Thursday, September 06, 2012

Barely Hanging On

What can you do for the people you know who are barely hanging on? Especially when you are the one barely hanging on. What do you do when it seems to you like almost everyone is barely hanging on.

Except that you wouldn't know it by looking at them.

What you see isn't always what you get. You see people and you think they have it all together because that's how they act. So then you feel bad for not having it all together like all those people.

And you wonder what their secret is, and how you can learn that secret so that you don't have to feel like you are barely hanging on, so you can have it all together like them.

But then you find out that they don't have it all together, that they are actually barely hanging on. So then you feel betrayed. Here you were, beating yourself up for not having it all together like them, when all along they were barely hanging on just like you. Well, not just like you. Everybody is barely hanging on, just in different ways.

Well, not everybody. Some people actually have it all together. But they've got to work so hard to have it all together that they don't have much time or energy left over to help others who are barely hanging on to find a way to get it all together. So basically people that are barely hanging on have to start hanging out together. At least if you are going to be barely hanging on, you might as well barely hang on with others. Why be lonely when you're barely hanging on?

Except that it's embarrassing to admit that you are barely hanging on. People will look at you and wonder what is wrong with you. Except that most people who are judging you are also barely hanging on. Oh the irony.

So why is it so hard to let others know that you are barely hanging on? Is it because of denial? Or is it false hope, that I'm only barely hanging on for just a bit longer - so why admit to something that won't be true of me in a short time. Except that you do end up staying that way. And stay in denial. A weird denial; you seem to be crystal clear with yourself about barely hanging on, yet obscuring the truth towards others about your clinging. Is there shame in barely hanging on?

It seems to be such a universal experience - millions of people all barely hanging on and all ashamed about it, all committed to keeping it a secret. If everyone would just come clean with the people in your life about barely hanging on, maybe, just maybe, we'd find that what we call barely hanging on is not so bad. Maybe what we call barely hanging on is normal.

Maybe what we are barely hanging on to isn't worth it.

Maybe trying to be busier than God intends isn't worth it.

Maybe trying to make more money to afford more material possessions isn't worth it.

Maybe trying to make yourself so happy or fulfilled isn't worth it.

Maybe it's okay to fight with the people in your life, to not be content, to be unsettled and dissatisfied.

Maybe we don't have to want to be like other people.

Maybe we should just let go of what we are barely hanging on to. Maybe we'll find that the fog around our feet is hiding the ledge that is inches below our toes. Maybe we're barely hanging on to something that God's fine with us not having anymore.

Maybe we want more for ourselves in this life than God wants for us.

Maybe God's not interested in giving us more then we need.

Maybe we confuse the things we have for the things we need, and we attribute to God gifts that he didn't give or care about. Does God really care about you having a bigger house? Does God really care about you having a safer car? Does God really care about you getting a flatter TV? Does God really care about you having the perfect marriage and kids?

Maybe God doesn't care about any of those things in and of themselves. Maybe God put the fog around your feet so that you'd pay attention to what you're hanging on to. Maybe God wants you to notice what you are barely hanging on to and make a decision about it.

Maybe God isn't answering your prayers for help amidst your barely hanging on because he doesn't want you to hang on anymore. Are you barely hanging on to your marriage? Are you barely hanging on to your kids? Are you barely hanging on to your home? Are you barely hanging on to your job? Are you barely hanging on to your health? Are you barely hanging on to your friends?

Maybe it's not that God wants you to let go of your marriage, your kids, your job, your life - but God does want you to let go of the expectations and assumptions you have about them. If you expect someone to always make you happier, if you expect a job to always satisfy you, if you expect your kids to be more than they can be, if you expect life to give you more than it owes you - then yes, you'll continue to barely hang on to a ledge that leads to nowhere.

But maybe you'll finally decide you're tired of barely hanging on, you'll admit that you're tired of barely hanging on, you'll let others know you're tired of barely hanging on, and then someday maybe you'll quit barely hanging on.

And you'll discover that in letting go you finally stood firm on your feet instead of grasping with aching fingers. When you land on your feet, you may find that there are still intractable problems and insatiable desires. But instead of equating success with solving all problems and satisfying all desires, you'll be bravely honest enough to accept life as it is.

Accepting your life as it is allows you to hear the words of Jesus as spoken to you as you really are, not the you that you were barely hanging on to, a you that didn't really exist except in your fantasies.

And by hitting the fog-laced ledge with your feet, now it becomes possible to follow the way of Jesus in life as it really is, not just with your head and grasping hands.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. [Romans 15v5-7]

So if all of us who are barely hanging on will just accept one another in the same way that Jesus accepts us, maybe we'll have the courage to let go? Maybe instead of expending so much energy on ourselves and our clinging, we accept from God the endurance and encouragement he's willing to give for the life we really have, not the one we wish we had. And maybe this would help us to see people as they really are - not as ones who have it all together, but as ones who are barely hanging on. Maybe if we can learn to glorify God as we're barely hanging on, we'll someday be willing to praise God standing on our feet.

I know, I know, it just looks like there are so many people who have it all together. So many people, who despite their problems still seem to be happy and worry free. You see them smiling, you see the ways they are blessed, how they seem to work through obstacles with ease, the same obstacles that seem to trip you up.

Yes, all those people who you think are successful and don't fit into the category of barely hanging on - there are some of them. But for most of those people you think have it all together, there's something in their life, something important, something they care deeply about that is not going well. And in that area of their life, they are barely hanging on. And it's in that clinging, that concern, that worry, that fear that God meets them and invites them to trust.

People don't have it as together as you'd like to think. But regardless of whether you think they are barely hanging on or not, what matters more is you - you can't cling and take God's hand at the same time. Either you continue to choose to barely hang on or you trustingly take God's hand and let him lower you down on the fog-laced ledge.

And quit looking at other people and judging for yourselves whether they are barely hanging on or having it all together. Quit comparing people. You barely know their story. Pay attention to your own story.

You don't have to keep barely hanging on anymore. And you don't have to keep comparing yourself to others anymore. You don't have to. You don't. But if you do, if you continue to barely hang on, I understand.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Jesus & Our Culture of Addiction

Alcohol, smoking, drugs, gambling, food, video games, internet, sex, shopping and work have been referred to as the ten most common addictions. Someone put together a rather long list of addictions from A to Z. It would seem that almost any substance or activity that provides some kind of rush, satisfaction, pleasure or ecstasy is now considered a prime candidate for addiction. Thus, almost anyone is now a possible candidate to become an addict.

Addictions often get labeled as either a hedonistic choice or a disease of the brain. In the book, Addiction and Virtue, Kent Dunnington makes the case, using Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, that addictions are instead best understood as a complex habit. It's well known that people are a sum of their habits. Addiction happens to be a very alluring yet destructive habit. Dunning explores the role of reason and appetite in forming habits, emphasizing that addictions are a complex habit formed as a rationale response to a moral and intellectual crisis.

Dunnington makes a case that addictions are how many people react to the deep longings swirling around in them. Addictions are new to human history, one of the tragic by-products of our Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment. Our uniquely individualistic, hedonistic culture breeds meaninglessness, arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness. As people get reduced to cogs and cubicles in our post-Industrial, Information-age society, and as doubt and cynicism chew away at our certainty, absolutes and beliefs, humans must find a way to cope.

For the Christian, addiction is certainly a sin. And like all sins, it is one for which repentance and forgiveness are needed. But unlike most sins, addiction is in a category all its own, being a complex habit that is more then just a series of bad moral choices or a disease in the neurons. Understanding the roots of addiction in our culture help bring about Christian compassion for those that are addicted. It also helps mobilize Christians to better understand their culture, which will result in more accurate criticisms as well as more helpful solutions. This is where Jesus comes in.

When Jesus entered his culture, there was much to critique. Instead of rampant addictions, he addressed demonic possession. The evils of Empire, the terror of kings, the thousands of crucifixions, the chronic starvation and disease - this is what Jesus confronted. The trauma that filled people, the brokenness, the ache caused by unrestrained wickedness and demonic activity met its match in Jesus.

To all who would listen, Jesus called people to repent, to turn away from the evil, to return to God - for the kingdom of God had come. The sign of God come to Earth through Jesus was evident in demons being powerless before him, being sent away almost effortlessly. Thousands of the crippled and diseased - products of not enough food, brutal wars, and slave labor - found healing and hope in Jesus. Jesus was recognized as a king, the Son of David, the Messiah, the deliverer, the forgiver of sins - and he was a direct threat to Caesar, King Herod, and all others with power who propped up the destructive status quo.

And here we are, followers of this King Jesus, in a culture that fuels addictions. What can Jesus do through his followers in response to loneliness, boredom, meaninglessness in our culture and communities? If the kingdom was still coming into our neighborhoods today through those that trust Jesus - what kind of healing and hope would that bring to addicts?

In the Spirit of Jesus, Christians must be astute critics of culture. But this will only have credibility to the degree that they are honest and humble about how they are both products of that same culture and have also been able to create an alternative society that brings about healing from the more destructive elements of the culture.  Bill Wilson, one of the famous founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, was an alcoholic who found healing and hope through Jesus through passionate and pious Christians. His story of how he became a Christian has been published for all to read. 

Interestingly, a recent survey showed that the majority of people who are getting help from A.A. got connected through former A.A. members. Only 1% of the respondents said that their church referred them to an A.A. meeting. Without making too much of this stat, and recognizing that churches are one of the places you might find a A.A. meeting happen, there seems to be a disconnect between churches and success in overcoming addictions. Spirituality infuses the recovery outlined in A.A. Spirituality infuses church...but not in a way that helps fuel healing. Why is this?

Dunnington points out how addicts are "a kind of unwitting modern prophet" that the church ought to heed. Imagine a church that heeded this prophecy. Imagine how a church like that could help answer Jesus' prayer for the kingdom to come. Imagine how a church like that could help answer the prayer of the addict: "God, save me." Imagine how difficult it would be to be part of a church like that - difficult yet inspiring.

This reminds me of another of Jesus' words: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well." Difficult words to live by, yet when done so very inspiring - both for those that do it and those who see it.

How do you see addicts? Or do you prefer to not see them? We can be sure that Jesus would see them. And that he would have compassion on them, as sheep without a shepherd. And he would bring them healing and salvation. Addiction is a complex habit, hence it requires a complex, indirect response. It's not that people aren't delivered from their habit of addictions, it's that too few are saved. And it's that the church as a whole too often judges or overlooks addicts.

The irony being that we all breathe the same cultural air, and but for the grace of God, they could be you. Maybe if more addicts were welcomed into the church, the church would feel more urgency in embracing a spirituality that brings healing and not just warm fuzzy feelings.

Dunnington's book illuminates the role of virtue and habits from the perspective of philosophy (Aristotle) and theology (Aquinas). These explorations into ancient virtues and centuries of developed thought on the role of reason and appetite in human behavior will enrich your perspective. It will also reveal how negligent most Christians are in regard to habit, to habits of virtue, and to habits of spirituality. Dunnington's insights on addictions as habit and sin will deepen your understanding of how close we all are to becoming addicts.

The loftiest suggestions come in tying addiction to idolatry, pointing to renewed worship of God (not praise songs, but attitude and allegiance) as a way to bring order and meaning to life. This alternative, along with a resulting loving community of Jesus-followers has potential to help nurture more healing for more addicts who refuse to be bored, who refuse to live without purpose, and who will do whatever it takes to avoid the feelings of loneliness.  The difficulty is in the pervasive weak worship of too many churches, the ambivalent communities, and the anemic Christian ministries.

Still, Jesus speaks to all with ears to hear: "Repent, for the kingdom of God has come." And those with eyes to see: Jesus heals as he preaches.

My argument has been that addiction is a habit informed as all habits are, by rationality. And I have been trying to probe the structure of this rationality. I have been trying to display how addiction insinuates itself into the cogitative estimation by supplying order and integrity to an addicted person's life - order and integrity that we as human beings, and particularly as modern human beings, crave.

Addiction, I have argued, operates as a moral and spiritual strategy, carrying out particular functions in the moral life and empowering a person for the pursuit, albeit misguided, of ecstatic satisfaction. This is why I have paid much attention to the constructive and positive potential of addiction and have elaborated little on the destruction and havoc it wrecks. Addiction is mysteriously powerful, but if we fail to ask what the power consists in, then we make it not only mysterious but also foreign.

I have attempted to make addiction less foreign, giving us ways to think about the pull that addiction has on all of our lives. I hope my analysis has shown how near, rather than how far, each of us is to the major addict.
~ Kent Dunnington, Addiction and Virtue, pg 167

Friday, August 17, 2012

Venturing and Risk

One of my motivations for blogging was to share quotes.

Mum has always been a collector of quotes. I remember as a child, when my Mum was giving leadership to the youth group. She had laminated sheets of paper with quotes on them and taped them to the hallway and the youth classroom. Every time I would walk through there on my way to somewhere else in the church, I would read those quotes.

My parents started subscribing to Readers Digest, where I would always first turn to the quotes page. Often I would tear out the page and tape it to my own bedroom wall. With this blog I wanted to share quotes that I find meaningful.

And one of my favorite sources of thoughtful quotes is Soren Kierkegaard. He may not be everyone's favorite philosopher, but he has been helpful to me. And thus maybe to you. Here are some insightful and challenging quotes on venturing and risk for the Christian.

Surely Christianity's intention is that a person use this life to venture out, to do so in such a way that God can get hold of him, and that one gets to see whether or not he actually has faith.

It is dangerous business to arrive in eternity with possibilities that you have prevented from becoming actualities. Possibility is a hint from God. A person must follow it. The possibility for the highest is in every soul; you must follow it. If God does not want it, then let him hinder it. You must not hinder it yourself. Trusting in God, I have ventured, but I have failed - there is peace and rest and God's confidence in that. I have not ventured - it is an utterly unhappy thought, a torment for all eternity.

We delude ourselves into thinking that to refrain from venturing is modesty, and that it must please God as humility. No, no! Not to venture means to make a fool of God - because all he is waiting for is that you go forth. 

During the first period of a person's life the greatest danger is to not take the risk. When once the risk has been taken then the greatest danger is to risk too much. By not risking you turn aside and serve trivialities. By risking too much, you turn aside to the fantastic, and perhaps to presumption.

To venture the truth is what gives human life and the human situation pith and meaning. To venture is the fountainhead of inspiration. Calculating is the sworn enemy of enthusiasm, the mirage whereby the earthly person drags out time and keeps the eternal away, whereby one cheats God, himself, and his generation. 

A bold venture is not a high-flown phase, not an exclamatory outburst, but arduous work. A bold venture, no matter how rash, is not a boisterous proclamation but a quiet dedication that receives nothing in advance but stakes everything.

Preserve me, Lord, from the deceit of thinking that by being prudent and looking after my own interests I am necessarily using my talents aright. He who takes risks for your sake may appear to lose, but he is accepted by you. He who risks nothing appears to gain by his prudence, but he is rejected by you. But let me no think that by avoiding risk I am better than the other. Grant me to see that this is an illusion, and save me from such a snare.

~ Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations, pgs 396-400

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I Remember My Dad

I remember my Dad teaching me to mow the grass at four years old. Well, maybe I was five or six. Not much older than seven. But he taught me how to check the gas and oil, how to start it, how to mow around the edges of the yard and house and garden, and then how to mow straight lines.

I remember the neighbor boy Jason saying his dad would only let him mow if he was wearing a suit of armor. I was glad my dad wasn't that paranoid.

I remember my Dad attending our high school soccer games, pacing back and forth behind the goal net, advising the goalie, encouraging the defense, and rallying our team to never give up.

Considering we didn't win a single game my senior year, my Dad's presence and belief in us became ever more valuable.

I remember my Dad coming in at night when I was in grade school, I slept in the top bunk, and he would lean over to give me a good night kiss. Except that it was more of a good night whisker rub. Which, as a boy, I kind of appreciated.

I remember Saturday nights with my Dad as a kid, watching Hockey Night in Canada on the TV, and us relaxing together a bit before bedtime. I remember Sunday nights with Mum and Dad and the family snuggled up on the coach watching the Wonderful World of Disney: Davey Crockett, Shaggy Dog D.A., and Herbie the Love Bug.

I remember going through a real dark period as a man, a husband, a pastor; my Dad and I started meeting for breakfast every Friday at Kahganns Korner, a little gas station restaurant on the corner of 69 and Highway 6. We'd walk out of that dingy place smelling like a smoke stack! But I cherished those times with my Dad, talking about gardening, the news, politics, ministry, marriage, life.

I remember dinner time, Dad at the head of the table, Mum at the other end, and us boys on both sides. Mum would have us help set the table, and then we'd sit down, Dad would pray, and then we would feast. It wasn't long before things got loud and obnoxious. Ben would sing a silly song he heard on a commercial - usually the most annoying one. Matt would be making odd sounds and comments. Jerm would be telling funny jokes, the punchline timed to when I would slurp up some soup or take a swig of milk.

I'm still impressed that Dad managed to grin even as I spewed the contents of my mouth all over the supper table. Every once in awhile, Dad would say, "Enough!" We'd quite down real quick, but then, as Ben would say, we were starting to get on our own nerves anyway.

I remember, soon after we moved to Montgomery Michigan, Dad was given an opportunity to start a second garden at the Ferrier's farm down the road. Dad dragged us boys along to help weed a large plot of neglected dirt. Dad set about his work with determination and diligence. It's almost as if he enjoyed transforming this unused piece of land into something productive and nourishing.

Though at the time we didn't quite appreciate the scope of Dad's vision, nor the hardiness of his work ethic, we did have fun trying to yank out weeds that were taller than us! It'd take three of us to pull them out of the ground! We wondered about what kind of country we had moved to that had weeds like this! Dad was undaunted, and by the end of the summer we were savoring sweet strawberries, feasting on fresh corn on the cob, harvesting cucumbers, potatoes, green beans, peas and watermelon. It was always impressive to me what Dad was able to grow.

I remember when we were real little, we went to go visit Grandpa and Grandma Hallman on the farm. It was a cold, snowy, blustery Canadian day. Thus, the four grown ups bundled up us four kids and shoved us outside into the blizzard to play while they sat around the fireplace sipping hot tea. We trudged over to the barn for shelter.

While huddled there we tried to think of something fun to do. We noticed that the snow drifts were so high and solid that we could walk right up onto the barn roof. Which is what we did. We then noticed that there was enough packed snow on the roof that if we climbed high enough, we could slide down the barn roof and land in the snow drift. Which is what we did. Now we were having some fun in the blizzard!

After awhile we noticed that the bottoms of our snow pants were shredded to pieces. We couldn't figure out why. Then we noticed little nail heads sticking up out of the roof. It was then that we realized that we were busted. We doubted that our parents would have approved us in climbing up a barn roof in the middle of a snow storm to use as a slide, and now we would have to tell them about it. It was a somber moment. So we decided to keep sliding, if we were going to get in trouble anyway.

After awhile, when we got really cold and there was nothing left on the bottom of our snow pants, we single-file headed back to the farmhouse, prepared for doom. You can imagine my mom's shock when we entered the kitchen with shredded snow pants. We timidly awaited my father's follow up comment of "You what?" But instead it was if the heavens openend, the angels started singing, and my father responded with a laugh, a huge grin, and: "Yeah, that's what I used to do when I was a kid!"

Oh, we were so happy, I had never been more thankful for my dad then in that moment.

So now, when I mow the yard, I remember my dad. When I cheer my kids on at soccer, I remember my dad. When I kiss my daughter and sons goodnight, and every once in awhile give them a whisker rub, I remember my dad. Sometimes I'll turn a hockey game on just as a way to remember being with my dad as a little kid. I doubt I'll every eat another meal at Kaghanns Korner, but every time we drive by on our way up to the Lake, I remember my dad.

Every time my kids get loud and obnoxious at the dinner table, I remember my dad. Every time I plant a bearded iris or marigolds, I think of my dad. When I plant huckleberries and asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries and pole beans, I think of my dad. And when my kids do something crazy dangerous, like climb to the tops of thirty foot trees, I remember my dad.

I remember my dad studying the Bible. I remember my dad preaching Scripture. But mostly what I remember is my dad living out his faith - as a dad, as a husband, as a friend. The first sermon of my dad's that I remember being interested in was about 1 Corinthians 13. Like my father, I've preached through that text many times. Like my father, I've meditated on those words of God for many hours.

Like the Apostle Paul, when reflecting on all the words of the Gospel, on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, here was the conclusion that we have come to: without love, anything we attain is worth nothing. In imitating the life of Christ, we would, like Paul, describe love by first saying that love is patient, and that love is kind. And when I read those words, I remember my Dad.

And when I remember my Dad, I will remember his faith in Jesus, I will remember his hope in God, and most of all, I will always remember his love.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Fare Well, Dad, and God Speed

Off you go, Dad, on your next adventure.

You've had your share of unexpectedness, unasked for odysseys. And with grace, class, and quiet determination you would step through the opened door. That's how I see it, anyway, even if I wasn't there to observe the questioning conversations and pondering thoughts.

There was the adventure of becoming a pastor. You didn't see that one coming. Yes, you were a leader in your Roseville church, you served in Christian Endeavor, impacting a province for Christ. But when the invitation to consider serving God as a pastor was presented, that changed everything. You resisted it. You doubted it. You didn't believe you could do it. But you set off on the journey to do it.

There was the adventure of going to college in a different country. You didn't think it was possible. Sure, your younger sister had gone and done it - but could you? She believed in you, helped convince you it was possible. Your life of farming had it's routines and setbacks, predictability and dangers - should you leave it all behind? Would you succeed? There was only one way to find out.

You went, you worked, you studied, you got married, you graduated, then worked and studied more and graduated again, got ordained, got your first son, then your first church.... Almost 40, with a Master's degree, starting life over again, achieving what you didn't think was in your future, in ways that you didn't see coming.

There was the adventure of taking Rozanne Stucky as your beloved wife. Two quiet but kindred spirits, coming together from two different countries, two very different families, yet together facing a new future as one. She drove a Mustang, you drove tractors; you ate head cheese, she ate tenderloins. You the farming Canadian man, she the small-town American girl, but together you gave each other a new beginning, a new family, a new way to serve wherever God would send you.

There was the adventure of becoming a father to Tim, Jeremy, Matt, Ben. And Mike. And Willie. And Don. And other boys, other men who have flourished under your steady gaze, strong hands, gentle heart, wise words, nourishing convictions, hope-full faith, thought-full love. The seven of us boys are proud to have called you Dad.

There was the delightful adventures of welcoming Tara into the family, of welcoming Maria into the family, of welcoming Jana into the family. And more wonderful adventures with becoming a Grandpa! Savoring summers at Lake Pleasant, celebrating with birthday cakes and Christmas feasts with the chatter and laughter of all those adventurous grandkids: Emma, Levi, Isaac, Eli, Eva, Lydia, Cameron, Mia, Avery, Brooklyn.

We are your gifts to the world, adding more goodness and grace to the family and friends God has brought around us. As a Dad you made much possible for us, taking us along on your adventures to new places, new people, new experiences. You believed in us. You were proud of us. You served us. You sent us off on our adventures. You gave us your blessing. And then you continued to be a blessing to us.

And there were the adventures you had as a pastor in Toronto, North Bruce and Shiloh, Montgomery, and Fort Wayne. Also, the adventures you had in all the other jobs you worked to help provide for your family. Like being a bus driver. Or renting out the cottages at Lake Pleasant. Or, after you retired from pastoring, the adventure of working in Angola at the local Wal-mart as a bike-assembler. You assembled to the glory of God, serving every customer and fellow co-worker with dignity, kindness, extraordinary patience, and a joy-full attitude. What you poured into your pastoring - whether at a church or amongst the bike-racks, at the Lake, on the bus or in the garden - you took what God surprised you with and still served faithfully.

You also had to endure the unwanted, the heart-wrenching adventure of saying good-bye to Ben, and to Matt. Oh the fear, the weeping, the bewilderment, the crushing grief. These unexpected travails were thrust on your shoulders, shoulders that shuddered with weeping, shoulders that sagged under the weight of sorrow, but shoulders that we all leaned against, strong shoulders that led us through, shoulders that carried us along - in faith, in hope, and in love.

We can't stop the adventures from coming. But what we do with the adventures that God sends to us, that's the story of our life. And your life, your story, it inspires me, us, to keep believing in God, to keep loving one another, to be a servant to many, to stay a student, a follower of Jesus, until the last breath.

You were the kind of leader who led quietly, you were the kind of man who served behind the scenes. You were a hard worker, you were reliable and trustworthy, a man of your word, diligent in what you set your hand to. With the doubts and insecurities you carried around, with the fears and envy that every working man has to wrestle with, you did so such that you chose contentment and diligence. With where God called you, you went trusting, and teaching through your life. Thank you.

Fare well, Dad, and God speed. You fared well here, Dad. You provided for your wife well, for your children and grandchildren and future generations. You provided for your church, for other ministers and missionaries, other charities and good works. You fared well and paid attention to the welfare of many. Thank you.

Along your journey, you inspired many to trust God, to follow Jesus, to listen to the Spirit. May what you inspired in us be continued, may God continue what he started in you- through me, through us, through all your family, through my children, through all those you baptized and ministered to - for generations to come.

"What matters most to me is to finish what God started: the job the Master Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about this incredibly extravagant generosity of God. And so this is good-bye.

You're not going to see me again, nor I you, you whom I have gone among for so long proclaiming the news of God's inaugurated kingdom. I've done my best for you, given you my all, held back nothing of God's will for you. Now it's up to you.

I'm turning you over to God, our marvelous God whose gracious Word can make you into what he wants you to be and give you everything you could possibly need in this community of holy friends. I've never, as you so well know, had any taste for wealth or fashion. With these bare hands I took care of my own basic needs and those who worked with me.

In everything I've done, I have demonstrated to you how necessary it is to work on behalf of the weak and not exploit them. You'll not likely go wrong here if you keep remembering that our Master said, 'You're far happier giving than getting.'"

So: God speed on your next adventure, may you fare well there too. May it be full of the unexpected, may it be an odyssey of more happiness than what we could ever ask for or imagine. We turn you over to our marvelous God who is now making you into what he wants you to be...

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Death after Life

Last night we kept vigil with Dad. We waited with him, praying our way through the darkness. Listening to his labored breathing, to the raspy silence. St. Paul poetically maps out the way of love: love is patient, love is kind. And thus it is in the coming death of Dad, we all are given moment after moment to extend loving patience and loving kindness. As we wait, so we love. 

Our life is put on hold, routine is disturbed, schedules are thrown into disarray as Dad dies. It's not a matter of resentment, but a reality to embrace. The capacity to rely on friends and family, to weather the mourning storm, it reveals the wisdom of how we've been trying to live. Death is a form of judgment, an unmasking of reality. Because it comes after life, death is the period which prompts us to look back on the sentence of our life.

The chaos of death can either be fueled by how we've been living, or it can be embraced. 

Dad's pending death has been prompting thankfulness. And perspective. How much grace is required to die well? The one that is dying, the ones that are mourning - we can give and receive grace, or resist it. I'm thankful for our family and friends who have poured out so much grace. Though we are sad, we are grateful. And it prompts me to consider: how much of life is preparation to die well? If I want to be well-loved as I die, if I want to be remembered for loving-well, then what must I sow now?

In sorting out what I think are my Dad's successes and failures, because I add grace to his life, I get a new understanding of his death and his life. The grace magnifies the successes and it transforms the failures. All that is good about Dad, I've tried to imitate; what I've judged in him, I've seek to overcome in myself. Death after life provides space to revisit my memories, to reconsider the gift I was given. Death after life is a moment to fill with grace and gratitude, or to sow it full of weedy bitterness and regrets.

My Dad is not dead yet. But we've been fully aware that he's been dying since a few days before Christmas Eve. As our life as ebbed and flowed these many weeks, we've thought a lot about the tides of dying. So fragile life is, so much is unguaranteed. How useless it is to rage against God at the unfairness of life. Death is what adds meaning to life. 

Ignorance of death prompts the wasting of life. Contemplation of death after life can add wisdom to your limited days and decades. Our reaction to death after life is often a paradox: we hate the death but savor the importance it adds to our life. It's often in death that we realize what we truly value, who we really are.

Death after life. Is a funeral something to avoid, for you? Is a death a tragedy to ignore or swiftly pass by? Or is the death of one you care about an opportunity for you to reinvest in your one life? What have I done with all the deaths of the ones I love? I'd like to think I've gained wisdom, wrestled with cynicism, struggled with despair, and embraced the uncertainty. And there is more yet to experience. I don't want to waste my Dad's death, or his life. Death after life, it's how our world works. So what work must I do now, and in the coming moments, to help my Dad die well-loved?

Why all this writing about my Dad, about death, life, love? Well, it's a way to sort out what's in my head and heart. And maybe a way to encourage others who have felt the sting of death. As one who follows in the way of Jesus, I work to live and love and prepare to die from a Gospel point of view. Jesus was a master wisdom-teacher, not only in his teachings but also in his life. To me, for my Dad, Jesus is believable, a trustworthy guide through reality. Death after life becomes good news.

In believing him, the crucified and resurrected Jesus, it plants new ideas about death after life. Death is to prompt mourning. But the promise of resurrection sparks hope. So it is with glad obedience to Jesus that I work to love my Dad well, both in living and dying. To choose love, in the way of Jesus, fuels my faith and hope in the resurrection, in the restoration of all things. Death after life: for me it has prompted and planted grace.

Thank you, Dad, for introducing me to Jesus, to living, and now dying.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Death and Seeds

With my Dad dying, I am obviously thinking about death a lot. I think about Dad's life, such as I remember it and know it, in light of his impending funeral. And I think about my life in connection with my Dad's life, and his dying. There is gratitude. There is respect. There is confusion. There are questions. And there is guilt.

My Dad was born to a farmer, probably a third, fourth, maybe even seventh or ninth generation farmer. Lots of seeds got planted by Hallmans. Lots of life was sustained by my family over the decades and centuries. Many seasons of summer, fall, spring and winter were endured. Accumulated wisdom on how to prepare, when to work, what to do amidst the unexpected. But at the core of farming is this finality: winter is coming. 

To the degree that we forgo cultivating a vegetable gardening, that we buy canned and boxed food at a grocery chain-store, we rarely ever get the reminder to prepare for winter. Or death. Sure there are signposts, funerals of friends, tragic snuffing of life on the nightly news or Redbox movies. But does it lead to our rumination of a life well lived, of seeds well planted, of ground well prepared? Do we take seriously that at the end of the harvest is the cessation of work?

My Dad has planted many seeds during his almost eighty years of life. As a farmer, as a gardner, as a husband, as a pastor. As a son, as fruit of his seed, I contemplate the gift of life he made possible for me. And what am I doing with it? What am I doing with his gift, my life, and the story of his life. The wondering prompts guilt.

It's too easy to plough through the seasons oblivious to the rhythms of the Earth. To miss moments of planting, to skip over the days of cultivating, to ignore the weeding, to resist the waiting, to be distracted during harvest-time, and to misuse the rest and repair that winter offers. I feel like I've missed too many moments with my Dad. With a heart that is already grieving, it seeps with guilt - the finality of death illuminates moments wasted, questions unasked, stories unearthed. 

With Dad's life slowly but surely diminishing, it makes me wish I would have made more of our time together. And so I feel guilty about there not being more when we've reached the point of there never being anymore. There are few more seeds for Dad to plant. Just a few more, and then Dad's spring, summer and fall have ceased. I will revisit the seeds Dad has planted in my life, and realize that it's uncountable. But I will try. 

And I will let the guilt prompt me to feel grace. Death has a way of causing us to grasp. And I feel it strongly. But...that for which I grasp, it was undeserved, a good gift from God. So while I feel guilty for not appreciating my Dad more, I take the next step of being thank-full for the gift of my Dad, that I could appreciate him and be blessed by him. Just another way my Dad's impending death helps me turn seeds of guilt into a basket of life-giving grace.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Death as Winter

It's a beautiful Spring morning. Shadows and sunlight mingle on the green, sloped backyard. A partially planted garden, empty swings, fading daffodils, and a mess of sticks and uncut logs ready for a campfire. This is a good time of year to be alive. Full of potential, of freshness, of possibility, of seedlings and tree buds.

And yet for our family, like too many others, it is a season of Winter in our soul. If life is like seasons, then my Dad is somewhere past Winter solstice and... we don't know. The brain tumor has brought about a bleakness, the cancer has stirred up a flurry of uncertainty and immobility. The prognosis of death, the onset of Winter is very real in this season of Springtime.

Everyone has their own story of Winter, of Death, of a season of fading life, of a tale coming to an end. In my own story with my Dad, I'm searching, reflecting, accepting, discovering, realizing, and mourning.

I'm sad that my Dad is dying, that he has been dying while still living these past seventeen weeks. I'm sad that we didn't have more notice prior to the brain tumor and surgery - the debilitation that followed the procedure robbed us of: that final getaway, the one last family event, the beloved Christmas feast. I'm sad.

The thousand thoughts in my mind, they need to get sorted out. Conversations with family and friends has been helpful. But to write, to filter, to get the right phrase, to write out the ideas, it's needed.

How many billions of people have watched their Dad die? Nothing unique about my experience in the grand and tragic tale of humanity. Except it is for me. And with all the accumulated wisdom out there, I want to help my Dad die well loved. And when my day comes, I want to die well.

So I write in preparation, as a form of action, as a way of healing, of serving, of loving.

"A good reputation is better than a fat bank account.
Your death date tells you more than your birth date.

You learn more at a funeral than at a feast - 
After all, that's where we all end up. 
We might discover something from it.

Crying is better than laughing.
It blotches the face but it scours the heart.

Sages invest themselves in hurt and grieving.
Fools waste their lives in fun and games.

Endings are better than beginnings."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Anchor Through My Eyes

As a pastor, as part of Anchor, who are we becoming, what ought to be true of us?

Anchor is located ten blocks north of Main Street. We're another ten blocks west of downtown. Our location impresses upon us the crucial need for urban renewal, for the integration of urban and suburban communities, for the collaboration of resources for the prosperity of the city. 

Because of the affordability of housing in Anchor's neighborhood, there is a high percentage of families with someone involved in the court or prison system. The effects of inadequate education and vocational training, the lack of character formation and social responsibility, the breakdown of families, the absence of fathers, and ineffectiveness of churches are keenly felt. 

Addictions, adultery, apathy, abuse, anger - all universal in their scope, seem to have a concentrated and blatant reign in our neighborhood. What would it take to help our neighborhood and city become a better place to live? 

Love God. Love Your Neighbor. Be the Anchor. 

Loving God and loving our neighbor is intertwined. So we must help each other - as individuals and as a community of believers - love our neighbors as an expression of our love for God, and love God as an expression of our love for our neighbors.

This takes theological reflection, spiritual introspection, and practical application. The pursuit of this reality changes who we are, who we are becoming. And it changes the communities that we part of, building a certain kind of momentum leading to a critical mass for renewal or transformation. 

Anchor is a both a community of believers and an organization of servants. We are believers wherever we go - at home, at school, at work - but we gather as believers once a week. We are servants wherever we go as well, but we organize in order to do more together then we could on our own. Our community and organization help produce a koinonia that cares for one another and those in our neighborhood and city. 

Loving our neighbor has a definite social and economic reality to it. Love for neighbor is often expressed to those in need - to those we know and to those we see. Thus we are learning how to best help, how not to enable, how to develop towards maturity rather then reinforce poverty of mind and heart. 

If our love for our neighbor is rooted in our love for God and the good news of Jesus, we have to think incarnationally. How do we enter into the world of those who do not yet love God or their neighbor and help bring the light and way of Jesus? Our incarnational ministry focuses on meeting people where they are at and helping them learn how to take their next steps with Jesus. 

Anchor is Jesus centered. We worship as a way to express to Jesus gratitude and our need for help. We study the Scriptures to know and understand what Jesus has already instructed and commanded. We gather to encourage each other and spur one another on towards good works of love for God and our neighbor.

Anchor thinks about it's influence on the city. What the city cares about, Anchor must learn to care about. In figuring out how to be good news to our community, we must discern what is the bad news, and be participants in helping. But Anchor's motivation for caring about the city, about our neighbors, about the problems of our culture is rooted in the commands and commission of Jesus.

In entering into our culture and society, we take into account those forces that powerfully shape our lives and values, our worldviews and presuppositions. In immersing ourselves in the way of Jesus, and learning about the world we live in, we better understand and can more wisely live out the Good News of God. This can have restorative power for cities and corporations, educational and health organizations, for institutions and neighborhoods.

This requires working with a wide variety  of Christians and leaders in the city, to collaborate with like-minded activists for accomplishing together what none of us can do alone. It also requires Christians bringing Christ into their workplace, into their vocations and letting Jesus shape careers, influencing how you use your skills and knowledge for good in light of community and cultural problems.

All of this hinges on the ability of the pastor and church leadership to foster a healthy community of believers and a productive organization of servants. This requires paying attention to congregational details about spiritual realities, relational needs, economic challenges, racial tensions, gender inequality, and socioeconomic factors.

It also is necessary to improve management skills to fruitfully train and empower for rewarding service. In serving one another in the congregation as well as in the realms of school, work and home, there is a need for effective administration and management to help support inspiring worship, effective small groups, helpful ministries, fruitful evangelism and discipleship. A church that can live out this dual role as community and organization will be a powerful catalyst for the neighborhood and city.

The temptation is to reduce the gospel to a tool for getting into heaven when you die. But a steady immersion in the Gospel of Jesus will reveal an obvious expectation for disciples: repent of sins, forgive those who sin against you, love as demonstrated by Jesus, join the ministry of reconciliation, be a blessing, heal in the name of Jesus, rescue the lost, pray for God's will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Following Jesus is about what God wants to do on Earth now. The heavenly reward is connected to our faith on Earth - and faith without good works is dead. But a trust in Jesus that produces good works as a blessing to our communities and culture - well this becomes an answer to the Lord's Prayer.