill, there is no hesitation. Though fear pounds on her door, she will not welcome it in. When the battle is done and she is bruised and bloodied, she will hold her victory to her breast. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Cart Without the Horse

Growing up my mother loved me deeply. One of the ways she expressed that love was to allow me a special treat every Christmas. For that one day a year my mom would let me smoke pot with her. I have pictures of me as a young boy (perhaps 5 or 6) with a joint in my mouth and a Santa hat on my head. I do not point this out to be disrespectful to my mom or to be flippant. Later in life my mom had deep regrets about things like this and she found forgiveness from her son and her Lord. I point this out because I think it illustrates something about the nature of love.
I hear a lot of talk about love today and based on what seems to be the common definition, I think it can be said that my mom loved me by allowing me that special treat on Christmas. In the world my mom traveled in pot was a center piece. It was a recreational activity, a pleasure, enjoyed by all. I know that in her heart she wanted me to experience that gift. If the definition of love is to desire the best for another, then her act was an act of love. But that doesn’t seem quite right does it?
From this example it seems clear that love requires something else. It isn’t sufficient to simply desire the best for another. Particularly if or own understanding of what is “best” is flawed. So I offer this definition. In order to say that we are truly loving a person there must be three things present. 1) We must genuinely desire the very best for the person. 2) We must know what the very best for the person is. 3) We must be active; in so much as we are able, in the pursuit of the very best for the person. To the extent that any of these three are lacking, then our love is lacking.
This is why we recognize that the love of the women that brings a bottle of Jack Daniels home to her alcoholic husband is lacking, it fails on #2. The wife’s understanding of what is best for her husband is skewed. She has the best intentions and acts on those intentions, but she lacks understanding.  Similarly we know there is something off for the man that condemns the alcoholic, while not lifting a finger to engage with him, it fails on #3 and quite possibly #1. He rightly sees the destructiveness of the behavior, but he does nothing to help the man. Both of these people have a lack of true love, but in different ways. We may be tempted to view one as being more “loving” than the other. But if our goal, in love, is to achieve the very best for the alcoholic husband then it isn’t clear to me which tact is better. What is clear is that they both fall short.
Jesus was once asked a question about what the highest goal of a person should be. He was asked “what is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied that the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” Mt 22:37. He then went on to say that “the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself” Mt 22:39. Jesus seems to connect our love for our neighbor directly to our love for God. The closer we draw to Him the more we will truly love our neighbor. The more we desire God’s glory, the more we will desire the best for our neighbor. The closer we draw to the Lord, the more clearly we will see what our neighbor truly needs. The more we study and act according to His will, the more we will find the work of God achieves the very best for our neighbor.
We live in a time when there is much talk of loving our neighbor and little talk of loving God. I am confident that without the latter, at best we are exercising the kind of love my mom did on Christmas. The kind of love (a.k.a. tolerance) that may have good intentions, but is deeply flawed.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Gift

For the Christian all of life is a gift from God. Like a present wrapped under the tree. The pleasures of this world are at best the wrapping and the bow. Affliction will come, but this too is a gift. Like an anxious child on Christmas morning, suffering rips away the wrapping. Beside the pile of torn paper and discarded bows we open the lid and find our true treasure…Jesus.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The New Story

Those that know me know that I do not have the most praise worthy past. In grade school my teachers were at a loss on how to deal with this unruly child. My high school years were nonexistent (save one) because I had better things to do. My teenage years were spent chasing the next high and running from the five-oh as I would have called them. When I was twenty and near death or prison (whichever came first) I had an encounter with Jesus and the entire trajectory of my life changed. That is the Cliff notes version of my “testimony”.

I have told that story many times over the years. I like pointing to the power of God and his ability to change people. I like telling that story and people seem to enjoy hearing it. It does, after all, have many of the elements of a good story. Hoodlum kid makes good, I’ve seen that movie over and over again. The older I get the better the story gets too. Hoodlum kid goes to college. Hoodlum kid gets a great job. Hoodlum kid has a wife and 11 kids. But here’s the rub. The “better” the story gets the less inclined I am to tell it.

My hesitation to tell that story started around the time I finished college. It started when I found myself tempted to tell the story like this:
“I used to be a really rotten person and then I came to Jesus and he changed everything. I went to college and he gave me a fantastic job and a wonderful wife and wonderful kids.”
I was tempted to tell the story like this, because frankly it sounds very appealing. “Come to Jesus and he will make your life wonderful”. There's only one problem wth this story, it’s a pile of shit.

That is not the Jesus I came to all those years ago. The Jesus I came to did not promise me a wonderful life. He came after my eyes had been opened to the crushing reality of my sin. After I saw that my problem was not drugs nor the crimes I committed nor the fact that I couldn’t get my lazy butt out of bed and get a job. No, it was much more serious than that. I had turned my back on my Creator. I had thumbed my nose at the one who had only ever loved me. I had walked away and I deserved nothing better than hell. And just when I was at my lowest with no hope in myself to pay the price demanded, He came. He was murdered for me, the Son of God, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to repay that. I found peace and love and freedom, but in it there was no promise of earthly delights. To the contrary, there was the certainty of earthly troubles, but the promise of a life to come.

So now I will tell a new story. A story that is better suited to this good news.

My beautiful wife was holding our four year old boy, Josiah, when his body went limp. I could see in his face that something was terribly wrong. Panic set in as I desperately tried to remember where my cell phone was so that I could call 911. Somehow (I don’t remember how) I found it. I grabbed Josiah out of my wife’s hands and laid him on the floor while she dialed for help. Awkwardly I started the CPR that I barely remembered from the training I’d had 20+ years before. I pumped Josiah’s chest as I looked into his crystal blue eyes. They were lifeless, but I held out hope that he would come back. When I gave him breathes a foul smelling vomit would spill out. My 10 year old son stood over me watching all of this in a panic. It was like a dream. My wife and my son were sobbing and I was in a daze. In the midst of that I had a moment of clarity. I looked up at my son and I said “no matter what happens right now, if God brings him back or if God takes him it will be okay, God is in control”. God did take Josiah that day.

This story is not as glamorous, but it is the truth. In the midst of pain and grief there is hope in Christ. When we find ourselves on our knees, with the sound of sobbing filling our ears and the smell of vomit filling our nostrils, Christ is there. He is no stranger to blood and spit and tears. He endured that and more. And Christian you can be sure that this is not the end of the story. Trust him, for if you have died with him, with him you shall surely live.

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