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Resolving for More

newyearseve1

It has become traditional for many of us to reflect on our lives in the twilight of one year fading and the next approaching. Often most of what guides that thinking is regrets we want to learn from, or goals we want to strive for. Unfortunately for many who have reflected on their lives, despite the best of intentions, New Years resolutions often burn out before winter even begins to thaw. The Quaker view of simplicity as I understand it has a lot to say about how one might approach this time of reflection. At its core it is about evaluating what produces addiction in us; what controls us. Often we find that we can bend who we are around how we want others to see us, or what pleasures we might lose ourselves in. But the goal of simplicity is not merely sin management, pleasure seeking, or knocking things off our “bucket list,” in short it is more about getting in touch with our truest convictions, and living from them, than it is about “resolving” to add something new to our lives.

One of my growing convictions is that I was made to tinker and create. This does not mean I am not called to be a pastor, but it does profoundly shape how I approach serving as a pastor and how I spend healthy time at play. When I say creativity is one of my convictions, I am not saying creativity is something I value as much as I am saying that I “cannot not” create. The way my mind works and my passions are orientated necessitates I do the life giving work of creating, whether than means writing, building a project in the garage, or developing new skills that help me grow to my potential. Lately I have been playing with metal casting, building a forge, designing an anvil, and learning French. But none of these endeavors have anything to do with resolutions for a new year. They each in their own way, fit into my convictions about living a simple life, as surprising as that might be to hear.

My hope and prayer is that each of you makes space in your life for your convictions to thrive. So much of our lives can easily become more like slavery to a multitude of obligations than growing into who God is calling us to be. As Christians, we have a robust theological understanding of being the body of Christ, and this understanding means our strengths come from our unity and diversity. Indeed we were created to be different on purpose, and yet were each made to work in unison to the glory of God. As our lives lose touch with the wisdom of simplicity, instead of saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things, we often say yes to too many things and only say no when we are drowning. Yet God has a much saner and life giving way for those who would take on the yoke of Christ. If we are hoping to attract others to the way of Jesus we must first demonstrate that the way of Jesus has something more to offer than the hurry and stress of a secular life! As Jesus said, we must examine the plank in our own eye….

While I find myself disagreeing with John Piper about a great number of things, he has an interesting understanding of doing what we were made for he confusingly calls “Christian Hedonism.” Piper defines that as briefly in his statement “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” What Piper means is that as we grow into who God is calling us to be and take on the mind of Christ we will naturally enjoy good Christian things. These things are not limited to prayer and bible study or regularly attending worship, though those are all good things. What I mean is that God will create in us desires for good things, and also a deep satisfaction in doing the things we were made to do. At its core, I think this speaks to the heart of simplicity.

As we approach a new year, let us do more than settle for fleeting convictions fast forgotten. Let us go deeper into the lessons this last year has been trying to teach us about how to be satisfied, not as an end to itself, but as a byproduct of living out our calling and finding the freedom of desiring the will of God to reign in our hearts and minds. A simple life is a life seeking righteousness, earnest faithfulness, and the Holy Spirit convicting us not only of our sins, but of about righteousness (John 16:8). While it may not be the soundest argument about the overall thrust of that verse, I do believe God brings convictions into our lives about how we are to live free from sin, but also how we are to let the righteousness of Christ shape how we live our lives. Paul describes his way of living out the gospel among the Thessalonians as one stemming not “simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). May we strive to live out our faith to those around us in touch with God’s leadings, and in touch with the truest things God is creating in our hearts.

Agape,
James


A Sailboat for Christmas…

sailboatMy wonderful daughter Sophie got some new galoshes a while back when we went as a family to the pumpkin patch. As soon as she found out they were water proof she fell in love with them. She has great fun splashing around in Oregon’s many puddles. It is great fun to watch her play. Recently, as Liz and I have tried to figure out what to get her for a Christmas present, we just asked her. Her reply? She wants a sailboat. When I tried to explain to her that a sailboat would cost five years wages she just looked at me like “do it, Daddy.” God, I love my daughter so much!

This made me think of things like dreams and goals and cynicism. My daughter’s dream is pretty epic. She wants her own ship! I can imagine her piloting around the ocean on a great adventure, going wherever the winds push her, masterfully looking to the stars and navigating the tides. I see the look of sheer joy on her face as she lives out this vision. What better could I want for her? For now anyway, the five figures it would take (not to mention the physical strength) to live this dream make its realization impossible. But I have to admit to beaming with a little fatherly pride. Some people don’t have a dream that good at thirty, and my daughter isn’t three quite yet!

Dreams seem so foolish in our cynical world. Many of us don’t dream much bigger than a stable job and an 80 inch plasma T.V., but for some of us, underneath the surface is a passion, a vision, and drive. I count myself in this group. In the Burl Ive’s claymation classic Rudolph there is this elf named Hermy. He wants to be a dentist, which is pretty far from what I would want to do, but it is something noble and good. He just doesn’t fit in with all his dentist books and infantile attempts at practicing dentistry on toys. Just as in the song he sings, he is a misfit. In my quest to answer my call to serve as a pastor, this is the awkward stage where I live now. Most of the people in my life glaze over when I speak of the things I am passionate about. My passion to preach and teach is often not appreciated much more that Hermy’s vision of healing by pulling teeth. Most people could care less about the books I am reading and the things I am learning. These things just don’t fit the vision of those around me. At seminary I am bright student with great potential, at work I am Hermy. But some day these gifts I am itching to use and the preparations I am making now will find their home. Dreams don’t have to stay dreams. We equate the word “amateur” with a lack of skill, but it actually means to love something. GK Chesterton reminds us that “a man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well.”My moment will come and I will rise to the occasion. Some day…

But for now, I am looking to Sophie’s example. Perhaps it is a little naïve, but even though there are challenges, it is about time I looked up from them now and then. The challenges are all I ever see these days, and it is easy to forget the God-given passion and vision for which I am facing them. It is time to dream again these “pastor dreams.” To dare to dream of where I would love to serve instead of just feeling like I will be forced to wait around for some church that is just small enough, just dysfunctional enough, just on the brink of closing its doors enough, to risk casting their lot with someone new like me. To get outside of my own worries about how the math of day to day living will work out if I even land a pastor job. To get outside the cynicism of feeling like I have washed up on the “island of misfit toys” (or pastors).

My process of ongoing discernment has been a frustrating one to say the least, yet there is something about crystallizing a life giving hope for the future that is downright necessary. It helps strip away the things that are not a part of the vision. Michelangelo was once asked how he made his sculpture of David from marble, to this he responded “I sought out what wasn’t David and I removed it.” I pray that God will help me to find the place that this vision can be lived out, if it is His will to do so.

My dream job is to serve as a pastor: to be intimately connected with a community of faith’s hopes, dreams, pains, and journey. I would love to minister at a church while slowly continuing my education to the doctoral level, and later on to teach classes as an adjunct at either a Christian or a secular school. This would keep me involved in the lives of college students as well as keep me current in the world of ideas. I feel called to connect the ivory tower with the practical world in every way possible. I would love to help equip energetic college students to find new ways to “love thy neighbor, and to dream of ways in which the church could adapt to engage this world Jesus died to save. I hope that this will also provide many opportunities for research and writing in ways that serve the church. In a perfect world, this is what I would want. I hold this vision loosely, but if God lets me, I will live it out. Of course, He may have something unimaginably better in mind…


Sticky-Note Starbursts

When I was a kid, around 1989 or so, we lived in the Gorge in a small town called Goldendale. I was nine-ish and trapped in what felt like the middle of nowhere. My mother had left my sister’s dad and was raising three kids on one income and using every spare dime on a two year custody battle to keep my sister. It was a dark time of recovering from flight from an abusive situation, and we were very poor. I remember food stamps, and food boxes full of government cheese and canned salmon. I remember Mom always putting the after Christmas clothing on layaway to lock in discount prices, and paying it off slowly for next year’s school clothes. I remember we had this black and white TV hooked up to rabbit ears with tin foil on them. It was a hand me down from someone who, like the rest of the world, had made the switch to color ages ago. I didn’t know anyone else growing up who still had a black and white TV… but it kind of fit with my melancholy world.

Growing up not knowing my father was hard, but at that time, I felt like the only kid in the world without a dad sometimes. I knew I was loved, but I remember being jealous of kids who weren’t enrolled in the free lunch program, who had name brand clothing, and could go out to eat as a family. Money, sure isn’t everything, but it opens up a lot more doors than people realize. Lots of people want a better life for their family. I have actually been blessed with the privilege of getting to see how living for God, and making a pattern out of doing the next right thing, can  build momentum toward a better life. Not that everything in my life is roses and lollipops. Not that following God makes you exempt from suffering or pain, or insulates you from other people’s bad choices. But it has given me the opportunity to stretch and grow and learn from some mistakes that I, by the grace of God, no longer have to make for myself. God has lit up my life like the sun, and lit my heart on fire within me. My daughter, has in her own special way, done the same thing. It is the power of giving and receiving love at work within me, changing me, smoothing rough places and rattling loose corrosion.

Recently my daughter Sophie made this interesting collage on my Kindle. She falls asleep in our bed every night and we move her to her bed later. The nightstand is exposed to her colorful antics, and it has been comical at times to see her cuddled up to my Greek and Hebrew Bible, or otherwise passed out in an assortment of adorable ways. When Liz questioned her as to why she used all my sticky notes up on the Kindle, Sophie replied without missing a beat, “So Daddy can buy some more.” Sometimes I am left amazed, struggling to keep my face straight and stern as I try to say or do the right “parenting thing,” when what I really want to do is roll around on the floor laughing.

Being a parent is the greatest joy of my life. Like that Kindle, I am often single minded, grayscale, and focused on text and information. I just want the facts and the bottom line, the bullet points and the deadlines and the action steps to make it on time. When I am stuck on black and white, parenting pushes me out of the shadows and into a Technicolor world. My daughter brightens my life with sticky-note starbursts, offbeat singing and dancing, and being a goofy, crazy, stampede of one. While I generally don’t have much money, have a great deal of uncertainty hanging in the air about the future, and am always forced in a situation where I have to learn to trust God a little more than I want to. This Thanksgiving season has reminded me that  the wealth in my life goes far beyond money and material things. I am wealthy in relationships! I am wealthy in love. Riches often comes in the form of exuberant laughter from my child, goofy candid pictures (often with fake mustaches lately), and silly times of watching her rock an outfit whose photos will later come back to haunt her when she wants to be seen as “mature.” I am thankful to have so much love in my heart, a little money in the bank, and food in the fridge. I am thankful for snuggles with my little girl (when I can get them) and how she colors my life with love, laughter and burst of  language with W’s in place of R’s and L’s. I love to hear I “wuv you Daddy” even when she wants to watch Wallace and Grommit, or read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatball’s for the million and twelfth time in a row. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.


The Yoke of Love: Thoughts on Family Conflict Resolution

Early on in our delightful marriage, I came face to face with the tension between “leave and cleave” (Gen 2:24) and “honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12). It was our first year together, as well as our first year away in Kansas at Barclay. It had been tough on us to be cut off from the amazing networks of people who love us. To make matters worse, Liz’s grandfather died unexpectedly a couple months before Christmas, and we were too broke to come home for the holidays. It had been Liz’s grandfather’s wish that we could come out and her grandmother generously paid for our trip. Our family dynamics were polar opposites, with her family a tight knit group of planners and mine a loose confederation of last minute decision-makers. I had no idea the amount of emotional quicksand I was walking into. My one—though unspoken—expectation was that I would get to see my parents on Christmas day. Liz’s expectation was that we were coming back to be supportive of her grieving grandmother as she went through her first Christmas without her husband.

As the train-wreck unfolded I did not have eyes to see it coming. From my perspective, I was just a husband trying to be a leader, but felt hurt that Liz and her family were cutting straight to planning, making decisions, and pulling strings opposite of me. It soon became apparent that for the first time, I was not going to see my family on Christmas day. I was bitter, feeling wounded that my voice had not been heard. I remember thinking that if taking the money had come at the cost of my leadership as a husband it was far from worth it. After a lot of insensitivity and immaturity on my part, we eventually sat down to hash things out and make peace. Most of it boiled down to unspoken expectations and a false perception that we were on the same page. How we made decisions as a couple was still being worked out. Gray areas provided a vacuum and this vacuum was filled in during unperceived conversations that I did not yet have the ears to hear (my wife and Mother in Law understand each other without vocalizing a lot of what they discuss.)

I learned a lot that day, about diplomacy and communication, and about grace and forgiveness. The desire to make peace often comes from a place of bitterness and woundedness, but love calls us to a fresh start. Peace is not absent from this tension, but love is the binding force that holds a family’s paradoxes together. With God’s grace we gain eyes to see new beginnings for ourselves,  as well as offer them in our families. We see how gospel order is lived out in the messiness of community, where all our junk is seen and smelled and navigated by all. Yet together, we begin to practice resurrection within our families when we let brokenness die, and be born again the day after the mushroom-cloud of meltdown. The next day the yoke of love calls us back together to learn what happened and share the experience of walking through it together a little better  the next time.


Big and Little “F” Fatherhood

I have a lot of feminist friends at seminary. They ask the most amazing questions. Things like, “How important is it that Jesus was incarnated male instead of female?” or “Since God has no gender, why do we downplay the maternal imagery and lift up the paternal imagery of God?” I want to say first off that these are important questions to be asking, and that looking into the dualistic hierarchies we create as a society is a challenging endeavor that has earned no small amount of my respect. As I begin this blog, I hope you all know that it is coming directly from my own experience, my thoughts, reflections, and mystical encounters with God. These experiences have made me appreciate the more traditional view of things, i.e. the Fatherhood of God. It is not my intention here to push the buttons of feminists or use the Bible to oppress women by any means.  As a male who grew up with an ever shifting and usually bad person I was encouraged and expected to think of as my father, the word father had a lot of baggage and disappointment associated with it. How this has and is affecting me spiritually is more where I hope this reflection to go.

I grew up having no clue about who my biological father was, aside from knowing his name. Until my mom met and married Virgil when I was 16, father was kind of a dirty word, even a source of alienation from my radically divergent experience compared to people I knew growing up. Unfortunately nowadays my experience has grown increasingly common. As you can see, to this day I still generally refer to my stepdad by his first name. Even though I love the man dearly and for all intents and purposes he has been my father only rarely do I call him Dad. I reserve that for special times of heightened emotion, like Father’s Day or Christmas. Times when his fatherhood and love for me are crystal clear and my reservations are swept away.

Virgil is a great man, but aside from inheriting me and the rest of my siblings, it is not as though I was around much to see how it is done. I was pretty well grown up and the damage was largely already done before he walked on the scene. I also have recently tracked down my biological father and we have Skyped a couple times, and mostly just talk on the phone. I am still processing through how this new relationship helps me understand “father,” but suffice it to say our connection is less like most people’s experience. Most fathers don’t get a letter from a son they have never known completely out of the blue and try to start a relationship over the phone. Even this remote connection though, is far more helpful than looking for third-hand clues in “how to be a man” from TV and total strangers. I count myself very blessed for these times I have shared with Leo, my biological father who lives in San Diego, a mere twenty hour drive from here.

I lived in fear of the day I might become a father, because I had so few good models from which to glean understandings of what it means to be a father. I never felt like I would ever be ready, least of all ready for a daughter instead of a son. My daughter though, is now the very jewel of my life. I admit, it is frightening to think of how things will change when puberty strikes and boys come calling, but I know her life will be a lot less confusing than mine was. She will know deeply and always that two parents love her, and though there is much confusion in life she won’t be spared, the level of satisfaction I have in knowing she will know this simple truth is beyond my comprehension.

Whether mother or father, our parental relationships are one very important lens through which we see God. For many of us this lens is dirty, cracked, or worse. We can see God’s Fatherhood as cold and distant, angry, or wrathful. We can see God as a big “meaney in the sky” who can’t wait for us to screw up so He can spank us mercilessly. We can see God as an abusive parent who makes us do wrong and then punishes and shames us for it. If we aren’t careful, we can re-embody these cycles we inherited and expect nothing from ourselves outside of our own limited, and broken view. We can let being a victim excuse us from victimizing others, and pass blame on genetics or our environment, but the fact is we are responsible for our own choices. We cannot let our parents behavior excuse us from stepping up to the plate on our own, and making our own victories and mistakes.

As I found the Lord the inner category I had for father was slowly stretched and reformed. I was made aware of the love that is the defining force behind real fatherhood, heavenly or otherwise. I could see this motive of love behind God’s hand in every way He pushed me and refused to take no for an answer in our dealings. I could see this motive of love in the excellence He expected of me and the ways He encouraged me, invited me to participate in His nature, and challenged me to stretch and grow.  I often hear other people describe their experience with God as this great sense of inner “peace.” To be honest, when I hear this I can’t help but find myself a little suspicious. Thomas Kelly writes in A Testament of Devotion this simple prayer “Open thou my life. Guide my thoughts where I dare not let them go. But thou darest. Thy will be done.” I often find God asking me for obedience, even with two holy thumbs in my back pushing me. I find the opposite of peace, I find the “But Thou darest” part Kelly describes, at my every turn.

This relates to fatherhood in a way I am coming to notice as we raise our daughter. Simply put love dares. Love pushes us, not in a controlling or manipulative way, not to its own ends–but in response to itself. To share in its richness together. As fathers and mothers, we steward our love and are responsible for it and to it. Most of my fears about fatherhood turned out to be unrealistic or flat wrong. Love has dared me to stretch and grow in whatever ways best steward this love I have for my wife and daughter, a love given as a free gift from God. The selfishness I feared would make me an awful father still expresses itself in experiences of missing free time, a lack of personal space, and the isolation that is common to having a two year old. Yet the love of my Heavenly Father now lives in me and guides me as I navigate these challenges. I can pray with Kelly this prayer of obedience in all honesty, not knowing exactly how the challenges of parenthood will lead, but knowing the love my daughter and I share is worth every ounce of risk and pain the journey requires.

God dares us to accept His love as a child, unable to imagine the good and terrible things He has in store for us. But He also dares some of us to share it as a parent, in response to the needs of this present moment, whether that means changing a pair of poopy panties or dying to our own desire for a bathroom door that doesn’t fly open every five minutes. As you and I share this journey of fatherhood, let us define it in the holy ways of obedience, and the model God Himself presents to us. Let us trust His grace will illuminate our pasts and help us see His hand there, help us love fully in the present that we have with our children, and burn in our hearts the very vision of hope God sees the future with, for us and all of His children.


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