Transitions

Last Thursday, my wife and I took our middle child two hours away … and left her there. It was the first time we had done something so drastic, but also so inevitable. For we took my daughter to college … and then came home without her.

Honestly, I was surprised at how well I handled it. I was pleased at how smoothly things went (well, except for the long line to drop off her stuff at the dorm). But even that was painless, with all the friendly faces that were there to help.

After everything was in the room (though hardly in its place), we dashed off for lunch before we said goodbye. Our farewell hugs were long and full of longing, but then it was time for her to go her way. And she did. And so did we.

As we headed home, I was glad that the day went so well. Not much stress, and not as much emotion as I expected. All in all, I’d give myself an “A-” for how I handled things.

But then we got home. And something about being home made it hit home. Being in the house with only 1/3 of my children proceeded to shatter the “I’m good” feeling I had felt all day. If the process of dropping-off was easier than I expected, the process of arriving-back was harder than I could have anticipated.

Emotions are a funny thing. They are a vital part of life, but they are so hard to predict. What seems simple sometimes hits hard. What seems signficant sometimes goes off without a hitch. But one thing is certain: when emotions do surface, they indicate not just the feeling of the moment; they also reflect something deeper down coming out.

I think about all of this not simply because of the transition my daughter faces as she begins college; I think about it myself as I transition from my current ministry. As I announced Sunday to the folks at Fern Creek Christian, I believe it is time for a change. For me. For the church. For what God wants to do through this congregation. And so, as of August 27, I will conclude my ministry at Fern Creek.

This church has been my family’s home for nearly 20 years. It’s been where I’ve pursued my career for 16 years, but now it’s time to start a new chapter. And I’m learning that saying goodbye is hard. But not always in the ways I expect.

I find that, just like taking my daughter to college, it’s not the obvious places where emotion reaches up and grabs me. It’s in a random thought, or a song that brings a thought to mind. It’s in a conversation with someone. It’s in the anticipation of what’s to come.

But even though emotions are challenging, and sometimes not welcome, they are necessary. For what I feel reveals something about what is going on inside of me. And what I feel tells me something about what matters. If I felt nothing, it might be a sign that I’m not fully measuring the weight of what I’m facing. Or that I’m simply leaving a job — as opposed to a calling. Instead, the feelings I face remind me that I love my church, and feel incredibly blessed to have done what I’ve done.

Let me put it this way: If leaving isn’t hard, then was I ever really, fully here

But I was. And I am a better man, and a better follower of Jesus, because of it. So, thank you, Fern Creek family, for 20 life-changing years. And even as we say ‘goodbye’, we can do so confident that God has more in store for us — in this age, and in the age to come.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea…

Recently, I stopped at a convenience store and popped into the bathroom. When I went to wash my hands, it was one of those new-fangled combo deals — where the sink and the hand dryer are all built into the same vanity. And there was only one of them in this particular restroom. So, I waited for the guy in front of me to finish washing his hands, and as he dried his, I got started with the water. I was probably in his personal space, but, really, with only one sink, am I supposed to wait until he finishes the whole process before I get going? Anyway, as I washed, the air from the dryer was like a storm in that little sink — blowing the water places it wasn’t supposed to go.

Now, of course, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But it got me to thinking: What else seemed like a good idea when somebody drew it up, but doesn’t work so well in practice?

Well, just in the bathroom, I can think of at least a three more:

  1. Doors that open toward you when you exit. I’ve just washed my hands; why would I want to grab a door handle that’s been handled by hundreds of other people? I mean really, unless space requires it, why would they ever install bathroom doors that you push to enter, and pull to exit?
  2. Shower heads that are too short. This, of course, is a hotel deal. I was never very good in science, but it seems to me to be a basic principle that water always flows downward. So, whether the shower head is mounted four feet up, or eight feet up, it still goes to the same place. Therefore, my vertically-challenged friends can take a shower no matter where the shower head is placed; but we who are north of six feet really appreciate it when the engineers don’t design the water to come out at our navels.
  3. Finally — and this is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to restrooms — automatic anythingWhether it’s automatic toilets that don’t flush, or automatic soap dispensers that don’t dispense, or automatic sinks that don’t produce water, or automatic towel dispensers that don’t give you enough paper (like the one at my son’s work, which one time generously gave me 3/4 inch of paper for each wave of the hand). It used to be that “the wave” was a public sports cheer we all did in sync at the game; now it’s the game we all play at the sink in public restrooms. Is it really too much work for us to flush our own toilets (er, well, bad example, at least in men’s rooms). Is it really too much work to pull out our own paper towels?

And it’s not just restrooms that are full of things that seemed like a good idea. Life has those, too. My life has those, too.

It seemed like a good idea to:

  1. fix the leak myself
  2. eat that extra scoop of ice cream
  3. try to surf off the back of my friend’s boat
  4. watch just one more show on netflix

It also seemed like a good idea to:

  1. skip time in prayer
  2. yell at my kid when I was upset
  3. hold that grudge
  4. scream at that guy on the interstate

In other words, I wish it was just in public restrooms where dumb things happen. Sadly, it’s also in life. In my life.

So, how can I not believe in grace? How can I not cling to it fiercely? For what else makes sense in a world where just about everyday, I can say, But it seemed like a good idea….

Why Geese Can’t Act “Un-geesy”

Snapshot #1
Likely, you’ve heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Conducted in 1971, carefully-screened college students were chosen to play the role of prisoners and guards. The experiment was to last 2 weeks. The project coordinator, Philip Zimbardo, had to shut it down after 6 days. Why? Because the ones who were given authority in the game moved from acting to becoming.

Snapshot #2
In his book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch highlights Gary Haugen’s 15/70/15 principle, which applies to public justice systems around the world. This principle states that in a typical police force, 15% are honest and honorable; they simply cannot be bought or corrupted. On the other end of the spectrum, another 15% are corrupt, bent on using their power for their own sake. But the rest, the vast majority (70%) are just ordinary people who can be swayed by pressure from either direction. How they act will probably be due to which 15% have the largest influence in their context.

Snapshot #3
A couple of months ago, I arrived for church services and was walking through the parking lot to the building. As I did, some stuff on the ground caught my eye. I walked over to find a fast-food bag that someone had left, with sauce dipping cups laying around it. Clearly, someone had enjoyed a feast, and had left the remains for someone else to clean up. Right before I came across the trash, I had walked past a bunch of goose poop that also soiled our parking lot.

For me, all 3 of these “snapshots” point to the human condition. Power is easily misused. Authority can quickly turn from being benign, or even beneficial, to malignant. And when prison guards, or anyone with authority, misuses it in hurtful and hateful ways, we call their actions inhumane — that is to say, not acting in a human way.

And while leaving fast-food trash in a church parking lot is not a big deal, it is a minor offense against what it means to be human. And so, that Sunday, while it was frustrating to have to walk around all of that goose poop, I don’t blame the geese. They are just being geese. They were just acting geesy. So, when a goose snaps at someone, or leaves some crap for someone else to clean up, we don’t say: You’re acting un-goosy! There is no such thing as a goose acting “un-goosy.” Why? Because there’s only one way for a goose to act: by instinct.

But there is a way for people to act “un-people-y.” It’s when we choose, on the one end of the spectrum, to leave our trash for someone else to deal with — or, on the other end, when we mistreat our fellow human beings. In ways small and significant, when we act against our calling, against what we were made for — we are acting inhumanely.

Another word for this is sin. To act, to choose, another way than the way God designed us to be, is to choose to act in a way that harms others, harms the human community, harms this place we call home; harms us. And while geese and their “geesy ways” will probably never stop annoying me, what is more devastating is when I choose to act inhumanely. When I choose to act for self. When I choose to act based on what I feel, rather than I know. When I use others, belittle others, mistreat others.

In these ways, and so many more, we are forgetting who we are, and who we are truly called to be. That is to say: human. Which is precisely the reason Jesus came, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.7-8).

And so, the path from inhumanity to true and restored humanity? It’s through a cross, and a human who took on himself ALL our inhumanity — making us, finally and fully, truly human.

How to Find Yourself: thoughts about marriage that are about more than marriage

This past weekend, I presided at a wedding. As always, the ceremony is a time of joy and celebration. The bride and groom look their best, and everything that happens point to one thing: happiness and smiles.

So, when I stand before the just-about-to-be-married couple, speaking to them (and to those who are gathered), I want to say nice, happy things. I want to add to the festive spirit. And I do.

But I also want to say: Do you really know what you’re doing? Are you really ready for this? Because your vows are real. This is the real deal. And marriage will be one of the most difficult things you ever do.

Now, that’s not what I say. At least not in so many words. But I do say this:

We live in a world that can be cynical about marriage. There are those who doubt that a couple can spend a lifetime of love together. That instead of finding freedom in marriage, it ends up being a shackle.

As someone once sarcastically said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who would want to live in an institution?”

But that’s not how the Bible sees it. In fact, from the very beginning, God makes man, and then provides man a helper; an equal, a partner for the journey. For life – with all its challenges and disappointments, with all of its joys and pleasures – is meant to be shared. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The days your heart aches and the days your heart skips a beat. The day you get a promotion, AND the day you lose your job.

And the way to grow stronger through Whatever comes your way – is by firmly holding onto each other.

In other words, marriage is hard. In part, because life is hard. And there’s a reason that in our marriage vows, we don’t say: “I do, if I feel like it,” or “I do, as long as it works for me,” or, “I do, as long as it’s not too difficult.” That’s not how marriage works. That’s not how life works. The way through the difficult times is to walk through those difficult times together.

I recently read a long article, published by the New York Times, that talked with couples who are practicing what is called “open marriage.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Open marriage is where a couple “opens” their marriage to other intimate relationships, to other lovers. And the article is full of people giving reasons why this makes things better, at least in their minds.

While most of us can come up with a number of reasons why open marriage doesn’t work and doesn’t make sense, perhaps it’s a perfect sign of our times — where so many believe that life is found, not in our commitments, but in our freedoms. That is to say: real life is found by always keeping our options open.

The preacher and writer John Ortberg contends that so many who live for so much freedom end up coming to the end of their lives, and they can’t remember what they did with all the money they were free to make and spend. They can’t remember what they did with all that time they were so busy protecting. They can’t remember what happened to all those relationships that they were so free to exit. In the end, by keeping their options open, and by not fully committing to anything, they end up with a life committed to nothing.

Then Ortberg makes this vital point: It’s not in our freedom, but in our commitments, that we find ourselves.

What an absolutely counter-cultural argument, one that is sure to mystify many. But what a vital truth that is spot on. In a world where so many run from commitment — whether it’s in marriage, or parenting, or a job, or church, or just settling in one place to be a blessing to those around us — it’s really true: real life is found, not in what we keep open, but what we hold onto. In the end, we are defined, we are shaped, we become: not by what we run from, but what we commit to.