Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
Recently a local morning radio show interviewed Coldplay’s lead singer, Chris Martin. The questions ranged from life in the band to his hobbies to his marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow. He handled the initial questions with the composure typical of rock star pedigree. As the questions became more personal, however, Chris interspersed his responses with patches of silence. The radio show hosts pleaded with him to talk more with passive-aggressive pleas. Silence to a radio anchor is like a BP oil spill to a marine biologist. The tension built as Chris tried to respond to questions about his wife only to sputter like a kite without wind. Finally Chris replied in his British accent, “I apologize guys. I’m just not very good at answering these kind of things.”
The anchors rushed to the rescue, “Oh you’re doing great. We think you’re doing just fine.”
One anchor threw another cast with more bait, “Can Gwyneth’s career be intimidating at times as it’s taking off?”
“I just….(silence)….I’m not sure….(silence)….I can’t do this anymore.” And rock star Chris hung up on live radio.
Even over the airwaves, I could see the anchors’ jaws hit the studio floor. I envisioned their disbelieving eyes staring blankly at each other, speechless and dumbfounded. I almost screamed. Their handling of Chris’ heart grated on me like nails on a chalkboard.
Immediately the anchors sought counsel from the resident therapist in the booth. She attempted to analyze Chris and his issues. I wished she had a mirror.
There was no attempt to care for Chris. No genuine interest in helping him make the decision that was best for him. I can’t speak for what the hosts felt, but I know what they wanted: Information. They attempted to know about him without knowing him. Like a jockey that pushes his horse past exhaustion for the sake of victory, they glorified the show over Chris’ needs. The anchors’ presence overwhelmed and suffocated his.
Our presence speaks. In the interest of learning to know one another, it would be wise to listen. The rhythm of our heart plays to the tune of two questions that drive every human interaction. If handled well, the answers become a compass and map for any communication between two or more people, whether it is a radio interview, a teacher and student, or a fifty-year marriage.
I know that I live in a fairy tale world, but I wonder how different the result could have been had the anchors answered these questions for themselves as they conversed with Chris Martin. Though the show likely would not have produced the inside scoop on a celebrity’s life, I would surmise that all ten of us listening at 5:30 AM would have started our own day asking those questions for ourselves.
It’s that time of year again. While Santa is making a list and checking it twice, most of us are formulating our own lists for him. Have you started your Christmas list yet? While I haven’t actually written anything down yet, I can take a lawn mower and a blue North Face pullover off my list. I own them now because they both belonged to dead men.
Forgive the lack of euphemism, but the matter of fact-ness is intended.
The lawn mower belonged to my wife’s grandfather who passed away two weeks ago. Another one of her relatives died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) recently. How do you put to words the feeling of wearing someone’s jacket that faced one of the most painful and lonely exits from this world?
The word sobering isn’t quite sufficient. As I wore the jacket, I looked around the room at all of my other stuff. Ghostly names began to appear on everything. Names of the people who will own my things when I’m gone. What if your Christmas list had two columns:
Things I Want From Santa Person Who Will Get This When I Die
Our things will scatter to others like the seeds of a dandelion in the spring breeze. If we’re honest, we admit that we spend most of our time envisioning the empire that we will leave behind rather than picturing the yard sale of our belongings. Surely our legacy will surpass the boundaries of ancient Rome, we subconsciously plot.
James writes, “But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.” (James 1:10) Similarly Isaiah proclaims, “A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.’” It’s even more sobering to realize that in the Palestine of which these men wrote, grass stayed green only a few weeks.
The reality of death humbles one before God like nothing else. And in that light, the assurance of death becomes a merciful opportunity to worship the one who made us like grass and yet cares about us down to the root and loves us wildly while we wither.
My wife’s grandfather died Wednesday. I’ve watched her say goodbye to him slowly for the last three years. Several nights before he passed, the hospice nurse reported hearing a soft voice singing throughout the night. The nurse shared the story with Frank’s wife, Millie, the next morning. Millie put in a CD that the nurse agreed matched the angelic voice. It was a song about being called home to heaven. On Tuesday, Millie had her own vision of Frank. He laughed like a child as he reunited with his sister. Coincidental or not, I need stories like these to keep my hope alive.
Two years ago I wrote this blog, but I did not post it. The time was not right. It is now.
— Knives and Dolls—
“My dad will probably try to give you a knife,” my father in law told me.
We stepped into my wife’s grandparent’s house, and the smell of dust and seventy years in the carpet hit me. I carried the diaper bag on one shoulder, a camera bag on the other, and a baby in my arms. It occurred to me that ninety years separated three of the room’s inhabitants. Shannon’s grandparents, Millie and Frank, lit up upon our twin girls’ entrance.
Frank spends twenty hours a day confined to a hospital bed that takes up half of the living room. On this particular day, he sat in his electronic chair wearing only a shirt. A towel draped over his lower half. When he drifted off to sleep, the towel would slip, and Millie would yell, “Hey Frank, do we need to put you back in the bed?”
“Nah, Millie, I’m fine,” replied Frank’s gentle voice.
It would be easy to overlook Frank. Most days he sits quietly as his wife entertains a constant flow of friends. Their house is a revolving door. If I talk to Frank, he’ll inevitably tell me about the day he encountered a hornet nest forty feet up in a tree. He fell; he anticipated a paratrooper’s landing but instead broke his hip and injured his spine at a life altering angle. Or he will pour out his guilt about the day he should have died. His World War II plane crashed the day he took off to go buy some shoes. If you talk to someone else about him, they’ll inevitably tell you about his tender heart, honesty, and prayerful, hard-working devotion. They will tell you how much he loved his wife. “You’ll never meet a better man,” they will say.
He told Millie to hand me his leather pouch of pocket knives, and I unbound the leather straps and rolled out the assortment of antique pocket knives, all dated by the extent of their rust. Staring at the collection, I wondered if General Patton had ever given away his medals.
“Summer, look at the doll.” My attention shifted.
Millie had set one of her dolls on the coffee table in front of my daughter who stood propping herself up, transfixed on the face before her. Summer and dolls had become the family’s fascination. Earlier in the week, I woke her from a nap and took her into Shannon’s childhood room. We stood at the dresser where four Madame Alexander china dolls returned our gaze. Summer reached her hand to pet their hair and faces with her tiny hand. She blabbered and conversed with the silent statues. We smiled and laughed as she crawled over to different dolls that sat around each room. Her pudgy legs caught in her dress along the way. Earlier in the week, her first word had rolled off her tongue, a definite “Da” concluded with something of an “L” sound. She repeated it again as she stared into her great-grandmother’s treasured doll.
I directed my attention back to the knives before me. Boyhood flashed before my eyes. There was always something about a knife. If I discount a plastic Play-Doh contraption, my first genuine pocket knife was a little red Swiss Army, complete with blade, scissors, nail file, tweezers, and tooth pick. I was MacGyver, empowered with the strength to escape any jam with the contents below the sink and Little Red in my pocket. I was my grandfather, constructing and creating in his workshop. His Swiss Army knife smelled of sweat and fresh cut wood. Mine probably smelled like dreams or new shoes. For me, the scissors and file were great: they offered the ability to open fruit roll-ups and rescue ten year old damsels with chipped nails. But, it was the knife that made me potent.
Frank’s knives lay before me like trophies, prizes that I kept reminding myself not to take through airport security. Each trophy told a story. I would eventually choose a knife that represented some deep cavern in Frank’s heart, a man that holds the admiration of an entire family. At one time his far-less wrinkled hands used this knife like his son uses a golf club and like I use this keyboard. Frank’s passions will one day lead him to construct a garden in heaven that surpasses the beauty of Nebuchadnezzar II’s. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus called the Hanging Gardens of Babylon one of the Seven Wonders of the World. If Herodotus had had the vision and ability to peer into the future, I imagine he would have claimed Frank’s character as the eighth.
Maren darted across the floor, and I jumped up to redirect her from the catheter by Grandpa’s bedside.
I resolved that I could not concentrate on both the rugrats and the blades. In the midst of this dilemma, though, I took in the passage of masculinity and femininity in the form of knives and dolls. When my girls look into the eyes of these dolls, something transcendent moves into them, not from the antique, but from their great-grandmother’s heart. The same happened for me as I took Frank’s knife. We are the recipients of stories that began long before us. We swim in the stream of strength, beauty, and love that flow through Frank and Millie. May we live lives worthy of such an inheritance.
I used to do push-ups to the 1984 Footloose soundtrack, specifically “Holding Out for a Hero”. Just before bed, I threw the cassette in my Walkman and let the dreams flow of buzzer beater three-pointers and entire high school gymnasiums chanting my name. Last week my hard work paid off, and my dreams came true. An entire gym echoed with repeated chants and cheers of my name. Except this wasn’t the state championship; it was musical chairs. For my brief fifteen minutes, though, I felt like a hero.
My wife shared with me the new Footloose’s version of “Holding Out for a Hero”. Lose the 80’s beat and hair spray and add a haunting, slower, country twang and some background crickets and you have the new version. It would never make it on my workout playlist, but it still calls to that same deep place within me.
I write the following on behalf of my gender. It’s unsolicited of course- we’re not the best at admitting our neediness.
Ladies, we need to know: Are we your hero? We really do crave the answer, but we’re afraid to ask. Afraid that the answer will sadly declare that we miss the mark. I don’t know of a man that doesn’t have a poor self-image. I listen to the lyrics:
“I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong, he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
…He’s gotta be sure, he’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life”
The depths of me stir. I want to be so strong and sure. And whether I’m coming home from a fight, singing my girls to sleep, or taking out the trash, I need my wife to believe that I’m a prizefighter.
I think of Ephesians 5:33 when Paul says, “… the wife must respect her husband.” I know, I used one of those marriage verses. This conversation too often breaks down when words like “respect” and “submit” are used. Let me simplify things: Ladies, we don’t need you to follow our commands. We don’t want you to let us dominate dialogues or make rules for you. Rather we need you to see and appreciate the wars we fight, the blood we spill, and the pain and disappointment that become our shadow every day. Certainly this reverence must be earned. But when a husband’s love for his wife even somewhat reflects Christ’s for the church, the natural response is utter respect. Although Paul’s words instruct, they also reveal a man’s desire. While God is the ultimate answer on who I am as a man, and it’s men that teach me how to be a man, I cannot overstate the power my wife has to praise me as a man.
We need to know, ladies. Don’t tell us unless you mean it; we know when you’re not sincere. Are we your hero?
Check out Ella Mae Bowen’s “Holding Out for a Hero”. The lyrics haven’t changed since 1984, and neither has the masculine heart.
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.”
I climbed Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, and I wrote a couple thoughts down as I hiked. I share them with a disclaimer: I participate here in the age-old writer’s tradition of comparing a mountain to life’s journey. The pile of rough drafts from writers who’ve used such a metaphor could likely form its own mountain. You can throw these blogs on top.
Not All Who Wander… (Pondering #4)
Our hike brought to mind Tolkien’s famous line turned bumper sticker, “Not all those who wander are lost”. As with most things, there are two sides to every coin. If you’re the parent that watches your teenager try on different identities in search of his own, this bumper stick might better serve on your bathroom mirror. I remember a season early in my adolescence when I experimented with the inclusion of swear words in my athletic vocabulary. In one-on-one basketball games with my dad, I responded to my own missed shots with shouts that would redden your ears. But my dad never scolded me. In fact, he never spoke of my language on multiple drives home. As look back I see that I wandered in search of myself without being lost under the shadow of the freedom and grace he offered.
On the other side of the coin, consider this: In the final stretch up Mt. Washington, no one traveled horizontally. No hiker jumped from rock to rock just to explore or play. You climb up, hike down, or lay there in hopes of rescue. I think of 1 Corinthians 9:
“24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
If life is a mountain, throwing pebbles into the steam at the mountain’s base may suffice for a while. But once the climb has begun, the stakes increase as does the danger, and wanderers get hurt or die. Three days before my hike last year, a man ventured off path and slipped down the face of the ravine. While it’s true that all who wander are not lost, many that do are. It’s interesting to note that of the 100 leaders with enough data to study in the Bible, only one-third finished well. Most of them failed in the last half of their life. As we increase in age, may our sense of purpose become narrower and more clearly defined as we live with deep intention founded on the God who bestows our identity.
Read Part 3
A judgment is a conclusion with the intent to categorize or assess someone. And it all comes back to intent. When we deem people “less than” us, it begs the question: Why are we trying to make ourselves feel stronger and/or better? But it goes both ways because we judge ourselves in the process. When we estimate people as “more than” us, we judge ourselves too harshly. Two themes emerge: Shame and Glory.
Glory is not hard to define, though harder to accept. In Psalm 8, David says,
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? 5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
I love the word “Yet” to begin verse 5. Dr. Thomas Constable notes that the Hebrew word translated “man” is enosh, which elsewhere describes man as a weak mortal being. Yet weak and limited as we are, God has molded us with a reflecting glory and honor that puts us just below the immortal. Just as the Sistine Chapel continues to bring Michelangelo glory, so too you reflect the glory of God.
When I say shame, think limitation. Shame is a feeling of sincere humility. Most often people operate in a false sense of humility: they shrink or minimize themselves so as to appear humble. Genuine humility is standing as tall as you can against something much taller. Unhealthy shame has the power to sink us like the Titanic’s anchor tied to a rowboat. But to excel or perform at our highest function and see that we are limited creatures generates a healthy sense of shame. Just this week, my 2-year old daughters asked me for the moon, literally. They begged me to touch the moon and stars, a kite, and a “big” pelican. I stretched my arm out with grunts and groans so they could see my limitation. The crutch is this: In our desire for glory we refuse to accept our own shame. But owning our shame opens our eyes to glimpse the glory God has given us.
When we cannot accept our limitations or the nature of how God has created us, our jealously turns venomous. And our judgments bite like fangs.
We can no more stop jealous urges than we can our desire to breathe. But we can get to know the DNA of the enemy within. While there are universal strengths or traits we’d all like to possess, like power or comfort, the narrative attached to our motives is always personal in nature. It becomes essential to know the story of your heart in your own reflection. How else will you process your judgment of others? When I read other blogs or books, half of me enjoys good writing and insight for their own sake. The other half of me toils while my ego compares my own words with another’s. Deep down in the cave that you never see, I hide away the belief that my words do not matter. There’s a story there. There always is. Throughout my life I’ve learned to survive with silence. When I go spelunking in the murk and muck of my heart I find the fear that the gifts of others will diminish my own glory. So judgments are the ammunition with which I defend my God-given splendor.
More thoughts on shame and glory to come; a couple of questions first:
What unhealthy shame do you harbor that would cause you to judge others rather than chase dreams? And what glory do you aspire toward that would give you opportunity to embrace your shame? When we actively move toward our dreams or move into our fear, our judgments become as significant as flies on the rear end of a thoroughbred.
So when is it okay to judge someone, and when is it wrong? Because the word “judgment” generally takes on a negative connotation, let’s redefine a good judgment in the context of a relationship as discernment. That fixes everything, right? Unfortunately the line between judgment and discernment would cause a tightrope walker to shudder. I’ll explore judgments before I get to discernment.
Fundamentally, a judgment takes the stance of authority; it has the power to define its target. In any courtroom, the judge sits elevated above all others. And every judge wields a gavel, at least in Hollywood. With each thunderous pounding that echoes off the courtroom walls, the judge claims supremacy. There is no question about who is in charge. Similarly, a common perception has God on his throne ready to judge at any given moment. Within relationships, people hunger for similar authority. We crave the clout of the judge and the voice of the jury. Heaven forbid we feel inferior. We want comfort and power, or at least equality. In effort to ensure that we do not feel inferior, we pick people apart like a sniper. Morally. Spiritually. Athletically. Intellectually. Financially. Socially. Aesthetically. Need I go on? My trigger happy ego would make a Navy SEAL look like Charlie Brown with a Nerf gun.
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”.
The May 21st rapture prediction created plenty of billboard hoopla over judgment. My favorite being, “That was Awkward. ‘No one knows the day or the hour.’ –Matthew 24:36”. No doubt drivers, bloggers, and Facebook users, non-Christians and Christians alike, got a laugh out of that one.
This morning, though, I ponder how we’d respond to a billboard that pronounced, “Judgments: You just made one”. Or perhaps, “Judgments: Placing Relationships in Wheelchairs since Genesis”. I’ve been confronted lately with how often I judge others. To be honest, I attach labels to folks like advertisers decorate a stock car. The speed with which I dismiss people probably rivals a NASCAR race, too. Chances are, if you’re reading this, I’ve judged you wrongly at some point. Egocentricity and fear fuel my judgments, bending and reshaping my perceptions of others to fit paradigms that I’ve been too scared to confront or too uncultured to know any differently.
Judging someone wrongly transports me from the relationship to my cerebral world of make believe. I lose connection with what’s going on in the naked now and instead feed my mind support for the argument of my judgment. I turn twenty-nine this month, and I’m just now waking up to this. How many unexposed judgments have kept me in the shallow end of relationships?