Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A healthy fear of bees.

"Where in the church were you sitting?" Not the typical question you expect to hear from your therapist. Yet Adam had the wisdom to know this memory was a crucial one and needed to be processed thoroughly. It was a moment buried deep within, and in order to be excavated properly, it had to be fully felt: the sight, the sound, the smell, and the exact location of where I sat. As the layers of the memory began to unfold, the pain began to flow through my body. Now I know why I had buried it so deep. I was 12 years old when it happened, but its origin story begins when I was even younger.

I had never seen so many flowers in my life. I doubt I had even seen that many colors in one place before. The beauty mesmerized my 6 year old eyes, and drew me in. I ran my hands over them, attempting to comprehend the beauty. Their petals were softer, more delicate than any texture my skin had ever touched. I leaned in to try to smell each flower individually, then took a step back to sense how each one added to a symphony of ornate aromas. I began to pull flowers out of their arrangements, one stem at a time, and organize them into a pattern of my liking, creating my own kaleidoscope of color. I looked down at my masterpiece and began to smile. The vast arrangement of flowers on my father's grave was gorgeous. Even though my dad had been buried the day before, I remember thinking he would've been proud of me for rearranging them just right. Yet my revelry was cut short as I felt a sharp pain, as new and foreign to me as the sight of so many flowers, shooting down my arm. Confused, I wailed loudly as tears rolled down my cheeks. My aunt Marsha put her arm around me and comforted me while walking me back to the car. She told me I'd just experienced my first bee sting.

Me and my dad
For the rest of my childhood, I harbored a deathly fear of bees. I would avoid them at all costs. I would eventually get stung again, and found that the physical pain wasn't all that bad, but nevertheless, my intense fear remained. Now, 26 years later, Adam explained to me how our brains are wired to pair events, especially as children. So no wonder my fear of bees was disproportionate with the pain of a sting. When I was stung, I wasn't just dealing with a slight pain, but instead my brain was taking me back to that graveside, the day after witnessing my daddy being buried 6 feet underground, the day when I was still trying to make him proud by rearranging the beautiful flowers, the day when that pride was interrupted by a new pain. Bees didn't just bring a little bit of venom to my flesh, they brought the sight, the scent, the memory, and the sensation of death to my fragile heart.

There was no patience for my fear of bees in my household. My parents never asked me why I was afraid of them, they just expressed their frustration with me for being scared. The verbal lashings from my step-dad were frequent on this topic, as if his anger could yell the fear out of me.

On one summer day, I discovered a swarm of bees right by our front door - they had built a nest on our porch. I was terrified, caught between 2 forces that terrorized my brain: bees and the rage of my step-father. He had established a firm rule in his house: unless there was an active thunderstorm, I was not allowed to be inside the house. I was scared to break his rule and face his wrath, but I was also afraid to face the bees on the porch. So I sat on the couch and turned the TV on a low volume, hoping he wouldn't notice me. When he walked into the living room and asked me what in the world I was doing inside on a sunny day, I lied and told him I was sick. Calling my bluff, he said: "well, if you're sick, we need to get you to the ER right away!" and started reaching for his keys to emphasize his sarcasm and disdain. Out of options, I confessed the true reason I hadn't gone outside. As I expected, this unleashed his rage. "Well, if you're too much of a baby to go outside, you can go to your room and lay in bed in silence! That's what babies do - they nap inside on sunny days, so go do that! And don't you dare leave your room until you stop being a baby!" I went to my room ashamed and wept like the baby I was.

Yet the pain of that experience still paled in comparison to what happened in church when I was 12. I answered Adam's question and described the scene. I was sitting on the right side of the sanctuary, about 4 rows from the back. My mom sat next to me and was gleaming with pride: her husband was preaching that day. He preached on the topic of fear, and as is typical with sermons in the christian culture, he began with an anecdote. His story began by talking about the "No Fear" clothing company and how popular it was at the time (this was the 90's, and the peak of their short-lived fad). Then he transitioned into talking about how much I wanted their clothes, and how often I begged to own just one of their shirts. I remember smiling as the story unraveled, basking in the fame of being acknowledged in a sermon, and part of me believing he was about to pull out the trendy "No Fear" shirt I had wanted from behind the pulpit, bring it down the aisle to me in some cool sermon illustration, making me the envy of all the other pre-teens. Instead, he said: "why on earth would I spend $20 on a t-shirt that says 'No Fear' when the boy runs away crying at the mere presence of a bee?" The congregation responded with roaring laughter, and why shouldn't they. I was a baby, a scared little boy with foolish fears. I wasn't worthy of even a trendy t-shirt. I had a childish fear, I was alone in that fear, and the laughs of the parishioners served as an endorsement of my shame.  
Me as a baby

That day was pivotal in how I interpreted and treated my feelings. If I felt fear, it was because I was weak. If I felt sad, it was because I was a sissy. If I felt anger, it was because my perspective was wrong. If I felt shame, it was because I was worthless. If I felt lonely, it was because I was a loser. If I felt guilt, it was because I was a failure. If I felt hurt, it was because my skin was too thin. If I felt glad, it was because I had parents who were willing to put up with me. Each emotion directly corresponded with one of my weaknesses, making each one unbearably excruciating. The more emotion I felt, the more I was aware of my deficiencies. So I devised a plan to bury every emotion I had.

If I felt fear, I compensated with risky actions executed with apparent confidence (I solo'ed a plane at 15 years old! No one tells a pilot they have fears). If I felt sad, I did so in private and kept my cheeks dry. If I felt anger, I self-harmed to atone for my screw-ups. If I felt shame, I fought back against the feeling with stellar accomplishments and exemplary performance (I have the report cards to prove it!). If I felt lonely, I erased it by pleasing people at all costs. If I felt guilt, I minimized it with unmatched piety and exuberant participation in religious activities. If I felt hurt, I protected myself by keeping people on the periphery, never revealing my true self. If I felt glad, I praised my parents for not giving up on their shitty son.

With this action plan, I prepared a grave for each of my emotions. I sentenced them to death and buried them deep. It worked oh so well - for a while. But feelings are like zombies, and no matter how deep you bury them, they will eventually reanimate and awake with a relentless appetite for human flesh. No matter how many years have passed, they will show up when you least expect them, ready to devour your heart.

That's why each week I show up at Adam's office, ready to do work. He hands me a shovel, and we begin to excavate, bringing every zombie to the surface. Once it's out in the open, we can see it, acknowledge it, and finally put it to rest. Instead of burying it again, we put it in a mausoleum of memories where it can be recognized as something that shaped me, a memory that exists, an emotion that can be pulled from its drawer, a moment remembered but disarmed of its controlling power.

As the seasons turn to spring, I'm thankful to say I no longer run the other direction when I see a honeybee. Yet when I do witness them doing their work of pollinating flowers, I still envision a 6 year-old boy, confused, sad, and mesmerized by the beauty of the flowers arranged on his father's grave. Seeing the bees of spring reminds me to go to that little boy and comfort him the way only his future self can. When he feels fear, I remind him fear brings us wisdom by alerting us to danger. When he feels sad, I tell him sadness testifies to the beauty and importance of what we've lost. When he feels anger, I remind him that anger exposes our heart for justice and can spur us to doing what is right. When he feels shame, I explain to him how shame can instill within us a deep humility and allow us to better appreciate the talents of others. When he feels lonely, I tell him of his future bride and his amazing friends, and how they love him and accept him. I remind him that loneliness gives us the ability to see the value and beauty of relationships and community. When he feels guilt, I share with him how guilt gives us the humility to seek forgiveness, and I testify to the existence and the splendor of mercy and grace. When he feels hurt, I show him how hurt opens the door to healing. When he feels glad, I remind him of how little control he has, and encourage him to see the fulfillment in God's sovereignty.

Yet the longest-lasting effect of my fear of bees has been my desire to ask questions of others. My longing for someone to ask about my fear rather than assume where it came from instilled in my heart an acknowledgement that the fears people experience may not be easily explained. Where there was once pain now stands compassion. With these questions and compassion, there burns a desire to help others process their emotions now, preventing the need to slay zombies later. For that, I thank the bees.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Why I brew.

Benjamin Franklin is often misquoted as saying "Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy." While this quotation is falsely attributed to him, he did write something similar, and I believe his actual words are much richer in content. In a letter to Abbe Morellet in 1779, he writes:
"We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle in question was only performed to hasten the operation, under circumstances of present necessity, which required it."
According to Mr. Franklin, every bottle of wine, and every growler of beer, requires just as much of God's provision as the wine at Cana, and I'm inclined to agree with him. The only difference between the two is in the creation of the ordinary kind, He gives us the privilege of participating in the process.


A while back, my friend Chris posed an excellent discussion question at Pints and Pipes: "What one song best describes who you are?" The answers were superb, and many gave me new insight into the character of my friends, but my friend Ryan shared my favorite response of the night. He chose "Helplessness Blues" by Fleet Foxes, and quoted its opening stanza (link at the bottom of this post if you'd like to hear it for yourself):
Sometimes my son helps me with the sparge
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
The song is one of my favorites, yet I was surprised Ryan chose it as his answer to the question. He's a wonderfully talented artist, someone who creates beautiful things out of the most basic of materials, all on his own - he's not a machine operator content with laboring away on an assembly line. His response showed me the cathartic power of recognizing the relative smallness of our personal talents while acknowledging the beautiful part they play in a much grander narrative. This is the same humble joy I experience when brewing beer.

Our little brewpub
Beer consists of four basic ingredients: water, barley, hops, and yeast, and each one is uniquely complex. Minerals in the water will bring out certain flavors in beer. For example, if you want to accentuate the hop flavor of your IPA, add gypsum to your water. In order to be used in brewing, barley needs to first be malted - a complex process in itself. How the barley is kilned or roasted will drastically change the flavor, color, body, and amount of fermentable sugars it gives the beer. While hops typically account for the lowest percentage of the recipe's makeup, they have a profound effect on flavor. Botanists throughout the world are constantly working with this unique flower, breeding its varieties to create new varieties that focus on bringing out flavors as specific as black pepper coated honeydew melon in beer. Then there's the yeast, oh the yeast. These living microorganisms feed on the sugars from the malted barley and convert them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. They're a fickle bunch, and I have to breed them in an erlenmeyer flask until they've reproduced to a minimum 100 billion cells before pitching them into my brew. The whole process is intricate and exhausting, yet simultaneously abundantly rewarding.

A few batches fermenting
As I've gained more brewing experience, my appreciation for the craft has grown exponentially. Sure, the quality of my homebrews has improved over time, but even as my skills improve, I'm constantly humbled by my increasing awareness of just how small of a part I play in the overall process. The toil of botanists, farmers, maltsters, engineers at the water treatment plant, and yeast-whispering microbiologists all have an immeasurably profound impact on the beverage I enjoy so much, and I never even get the chance to shake their hands. Learning the complexity of beer may make me feel like a mere cog in "some great machinery," but it has overwhelmed me with thankfulness for these benevolent strangers who have added so much value to my homebrew operation.

While making beer may not be everyone's mug of brew, I do encourage all of my friends to learn a trade or craft of some sort, whether it be for profit or merely to gladden the hearts of others. There is a unique satisfaction in creating new things to be enjoyed by others, from art to beverages to repurposed furniture. I say uniquely satisfying because instead of resulting in smugness or arrogance, this brand of achievement is steeped in humility - the greater your skill in your craft, the greater your ability to see its dependence on Providence, from the rain falling on the vines to the skill of the craftsman who developed the tools you depend on. I believe this is on purpose.

On the very first page of the Bible, we learn mankind was designed to participate in God's creation, to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28). The same verse says God blessed humans by giving them this task - work was not intended to be a burden in this pre-fall world. Using the resources God gives us to create, to craft, to develop allows us to participate in God's handiwork while simultaneously marvel in it and praise Him for his awesome works. This work allows us to fulfill our innate desire for "serving something beyond me" as Fleet Foxes so eloquently describes. It's a beautiful task, and I smile often as I mill copious amounts of malted barley.
Our inaugural brew night

There are few joys I delight in more than seeing a group of people come together over a few kegs of my homebrewed beer. As they laugh, share stories, and develop friendships, I can't help but think of Jesus observing a similar scene some time ago at a wedding in Cana. I agree with Mr. Franklin: every drop of my beer took as much of God's provision as the water that was miraculously turned into delicious wine. Yet I'm thankful God allowed me to participate in this modern day miracle, and am humbled by the opportunity to do so. For me, beer is proof that God loves us and wants to see us be joyful.

What I'm Listening to During this Post:

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I want better criticism.

What our porch looks like on a typical Thursday night
I never knew so many people could fit in my basement - I was thankful for a hygienic crowd. It was time for another Pints and Pipes, but this Thursday evening was like no other. We were having a guest speaker whose story is so enthralling, people were willing to sacrifice all sense of their personal space in order to hear it. To make the night even more special, I was hosting some true VIPs overnight - people I've spent my entire life trying to impress. I knew once they witnessed what kind of magic unfolds in our home on Thursday nights, they would have no choice but to finally be fascinated by me.

The guest lecturer of the evening shared his story of how he left his six-figure job in order to live among the homeless. He had grown disillusioned with the comfortable religion of the suburbs, and the more he read about Jesus, the more he wanted to follow Him - living out a radical, dangerous faith. He learned how Jesus treated the people the rest of society seemed to look down on or ignore altogether, and his heart broke for homeless people. He longed to serve them well, and believed the only way he could be effective was to first get to know them on a personal level. 50 pairs of eyes listened to him intently with dropped jaws as he shared stories of sleeping under bridges and using the hand dryer in a public restroom to stay warm on frigid, rainy days. His experience transformed his life, and his faith called him into further, daily action. He started a clothing company, training women who had been rescued from sex trafficking in India to be seamstresses, and using 100% of the profits from the clothing sales to buy interview accoutrements for his friends without homes, provide backpacks for children who couldn't afford them, and meet a whole host of other needs in the community.
My friend Lauren snapped this photo of the guest speaker

Every guest in attendance appeared to be a different person after listening to his story. It was as if they were incapable of returning to their regular lives after hearing of such revolutionary purpose - the things they had spent their whole lives desiring seemed to have lost their allure. They gave generously to the speaker's organization, raising 10 times more than the typical weekly Pints and Pipes donation. Yet even greater still, new ideas began to flow as if the dam of acedia had been violently burst in their brains. The room buzzed with fruitful discussion, each person brainstorming how they could use their talents to serve those in need. I surveyed the room with a cheshire grin and deep satisfaction - generating this kind of discussion had been my vision and purpose for Pints and Pipes since its inception. The efforts were finally worth it. After the guests left, I rushed upstairs to receive the praise I knew the VIPs would be so eager to bestow upon me for setting up such a spectacular event.

Instead, the words "he doesn't actually care about homeless people" were the ones to harshly greet me, causing the noticeable joy to promptly evacuate my face. Flabbergasted and wondering if this VIP had been in the same room the rest of us were in, I asked what in the world she meant. "If he truly cared about homeless people, he would've tailored his message to convince rich people and corporations to donate to his cause. (VIP #2) is very wealthy, and could have written a huge check, but since the speaker wouldn't shut up about how his faith spurred his actions, he essentially robbed those poor homeless people of a large donation." She explained how our measly donations would never fix the problem, our discussions would never spur on true change, and nothing we did at Pints and Pipes would ever matter. I looked at the pile of monetary contributions given that night, what I once believed was a generous sum now appeared to only be the alms of a peasant. The excitement I felt for all of the new ideas being discussed downstairs faded as I accepted this person's words and realized they would never matter. We'd never have enough resources to see them through - we might as well give up now. This little Thursday night event I was so passionate about, the one I thought was actually changing people's lives, was nothing but a mere exercise in futility. Never in my life had I felt so worthless. At work I was unsuccessful, at church I was unwanted, as a community group leader I was a failure; Pints and Pipes had been the last place where I felt like I was doing something worthwhile, and now I was being criticized there, too. As I stayed up until 5am cleaning up from the event, I repeatedly asked myself what the four-letter-word I was doing with my life. I couldn't come up with anything to impress the VIPs.
I'm surprised the neighbors don't complain about the cigar smoke
Photo Credit: www.shuttersexy.com

I've come to learn nothing robs me of my joy more than unproductive criticism, particularly when it's coming from someone I'm striving to impress. So I've been studying criticism in order to figure out why it effects me the way it does and what I can do to battle its paralyzing hold over me. One observation I've made is unproductive criticism often stems from a person trying to discredit a conviction. I believe the Holy Spirit often uses the example of how other people utilize their God-given talents to convict us on how we should use ours - perhaps you'd call it inspiration. The problem is, using our gifts to serve God nearly always costs us our comfort, something we desperately try to keep intact. This imbalance of wanting to utilize the unique talents God designed us to use while also remaining comfortable creates a painful cognitive dissonance in our brains. So we respond by discrediting the works of the person inspiring us in order to give us an excuse for not making a necessary, uncomfortable change in our own lives. Understanding this has helped me soften the blow when I receive fruitless critiques, have compassion for those delivering the hurtful words towards me, and also seriously question my own motives when I have the urge to criticize someone else.

The Ten Boom Family
www.tenboom.org
The danger here is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and ignoring all criticism, including the productive kind. I think this is especially difficult for pastors. I don't know of a single group of people who receive more unproductive criticism than pastors. Every parishioner is a Monday morning quarterback, and I can only imagine the stack of sermon-critiquing e-mails awaiting preachers on Mondays - filled with everything from allegations of heresy to disdain for their shirt choice. When you receive such an inordinate amount of fruitless criticism, I'm sure it's easy to build a thick shell and not let any affect you. Yet some of the most life-giving words my friends have ever given me have been critical ones, and I wouldn't trade those for the world. Their criticism is starkly different, though. Instead of it being something that makes themselves feel better, it pushes me to be better. Instead of attacking something I'm doing, they admire my heart for wanting to use my God-given talents, and help me see how I can make them even more effective. They never make my skills seem worthless, but rather remind me that even Olympians have to train relentlessly in order to make their already incredible innate gifts fit for competition. I pray to always have the wisdom to know the difference so I don't miss a single word of their iron-sharpening criticism.

The Hiding Place
www.tenboom.org
I spent last week driving through Belgium and the Netherlands, and read Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place during the trip. The book recounts Ten Boom's experience during World War II. Even though she was just an old Dutch spinster living with her father and sister, she became the leader of the Haarlem tangent of the Dutch underground resistance. As I walked the same streets she had strolled, her stories came to life. Each day, I shared Ten Boom's experiences with my wife as we walked, telling her about her smuggling Jews to safe areas, stealing ration cards, and hiding the riskiest Jews (the ones no other safehouse would take) in her own house. My wife was amazed by the enthralling stories, and her first question was: "how did she become so involved with the resistance?" The answer was simple. People in Haarlem knew the Ten Booms were people who loved others the way Jesus did, and when the Nazis shut down a Jewish-owned business and arrested its owner, his wife came to the Ten Booms with a suitcase in hand, even though she had never met them before. Ten Boom's father said: "In this household, God's people are always welcome." From there, it was just criticism.

The discussion, and fireworks, continue on Thursdays
A local pastor chastised them for hiding Jews, offering hurtful criticism at Ten Boom, telling her she was acting with complete disregard to the lives of her father and sister. Old spinsters could never stop the massive Nazi army. He refused to help them.Yet others provided productive criticism, bringing life to their operation. One person criticized her for not providing enough food for the Jews, and helped her steal ration cards. A local architect criticized her for hosting them openly in her house and helped her build a secret hiding place in her home. Others criticized her inability to lie in the face of pressure, and would forcefully wake her up in the middle of the night and run mock interrogation drills. By accepting their productive criticism, while blocking out the unproductive, the Ten Booms simple gift of hospitality was transformed into a life-saving force. Even after someone ratted them out and the Nazis sent Corrie, her sister, and her father to prison and concentration camps, the hiding place was so well made the Nazis never found it during their raid of the house. Corrie withstood the brutal interrogation of the Nazis. Everyone who had been hiding in the Ten Boom's house when it was raided survived.

I don't want to be the kind of person whose criticism makes his friends feel worthless and small - I want my criticism to be life-giving. I want to teach people how the gifts God gave them are wondrous, unique to them, and worthy of being used. Some may be called to spend their lives with the homeless, others to invite people into their homes when no one else will. No calling is too small, and no gift inadequate. Others may poke holes in the hull of their efforts, saying their small boat isn't enough, but I'd rather spend my time helping them build a ship one plank at a time.

What I'm Listening to During this Post:






Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The ilk from which I came.

Grampy's squadron's patch
One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with my father dying when I was only 6 years old was trying to figure out who in the hell I was. I had an amazing mother and was surrounded by wonderful, loving people who cared for me like I was their own flesh and blood, but I could still tell half of my genes came from someone who was missing. The way my brain processed situations was different, the way I related to people was different, and even what I found funny was different. We may all have been wearing the same jersey, but mine had a different name on the back, and I wrestled with what my name meant. My mother made enormous sacrifices to provide for me, but I think she found it difficult to talk about my father - I suppose some wounds are so deep they never heal to the point of discussion. My paternal aunt lived only an hour away, and she shared as much as she could about my father, but lamented how she never knew him well due to their age gap - he was still a toddler when she got married. My paternal grandfather lived too far away for me to see him with any regularity, but the summer after 7th grade, my parents put me on a plane to Tennessee by myself to go visit him. The trip provided a vivid definition of my last name, and changed the way I lived.

Grampy's in the first row - 4th from left
Looking at Grampy was like looking into a time warp mirror. His face looked just like my 13 year old one, but with an additional 65 years worth of adventure added to it. I wanted to know how he had earned those wrinkles, so I asked him to tell me the stories behind each one. I poured him a gin and he handed me my first beer, then I was catapulted into a solid week of enthralling stories, from growing up during the Depression to playing professional hockey to dropping projectiles on Hitler. Grampy flew bombing missions in a Lancaster over Europe for the Royal Canadian Air Force's Pathfinders Force. He always began the story by saying: "On my first mission, I was in awe - it was the greatest fireworks display I ever saw. On the second, I said 'holy shit, I could get killed up here!'" He came quite close. On August 9, 1944, Grampy's 51st mission, his plane was hit multiple times and he ordered his crew of 8 to bail. All 8 parachutes deployed, and only 1 of the crew members was captured. After safely reaching the ground, Grampy hid from the Germans by day and walked at night. Eventually, he connected with the French underground, who smuggled him back to England on a small single engine plane. Grampy said he had never flinched since. He spent the rest of his life standing tall and confident.*

My family at Grampy's memorial "party"
When I was in high school, my step-dad never gave me any of those long, boring speeches imploring me not to engage in the typical shenanigans that get teenagers into serious trouble. Instead, every time I left the house to meet up with friends, he would look me in the eye and say: "remember who you are." I used to think he was trying to persuade me to maintain some sort of angelic reputation, but now I believe he meant something else entirely. He was reminding me of the ilk from which I came. In his simple statement, he was saying: "You're the heir of the name of a brave man who risked his life to drop bombs on a tyrant so you could live free. You're the son of a young widow who toiled tirelessly so you could prosper. People have made tremendous sacrifices for you, which should affect the way you live." It did.

Peter gets a history lesson from a WWII fighter pilot
Recently I've been reading through a letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome in the first century. Paul dedicates the first section of the letter to reminding the Romans of the sacrifice Jesus made for them by subjecting himself to death by excruciating execution, and of the freedom they now enjoyed as a result. He extols the power of Grace, emphasizing: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). He makes it clear we did nothing to deserve this Grace, and there's nothing we can do to justify ourselves through our own deeds, yet I find it interesting how he explains why it should still affect the way we live. Paul says through Christ we have become adopted sons of God, we are heirs of His name, and we can call Him Father, or even "Daddy" (Romans 8:14-17, my uneducated layman's paraphrase).

Grampy's bravery empowered me to do great things. It was as if his experience in WWII had seeped into his genes and had been given to me as a rich inheritance. I soloed a plane before I soloed a car, backed by my confidence in my last name. I could look any man in the eye without flinching, because I knew the meaning of my name. I think this is the fount Paul is tapping into with the Romans. If my temporary earthly lineage affected me so, how much more should my life be different if I'm the adopted son of the Creator?

With the Memphis Belle
Therein lies the good news. I have friends who never had the opportunity to learn the meaning of their name, and I have other friends who have learned it and were disgusted by its history. Paul is saying it doesn't matter anymore. Whether you were born into aristocracy or into the lowest caste, you were welcomed to bear the name of the Most High by the sacrifice of Christ. You should take pride in the name, let it seep into the fiber of your being, and affect the way you live.

Lately I've been welling up with bitterness. There are some situations in both my life and the lives of my close brothers and sisters which have not played out well to say the least, and it's caused my cynicism to reach Louis CK levels. I know people don't enjoy the company of bitter people, so I've managed to internalize most of it, but it's still devouring my joy. In the midst of this, my friend Mark gave me a call. A historical foundation was flying a legit B-17 bomber from WWII into a local airfield, and he asked if I wanted to go check it out with him. I jumped at the chance to witness a remarkable piece of history. As we admired the Flying Fortress and listened to the stories of veterans from the greatest generation, Mark handed me an unexpected and extravagant gift: a pink wrist band. I would get to fly in the B-17.

While it wasn't a Lancaster, I still couldn't help but vividly imagine Grampy's 51st mission as the bomber known as the Memphis Belle took off. The flight was a mere few days after the 7th anniversary of my grandfather's death, and my brain was filled with memories. As I reflected on the legacy he left for me, I found little room left for bitterness in my heart. Perhaps there are sacrifices so great they trump temporary suffering. Perhaps there is an unconditional love so bountiful it outlasts the trials of today. I think Paul would agree. After all, he closes out Romans 8 by exclaiming: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus."

I'm thankful for my ilk, both earthly and eternal, and I shall live accordingly.



What I'm Listening to During This Post:


*While I heard Grampy's stories many times, I could not remember the exact dates and number of parachutes. For those details, I referenced to an excellent article written about my grandfather by Dr. Bill Wallisch titled "In the Belly of the Whale." You can read the article here: http://wlajournal.com/12_2/Wallisch.pdf (he even gives me a shout out).

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I want an epic life.

As propane flames began to dance across the outdoor fireplace and cigar cutters harmonized into a symphony of blades threshing tobacco, I rubbed my hands together like a praying mantis. It was time for another edition of Thursday night Pints and Pipes, and I was giddy about the discussion topic I had prepared for the evening. Friends new and old lit up their stogies and filled their pint glasses to the brim, ready to settle in for a raucous round of healthy discourse, and looked at me in anticipation. I proceeded to tell them how I had read in one of my favorite business books of all time, Built to Last, how companies with a clear, lived-out mission statement (not just fancy business words hanging on the wall) tend to outperform those without one by massive margins. The author's research found purpose drove results. I asked the friends huddled around my patio if they thought the same principle applied to our lives, and their heads nodded with near unanimous agreement - our lives need mission in order to thrive. "Well, in that case, what is your life's mission statement?" I retorted. A hush fell over the crowd.

It was clear no one had a pre-established mission statement off the top of their head, so we began to brainstorm on the spot. What were the elements of a strong mission statement? How could you keep it from being pure fluff? Ideas were tossed up in hopeful anticipation like the hats of graduates on commencement day - no one remembering which idea was theirs once it had hit the ground. Yet slowly a consensus began to build: "I want an epic life" became the unison chant of the crowd. People began to compose mission statements based on this idea of "epic-ness," claiming "my mission is to travel the world!" and "my mission is to go sky-diving and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro!" and the like. Meanwhile, I could see my friend Robbie sitting in the corner and boiling up with frustration.
Great conversations around a fire on our porch

Robbie is a kind, soft spoken, gentle man. He's the kind of friend who constantly encourages you, pats you on the back, and is always quick with a lighthearted joke. Seeing him silent and disconcerted was certainly out of character for him, so I halted the group discussion and asked him what he was thinking. His voice was throttled with just enough anger to communicate his seriousness as he said: "You're not describing an epic life, you're just talking about a wealthy one." We all fell silent - we knew Robbie was right, and we didn't know how to offer him a rebuttal. All too often, what we think is an epic narrative is nothing more than a bright flash in the flambe pan. We deceive ourselves on the definition of epic, like a naive sorority girl who screams "YOLO!" after numerous shots of cheap tequila, thinking she's taking the "you only live once" adage to heart.
I still want to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro

Most of the time when you have sparks of discontentment in your life, your friends will try to encourage you by stomping them out. My friend Joe does the opposite. Whenever I come to him with a glimmer of discontent, he throws in some kindling and stokes the flames - he wants it to become a raging fire. He sees our discontent as a good, holy thing - it is our heart's admission of living in a fallen world, an acknowledgement of how our willful separation from God has made creation run amok. If our lives have no discontentment, then we must be suffocatingly sheltered, and if our only discontentment stems from the size of our bank accounts, then we must be debilitatingly shallow. Yet when we look into the world and see the pain of others, a holy discontent will tell us "this is not right, this is not the way it's meant to be." This spark of discontentment, when stoked, can shatter the inner cavities of our hearts, calling us into epic action. After Robbie's words convicted me on how I defined epic, I realized every epic narrative, every story worth reading, every movie worth watching, and every mission worth supporting, has begun with a broken heart.

In my adult life, I've seen God get hijacked by opportunists looking for cash, egomaniacs yearning for power, influence, and control over others, and perhaps worst of all, ignorant optimists desperately seeking a false sense of safety and comfort. Through these perversions of the truth, I've seen people I love discredit God altogether, and I've seen Christians live astonishingly boring lives - hellbent on hiding from the world rather than engaging it. This tears my heart to pieces. I want people to experience the wonder of the true God we find in the Scriptures, and I want to help Christians see the implications of Grace on how we should live.

This holy discontent, this heart brokenness, has helped me form my mission statement for this season of my life: "To help people see the glory of God and lead people in living greater stories." Since this is my mission at this time, I filter my actions through this lens. I ask myself if the money I'm spending will help people connect with God - if it's not, then I know I'm off track. I ask myself if how I'm spending my time will point people to a bigger story worth living - if it's not, then I know I'm wasting it. This way of life has been very costly to me. Being a braggart about self-sacrifice kinda seems to defeat the purpose of it, but I only mention the cost to stress it's not easy. I have the scars and bills to prove it. Yet that's what makes it epic - the mission is worthy of the sacrifice.
Ben & Dylan with their scholars in Nicaragua

Every week, I ask my friends about their holy discontent, and I love seeing the diversity of ways God is breaking our hearts for His kingdom. My friends Dylan and Ben had their hearts broken by children living on the streets in Managua, and now their mission has led those kids to graduating from school and even going on to college. My friend Mike had his heart broken by entire nationalities who have never heard the Good News of God's redemption and restoration through Christ, and now he's sending missionaries to countries so dangerous few missionaries have dared to go there before. Their missions are frustrating and costly, but their lives personify the true meaning of epic, and their journeys began with brokenness.
  
What I'm listening to during this post:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I believe in discourse.

What our porch looks like on Pints & Pipes night
Thursday has quickly become my favorite day of the week. Around 8pm, I set out a batch of my homemade guacamole, pour a test taste of my "fruit-infused water of the week," and light the outdoor fireplace. Soon enough, people begin to stroll into our basement for an event we affectionately refer to as "Pints & Pipes." As the name implies, we spend the evening imbibing on superb draft beer while puffing on black cavendish and other fine tobacco. Yet those things have become secondary - Pints & Pipes is really about relationships and discourse.

Supplies for a recent Pints & Pipes
The art of discussion seems to be lost in our society today, and I want it back. I read with fascination about how our nation was founded on ideas hashed out through lively, productive discourse in taverns, fueled by rounds of locally-brewed beer until there were no wicks left on the candles. Somehow we've traded that kind of open, respectful discourse for shouting our views at each other on television, and I think it's a travesty worth combating. Pints & Pipes is my dog in that fight.

In my assessment of the issue, my key observation is people have deeply-held views formed by their cultural upbringing and limited personal experience, and are unwilling to consider neither empirical evidence nor counter-cultural beliefs contrary to those viewpoints, even while thinking they like discourse. For example, I was once curious about Mormonism in high school, so I read a book written by an orthodox Christian that explained how Mormon beliefs conflicted with the Bible and were merely the invention of one man's imagination. I wanted to have enough knowledge of Mormonism to look smart, and maybe even be able to quote a few lines from the Book of Mormon to use in arguments against them, but I was only willing to learn from a viewpoint consistent with my pre-existing beliefs. No wonder my opinion didn't change! I believe this flawed way of thinking is prolific, and it leads to us seeking out bullets to fuel our existing arsenal of beliefs without ever questioning if we're carrying the wrong weapon. In order for true discussion to happen, there can be no sacred cows - we have to be open to our current beliefs being wrong.
My photo of the Mormon temple in SLC

A few years ago, a colleague and I spent two weeks conducting business reviews of our operations in the western USA. Our plan was to fly into Salt Lake City, drive 4 hours to Elko, NV for a 3 day review, spend the weekend in Salt Lake, then drive 4 hours to Rock Springs, WY for another review, then make our way back to SLC to fly home to Atlanta. About two hours into the drive to Elko, the topic of religion came up, and I learned something new about my colleague - he was a Mormon. I frantically looked out the window, but saw nothing but desert - there was no way out, this intense religious conversation was about to happen whether I liked it or not. I immediately started flipping through the rolodex of facts in my brain, trying to recall as many jabs as I could from that anti-Mormon book I read. Yet just before I shot my first zinger over the bow, I had a realization: this could end poorly. Riding in a rented Chevy Impala is uncomfortable enough - spending the foreseeable future alone in silence with someone I'd exchanged harsh, belief-bashing words with would be untenable. So I chucked my agenda out the window onto the Bonneville Salt Flats, and just asked "How did you form your beliefs?" Our conversation continued for three days straight.

Every petrol head has to stop at the Bonneville salt flats!
When I let my guard down on staunchly defending my beliefs and instead focused on understanding my colleague's perspective, I was immediately intrigued and had to know more. Every time we got in the car, I asked him more questions - about the history of the faith, about how his beliefs affected his world view, and what he thought made his beliefs stand out against all the other faiths of the world. I was fascinated by his viewpoint, and he gave me truckloads of information to mull over. He spent the weekend visiting his relatives in Utah, so I was left on my own in the Mormon capital of the world. I spent those days reading as much as I could, I visited the Mormon temple, I conversed with former and current Mormons in restaurants, I watched a few Mormon programs on television, I sipped on Polygamy Porter at the Wasatch Brewpub (not LDS-approved!), and I even went to a Mormon comedy club (actually really funny). In the end, I had some major misgivings about the religion, found many of their beliefs to be contradictory, and determined there was no corroboration for Joseph Smith's claims. Yet when I hopped in the passenger seat of that awful Impala on Monday morning, I was able to communicate these misgivings to my colleague with a very liberal dose of respect, love, and understanding, and was even able to share my beliefs with him without any raised voices or animosity. I wasn't repeating words I had read in a biased book like a weird Jesus drone, I was sharing my wrestled-with beliefs - and I think my authenticity was evident. The discussion was natural, and didn't result in any awkward silence. He's become a mentor to me at work, and I frequently seek out his sage advice - I hold him in extremely high esteem. We've continued our discussions on faith many times since then, and his views seemed to have changed significantly since that long road trip. I'm really glad I considered changing my belief system that weekend - I know my faith has grown exponentially because of it.

Our discourse had such a profound impact on me that I have sought to replicate the experience as many times as possible. I'm writing this from Madrid, and literally just returned from a very late (by American standards) dinner with a Spanish coworker. During our mealtime discussion, he mentioned he was one of the "new Catholics." When I asked him what he meant by "new Catholic," he responded: "We're pretty much like the old ones, but we really like sex." I ended my questioning there and prayed to not hear any more details. Nevertheless, these open dialogues on faith with people around the world have been eye-opening for me, and the diverse perspectives have strengthened my beliefs by forcing me to seek out earnest reasons for believing what I do. I longed for my friends in Atlanta to have these kinds of experiences, and since I couldn't fit them in my suitcase, I decided to bring the discourse to them through Pints & Pipes.

One Thursday, we debated the origins of morality, and the next week we discussed whether science conflicted with belief in God or not. Another time, my friend Peter shared his experience of growing up in Kenya, and talked about (and showed graphic pictures of) how most Kenyans growing up in the slums of Nairobi went to their graves without ever knowing that some of the most beautiful beaches in the world were a mere few hours' drive away. Just as we were all getting filled up with pity for these people living in hell when paradise was only a few kilometers away, he said: "It really reminds me of America, and how people here are so willing to settle for a mediocre suburban dream when epic living is knocking at their door - it's a shame" (the whole room of 40 people expressed a collective "ouch" as that honest statement hit home). Another Thursday, my friend Mike, a Palestinian Arab, discussed growing up in Israel during the 50's & 60's. His mother tongue is Arabic, but he's also fluent in Hebrew and English, and he's a professing Christian. His multifaceted and rich perspective on the Middle East rendered us absolutely speechless (I still wish I had recorded that meeting of Pints & Pipes). He was even open enough with us to share about the painful time someone burned a cross on his lawn (he was living in the USA at this point) during the Iran hostage crisis (even though he wasn't Persian, and wasn't a Muslim, but that's beside the point). These amazing discussions have changed my life immensely, and I hope they've impacted my friends, too. Each Pints & Pipes session costs at least $100-$150, but I think it's a worthy investment because I firmly believe this discourse is desperately needed in our community.  
Guess which of these beautiful people is Peter

The way I see it, Jesus claimed to literally be the truth (John 14:6), so if I earnestly seek the truth, I should find Him there waiting for me. I shouldn't be afraid of facts or thoroughly listening to the perspectives of others, because if Jesus isn't there at the point of truth, then He must've been a sham and I should move on with my life. If you're ever in Atlanta on a Thursday evening, I hope you'll join us for a pint or a healthy pour of fruit-infused water. We'll make you check your agenda at the door, but we'll intently listen to what you have to say. Who knows, you may just be able to make a strong enough case to make me finally drop this Jesus following nonsense.

What I'm listening to during this post:



Monday, November 11, 2013

I can't cut it.

I fell asleep on the tram the other night. This happens far too often - it's only a matter of time until I wake up to find myself in Belgium at 1am, robbed of my wallet and shoes. As the streetcar twists its way around Amsterdam's canals, a prerecorded voice announces the stops, and like a dog who obeys his owner's commands without understanding what the words mean or being able to pronounce them, I listen intently to ensure I don't miss the stop near my hotel. In between the speakers announcing Nieuwezijds Kolk and Prinsengracht, the conductor rings the tram's bell as we cross through an intersection. The bell is gentle, but we all know what it's really saying - "Get out of my path, you stoned, pot-smoking tourist!" All of these sounds orchestrate into a symphonic lullaby in my ears, and the gentle rumbling of the tram over the old tracks rocks me to sleep.

The other night, my slumber was startling interrupted by the speaker declaring the one Dutch word I know: "Zuid" (it means "south" and is pronounced like "Zowd"). I quickly punched the stop request button, scanned my chip card, and exited the tram. It wasn't until my feet had hit the pavement that I emerged from my stupor and realized Zuid was the stop for my office - my hotel was another 2 kilometers away. As I began my long walk back, a rain cloud burst above, absolutely drenching me. As the water seeped through my blazer, it was as if everything was going wrong, but all I could do was emit a joyful smile. 24 hours earlier, this joy would not have been possible.

2013 has been the most difficult year in the record books for me. I could go into detail, but I don't want to turn this post into a pity party. Also, I've noticed that when you bare your soul on a topic you've been struggling with, there's often a tendency for peers to belittle your struggle by comparing your life to someone whose situation is worse than yours. For example, I once confided in a friend that I had a rough week at the office, and his response was "hey, at least you have a job to complain about." I don't see any difference between that response and me telling a friend whose parents are going through a difficult divorce "hey, at least your dad is alive, mine's dead!" It's not compassionate, it's hurtful. Not to mention it's moot - many of the reasons I've had a tough year are people close to me are in situations worse than mine, and I haven't been able to help them as much as I wish I could. So I'll just sum it up by saying I've spent most of the year at what I thought was the end of my rope. After one particularly difficult week in Amsterdam, I spent the drive home after the long flight shouting at God. "I can't take any more!" I yelled at Him through the sunroof. Thirty seconds later, an uninsured motorist who had lost control of her vehicle t-boned the new car I had purchased a mere two weeks before. Apparently He thought I could take some more. Needless to say, I'm ready for 2014. I'm already preparing for our New Year's Eve party because I can't wait to stick 2013 on a pyre and set it ablaze like in a viking funeral.

I've tended to blame this year's troubles on money. First, I thought if I just had more of it, I could fix everything. Then I felt guilty for wanting more money, so I figured my lust for money must be the problem. Perhaps if I could just take out a scalpel and remove that desire from my heart, then surely all my angst would disappear. A few nights ago, I was struck with a bout of insomnia (which often happens when I fly to Europe and my body hasn't adjusted to the time difference yet). So at 3am, I passed the time reading my Bible, and praying for God to help me abolish my love for money. As I sat there in silence, God spoke to me. Not an audible voice, but rather a gentle whisper emanating from my chest and implanting words in my brain, saying: "This isn't about money. This is about your pride."

Before I continue, I'd like to acknowledge how absurd it is for me to claim I heard from God. I'm sure my unbelieving friends would have some very reasonable explanations for it - maybe even biological or psychological explanations for why it was just a message from my subconscious. Yet before you lump me together with the mentally ill and those who commit atrocities while claiming "God told me to," allow me to offer up a few observations of what these "communications" have had in common, and what have set them apart from my usual mind wanderings and daydreams. I don't hear from God on a frequent basis, and there's no pattern for when it happens (I don't do seances, or anything else to provoke them). When they do happen, they're succinct, always in accordance with Scripture, and affirmed by wise people. The messages don't necessarily align with what I see as my best interests, but rather typically cost me something (resources, how I spend my time, etc). They've never been prophetic nor predicted the future. Yet they've always stood in stark contrast with what I want, and point me down a road that is tougher, but worth it.
Some of the $10k worth of damage done to my new car

This instance fit the same pattern, and the message was spot on, whether I liked it or not. Money is a much easier issue to deal with - what I didn't want to admit to myself is I had found my identity in earthly success and not in Christ. I had become known as a man of international mystery, a man who threw lavish parties, and a man who was willing and able to share with his friends in need, and I loved that identity - perhaps even idolized it. When a friend asked me for prayer for a friend of hers who was going through a rough period, I didn't just pray for her, I bought her a plane ticket so she could go visit her friend in need. I loved writing those kind of checks - I found my identity in being a blessing to others. Yet in 2013, I've dealt with issues my checkbook can't solve. I could write a check for all the therapy my friend with a traumatic brain injury needs, but it would bounce. Even Warren Buffet's checkbook couldn't save my other friend from a frivolous yet still painful, reputation-damaging lawsuit. It was high time for me to recognize my identity of being this benevolent benefactor who could bless everyone's lives with hospitality and fix all my friends' problems through my own efforts was an illusion - I am no one's savior. I had to bury my pride and place my burdens at the feet of the Healer, hanging my head while whispering "I can't cut it."

Artist depiction of St. Peter
Recently, my friend Joe taught me about Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus in the Bible. In the Gospels, we see Peter as a headstrong, never-say-die follower of Jesus. When officials come to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword and chops the ear off of one of them (John 18:10). When Jesus predicts that Peter will deny Him three times, Peter is offended and claims to love Jesus more than anyone else (Matthew 26:33, Mark 14:29). Of course Jesus was right, Peter did end up denying knowing Him three times, and we see Peter's pride in his identity as the most zealous of the disciples slip into a feeling of dire failure. To add a little salt in Peter's wound, after Jesus dies on the cross and is resurrected from the dead, He goes to Peter and asks him: "do you love me more than these [referring to the other disciples]?" Peter responds: "you know that I love you" and Jesus follows with "Feed my lambs" then asks his question again. Peter responds the same way, then Jesus repeats His question a third time. Peter gives the same response a third time, and Jesus reiterates "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-19). Sure, it's a beautiful dialogue, with Jesus making Peter say he loves Him three times to contrast his three denials, and Jesus reaffirming Peter's call to ministry, yet it's even richer when you look at the Greek, in which the New Testament was originally written.

The Greek language has four different words for love. When Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, He uses "agape," which means unconditional love. However, when Peter responds, he uses "philos," which means friendly or brotherly love. It's as if Jesus is asking Peter: "Do you love me unconditionally, more than all the others, as you said you did?" and Peter is responding "Lord, you know I at least love you as a brother, but you know I can't say agape. You know I denied you, you know I messed up, you know I can't cut it." Yet Jesus is resolute, and reaffirms what he said about Peter before: "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." (Matthew 16:18) We know this is how history played out - we know Peter was one of the most prolific leaders of the early church. Yet we also know the growth of the church can't be attributed to Peter's zeal and strength, but rather to his inability to say "agape" with a straight face, to his admission of "I can't cut it," to humbly lay the burdens he couldn't control at the feet of the Lord while dedicating his life to following Jesus's simple command: "feed my sheep."
Agape in Greek

As the cold Dutch rain pierced through my expensive blazer, I realized I could dress myself up in fancy clothes, but storms would still fall on me nonetheless. I realized I could travel to foreign countries and take on the appearance of a jet setter, but I'd still fall asleep on public transportation, just like the homeless people in America. I realized I could search for all the job security I'd ever need, but I still would never have enough to fix everything. I needed to follow Peter's example and humbly accept God's call to serve Him while humbly admitting I can't take the credit and shout "agape." I gave up my burden, and it was freeing. I couldn't cut it, my pride and old identity were slowly dying, and it made me erupt with joy.

What I'm listening to during this post: