Recalibrating Your Soul

Recalibrating Your Soul

Among my favorite memories are early morning walks on the beach, alone, with my Panasonic RX4920 Stereo Boombox resting on my shoulder, playing my favorite reggae music.  Those were High School and college years, in the 1980s, on random Florida beaches, playing mixed tapes of my favorites songs by Bob Marley, UB40, and a lesser-known band, Steel Pulse.  Something about those early morning, walking alone, the sound of waves lapping the shore, and those reggae rhythms, recalibrated my heart and soul to their proper and preferred tempo.

It was good for my soul.

Riding my motorcycle is a similar experience.  When I find a long stretch of empty road – especially ones with some gentle wind and curve – cruising around 70 mph (give or take), my feet resting on my highway pegs, I relax, take a few deep breaths, and find my inner RPMs returning to their ideal operating speed.  I don’t have a stereo on my bike, and I don’t want one.  The mixed-tape I need has been permanently stored in my head.

I remember an opening scene of the Sons of Anarchy series: its night, and the Sons are riding a California highway, and, in the background, Jax says, “Something happens at around 92 miles an hour – thunder-headers drown out all sound, engine vibrations travels at a heart’s rate, field of vision funnels into the immediate and suddenly you’re not on the road, you’re in it. A part of it.  That’s why I love these long runs. All your problems, all the noise, gone. Nothing else to worry about except what’s right in front of you. Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold on to these simple moments.” 

I rarely go 92 mph.  But, I get his point.

I’ve experienced the same in a rocking chair, on my porch, on a cool Spring morning.

For some, it’s running or yoga.  For others, it’s fishing or canoeing.  For others, it’s horseback riding.  For some, it’s swinging a hammer.  For many, it’s keeping a Sabbath day.

Whether or not you’ve found a time, place or activity that uniquely settles your heart and soul, I think we all need it.  I know we do.  It’s just so easy to get out of whack.  Just like a motorcycle engine operates at an ideal speed and RPMs, but may need an occasional recalibration, I think the same is true for the human soul.

The stressful demands of life and work; the competing demands on our focus and attention; the countless distractions and interruptions; the flood of meaningless data; the barrage of incessant noise; the push and pull of wants, desires, and needs; the pressure to perform and measure-up to some ridiculous standard; countless worries and sources of anxiety; the external and internal critical voices; all muddling your brain, driving your heart-rate, and clouding your soul.  We all need moments – regular moments, frequent moments – and practices, to let it all go, to find your centered-place, to breath deeply, and to return to your best God-intended rhythm.

My soul needs it – demands it.  I bet yours does too.

 

Unpredictable paths…

Unpredictable paths…

“History unfolds itself by strange and unpredictable paths. We have little control over the future; and none at all over the past.”  Winston Churchill

This week, I’m visiting Quetzaltenango (commonly known as Xela), Guatemala, speaking to English-speaking Middle and High School students at the Inter-American School’s Spiritual Emphasis Week.  The Inter-American School is a private, Christian-based, English-speaking school.  But, the students (mostly Guatemalan) come from a variety of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds.  This week, I get to tell them about Jesus!

The reason I’m this year’s Spiritual Emphasis Week speaker is, my daughter, Malinda (Miss Rains, to her students), is the IAS art teacher.  And, I’ve never been good at saying “no” to my daughter!  Actually, I wouldn’t have said “no,” anyway!

As I was about to speak to the students, this morning, a thought crossed my mind…

“How the heck did I end up here???”

How did a 50-year-old gringo end up telling a bunch of Guatemalan kids about Jesus?

To many who know me, the answer might seem obvious…

  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala.
  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala, because she went on a mission trip to Guatemala, with her mother and me, when she was in high school.
  • We were on a mission trip to Guatemala, because I’ve been leading mission teams to Guatemala for years.
  • I’ve led mission trips to Guatemala, because I met a missionary, working in Guatemala, in 2007.
  • I met a missionary in Guatemala, because I was a campus minister at Florida State University, looking for a place for my students to serve internationally.
  • I was looking for a place for my students to serve, because I was impacted by a mission trip to Mira Flores, Mexico, when I was 22-years-old.
  • I went on a mission trip to Mexico, because I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, and the trip was already planned.
  • I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director, because I had just (VERY UNEXPECTEDLY!) felt like God might be calling me to become a pastor, and the Youth Director position became (unexpectedly) vacant at the same time.
  • Before that, I had recently begun attending FUMC Orlando, AND LOVING IT.  Before that, I had recently graduated from college.  Before that… well, lots of things happened!

Looking backward, of course I ended up here, this week, doing this.  But, if you told me, when I was in school, that some day I’d be visiting my adult daughter, in Guatemala,  telling Guatemalan kids about Jesus, I’d have laughed.  I didn’t know much about Jesus, and I couldn’t have found Guatemala on a map!  My family didn’t go to church, nor did we travel internationally.  I studied German in High School, because I couldn’t imagine ever needing to speak Spanish (even if I never came to Guatemala, living in Florida, Spanish would have been a LOT more useful than German!)

How, on earth, did I end up here, now?

The truth is, even if you’re never invited to speak to kids in Guatemala about Jesus, most of us end up in different places, doing different things than we ever would have imagined.  We set goals.  We make plans.  We have dreams.  But, life usually has unexpected twists and turns, altering the course of our paths in surprising ways.

“We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.”  (Proverbs 16:9)

“The Lord directs the steps of the godly.  He delights in every detail of their lives.  Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand.”  (Psalm 37:23-24)

“This is what the Lord says— your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is good for you and leads you along the paths you should follow.'”  (Isaiah 48:17)

How did I get here?  It’s God’s fault… or blessing!  I choose to believe the latter.  And, I speaking of choice, I believe our choices also have a lot to do with where we end up.  In fact, I increasingly believe that every choice we make – every step we choose on our journeys (including choices ignorantly chosen) – have a lot to do with what steps will follow.

So, that’s how I ended up, sitting in my daughter’s classroom, this morning, and I’m so thankful!  I never would’ve predicted it, but I’m so thankful for it!  And, I can’t help but wonder what this moment of my journey will lead to next!

So, where are you this morning, what are you doing, and how did you get there?

And, I wonder, what’s next for you?

 

Timshel: “You may…”

Timshel:  “You may…”

My favorite novel is John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden.  East of Eden wrestles with questions of human nature, and good and evil.  Are we born good or evil, or are good and evil choices?

These questions find an answer in the biblical story of Cain and Abel.  Cain is outraged that God preferred his brother’s offering to his own.  In Genesis 4:6-7, God warns Cain,  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (NIV)

“You must rule over it.”

Other translations say it differently…

“Do thou rule over it.” (ASV)

“Thou shalt rule over him.” (KJV)

“You must subdue it and be its master.” (NLT)

“Do thou,” “Thou shalt,” and “You must” are translations of the Hebrew word “timshel.”  Here’s where the genius of East of Eden shines…

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there.

Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.”

“Thou mayest” or, simply, “You may.”

Timshel means we have a choice.  In every aspect of our lives, we have choices.  WE CHOOSE!

Will our choices serve ourselves or others?  Will our choices bless others or curse others?  What will the impact of our choices be on the world?  Are our choices God honoring, or not?  Regardless of how we answer these questions, our choices are our own.    And, the responsibility for my choices lies on me.

Timshel is both a gift and a responsibility.  I get to choose how I will use my day, who I will spend my day with, what I will accomplish, or not.  I choose.  But, I am also responsible for those choices.  Were they godly choices?  Were they wise?  Were they loving?

“Think of the glory of the choice.”

What will you choose today?

Pulling Weeds

Pulling Weeds

“Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self—in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart.”  C.S. Lewis

I grow bonsai trees – little trimmed trees in little pots.  Though I’m only an amateur, I confess I’m obsessed.  I have juniper, adenium, cypress, spruce, crepe myrtle, sea grape, rain tree, acacia, box wood, ficus, mandarin orange, bougainvillea, buttonwood, fukien tea, podocarpus, joboticaba, calliandra, holly, escombron, aralia, elm, and a few others, whose names are escaping me.

As Spring approaches, they’ve needed some extra care – pruning, trimming, repotting, fertilizing, etc.  But, the care I enjoy the least is the tedious work of weeding.

I don’t know where the weeds come from.  I mix the soil myself.  I keep them in a screened-in porch.  How do they get in there?

Wherever their origin, they spring up suddenly, and in abundance!  If I’m not careful to pay close attention, they can sprout up quickly, and become larger than the bonsai tree, itself!

Besides being unsightly (after all, with bonsai, aesthetics is the whole deal!), weeds can actually harm the tree.  Since the trees are growing in small pots, without much soil, the weeds compete with the tree for water and soil nutrients.  I actually have a tree in distress, because I hadn’t noticed some weeds that popped up out of nowhere, before they did their damage.

And, the job of weeding is so tedious.  It’s critical to pull the weed out by the root, or the weed will grow back.  But the weed’s roots tend to intertwine with the roots of the tree, making weed eradication a challenge.  Weeding requires going slow and using tools to gently pull each individual weed.  Even then, it’s impossible to get them all.

Weeds are a pretty good metaphor for my life.  When I’m not paying attention, weeds can unexpectedly pop up, crowding into my life, sapping energy and vitality.  Sometimes weeds are bad habits.  Sometimes weeds are unhealthy emotions.  Sometimes weeds are negative, self-defeating thoughts.  Sometimes weeds are painful memories.  Sometimes weeds are sin.

If I’m not careful, weed roots can grow deep, and entangle my soul.

So, I have to pull my metaphorical weeds too.  And, I think the weeds growing in my soul are even more tedious and challenging, and sometimes more painful to pull, than the weeds growing with my bonsai.  But, if I don’t pull them, they’ll just keep growing and growing and growing.  They’ve got to go before that happens.

Pulled any weeds lately?

Two Essential Elements

Two Essential Elements

According to Scripture, humans are composed of two essential elements – carbon and spirit.  Carbon appears on the Elemental Table.  Spirit doesn’t.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  Genesis 2:7

Both the Hebrew and Greek words for “breath” translate as Spirit.

Carbon is earthly.  Dust is composed of carbon.  Ash is composed of carbon.  All living things on earth, when reduced to their essential elements, are basically carbon.

But, human life is generated by the Spirit of God breathed into us.  With the Spirit of God in us, we are fully alive, created to flourish in every way.  Without the animating Spirit of God breathed into us, we are just human forms, human-shaped containers composed of ash.

“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7

One of my favorite teachings of Jesus is John 15:1-17.  I’ve read it, taught it, and preached it so many times, I can nearly recite it from memory.  In John 15, Jesus describes himself as a grapevine, and his followers as the branches.  He teaches that if we “abide” in him, our lives will be abundantly fruitful.  We were created for fruitfulness!

But, then comes a stark warning, “Apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”  John 15:5-6

For years, I wrestled with this verse.  It can sound so harsh, threatening.  “Abide in me – or, else!”  But, over time, the threat has faded, gradually giving way to a more compassionate tone of voice.  Now, I can hear heartbreak in Jesus’ voice.

“If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”  John 15:5

Jesus is simply telling us the truth.  Connected to our life-source, as intended, we flourish.  Apart from it, we sadly wither and die.  Eventually, we return to only one of our essential elements – carbon, dust, ash.

We were made for more than ash.  We were made to abide, flourish and bear abundant fruit.

The unfortunate truth is that I’m often somewhere in between.  Thankfully, I’m not quite ready to be tossed on the fire – yet.  But, if I’m honest (and, Lent is a good time for honesty!), I regularly, habitually, carelessly neglect the most essential element for abundant living – the breath of God in me.  If I’m entirely honest, more of my days lean more toward ash than Spirit.  I function, nearly daily, as though I can handle life’s opportunities and challenges on my own.  I strive and strain, as though carbon is the only fuel I need.

Carbon, on fire, is a undeniably powerful force.  Think of a steam locomotive, or a forest fire!  Yet, at some point, the fire dies out, and the carbon turns to useless ash. “Apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”  John 15:5-6

One day, each year, to begin the season of Lent, Christians gather to have ashes smeared on their foreheads, as a pastor says, “Remember that from ashes you have come, to ashes you shall return.”  The forty-day season of Lent, leading to the Good Friday remembrance of Jesus’ sacrificial death, is a reminder that, apart from God, we are ash.  Lent is an opportunity to re-listen for the compassionate voice of Jesus, saying, “Return to me… apart from me you can do nothing… I am your life… remain in me… and, I will remain in you… and, you will floruish.”

Today, remember you are ash.  But, you are more than ash.  You were made for more than ash.  Your life is not ash.  Your life is the breath of God within you.

More Than Objects

More Than Objects

Anyone whose lived in Florida for long, and traveled on I-75, will recognize the billboard pictured above.  Though the signs have been changed, the billboards, like the one above, adorned the Interstate for years and years.  I’ve passed those billboards countless times.

I assume the photos imply beautiful women can be seen – without their clothes, of course – at Cafe Risque.  Perhaps the photos were even meant to imply THESE women can be seen – without their clothes, of course.

I recall looking at those signs, wondering about the photos.  Did the women actually work at Cafe Risque?  Were the women paid for the photos?  I wondered about their families.  Had their parents seen those billboards and looked at their photos?  If so, did they care?  As a father, of a daughter I adore, I can’t imagine the heartbreak I would feel to see her beautiful face on that billboard.

Whoever these women are, and however their photos were procured, they’re someone’s daughter, someone’s sister.  They might be someone’s mother.  They have stories.  They have histories.  They have talents and abilities.  They have strengths and weaknesses.  They have qualities and flaws. They have personalities.  They have likes and dislikes.  They have potential.  They have lives.

As beautiful as they are, their physical beauty – their sexual allure – is only one dimension of who they are.  They aren’t objects, existing only for men’s pleasure and stimulation.

Did I mention that they were made in the image and likeness of God?

Some might assume they chose to be photographed, or chose to be strippers.  Maybe so.  Maybe they like their job.  Or, maybe, they were never told they’re more than their beauty.  Maybe no one every told them they’re more than objects.  Maybe they’re desperate to earn a living, and didn’t know they had other options.

Though obviously different, there’s been a recent tidal wave of accusations of varying degrees of sexually inappropriate conduct – men behaving very badly.  Accusations range from offensive joking, to lewd comments, to inappropriate touching, to unwelcomed/unwanted advances and propositions, to indecent exposure, to physical intimidation, to threats, to physical assault and rape.  Story, after story, after story of men treating women (and, sometimes, men) as little more than objects to fulfill their sexual desires.

And, the men accused are among our most culturally admired – entertainers, journalists, elected public servants, business moguls.  Educated.  Successful.  Famous.  Cultured.  Respected.  Professional.  I have admired some of these men.

But, behind closed doors, these men revealed who they actually are.

So, what’s the connection between inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace and photos on Cafe Risque billboards?  Both objectify women.  Let’s be honest – strip clubs don’t exist because women want to dance naked.  Strip clubs exist to entertain men.  The issue is the same – men assuming others exist to fulfill their sexual desires.

Don’t get me wrong.  Sexual attraction is normal.  Sex, between mutually-consenting, committed, covenanted adults , is beautiful – godly even.  The human body can be beautiful to see, and exhilarating to touch, when willing shared and freely given.  God made sex as a gift for us – a gift to be cherished, honored and protected.

But, when sex is misused; when sex and sexuality is cheapened and degraded; when sex is imposed, but unwanted; when sex is expected, demanded, or forced; when humans, made in the image of God, are objectified sexually; when sex victimizes; the human toll can be devastating.

The recent wave of accusations reveals a sickness – a sexual sickness – in our society.  Add to these accusations, incidents that will remain unreported.  Add to these accusations the high instances of date rape.  Add to these accusations the epidemic of porn-use.  We have a massive problem.

Though my heart breaks for all of the victims, for what they’ve endured, I celebrate and applaud their bravery coming forward now.  And, I hope, this might be a moment of societal shift.

But, true change will only come when we learn to see and treat people and sexuality with utmost dignity and respect.  EVERY human is a child God.  Physical beauty is to be appreciated and respected, as one dimension of a person.  Sex is a holy gift from God, to be enjoyed AND treated as sacred.

May I be so bold to suggest this is a spiritual issue, needing a spiritual solution?

 

Monuments of Shame

Monuments of Shame

During my college years, I was quite enamored with beer.  I’m not proud of that.  But, it’s the truth.  My love affair with beer became a destructive habit that damaged relationships, hindered my maturation and education, and cast a permanent dark cloud over that chapter of my life.

I not only drank beer.   I covered the walls of my bedroom with beer-related posters and neon beer signs.  I built a visible, tangible monument to my destructive, addictive idolatry.

27 years ago, with God’s help, I stopped drinking.  Thank God.  About that time, I also tore down the beer-related decor.  Needless to say, there’s no beer-related paraphernalia in house anymore.

Given my history with beer, and the pain and destruction it caused, imagine if I still had that stuff hanging around.  What would that communicate to my mom, to my wife and children? What would that communicate to guests in my home?  What would that communicate to those who call me “pastor?”  What would that say about me, and my inability to move on?

Perhaps this is an overly-trite example, by comparison.  I hear a lot of talk these days about Civil War-related monuments.  I hear well-intentioned people say, “It’s our history,” as a justification for why the monuments should remain.  But, as I understand it, the purpose of monuments is to honor.  Is it appropriate for monuments to remain, in public, tax-payer supported places of honor, that represent such a dark blot on our history?  Is it appropriate for monuments to remain that symbolize the source of pain and strife for so many of our fellow-Americans?  It appropriate to maintain public monuments that white supremacists continue to use as symbols for their hate-filled cause?

I have vivid memories of the Berlin Wall coming down  and the massive statue of Saddam Hussein toppled in Iraq.  Numerous statues of Stalin and Lenin were torn down, removed, or relocated to history museums.  To the best of my knowledge, the destruction of such monuments was celebrated by most Americans.

In contrast, one can still visit many of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany – not as monuments, but reminders.

I will confess, as a 50-year-old white man, born and raised in the South, it only recently occurred to me that Confederate monuments were an issue of concern.  They’ve been an “accepted” part of Southern culture, since before I was born.  They’ve just been part of the Southern landscape.

But, my eyes have been opened.  While they’ve not offended me in the past, I now view them from a different perspective.  I have a growing understanding of what they represent to my African American brothers and sisters.  I have a growing understanding of the shameful horrors they represent. If they cause pain, and continue to communicate a message of racial difference and separation, then they need to come down.

They MUST come down!

Yes, the Civil War is part of our history – as are the Trail of Tears, the Japanese internment camps, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the southern Jim Crow laws, etc., etc.  We have history books, documentaries, and museums to keep those stories alive.  Remembering our history is important, so that we learn, grow, and strive not to repeat it.

Perhaps we do need monuments – monuments on behalf of the victims – as reminders of our sins.  But, why would we maintain monuments to honor the perpetrators of our darkest moments?

Though trivial by comparison, my college drinking is a dark chapter of my life.  I’ve worked hard to overcome that part of my history.  I can’t change it.  And, I won’t hide it.  But, I certainly won’t memorialize it.  The neon beer signs had to come down.

They had to come down.