Walls & Wells

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Amidst all of the barriers we create to divide ‘us’ from ‘them’ – social, ethnic, religious, sexual, and on and on – we have a Savior that won’t stand for it. So the walls don’t stand either.

He meets us at the wells of our lives, the intersection of our shame and his grace, to topple obstacles and invite us to ‘know the gift, know the giver, and ask for a drink’ (John 4:10). Freed from our past, freed for our future.

Got to visit with the wonderful people of King of Kings Lethbridge this weekend and spoke this message.

 John 4:42 – Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not just because of what you told us, but because we have heard him ourselves. Now we know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.”

 

It’s So Typical

It was so typical. And yet it wasn’t.

Last night a new friend came over for supper. He sat with my family and I for a typical meal. Typical for us in that we sat down at our dining room table, as we usually do, and ate a meal—some rice, chicken and veggies—that is common enough for us. A very normal dinner time in my house.

Except it wasn’t. My new friend has only been in Canada for 11 months. He came here as a refugee from a camp in Kenya. He arrived there as a young man, received some education, and continued as a worker for different NGOs in the camps he spent time in. He is a very sweet man and his heart is absolutely beautiful.

But as we get to know each other more details from his past come out. And more details of the current situation that he left behind.

He left southern Sudan in the late 80s/early 90s as a ‘lost boy’. Forces and groups from the largely Islamic Sudanese areas in the north were attacking mostly Christian communities and villages in the south. They murdered fathers and young men, raped and attacked mothers and daughters. These lost boys, only 8, 9, or 10 or 11 years old, fled for their lives. They started walking first for Ethiopia. They stayed at camps there until civil unrest turned to war and to avoid being drawn into battle, resumed their migration on foot. Kenya was next. Their story is told here.

My friend is gentle, calm, and well collected. He is wise and adjusting quickly to life in a completely foreign context. He appreciates that, for the most part, he does not feel like a stranger in Canada. He feels like he has been welcomed as one of us. And he is. He belongs here as much as anyone else. It was an uncommon grace for me to hear his story and share a meal with him.

The other uncommon moment came as he shared from his experiences as a young man trying to find life in Africa, and so often found death instead. His violent expulsion from his home could have so easily predisposed him to a life of vengeful violence. But it hasn’t. Since that early exposure didn’t taint him, any of the subsequent experiences could have. He has seen horrific acts of sadistic violence inflicted on one human by another. He has processed and helped others to process the traumatic impact of seeing such horror. To give me understanding, he showed me a video another worker shared with him. Once I realized what I was seeing, I could only watch a bit before I needed to turn it off.

It is taken on a cell phone camera and shows horribly gruesome—yet very real—murderous torture committed against a bound victim. And the crowd around the attacker is not in a frenzied rage nor in horrified silence. Somewhere in the middle of that, they pat the knife wielding man on the back, encourage him, and stand by as life leaves the body on the ground. That mother’s son breathed his last while onlookers egged it forward. It was certainly someone’s brother or cousin, whose greatest misfortune was to be the one figuratively caught up in the larger situation, and then caught up literally in the twine that bound him. The promise of his life, no different than the promise of my children or my brothers, was wasted on the ground, mixed into the soil to which we all will eventually return.

I know nothing of his life. Only his death through the recording. It is amazing that modern technology allows us to see something that should be disconnected from our modern era. The violence in the video is as old as Cain and Abel, back to the beginning. And while we can invent technology that is so microscopic it can be inserted in our bloodstream, we cannot solve the problems of hatred, vengeance, and violence. Typical, I guess. While his life is distant from me, his death has touched me.

While I think about preaching to our congregation this weekend, that man will be in the recesses of my consciousness. While I talk about the felt needs of the world my new friend has joined, I will be mindful of how far we really have yet to go. I realize that like the men in the video standing by and watching, so much of our lives renders us passive observers also to this horror and others like it everywhere. And sadly, it is all too typical.

What the Dog Doesn’t See

Version 2

I’m so sorry about the sock. I couldn’t help it. It tasted like chicken.

‘When they see what I do,
    they will learn nothing.
When they hear what I say,
    they will not understand.
Otherwise, they will turn to me
    and be forgiven.’ (from Mark 5:12, NLT)

I have a dog. It’s a fine dog. It’s not an extreme-anything dog. It’s not the smartest, prettiest, biggest or smallest, most stupid, or any other quality that sets it apart. It’s a fine dog. But between my wife and I we have an issue with this dog. Lots of issues, but one that comes to mind quickly. It’s a laundry menace.

Often, when we try and sort and fold laundry, we do it on our bed. The laundry, I mean – we sort it and fold it into piles on our bed. And this dog has no respect for that whatsoever. Seeing our attention is not fully focused on it, the dog will hop onto the bed and dart to and fro, trying to engage us in a game of… whatever kind of game a dog imagines in its dog brain. And of course, it messes everything up. Socks are all over, neatly folded towels are mussed, kids piles are strewn all over and even as we chase it off the bed, it drags the laundry away on its big, nuisance-y feet. It’s even worse when the laundry is fresh out of the dryer. It can feel the heat emanating from those clothes from across the house, I’m sure. Then this dog comes in, hops up, and rolls and wiggles its way right onto the pile. Here, not only does the dog not respect our desire to bring order, it has total disrespect for what we’ve just achieved through the laundering process. We washed those clothes/sheets/socks/undies to eliminate mess and odor. Here, the dog is rubbing its dark fur all over the place and smearing dog smell right into everything that is Bounce fresh. And then I want to grab it and choke it. But of course, as soon as I come toward it, the dog thinks its time for its most favorite game in the world – the one where I grunt and groan and try and catch it. Then it hops up, send socks flying everywhere, knocks over a pile or two and leaps around with the grace of a 85 pound drunken blindfolded five-legged rabbit.

The dog just has no appreciation for what I value. It can’t be bothered to care about anything that I am trying to achieve. And then conviction settles in. I wonder, what is God up to in my midst and while He’s at work on something magnificent, I am no different than my dumb dog? Where might God be doing things, bringing order, life, new hope, and I’m too distracted with what I think is fun in that moment to have eyes to see? Where is God’s heart frustrated with the state of some relationship, initiative, community or other deep care that He wants to see come to full redemption, and I am just trying to find a cozy spot to lay down?

At least the dog has an excuse; it’s a dog. And not an exceptional dog at that. It does have fantastic blue eyes, otherwise, it’s a mutt that is loved only by my family. And loved well. Me, however, I have the Spirit of the Living God at work in me, alive in me, loving me and crying out Wisdom from the street corners at me, trying to awaken my soul to join in. And I’m looking for a pile of socks to mess up.

Lord, have mercy.

But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength! (Eph 1:18-19, the Message)

Sow what?

In 1879 a botanist named W.J. Beal initiated an experiment in East Lansing, Michigan. Beal put different varieties of seeds in different bottles, packed them in sand, then buried them a foot and a half into the earth. 20 bottles, each containing 50 seeds from 20 different species.

Another generation of scientists dug those bottles up 100 years later to complete the experiment. They wanted to know how many seeds would still have life-giving potential after a 100 years in the earth. They found a couple species still had viable samples alive.

That in itself is amazing. The seeds were effectively dormant for those 100 years but life could still come forth, producing another generation.

Just as exceptional is Beal’s motive. He knew this was an experiment whose findings would not benefit him. He invested in it, not to get life from the seeds, the immediate benefit in his time, but to pass on life-giving information to another generation. He was making a contribution that would serve somebody else, far after he was dead and gone.
In the immediacy that all of us have become accustomed to in our culture, we get addicted to seeing quick results. Diet and exercise fads, hair extensions, nail jobs, eyelash implants (can you believe there is such a thing?!?) all promise the results we want now. Waiting is a thing of the past. We tend to overlay those expectations onto our faith journey, also. We pray or we serve for what we want now, the blessings and the spiritual payoff need to come quickly or else. I can’t imagine Beal understanding that mindset.

How much of our faith journey is about investing forward? What if the prayers we pray will not all be answered for us in our time? What if some of them will come to be in our children’s or grandchildren’s generation? What if God is calling us to pour ourselves into something, like Jesus, in a truly self-sacrificial, other-centered way? I think of Jesus, in John 17, praying for those that would believe because of the impact of his apostles. Jesus’ mind was already moving past those he could immediately influence in that moment, and praying for generations to come in the future.

Abraham, as a father of faith, also had this vision for each generation that would come from him.

On resolving his conflict with Abimilech in Genesis 21 over the well at Beersheba, it says Abraham planted a Tamarisk tree. A tamarisk tree in the Middle East can grow fairly high – up to 24 feet or so – and is useful in the hot, dry conditions for providing shade on those long sunny days.

They grow slow though. Really slow. What Genesis is telling us here is that Abraham is not looking for immediate shelter for himself. In fact, it doesn’t seem he’s thinking of himself at all. He is thinking of those that are yet to come according to what God has promised him – descendants as numerous as sand on the seashore and stars in the sky. The tree is for them. He is devoting his resources to care and provide for all of those that will come from him, not just his genetic line, but his spiritual one as well. Abraham is putting down roots, in a literal and figurative sense, to tell us he’s in it for the long haul, not for what he can get from it right now.

Those of us today, on this side of the world, or anywhere in the world, are far from his tree, his time, and his location. But we all benefit from the example he lived out and the commitment he showed. He is not just a father to us all, but an example for us also.

I’m just like everyone else. I want what I want when I want it. I pray for me, for the things that will benefit me. Today, I’m going to go bury a treasure for the next generation. My prayers will be for those that I will never meet. At least, not on this side of things.

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message.” (John 17:20)

Why the NFL Got Their Domestic Violence Policy Wrong

Note: I originally wrote this a couple years ago. I forgot about it. But I still believe what I’ve written, so I figured I’d post it. 

I live in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. I follow, though very passively, CFL football. We don’t get the talent, drama, or celebrity personalities of the NFL. Not even slightly. Average game attendance or television viewership doesn’t even begin to approach the NFL’s. And numbers in Canada for those that tune into the Super Bowl always dwarf numbers for our championship, the Grey Cup in comparison. The contrast there says it all: what’s more fascinating, being dazzlingly Super or being a bland combination of black and white?
I haven’t however been at all sheltered from the controversies of a more social dimension that plague the NFL these days. There are all of the issues related to head injuries and lawsuits from retired players, issues of bullying and discrimination around race and sexuality, and of course criminal charges ranging from assault to murder. These are issues that rage publicly apart from football, and also opportunities for the NFL to show public leadership at the places their league and these problems intersect. That’s why I see their new policy around domestic violence as a failure.
I follow these issues with all kinds of interest. It’s intriguing, from an impersonal distance, to see a young millionaire with a past begin to feel power and entitlement go to his head and kill someone as a result, such as the case with Aaron Hernandez. As someone who’s pastored in evangelical contexts of differing varieties, I’ve been carefully tuned in to Chris Kluwe’s selfless activism around marriage equality and the price he’s paid for it. As is often the case with large organizations with shareholders and public responsibility, the NFL has taken cautious approaches to these events to demonstrate appropriate levels of concern and respect for parties involved, while also committed to some form of discipline as necessary. But on the case of domestic violence, they’ve paid the price for being disengaged and soft, and I believe will soon pay the price for being hard-lined and unrelenting.
Their new policy, six game suspension for first offense and lifetime ban for a second, abandons their leadership role in the lives of the young, talented men recruited to play in their unabashedly successful money-making league. And it doesn’t only abandon them to the punishment of their sins, it also abandons their loved ones to a second victimization through the abuse. In this failure, it will either worsen the consequences for those already paying a price or force them into a fearful silence about abuse, a hell of another kind. A dramatically enhanced punishment imposed and enforced by powers from above through a change in regulation will not change behavior positively in those that commit violence. We have thousands of years of religion and law courts than can attest to that.
I have victimized others in my life. And I deserved any punishment received. Through that, those that actually cared for me and those I hurt saw any discipline imposed as means to restore me and the relationship I destroyed. Here, the NFL shows their ongoing interest is in profits by protecting public image rather than advancing the game they trade on by supporting the men they employ to play it.
Because of the NFL’s failure to handle the case with Ray Rice, they were forced to revisit their domestic violence policy in response to criticism rather than authentic concern. Their solution was this hard-lined approach. It might project their image as capable and on top of a sensitive issue, but it will only harm those it purports to protect and further harm those that are punished by it.
Here’s what I mean. Presumably, the first player caught in re-offense will be made an example of and punished by a lifetime ban, no matter the quality and length of his career. No more million dollar paydays, loss of sponsorships, and no hall of fame. But it doesn’t end there. His wife, girlfriend, children (or even boyfriend with the doors opened by Michael Sam, I suppose) will also suffer interminably. The lifestyle they’ve come to know and expect and the benefits of it will be lost to them. However, as a result of their spouse or boyfriend or father being caught, which is entirely different from not offending, they will gain an unending sense of public shame. They will come to be known in their schools, workplaces, and social surroundings as the ones connected to Player X and his sin. And will this new-found notoriety, fear, shame, and frustration actually solve anything related to the issues that birth and enable domestic violence? I can’t believe so.
Not only does this policy fail to address the real systemic and societal issues that are actually at work in domestic violence, perhaps even stronger than the issues of rage and control at work in the offender, it fails to protect and provide for those that, beyond the player’s NFL career, are bound to him forever. In this sense, it re-victimizes the victim and perpetuates the system of white privilege they already benefit from. There will likely always be one more excellent black athlete arising from difficult circumstances eager to take the place of the one just disposed of in disgraceful circumstances. The NFL benefits from this, as evidenced by the predominantly caucasian makeup of their team owners and league executive. And a policy like this one ensures it will continue in their favor as long as they take steps that maintain public image but fail the men they make their very successful living on the backs of.
A holistic approach that is actually concerned with the players, their potential victims, and the issue of domestic violence at large in North American culture would take a redemptive aim. It would re-train offenders not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of those standing by them even in their failures. These are the wives and children who must learn how to process forgiveness because even after Dad is no longer a pro athlete, he’s still Dad. A holistic policy would allow that many of these offenders have likely once been victims in one form or another. It would aim to break destructive patterns and create restorative ones. In so doing, it would also offer hope to the consumers of the game and the never ending proliferation of paraphernalia and products. If the veil of abuse was lifted and the attempts at redemptive strategies were made public, seen through the eyes of humanity rather than the lenses of cell phones and surveillance cameras, perhaps restoration and redemption could become more normal than repeat offense.

Domestic violence can and should end. No more victims, ever. My conviction is that this hard-line policy focused on public image will not achieve that but ironically, will ultimately only serve to perpetuate the number and severity of the victims produced by domestic violence perpetrators. May the NFL take hold of their leadership responsibility in the lives of its players towards redemptive rather than destructive ends. May they fail them no longer and be committed to protecting people rather than profits.

Redemptive Unrest

I live and serve from the conviction that God does some of His greatest redemptive work out of our biggest messes. After all, God didn’t come to make bad people good or good people great. He came to save sinners, heal sick, and make dead people live. This is the God who hovers over the watery abyss, sees opportunity, and breathes life and light into existence – then blesses it and says, “It is very good!” This is also the God who hung on a cross and broke out of a tomb to so I didn’t have to go in one.

This sermon was preached at King of Kings Fellowship on October 9, 2016. Great church, wonderful people, and a pastor with a great heart for the gospel. It was a privilege to visit!

The Big 4-0

It has arrived. What was once inconceivable began as a faint whistle from a distant meadow. It grew to an approaching rumble and is now a steaming, chugging, creaking, imposing presence that looms over me. Towering, it stirs up awe and fear, uncertainty, and maybe delight. But a little more creaking than I’m happy with.

I’m 40.

Well, tomorrow I’m 40. Today is the last day of my 30s. But now I know it’s here. All the tomorrows have come and gone for this one.

There was an age when the collection of days passed that would total 40 years was unimaginable. But as they do, the days have rolled by into months and seasons and then years. The summer has waned and fall has arrived. A fall of 2016, and also my life. I’m on the other side now. The view up the mountain was good, it’s fantastic from the top. But I see where I’ve been more clearly than where I’m going.

isaiahs-haircut

The possibilities are endless.

Yesterday my sons got haircuts, a little different than they usually get. They looked in the mirror and speculated on what everyone might think of their new appearance with anticipation. I miss those days. When innocence was an unnoticed guest in every conversation. When disappointment could still be converted to opportunity. Skin was thin, but memories were often short.

Today I have work to do. There’s always work to do. There are meetings to attend, jobsites to visit, and errands to run. There is planning to do.

When I was 10 I didn’t plan anything. Except to buy junk food. I would scour for change that would add up to what I needed. A quarter could buy you something, even if not much.

Now there are quarters everywhere. But never enough quarters to add up. I always need to get more.

When I was 13 the future was endless possibility. I could be a star quarterback, a star point guard, and also a movie star in between games. Then off to the ring to defend a heavyweight title. It would be a great life for a bestselling novelist.

Now, the future is an accommodation of sorts. What do I do to make the best use of what I have?

That’s always the question, actually. I just didn’t know it when I as 10, 13, 18. I didn’t know it when I was 20 and I wasn’t clear on it when I was 30. Now I know.

But speculating on the next 40 years tells me that now that I know a better question, or at least know to answer a question of some kind, I still don’t know how to answer it. I don’t quite know how to channel those years to get the quarters I need, plan the meetings that matter, and consider what hasn’t even been on the mental agenda yet.

I’ll let you know in another 40 if I chose right.