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.

Creation Song

In Thumbprints in the Clay, Luci Shaw shared that fully one-third of the Bible is written in poetic form, yet we read it like an auto repair manual. In our desire to “get it right,” we read each line with mechanical precision, but we fail to notice the musical staff dwelling nearby. There is no doubt that God’s blueprints for creation were precise and logical, but I wonder how many of us, while considering God’s precision exclude beauty, consciously or subconsciously. For example, we attempt to wrestle Genesis 1 into submission, seeking to prove our preferred understanding of how God created, rather than wondering in amazement that He created. We fail to feel the rhythm.

Eugene Peterson wrote in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “There are two sets of three days each of creation activity. The first set of three gives form to the pre-creation chaos of [Genesis 1:2]; the second set of three fills the pre-creation emptiness…There is another interesting rhythmic variation. The third day of each three-day set comprises a double creation. So the cadence becomes: 1-2-3/3, 4-5-6/6…When we speak this text aloud, or listen to it being spoken, the text gets inside us. We enter the rhythms of creation time and find that we are internalizing a creation sense of orderliness and connectedness and resonance that is very much like what we get from music.”

As I think about God’s creation, I find myself wondering if God sang the world into creation. Words, yes, but music too. CS Lewis must have wondered this as well; in the sixth book of the Narnia series, The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan sings creation into being.

Christianity is not merely cognitive, but carditive; not merely brain, but heart. As we read the revealed word, we would do well to also pay attention to its rhythms.

And to our own.

Learning to say no

At least once each year, I will reach a state of mental exhaustion, where I am running largely on fumes and stubbornness. I last felt that way in mid-October. I was serving as a staff member at a men’s conference in Kentucky and I had nothing left to give. I was grateful for the leadership; a few of them checked in with me, encouraging me to make sure to care for myself.

Admittedly, these times are largely the result of my own choices. In October, I chose to go to Kentucky two weeks after returning from Nashville, with intermingled ministry work in between. I choose busyness, increasingly aware of its toll. I love my day job. I work as a clinical neuropsychologist, so I spend my days helping people unravel why they think, feel, and act the way they do. I help them to understand their brains so that these things begin to make sense. But I am also deeply involved in ministry. Though working with the embodied brain is a remarkably unique and fulfilling career, I really love helping people meet Jesus. Just as neuropsychology involves a lot of “behind the scenes” work, so too does ministry.

I was reflecting with my wife this morning that each of the last four days, I have been out of the house by 6:00AM or shortly thereafter, and I am typically home by 5:00. I do not envy my medical colleagues who must do evening and weekend call. However, this time of the year, evenings are often occupied as well–high school group, life group, leadership training, and Friday church when we decide to go. Certain weeks, it’s hard to catch my breath.

Having said all that, I am increasingly recognizing how elements of my personality contribute to these patterns. I am a 2 on the enneagram, which suggests that I like to help. At its best I can be encouraging, giving, and other-centered in a way that is not self-damaging. However, I can also have a hard time saying no to people. I thrive on needing to be needed. I am a people-pleaser. When attending to the needs of others without caring for one’s own needs, a host of difficulties may arise from bitterness to physical illness. I am also sensitive to the potential effect upon family, the people lest likely to express their desire for time with me.

As I continue to learn about myself, I recognize that one of the most important spiritual disciplines I could practice would be learning to say “no,” to recognize that I do not have to be…even cannot be…all things to all people. Time is finite. If I fail to set limits if I do not prioritize my commitments, if I do not learn to say no, I fear the damage will not be limited to me alone.

Why do I share this? Perhaps in hopes that you will pray for me. Perhaps in offering me grace when I say to no to you. Perhaps it is simply an acknowledgement, to myself principally, that I too am finite.

Shalom Challenge

What if for the next two months, we intentionally committed ourselves to actively pursuing peace, goodness, and beauty?  What might the world look like if we purposed ourselves each day to look for ways to bring light to a dark world? How might hurts be healed if we actively sought to pursue relational wholeness?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I look around me, I see so much hurt. Our world exists under a smog of brokenness. When all we see around us is damaged, we begin to live as if the world were supposed to be gray. It becomes all we know. We fail to hope because we know from experience that hopes are rarely fulfilled and we become cynics.

We are surrounded by more people than ever, 7 billion and growing. The worldwide availability of technology allows us to communicate with startling speed. We can still handwrite letters if we wish, but we can also call, text, email, message, Snapchat, Skype, Facetime, or Hangout. We have the freedom to share every passing whim on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube. Yet, despite more people and more ways to communicate with them, people feel less known than ever.

When I read my social media feeds, I am stunned by the mix of good and bad. On the one hand, there are encouraging flickers of human kindness and love. On the other hand, there is so much anger, dissension, haughtiness, and sarcasm that the dark clouds seem impenetrable. I watch conservatives criticizing liberals and vice versa; Catholics demonizing Protestants, and vice versa. In any given day, we can find 10,000 things that make us angry and indignant.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
-Isaac Watts

If you have been concerned about this, like I have, or you have contributed to it, like I have, I want to suggest a challenge. For the next two months—November 1st to December 31st—let us actively seek peace, goodness, and beauty.  Here are some ways to implement this challenge:

  1. As you begin each day, ask God’s help in pursuing peace, goodness, and beauty.
  2. Actively resist posting negativity on social media. In other words, do not share things that actively stir dissension or controversy. If someone else posts something controversial and you feel the need to run to your keyboard to “set the record straight,” resist doing so. If you can, let it go. If you cannot, reach out to the person individually.
  3. Similarly, avoid sarcasm. Yes, I understand that sarcasm is often just in good fun, but in reality, it often wounds people in ways we do not know and, if we are honest, it can mask unresolved conflict we have with others.
  4. When you are met with negativity, respond with kindness. When you are met with anger, respond with peace. When you encounter evil, respond with goodness.
  5. Actively seek for ways to demonstrate peace, goodness, and beauty. Stay attentive to ways in which you might encourage and serve others. You might offer a kind word or a listening ear, share something of beauty, or help meet someone’s physical needs. The opportunities are endless.
  6. Look for ways to create beauty yourself. Perhaps your first step here is to set aside your belief that you are simply not creative and then get about the business of creating.
  7. Encourage others to join in to this #shalomchallenge. Think of at least five people to invite to participate with you. An old African proverb says that “when we go together, we go far.”

Maybe this challenge will be fruitless.
Maybe after two months, you will miss engaging in controversy.

But maybe, a life could be transformed and that life could just be your own.

Lofty Eyes

Pride is poison to the soul and none of us is immune, though the symptoms may manifest uniquely in each of us. Pride in possessions, pride in health, pride in righteous living, pride in right theology–even, ironically, pride in humility.

In the past several decades, several streams have converged that seem to make human pride all the more evident. The self-esteem movement, beginning with noble aspirations, has become a corrupted thing where self becomes preeminent and sin is excluded as a construct without meaning. The culture of self when combined with increased connectivity through social media creates a witch’s brew of hubris. The first ingredient contributes to a strong sense of our own rightness, whereas the second provides a mechanism of delivery.

And Christians are not immune, far from it. Every day on social media, I watch arguments unfolding over too many issues to name. I see Christians tearing down believers and non-believers alike, all in the name of rightness.  When Christian leaders fail publicly, it chums the social media waters for attack. Christian sharks influencers on social media and elsewhere smack their lips and prepare to feed.

Sometimes, it is not even an issue of one’s moral failure, but grows from a place of disagreement and an assumption of right belief. How many good and godly ministries have faced public attacks and charges of heresy by those who are “clean in their own eyes.” In recent weeks, one of the godliest men I know has been excoriated publicly by another believer. I wish this were uncommon; it is not. Indeed, there are “ministries” whose sole purpose is to identify and expose the ways other believers are in error.  They are not proclaiming the good news, they are airing what they perceive to be dirty laundry. They want to be seen as legitimate news, but in truth they are tabloids.

This ought not be so. The apostle Paul instructed Titus, “Speak evil of no one. Avoid quarreling. Be gentle. Show perfect courtesy to all people.” (Titus 3:2). When God calls people to be ministers of His word, He does not invite them to an easy task. Public proclamation of God’s word inevitably leads to challenge, criticism, and attack, yet I believe every one of these willing leaders would gladly request that other believers stop shooting them in the back.

Speak evil of no one.
Avoid quarreling.
Be gentle.
Show perfect courtesy to all people.
-St. Paul

As Francis Chan said in his excellent sermon Think Hard, Stay Humble “It would be like a great basketball player who never misses a shot but keeps shooting into the opponent’s basket. He may say, ‘I was five for five today from the three-point line,’ but his teammates would respond, ‘But you’re killing our team! You’re shooting at the wrong basket!’ He answers confidently, ‘But I did not miss.’ That is the kind of attitude that Paul is confronting here. You might be brilliant, but you’re killing our team.”

None of us is immune. Not one. Before weighing in on controversy, before criticizing another minister of the gospel, before denouncing other believers or their ministries, consider asking yourself:

  1. Is it possible I am wrong?
  2. Am I more interested in being right than being loving?
  3. Have I considered that I may not know all of the relevant details about the person or thing I am criticizing?
  4. If I were face to face with this person, would I be willing to offer the same criticism? Would I use the same words? If not, why not?
  5. How does my response align with Titus 3:2 (and an abundance of other scriptural references)?
  6. Is it possible I am wrong? (Yes, I know I asked this question above. I ask it again because I want each of us to consider that, in our fallen state, our knowledge is tainted. We have perfect knowledge of neither the content of Scripture nor the intent of God).

I’ve Got This

Close your eyes. Paint a picture of Jesus in your mind. What does he look like? If eyes reflect the soul, what do you see in his?

Listen to him. How would you describe his voice? Think specifically, what was Jesus’ tone when he said to the woman with the discharge of blood, “daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace” (Luke 8:48). What did he communicate to the woman caught in adultery when he said “neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11). When I read those words, I hear compassion and mercy.

Consider another story. In the upper room, Peter boldly proclaimed that he would lay down his life for Jesus who responded, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly I say to you the rooster will not crow until you have denied me three times.” What was Jesus’s tone in this case? As Jesus predicted, Peter denied him. In Luke’s account of the story, we read that after the third denial, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61).

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.–A.W. Tozer

When Jesus caught Peter’s gaze, what was the look upon his face? For most of my life, when I have heard this story, I have imagined that when Jesus was talking with Peter, an edge of irritation intruded as though Jesus were thinking to himself, “Impetuous Peter. Why did I ever choose him, he’s such a screw up.” Then laying eyes upon him, a look of disgust, eyes that communicated worthlessness.

But a friend challenged me recently. He asked, “What if the look upon Jesus face was not one of disappointment, but communicated, ‘Brother, I’ve got this. You are my beloved. Just wait and see what the Father and I are about to do.’”

Jesus never fails to look upon us with compassion. He never fails to love. Not even once. When we are in Christ, we have no need to think of God as a fickle master, for he is unchanging in his love. He is not a cauldron of boiling wrath waiting to be poured on us when we fail him once more. Every moment of every day he gazes upon us with a look that says, “I’ve got this.”

Minderhaud

In the decade since I moved away for a second time, my hometown has changed. The sleepy community of mostly Dutch settlers two miles west of Lake Michigan has flourished in many ways. New businesses are expanding to the east and to the west; new homes in all directions. A few businesses are now open on Sundays, a fact that still surprisingly shocks me. Many are still bothered by seven day commerce, even when they find their way through the doors of Mentink’s Piggly Wiggly for a dozen eggs on a Sunday afternoon.

But my interest today is in the farm. I lived in eight different houses before I turned 18, so my aunt and uncles farm provided my most consistent space. When I survey my childhood, this farm is always in the picture.

Leaving Oostburg, the land is flat enough that I could see the farm over the cornfields a half mile or so away, silos rising together. I turn north onto Minderhaud Road. The road itself holds memories. It is mostly straight apart from a few fades left and right and left again. And it is narrow; narrow enough that I am surprised teenagers ever thought it a good idea to race this road. Perhaps the danger was part of the appeal to only partially myelinated brains.

I turn left into the driveway and I’m home. I see my cousins standing under a tent in front of the “new” house, now 35 years old. My memories of the old house have faded considerably. I cannot even picture it now; though sometimes flashes of recollection emerge. The ground itself shows no trace of memory of the original foundation.

I hug Connie, Rachel, and Nikki, my sisters. We are not siblings by blood, but by love. Seeing them reminds me how much I miss them. I also embrace my dear aunt Sandy, with whom I share a love for writing, and beauty. When I write, I often write for her.

I step up into the house from the garage. New stainless steel appliances update the kitchen, but the bones are the same. There is still no dishwasher, I notice. I remember my grandma Laura standing at this sink, washing the dishes in too hot water and looking off to the south. What did she see? What does she see now?

The main level has two bathrooms. With mom, dad, and three girls, I imagine two bathrooms was a necessity when it was built. I look into the first bathroom, but I use the second. You can see through the first window from the deck, but not the second, I remember sheepishly.

Later on, I grab my camera and walk the hundred or so paces to the barn. It seems so much closer now that I am grown. I walk across a concrete slab, thinking of the buildings and the cows that stood here. The pavement is so white; a far cry from the manure that used to paint this place. I walk to the barn and look through a clouded window. Aluminum cans and building supplies line the milking parlor, but I can still see the cows and my uncle John working, working, working.

I stay out of the barn today; I don’t feel the need to go in. Thankfully, Grace ventured inside and even up a ladder into the hay mow, where she took some beautiful pictures at elevation. When I was reviewing her shots, a small part of me wondered why she would think it was a good idea to climb unsupervised, but a bigger part of me was thrilled that she grasped the opportunity right in front of her. That should happen here.

How much did these barns shape who I am? How about these fields? More important than place, how did these four women guide who I am now? How did their love and their correction affect me? And what about the mischief? As I watched my son and Rachel’s daughter playing together, I could not help but think of Nikki and me. We played together and worked together and ate together and misbehaved together. I am certain I would be shocked if my children misbehaved in the ways that we did at the farm, but I don’t regret it. It helped make me who I am today.

And every time I return to this place and these women, I come back home.

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