Goodbye, Old Friend

Yesterday, I was returning home from Rice Lake, a weekly drive I have made hundreds of times over the past dozen years. Time and repetition have created familiarity. For all its seasonal changes, the contours of the landscape have become a part of me. Just north of Chippewa Falls, I always look at a certain field, a shallow bowl protected on two sides by a ridge of mixed hardwoods. I once saw a black bear sitting in that field eating corn. I have hoped to see him again, though I never have.

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Further north, a horse farm is nestled in the hills. I often wonder, how many horses do they have? I have never been able to count, but each season, new foals join the group. They chase the older ones through the large pasture, sparsely dotted with large round bails.

I cross three rivers. Typically calm and unassuming, when bitter winter air presses down upon the water, they breathe blankets of fog into the atmosphere. Though a visible reminder of the cold, these low clouds are welcomed beauty.

Although I have come to love each of these scenes, they have been casual companions. Not so this barn; she has been a true friend. Whether driving north or south, I have always looked at her. On the rare occasion I have had others ride along with me, I have always pointed her out with fondness. My office wall features a watercolor I made of this barn. Though I never shared this with my wife, I once toyed with the idea of finding out if this homestead was for sale. Okay, more than once.

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Yesterday, as I drove home, I saw a pillar of gray smoke rising through the raindrops. I suspected it was the burn pile that is often smoking in the afternoons. Yet, as I rounded a curve on 53 South, I saw what was left of the barn–my barn–smoldering on the ground. I knew it was coming. The house has been gone for several months, yet I was filled with sadness and a sense of loss. My old friend was no longer.

How does one develop a particular affection for something inanimate? Why had this barn, a skeleton really, had such a hold on me? Why this farm, and not another? I cannot truly say. Partly, I believe, it projected wisdom, strength, and beauty. It represented for me a lifelong love of farms, but more importantly, for the farmers I have known and loved–my grandfather Wilfred, my uncle Paul, my uncle John–many of them, like this barn, now passed on.

We don’t love generalities, we love specifics.  We cannot love creation without recognizing that we live in a specific place. We cannot love humankind without loving particular people. We are embedded in specific families, communities, and cultures at a particular time in history. This farm has been a part of my story over the last dozen years and has been imprinted upon my heart. Other people and other places, some known only briefly and some known for a lifetime, also exist there. They are a part of me.

And so I say goodbye, old friend. Thank you for being an important part of my life.

enCOURAGEment

A couple of weeks ago, a friend challenged what he perceived to be my lack of courage. He suggested that fear was driver for a recent decision I made. Historically yes, I told him, I have lacked the courage to do hard things. As a natural-born people pleaser, I have historically avoided conflict. I’ve done whatever was necessary to not kick the hornet’s nest, but sometimes the hornet’s nest needs to be kicked. He was right in identifying that fear has been one of my primary motivators, and I told him so.

What I did not tell him was that the decision that he thought lacked courage was probably the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

This morning, I was thinking about encouragement and it dawned on me for the first time that the root word for encouragement is courage. I don’t know why I never realized that before. So  I began to ask, what then is the process of encouragement? Who is an encourager? Encouragement is the process of telling others that you believe in them; it is communicating that yes, you believe they can do something difficult. That you have faith that they can step bravely into the unknown.

My friend Larry wrote a book on Encouragement. It’s a book about coming alongside other people, entering their battle. But encouragement is not simply telling others nice things about themselves. It is not simply saying, “everything will be okay” because maybe it won’t. Perhaps encouragement is saying, “I know this is hard. I cannot do this for you. You may be entering into a space where you will be hurt. You are walking into the unknown. There may be traps and pitfalls and difficulties. Perhaps even death. But I believe you and I am for you.” Encouragers ask would you rather die on the right battlefield or live comfortably on the wrong one. Courage involves entering into places and situations that we would rather not. An encourager says, “I am with you.”

Encouragers ask would you rather die on the right battlefield or live comfortably on the wrong one.

Life is not made up of pleasantries, pleasures, and constant positivity. God never said it would be. Life here can be filled with pain, hardship, and relational breakdown. Despite our titan efforts to avoid pain, or to pretend it away, it still comes. It is unavoidable. The question that each of us must face is “will I step into the pain, into the darkness, into the battle?” Will we follow God into the unknown? Are we willing to do it afraid? Are we willing to be called cowardly even in the midst of the most courageous thing we’ve ever done? Are we willing to be told we lack character when it is from a place of integrity that we are acting? Are we willing to go it alone if necessary?

Thankfully, encouragers never leave us to ourselves. Even if we must step into the confusion on our own, encouragers are behind us whispering, “I am for you.”

If we are honest, the way ahead is unknown for all of us. No one knows what tomorrow may bring. We are all faced with confusion and uncertainty. That is a necessary part of life under the sun. But when we’re afraid, we must notice the encouragers grabbing our hands and reminding us, “You’ve got this. I believe in you.”

Are you grateful?

I awoke at four. My internal timekeeper has recently decided the day begins then, even when I have the day off. After a shower, coffee, and some time with Jesus, I looked at my schedule for the day. I smiled at the words “Jason Off.” My only other responsibility for the day was to transport my dear brother and sister-in-law to the Ice Age Trail. They were beginning a three day, 26 mile hike.

At about 8:30, Derrick called and we agreed to meet in Cornell, a small town northeast of Eau Claire. They would leave their vehicle sit and I would transport them to New Auburn where they would begin their eastward journey. As the oldest sibling, I could not resist parenting them once more. “The heat index is going to be 110 degrees. Are you sure?” “Yes,” came the confident reply.

We loaded their gear into my non-air-conditioned F250 and caught up some. We talked about tattoos as they celebrated my recent acquisition, and we talked about kids, and art, and bed-making. I explained that research demonstrates that unmade beds are healthier, because they are not incubators for cooties. Bridget wasn’t buying it.

We also talked of gratitude, a virtue many of us fail to practice regularly. It is easy to devolve into a rhythm of complaint. Our lives become minor chord progressions that never seem to resolve. Negativity becomes what it hates. Thoughts continually focused upon what is bad give way to depression.

Yet, there is so much for which we can be grateful if we are willing to open our eyes. As I drove the country road north into Cornell, fields mostly of green surrounded me. I passed by one field still dressed in brown and I wondered whether the farmer chose to leave it fallow for the year. At full sprint, a well-muscle coyote darted in front of my truck. It seemed on mission, though I saw no roadrunner.

When I dropped Derrick and Bridget off at the trail head, we stood in a grassy field. There were purple flowers, and white, but the orange ones stood out. Only a single plant, flaming brightly like a campfire in the midst of a large clearing. I hugged them goodbye and began the trip home.

Along the way, I saw a thrift store and yard sale sharing the same parking lot. I had already driven past when it captured my attention, so I reversed course. Selling out of the back of an old trailer was an even older gentleman. His kindness was palpable. He frequents estate sales, but he only likes the ones that are handled by the family. I learned that when companies run them, they are too expensive. Although several tables held treasures untold, only one item captured my attention: a nondescript 12-string guitar. Its only marking was a small green tag, which read

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I looked again to be sure. I hadn’t mistaken the price. Together with its brand new soft-sided case, I didn’t even hesitate. The man had never seen a guitar with twelve strings and he wondered if I played. I told him, “Yes. A bit, but not as well as my son.” I had no desire to barter, but he said to me, “how ’bout an even 35?” I smiled and handed him three crisp bills, eager to share my find with my family. IMG_1856

As I drove the 30 minutes home, I was reminded of God’s goodness. He is everywhere present–in the generosity of an octogenarian, in a blossom’s flame, in the speed of a coyote, and in the embrace of a brother.

If we were willing to pay attention and stay present to the moment, we could fill a notebook each day with the things for which we are grateful.

How about you? What are you grateful for today?

Use your tools beautifully

In 1991, a man wielding a hammer beneath his jacket attacked Michelangelo’s David, one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world. In 1972, Michelangelo’s Pieta–in my opinion the most beautiful sculpture in existence–was also attacked and disfigured.

Michelangelo crafted the Pieta in the late 1400s and David in the early 1500s, wielding a hammer and chisels. In the case of David, he was faced with a giant block of marble that had stood rejected by other artists for 40 years. Yet in that shapeless piece of stone, he saw beauty. He released David. Removing rock and shaping limbs, he released the hero, revealing beauty.

Each of us are given daily choices. We can use the tools we have been given to highlight and reveal beauty, or we can use them to destroy. So much of what I see on social media is disintegrating and destructive. People seek to press their opinions without seeking to embody love. Yet divisiveness isn’t limited to social media. How we speak with our families can also prove destructive rather than encouraging and upbuilding. Our judgmental glances, looks, and words toward those who are different from us are destructive.

Each day, we are given choices to seek peace or conflict; to live beautifully or cruelly; to seek commonality or promote division.

What are you doing with your tools?

Seeking Shalom

Yesterday, my oldest daughter and I had a daddy-daughter date. We got matching tattoos with the Hebrew word, shalom, a core theme in how I want to live my life. When I wrote Soil of the Divine last year, my intention was to try to explore the idea of shalom through poetry. In some cases, I believe I succeeded, but in others, I fell short.

Most people upon hearing the word shalom either have never been exposed to it before, or have heard it defined as “peace.” Traditionally, Bible scholars have interpreted it as peace as well. Peace is certainly a part of shalom, but it is incomplete. Doug Hershey makes the observation that “the common Western definition of peace is–the absence of conflict or war–but in Hebrew it means so much more.” In truth, shalom is not so much the absence of something, but presence.

One of my favorite quotes–in fact I shared it at the opening of my book–comes from Neal Plantiga’s excellent Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that employs joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

When God created the cosmos, it was the way it should be; it was true, good, and beautiful. More importantly, it was filled with the manifest presence of God, who is love. Yet when sin entered the world, this perfect state of affairs was marred. We have longed for it ever since.

As believers, I think we are not called principally to avoid conflict, but to seek shalom. We are called to a higher existence. We are called to be, as my friend Curt says, “outposts of goodness and beauty.” Every thought, every action that we engage in moves us toward an integrated state or a disintegrated one. We move toward wholeness, or away.

When we respond to others with disrespect, dismissiveness, or self-centeredness, we are acting in disintegrating ways. When we seek to listen, understand, know, and love–particularly those who are different–we are behaving in integrating ways. We are pursuing shalom.

Every person we meet is longing for completeness. As Christians, we know in whom completeness is found and God calls us to be ambassadors of shalom.

At the Well

This morning, I was reflecting on the story of the woman at the well from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. Sometimes, I find it beneficial to slow down, savoring the story. I think we can learn a lot by stepping into the story and taking a look around, trying to imagine what people were sensing, imagining, feeling, and thinking. When we recognize that these stories are not just flat words upon a page, but real life and blood people, it can deepen our understanding. Today, I tried to envision the woman’s experience and wrote a story. I hope it is edifying. 

With the noonday sun cresting in the sky, she began her daily trip to the well. Working in the sun’s oppressive heat was a small price to pay to avoid judgmental stares and whispered accusations. She walked down the familiar path. Though she had walked this narrow trail a thousand times, she kept her eyes trained a few feet ahead, only glancing further along every few moments. A world-wise woman understands how important it is to be aware of her surroundings.

As she drew nearer to Jacob’s well, she looked up again, this time seeing someone sitting nearby. She debated whether to turn back, but she knew from experience that the man she was living with would be angry if she came back without a full jar. In her mind, she weighed the risk of encountering an unknown stranger against the guaranteed sting of a slap across her cheek. They needed the water. With any luck, she could avoid any interaction.  Continue reading “At the Well”

The Wrecking Crew

“RIIIIPPP!!!!” While enjoying a silent morning before my family arose, I heard a tearing noise coming from the family room. I went to check on the damage, already knowing the culprits, Benny and Joon, our rescue puppies, now several months old. I found them standing on a beloved quilt, yellow fabric scraps in their mouths. Exasperated, I hollered, “NO!” not caring if I woke up sleeping children. Add the quilt to the list of things damaged or destroyed by the dangerous duo: 3 love seats, 2 sofas, 1 coffee table, a television remote, lightbulbs, a brand new Under Armor sweatshirt. 24 one-dollar bills.  The list could on, but I think the point is made.

I cleaned up the damage and returned to my seat, no doubt with a scowl upon my face. Without hesitation, Joon jumped up next to me, and immediately rolled on her back for a belly rub. She knows that regardless of what happens, regardless of what she has done, I will still take her into my lap and treat her affectionately.

A lot of people wonder why we have dogs. Most days, I wonder myself. But this morning, their antics taught me an important gospel lesson. Even when I wreck things over and over, God still takes me into his lap. Even in my sin, he still treats me with affection.

I wish my dogs would stop wrecking stuff. I truly do, but regardless, they are a part of the family. In the same way, God will never reach a point where he looks at my destructive tendencies and says, “That’s okay. That stuff doesn’t matter,” but at the same time, I am his child and he loves me anyway.

The Hardest Thing…and the Easiest

And above all these, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.-Colossians 3:14

An expert theologian once asked Jesus, “what is the greatest commandment of all?” Jesus told him that the greatest commandment was to love God completely, with heart, soul, mind, and strength. He also said that the second flowed from the first, to love others as well as we love ourselves (Mark 12:28-31). As I was pondering Jesus’s words this morning, I wrote in my journal, “This is the hardest thing in the world to do. It is also the easiest.” The difficulty in the command is that we live in a society of sinners who are at times difficult to love. We treat one another poorly. We act disrespectfully, if not hatefully. The easy part, if we are willing to see it as such, is that we aren’t really given exceptions, or situations where love does not apply. It always applies, but will I heed?

I have decided to stick with love;
hate is too great a burden to bear.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes, I think we lose sight of the reality that our battle is not against other people, but against evil. The devil specializes in creating discord. He isolates us from one another; accusations and temptations carry so much more weight when we have to bear them alone. Yet, we turn on one another. In Galatians 5:15, Paul says that we “bite and devour” one another. Meanwhile, the devil grins.

Are you angry about injustice? Love.
Are you confused? Love.
Do you feel misunderstood, misrepresented, or maligned? Love.
Do you disagree with how another person is acting? Love.
Are you afraid? Love.
Have you been betrayed? Love.
Have you been a witness to evil? Love.

Regardless of your circumstance, seek to put on love. You may fail. All of us do. But keep striving, day by day, to love better. In God’s economy, love is worth the effort.

And above all, love one another deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.-1 Peter 4:8 (NIV) 

 

Binge Eating Disorder and Poetic Wisdom

I have a Binge Eating Disorder.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “Binge eating disorder is a severe, life-threatening and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating. It is the most common eating disorder in the United States.

I cannot recall a time when I was not desperately affected by food. I was thin as a child. My mom would say that even slim-fit jeans would fall from my waist, though I do not remember those days. I look back at school pictures and sometime in the middle grades, I began to fill out. By my sophomore year of high school, I reached 220 pounds and started my first diet. As an all-or-nothing person (I suspect many folks with eating disorders tend in that direction), I quickly lost 40 pounds. Yet it was not to last. I would like to tell you that the thirty years since then have been a piece of cake, but more often than not, it was the whole cake.

I wish that last sentence was tongue in cheek. It isn’t. I have eaten a whole cake at one time. A whole Baker’s Square French Silk pie in a hotel room alone. Pounds of M&Ms behind my closed office door. Dozens of cookies in my car driving home. Not over a lifetime, mind you, but at one sitting. Those who binge eat all have their war stories, but the number of episodes we forget far outnumber those we remember. During a binge, the brain’s executive center seems to go offline, allowing baser desires to take over.  Eating becomes an automatic behavior that nullifies appreciation of food and flavor.

By the grace of God, I have not had an episode of binge eating in over a year, though I’ve lived enough life to know that it is unwise to say that I have beaten it.

Enter the Poets

Perhaps you were intrigued enough by the title to read this far. I hope so. Over the past several weeks, I have had a dawning realization that poets are granting me insight into my binge eating. How so? The best poets bid us to pay attention. In my limited experience, Mary Oliver succeeds at this better than most. I am currently reading Devotions, a remarkable anthology of her poetry. On each page, she invites her readers to see extraordinariness in the ordinariness of creation. Her Instructions for Living a Life capture her invitation well: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” When one binges, the capacity for attention is short-circuited. I am discovering that for me, poets re-awaken those circuits.

In addition, to improving our ability to pay attention, poets whisper, “Slow down. Breathe. Not so fast.” Many writing genres encourage rapid consumption. How many readers have found themselves repeatedly saying, “Just one more chapter”? Not so with the poets. Just this morning, I found myself beginning to rush ahead. I was not listening. I imagined Oliver telling me, “Jason, set the book down. Savor what you have read today. I will still be here tomorrow.”

In our brokenness, it seems that our primary, and often only, response is to seek answers in what the scientists tell us. Often, they can and do offer benefit. But what if, in addition to listening to the doctors and scientists, we also begin to pay attention to the poets and painters and musicians? Or to the farmers and housewives and World War II veterans? Perhaps our deepest healing occurs in a community where diverse gifts and experiences contribute to the deepest wisdom.

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