Where has life fishhooked you?

 

Yesterday, I headed out through the garage, on my way to do some work for a friend. As I walked through the garage, I couldn’t miss it. Some kind of wire-y, point-y, fishhook-y kind of think sticking out of a tire on my wife’s van. I pulled on it a bit, but it wasn’t budging.

Dang it!, I thought. Now I’m going to have to deal with this.

So I took it the tire place, and as the guy looked at it, we both had a chuckle: How did that get there? My response: It’s my wife’s van. Must be her great driving!

Since she wasn’t there, and it IS her van, I could say that. But really, who knows how that fishhook thing go in the side wall of her tire?

That’s how life is. We shouldn’t be surprised when life hooks us, but so often we are. Sometimes, the fault is ours. But sometimes, it’s not. I mean, really, fishhooks happen.

What’s your fishhook right now? Maybe it’s cancer, or heart disease. Maybe it’s someone you love who is facing these things. Or maybe they’re facing dementia, or another condition for which there is no cure.

Maybe it’s work that has stuck a hook in you. Or school. Or a relationship. Or an addiction — yours, or someone you love. But somewhere, somehow, if you’re paying attention, there’s at least one thing in your life that has got you hooked.

A counselor recently shared with me a simple truth, but one we so often fail to accept. He said, simply: Life is hard.

Now, most of us get that. We realize life is challenging. Even so, there’s a part of us that keeps expecting it to get better, simpler, easier. But here’s the thing: when you expect life to be easy, and it turns out it’s not (which always ends up being the case), then you’re not sure what to do. You’re left staring at the fishhook, asking, Now what?

In these moments, if you expect life to be easy, you’ll look around for an quick escape hatch. Or someone to blame. Or you’ll just internalize it and blame the universe, or your upbringing, or your spouse — or, if you’re really heady, you might blame God.

But if you accept the premise that life is hard, then, not only are you not surprised when life sticks it to you, you’re also one step closer to dealing with challenges when they come. But let’s be clear: not all approaches to a difficult life have the same outcome.

It occurs to me that, once we accept the premise that life is hard, there are at least 4 ways to face life’s challenges. You can say:

  1. Life is hard … so you numb it.
  2. Life is hard … so you strive to overcome it.
  3. Life is hard … so you avoid it.
  4. Life is hard … but you face it.

The first response deals with life’s difficulties, and promptly looks around for something to deaden the pain. Alcohol, or another drug. TV. Food. Shopping. Mindless web surfing. Mindful web surfing, in an effort to find some one, or some image, to distract the mind. Or any number of other ways to drown out the pain of the world. And today’s sedative can all too easily become tomorrow’s addiction. As the writer Thomas Keating puts it: “Addictions are the ultimate way of distracting oneself from the emotional pain one is unwilling to face.”

The second approach goes the opposite direction. It seeks to overcome the difficulties through personal strength and smarts. It sees the pain and hardship, and says, I got this. It is confident in my ability to overcome through all kinds of methods, both secular and spiritual. Maybe it’s the latest meditation technique or self-help guru. Maybe if I save enough money or work harder. Or maybe if I just believe enough and pray hard enough, my cancer will go away or my relationship will be restored. But all of these approaches have one thing in common: they are about me — trusting that if I just work or pray hard enough, things will get better.

Or how about approach #3? It’s the method that lives out this mantra: When the going gets tough, just go. Leave. Whatever you have to do, get away from the pain and the heartbreak. Don’t climb the mountain; run from it!

This happens when we have a literal pain in the neck, and instead of going to doctor, we just ignore it. But it also happens when we have a relational pain in the neck, and we avoid that, too. Instead of talking with that person, dealing with the issue, we avoid them — and it. I remember a minister of a very influential church telling me once that when he began his ministry, he avoided conflict. He hoped that if he ignored it, it would go away. He pretty quickly learned that avoidance is a pretty lousy approach.

So, if life is hard, and numbing it, or overcoming it, or avoiding it aren’t the answers, what is?

Facing it. Recognizing the challenges of life, this approach chooses not to back down, run away, or self-medicate. Instead, we face the hardships. But not alone, and certainly not in our strength. No, the healthiest life is the one who recognizes life’s challenges and difficulties, and looks them square in the face — and does so, trusting that God is faithful. Shalom (true peace and wholeness) is where we can recognize all the ways that life “fishhooks” us, and then bring those before a God who meets us in the midst of those challenges. Shalom, you see, isn’t the absense of conflict or brokenness; it is the active and deliberate decision to bring those to the God of all grace and mercy.

For we have a God who faced down the reality that life is difficult; that sin is real; that hurt and hate are too often the human condition. And Jesus saw all of that, and he did not avoid it, nor did he numb himself to its reality. Instead, at the cross, he faced it and he overcame it. And because he faced down sin and death, we don’t have to avoid them. And we don’t face them alone. And we certainly don’t have to overcome them ourselves. Instead, in Jesus, we become more then overcomers (Romans 8.37). All because we have a God who overcame, for us.

And recognizing that doesn’t diminish the reality of our challenges. It simply brings hope where we need it most. Right where life is hardest.

 

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.

 

What My Visit to the Dentist Taught Me About Church

I went to the dentist last week for my twice-a-year checkup. For some people, those 2 times a year are to be avoided. But not for me. I don’t mind going to my dentist. Really.

One reason: I’m a dedicated flosser — something only my hygienist truly appreciates. But I also don’t mind going to the dentist because, as I was reminded this past week, there’s a lot I can learn. About church. About faith. About life.

For example, on Thursday when I was scheduled to go to the dentist, about 10:30 that morning I happened to look at the calendar on my phone. It reminded me I had an appointment at 9am. Oops! I promptly called, and they graciously rescheduled me for later that day.

So, even though it was on my phone, and they had sent me a postcard, and they regularly call to remind me, I still forgot. So, lesson 1: communication is important, but even with it we still forget stuff. So, keep communicating, but let’s make sure we show each other grace.

Julie and Bea are the two hygienists who work on my teeth. Bea has gotten good at remembering my name, that I serve at a church — even remembering where I serve. She recalls all this even though she must have hundreds of patients, most of whom she only sees twice a year.

Which makes me wonder: how many folks treat Church like the dentist? Show up when you’re supposed to, go when you have to (because that tooth isn’t getting any better on its own), and generally only do as little as possible. I can understand that attitude about the dentist, but not about Church. We need to worship, to share life together, and to go through good and bad as a family. And besides, in the Church, we never pull teeth (though we do sometimes step on toes).

At times, when Julie was cleaning my teeth, it hurt. There’s one tooth in particular that is really sensitive, and I’m really not a fan of Julie messing with it. But I’m reminded that pain has a purpose. It shows me, and those taking care of me, where some attention is needed. It reveals what isn’t healthy. Without pain, I wouldn’t know what’s wrong.

I was talking with a friend today. He’s been having a rough year health-wise. It’s forced him to adjust his schedule and his life. As we talked, I realized: pain has helped him change his life. I wouldn’t wish pancreatitis on him, or anyone. But that bout with pain has led him to re-evaluate and reassess what he’s doing and why.

Simply put, it’s just a daily and dental reality: pain teaches us, and changes us, in ways that the pain-free life never can.

Also: going for my semi-annual checkup (and the pain involved) is a much better experience because I know Julie & Bea, and they know me. We talk about family. We talk about sermons. (Weird, I know.) We even talk about the challenges we face. It’s not that we’re just filling roles: you clean, I’ll sit and occasionally spit. It’s that we have gotten to know each other. And that’s from only seeing them 1 or 2 times a year; imagine what it would be like if I interacted with them weekly. It’s really true: dentists, like church and life, are better when it’s not something you go to, but about relationships you have.

Even so, it’s hard to talk with your mouth full. I love how my hygienist will ask me a question while she’s picking at my teeth, the suction thing is in my mouth, and all I can say is, I’b fide. How bou chu? Still, I’m learning to never stop laughing, even when your mouth (or life) is full.

One of the dentists in the office is 78. They said he’s not going to retire. While I’m sure at some point he’ll have to hang up the drill, that’s a good reminder for all of us: we don’t retire from faith, or from our purpose.

Speaking of my dentist, the truth is: I only see her (or him) for maybe a minute. And that’s during a long visit. (Two visits ago, I did a running count in my head while she was in the room with me: it was about 37 seconds). 98% of the help I get is from the hygienists and the frontline people. I think that’s a helpful reminder about how Church functions: Most of the encouragement and support you’re going to get isn’t from the people with the titles, from the ones in charge. Your faith will grow most through relationships with the folks you spend time with, and who are able to spend time with you.

My dental visit reminds me that it’s good to have a regular checkup. Even with faithful brushing and flossing, plaque and other gunk begin to build up on my teeth. Even with faithful worship, Bible reading, prayer, and sharing with others, spiritual plaque and gunk begin to build up in my life. I regularly need others to take a close look at my life, and help me clear away that stuff that I simply cannot see on my own. The truth is: we simply will not be able to see all of our spiritual blind spots — that’s why they’re called blind spots.

Finally, I was told once by Bea that every mouth has a story. Since she’s a hygienist, she spends a lot of time on people’s mouths. But each mouth isn’t just a pile of teeth; it’s a part of a person. And though she works on all kinds of mouths, each one belongs to a person with a life full of dreams and disappointments, hopes and hangups, gunk and grace. Bea isn’t just cleaning teeth; she’s sharing life, if but for a moment, with a unique creation of God. And each person who sits in her chair shares something in common with every other person who sits in that chair: a need for a check-up, offered with a smile, and a healthy dose of grace.