The Open Hand

Today at church we started a series on Detours, those moments you find yourself off the path of life.  We all have them.  Some detours just knock you a block over and some are severe, causing a journey far out of the way.

The pastor mentioned the route Israel took leaving Egypt and making their way to the Promised Land.  It was not straight and direct. It was a “roundabout” way. It was a journey of internal work, progress of change through something not to something.

In this process we read that God leads with a hand outstretched.  Pastor Jason Mitchell made an excellent observation that our view of God’s hand is usually one of two ways.  It is either shaking hands in making a deal.  Or the open and calming presence of a father to his child. Each one impacts your view of faith.

You may see God as a deal-maker. If I just _______ enough it will all work out, heal, go away, come back, pay off, jump on, add up, respond, whatever you may need.  If I do what I need then God has to come through. When you have this view and a major detour strikes, your faith evaporates.  You hang on the WHY question.  Why did God not do what he’d promised when we made the deal. Why did God not come through.

When you see God as the father, your view shifts.  You flip the question from Why is this happening to What does God want to do in me. The one question answers the other.

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Fortunes have been made by pastors pushing God as deal maker. Books have been sold. Seminars booked. Checks cashed. There’s a power dynamic so appealing to people looking for control, for the deal offers control.  If we can just be good enough, God will come through.

When Val and I dealt with a miscarriage in 2018, this was me.  I had nothing to say to God. My deal maker hadn’t held up his end of the bargain. Even though I’d made progress, even though my faith had grown, even though I’d thought I’d matured as a believer, there was still work to be done.

This morning, the nail was driven home.  I realized he was right.  My pillars built up over the years were wrong.  My God is not the one of the deal.

My God is one of outstretched hands with big dreams, plans and visions.  Words that reach nations. Legacy with impact. My God is not the one of control. My path is not A to B.  It is the roundabout journey through the desert.

Jesus offers no deals.

Follow me. Do Not Be Afraid. I have overcome the world.

So go forward and enjoy the work. When the detours come, know the job is not yet finished.  You are still being refined for greater things. For life and life to the fullest.

For the journey not yet written, the path not yet taken, and bridges not yet built.

 

 

Answer the Call

What makes you, You?

In that Marvel cinemas flipping title sequence scroll, what shows up?

In the temperance path of life, where do you live? Age Twenty? Thirty? Fifteen?

At the end of a bad day, what moments do you revisit?

From your first breath to now, you are where you need to be.

The question is, what to do with it?

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Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

Our stories are ours alone, ours to share with someone, our battles to fight.

Our suffering shapes our identity.

Our faith hangs on the hope of something more, the pull on our heart towards a compass direction rising out and above our trajectory, spreading to lives and people we have not known and may never meet.

Contemporary research believes Jesus to have been an architect, a stone mason and not a carpenter as originally conceived. This makes sense as he often spoke of building lives and laying foundations. The towers of our life can only be built on strong foundations, firm borders and set boundaries.

So, what makes you You?

Be something different.

In this time of division, be Unity.  In this time of hate, be Love. In this time of poverty, be Generous. In this time of violence, be Peace.  In this time of noise, be Silence.

Trends are made to be broken.

The status quot must end.

The future is being painted today by the brushstrokes of the fearless, of revolutionaries willing to answer the still, small voice that calls them in the dark hours.

The voice that calls to you.

Will you answer?

Taking Offense

It was a game we’d talked up for a week, ever since the tournament schedule was released.  Our team would be playing a team from New Jersey, one of the best in the region.  They were undefeated. We’d drawn them in a seeding round in a tournament that happened to not have a tiered playoff like usual.  Basically, it was win or go home.

Carter got the start on the mound.

I’d spent the days leading up to the game building him up, telling him it was business as usual. Before he took the mound that afternoon, I told him to not leave a single pitch on the field. He said he wouldn’t, and jogged out to the mound.

The first inning, he was dominant. No runs, one hit.  He doubled up a runner from the mound on a soft line drive. Both teams traded runs in the second and, by the time he took the mound in the third inning, we’d had a small lead.

Then he received his first balk warning. The next batter reached on an error.  The field umpire took position over Carter’s right side and watched him every pitch.  The balks kept coming.  The runners moved.  After a walk, another runner did the same.

Parents started yelling at the umpire.  He insisted Carter wasn’t stopping in his motion (a balk happens when a pitcher doesn’t stop  and “come set” before throwing).  As his dad, I knew he liked to work fast.  I tried to slow him down.  Our coach talked to him.  Parents were yelling, the other team was yelling, people were getting restless.

In one look from the mound I knew he was done.

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Photo by Rachel Xiao on Pexels.com

One of my goals in 2020 is to live a year in less Offense. Pastor Erwin McManus described it as freedom and the ability to trust again, to go deep in relationships and community.

Do you know anyone who is perpetually offended? Every breath is another opportunity to make them angry?  It’s not an easy relationship to be in. I work in an office with individuals who put in 40 Offended hours a week, every single week.

Personally, I err towards cynicism. It’s a trait I’m looking to change in myself for the new year.  Optimism is the key, the idea that change is possible.  Living Faith as a verb and not a noun, an act not an anchor.

I’m looking to gain the 20,000 foot view. Cynicism is easy. Doubt is easy. Burnout is easy.

The challenge that shapes us into new people is to remain hopeful, to see opportunity, to work towards what we are called to do, to marshal our anger when it’s needed.

Change is hard but worth it.  I believe 2020 will be a transformative year. I’m ready to reshape the husband and father I am into what I can be.  All it takes is time.

 

The Witcher and Destiny

My current binge show is The Witcher on Netflix. Henry Cavill’s plays Geralt, the main character, a monster hunter with supernatural powers. The source material is from a series of novels that have spawned other visual adaptations including video games.

The writing and technical work of the series is better than I’d anticipated.  The characters play with the idea of destiny, fate, choice and power. Three stories overlap at the moment, chronologically, and I’m looking forward to the intersection point as I’m almost finished season one.

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In episode 6, Geralt is talking to his love interest Yennifer. Yennifer is played by Anna Chalotra. Chalotra kills it, owning her scenes and the story of Yennifer’s transformation. Both Geralt and Yennifer were forced into their roles and neither had a choice.  In this scene, Yennifer asks Geralt if he regrets being a witcher. He replies,

“It’s hard to regret something you didn’t choose.”

It’s these phrases that shine of skilled screenwriting and they are scattered throughout the series. The idea of regret and choice creates an interesting dichotomy.

Can we regret something that was forced on us? How about choices made outside our say or influence? Is the nature of regret something we can only own and access on a solo basis?

Look back at the traumas of the past.  We can feel pain and sorrow, anger and frustration. We can only control the reach of our influence.  We can mourn for loss, but loss shapes us into who we are meant to be.  It punctuates our story.

If we agree with Geralt’s line, we move forward with new insight. It is our choice to reshape how we see the past. We can burn down the chains and use them to drive us forward.  We can reset healthy boundaries and own our spaces and influence.  We can look forward as victors as victory comes in survival.

We can see the utmost value of choice, the power in the moments we offer it to someone else. The concept of not wasting a choice because we never know when the next will come.

The world is not always fighting monsters.  No matter your role, know your power.  Know your past and where you hitch the powerful emotion of regret.  Your future relies on it.

The Hardest Relationship

One of my roommates in college dated a girl with destructive habits. She’d lived on the outskirts of Philadelphia, worked in the city, and would disappear for days at a time.  She battled addiction and substances.  He’d loved her then, and would often vent to me about his attempts to save her.

Eventually, they broke up.

For some of us, interpersonal relationships are the hardest part of life.  Out of our sons, Aiden is the friend-maker.  He can enter a room of kids he doesn’t know and come out knowing everyone.  He will go up to a kid and ask him to play, no matter how old the kid is, and often he’ll find himself with a new friend. Carter is the opposite.  He’s reserved, like I was.  He watches a scene before he interacts.  Conversation can be tough and navigating the preteen world is even tougher.

As hard as these are, a relationship that can transform you and your 2020 is looking into the mirror.

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This morning I listened to an episode of Eric Zimmer’s podcast “The One You Feed.”  It is episodes based around the parable of the Good Wolf (good qualities in life) and the Bad Wolf (bad qualities in life).  The winner is the one you choose to feed. The episode this morning was an interview with Stanford Psychologist BJ Fogg. Fogg works in the area of Behavioral Change through what he calls tiny habits.

The entire episode is worth a listen, but one part stuck with me.  He says in the beginning,

Be a friend to yourself.

He goes on to mention how many of us deal with self trash talk and how moving on from it can revolutionize our lives. As a veteran of self criticism, I know he’s right.

I don’t know about you, but my voice is cynical.  I look at where I lack and become hardened, vindictive to struggle and envious to progress of others. On the hard days, the voice is not even negativity.  Negativity implies a struggle.  No, its an understanding that this desire for better just isn’t going to happen.

Recently, though study and reflection, the work of thinkers like Fogg, Ben Hardy, Erwin McManus, and through conversation with others I’ve found my view shifting. The idea of faith is psychologically and biologically powerful. Certainty comes through struggle.

Our stories shape our potential.  Our future need not be married to our past.  It can be a transformation experience. Our memories can be reshaped.  Our victories can be celebrated and our struggles seen as opportunity to learn and change.

I haven’t been a great friend to myself over the years.  I’d developed habits and found my way out of them.  I gained and lost weight, stayed up too late while getting up too early.  I’ve been emotionally distant to those I love and am working on it as a daily exercise in mindfulness.

One of my goals is to empower friendship with myself in 2020.  To add courage and intention, to take big risks, to celebrate wins and see losses as chance to learn. To take on new things and expand horizons, to grow as a family and be a better father and husband.

My goal is to show my boys a father who knows himself and works to be better on a daily basis.  To grow new behaviors and expand identity.

I believe we are never done growing.  As long as we are breathing, our story isn’t over.  My wish for you is the same,  to grow in your friendship with yourself, to treat yourself better and look forward with new purpose.

To see 2020 with opportunity and make the most of it. To experience the joy of newness and change.  To realize your potential and see hope for the future.

For the future is yours for the taking.

A Currency of Dreams

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Ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll get two different answers. Aiden, our youngest, loves dogs.  He’s gone from a K9 police officer, to a veterinarian, to a dog trainer, and even a monster truck driver (he’s a big fan of cars and trucks too).  Carter tends to be more contemplative.  He wants to do something active.  He dreams of his future as an athlete and leans towards science and math pursuits.  Maybe one day he’ll be able to combine the two.

At some point our dreams start to fade.

I remember as a senior in college sitting in the lounge of Main Hall at West Chester University talking to a few other Lit majors. We were throwing around what we’d try to do with our futures.  One guy mentioned that Comcast would need to hire people to write their television program descriptions right? So why not him? He had a valid point.

You have a purpose.  Search your social media feeds and you’ll find numerous people selling you online courses and coaching to reveal just what that purpose is.

You’ll find your purpose in struggle and suffering. In the courage to put yourself out there.

I still battle with the courage part.  The strength to speak and write without the fear of not being heard or connecting.  The strength to open up the wounds so others can open theirs as well. The strength to reach out a hand in comfort and stability.

The strength to try. 

That word is loaded with meaning.

Ever fiber of our being pushes against change.  We want the old, we crave routine and strive for sameness.  We want comfort.  The same instinct kept us alive when the dinosaurs roamed.

It also kept us out of new lands.  Until resources dried up and we had to move, to step into the darkness.

It takes courage to try. It takes courage to get up in the morning and face the day.  Reach deep and feel the newness inside straining for life.  Some moments it is clear.

Life is a battle between both sides and every day is a choice.  Choose wisely.

 

Wind

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I overheard the following conversation this morning between two people at the office:

-“It was really beautiful this weekend.”

-“Yeah, it was kind of windy though.”

Life is perspective.

In high school I was on the mock trial team.  I was a lawyer, all four years, and enjoyed breaking down the case files and reading over the witness statements.  Now all were fake and written by law students, so every team had the same source material.  We’d conduct “trials” against each other (two matches, one prosecution and one defense) and be judged by a jury of lawyers from the county. You’d wonder how, if every team had the same material, we could develop any strategy.

Each team had lawyer advisers (our adviser one year turned into the current DA of the county next to ours).  We learned quickly that perspective is key.  Go to a crowded street corner and watch a car accident.  There may be twenty witnesses and each story will be different.  How did it start? How did it end? Who was at fault? Depending on your source of material it could be viewed twenty different ways.

A few years ago I got called to jury duty at federal court in Philadelphia.  I ended up chosen and served on a gun possession trial that lasted two days. It was immensely interesting to get in a jury room and listen to twelve different views and see how majorities would develop. We’d all heard the same witnesses and pulled different opinions.

This Sunday, our pastor delivered a message about Jesus and his final meal in the upper room.  He mentioned the observation given in the gospels that Jesus entered the meal In Full Knowledge of what was about to happen over the next few days.  Around him sat Peter, who would deny him and Judas who would betray.  The others would turn into cowards and stay silent. Twelve different viewpoints.

What did Jesus do?  He served.

It was a beautiful night for some.  For others, the beauty was lost.

We all choose how we see the world.  Our boys, Carter and Aiden, are prime examples of that. Aiden is the optimist. He lights up a room and can find joy in situations.  Carter is more serious, more emotional.  He’s like I was as a kid.  He’ll stay back and observe before jumping in and his opinions are passionate no matter right or wrong.

If you are like me, this new season is a time of reflection.  Fall leads to winter, the ending of summer and desolation of cold. Nights are longer. Time outside is now time inside.

I tend to take inventory in the fall.

Right now I’m feeling the gap and hanging on the expectancy of fulfillment. Maybe you are there with me, weeks and months of waiting, of work being done.  You are standing in the warehouse and God is putting you through whatever is needed so you can move forward. You want more. Your soul longs for meaning and greater things because the alternative is unfathomable.

You call out in the dark moments.  When the kids are in bed and you are in bed looking at the ceiling and wondering when tomorrow will be different, when you’ll love your circumstances. You may not find that love right now, no, but that is for a reason.

Because you are meant for something more. Your story is meant to change generations and impact those you love.  It is meant to change hearts.  This change is work.  Sleep and rest, sameness and routine are so tempting.

Erwin McManus, head of Mosaic in Los Angeles, said this in a message:

Some of you know way too much about your lives.

It is time to embrace the mystery, step into the challenge.

See the beauty and feel the push of the wind. Know your heart aches for something more and follow it, no matter the cost.

Because nothing changes if nothing changes.  And it is time to wake up.

 

What if we got it wrong?

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Faith is a loaded term.

Brands demand faith. Politicians demand faith. Schools, teams, clubs.  Watch a college football game with 100,000 kids in the stands all wearing the same color and you’ll see faith in action.

The broad idea is commitment and conviction.  The broad idea is expectation that something will happen even without evidence (“blind faith”). Look through history and you’ll find moments of faith for good and evil, movements that changed lives and eliminated lives.  Faith is power.

And we’ve screwed it up.

Faith is hard.  Faith is not the belief that something will happen even without evidence. Faith is not pulling the lever of the slot machine in the sky. It is not the stoplight we made in Sunday School about How Prayer is Answered with stop, wait, and go.

Faith is not a request. Faith is not a transaction.  Faith is not conditional.

The night of the storm, Jesus calls Peter out onto the water. There’s wind and rain, waves and noise.  There’s a boat full of his peers and a man that looks like a ghost standing off in the distance.  Peter slings his leg over the side of the boat and takes a step.  We read he takes more than one before literally taking his eyes off Jesus.  At that point, he sinks.

Let’s dig deeper.

1-Faith requires the storm. Jesus tells us we will have trouble. Go through history, page through the Bible and do a quick Google search on martyrs.  No one who follows Jesus is immune.  There’s a reason for communities of faith.  They exist as support systems.  Life is ugly. More hands help to provide strength and comfort in the dark nights.

2-Faith is daily action. You can, and you will, have moments of distance. Jonah found himself in the depths, David in the desert. There is nothing about faith that is once and done. It takes effort and time, a choice every day to hear the still, small voice of the divine.

3-Faith is loss. Imagine the early church, the ones who had seen Jesus had to face his death.  The ones later had to go off of writing and witness accounts.  Faith is how we deal with the hole in our heart waiting to be filled with something. We will all become orphans one day. We will face the passing of time.  Faith is the intersection between loss, grief, and the sun rising. Baptism symbolizes death for this reason, it is a concept not far from the minds of every believer and a reminder of so much more.

So, if we’ve watered it down and compressed it, what actually is faith?  Beyond the car magnates, bumper stickers, conferences and political movements.  What does it mean to believe?

What if it has nothing to do with belief?

There is a divine story. There is meaning and purpose, influence and grace.  There is hope in helping and healing in sacrifice. Faith is tapping into the undercurrent.

Faith is a willingness to let go.

Faith is the point where you break through the weight of this world and feel the supernatural.  It is the moment of intoxicating joy and unending grace.

It is the laughter of your child, the sunset over the ocean, the red hue of a rose. Faith is the beauty of creation.

Faith is an invitation to be a part of something more. Faith is a journey. Faith is humility. Faith is knowing that you are meant for something more.

Faith is a state of cognitive readiness, of acting and living the circumstances you are called to embrace.

This has existed from the moment the universe breathed into existence.  Faith kept the stars in the sky, filled the oceans and pushed the winds across the desert.

It has nothing to do with right and wrong, with division and “teams”.  Faith does not place you against someone else. It hopes in bigger, better, and greater things. Faith is not a place of privilege or superiority.

Faith does not make you better than anyone else.

As Paul said, faith shows you your failings, holding up a mirror to the past to help you be thankful for the present and inspired for the future.

This faith can change the world.  This faith opens blind eyes.  This faith feeds the hungry, provides for those in need, and opens hearts.  This faith reflects Jesus and our calling to follow.

This faith gets us off the boat and, when we sink, it picks us up again to keep walking in the storm.

 

Fear

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On Sunday we went as a family to the movies to see Spiderman: Far From Home. It did an excellent job addressing the navigation of Tom Holland’s Spiderman with his normal life on a class trip to Europe.  He is drawn into a conflict that has ramifications when Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio forces him to face down illusions and embrace who he is.

We see Holland’s character juggle both lives, often denying his responsibility to save the world until he can deny it no longer. He tells Zendaya’s Mary Jane Watson that he is actually Spiderman and they come to an understanding with a new level of relationship.

Fear is the bottom line of the movie. Mysterio is angry with not getting credit for his work.  He’s willing to damage property and take lives to be the hero and get recognition and is done being passed over. Holland’s character doesn’t feel worthy to step up and embrace his abilities. He says, more than once, he just wants a normal life.  He wants to return to his class trip and his love interest. We hear that his spider sense is not working right and, when he finally trusts it and himself again, he saves the world.

It is easier to doubt ourselves.  It is easier to sit in our darkness and not take a risk.  It is way easier to not move forward. It is easier to get hung up in injustice and take out our resentment on those around us (see every recent superhero movie).

I’ve written before on here how our son Carter deals with anxiety.  He worries about small and large things.  The small things grow and linger.  If he’s resting, he’ll eventually need to get up and move around.  The idle mind creates demons.

The hard concept to reconcile is this: you need to do it yourself.

I grew up believing that if I was good enough, good things would happen and all would work out. I grew up optimistic in the infallibility of people, that they were genuinely good and had my best interests at heart.  I believed relationships were forever, family never changed and time would turn into some continuous Hallmark movie. In the Third Act, conflicts would resolve and peace would descend across the land.

The truth is, moments of peace are fleeting. People are imperfect. Family changes. Relationships, without effort, will wither on the vine. Conflict is reality. Disappointments happen in our human imperfections. There is no guaranteed break, no assured down time.

There is no finish line.

There is only a start and it depends on you, the ball of mess that makes up your identity.  Every memory, every moment, every good and bad word ever exchanged.  The dreams and nightmares, the power and the glory. Every instant you bowed your head and felt defeat. The joy of small and large victories.

The noise and crashing waves combine to make your soul unique. The abstract painting of divine destiny is more massive than you can imagine. It waits for the first step.

A step only you can take. Alone. In the still, small moments of silence.

The first time you pick your head up, put down the addiction, send the text message or make the phone call.  The handshake, the job application, the new business website.  The hug of a child. Facing your past and putting it to the fire to be burnt as fuel, an ignition. The first time you feel how deep the scars run and you understand.

For faith is a connection, a shaft of light in the darkness, an understanding.  It is conviction.  And conviction has more than one meaning.

Conviction knows guilt and that, with time, it will fade. It understands that dreams bigger and wider than you could image await you on the other side.

Until then, keep fighting.

 

 

The Lake

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Do you have a sense of purpose in life?

Have you come to terms with life and death in a way you resonate with?

How much power do you have in designing your future?

Death, it turns out, is not your greatest fear. Actually, your greatest fear is reaching death and having never truly lived.

When you organize your spiritual life, you become clear on what your life is about. You become clear on what you stand for, and how you want to spend each day. You develop conviction for what really matters to you, and what is a “distraction.”

No matter how well defined, everyone has a moral system governing their behavior. Most people believe in being honest and good people.But until you organize your spiritual life, you’ll experience internal conflict when acting contrary to your values and vision.

-Benjamin Hardy

 

I shut my eyes to sleep and open them to the lake.

Waves lap against the boat. The metal reflects the heat of the morning. Mist rises from the water. Dragonflies land and take off.  To my left, a fish blasts through the surface and the dragonfly, a living flash of emerald, buzzes past my head with too much peace for having faced death.

I am young. I turn in my seat and see no one.  I am alone and fear grips me like ice.

Do not be afraid. The voice sounds from all sides, from the water and sky, the trees and forest, the earth and air. The boat dips as a weight settles behind me.  I turn to see a man.

He wears a suit the color of fall Pennsylvania sky.

Who are you? I ask.

I was wondering the same, he says.  His voice is a mix of many. I hear my father, my grandfather, years of blood running through the past.

He tents his hands on his lap.

Ask.

I feel a drop of rain, hear thunder in the distance. Rain destroys the calm surface. My shirt sticks to my chest.  I shut my eyes as memories roll like waves. Every moment, conversation, up and down. Joy, sorrow, embarrassment. Frustration.

First hand held, first kiss, slow dancing at the prom, proposing marriage. Moving out. Plans, dreams, visions, struggle.

Loss.

Wind rips through the trees, pulling the breath from my lungs. I force out a word.

Why.

He laughs.

Because I formed the first star and set its place in the sky and, in that moment, I knew you. I knew your purpose. I shaped the wind and every single drop of rain.

He raises his hands. The storm dies.

The story is unfinished. The ending is written and your role is of vital importance. I need you in the place that can only come from hurt, from loss and suffering.

I need you to walk through the fires and come out refined.  The fires will only get hotter, the journey longer, the force harder.

I need you because you need me.

I’m scared, I say. An eagle soars from a distant tree top.

I’ll be with you.

Stand.

When you fear          When you cry

When you can’t take another moment

When you lose

When you feel like you have nothing left

Stand.

More storms are coming, he says.  Know I will pull you through.

Thunder crashes and he is gone.

 

 

My eyes open to a storm outside. Aiden climbing into our bed. Red numbers on the clock.

And the sound of rain tapping against the glass, peaceful in the night.