Monday, December 11, 2017

Trees

My last post was a little dark and vulnerable. I couldn't think of any way to show personally what a Wonderful Counselor we have in Jesus without sharing some of my own struggles. I do apologize if it was a bit too dark for some.

I've been remembering some of the lighter moments the Christmas Season would bring to our family. There were two seasons where the dynamic of our family was consistently a little lighter. One was our summer camping trips to the Middle Fork of the Yuba River. The other was Christmas, especially some of the stories surrounding our ongoing quest for the perfect Christmas tree.

Our earliest years involved purchasing a tree from a gas station. Back in those days proprietors of fueling stations would stock some Christmas trees and I remember as a very little guy the excitement of finally stopping at a station and choosing just the right tree.

A few years later my dad had a co-worker, Swede Nelson who lived on some property that had some promising trees. Dad and I, and then later we'd include my younger sister Elizabeth would load up our old Powell station wagon or a few years later the truck/camper my folks owned and drive out to Swede's place. He had a couple boys so we kids would all hop in the back of Swede's pick-up and drive up into the hills where the promising trees could be found. It would always seem like such a magical journey.

Dad was a bit fussy about finding just the right tree so it would take us some time. We'd also look for a tree for my grandparents who lived nearby in Nevada City. Of course untrimmed trees are not often as perfect as Dad would like but he'd find something that would come close. Eventually two decent trees were found and the Nelson's would find their tree so we'd load them in the back of the pick-up and we kids would squeeze in around our trees excited for this important aspect of the season. Christmas was on it's way!

Dad often would get our tree home, put in the old red metal stand and the would stand back and look at it. More often than not, there were holes that needed a branch grafted in so Dad would trim a lower branch, drill a hole where it was needed and wire it in. We could then begin the joyous work of trimming the tree. Dad would put on the lights and then we would all pitch in and start hanging the collection of ornaments. After all the ornaments were hung then we started the job of hanging the silver tinsel, strand by strand. We were taught to be very meticulous making sure each branch was draped gracefully with cascading silver strands that reflected our collection of colored lights. Some of our lights were the ones that, once heated up, would flash on and off at individual intervals. It was glorious!

Mom never liked taking down the tree. Often it was mid to late January before we would finally take it down along with all the other trimmings that decorated our little home. One year in particular, I recall it was close to Valentine's Day before the tree came down. Of course, by then it was so dry it was barely green anymore, but she didn't care. I think it always depressed her a little to finally say good-bye to Christmas.

Mom's desire for a tree that would stay fresh longer got her into a bit of trouble one year. It was Christmas 1973. My older sister and I had moved to San Francisco so when I came home a day or so before Christmas I was startled to find a completely dead, brown tree. Mom just giggled a little bit and told me her tale.

Evidently she'd been watching the Dinah Shore talk show one morning. She'd had some guy who was an expert gardener, the Green Gardener is who I think it was. He'd given a recipe to help preserve and keep fresh cut Christmas Trees. Mom got so excited she immediately went into the kitchen and whipped up a batch of whatever it was he'd said to use, cooking it a bit. She said the tree was still outside so she rushed out and dumped into the pan in the stand her hot concoction. Well, you can guess what happened. She'd not heard the whole set of instructions and didn't let the concoction cool down. It quickly killed the tree. I'm not sure she had the heart to tell Dad what had happened so they put it up anyway in hopes it would make it through a shortened Christmas Tree season, but frankly, it wasn't going to make it.

The next day I bundled up my little sister and we took a hike down the hill from our house, across highway 49 and up the ridge on the other side to look for anything resembling a Christmas Tree. Fortunately, we found a beautiful little cedar I cut down. Now poaching trees is NOT something you should do and so I sent my sister on ahead to make sure no cars were coming along the highway so I could make a mad dash across the road and up the hill  out of sight of anyone driving along the road. By the time we'd gotten home, Dad had completely stripped the dead tree and was waiting for us with whatever we could find.  It was the only cedar tree we ever had. Cedars have rather limp limbs that droop precariously with the weight of ornaments, but we didn't care, it was much better looking than the brown stick of a tree it replaced. We often laughed about the year Mom killed the tree.

Years later, after the first five years of marriage, Gail and I moved to Minnesota. Our first Christmas we went with friends to a tree farm and cut a beautiful tree. It was a different variety than we were use to with very short, sharp needles. We weren't sure how we would keep our crawling, adventurous daughter from the tree, but after her first attempt at reaching for the beautiful ornaments she discovered how sharp those needles were on her delicate hands. One attempt was all it took for her to know the tree would hurt her and she never tried to reach into it again.

A few years later we were preparing for a special Christmas, my folks were coming for a visit. As was our custom, a few weeks before their arrival, we cut a beautiful blue spruce that fit our little condo perfectly, tall enough, but not too wide. What we didn't know was the variety we'd selected had a tendency to dry out fairly quickly and drop needles. By Christmas Eve it was dropping them at a sickening rate. Heavier ornaments would slide down branches any time anyone walked by and you could hear the needles fall on the presents beneath it.

I'd had enough of it so I bundled up my mother and the two of us went in search of another tree with strict instructions from my wife to not get one that was too wide. Well, we ended up at a KMart with a pitiful collection of trees, most laying on their sides, dejected trees waiting for a home late in the season. We found what we thought would work and loaded it in my Toyota Celica for the ride home. What we didn't realize was the shape we thought was fairly compact was due largely from the fact it was frozen into a tight pyramid. By the time we got it in our compact living room it thawed and just about filled half our living room. Gail was not particularly happy but Mom and I just giggled as we decorated the thawing tree.

After we moved back to California we'd do the tree expedition again up into the Sierra Foothills about 50 miles from home. We'd often go with our friends the Blodgers and make a day of it looking for the perfect tree. Those are good memories. Eventually the kids got tired of going with Dad to look, I tend to be particular about finding a tall, perfect tree. The last year that Charlie went with me we found a beautiful tree, but it was just slightly shorter than our car. It was one of those years I flocked the tree so I stood it up in the stand in the driveway, flocked it with several cans of snow and brought it into the house. One problem, to get the lights and ornaments on the top I had to stand on the tip top of our 8' ladder on my toes, lean out with one hand on a wall and sort of toss the lights and ornaments on the upper branches. It sort of drove Gail nuts watching me do this, but it was beautiful when done.

My last year of cutting a tree was a solo effort on my part. It was one of those cold drizzly days where it was almost snowing. Being fussy for just the right tree meant time and effort tromping around tree farms. By the time I found the right tree, paid for it and loaded it my holybluemazda, the jeans I was wearing were completely soaked and I was freezing cold for the 50 mile drive home. No problem I thought. I pulled over onto a secluded dirt road, took my pants off, cranked up the heater and drove home in my underwear.

I know my goal in writing here is to find transcendence in the ordinary things of life. Frankly, I'm not finding that in writing this, but I love the memories I have connected with our adventures with finding the perfect Christmas tree. Memories are precious things and we can find joy and even a hint of transcendence in remembering our happy memories during this Advent season.

Oh yes, about 3 years before my dad passed away we were retelling the story of going out with Swede Nelson to cut a tree. My dad, with a twinkle in his eye confessed for the first time to any of us that we had been poaching trees all those years! Suddenly something he always would do before leaving the Nelson's made sense. He would always cover up the trees with an old bedspread he would bring along, even when we would load the trees into the back of the camper. I always thought it was just to keep the needles from making a mess but it was to hid our pilfered trees!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Wonderful Counselor

We live in a time, at least here in North America, where counseling and the need of a counselor is widely accepted. It is easy to find a counselor, life coach, mentor or a spiritual director when one senses the need for some one-on-one help. These named professions carry some distinctive aspects from one another, but they offer some form of counsel. While I am not writing here to tout my training and work as a spiritual director, I will write my work with people is to help them find and work alongside the Spirit of God that I believe inhabits those who profess to be Jesus followers. A good counselor will probably offer a more clinical approach to life issues offering more concrete suggestions and guidance than I would. My approach is more relational, God alongside the people I sit with knowing He will offer guidance. Ah, but I digress a little from what I want to write here.

It really wasn't that long ago when counselling was more under the radar, less accepted than it currently is. It really was just a generation ago. My own family is a good example of that. The three children that grew up in my family of origin needed some help. Frankly, our family was not a very healthy family emotionally speaking. We all three grew up forming self images that were not helpful or healthy for moving well into life.

There was just one experience one of the three of us had with professional counseling, my older sister Carla was taken to the only counselor in the little town we grew up in. As I was told a few years ago, Carla went to some consultations alone with the counselor. When it was time for the counselor to speak to my parents about their findings, my mother was told that much of the difficulty with Carla stemmed from her very combative relationship with Mom. It was the last meeting they had with the counselor.

A few years later I experienced a suicide attempt. I really needed some help but nothing was sought out for me; I was left alone to deal with the fallout. My attempt was never spoken of again after mother asked me a week later if I was going to be okay just before my parents left for a planned vacation leaving me alone at home to care for my youngest sister. The implication was I needed to be okay for them to leave as planned.

I share these experiences to exemplify how shameful it once was thought to need counselling. The needs were often never met with any professional help. Issues were simply swept under the carpet and hopefully forgotten. I don't believe my experience with needing help was not unique nor was the lack of finding help unique. It simply was not done one short generation ago. Thankfully, this is no longer the case.

I believe a good counselor will take the time to gradually listen, offering insights into whatever is the presenting issue with an eye to letting the person coming to them to gradually see themselves with the issue. It takes time to come to that point where one can bravely look at themselves in the mirror the counselor has gradually offered them. It takes courage to look in the mirror but there can be a great deal of healing that takes place if that courage can be found. Mirror holding is a large part of a what a good counselor will do.

They will also offer help, suggestions for what is needed once we are able to gaze into the mirror and see ourselves. It can be difficult to actually see where we've contributed to issues that confound our personal emotional growth. It is also hard work to start to re-think issues that often enslave us to old paradigms that no longer work.

This brings me to one of the titles given to Jesus in Isaiah, Wonderful Counselor. Please note, there is no comma, this is one title in two words. This title goes along with Emmanuel, His "with us" in the flesh, knowing what we are as humans, spiritual beings in human form. Without His "with us" His ability to be the Wonderful Counselor would be hindered. The Wonderful Counselor flows out of Him being Emmanuel, God with us.

Now, what a counselor we truly have. He is kind, slow to anger and patient with us and He has a view of who we are, right now at this moment, broken and flawed as we are. He gently wants us to see something though. He not only sees who we are at this moment but He also sees with absolute clarity who we truly are in Him. He sees a completeness and a beauty in us that only He can see yet wants us, no, He longs and desires as only He can desire that we become courageous enough to glimpse at what He sees in us. I am not sure we can handle more than a glimpse most of the time, but once we do, I believe we will fall down and worship this One who is so kind and patient with us in our unwillingness to believe.

He desires for us to believe not only who He is but who we are in Him. Remember, we are told we are one with Him who is One with the Father. It is an astounding fact that should shake us to the core in such a way that we give up our illusion of not needing Him. He truly is the Wonderful Counselor who has known me at my worst far more deeply than I can know my worst. And yet, He does not back away, He does not blink, He simply loves me deeply into seeing a bit of what I truly am in Him.

In this Advent season, may we ponder what a Wonderful Counselor we have in the One who came to redeem us into His kingdom and to shake us at the core so that we will see and know Emmanual, God with us, our Wonderful Counselor.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Emmanuel

Here we are again, in the season of Advent. I did not grow up in a church that followed the four Sundays of Advent with a wreath and candles lit one after the other during those Sundays. It was a recent addition to my celebration in my present church where I found and hungered for those words and acts of preparation for His coming. Unfortunately, with the passage of leadership, my church no longer follows this tradition. I miss it.

So, in light of this hunger for my own personal preparation, I've begun to write something of my thoughts regarding this holy season. Tonight, in time with Abba, I was struck by this name given to Jesus; Emmanuel, God with us.

If we take a moment and let that idea sink in we may find ourselves in awe of the very act of birth, the birth of this child we believe was conceived in mystery and miracle. We who follow Jesus believe He was God in the flesh, God with us. He began human life as we all do, as a babe.

Now I can't presume to know what it was for Him to find Himself wrapped in baby flesh fresh from the womb. Did He look into His mother's eyes and see and know who she was and who He was yet limited by baby flesh? We really don't understand incarnation from His point of view. It is and always will be a mystery. What I do believe is this, God was flesh and dwelt among us as first a baby, then toddler, then child, then teenager, then a young man at Joseph's side learning a skill He would not use. He then became fully a man set apart to do what only He could do, offer salvation to the whole world. These are the core beliefs of any who profess to follow Him, facts only appropriated through faith.

God with us. It brings either belief or unbelief. There isn't much middle ground here. In my belief, I am stunned again at the act of coming to be one of us for a time; to know hunger, thirst, weariness, joy, sorrow, anger, frustration, temptation, love.

If we allow ourselves to be honest, setting aside our religion, we will know we are hungry for this kind of God who would do such a thing, become like us, fully man and fully God.  Again, I am in awe of the mystery of incarnation.

I need Emmanual, God with me more than I can imagine and I did allow myself to taste again the hunger of needing His "with us" tonight.

We can move past a corporate knowing and awe and allow our own hearts to hear and know His "with us" at the personal level He truly came to introduce us to. Remember in that last night before His arrest He told the eleven remaining disciples He was one with the Father and they were one with Him. He's talking about His "with us" and how it might be for us.

Sin always wants to come in and corrupt the holy relationship He has set in place. We fall often and for some of us, we fall hard. We may have marveled at His "with us" during those mountaintop experiences He brings us to from time to time, but it is when sin has done it's dirty work is when we need His "with us". We are dead in the water without His "with us" to guide us along.

We think we've been separated when sin comes. Frankly, I no longer believe that. There is a shift in the relationship but He's not departed. He is there at our lowest points. It really is scandalous what this "with us" means in those dark places we find ourselves in. I am reminded though of some of His last words recorded before being taken up to heaven, "Lo, I am with you always." There is no caveat to that kind of "with us" that  may say "I am with you until you really blow it then you are sort of on your own until you come to your senses". I don't read that anywhere and yet too often we think that is how He responds to us.

So I am struck with the scandal of His "with us" when all others might depart. I am struck with knowing He was with me wherever I may have wandered and His "with us" has come to find me when I'd rather run and hid from His loving gaze.

Emmanuel, God with us, an essential component of Advent if we are to truly celebrate His coming.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Identity

I can't seem to get away from the issue of identity lately.

I am not thinking about my name, although there is a bit of a story there and we all know what it means to hear our name called out; someone wants our attention, wants to tell us something, wants us for some reason. Often, it is good to hear our name, sometimes, not so much.

What I am thinking about is identity, who we think and believe we are, and who we really are. I am also pondering why this issue, above most others, is the one area our enemy assaults more often then other areas. In fact, I am fast coming to the belief any assault on us will eventually zero in on our identity.

I think we develop our beliefs about who we are, identity, in our family of origin. As a parent of adults I am humbled by the power I had to help my two children develop in this area. I would like to report I was intentional about this important part of parenting, frankly I wasn't. We had dinner last night with our two children. Our daughter treated us all to celebrate an important promotion/milestone in her career. It was a good night and I am blessed by the two adults that call me "Dad".

No matter how any of us were parented, we came away with a fractured view of who we are. I think many of us came away from our families so fractured that an identity overhaul was necessary if we were to get along in life. Some of us turn to career, some to therapy, some to ceaseless activity. All these endeavors will only be marginally successful in redeeming our identity.

At the core of our identity, if we are to hold to a biblical view, is our heart. We are told it is the well spring of life and should be guarded at all costs. It is the center of who we are whether we are followers of Jesus or we are not.

As a Jesus follower, I believe a large part of the full work accomplished through his death, resurrection and ascension is the giving of a new heart, a heart of flesh, for those who submit their lives to His lordship. Paul is telling us this when he writes that we are new creatures in Christ. Another writer I enjoy, Frank Viola, states we are a new species. If you stop to think about that idea, it might just rock your world.

John Eldredge, in his book, The Sacred Romance, outlines an ascension of identities moving from Clay in the potter's hands to Sheep to Servants to Children to Friends to finally, Beloved. I won't cite here his full quote, it's lengthy but powerful. You can find it on page 96 if you are so inclined. The point is, there are many layers to this new identity we receive at our second births. John's view is that we ascend through these to the final identity of Beloved. I think there is truth to this but there are times I must return back to Clay in God's hands when confronted with some things that come my way. All of these identities are important at various times in our lives.

The ultimate identity of Beloved is the one singular identity our enemy is after though. When we finally begin to believe from our core that we are Beloved in the Trinity's sight, so much of who we are and who we are meant to be falls into place. Pieces of the puzzle of who we are snap into their appointed places and potential clarity is offered. It is not easy to finally arrive at the point of deep belief in our status of Beloved and few truly get to that level. It's easier to think of ourselves as Sheep, Children or Friends of God. Belovedness carries a lot of weight that sometimes we aren't prepared to live with. BELOVED is what He calls us, though.

The assault on this identity sometimes comes at our own hands when sin arrives, as it always will. We listen to the voice, either our own, patterned by years of use, or the enemy's voice of accusation. The voice tells us that if we truly are Beloved, we would not do what we've just done. Sometimes we are reluctant to enter into confession and repentance thinking if we wallow in the guilt for a while we will be "cured" of our propensity towards the sin. Of course this is just one more lie we either tell ourselves or we listen to. Guilt-wallowing will do nothing to cure what only Grace can cure. We must always come back to Abba and His Grace when sin enters the realm of our identity.

There are times though, when we are trapped by something and we are in need of another Grace, the Grace of God's people, brothers and sisters who will listen and help us, who may need to come and gently correct and restore our shattered sense of identity.

It is this function, this activity I turn to now; the function we may offer to others of being a part of the royal priesthood of believers. How best may we come alongside a dear one who may be trapped in something too powerful for them to overcome without the Body of Christ coming alongside? At the core of this ministry is gentleness, a gentleness born out of humility, a humility born out of the notion we too may get caught in something too large for us to handle on our own.

It is a ministry of seeing, seeing what is going on; a ministry of listening, hearing what our friend is going through in all its details; a ministry of wisdom, taking care of what is said; a ministry of reconciliation, helping our weak brother to find their footing once again as a Beloved one. Anytime we are prompted to come alongside we need to be very careful in how we approach our friend. Care must be taken to not do violence to our brother.  Let me say this again, care must be taken to not do violence to our brother.

How could we possibly do violence at this point?  There are many ways and unfortunately I have seen this happen often. It occurs when we don't take the time to think carefully about how our weak friend may respond. What will be our strategy if they completely reject us with anger? It also happens when we are so convinced of an issue that we don't really listen well to how our weak friend found themselves in a point of bondage. It also occurs when we do violence to God's identity already bestowed on our weak brother.

At first glance this idea of violence may seem an overstatement, but Jesus made this last point when talking about murder in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us that when we call a brother "Raca" (most translate this to mean "idiot") we have committed murder, we have done violence to God's identity for our brother.

In coming alongside a weak brother, we need to always be careful to address what we have observed in our friend's behavior, what have we seen that gives us cause for concern. Approaching from this point of view hopefully may open up dialog that will reveal what has trapped our friend; conversation that will give deeper insight into what is going on and what other factors, unknown to us, have brought our friend to needing some help. Wisdom then may flow into the conversation as the Spirit in us and the Spirit in our brother find common ground on which help and strength may be found.

The violence occurs when we jump ahead too quickly and begin to rename our friend's identity, often an identity that runs counter to who God has already called our friend. We must always remember our weak brother is still Beloved. Anything offered in the way of identity that does not support the core of Belovedness does violence to our brother and will probably shut the hoped for conversation of help down in anger.

As mentioned above, Paul tells us to go to another with gentleness because we too may fall into sin and need the ministry of "coming along side". I don't think he necessarily meant we may fall into the same sin our weaker brother has fallen into. What I do think he means is that if we do violence against the identity of our weak brother, we too may find ourselves being treated with the same sin of violence against our identity in Christ.

Belovedness must be guarded at all costs. It has been bestowed at a great cost by Abba, and is the source from which all wholeness flows. It is a wholeness we all crave and hunger for since we are all broken and in need of wholeness.

The ministry of "coming along side" demands care, wisdom and above all, God's love flowing through us to one in need.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Assault

Recently, someone dear to me had an experience that caused them much hurt. They invited all their co-workers over to their home. Having stocked her table with food and drink she sat and waited. No one showed up. No one. As she told it, one person had said they wouldn't make it, but no one else expressed their regrets.

Any of us would have been deeply hurt. This experience for some would have dredged up all the old childhood hurts and fears that were imprinted during those crucial years. As adults we'd like to think we would be above such hurt and disappointment, but if we are honest with ourselves, we too would be deeply hurt.

This hit all the old hurts and they declared loudly to all who might see it on Facebook that she was a loser. Haven't we all had those experiences? Haven't we all struggled at some point in our life with that voice that screams we are a loser?

After a couple of weeks of prayer and thought I felt led to write. This is what I wrote (with some edits) :

"I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened with your girl’s night party. I need to say at the outset that what you did was brave, it is not an easy thing to offer hospitality. It is okay that you feel hurt deeply by what happened. Please see that you were brave and your actions were not something a loser would do.  What we do when we offer hospitality is offer love. A loser can’t really do that.

We have an enemy whose main tactic is to assault our true identity in Jesus. This assault always starts in our family of origin and this is very true of me. I was never given good tools to face this assault, mostly because neither mom nor dad understood this truth. Dad would have considered this “religion” and he had that locked up in a strong box to keep it away from real life. Mom was so damaged from the assault on her she had little to offer to her children. I was left to find my own tools, a search that led into the enemy’s hands. He offered tools that seemed to fit my damage hands and heart. I turned on myself and learned to listen to his false narrative for me.

His whispered words may grow so comfortable to us that he’s now hidden behind the illusion that we are hearing our own thoughts. They are not. It is his assault on us that is designed to sound like us but really isn’t. Your declaration that you are a loser is not your voice, not your heart, not you.

What truly is there in you, your deepest place? I’m not sure I should define that. It’s a path of discovery for you and God to journey on. However, I will say He does not see you as a loser. How do I know? That message is a destructive message and destruction is not part of His voice for us. His voice is one of peace and delight, even in the midst of pain and the hurt that comes in this journey. It may be a gentle voice of reproof but never the destruction that “loser” offers.

This distinction gives us a firm clue about the voice that assaults us. What is the outcome of the voice, is it turmoil or peace? Is it what you really want to think or do you feel pushed and compelled to destruction by the thought? The enemy hides and pushes at the same time so when you sense turmoil, destruction and compulsion, chances are the thought is not of God nor your truest self; there is someone else in the room.  Understanding this distinction of voice gives us insight into the first piece in the Armor of God, the belt of truth; truth of who God is and His voice, who you are in Him and who and what our enemy is up to.

What do I see in regards to the truth of who you are?  I see a woman who was brave to do what she did, a woman who offered love and friendship, a woman who got deeply hurt at the rejection of this offering, a woman who needs to rest in the grace offered by our Father, a woman who can learn to treat herself with that same grace, a woman who can learn to hear better the kind and gloriously transformative voice of the Spirit that resides in her. I also see a woman who isn’t sure she believes all this.

So, learn to rest in Him. Let Him have the confusion you might feel now. Tell Him about how hurt you are. Allow Him entrance into this wound. As transformation begins, and it will, let Him have the wounds one by one as He reveals them. This may take some time but remember, we have an eternity with Him so this isn’t a sprint but a marathon.

He’s madly in love with you even if you don’t feel it. He’s never walking away from you because you’re not sure you will ever “get it”. He sees you, every single line and stroke of every single letter in every single word in every single sentence in every single paragraph of every single page of the story of your life. None of it, the good and the bad, will alter how crazy mad in love He is with you. He’s got this and will whisper into you what your heart yearns to hear. Stop and let some stillness seep into the cracks of your life, you will find Him there.

No, you are not a loser. This I know and I suspect much more is there in you but that is up to you and God to find. He’s got much better timing than I do but He wanted me to tell you all this and tell you, you are not a loser. You are brave. Bravery does not flow from losers."

As I wrote this and have reflected on this I know, not too long ago, I too felt I was a loser. It wasn't until I understood that through the full work of Christ I have a new heart that I could trust to hear a different narrative for me, a narrative spoken by the Spirit that indwells me. Until then, I didn't understand well the assault I had been under for the previous 51 years.

We who follow Jesus are hated and this enemy will do anything to keep us from the truth of who we are in Christ. We are redeemed and adopted into the family of God and by this adoption we have the authority of Jesus to stand against this enemy when he seeks to destroy by dredging up the old narrative he designed for us.

Think and ponder this wonderful truth, we belong to the Almighty God who has defeated the enemy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Bench

Last Saturday I drove up to the Middle Fork of the Yuba river by myself. It is the place where our family and extended families with aunts and uncles and cousins would go and camp together. It was only about 35 miles from the home I grew up in but it always felt like a world away. The road was twisty and turny the last 15 miles but as the years went on the state highway department straightened out the road in places it was possible. There still is a steep and twisty climb into and out of the canyon that holds the South Fork of the Yuba. Every time I drive that road I think of my cousin David.

David and I were close from the very beginning with me being about 5 weeks older than he. He grew up in Napa but our families would get together often for holidays and other times.  When we were both finishing up the 8th grade we hatched a plan, an adventure. We decided that summer we would buy 10 speed bikes and ride from my parents home to the Yuba river and camp by ourselves for a few days. Neither of us knew if our parents would agree but we gave it a shot. Surprisingly they agreed. To this day I have the letter David sent me, special delivery, with the envelope back flap saying, "She said yes!!!!!!" meaning David's mother.

It was a long ride up and we had a real adventure with a few days camping on the river we both loved.

As it happens, we both grew up and we grew apart. We rarely see each other. A few years ago David called me and wanted to get together. He drove to my house, we had lunch together and ended up on a park bench on the state capitol grounds. We talked for a couple hours. It was good.

I'm currently sitting on our front porch. We have a small round table and two inviting chairs. I've had more than one significant conversation with people in these chairs. It is one of my favorite places.

We use to have a bench out front. It was a good bench but only fit two people rather snugly. I didn't spend as much time out front as I do now but I liked the bench, I like benches in general. They seem to be a visual invitation by some unseen person to sit for a moment, alone or with someone.

I've noticed something lately about how we tend to speak of our relationship with God. It is more often than not centered around us learning something. I often hear, "I think God is wanting to teach me something in this situation." As I've noticed how often I hear similar phrases from many people I wonder if this is how He wants us to primarily think of Him? Is this the main way we've taught people to relate to God as the cosmic school teacher whose only goal is to get our lessons learned?

I've also noticed how often people mention that God is working on them over some issue in their life. It seems like we see Him as the cosmic trainer trying to make us better. I suspect we are complicit in this because we believe if we are better He will love us more. It only stands to reason that He will always be about working on us about something.

Then there are those who are just a mess, broken and they know it, shattered and laying in a heap. I hear from those folks the expectation that God primarily needs to put the pieces back together so they can get on with life. They expect He's mainly about scooping up the pieces and putting things back together, impatiently waiting for the next mess He will have to clean up. I think many in this camp think God is mostly put out with them as He waits for us to stop making the messes we often make.

I'm not saying He isn't this type of God, that He isn't interested in us learning, or our transformation or the broken messes we get ourselves into. These are important issues He is interested in. Rather I'm suggesting He might want to have a different relationship with us.

Picture a bench. Its a wide wooden bench with a curved back all painted white. Its situated on a slight rise giving anyone who sits a view of green grass rolling off into the distance. Large oak trees are dotted in the green field and in the distance is a soccer field. Behind it are several evergreens that give a gentle enclosure for the spot of invitation.

You've driven past this spot many times on your way to work and running errands but today you stop. You've had one of those days where your own stubborn broken places have reigned. Your mouth accurately reflected an attitude you are now ashamed of. It's old territory for you and you are weary of the cycle you find yourself in. You need to give yourself a little time before finishing the drive home. You take a deep breath and on the exhale you pray, "God, I can't do this anymore".  It is then you notice the bench for the first time. "Had it always been there?", you ask yourself.

Unthinking you leave the car behind and make the short walk up the slope. You stand there at the bench and wonder if you dare take the time to sit, dare to expect God might be in this moment. Its then you notice the little desire creep into your mind and a voice, "Sit here with me". "Is it possible that He really wants to sit with me after the day I've had?" It seems almost scandalous but you sit and pour it all out to God.

Is it at all possible that God is saying, "Yes, I see all this, I know this pattern in you well and we will work on this but first things first. Just sit with me and know that you are loved, even the broken places that trip you up time and again. Just sit with me and let me love you, know you are loved. Now look up and see, take in this park. Notice the children playing soccer. Let me love you first before all other things that seem so pressing to you."

Is it at all possible that God first wants to be known by His love for us before all the other roles our needs thrust upon Him? Is it possible we can simply sit, side by side with Him on a bench letting our expectations of Him melt away?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Friend

I grew up in a rural part of Nevada County here in California. Friends were few and hard to come by. A family moved in fairly close to us, a family with 5 kids. Kevin was #3, a year younger than I and we really hit it off. We would hike and ride our bikes all over the countryside following the many deer trails that laced around our hills. They moved away and back in our area three times through those wonderful years. To this day I remember Kevin's birthday, May 19th.

I didn't have any other friends growing up. I don't recall being bullied in school, I was just ignored. Outside of my friendship with Kevin, I was lonely. I really didn't learn well the skills of making friends so having good friends has always been difficult for me.

I'm sitting on my front porch thinking about the friends I do have and I long for easy friendships. For a few years I had another Kevin who lived 3 doors down from me. He would often come and ask to go for a walk or just sit with me and we would talk. We shared much of our lives as we talked. I trusted Kevin. Things fell apart between us and eventually he moved up to Washington. To this day I miss this second Kevin.

My closest friends are scattered, Indiana, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida, West Virginia, Texas and Saudi Arabia. These men know me well and we maintain our connections through a private Facebook page. I do long for them and wish geography was kinder to our relationships.

I have friends here but finding time is always difficult. I have one friend who meets with me weekly on Tuesday nights for dinner. Its a good friendship but I wish time was easier for us. At times dinner feels forced, something we've done now for over 10 years. He is the Executive Pastor at the church we attend so often our conversations revolve around church issues.  I am no longer on the Elder Board so he often is careful about what is said. I understand but there is a bit of a barrier now that once was not there.

Years ago we had a couple we were close to. We spent a lot of time together and we could be spontaneous in getting together. I think I value friendships where we can be spontaneous and not have to work hard to carve out time together. That does something for my heart when someone will just want to be with me and it doesn't have to be something planned into a schedule.

This longing I feel tonight has caused me to remember something Jesus said to his guys that last night together in the Upper Room. He called them his friends. I wonder if telling them this meant as much to them as it would if I'd been there that night.

Friends. Its a word that has lost some meaning in our virtual culture. We have Facebook friends, my list of several spans most of my years with a few even from those years in elementary school and high school. But are they the kind of friends that Jesus was talking about that night? We almost dismiss Him saying this through the culture we find ourselves in. My friends from church are almost only seen through that context, either on Sunday morning or the weekly Bible study I lead. These are casual friends that have busy lives and are not able to offer to one another the kind of friendship I think Jesus was speaking of.

This kind of friendship cannot be casual. He offered an invitation to friendship with God. What He spoke of in those chapters in John (13-17) was an intimacy that can transcend all the barriers I sense in my earthly relationships. Geography and schedule offer no barrier to the friendship with God that we can have.

I have thought much about my own longing for friends. All those that have come and gone out of my life have given me a glimpse into the friendship offered by Jesus to me. As much as I desire friends who will simply come and be with me, warts and all, I realize Jesus, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is here with me as my friend.

As true as this is, I do think He desires for us to be good friends to one another. I realize my lack of skills in being a friend hinders some of my relationships. I am praying Jesus' friendship with me will help me to learn better how to be a good friend to those He has given me.

If you are reading this and know me personally, know that I love you and would love to have more time with you.