Archive for the ‘shalom’ Category

I have a confession to make.  For the first few days, I read everything I saw about the whole Tiger saga.  It goes against my values; I think our tabloid frenzied, celebrity obsessed culture is a destructive distraction, but I participated with gusto.  Those invasive telephone-pole-truck-cameras were there because of me too.  I couldn’t stay away, after all, I watch golf because of this guy.

But almost immediately after Woods’ “confession” I started reading about how, in his imperfection, he was a perfect example and how he would be a better man after all this.  That put me over the edge and I stopped.  But I can’t get it out of my head; this writing is catharsis.

A perfect example?  Of what exactly?

“ ‘Atta boy Tiger, way to carry on a lengthy affair while your wife was pregnant, get in a mysterious car crash and confess once there was no other way out!  Great read, great read!!”

I’m pretty sure we don’t need more imperfect examples.  I think it’s been established: Nobody’s Perfect.  You don’t need to prove an axiom, you just state it and move on.  The shortest distance between two points is a line.  End of story.  I’d like my examples to be, you know, good examples.  What we need is more examples of human beings actually flourishing.  That’s the belief and the hope that is harder to keep burning.

The other article was worse.  Rick Reilly, I’m calling you out.  Tiger, a better man?  Eventually, that will probably be true.  I know, you put that qualifier in there too.  But you also lionized him once again.  Hopefully he will become a better man.  To say so right now is like turning the knife.  Right now Tiger is a jackass that is just beginning to feel repentant about what it seems he was still trying to cover up only a short time ago.  Right now Tiger is a jackass who lived a lie every day by apparently carrying on a prolonged affair that started when his wife was very pregnant.  Can we mourn the staggering implosion of another high-profile family for just a moment before we re-canonize the perpetrator?  The jury will still be out for a long, long time over whether Tiger can become a better man.  It’s none of my business, but I hope so.  For the sake of his family.

That’s the thing that I hate about these stories.  Almost every time it boils down to: Men cheat; boys will be boys.  There’s always a line in there about how men need to have their needs met, and if they aren’t, they tend to look elsewhere.  Blah, blah, blah.  That may be true enough, but just once I would like to read something that nails these guys to the wall for being so damn selfish.  Look, I am a guy; I can think with my dick too.  But my heart and my mind tell me that I would be destroying everything that’s important to me.  U2 sings about not “trading love to find romance.”  Bono has been married a long time, he knows.

It goes deeper though.  What if the equation was tipped the other way?  What if the excitement really did outweigh the commitment for me?  That’s the part that no one talks about, the part where the selfishness really comes in.  First, there is a woman who has been betrayed and feels like a fool because she has been living a lie.  Great start, you’ve turned the entire life of the person you pledged yourself to upside down.  Then there are the kids.  One of the major things that helps kids thrive is a stable, loving relationship between two parents.  It helps them feel secure.  How many of us have significant baggage because of our parents?  My parents stayed together, but I still have had to work really hard to not carry their shit with me into my life and family.  These kinds of things affect generations.  It’s about more than just a philandering dude.  It’s even about more than his sobbing wife.  An entire web of relationships is broken.  The titillation pales in comparison.

I’ve stopped reading about Tiger.  I don’t need to hear this story again.

Memo to Tiger: Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  Just keep that in mind.


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Death and Life

For the last few hours I’ve been sitting outside and staring. Just staring. Tonight I was informed that one of my students died on Friday night. Yes, I’ve been crying a bit. Shayne is my first. I can’t say I’d ever considered this scenario. If you’ve read some of my earlier blogs you know that there was a period of my life when I thought death followed me and struck down the people I cared for most. But that period has long since passed and now I’m struggling with what I’d only heard people talk about: how can someone so much younger than me, with so much potential, be gone.

I only had Shayne in one class last year. It was the fall semester and he immediately distinguished himself as a curious student who was intellectually gifted. But his curiosity extended beyond the classroom as he sought to understand the world and people. Shayne came by my office frequently. Sometimes we would just talk about politics or music, while other times we would talk about life. We spent hours talking. Our backgrounds were different. I’m a country boy from South Dakota and he is a second generation African-American from Zimbabwe. He grew up in the ghetto in Indianapolis. Ironically, what we shared in common was death. His father had died before he was born. After moving to the states, he saw friend after friend die. We talked a lot about this, especially after Shayne realized that I am a Christian.

Since he was very young he looked after his mother, who had a bad habit of picking cruel men. He told me stories about when he was a child, her boyfriends would beat her. And there Shayne stood. He told me about her choices and how he had to grow up so very fast. And he did. He didn’t return to school this year because of finances. He told me of his dilemma this last spring, he asked me to pray for him: that he would have wisdom in knowing how to best protect his mom.

I can’t imagine all that Shayne faced. I can’t imagine the circumstances leading up to his death. But it has made me pause to think about the people in my life and how much I care for them. I think of my students. I think of life. But death seems to have that impact: causing us to look down, rather than up. Rather than looking at the forest, I see the blade of grass. I see a student with so much potential struck down before that potential could be realized. It’s heartbreaking.

What is interesting to me now is how this is the first time I’ve reflected in the midst of grief.  Shayne and I weren’t best friends. Our interaction was very much as a student and professor. But in that relationship something grows that I hadn’t realized before tonight. This relationship goes beyond attachment and extends to seeing someone for who they could be. I wonder if parents feel similarly.

But death comes and we go on, however slowly. To feel the loss of one student makes me hope for the others. I’m not one to think of tragedy as purposeful, as if it happened for a specific reason. That kind of fatalism has always bothered me and doesn’t seem very Christ-centered. In a fallen world there is death and that death is the result of sin. Can tragedy result in triumph? Absolutely. Death reminds me of the purposefulness of living a life of reconciliation and redemption. It reminds me that a life of shalom is a difficult life and prompts us to act in defiance of “logic” and social norms. I’m reminded once again that the difficulty of living shalom is also its beauty. As a friend of mine once told me, “It’s the struggle that is beautiful.” And, again, I must agree.

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Whenever I think about patience I hear a friend of mine singing in the background: “Have patience/Have patience/ Don’t be in such a hurry/When you get, impatient, you only start to worry.” Growing up, Nate would sing this song in particularly tense situations, which led to unspeakable laughter because he is tone deaf. There’s something about hearing someone who is tone deaf, and knows it, belt out a song in a public place to ease the tension. So, this kids song has remained a part of my everyday litany of internal song options thanks to Nate.

Today at the post office, this song came rushing back to me as I waited to get to the counter, with ten people separating me from the rest of my day. The postal worker was doing her best taking care of the person standing in front of her without rushing. But I wanted her to rush. At this moment the children’s song came rushing back to me and I couldn’t help but laugh. The man standing in front of me gave a little glance backwards and as I kept laughing a smile crept across his face too.

As I completed all the things on my list, driving around town, this song kept going through my head. Then I asked myself if I’m a patient person. Of course, I’d like to think that I’m patient. That I’m not in a rush or willing to wait. Then I thought about all of those situations where I am infinitely patient: teaching, airports, conversations. Then I thought about all of those situations where I have little patience: bad drivers, check-out lines, relationships, ignorant people. As I thought about different areas of my life I realized that I am patient and impatient all at the same time. It’s amazing to me how, for so long, I’ve always thought of myself as a patient person, only to realize that there are areas of my life where my impatience can only be described as like a petulant child.

Patience and waiting are two-sides of a similar coin. Scott’s last blog talked about the longer view, which is a view that I have when it comes to most of the important things in my life. Yet, at the same time, it is a view that I often fail at achieving. I can’t help but ask myself why it is that I sometimes don’t have this longer view, a view that embodies patience when I want something and I want it now. When I got home I searched for a verse that came to mind and found it in Psalms 38:15: “I wait/hope for you O Lord! You will respond, O my God!” I’m not a Hebrew genius, like Scott, but “wait” and “hope” are both used, depending on your translation. I think it’s interesting how wait and hope are used in similar ways but, when taken together, we get an idea of expectation. To wait is to hope in expectation. At least this is how my untrained perspective sees it.

Patience requires a willingness to wait. But I find my ability to be patient completely dependent on the situation and circumstance. It’s hard to be patient when you are expecting something. This is where the train comes off the rails for me, like at the post office: I know what I am expecting but I just want to get there faster. At the post office, I knew exactly what I wanted and was impatient waiting for it. In relationships, I know exactly what I want and am impatient waiting for it. My willingness to wait, to have patience, goes out the window when I know what to expect. What’s funny about expectations is they are rarely in reality.

My thought process over the last few hours has led me to think that my expectations have nothing to do with waiting. To be able to rest in the fact that I don’t know what to expect is freeing and allows me to wait with confidence and contentment. Confidence and contentment are two things that I have more of than I should most of the time. But there are always those things that make us impatient. Those things that others don’t struggle with but I do. Things that make me wonder if I’m an impatient person rather than a person who can be impatient. However, shalom helps me to think about patience, hope, and expectation in a very different way. To be content with any situation, as Paul implored the Philippians, requires one to rest in the knowledge that I am waiting because I trust. And remembering how important it is to trust our Father has added a dimension to my rest that gives me hope that an uncertain future is beautiful and full of possibility.

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I’m a perpetual fidgeter. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this affliction as I know that Scott fidgets at least as much as I do. I’ve never looked up “fidget” in the dictionary, well, until about thirty seconds ago. Evidently “fidget” means to make small movements through nervousness or impatience. I’ve been this way my entire life. I could write about how the circumstances of my life have made me this way, but all the rationalizations I could muster would not be unique to my experiences as a human being living in a fast-paced world. Why I fidget isn’t important. When I fidget isn’t important. Where I fidget isn’t important. Rather, the fact that I am a perpetual fidgeter leads me to a realization that a friend of mine recently told me: You need rest.

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about rest. I’ve been realizing how I am in desperate need of rest. All the things that have consumed me are good things but don’t lend themselves to rest, just like most things in life. For so long I’ve been chasing an educational goal, which now lurks at my doorstep. My PhD dissertation has been submitted and my oral defense is eleven days away. I’m not anxious about my oral defense, understanding that I will get beaten up by my review committee for a couple of hours but resting in the fact that my advisor thinks it is good and will pass without a problem. My education is coming to a permanent end and, after six years, I have the ability to slow down without the constant pull of all the things that I should be doing. Compounding the problem is the reality that I’ve been teaching while writing. Students demanding my time just to talk or grade or read essay drafts or write letters of recommendation or the multitude of other things students require. Teaching at a college, I’m required to attend numerous meetings a week, most of which seem pointless to everyone except the administrators who require them. The pull of friends and the circumstances of life pull me in so many different directions that I have developed a “what’s next” attitude of divide and conquer.  In graduate school that seems to be an attitude of survival, not domination. To survive you must constantly be moving from one project to the next, from one e-mail to the next, from one lecture to the next. Survival requires one to constantly and consistently ask, “what’s next?”

Two days ago the first verse of Psalm 57 came to my mind: “Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me, For my soul takes refuge in Thee; And in the shadow of Thy wings I will take refuge.” One of the things Scott has challenged me to do over the past several years has been to participate in regular meditation. I do hope he will talk about meditation in the relatively near future. This is a topic I know little about other than the obvious, common sense understanding. But the last two days I’ve been meditating on the first line: Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me.

This verse positions me on my knees before my Father in an attitude of trust. I was in Colorado this past week and yesterday, on the plane flying back to Indiana, a little boy and his father were sitting in front of me. Throughout the flight the little boy and I were entertaining one another. I was making funny faces and playing peek-a-boo with him as his big smile helped me to stop and see the beauty in the passing clouds and the carefree spirit only a child can possess. As we were about to get off the plane, the boy exclaimed, “Daddy! I have buggers in my nose!” His tone was one of desperation and his father responded, “Just wait a bit longer.” In that moment the boy gave his well-being to his father. Something so banal as buggers had been frustrating and annoying him for so long that he just wanted relief. And he turned to his Father for that relief. “Be gracious to me, O God, Be gracious to me.”

Meditating on these ten words has turned from a screaming prayer for relief, to a peaceful whisper of rest. My gratitude comes from an ability to trust; to lay all that I have and all that I am at my Father’s feet, knowing that my rest will come … if I wait a bit longer. To rest is to trust; and slowly, very slowly, my rest is overtaking me in a way I haven’t experienced since I began this PhD. I don’t expect rest to come quickly but I know it will come. But I must rest. I must look to the heavens and simply be.

The kind of trust I’m talking about only comes when I’m comfortable to lay all that I am at the feet of another. To have the kind of openness and honesty about who I am and who I want to be requires an irrational trust that regardless of who I am, I can always rest in His arms when I’m weak and don’t have the strength to stand. But what’s funny about rest is that we rarely get to a point where we can see that we are lying flat on our back, not standing any longer. For so long we’ve had to be strong that we don’t even see our weakness, our need to rest, our need to surrender all that we are to our Father. Rest doesn’t come easy for me because I’ve always had to immediately move on. Complete trust doesn’t come easy for me because I’ve had to depend on myself for so long. Surrender seems like an impossibility because to survive graduate school I’ve had to conquer all that comes in my path. But my prayer will continue to be one that seeks rest in spite of myself. To find rest is to find peace in whatever comes; to trust that God’s timing is perfect; to trust that my humanity will one day be made whole; to surrender all that I am because I know redemption will come. To seek rest is to find peace; to find peace is to live redemption and reconciliation; to live shalom is to rest in the healing arms of a Father who works in and through us in spite of yet because of myself and who I’ve become.

“Be gracious to me, O God, Be gracious to me.”

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Driving 2200 miles over the Christmas holiday I had the chance to get my annual fill of Christian radio. I listened to everything: sermons given by famous pastors and apologists, programs for children, music, and the friendly banter of DJ’s between the aforementioned music and sermons. More than in the past it struck me that the 20th century could be described as the Great Reversal in American Christianity. Now for a bit of background as to how I can make such a claim.

I wrote a thesis for my Master’s degree about first wave American Protestant fundamentalism. I dug through archives attempting to understand how the movement came to be and the kind of rhetorical framework it used to make a case against the evils of its present day. I looked at correspondences of famous pastors, magazines, pamphlets, and any other materials available. I came across a series of letters by a very famous Boston pastor, the John MacArthur of his day, A.C. Dixon. It was in the first decade of the 20th century when he told another pastor that his church would be ending its social programs to immigrants. The reason: because immigrants weren’t converting to Christianity in satisfactory numbers (they liked their Catholicism and pagan ways, evidently). Prior to this the church had served the poor and immigrants by offering housing, classes (especially to learn English), and food. Well, the immigrants weren’t converting and these social programs stopped. Soon the pastor to whom he wrote this letter followed suit at his New York City church and this phenomenon spread throughout the country. It’s now 1920 and, with the exception of Catholics, very few social programs exist in churches.

While driving it struck me how a Great Reversal had taken place during the 20th century. Few churches offer serious social programs to people other than the occasional youth group outing to a food bank or soup kitchen; of course, there is also a donation that food bank or soup kitchen. While these programs began reemerging in the 1990s, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that Protestants and evangelicals began taking their charge seriously, although we are still, quite frankly, doing a pitiful job. I kept hearing these radio voices telling me either to give them money or live as a Christian in this debased world. When I began listening for what they think living like a Christian means all I heard was what I shouldn’t do and how I need to be a “witness” by not doing those things. It was at this point that I recalled my days in the dusty archives.

The kind of negative definition of what it means to live as a Christian bothers me more with each passing year. If, as a Christian, I am identified by the things I don’t do, then it seems to me that others should be attracted to my faith because I fail to take part in things like drinking, smoking, parties, bars, and all the other things you’re thinking of too. To define my faith negatively seems to create an attitude of denial. I am denying myself all of these “worldly” things, creating an attitude of constant vigilance so consumed with not doing, that I fail to, well, do. This is the trap of legalism, at least as I see it now. Legalism traps us in a constant cycle of an all-consuming focus on self, which is followed by self-regret, which is then followed by self-hate. The result is either paralysis or extreme self-righteousness, both of which I’ve experienced at one time or another. In short, defining our faith negatively turns our focus inward.

The Great Reversal is the kind of inward focus that will come to define 20th century American Christianity. It is a reversal from the life giving message of Christ to an internal focus on pseudo-purity. This is why shalom has become such a powerful concept for me. Shalom turns my inward gaze to an outward one because shalom emphasizes the reconciliation and redemption of all things to God. My role in the world is to participate in the life-giving message of redemption and reconciliation of His creation between and among humans, not to mention between humans and His environment. Defining my faith in an attitude of shalom is a positive way to approach living. I now look for the ways that I can actively participate in shalom all around me, rather than focusing on not doing certain things told me by a person who probably isn’t friends with a single non-Christian. My guide is now whether or not this action/job/life/etc. participates in shalom.

On many occasions I’ve been told that I must just be a wishy-washy Christian who really doesn’t believe in anything other than making other people (and myself) feel better. I usually respond with a laugh and two words, in this order: Sure; Awesome. I believe the Apostle’s Creed forms the basis of my Christian faith. While I do believe other things much more specifically, I realize that there are different interpretations of Scripture. Of course I think I’m right about everything but I’m not going to call another person a heretic because of it. I read theology for fun, actually, but it’s not something I go around touting as key to my spirituality. This paragraph relates, really it does. The kind of theological purity often emphasized comes from the same attitude of inward self-obsession I mentioned earlier. When we, as a body of believers, don’t focus on the external world our internal focus looks for other ways to measure what it means to be a Christian. And for many of the radio voices, faith is an internal one only concerned with having a certain theology and not doing certain things.

A couple of days ago I visited Scott (the other writer on this blog who’s hiatus is getting ridiculous! 🙂 ) and Tami. They are thinking about what comes next for them now that seminary is over. Then Scott said, “But we’re looking to do something that contributes to shalom.” I thought about this driving the three hours home from the farm Tami grew up on. Shalom, the kind practiced by American churches prior to the 20th century, is powerful because it orients us toward action in the world, the kind of action that forces us to ask the difficult questions about how I can participate in the life-giving message of reconciliation and redemption. This is a faith I want to be a part of. Oh wait, I already am. Awesome.

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Baggage, Part II

I’ve been debating with myself for almost two months whether to write this blog. When Scott commented on my first post about Baggage, I knew that the only way to fully explain what I meant would be to tell a story not every person in my life knows. In fact, I can count on my fingers and toes the number of people who know this. The only person in my family who knows is my mother, so my family, here it is …

Scott asked me what I meant by “choosing transformation” rather than the recognition that we are “utterly dependent on God’s wisdom and power to redeem our ragged brokenness?” I agree, many times in life we believe in our own personal power to will-away our past. We have the mistaken idea that our own poor choices can be managed and hidden. After all, we got ourselves into this mess, we can get ourselves out of it. It’s this attitude that drives our past further from the present possibility of embracing our ragged brokenness and the redemptive and reconciling power of Christ. But this blog isn’t about the kind of baggage that we inflict on ourselves or others. This blog is about the baggage that has been inflicted on us.

Forgiveness. In Christian circles, I’ve found the issue of forgiveness is often treated with such cliche driven drivel. Rarely do we talk about the kind of forgiveness necessary in those circumstances where part of ourselves has been ripped from us. For me this took the form of a neighbor, a camper, and the stealing away of my innocence at seven years old. I’m sure you can put the pieces together. As a boy I would have nightmares, reliving this event, so afraid, so ashamed. I thought something was wrong with me.

Fast forward to my sophomore year of college. My RD (Resident Director) at a small Christian liberal arts college in Ohio and I had become friends. All year I wanted to talk to him about it but I was ashamed, not about what happened to me but about my response. What I wanted to do to the person who did this to me. A speaker talked about forgiveness in chapel and I got up and walked out. I cried all the way to my dorm room. I knew that my severe hatred had overtaken me. I knew that my continued embrace of hatred would paralyze me.

At 3AM I walked down to my RD’s office and, by some miracle, he was there. I sat down, in silence, for what seemed like days. I just sat there, unable to get the words out of my mouth. Unable to verbalize, for the first time, what had been driving me toward a life of self-preservation, not allowing anyone close enough to me to really know me. In fact, that was my life. I kept people at a distance, but close enough that nobody asked any questions.

As I sat there, trying to get the words H-E … R-A-P-E-D … M-E out of the tightly sealed bottle that had been wedged into the deepest recesses of my soul, I fought one of the most intense battles of my life that would define who I would choose to become. I had to make a choice to begin the long road of forgiveness or continue to live a life of self-preservation. I don’t know how long I sat there. But finally,  I slowly formed the words. My RD didn’t say anything. He just sat there as I stared at the commercial carpeting in his office. I said it again. I said it again and, finally, those words didn’t come so hard.

Complete forgiveness is a process, not the instantaneous thing I had always thought it would be. I met with my RD every week. We talked and read a book, but mainly we just talked. My process took a few years. I began by praying, out loud, “God, please help me not want to kill him.” Hey, that’s extreme but I’m just being honest. It took me months to get to the point of not wanting to take his life. Then I began praying, “God, help me not to hate him.” Again, months went by and I finally reached the point where I prayed, “God, help to forgive him.” This last part took over a year. I prayed this several times a day. And, finally, when I prayed, the words didn’t come so hard.

It’s only by the grace of God that I could forgive him, but I had to choose the kind of transformation I told myself I wanted. It’s one thing to think you want it. It’s an entirely different matter to choose the long, difficult process of asking God to help you forgive when you aren’t sure you want to be helped. In our ragged brokenness, we choose to allow Christ a space in which he can begin transforming our life, from hate to forgiveness. And out of this crevasse, my life was slowly transformed.

The past eleven years, since I finally uttered those impossible words, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many people in my situation. I don’t know how but I can tell when people have had a similar experience. In these conversations, I had to suppress my tendency for self-preservation, the desire not to allow Christ to use all of me regardless of people’s response. I had to embrace my life, all of it.

Embracing all of my life, for me, looks like a very different kind of life. A life where I do what I can for those around me, whether I know them or not. The desire to put myself out there, open and wounded, for people to accept or reject. The desire to not give a rat’s ass whether or not I would get screwed in the process. Self-preservation doesn’t allow us to make the first move, to let others in so deep that they, in turn, feel comfortable uttering those same words to us. That’s shalom. That’s one small way I’ve been able to participate in the message of reconciliation and redemption that converges in the cross. To release life in others, I must release it in myself. And, for me, releasing life in myself required me to do the most difficult thing I’ve ever done … utter those words.

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