Friday, March 26, 2010

Remembering the Long Haul

Last night my friend Mr. S shared some of his story. Five years ago he was coming to our Wednesday night dinner at our church, and he mostly came drunk and belligerent. We even had to ask him to leave for a year for how he treated one of our volunteers. I remember during that time I took him out for breakfast one morning, and we had an interesting conversation about rap music and his “aspiring” rap career. He wasn’t ready for real help at that time, but he remembered our conversation (and especially remembered the food). A couple of years ago he was constantly looking for a job,dressing up in a tie and interviewing all over town, not having any luck, but keeping his head up.

And now, he has a job that he has held for almost a year. He has joined a local church. He is engaged to be married in May and he and his fiancĂ© are going to pre-marital  counseling. They are set to get an apartment in the coming week. He is always well-groomed, peaceful in spirit, and polite on Wednesday nights.

What his story tells me is to remember that it can take a long time for someone to leave the street life and the attitudes and behaviors that accompany it. It can take tough love, even discipline, for someone to see how their attitude damages themselves and others. But all that time, God is at work. It’s easy to see the same people over and over each Wednesday and feel like they are in the same cycle and situation that they were in last year and wonder if our prayers and our time is worth it. In fact, discouragement is one of the main ways that the devil seeks rob our hope and silence our work.

But God reminds me that our faithful love and service, in His hands, is powerful.A simple meal and a short sermon once a week matter. Prayers for the same requests over and over matter. God’s transformation is not always quick, it is not always according to our understanding.

I believe that there are going to be more stories like Mr. S’s coming soon. Our numbers overall on Wednesday nights are down a little bit, but there’s a consistent spirit of expectation, an expectation that we are going to hear from God. More and more people are coming hungry for the Word, as well as for the food, and I believe that God is answering my prayer to make us into a transformational community.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Gift of Sadness

At the end of December I noticed that I had spent a number of weeks accompanied by a sobering sadness. Not an incapacitating sadness that overwhelmed me; just sort of a persistent companion. Some of it is tied to my ongoing struggle with fear, which has made me face my fear of death and accept that the number of my days is not in my own hands.

I’ve begun to realize that life here on earth doesn’t last forever. I am going to get old, my kids won’t be cute and cuddly forever, and the “mundane” things of life that I take for granted now won’t always be available to me. While I didn’t always enjoy the sadness, I grew to be thankful for its presence during that season, because it reminded me to enjoy the present and urged me to live with God’s Kingdom in mind.

I’m sad that my son won’t always say goofy, two-year-old things, and yet I make a note to treasure them in my heart. I’m sad that one day Diane and I will be parted by death, and yet I appreciate all the more these amazing years of parenting and growing together. I’m sad that Diane’s parents and my parents are getting older, yet I am thankful to get to make the four-hour drive to Georgia to see her family. The present is a treasure, especially the ordinary things.

And as I think about how short life really is, it leads me to want to make mine count. I’ve been to several funerals in the past few months, two of people who died too young, one of a man who was 83 years old. And I have noticed that during funerals, people don’t bring up the bad things you did or the ways you failed. They remember the happy memories and the good things you did, and if you pay attention, you begin to wonder what your own legacy might be.

I don’t want to be remembered as a good guy who did nice things for people. Instead I want my life to count for an eternal impact, that people would be led to know God through His life expressed in me. My kids won’t remember how many hours I worked or how much money I made, but they will remember playing tickle-monster and horsie in the living room, and they will remember the ways that I showed them God’s love with my life and my words. My retirement fund won’t accompany me to heaven, but the lives that I touch for Christ’s sake will have eternal value.

I used to try and fight the sadness or ignore it. But ironically, as I allowed this sadness to speak to me, it actually led to more joy in the present, appreciating all that I have been given.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stuck on Fast-Forward

It seems that I get to the end of my weeks and I wonder where the last seven days have gone. Life feels dictated by my calendar, and a week without more than one night-time meeting or event is a rarity. And that's just work and church, not even counting kids and their school events (and our kids aren't even on any sports team). My days are planned for me before they even begin, and free time is fleeting and easily commandeered by something more urgent or important.

I think that life has been on fast-forward for a while, but I am much more aware of it having recently been on a four-day spiritual formation retreat with Diane. Time slowed to a crawl from Wednesday to Sunday, and there was space for quiet, for naps, for reading, and for simply walking in the woods. My wife and I ate every meal together, three meals a day!

A friend recently made a comment about our “jumping right back in” after the retreat, and my thought was, “What choice did we have?” As the commercial says, “Life comes at you fast.” There were commitments and events already on the calendar waiting for us, and this pace is pretty much par for the course for our family and many others like us.

It takes courage to make a different choice, to say no to the urgent and the needful and to trust that I am not significant because of my packed schedule. Busyness is a badge of importance in our culture, but it is costly in the long term. I want to get unstuck, to slow the pace of life down. But do I have the fortitude to do it?

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Beautiful Waster

Waste is not a good word these days. My daughter sings a song about not being a water-waster; there are whole companies devoted to waste management; piles of garbage collect in dumps around the world (on a recent episode of The Office, Dwight looked at a garbage dump and said with reverence, “No other animal could create this”). We are taught from an early age not to waste food, money, electricity, or time.

And so the story of Jesus' anointing at Bethany consistently jumps out at me whenever I make my way towards the end of Mark's gospel. Jesus was having dinner at the home of Simon the Leper (seemingly a waste of Jesus' social capital), and an unnamed woman comes and breaks a jar of expensive perfume and pours it on His head.

You can almost hear the gasps and whispers of indignation as those watching say, “Why this waste? The money used for that perfume could have been used to help the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

But Jesus doesn't call her gift a waste. He calls it beautiful. He calls it seeing with eyes of faith and love. And He says it is to be remembered forever. She did what she could, she offered what she had, and it was more than enough.

I find great freedom and great challenge with this passage. My heart resonates with Jesus' affirmation that “she did what she could.” What she did was enough because it was all she could do. For someone like me who feels like nothing I do is ever enough, the freedom to be at peace with doing what I can do, not what I can't, is wonderful.

The challenge is that everything in me rebels against waste. I have to invest my time, money, resources, not waste them. And pouring perfume on Jesus, which smells great for a time, but eventually fades and leaves no tangible return, seems like a wasted investment. In the same way, sometimes spending moments and hours with Jesus, just being with Him without producing for Him or asking Him to do something for me or others, seems like a wasted investment.

But I have seen the truth of Jesus' words, that we will always have the poor, the needy among us. There is always going to be another person to help, another opportunity to be busy doing a “good thing” in Jesus' name and for His sake. But to let those crowd out the beautiful gift of drawing near to Jesus and just blessing Him with the gift of our time and attention, that is very dangerous, because it puts me close to the line of gaining the world but losing my soul.