Another “hands-on” experience

by the Night Writer

Earlier in the week I posted a link to a talk I presented last month to the Inside Outfitters group about the need and benefits of living with an open hand (my part starts about five minutes into the podcast). In the talk I shared several of my experiences over the years where I was prompted to give something (usually money) to someone and the things that had happened for myself or my family as a result. The main point was to show how important it is to have an open hand (as opposed to a grasping or fisted hand) in order to both receive from God and to hand on the blessing to others. It was a fun message to prepare since it caused me to go back over so many wonderful memories. The trap, of course, is to spend too much time looking back and not enough looking ahead.

At about the same time I did that little presentation I also also received an unexpected gift from my new company, honoring my 15 years of experience. Actually, the experience was with my previous company, which had just been acquired by the new company. The new company, though, carried everyone’s seniority forward into its own benefit structure and I suddenly found myself with an American Express Gift Certificate for $75. “Hoo-lah!” I thought, “What toy can I spend this on?”

The thing was, I have just about all the toys I could possibly want — at least among those in the $75 price range — and I couldn’t think of anything even after giving it some thought over a weekend. Then, duh, I remembered what I’d preached and realized that I was overlooking a basic calculation. The Word says God “supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food,” (2 Corinthians 9:10); therefore I should look at everything that comes to me as either being bread (something I need to live) or seed (something to sow “to increase the fruits of my righteousness”) and this unexpected windfall clearly looked like seed to me. Then, instead of shopping, the fun part became looking around trying to find out who I was supposed to give the card to. Over the next week or so I saw a couple of possible opportunities, even good ones, but I didn’t have an inner release that any of these were what the card was for (we gave other things instead).

Then, quite unexpectedly, I re-connected with an old friend I hadn’t seen or heard from for nearly 25 years (and the way I got reconnected is pretty incredible and too complicated to go into here). We exchanged some emails and agreed to get together for lunch this week. In the course of our emails I learned that this woman was going through a tough time and trying to get a small business started. As I thought about it over the weekend, prior to meeting for lunch, I decided that the gift card was meant for her even though it wasn’t much compared to the size of the challenge she was facing. When we met I found the opportunity to give her the card and share a little about how it had come to me in the first place and how I’d been looking for the right person to give it to and that I was pretty sure it was for her. As I was saying these things, and handing her the card, she was smiling pleasantly and perhaps a little uncomfortably as most people are when receiving something. Since the value of the card wasn’t marked on it, however, I then told her that it was worth $75, thinking she might buy groceries or something with it. Her eyes blinked several times and she suddenly looked half-stunned.

It turns out she had been pricing some supplies she needed in order to get her business started, and the amount she figured she was going to need was…$75.

I have no way of knowing how she’s going to do in her new endeavor, or if it will be 25 days or 25 years before I ever see her again, but it was a tremendous rush to be used to encourage someone in such an unexpected way. Its always been fun to give, but when something comes together the way this did it’s even more satisfying — and feels even better than getting a new iPod. I also hope that, as welcome as the money might be to her, the sense of knowing that God is aware of you and is thinking of ways to let you know that is priceless.

The Sunday shuffle

by the Night Writer

I can’t say how it is that my mental juke box goes about selecting a song to be in my head when I wake up in the morning, but invariably I have one. Sometimes it’s a song I heard the day before, so that’s easy to explain, but most of the time it seems pretty random. This morning, for example, I had a darkly humorous Warren Zevon song (yes, that’s redundant) running through my mind: “Mr. Bad Example”. In it the singer unrepentedly boasts of his many nefarious deeds. It’s a catchy enough tune and I couldn’t shake it as I went about my morning routine. It’s not, however, the kind of song I want running through my mind when I’m getting ready for church.

Since the words were approaching ear-worm status I docked my iTouch into it’s speaker pedestal in the bedroom and hit song shuffle. My Touch has nearly as many songs in it as I have in my head, as well as many snippets of movie dialogue that I once down-loaded for a blog post and were captured along with my iTunes library when I first synced the unit. As I pushed play I kind of wondered what random tune I’d be greeted with and if it would be more “redeeming” than “Mr. Bad Example.”

I had to smile as the opening bars of “Sleek White Schooner” by the Waterboys blasted through the speakers. It’s one of Mike Scott’s “mystical” (as the music critics refer to spiritual themes) songs:

I dreamed I saw you sailing in
upon a sleek white schooner
You were skimming over the shallow seas,
coming into harbour,
healing on your brow…

The cargo you were carrying
was richer than riches,
golder than gold and yet more real than real
and the light that came a-flashing
from the new born babe in your arms
was a pealing of thunder, a cannonball flying
a sun exploding, Dawn in the heart of me…

It really became amusing — or interesting — then, when the next thing in the shuffle was this little snip from the Clint Eastwood movie, “Unforgiven”:

Kid: “Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.”
Munny (Eastwood): “We all got it coming, kid.”

Which was immediately followed by an instrumental from Flamenco guitarist Armik, “Pure Paradiso”.

Ah, yes. There are things in my past that I would not want to serve as an example to others and certainly weren’t that beneficial to me. But then the revelation and persona of grace came like a sleek white schooner, letting me know that what I had received was different from what I should have had coming to me. Yet sometimes, in the midst of life, I need that reminder and that reassurance.

And the next song was “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World, which includes:

Hey, don’t write yourself off yet.
It’s only in your head you feel left out or
looked down on.
Just do your best, do everything you can.
And don’t you worry what the bitter hearts are gonna say.

[Chorus x2]
It just takes some time, little girl you’re in the middle of the ride.
Everything (everything) will be just fine, everything (everything) will be alright (alright).

And with that I checked myself in the mirror, slid the Touch out of the dock, and I was off to church.

My favorite Waterboys song, and one that I see as being a spiritual allegory in my life, is “This is the Sea”. Here’s a cool video that uses this song as a soundtrack:

Which connection I should cut

by the Night Writer

Earlier I posted about the time the godly hole got punched in the wall of my world-view. It was a dramatic example, but not necessarily the first time God tried to get my attention. Looking back now I can see numerous nudges, nods, winks and taps on the shoulder when I was a boy and later a young adult. Not that I’m anything special, mind you, or that God isn’t trying in multiple ways to reach all of us. In my life, however, certain things have resonated, even when I didn’t understand or want to admit what invisible mallet struck the chime to make it vibrate.

For example, back when I was in college I was browsing in a used record store as the local alt-rock campus radio station played in the background. A song came on that immediately pricked my ears. I’d never heard it before and though I could make out the words, I couldn’t really understand them. I just knew that the melody got a hook into me. About all I could remember was part of the chorus: “My heart going boom, boom, boom….”

The station didn’t say the name of the song or the artist, and though I’d hear the song occasionally at random times in the next few years I still didn’t know anything about it other than it strangely moved me every time I heard it. After I moved to the Twin Cities in the early 80s I finally got the name of the song and artist: “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel, and then spent several months trying to find a copy of it in those pre-Google, pre-Amazon, prehistoric days. It finally found it on a live album and could listen to it to my heart’s (boom-boom-boom) content. Even with that I still couldn’t grasp what it was about. Some friends told me it was a song Gabriel wrote when he was trying to decide whether or not to leave Genesis, and that seemed to make as much sense as anything even though the lyrics were mostly obscure (it was a great time for obscure lyrics).

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
I just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
“Son,” he said “Grab your things,
I’ve come to take you home.”

Then, along about the time I was discovering I was to be a father, and was rediscovering my faith, I heard the song again and it suddenly became clear to me. Had Gabriel written the song to describe his break-up with the band or, as I was doing, to come to terms with a spiritual reawakening (I knew he had become a Christian about the time he left Genesis)? I had heard a profound voice with information that by “reasonable” standards I could scarcely believe…what could I, or should I, do about it? Which of two seemingly incompatible worlds would I choose, and at what cost?

Could I trust my eyes and…imagination?

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho’ my life was in a rut
‘Til I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” he said “Grab your things
I’ve come to take you home.”

The earlier, mysterious appeal of the song became a confirmation to me that there had been a plan for my life all along, even if I was slow in picking up on it. Still, it was hard to think of giving up one life for another, but I knew the direction I had to go. In doing so, however, I came to realize that there is just one life; the difference is in how you will approach it.

Peter Gabriel didn’t stop recording music, he just went about it in a different way, with a different sense of mission. It wasn’t a matter of me withdrawing from the old world, but embracing it with fresh eyes and new arms. Nor was it about what I could get or become, it was about what I could give and be to others (my daughters, for example).

When illusion spin her net
I’m never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me

Physical separation is an illusion. I once told a men’s group that we were not monks who should seek to withdraw from the world to pursue and preserve our piety, but men who will pursue the world with our piety so that none may perish, “giving up” our lives in order to save and disciple the lives of others. If we withdraw then certainly people won’t see our failures or weaknesses and we can hope to keep them from pointing and laughing. But they also won’t see our tests and testimonies, and we keep them from a chance to see something in our lives that makes them consider their own lives and say, “Wait a minute….”

Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” I said “You can keep my things,
They’ve come to take me home.”

The circle, and bread, of life

by the Night Writer

Like a big fist pounding on my door,
I never felt such a love before…

— Bruce Cockburn

Sunday thoughts.

In church this morning we were exhorted, during the singing portion, to remember that with a shout the walls will come down. “The wall” in this case being whatever is standing between us and God’s will in our life. As I thought about it I remembered the wall, largely of my own making, that had stood between me and God. I had been pretty impressed with its craftsmanship, as I recall. And one day that wall didn’t fall, but suddenly had a large hole punched through it from the other side.

Twenty-two years and two months ago, my wife and I were in a small ultra-sound room while her ob-gyn — the same man who had performed her tubal ligation following a bout with endometriosis five or six years earlier — ran the hand-held device over and around her abdomen. Her home-pregnancy test had been positive that morning, and her report had caused some surprise and concern on her doctor’s part. Surprise because he had never had a ligation “fail”, and concern because the test raised a possibility that she was having an ectopic — or “tubal” — pregnancy, which is a serious problem. As he moved the scanner back and forth, up and down, we all watched the grainy, black and white images on the screen as the patterns shifted. I remember the doctor saying, “Hmmmm” and “Hmmmmm” and “Hmmmm” every so often — but nothing else! Finally I asked, “Is it a baby?”


“Is it where it’s supposed to be?”

“Yes, it is!”

I don’t know what the learned professional, who had carried out the procedure, was thinking then. I do know that I, the expert who had carried on a campaign of intellectual seeking, asking (and even demanding) evidence from people of what God had actually done in their lives, now had to wrap my mind around a startling new reality. Certainly the first impulse was to try to pick up the imploded bricks from that wall and try to fit them right back where they came from. I would, however, come to see these as just so much rubble to be cleared away.

It didn’t happen overnight, but the clearing definitely began. I was very new to the “things of God” at that time. Willing to “try” something new but probably not that firmly anchored. I had heard some wonderful and exciting teaching but it was still largely theoretical at the time. A new and dawning awareness of the reality and power of the Word of God was coming into my life as a preview of the teaching and discipleship I would be receiving in the years to come, and that first punch from the other side of the wall would be followed by a series of shakings and renovations (via revelations) that probably aren’t finished even now.

My daughter arrived a little more than eight months later and I was able to learn and grow in these things as she, herself, grew. The lessons and experiences my wife and received shaped our lives and our decisions and were reflected in the way we lived and raised our first daughter and the one who came after. Even though there were often voices who said, “That’s not how you should do it” or “you’re only making it tougher on her in the long-run”, we resisted much worldly wisdom and held fast to what we were seeing and experiencing and stayed committed to putting in the values and expectations we thought our girls would need to succeed. We raised them not as though we were their friends, but to help them become the kind of adults we’d be pleased to have as friends. I’d have to say we (and especially God) have been very successful in this mission.

Two days ago, we were once again in a small ultra-sound room. My wife, myself, my two daughters, as well as the husband of the eldest. Two generations gathered around the machine, hoping to catch a glimpse of a third as the technician ran the scanner back and forth, up and down, on my married daughter’s stomach. At last, there was the proof. He has given us a son…and so very much more.

Going “my way” or the “highway” and avoiding the ditches. Part 2

by the Night Writer

ELINOR: Surely you don’t compare your conduct with his?

MARIANNE: No. I compare it with what it ought to have been. I compare it with yours.

— from “Sense and Sensibility”

In Part 1 I outlined the reasons and the need to pursue self-development, but also the risks of emulating someone who’s life may turn out to be not that exemplary or even all that helpful. If your role model swerves into behaviors or beliefs that make you uncomfortable it can be very liberating — or very disillusioning. What standard do you use in determining if you’re being led into exciting new revelation or into an old deception merely packaged in a new way?

Well, the Apostle Paul knew the “one simple secret” long before all those acai berry ads started popping up on websites. Since I didn’t come up with it myself, I’ll let you have it for free: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) Well, maybe that isn’t so simple, but at least it’s short. Do you see, however, the three-way relationship implied in just those few words?

The premise is that a healthy Christian life is one where we try to be more like Christ and that process involves a 3-way relationship: one, follow Christ; two, follow someone more experienced as they “imitate Christ”; and three, help someone less experienced along the same road. Ideally this means that all three people in the process — the person who’s disciple I am, myself, and the person(s) I’m discipling — are all looking to Christ as our ultimate example while being guided by another. The external standard is critical because without one — or without a relationship with someone to hold us accountable to that standard — we can easily lie to ourselves about how we’re doing, or cut ourselves some slack, thinking no one’s going to know. We can also lose the critical awareness of considering the impact our actions will have on someone else.

That’s not to say that this process hasn’t been abused, especially within a Christian setting. We all can think of cases where religious leaders, in large groups or small, have disastrously led their disciples astray. In the instances that come to my mind, however, the leader lost sight of imitating Christ; not surprisingly, the followers soon forgot that part of it as well. The focus needs to be on the leader and the follower living up to an ideal beyond themselves. Then, if you truly imitate Paul, you should in turn be trying to set an example for someone else to follow as well. That means people should see something worth emulating in your life; you should see something worth emulating in someone else’s.

A discipleship relationship is an accountable one where each party essentially says, “examine my life.” There has to be accountability in the relationship for it to be true discipleship. You have to be in regular contact. I don’t think you can have this kind of relationship with someone you only see on TV or hear on the radio — or read on-line. You may be inspired by what you see, hear or read, but there isn’t a relationship or any personal exchange between you unless there’s regular two-way contact of some kind. If you’re a disciple, you have to say that you are and you show that you are by doing what the other does.

For the “leader” it is an awesome responsibility to live consistently to your standard and being willing to have your actions watched and judged. That alone is enough to make many shy away from the responsibility. Conversely, or perversely, there are some who don’t mind receiving the attention or being in the spotlight. To be a true leader, however, you can’t be focused on what you can get out of it, you have to be concerned about helping other people benefit.

Being a leader, however, is not an agreement to live “perfectly” or to never miss it. It is, however, the willingness to say, unabashedly, that this is what I am pursuing, this is how I’ve benefited by doing so, learn from the victories I’ve achieved and the mistakes I’ve made, and will continue to make.” Probably the purest and most natural discipleship responsibility and opportunity we have is in raising our children, and yet a number of people will not step up to this mantle and standard and be that kind of example in front of their kids — it’s easier to leave it to the schools, the teachers, the youth pastors, the television, the peers — and so much easier to lay the blame on these when the time comes.

For the disciple the hurdle is being willing to acknowledge the lack in your life, recognizing that there is a difference between you and the person you would emulate (as the first step in seeing how different your life is from Christ) and in humility saying, “I’m not what I should be, please help me.” It’s difficult to make that admission out loud or even to ourselves, even when we see the need. Again, it’s far easier to say to ourselves, “I’m not really so bad or that far off; I’m certainly not missing it as much as some people.”

I’ve seen it time after time in people who find themselves in desperate enough straits where their fear overcomes their pride and they cry out for help, receive relief and support in the present crisis, but draw back from the opportunity to make the kind of long-term commitment in their lives that can give them the wherewithal to survive or even avoid the future storms, let alone help someone else get out of the same type of situation. Part of the reluctance is due to the perception of giving up one’s will or admitting a weakness (really it’s just admitting it to yourself; God — and likely everyone else — already sees it). The rest of the reluctance comes from exposing yourself so that your life can be examined — both by the person you would emulate and by the ones in the future that you should, in turn, be discipling.

In a superficial, self-centered world personal development becomes a self-directed way of trying to fill a void that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It can be the spiritual equivalent of being like those who undergo serial surgeries and injections in the hope or belief that if their noses or waists were smaller, or their lips or busts larger, or their tummy more tucked or their thighs more adducted they will at last be happy. And then, if they’re not happy, there must be some other procedure that’s required. Well, except for that one little extra procedure (and the next, and the next) that’s required to be truly happy.

The soulish equivalent is saying this year I’ll become a vegetarian, next year go vegan, and the following year become a raw vegan and then I’ll be a Better Person. All of it seems to be aimed at exalting the self, while a Christian, discipleship approach is about the denial of self. No, not the false humility of outward spirituality or the use of literal or metaphorical hair-shirts to mortify the flesh while taking pride in the process, but seeking a greater revelation of how small one is in the scheme of God, but still how precious.

If our objective is to become like Christ, what does that really mean? What will it look like? Ultimately, can it be achieved by our reaching up, or by God reaching back? Consider this excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Ethics:

Christ remains the only one who forms. Christian people do not form the world with their ideas. Rather, Christ forms human beings to a form the same as Christ’s own. However, just as the form of Christ is misperceived where he is understood essentially as the teacher of a pious and good life, so formation of human beings is also wrongly understood where one sees it only as guidance for a pious and good life.

Yes, we all want to be “good” people, but our perception is that if we can just focus on getting all the “bad” things out of our lives then all that will be left will be “good”. Or we think that if we can just do everything the “right” way we will be transformed. Either way — in reference to Romans 8:12 — we are trying to conform ourselves to the world as we see it, using our standard to set and measure goals, rather than being transformed by the revelation of Christ in us.

Christ is the one who has become human, who was crucified, and who is risen, as confessed by the Christian faith…To be conformed to the one who has become human – that is what being really human means…All superhumanity, all efforts to outgrow one’s nature as human, all struggle to be heroic or a demigod, all fall away from a person here, because they are untrue.

It’s not that seeking to improve ourselves is wrong or unnatural; it’s just that thinking we can do it ourselves leads us into one ditch or another. In the one ditch we can become obsessed with obtaining a perfection beyond ourselves through perfect man-made doctrines or by our pursuits. The other ditch, however, is to think that we’re irredeemably base and corrupt. What’s missing is the revelation that our elevation isn’t about us reaching for God, but about God reaching for us; it’s God sending Christ to make a way for us and in us.

The real human being is the object neither of contempt nor of deification, but the object of the love of God…To be conformed with the one who became human means that we may be the human beings that we really are. Pretension, hypocrisy, compulsion, forcing oneself to be something different, better, more ideal than one is – all are abolished. God loves the real human being. God became a real human being.

While it is God that does the drawing and shaping, it is clear from scripture that he puts others in our life to facilitate this — both to help us to learn and to help us teach others. It’s not something we do on our own, and church is an important part of the process. Again, however, we have to realize that we tend to put the focus in the wrong place. Just as when we think self-development is the be-all and end-all of our improvement, we can think that just getting to church is the objective.

Don’t let your time spent in church define your religious life or level of commitment. Jesus actually spent very little time in synagogues but was out and about with people, eating, teaching, healing, sometimes to large groups but often to individuals. That does not mean we don’t have to go to church, however. Church is an important place to go to be taught, to receive ministry ourselves and to encourage other believers but ultimately it should prepare us to act in a Christ-like way when we leave the building. From that perspective, church should be the starting point, not the culmination of our spiritual week. Modern discipleship appears to be focused on getting people into church; our objective ought to be getting the Church out to people.

When Jesus spoke the Great Commission in Matthew 28 he said “go and make disciples of all nations”. He didn’t say, “get them into your church so you can disciple them.” But that’s a subject for another essay.

Going “my way”, or the “highway”, while avoiding the ditches. Part 1

by the Night Writer

Note: if you’re looking for the Monday Anorex[st]ic Inaneymous, scroll down to the next post.

About this time last year, an emerging star and influential blogger in the Self Development field announced that his personal journey had brought him to such heights of self-awareness and emotional and spiritual development that it was unnatural for him to be constrained within the bounds of traditional marriage. He was therefore eager to explore polyamory, with his wife’s full support and his own confidence that it would have a positive affect on his two young children. Not surprisingly, he was divorced (or in the process of divorcing) before the year was out. Now, this month, he has just announced how excited he is about the transcendent growth opportunities he’s discovering in the world of sexual bondage and domination. Boy, I bet you just can’t wait for next December’s Christmas letter, eh?

No, I’m not going to name this yutz and send any traffic his way should you have any morbid curiosity in watching a family and career go through the wringer, or in reading comments from people who think that his critics are unevolved, unenlightened dumb people. I bring it up because this is the time of year when folks like to make resolutions and set objectives for the coming year. The desire to improve one’s self, or to overcome a debilitating habit, is natural and laudable; especially if one is able to summon the will-power and self-discipline to reach that objective.

Sometimes that might be something personal and prosaic such as losing weight or getting in shape. Other times we set more ambitious objectives to not just change our habits but to renew our minds and think in healthier, less self-destructive ways. Often in doing so we find ourselves wanting to emulate some successful person, whether they’ve got a new diet, a new book or a new-found reason for celebrity. While the “Be Like Mike” Nike campaign was a branding breakthrough in 1992, it tapped into a much-older human tendency to naturally want to mimic the fashions, behavior and over-all “cool” of those we admire. “If I could only be like him (or her)” is an underlying theme of a lot of advertising.

That’s because it sells a lot of soap — or books for that matter, especially in the self-help or personal development areas where we’re especially eager to find some here-to-fore secret, but nevertheless easy, way to be better than we are. Or, as one person I admire says, “Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.”

The problem with picking a guide for your personal development journey is finding someone “authentic” whose character and charisma transcends the hype of Hollywood celebrities or the perfectly groomed PR profiles of captains of industry. But how do we know we’re following a leader and not a billboard? As with the case cited above, what if the moral compass of the person we’re following gets so distorted by the magnetic pull of his or her own ego and lusts that we both lose sight of true north? (One thing that will happen is we’ll likely be told that true north is only outdated thinking that no “smart” person believes exists anymore, anyway.)

Given the potential for abuse, I might question a person’s ultimate motives for setting out on such a quest or series of quests, and what standard he or she is going to use to measure progress. I want to ask, “Is this all for your own benefit or for the benefit of others?”

Well, duh, it is called “personal development” after all, and one pretty much takes it as a matter of faith that if I am happy then those around me will be happy, too. I mean, that’s what the commercials always seem to promise, right? Speaking of faith, perhaps another question to ask about motives is, “Are you doing it in the hopes of evolving yourself into a better, even god-like, human — or have you considered simply becoming more like God?”

As humans, we will naturally find ourselves influenced by someone’s teaching or example; in fact, it’s virtually impossible not to be unless you’re one of the minuscule percentage who is truly an original thinker. If we’re Christians, however, our examples would ideally help us be more “Christian” — the term that was first used by those in Antioch to describe that weird new sect of people who were “Christ-like”. Whether secular or religious, however, what standards do we use in determining who is a good leader or example, or evaluate our own ability to lead or be an example to others? Following a religious leader is not necessarily any better or safer than following some new age guru. Recent and ancient history are rife with disastrous examples. Mindlessly following anyone because of a few signs and wonders (or best-selling books and appearances on Oprah) is dangerous. While the popular stereotype of Christians as superstitious idiots is all around us, I believe that a true Christian walk engages and stimulates us intellectually as well as spiritually. After all, Romans 12:2 tell us to renew our minds, not chuck them overboard.

I believe there is a proven model that improves not just our own lives and enables us to improve the lives of others, with built-in fail-safes that will keep us from ending up dead in some jungle or blowing ourselves up in a market. What is it? Check back on Tuesday for Part 2.


by the Night Writer

The other night someone’s comment made me pause, as I do around this time of the year, to reflect on the Christmas message of a Savior coming amongst us. Readers familiar with my annual “Christmas Special” will recall that the first benefit of faith (and grace) is not in getting what we deserve, but in not getting what we deserve. So, anyway, the other night I thought, “God, I just wanted to get off the hook.”

And then the thought appeared in my mind, “You misunderstand. You are the hook.”

Then on Sunday my pastor stated that our vision for the coming year is to “join and knit” as a community. When he said that I remembered “the hook” and then, instead of thinking of a sharp fish hook, or a big shepherd’s crook, I thought of crocheting hooks and how they work: reaching out, hooking the yarn, pulling it close and wrapping it with another piece of yarn. The finished product is something snug and warm and when you look at it you cannot tell which piece of yarn submitted to the other because all you see is the union. As in a marriage. As in a community. As in a fellowship.

The thing is, to join and knit you need someone willing to reach and someone willing to be reached. And not just reached, but pulled into something bigger and better and that is a hard thing. You can organize several skeins of yarn and lay them close together and admire the color and texture of each individually and imagine what the sweater or afghan might look like, but if each keeps to itself you have lovely yarn and not much else.

A friend of mine has chosen the word Discipline as her theme for the year. It’s a good word, and a useful ideal. I choose a variation of the word, however: Disciple. I resolve to continue to let myself be discipled, and to be willing to disciple others.

You can hear me now

by the Night Writer

I spoke to our Inside Outfitters group back on December 19th, elaborating on the “return from captivity” message I originally shared with the men at Red Wing. This was our annual Christms meeting where the men of our church go all out in preparing hams, fried eggs and pancakes with special toppings for breakfast while the ladies (and some men) bake cookies for the guys in the Teen Challenge residential program. Unlike other messages I’ve presented to this group, however, this one was recorded and put up as a podcast on my church’s website. You can listen to it here (under the “Building and Defending Your Home” title. It may surprise some of you who know me well to learn that I really don’t like the sound of my voice, but you might get something useful from this message. If not, feel free to browse that website and you’ll find several messages that have been shared by the Reverend Mother!

My hind foot

by the Night Writer

We’ve just gone through the Thanksgiving holiday and we’re heading fast for Christmas. It’s an easy time of year to be thankful and to think of the blessings we’ve received, especially from God. But what if your life doesn’t look or feel that blessed at the moment? Do your present circumstances define the quality of your relationship with God?

Consider this:

Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither [shall] fruit [be] in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and [there shall be] no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God [is] my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ [feet], and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.
— Habakuk 3:17-1

We started looking at this scripture in church a couple of months ago, and one of the things our pastor pointed out that the words “I will joy” in that verse mean are a translation of the Hebrew words that mean “to go in a circle; to dance, to leap for joy, to rejoice, exult, be glad, to tremble.” He asked us to picture what that would be like, to be so strong in your faith and trust in God that no matter what the present circumstances looked like you could not just be happy, but excited, twirling around, exulting that the Lord is your God. Then he exhorted us to actually do that, to find the time in our prayers, meditations or worship, to realize His faithfulness and mercy and get up, spin around and rejoice — perhaps in the way you’d react when your favorite team does something good.

That was a simple enough sounding challenge, but hard to do without feeling self-conscious whether you were in public or alone. Nevertheless it was a challenge my wife heeded, first in her own personal worship at home and later when she felt led to do it in the privacy of the restroom at her work, even though business had been dreadfully slow at her job for months and even though the division where I work had been put on the market for divestiture; the types of things that can cause one to have some concerns about the immediate future. So then what happened?

Well, it so “happened” that in the time that she began doing that new business started to come into her company and my division was sold — but to a company that wanted to keep us operating intact; not only does no one lose a job, but new growth opportunties are also on the horizon. Oh, and she discovered an opportunity through our on-line bank to re-finance our already low, fixed mortgage at a lower fixed rate that pays off the remaining balance in seven years instead of nine, saving us some $40,000 in interest payments. Woot! I mean, *circle dance*!

Now, I’m not saying that jumping joyfully in a circle is the secret to financial relief or increase; we need to be wary of the human ability to take a small part of a scripture and turn it into a doctrine. I will say, however, that it can deepen your awareness of the relationship you have with God through Jesus Christ (you may hear that name between now and the end of the year). Reading and meditating the word and the promises of God, then actively celebrating its reality in your life, is like a catalyst to even greater joy and appreciation of that relationship. The power and the change in your life doesn’t come from saying just the right words or doing just the right dance; it comes from the relationship and from appreciating that relationship. And as you do that, words and dances may just start to come to you…and perhaps something else as well.

Return from captivity

by the Night Writer

Miles from home. Your foundation shaken. Your family at risk. Your past a curse, your future uncertain. Enemies await.

And yet, hope grows.

For the last six months or so I’ve been making the hour-long drive down to the Red Wing Correctional Center a couple of times a month. While it is primarily a juvenile facility they have one building for adult males, and I go to visit with the guys and conduct informal chapel services (actually more of a discussion). I never know what to expect: sometimes 10 guys will sign up in advance to attend chapel and then only three will actually show; other times three will sign up and 10 guys will turn up. There are a few “regulars” who I have gotten to know and a couple of these guys will be released in the next month or so. I was thinking about these guys as I prepared for last Sunday’s visit and my mind turned to the book of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah is a first-person account of a man returning from captivity in Persia to a ruined Jerusalem and how he was led by God to restore the city and the hope of the people there. He was welcomed by some, and there were some who were not so happy to see him return, and the men rebuilt the walls and their homes with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. There are a lot of parallels in the book of Nehemiah for men preparing to return to their home after a period of captivity. These range from Nehemiah’s reaction in Chapter 1 to the news from home (not just that he prayed, but what he prayed), to the plots of his enemies and resistance from his own people, to the way he went about his business, to the ultimate success of his mission and restoration of “his people.”

During our discussion I shared the part in the scripture where prominent people and officials in the area — who were presumably finding the present situation much to their advantage — were not pleased to see that “a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel.” (Chapter 2:10). As I read that I was moved to look around the table to each man, and one by one say, “they were not pleased to see that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Jerry…of Tim…of George…” and so on. At first I only meant to say it to one or two guys, but as I saw each reaction I simply had to go around the table. Physically, each man twitched or rocked back or shivered when I spoke to him and each face shifted…not in anger, but in something else that shifted the hard planes and tight jaws, loosening them as their eyes unavoidably focused on some spot ten feet behind me. Even the ones I came to last in the circle, who knew it was coming, had the same reaction. One young man, B., looked as if he might even be ill.

B. and I have talked a couple of times about his situation and the mistakes he’s made; not the ones that landed him in Red Wing (I don’t know, and don’t want to know why any of the men are there) but in relationships. He has a young infant son who he’s barely seen. After the meeting we spoke one-on-one for a few minutes. B.’s going home soon and knows he’s going to have trouble with the family of the mother of his child. Previously we’d talked about love being wanting the best for someone else’s life even if it cost you something and how his actions didn’t always put “best for her” in first place. I asked him about his son: “Do you love him?”

“Yes, with everthing that I have.”

“Why? How can you love someone you hardly know when he can’t do a thing to benefit you right now?”

“I don’t know. I just know that I want to protect him, be there for him.”

“That’s because love is a choice you make, it isn’t a feeling,” I said. “If you go by your feelings you’ll change your mind every day. If you remember your decision and hold on to that, you can change the way you act, even the way you make decisions.” He nodded, reset his jaw.

We spoke a little longer about things we’d talked about before, about actions, not words, showing that there’s been true change and about outliving your mistakes one day at a time. I told him a true story of how I’ve seen that happen very close to me, and it appeared to give him confidence. B. may be gone before I return. He extended his hand, thanked me for coming and then said, “…and thanks for, you know, taking an interest in my life.”

During the group discussion the men and I had also talked about how Nehemiah had organized the reconstruction and defense of the city, about how he had instructed the men to “rally to the sound of the horn” when there was trouble at some spot, and how each man worked with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. Today, however, for these men going home, fighting with a weapon is a sure ticket back to Red Wing or someplace worse. We shifted then, to the scriptures that say, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” (2 Cor 10:4) and that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood” and what our true weapons and defenses are (Eph 6:11-18). I suggested that if our weapons are not carnal then likely our tools are not, either, and that they can trust the word of God (the sword of the spirit) and as they do so, God will be using his trowel to patch and restore the walls and replaster the gaps in their lives.

Finally we talked about each of them finding a place to fellowship with believers, where you can stand with other people; people you can trust to “rally to the sound of the horn” when you are in trouble and people who could expect you to rally, in turn, when needed. Driving home I thought about that a lot, and about how I didn’t have to “go to prison” to learn that lesson, but how doing so really helped me to appreciate it.