Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
ABC’s Once Upon a Time hooked Shannon and me. I don’t yet think I would put it in the class of 24, but the producers of Lost have succeeded in creating a plot that moves and strikes like Jack Bauer. The show follows the town of Storybrook, Maine, a collection of individuals whose real identity lies in a fairy tale world of happy endings. Only the evil queen has cursed them to this new world where their memories of love have been erased. The show flashes back and forth between the two worlds, Storybrook and the fairy tale world, and both stories hinge upon the other. That’s the short description. The premise of the show illustrates a frightening metaphor for our spiritual lives. The people of Storybrook live blind to their own purposes because they’ve been stripped of their identity.
I share that story as introduction of a book I want to pass along. Or maybe it’s an experience. My uncle recently published 210Project: Discover Your Place in God’s Story. The book begins with two questions that haunt us in the moments when we unsubscribe from the noise of our lives:
Why am I here?
What does God really want me to do with my life?
The authors write that the answers to those questions flow out of Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” One of the things I appreciate most is that the book is broken up into three parts: 1. Identity 2. Good Works 3. Life Mission. When we let any of those three bleed into the other, we develop a warped view of God, justification, and sanctification. And the effects surely lead us away from the freedom Paul proclaims in Galatians and the life that Jesus promises.
The book becomes an interactive experience with online exercises and activities that draw out, confirm, and solidify your passions and giftings. Check out the interactive website: http://www.the210project.com/
I welcomed students back to class today with an intro that directed them to describe their funniest, happiest, and saddest moments of the holiday break in only two words. My three examples? Feline quacks. Powdered diapers. Bloody Potatoes.
Students practically clawed at me to hear the stories connected to my two-word teasers. Their intrigue proved my point: we as humans are desperately attracted to stories. I do not need to remind my students of this, but sometimes it is good to put words to truth. And we need stories most when we can’t find words for truth. Stories speak a language that languages have not words for. So we crave stories like water and drink them like wine. To lose appreciation for the stories around us is to forget part of what it means to be human.
What about you? What two-word descriptions would you give for the happiest, saddest, and funniest moments of your last two weeks?
Brene’s talk is brilliant. Take twenty minutes to listen, and fight the temptation to multi-task while doing so. My favorite line: “Courage, the original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language, it’s from the Latin word cor, meaning heart. And the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”
The swim teacher handed me two dripping and giggling girls. I led them over the lollipops for their post-traumatic reward. Both girls focused on getting to the bowl of suckers. As I toweled them off, they decorated the poolside with Dum-Dum wrappers. Another swim teacher, Kelsey, questioned me on what I’d fed the girls prior to lessons. Not because they tore into the candy like starved lions, but because they actually made it through the hour without the neighbors mistaking them for ambulance sirens. You see, my girls hate swim lessons. Hate is a strong word, you’re thinking, dislike would be far godlier language. No, my girls hate swim lessons. Maren protested with a panicked wail for the entire thirty minute drive earlier in the week. Sometimes we don’t tell them where we’re going until we’re close. That works less and less as Summer now recognizes the airport and surroundings schools as signs. “No, Kelsey, no Kelsey.” This starts composed and evolves into a whimper. By the time she sees the red paved driveway, you’d think we just told her that Chik-fil-a was tearing down all indoor playgrounds and canceling chicken nuggets. Parents are not allowed to sit poolside during lessons for obvious reasons, so we hide on the other side of the fence and peer through the cracks. Our orphans frantically search for their redeemers while the swim teachers splash, throw, and dunk them. Okay, that’s a little extreme. But only a little. Trust me, the headmaster of the program has earned the unofficial reputation as Swim Nazi. To end the class period, the SS force the young tadpoles to walk the plank otherwise known as a diving board. In this simulated accidental drowning exercise, the kids must roll over onto their backs. Thankfully for our girls, they keep the piranhas out of the water until the students turn three.
So you have a small picture of the terror we subject our girls to during Shark Swim Week. All of this to illustrate the context for Thursday’s miracle: the girls may have actually had fun. I peeked in a couple times to see the girls resting on the pool’s edge, up to their own mischief. They traded life jackets back and forth, clipping and unclipping them. Kelsey even asked Maren what she was doing. “I’m cleaning the house!” she replied. Later, the girls walked over on cue to the diving board. They had to be restrained from climbing up. When it was their turn, they launched themselves like frogs off lily pads.
On Wednesday, the girls liked the water about as much as the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy melted her with the bucketful. On Thursday they more resembled Michael Phelps. What changed?
During Wednesday’s commute, we talked about swim lessons: how they would only last an hour, how much fun they normally have in the pool, and how the world wasn’t going to end. “Talked” sounds more like a dialogue. My attempt at encouragement evaporated into their cries. On Thursday, we talked about Grandma’s birthday party, the candles that would need to be blown out, the presents that would need opening, and the family that would be there. Summer even reminded her sister at one point, “Guess what Marsie, Grandma’s birthday!” Upon arrival at swim lessons, we went over the plan for the day: swim lessons, lunch, nap, and the birthday party. One hour later, I pulled two girls from the pool, not as their rescuer but as their chauffer to Grandma’s Ball. Maren laughed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard her laugh,” exclaimed the teacher.
Sometimes we just need to know the bigger story.
When we reach our limits, when our ordered worlds collapse, when we cannot enact our moral ideals, when we are disenchanted, we are inescapably related to this Mystery which is immanent and transcendent, which issues invitations we must respond to, which is ambiguous about its intentions, and which is real and important beyond all else…Our dwelling with Mystery is both menacing and promising, a relationship of exceeding darkness and undeserved light. In this situation with this awareness we do a distinctively human thing. We gather together and tell stories…to calm our terror and hold our hope on high.
Eight years ago I read the book. Last year I read the book about making the movie about the book. The trailer looks promising.
I knew that the Japanese offered less than the Ritz to enemy POWs during World War II, but Unbroken put flesh on the bones of that knowledge. A friend remarked that it’s no wonder the Americans felt justified in obliterating two cities with atomic bombs. The Japanese tortured their prisoners in ways that might cause Holocaust survivors to relate. But enemy soldiers were not the only ones to suffer under such tyranny. The Japanese enslaved thousands that became known as “Comfort Women”, young Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, and Filipino girls forced to waste their bodies and souls for the pleasure of sex-hungry soldiers. I came across this link and it only reminded me that we live in a cesspit outside of Eden. I study each woman’s face. Each wrinkle whispers of untold horrors. I read their stories, and my heart melts into their eyes. As I wonder how they pushed away suicide, I wrestle with how stories like these can ultimately glorify God. I invite you to struggle along with me: Click here-“Comfort Women”.
Two of the most fascinating days of my life included a tour of Auschwitz concentration camp and an American highlights tour of the Normandy beaches. Shannon and I haven’t been on a trip like that one since having children. Safe to say our sense and use of time has changed. Free time in the summer shrank from the months of June and July to the hours between 1:30 and 4:00 every day (on good days). Generally, we spend the girls’ nap time working on house projects and making phone calls. Until this week when Unbroken transported us back to World War II, this time in the Pacific Theater. If you haven’t read Laura Hillenbrand’s book, move it to the top of your summer reading list. Neither of us could put it down. We burnt the candle at both ends and then in the middle. It consumed us. The account follows a bombardier, from his youth as an Olympic runner to his days floating in a raft in shark filled waters and beyond.
I recommend reading the one and a half page preface on Amazon. Go here and then click on the picture of the book cover.
A couple quotations from the book:
Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.
Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body could have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.
The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were torn-down men. They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it. They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized. Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn’t understand. Their dignity had been obliterated, replaced with a pervasive sense of shame and worthlessness. And they had the caustic knowledge that no one had come between them and tragedy. Coming home was an experience of profound, perilous aloneness.
The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormenters suffer.
I tear up every time I watch the trailer for The King’s Speech. In case you haven’t seen the movie of the year, here’s a brief introduction. The story follows George VI of Britain’s rise to the throne and his relationship with Lionel Logue, a speech therapist who, with the patience and elegance of a sculptor, takes the king into his interior world to transform his stuttering speech and specter self-confidence.
Toward the end of the movie, King-to-be George, also known as Bertie, awaits the evening of his inauguration speech at Westminster Abbey. Awaits doesn’t quite capture the trepidation he feels. He has embarrassed himself in every prior speaking engagement. To the Bishop of Canterbury’s displeasure, Bertie has invited his coach and now friend Lionel to help him practice his acceptance speech. During a break, the bishop returns with news that Lionel is not in fact a doctor of speech therapy, but merely a failed actor that works with speech patients. Upon hearing the bishop’s discovery, this conversation ensues:
Bertie: I’m not here to rehearse, Doctor Logue. True, you never called yourself ‘Doctor’. I did that for you. No diploma, no training, no qualifications. Just a great deal of nerve.
Lionel: Ah, the Star Chamber inquisition, is it?
Bertie: You asked for trust and total equality.
Lionel: Bertie, I heard you at Wembley, I was there. I heard you. My son Laurie said “Do you think you could help that poor man?” I replied “If I had the chance”.
Bertie: What, as a failed actor!?
Bertie blasts Lionel at the core of his deepest hunger and disappointment using his shattered dreams as ammunition. Most of us would fold here, like a defeated fighter cornered in the ring. To continue the boxer analogy, Lionel could quit, simply drop to the floor and splash into a pool of his blood and sweat. Or he could fight. Our culture worships the true grit and guts that are required of heroes that never say die. He must conjure up strength that he does not believe he has to deliver a Herculean comeback. But Lionel neither quits nor fights. He surrenders. Not to Bertie, but to the story God has written him.
Lionel: It’s true, I’m not a doctor, and yes I acted a bit, recited in pubs and taught elocution in schools. When the Great War came, our boys were pouring back from the front, shell-shocked and unable to speak and somebody said, “Lionel, you’re very good at all this speech stuff. Do you think you could possibly help these poor buggers”. I did muscle therapy, exercise, relaxation, but I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young blokes had cried out in fear, and no-one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their voice and let them know that a friend was listening. That must ring a few bells with you, Bertie.
Lionel’s surrender makes him both safe and powerful: Safe enough to allow a man with the self-assurance of an eight year old to attack him, and powerful enough to respond with the love and grace that exposes the boy and draws out the man. Only the safe and powerful know the journey required to become so. Where has your story shattered? And how do you harm others with violence or silence out of that pain? What triggers rage within you that causes your friends to walk on eggshells? What shame reduces you to childlike inferiority, handicapping the gifts you have to offer?
Lionel also speaks with power. He responds with such gentle grace, born out of vision for what Bertie could be. My vision for others is typically contingent on their approval of me. If I sense that I have favor, my heart flows freely. Bertie clearly has dismissed Lionel, and yet Lionel sticks to his vision for him. Bertie’s success or failure as a speaker and king will neither validate nor invalidate Lionel, for someone surrendered to God’s authoring is free to live without the need of approval. And Lionel’s experience of brokenness becomes the bridge that allows his wisdom to pass over.
I want to be both safe and powerful. And yet I’m reminded that at any given moment we either conform or react to the voices that plague us from the dark shadows of our lives. How different our relationships would be if we knew how to surrender to our woundings like Lionel. His surrender does not discount the pain of disappointment. He still winces each time he is turned away from an audition. But acceptance frees Lionel to have vision for Bertie, to love him well despite Bertie’s stab at his Achilles Heel. Surrender becomes the lens through which we see redemption. The refusal or neglect to take this journey inward will keep you from becoming safe and powerful, and it takes such a person to enter the life of another in the loving manner that can disarm a king.
My wife and I initiated our girls into a WASP Christmas with an evening drive through various neighborhoods to look at decorations and lights. If Mary only knew that her figurine would one day be inflatable, kept from blowing away by string attached to balloons of Joseph, God, and the animals that came caroling.
All in all, the night left me singing along with Faith Hill. Where exactly are you, Christmas? Sure Santa grants wishes at the mall and the traffic turns us into Grinches: true signs of the holidays. But external merriment can only carry the soul so far.
When Shannon was pregnant I never could envision myself as a father. I had no awareness of it, no confidence in its actuality. I took care of her on bed rest for three months, listened to my twins’ beating hearts on the ultrasound, and felt their fists and legs punch and kick my hand. Yet I couldn’t believe. I had no grounded perception of the truth of fatherhood. What it would smell like. What it would sound like. What it would feel like. Though all the signs pointed me to reality, I didn’t believe in reality. And so I sit quietly in front of my Christmas tree, the room dark except for the tree’s illumination, and I recall another story I do not believe in.
It is a story where the experts of the ancient scriptures were the ones snugly sleeping the nights away as a star twinkled brighter than the others night after night. Foreshadowing of the type of folks that would have eyes to see and ears to hear and those who would not. Likely the light would have been out as the wise men passed by my house.
It’s a story of journeys, one long passage by two scared young parents-to-be, another longer course by three deceived gentiles bearing gifts, and yet an even further expedition by Emmanuel. It’s a story about you and not about you at all. All paths intersect in Bethlehem at some point; whether they continue into town toward the manger or instead follow the easier, longer road around town lies with you. As Buechner says, “at Christmastime, the one who confronts us with ourselves and with this truth is…God who is a child”. And sadly this confrontation fails to impress us, at least not in the cities and towns where it’s protocol to worship a baby every December. In the ancient Near East, it was customary to present gifts when approaching a superior. Imagine turning on your television one night to see breaking coverage of the presidential motorcade, armored plates and all, pulling into Licking, Missouri, population 2,754, formerly named after a buffalo salt lick. The line of police escorts give way to Cadillac One as the president steps out. The cameras cut from the parking lot to the hallway and then to the NICU. The president, fully aware that the nation of midnight TV viewers awaits his next move, approaches the lone incubator with the reverence you would only give the Commander in Chief. And then he falls to his knees to present the infant with the nation’s treasury. Such imagery is laughable, and yet it is our laughter that keeps us from understanding.
And no story is complete without a dragon. I’ve never seen a nativity scene include the invisible dragon of Revelation 12:4, primed to devour the foretold child before He could take his first breath. Scholars suggest the heart and actions of Herod took the form of such a dragon as he trembled upon hearing “It’s a Boy!”. His rage, induced by fear of losing his throne and power, made him the first anno domini enemy of God. Herod used the Romans to secure his power, killed family members and associates in attempt to keep that control, and finally committed infanticide in order to defy the prophetic challenger. Easy, we say, to call him an enemy of God. We know of no one driven by such selfishness, can’t even imagine it outside of perhaps terrorists in the Middle East. Surely no one that sits on your pew or lives in your neighborhood or stares back in your bathroom mirror. But when we look closely at Herod we see a familiar reflection. His eyes look eerily similar to the ones we possess that covet our friend’s wife. His hands take the same contours of ours that swipe the last cookie on the family plate. Surely our complacent indifference to the world’s least of these isn’t quite as bad as his binge of greed, right?
A friend texted me and a few others on Thanksgiving to let us know we were appreciated. Another fellow recipient replied all, “I could care less about you guys. Yet I love you more than I could ever imagine.” He wasn’t joking. The latter half I expected. The first part however revealed truth in the depths of you and me that rarely surfaces. Deep down, I really don’t care about you. Nor you for me. I’m going to get mine. I sail in Herod’s boat, a ship with “Enemies of God” painted boldly across the stern.
Yet God does not sink our boat. And by that grace I welcome the story we cannot tell enough, a story that believes in me even when I do not believe in it. A story of a scared teen, a good man, some livestock for dramatic effect, and a dragon, even. A story of the arrival of Peace that brought war and a war that will one day bring peace. Welcome, Christmas.