Real

I am swimming in a bowl of lies

My cereal bowl

The spoon is my escape

To pour sweetness on my tongue

And savor the short satisfaction

 

I lie because I don’t want to admit to other people that I am weak

It makes me feel pitiful

And useless

So I would rather they think I am strong

Or at least mysterious

 

I think over these things at

The dining room table

Alone in the morning before 6am

When no one can see me

If I cry

 

I am talking to a room full of lies

Because they are my friends

For friends invade my personal space

Like a Junior High dance

And I can’t navigate the closeness

 

Pain can’t be the good thing

I know it is

As it closes in on my heart

And turns my comfort

Into intimacy

I will make it

 

I am in a cage made of lies

Like solid bars

Invisible on the outside

And others don’t understand

What they don’t know

 

I hear the truth as a whisper

Tickling the edge of my ear

Cool as water

As it cuts down to my bone and tears me apart

And I bleed

 

I am on a pedestal of stone

In front of an audience

Under glimmering light

And I tear off shame as a robe

So that I can be exposed

 

I will be

I will be

I will be

Real

Mockery

There is something about wit that charms me. When someone comes back with a sharp reply, especially if it is clever and unexpected, I smile broadly. I almost can’t help but savor the moment. And to me no people group seems to be more proficient at this skill than the players in British fiction, from Shakespeare to Masterpiece Theater to Monty Python. They know how to turn and twist words and use body language to suggest meanings that might never have been there before. Brilliant!

I’ll admit it: I laugh out loud when I read books that have this clever wit. Ask my wife,who finds my responses to books humorous (though that could be a whole separate post). JK Rowling had a fantastic time of it in Harry Potter; Charles Dickens delighted in turns of the phrase. Jane Austen gets me every time – the words she chooses are so biting and yet so kind, disguised in Victorian propriety, covered by the layers of class structure, social mores, and the status of women. Brilliant!

There are two ways that this kind of wit can be used as a form of communication. One way is to put another person in their place. The other way is for sheer, unadulterated entertainment. Sometimes a person/character blends both styles (which isn’t surprising since humiliation can be made entertaining). Now our morality sensitive minds read this and think – Oh, how cruel! or how horrible! and what a selfish thing to do! Using wit as a device seems unnecessary, filled with pride and self-gratification, the complete opposite of the humble Christian way filled with grace and encouragement. But admit it to yourself now that there are moments a well placed barb leaves you cheering the underdog, proud of her/him for standing up to an overwhelming structure and standing for justice with exceptional flair.

I confess now that I am very guilty of enjoying a verbal spar every now and again. In my (somewhat complicated) mind, dialogue can be a bit of a game, a challenge to actively think through communication carefully and come out on top. Perhaps it comes from boredom? I know I am far happier when someone else joins in the repartee. It really isn’t even a matter of winning or losing, now that I come to think about it. But how I feel about it really doesn’t matter as much as do the consequences of my behavior. And if other people love to join, where is the harm in that?

I have (rarely) heard it said that the Bible is against making fun of people. In the first Psalm, the writer warns not to sit in the seat of mockers. I always pictured that as a guy who sits in a courtroom , then stands, points and laughs at anyone who is convicted. That couldn’t be the same thing as wit, right? I mean, it is so, unintelligent.

My eyes were opened if ever so slightly yesterday night at church. Jason Poznaks, who does a fantastic donkey impression, was describing the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. He described this image of a man on a young donkey, swaying about a street lined with people who were throwing their cloaks and palm branches before him. In Jason’s words this was a king’s homecoming, er, except it really wasn’t a king’s homecoming. He talked about what the return of a conquering hero King would look like in those days. The king would enter a city gallant on his best horse, coming before a vast army whose size and prowess promised further victory and the opulent spoils of war. When the King arrived it would mean the war was over and that victory belonged to the people of the kingdom. It was probably the biggest party the people could muster. In comparison, Jesus came on a clunky pinto with a small crew of Occupy San Diegans, each confused about their purpose in being there.  Jason also pointed out that this king Jesus, really the King of Kings, was not the ruler or political power that the people wanted, and therefore could never be the expected victor. He was not going to conquer Rome, per se.  In a way that we might not understand, Jesus’ entry to the city was kind of a joke, almost unworthy of any fanfare. I am sure that there were people standing by laughing to themselves, or at least slightly poking fun at Jesus to the person standing next to them.

Now this was meant to be the grandest affair, an important step to fulfill the promises Gad had made hundreds of years before. And it did fulfill the prophecy, to the letter. But why did Jesus have to ride in on a donkey? Why couldn’t he have blown everyone away? Because God has a sense of humor, a grand wit about him. Its purpose; to put people into their place by revealing who He is. How funny that God would send a king on a donkey!

When Jesus received a complaint from the Pharisees about his disciples’ celebration, he claimed that even the rocks would cry out in worship if the people stayed silent. Why? Because the rocks get the obvious truth that the Pharisees were missing. Call it hyperbole if you will, but here we are again with a sharp wit that demonstrates the vast chasm between the thoughts of men and God. Did God want to make a show of this? I don’t think that is God’s style, at least most of the time. But he certainly made a scene either way.

So I come back to this whole thing of mockery or wit or linguistic olympics….can that side of me peaceably coexist with this transformed world view? Being honest with myself, if I had to fast from being witty for entertainment’s sake it would probably really get to me. And knowing that it would get to me means I probably need to do it.

As for whether it is right or wrong, does it matter? Perhaps, like the Pharisees, I would be getting upset about something that isn’t even the point. My God is creative with how He relates with people so therefore shouldn’t I be? One day it might be through fire in the sky and the next day a talking donkey, but God has a keen sense for reaching the human condition. Why shouldn’t I approach other people in a human way, in a way that relates to them, and relates me to them like a well-made bridge?  Like a Pharisee I could fall on the side of fear and pocket the dangerous possibility that I may do or say something wrong. But would that be living? Talking about all of this makes me realize that I don’t know God in this way. I don’t approach Him with a smile and clever words because I know He is always going to be greater than I am. And yet He is overjoyed to teach me in unexpected ways, to lead me down paths that draw me in closer. Why can’t we flirt with one another, or at least dance or wrestle? Perhaps a fast would give me an opportunity that I have never taken before – to get to know God better in his sense of humor and irony, to approach the Almighty knowing well that it could be abrasive to my pride but delightful to my soul.

This Year – On Conviction, Confession, and Thanksgiving

I had a terrible New Year’s Eve this year. It was so bad, I completely forgot about the holiday until after it was over (perhaps I’ll celebrate Chinese New Year to make up for it?). That evening is a shining example of God’s faithfulness to me and my impatience in return.

For those of you that haven’t heard my story (how many of you are left?), I was on a flight bound for San Diego on New Year’s Eve, coming from Las Vegas. In a freak natural phenomenon, the San Diego Airport was fogged in, and though we tried a couple of times our plane could not land there. After a quick flight up to Ontario (about 114 miles away), a couple more hours “trapped” on Ontario’s tarmac, we were released into an airport that was closed for the New Year’s Eve holiday (at least the restaurants were). Eventually our flight was cancelled, and we waited for our airline to find a bus to drive us to San Diego. No problem, right? It was only 7:30pm on New Year’s Eve.

My parents, who live about ten minutes away, were out of town, as were my closest relatives. The rental car companies had no “one-way” cars left to rent (at least not without an exorbitant fee). I became tired and cranky and hungry and impatient and angry. All I could think about was being home. And the dollar signs it would take to get me there.

My lovely wife did her best to prevent a Derek meltdown, and talking to my family on the phone helped. Then the little miracles started arriving. My parents had an extra car at home available for us to drive, if we could get there and get in. I thankfully had a key to their house with me. My mom called a friend who was also willing to pick us up at the airport and drive us to my parent’s house. We were finally at home in bed by 11pm. Perhaps the most unexpected blessing; the airline sent vouchers to apologize for the situation (a situation they did not create, I might add. Props to Southwest Airlines).

It has been a few days since, and I am coming back to my senses. Time to think through the inevitable New Year’s Resolutions. What did I resolve to do last year? Oh yeah – this blog! This year brought many unexpected twists and turns, most notably my wife’s long job search, my sudden immersion in novel writing, and the progressive dissatisfaction with where I am at. What could this New Year bring?

Let’s begin with conviction. I guess I can’t resolve to be more convicted, but I find this basic of element of my Christian life wanting. Instead I  listen to the voice stoking my own ego. No where is it more clear than in marriage, where my every move affects another person. While a pithy “pray more” or “read the Bible more” suffices for many on this category, they don’t work for me. Within this man is a battle of wills; the will of God versus the will of Derek. And the will of Derek likes to keep Derek distracted – dangling carrots like acceptance, success, and self-indulgence with a hint of immediacy so that I have no desire to do anything that does not suit me. When a plane flight re-routing is needed to wake me up again, I realize I need to look in the mirror more often. Then I can see the ugly stuff; I use food to make me feel better, I crave approval any way I can get it, I drive myself mad with perfectionism, and I make myself feel like a failure for not being successful enough. The Holy Spirit opens my eyes to the people and places around me in funny ways, reminding me that I need to be dependant on God for all things, and that in God I have nothing to worry about. I thank God for conviction, though I equally hate it. I feel like a little kid that tries too hard, only to realize that I don’t get it, and then to further realize that not getting it is a good and beautiful thing.

How about confession? I suck at confession. Sometimes I wish I were Catholic so that I would have a “safe” person to tell everything to. I know that is ridiculous. I also know that I can say anything to God. But I suck at confession because I fight repentance. I don’t want to do the hard things. And my community often does not want to do the hard things, either. They would rather hear me out and try to make me feel better. Perhaps the only way to resolve this issue is to choose to serve those most in need – to do hard things empowered and emboldened by God – and to let the confessions flow out of humility rather than pride. I bet drug addicts would have a thing or two to tell me about pornography and my thought-life. I bet foster kids wouldn’t hesitate to highlight my innate selfishness. And (thankfully) my wife helps me to see when I am too into me. Can I resolve to put my confessions into actions?

I was recently challenged to “fall back in love” with God. When I heard those words, I recalled the afternoons I would spend on a park bench next to a pond, watching the sunlight filter through the leaves overhead while sketching praises to God. Or whole days I would take to climb a mountain alone and talk to Jesus as if he were there with me, walking alongside me. Or those mornings I would run off with a journal and would ask questions – hard questions – because I was hungry to know. How incredibly thankful I am to have those memories. But why are they memories?

I forget who God is when I am no longer thankful; when I don’t acknowledge his presence in my daily activities. When I realize who God is, I am drawn in – and I fall more in love. Can I therefore resolve to run away with God – to be alone with Him and see what happens, even when I am surrounded with people?.

I want to be entangled with God. Isn’t that what love looks like?

I fell in love with my wife, and we are married and practically inseparable. I love having her around, knowing that I am called to serve and honor her far more than myself, and yet redeemed and valued through our relationship. I want to be like that with Jesus. It isn’t that I want to wear a big Jesus t-shirt or to make my faith a talking point with everyone I meet, but I want to be united to God in a more indelible way. Can I acknowledge that Jesus is there with me always and be madly in love with him? The fear of becoming completely irrelevant, or worse yet, self-righteous, translates into a life of compartments with so little romance. I want God in the now, even in those moments I am convicted and confessing, when I feel guilty or impatient or hungry, when I am doing completely “ungodly” things. To heck with the formalities. I want each step to be a fragrant praise.

I know, my resolutions are impossible.

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

What are you thinking about for this New Year? What resolutions have you made?

Guest Blog Post: How I Became a Christian Again, Part 1

Thanks again to my wonderful wife for telling more of her story!

I didn’t go to church for 14 months – not a single Sunday, not even Easter or Christmas Eve. I was living in South Korea at the time, so it was easy to let the barrier of a foreign language justify my perpetual absence. But the truth was that I liked the convenience of that excuse; it could not explain the fact that I  never read the Bible or earnestly prayed to God in those 14 months. I had stopped doing all those Christian things two years before I moved to Korea, when I graduated college.
If I had to pinpoint a single thing that sparked my path away from faith, it would be my grandpa’s sudden death at the end of my sophomore year of college. But to that tragic experience was quickly added my parents’ separation and eventual divorce, and a rich and challenging semester abroad. Upon my return to the idyllic, meticulously-landscaped, brick-building filled campus of my Christian college, I felt as if everything about me had changed, other than the shared faith of my roommates, classmates, and professors.
I had tough, complex questions about God and faith that I wanted to ask, to see if others shared my doubts. Had they faced similar challenges to their beliefs, could they relate with my spiritual pain? But I felt I never got real answers back. Instead, I quickly grew frustrated at the cliched, nicely packaged, quip-py Christian answers to the tough, complex questions I had about God and faith. A few years later, when I watched the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie, I found I identified with Harry. There is a scene where he returns to Hogwarts and is now able to see thestrals, magical creatures only visible to those who have witnessed death. Harry is surprised to see the thestrals, especially after learning that the creatures had always been a part of Hogwarts. He was also saddened to realize that his friends were blind to them because they have not seen death yet. I too had felt that same sense of isolation; that the ugliness of life was still unknown to many of my friends in college, and therefore they couldn’t grasp the damage it was doing to my faith.
And so I started to distance myself from other Christians. I stopped asking questions because I was never satisfied with the answers I received. I began noticing other things as well – how Christians treated each other in ways they were supposed to as Christians, not because they were motivated out of love. The safety of a Christian environment led to a complacency of faith. I wanted to slap my fellow students in the face and scream, “This isn’t real. Just because you believe in God does not mean everything is okay.” The charm of my Christian college and its inviting, warm, and holy Christian atmosphere was quickly disappearing, and the strength of my faith with it.
Despite my disillusionment with the Christians and the churches around me, I never stopped believing in God. I became somewhat proud of this development of my faith. Sure, there was a God, but He wasn’t active in my life and that was alright. This kind of faith was more rational and less emotional, and I liked it that way. Besides, it was the emotional people, the ones who would cry while singing in church or the ones who would gush about all the wonderful things God was doing in their lives that irritated me the most. Why did I never hear God calling to me? Why did God not answer my prayers? Clearly, God did call to other people and did answer the prayers of other people. It must be me, I concluded. Those people have a different kind of faith than me. That’s okay, I thought. I tried to have that kind of faith, but it just didn’t work out for me.
And so I lived with that faith – the bare bones, fully stripped down to almost nothing kind of faith – for over three years. I’ll be honest, for good chunks of that time, life was good. My world didn’t come crashing down on me when I stopped going to church. I didn’t start taking drugs or drinking all day when I stopped reading the Bible and praying. The non-Christians I worked with and became friends with after college were great people. I felt accepted by them in ways I hadn’t by my Christian peers. Even more importantly, these people acted real, without the pretense of “I should/should not do this just because I’m a Christian.”
Yet there were times when I’d find myself thinking about my Christian friends, especially the one’s whose faith I had once admired. How could they believe in God so strongly? Why couldn’t I? Was there something different about them or something special they did? And I would wonder about God and His involvement in my life and if He still personally cared about me or not. Because there had been times in my life when I had reveled in my intimacy with God and I had wanted to keep singing praises long past the last guitar chord had faded into the walls. Why were things so different now? Had I been playing a game with my faith way back then? Had I been fooled by God into naively believing in Him or had I fooled myself into believing that what I had experienced was really God?
But life wasn’t always perfect and occasionally during the more vexing moments, I would try to pray, but quickly halt in the confusion of whether God was listening or concerned about my desperate pleas. And I would debate whether I could ever have a strong faith again because, if my previous faith had been true, what did I do to lose it? And if I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong, then how could I ever try to build a true and strong faith again?
See, I was confident of one thing – if I was going to turn back to God and faith, I needed to have a faith that would last the rest of my life. There was a tumultuous unsettling in my soul that knew my sliver of faith wasn’t sustainable, especially when I returned to the US. The decision was looming as I crossed off the days on my desktop calendar – either abandon all belief and faith in God or commit to a new faith, no matter what had happened in the past and what would happen in the future.
Looking back, it was probably a decision I should have prayed about. Instead as I packed my suitcases and cleaned my square box of an apartment, I listened to my gut. My gut was urging me towards God, one small step at a time, no matter how many steps or how slow my heart moved.

Spots

Isn’t it really strange when you look at a person you have known for years up close and start to notice freckles? Or when you think you cleaned a dish really well, but look closer to realize that there are little flecks of gunk all over the place. The older that I get, the worse my vision gets (I blame the computer monitor), and the less I notice the finer details. I can’t count the number of times I have reviewed building drawings and failed to notice some small, incorrect detail. A “3” is accidentally replaced with an “8,” or an arrow is pointing to a location one-eighth of an inch from where it should be. I hand it to someone else, and immediately they notice the spots I missed; all of the little mistakes within, but outside of, my vision. Sometimes I have to get my nose right up to the paper before I notice.

I wonder how people first reacted to the works of Georges Suerat? All of those little dots of color trying to make up a greater whole. Pointillism. From a distance, the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jette” is very clear. But the closer you get, the more the painting gets fuzzy. All of those little spots, the imperfect parts that make up the whole.

I started to think about how I view the world. Do I look at it like I view this painting? Most of us, I believe, think that the perspective of our own mind is the most correct worldview for the moment we are living in. Though that worldview lens is more or less changeable, at any given moment it appears firm and established. It is a whole from which we choose to act, deriving our choices out of a predetermined greater picture. We form this picture through years of experience and experimentation. Portions of the picture are developed by, or even defined by, the collective human experience we encounter – whether that is media, family, history, religion, society, or government. Some parts are intimately personal. Like that Georges Seurat painting.

Our contemporary American society embraces the idea of relativism as a worldview. I think of relativism as a switch from an “either-or” thought process, to an “either-and.” In essence, every decision or conclusion is contingent on, or relative to, the specific situation. On paper the concept of relativism should allow the American people to be even more inclusive, to show no preference to any worldview because it could be correct depending on the situation. To be honest, though, I don’t believe that relativism affords such altruism. Americans are individualists and relativists, as in, I set my own path and whatever I choose to make it – I am right and, because there are no absolutes, you cannot tell me otherwise.

In our contemporary Christian thinking, we are the same. Though relativism is an inherent contradiction to our Christian philosophy, namely, that Jesus Christ is the only way by which a person can have restored relationship with God, we embrace being selfish. Following Christ transforms and re-colors the entire painting of our worldview, yet it does not automatically fix our worldview in stone. But we act like it does.

How often along the way, though, do we reach a point of revelation – realizing that we were wrong, understanding that there is so much more? I believe that to be a true follower of Christ you need to be able to grow and change, to be teachable; otherwise your relationship with Christ becomes a relationship with yourself and your own ideas.

In the last few months, many in the online Christian community have taken steps to express our views to one another. A debate that began about a book became about the fundamental differences in the worldviews of today’s followers of Christ. Words like “orthodoxy” started to come back into use. We had to come to this conclusion; we were not united or uniform, and everyone would not agree about who we are supposed to be. During this “dialogue,” individuals clung to their own fixed worldviews, defending them with cleverness, creativity, and often, a lack of civility.

I think that we as a church have gone wrong. Our reaction to the culture around us (that of relativism) has turned into a counter-cultural response that shuts down our ability to learn or to offer grace. We don’t think we should repent or ask for forgiveness because it is our society that is wrong. And since we know that our society is wrong, we must be right.

I believe that, no matter how right we think we are, our worldview “painting” is just a series of spots. Our thoughts and ideas make up those dots, but most are not precise. What if we stood before the majesty and might of our God, and let Him examine the painting that we have made? Do we really think He won’t see where we are just plain-old wrong? If we cannot fathom the greatness of our God, nor have His thoughts (since they are not like our own), how did we get to the place where we affirm our personal views as absolutely correct? Perhaps I am giving myself away by falling into one of the already created labels, but I just don’t understand how sinful pride can be ignored when it comes to spiritual matters.

As followers of Jesus, we have our worldview rooted and anchored in Him and transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit. But, like the pointillist painting, we still cannot see things clearly defined. From a distance we have a clear picture, but up close, we still have a series of dots that aren’t distinct. If you think that you have it all together, you especially don’t. Our new worldview is completely held together by God, by faith, by trust, and by relationship.

When I come to a place that I am facing off with God, I lose every time. When I come to a place where I am facing off with my fellow Christians, we often cannot see God, and we both lose.

The next time I want to get upset or argue in response to a “heated issue,” I am going to do something completely different: I am going to listen. I am going to make a friend. I am going to act like a servant. I am going to learn. I am going to be rather than to impose. I am going to wait. I am going to choose to see the redemptive work of Christ and encourage it. I am going to realize that the sin I see in others is often my recognition of my own sin.

When it gets to the finer points, I am going to admit that my God is mighty, and I will step back and see it. After all, the best that I can be is just a man following hard after Him.

Speak Clearly So I Can Understand, Part 4

Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a memorial for a friend’s grandmother. It was the first memorial service that either of us had been to in years; they are far less common when you are in your late twenties and early thirties. I always get contemplative around the time of a funeral, like I have reached the end of a long trail and need to look back over where I’ve come from. Albeit a rare experience, and often a difficult one, we gladly went to show support for our friend.

In the sunny upstairs meeting room of the retirement home, lined with gold damask wallpaper and littered with a life’s worth of pictures, we met our friend. She was smiling and friendly, though the loss showed in the lines on her face as if years of experience had suddenly come into her life. We gathered with a potpourri of people; most, it seemed, did not know her grandmother well. It was somewhat expected, I guess, being that our friend’s family is scattered across the country. Her friends from the retirement home, for the most part, also did not show up – they were not eager to face their own mortality in the death of a friend. Despite the small group, there was a poetry about the service, a quiet beauty and hidden strength, and, somehow, a hope-filled security.

I have heard my Dad say on a number of occasions, “live in such a way that many people will come and celebrate your life at your funeral.” If the size of the crowd at this memorial were an indication of this grandmother’s life, it would seem like she affected few people in her many years. But I intrinsically knew that wasn’t true. Her life of humble servitude, living alongside a pastor and church leader, touched so many. Yet she didn’t leave behind fame and popularity. If, at the end of my life, all I have to show for it is that people liked me, I am not certain I would be satisfied. From afar the idea seems great – I mean, who doesn’t want to be liked – but there is a hollow ring to it. Where is the concept of legacy or intentionality, of positive effect on the world, of a greater purpose beyond changing the way other people perceive you?

I was reminded by the gentle and loving words shared, however few, that there is much more to the Christian life than is popularly sold. The best thing that this woman had to show for her life of faith was a room of people at peace, unashamed to cry, but not living in the hopeful somedays and mystical visions of a greater beyond. I have been to many funerals where nice things are said and we are comforted with pastoral images of clouds and angels. Despite the beautiful language, no one really knows for sure what happened. Instead, they imagine and hope for an answer to their despair. Suddenly a person who had no interest in God is going to be in heaven, and they are waiting for the rest of us in the place beyond imagination called someday. But this memorial was different. This room of people did not talk about the somedays, the places beyond our understanding. They simply said that she is with God, and that that place is where she wanted to be.

So what was it that assured all of us, from her closest relatives to those that hardly even met her? I don’t think it was the charisma of the pastor, or the pleasant warmness of the room, or even the stories. She, like all of us, could rest in security and peace. Nothing more could be said. We were experiencing the presence of God.

I can hear a few of you. You just said, “what?”

All of this time I have been talking about the life story of Job, tip-toeing around the destination, hoping to warm you all to the answer at the end of suffering: God. The book of Job does not allow for any warm-and-fuzzy formulas or any pat answers. There are not clouds and halos. For months, Job was left destitute. His wealth is gone, his children are dead, his wife despises him, and his friends turn on him. He sits in a dump, covered in sores, left to make a defense for his great suffering.

That is why I started my story out on the pontoon boat, waiting for resolution, waiting for my Dad to give an answer, an explanation, something – I relate with Job. One lesson that I have had to repeatedly learn in my life is to wait, expecting an answer that may never come. Out on that little pontoon boat in the midst of a big and scary ocean, I let my fear get the best of me. I approached the situation colored by the little life experience I had – limited and debilitated by a lack of information to work with. And in the thirty minutes it took us to roll out to sea, I lost track of the most important fact of all; my Dad was controlling the boat. Would he ever intentionally hurt me or put me in grave danger just for his own pleasure? Doesn’t he love me? Isn’t that in his very nature?

I wonder – was Job in the same situation I was on that pontoon boat? After many rounds of discussion with his friends, his soul is nearly worn away to nothing. He sees no point in being alive – all that is his existence bleeds torment, and he is the reproach of all living people. Desperate to be free of scrutiny, Job pleads for some answer, some reason, some security that shows his life was meant for more than his current situation. I think he is afraid – not for his own reputation, or for the possibility of death, but afraid that no one was going to understand. If God did not speak up then Job would be condemned by theology, by the worldview of those closest to him. There was no security for him; the world and everything in it was controlled by the dictates of man, the cruelty of nature, the majority understanding at the moment. The greatness of God would be hidden by injustice and slander. Job doesn’t plead; he demands that God answer, not for healing or restoration, but that God would bear witness to his innocence and admit He allowed this suffering for apparently no reason.

I suppose you could say that Job became proud at that moment, in the end, when he stood up to his friends. I give him credit for at least keeping his integrity and human dignity. And He never made a negative statement about God, whether or not He allowed suffering. In the end, Job had to endure one more round of questioning before God appeared. But when He did, everything changed.

There was a moment while talking to my wife this weekend that I had a mini-freak out. I noticed inflation in the form of higher prices at the grocery store. That was to be expected since gas prices had risen recently. But I was afraid. There was a theory tossed around by several political figures and hopefuls during the last year, people I didn’t like and didn’t want to believe- and I hoped that what they were saying never came true. They pronounced doom at the hands of inflation, the mechanism they believed our current government was relying on to lower the national debt. It sounded absurd when I first heard it. And yet I felt like here we were, on the cusp of their fear-mongering becoming a reality, and it started getting to me.

If life gets more expensive, how am I going to afford to live? If inflation starts to limit people’s spending, then does that mean no one will need new buildings? And if there aren’t any new building projects, I am at risk for losing my job. If I don’t have a job, then I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t take care of my wife, and I become, well, a failure. How could I raise kids? Would my wife and I stay together or would the pain of failure break us apart? If I lose it all, what do I fall back on? The questions began to spiral out of control as I raised my voice.

My wife, the voice of reason said, “we don’t know what is going to happen. We will deal with whatever happens when it happens.” And I apologized for my irrational fear, for my expectation of future doom in the present. Whether or not it was a stupid prediction, it highlighted how I would react to losing everything, or at least everything I perceived to be anything. I became that little kid on the pontoon boat, overwhelmed and under-informed. What is the remedy for that? How could I receive a verbal answer that would satisfy my overwhelming fear, pain, and ignorance all at once?

Let’s go back to Job, sitting in a trash heap, at the lowest place he could ever be. Then a storm starts to gather around him. In fact, in many translations, it is a whirlwind or tornado. By his recent, seemingly suicidal, monologue, I am pretty sure he was hoping this great storm would just put him out of his misery. Perhaps God heard that request, because he was about to answer it.

God speaks out of this storm, and it is clearly an awesome display of power. He says to Job,

“Who is this who seeks my counsel with words without knowledge? Now brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you will answer me!”

God proceeds to ask Job question after question, rhetorically pounding into Job’s mind how relatively little he knows. He asks him about the foundations of the world, the great systems of the oceans and the skies, the stars and the universe, and the created beings. God wants Job to explain how all the world works together, the mechanisms that control it, and the rules it runs by. For our contemporary worldview’s great knowledge of science, I think we could hardly even answer God’s questions – they are far beyond the scope of human understanding. They illustrate that we human beings know and understand so little, and that God, God is so much greater.

Some might say that God never answers Job’s question; He neither vindicates him or gives a reason for suffering. He doesn’t explain out the complexities that led to Job’s suffering, nor does God point a finger at the devil. Nope, none of that. But God reveals himself, His very nature, and the vast expanse of how far above humanity He is. And I realized; that is the answer to it all.

At the end of a church service I went to recently, things got messy in the best kind of way. The woman leading worship stopped the whole production, sent the other musicians off of the stage, and demanded that the puppet-masters of the sound booth leave in order to join the congregation. She said that she was convicted; why do we all approach God with the statement: “I worship God when…”? The dot-dot-dot tormented her, it convicted her and how she chose to lead. So she told us all to do whatever, that there wasn’t going to be a screen or words. The songs were going to be up in the air, and the style was not going to be the same. So we dove into it. And the Holy Spirit started to talk to me.

God told me to lay down. I protested that the chairs at our church were not made to lay down on. He told me to get on the ground. I hesitated, then obeyed. ‘Whatever,’ I thought, ‘if this is what the Holy Spirit wants, then I can’t argue.’ But I sat on the ground for a while (because I am stubborn, and it looked weird). Then I stopped my petty argument, and lay flat, my eyes to the ceiling. And God spoke to me.

He reminded me of a time back in college, when I used to pray for a worship band. They would be practicing, and I would lay back on a pew, and pray, and look into the ceiling. I would ponder the greatness of God. I would see through that ceiling to the universe beyond, the planets and stars, the dust and emptiness. I would contemplate our planet, and all the people, and the great love of God. One time I even asked God to show what he meant by the greatness of his love. And He did. And I cried.

There I was on a gym floor, looking at the ceiling, and God was telling me to remember how great He is, like a vision out of a storm. He told me that I cannot fathom what He is going to do with me, and that there are far greater things ahead than I can ask for or imagine. And then something else came up again – security.

I predicted my future earlier that day, and I was afraid. My future was insecure, uneven, filled with loss. And God wanted my idea of security to come up against His character. If I lost everything, all sense of value that the world could bestow on me, would I really be lost? Would I really have nothing? What if I lost it all and was in the middle of a storm? My soul would find no rest in cute answers, a pat on the back, or a human explanation. The only answer would be the very God I had almost forgotten – and I would be on the ground, staring up in wonder, silenced and convicted that I ever doubted, ever feared, or ever spoke.

Speak Clearly So I Can Understand, Pt 3

We are down to part 3, the long expected finale, the piece that ties the whole thing together. Per my typical style, I am changing direction again. Once I began to write, I discovered more to say that needed to be said! Thankfully, I have many more weeks to fill this page with my ramblings and thoughts on life and God. I hope you enjoy it!

I left off talking about Job’s questions, but before I get back to that, I believe the words of Job’s friends need a little more attention. Have you ever heard anyone be referred to as a “Job’s friend”? I haven’t heard it often. Maybe it is just church-y jargon. But I hope that I don’t ever earn the title. And, if I do, I hope that I don’t retain it. Job’s friends aren’t really friends at all. In their attempts to affirm or comfort, they do neither. They become anti-friends. We will be nice and call their words a really, really big, collective mistake. Mistakes are expected being human and all; so we can all relate with making a mistake.

Job’s friends can be lumped into categories; one friend that looks to the past and observes, one friend that surmises the present situation and assumes, and one friend who extrapolates out the future and accuses. Each of the friends has an interesting argument. The first contends it is often the case (as seen in the past) that wicked people are punished for doing wrong. The second friend follows suit- if Job did bad things in the past, or was wicked, he could be punished in the present. The last friend skips the pleasantries and accuses Job of wickedness, offering him a restored future if he would just confess.

I tried to picture how this kind of discussion would happen. I am having a bad day and a group of my friends are coming over to watch football. Attempting not to have a pity party, I set out the chips and dip and warm up the flatscreen. But the cable isn’t working. The chips are stale. The dip tastes funny. By the time the guys arrive, I am frustrated. Nothing is going right.

They stay quiet for fifteen minutes, then they try to jump in. The first guy talks about the last time this happened to him. His cable was out all day, and he couldn’t figure out why. His many attempts to unplug and reconnect the thing did nothing. It didn’t make any sense – it wasn’t like the weather was bad or the TV was old. So at the prodding of his wife, he eventually called the cable company. And, lo and behold, he had forgotten to pay the bill.

“Can’t be that,” I say, ” I just paid it yesterday and it isn’t due for another week.”

The next friend is starting to get frustrated that the game is on and all he has to show for it are bad food and an argument. He fidgets, waiting for the opportunity to speak. As soon as I finish, he declares, “You know, I heard that this one guy wanted to piss off his friends, so he invited them all over for steak and served them hamburger. He called them steak patties.”

“You mean sirloin patties?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “He just did it to make them mad. Like promising to watch a game and having nothing to show for it.”

I am perplexed. Really perplexed. “Guys,” I plead, “I had an awful day at work and it seems to have followed me home. I am sorry, but I am really happy you are here with me anyway.”

Suddenly, the last friend jumps up in the air, hands flailing, and yells, “I knew you were a jerk. You are just tormenting us! Just admit it. You unplugged the cable, left the bag of chips open all night, and used an expired dip mix. What’s your problem?”

I am speechless. After a crappy day and some of the worst luck in recent memory, this is how my friends treat me? Seems deplorable, right?

This is the tiniest taste of what Job’s friends were like. All it took for then was time in the presence of a bad situation and the accusations started to fly. What about the discomfort, the pain, the tangible reality of life, could lead to accusations?

If you have to sit in the uncomfortable tension of something that makes no sense, what do you do about it? How much silence can you take before you know you have to say something? But what do you say? Aren’t you compelled to rationalize the situation, to put your brain around it and understand it. And, once you think you understand, aren’t you equally compelled to bring other people along with you, to have them see things the way you see them? It makes perfect sense.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Last night I watched a television program about two of the first paleontologists in the U.S. and their mad dash to seize all of the fossils in the American West. The program described it as war, Dinosaur Wars. It appeared that these two people had it out for each other – from slander and deception to outright cruelty and malice. Their attitudes stunk. All in the name of science!

The two men were both eager to make the next fossil discovery and show the world that American scientists were awesome. If they could back up Charles Darwin’s theories regarding biological evolution and time, they might even show an edge on that popular history book, the Bible. Their pursuit of each fossil, over time, evolved from a curiosity about the natural world to the personal right to define it.

Perhaps one of the greatest attributes of us, the people of the United States, is our determination to discover and master (in a way) the natural world. Was there anything inherently wrong with leaving our understanding of natural history well enough alone? Not really. Not to say I am against these discoveries and conclusions, because I am not. And there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with human curiosity and discovery. In this real life gem of American history, the science didn’t stink until the egos got in the way. These two men had to put the stamp of their personal understanding on the world, to transform it into the image of what they saw. And they would do this at any cost.

Job’s friends, anyone?

I know, you are probably thinking that this analogy is a stretch. Follow me here – Job’s friends came to console him, probably with a slight curiosity about what happened to him. Everything in Job’s situation was fundamentally wrong. They knew Job was a great guy, yet they found him destitute. Like any sensible person from that culture, they knew better than to start talking right away. So they sat silent for days.

But what was churning in their heads? Was it thoughts of further ways to show Job compassion? Perhaps, at least for a little while. But I suspect that deeper thoughts were floating around their minds. Thoughts trying to explain why such horrible things would happen to such a good man. And when they started talking, their tongues carried forth their own theory and speculation – that Job deserved what he got.

Yet Job denied wrongdoing. He had done nothing to merit his horrible lot. And Job also did not understand why he was suffering. He had no personal theory, only pain, and therefore turned to God for answers.

If the theories of Job’s friends were only a matter of curiosity, I suspect that they would have gone away at Job’s rebuttal. But they didn’t. Job was repeatedly blamed for his suffering by four different people. And as you read the book, the words get stronger, the tone more adamant, the wounding deeper.

Of course Job was wrong! We the friends are right! And we won’t stop until we break Job of his silly attempt to rebuff our theory! The truth cannot be stopped!

Looking at it that way, I almost want to burst on the scene and slap those friends. Who gave them the right to force their interpretation of the world on someone else, let alone someone in so much pain? I’d show them! I’d line up my theories and pull out the book of Job to validate them. “See that part about the devil,” I’d say, “Ha! I am right and you are wrong! I have the book!”

Ridiculous, I know. But tempting. All it takes is to first simplify a situation so I can understand it, then second, couple that understanding with my desire to be on the side of right. BOOM! We have an explosion of often negative consequences.

That first part, though, that curiosity or desire for simplification, for understanding, seems to be part of our human makeup. Can it be wrong?

.. . . . . . . . .

Sometimes I sketch in the margins of the pages in my journal. Squiggles and swirls and dashes flow from the ink far easier than the words do. And occasionally I am bold enough to try and copy reality. So I draw a tree form, or a vine, little puffy stylized clouds with flat bottoms, and rolling hills. They are merely lines of dark on a field of white, representations of what I see, free to be distorted and exaggerated, black and white instead of full color. Why is it in my nature to do this? To mimic something in my own eye – to interpret it into simplicity? I don’t know, I just do. And it doesn’t ever hurt anyone.

We all do this sort of thing. And it’s our go-to approach to the known and the unknown. That isn’t what leads to hurt and misunderstanding.

Instead, our desire to be correct, to have authority, and to really understand and know that we are in line with something greater than ourselves and others – that is where trouble likes to grow. For the paleontologists, it found its home in position. With Job’s friends, it found expression in theories becoming words.

I must understand where every ship is sailing, and why!

Is it even possible to have the other side of our need met, that need to have mastery over the uncomfortable unknown? Well, to learn about that we will have to finish Job’s story and go back out on the pontoon boat.