Your Boring Story

We know the story. Even those who have little or no Christian background know the story of the Prodigal Son. We know about the younger son leaving and going to the far country. We know about the desire to eat the slop they were feeding the pigs. We know about the return home, the rehearsed confession, the anticipated humiliation, and giving up of the position his birth gave him. We know about the father sitting on the porch and seeing the son while he was still a long way off. We know about the fatted calf and the party and the joy. That which was dead is now alive; that which was lost is now found.

It is one of the most popular stories in the Bible. It is likely one of the most popular stories in all of literature.

And it is an important story. No matter how far you have strayed; no matter how egregious your behavior; no matter how hateful your words and actions have been, you can always come home. We need to remember this. We need to proclaim this. We need people to remind us how they have come home and how they have overcome.

But it just feels like something is missing…

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There are many opportunities to hear powerful testimonies of people who have lost everything and found it again. People who were born into horrible circumstances only to overcome. People who have undergone miraculous transformations.

And those stories are important. We need to hear them. There are people who are hurting, broken, and lonely. In the midst of despair, it is valuable to hear that you are not alone.

I have been given the opportunity to share my testimony in several settings. It is an honor to be able to do so. I am grateful that I can share where I have been and where my journey currently has me and where it is taking me.

I am also grateful for those other stories I get to hear when others share. It is a gift of grace to be present when someone is willing to open up and be vulnerable and provide us a glimpse into their lives.

But what about those people whose stories are, for lack of a better term, boring? What about those people who never had a journey “to the far country?”

Sometimes, I wonder if we celebrate the story of the modern day prodigals (which is good) so much that we discredit the story of the modern day older brother (which is not so good).

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I have read and heard and preached on and listened to sermons about the Parable of the Prodigal Son millions of times. (Or some number close to that.)

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So I never expected to hear something different in the story when I read it out loud last week. A small phrase that I never caught before. A few simple words that changed the meaning in a profound way.

I never realized before that after the party started—you know, the party with the fatted calf for the younger brother who came back home—the father went out to the older brother.

This may not seem like much, but it hit me as I read it this time: the younger son was not the only one the father noticed. The younger son was not the only one the father was waiting for. The younger son was not the only one the father ran out to in order to extend grace and mercy. The younger son was not the only one the father wanted to celebrate.

The father went to the older brother. The brother who had stayed at home. The boring brother.

Leaving home, squandering our money in alcohol and sex, landing flat on our backs at rock bottom, and only then coming to our senses is not a prerequisite to be loved by God.

It is also not a prerequisite to having a great story, a great confession.

The older brother stayed. When the father must have felt abandoned, the older brother was there. When the work load increased, the older brother increased his effort. When the father faced the shame that would have come with a child abandoning the family, the older brother worked to restore the family honor.

The older brother is not a bad person. He is not the antagonist (though he is sometimes seen as such). The older brother devoted his life to serving and honoring his father.

And because he was never in need of radical grace, he did not know what to do when he saw his father extend it. And when he struggled with the acceptance of his younger brother, the father then extended radical grace to the older brother.

No matter how boring you may think your story is, you are still the recipient of the amazing gift of grace from God.

And your story is still important. We need to know that there is redemption for those of us who have struggled with addiction, loss, imprisonment, and oppression. But we also need to know there is redemption for those who have never wandered away.

You may think your story is boring. But it is not. Your story is valuable. Your story needs to be heard.

Your story will be a blessing. So share it.

 

*Picture is of the painting The Prodigal Son Returns by Soichi Watanabe

I Am A Failure At Life

I am a failure at life.

I never taught my kids to ride a bike. One child figured it out on their own. But then the tires went flat and needed to be replaced and I never made it to Walmart to buy the new inner tubes. Well, I made it Walmart. I just never bought the replacements. There are currently two bikes in our shed. Both in need of repair. Two children don’t even know how to ride them.

And it isn’t just the bikes. There are so many ways I have failed my children. So many opportunities they have not had. So many times I procrastinated something away. So many missed chances to have a family fun night.

It has even been so bad that my daughter felt a B was a failing grade. I never told her this. In fact, I was encouraging of the hard work she put in. But she watched me while I went through grad school. She has heard me criticize my work and efforts over and over. Based on her observation of me, she has learned that anything short of perfection is failure.

I have failed my wife again and again and again. The lying, betrayal, deception, silence, and who knows what else have popped up more times than I care to admit. She has forgiven me many times. I do not know where she gets the strength. I often think how much better she deserves.

There are times I lie awake at night feeling miserable. I start thinking about the things I have not done; all the opportunities missed; all the time wasted.

And I cannot shut up the thoughts that continue swirling.

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That’s why I drank.

I couldn’t deal with failure. If I wasn’t perfect at everything, it was not good enough. I beat myself up constantly with statements like, “How could you do so poorly?” “Why can’t you get this?” “What is wrong with you?”

I couldn’t deal with conflict. If someone disagreed with me, I would shrink into my shell trying to figure out what it was I was doing wrong to make someone not love me.

As a preacher, people leaving the church HAD to be my fault. If I would just preach better, teach better, visit more, answer more questions, solve more problems, then people would definitely stay and bring more people with them.

At least in addiction, I could pass out. Now, when I feel this way, I am just miserable.

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It is not only addicts who feel this way.

This coming weekend, my Dad will attend a church of about 20 members. My brothers will attend churches of a couple hundred. One of my friends will attend a house church with 10. I will attend church of 2000.

All of us have this in common: there will be people present who feel as if they are failures.

And they will probably be hiding it. Hiding it behind their Sunday best, their piety, their photo-ready family who is all smiling so pretty. They will be hiding it by talking about anything and everything other than their discouragement.

Or they may not be hiding it all. They may arrive with disheveled clothing and eyes puffy from crying. They may be wearing their emotions on their sleeves.

(Unfortunately, we may run away from them and try to make conversation with the people who can hide it better.)

And then we can all leave and go back to our daily routines of hiding behind our addictions—whether those addictions are drugs, alcohol, work, pornography, shopping, food…

Hiding from our struggles is so much easier than facing them. (Even when the hiding just creates more struggles.)

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Here’s the deal: I am not a failure. You are not a failure. Some days, I think I am. Some nights, I lie awake at night because I am telling myself I am not good enough. But that’s not the truth. I have made mistakes, I have said bad things, I have not come through in areas where I really wish I had.

But I am not a failure.

Actually, maybe I am. (Have I totally confused you yet?)

I am a failure at living an unrealistic life I created for myself with expectations that are too lofty for anyone to accomplish. I have failed at that life. Because it is an impossible life. I have failed to be the perfect husband, father, person because all of that was based on me doing all the things I told myself I needed to do to make myself complete.

So I am a failure at (that) life.

And I am grateful for that.

Now I can focus on taking life one day at a time, on being honest, on doing the best I can each day, on admitting my mistakes and learning from them, on facing my fears and not running from them.

If you think of yourself as a failure, I would like to ask what standard you are using to measure. Because my hunch is you’re not doing as bad as you are telling yourself.

Let us learn to give ourselves a break. Let us learn how to live in today.

Baptizing Brandon

I baptized Brandon Sunday.

It was not something I was planning on. Brandon asked me about an hour before it was to occur. What an incredible honor to be asked to play a small role in a profound event in someone’s life.

Brandon is a new friend of mine. I met him a couple of months ago at Freedom Fellowship. He also started attending Highland Church and he attends the high school Bible class. So I get to see him quite a bit each week. Brandon is a good kid. He is kindhearted. He is friendly. He is inquisitive.

And he has Asperger’s Syndrome.

If you do not know Brandon, you may think he is awkward. You might even think he is rude. Because although he is friendly, he does not respond to social cues the way most people do. He may walk off in the middle of a conversation. He may change the subject of the conversation while you are in mid-sentence. He may blurt out answers to rhetorical questions while the speaker is teaching.

If you were to compare someone like me to someone like Brandon, it might appear that I have the capacity for much greater intellectuality than Brandon. It looks like I can process information quickly and abstractly. It seems I can understand nonverbal and verbal cues; I can read and retain facts and details well.

But Brandon has something that I desperately want: he loves God with all his heart. He is not distracted by all the things that pull my focus away.

Brandon is not overly concerned with what others think about him.

Brandon is always honest.

Brandon is not afraid to ask questions.

Brandon is not afraid to express joy and do things that make him happy.

Brandon is determined and will fight for what he wants; especially when it is something he deeply believes in.

I may know more about God than Brandon. But I do not know God as well as Brandon does.

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“God will take care of the babies and the fools.”

There may be a good intent behind this statement. But there a couple of problems with it: first, it is not in any way biblical. It is a made up statement to reassure humans who cannot completely wrap their minds around God’s great mercy and love. Second, it actually comes from a too narrow view of baptism—thinking it is only about erasure of sin. There is much more to baptism than that.

Is baptism about salvation? Yes.

Is baptism about claiming the identity of Jesus follower? Yes.

Is baptism the pledge of a clear conscience to God? Yes.

Is baptism a ritual that unites us to a great cloud of witnesses? Yes.

There are some people who know a lot about baptism when they go into the water. But none of that is a requirement for baptism. Every biblical example of baptism we have is of people being convicted and desiring a closer relationship with God. Did instruction follow? Sure.

But the point of the act of baptism was a person responding to the call of God on their life.

Some of the most beautiful baptisms I have witnessed are those where the person putting Christ on in baptism has an understanding of their relationship with Jesus that I doubt I will ever have.

There is also another issue with that statement: It is ridiculously arrogant. It assumes that because we are (what has been deemed) normal we are somehow better than those who are deemed abnormal. It ends up being a way we can serve as gatekeepers to God’s Kingdom. “Yeah, you may not be as good as I am, but God will have pity on you so come on in.” In other words, it leaves us in charge of determining who is or is not a “fool.”

And that is a dangerous position to put ourselves in.

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There are people who are different. And I don’t mean the surface differences of gender, ethnicity, and age.

There are people who have severe physical disabilities.

There are people who have severe mental health struggles.

There are people who are addicts.

There are people who cannot communicate the way most others in our society do.

And their faith is no less real or profound than anyone else’s. Their spirituality does not suffer because of those differences; at least, no more so than anyone else’s.

I guess what I am trying to say is this: instead of thinking that someone lacks the maturity and depth of your faith because they are more limited than you in some way, ask how they may know God more because of those perceived limitations.

Does God take care of babies and fools? Sure. (After all, he is taking care of you and me!) But God does not call them by those names.

God calls them sons and daughters.

Anxious? Sad? Fearful? Then Maybe You Have It All Together

Yesterday on my facebook feed, I saw two things that stood out. One was a friend posting that he really wanted to have a conversation with his father. His father passed away over 20 years ago. Some days, that feeling of sorrow and loss hit harder than others. The other was a friend’s blog post explaining how she does not have it all together, even when others seem to think she does.

For some reason, both posts had me thinking the same thing: these two friends get it. They really do have it all together.

I think the problem is we don’t really know what “having it all together” means.

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Maybe we have the wrong idea of what the normal life is. Maybe we have the wrong definition of having it all together. Maybe we need to reevaluate what our lives should look like.

The danger is to pursue the sitcom model of daily life. Although different today, the shows that have endured–Cosby Show, Happy Days, I Love Lucy, among others–show families that quickly resolve all issues and end each day “normal” and “happy.”

While great for ratings, it sucks as a model for living our own lives.

So how do we change models? How do we shift from thinking that “having it all together” means swift resolution to all problems to realizing that it truly means living a life based in reality?

First, examine why we are pursuing a certain model. What has led us to believe that a fulfilled life is one absent of any problems? Who has taught us that always being happy with no challenges ever is the goal we should pursue? Are we trying to live up to someone else’s expectations for our lives (whether real or perceived)? How did we learn that problems = failure and calm = success?

This struggle does not come only from media sources, though they do play a prevalent role. But beyond television, advertisements, and social media pressure, we often face family, cultural, and societal pressures to attain a certain type of image. Western culture is terrible at being honest about our life experiences. We are taught from a young age to “get over it” and “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and “if you work hard you will automatically be successful.”

Although they may be inspirational, ideas such as these can serve as quite a detriment. We need to examine what messages we have learned, where we have learned them from, and what affect they have had on us.

Second, give it a name. Any name will do: Keeping up with the Joneses; Coveting; The American Dream; The June Cleaver Syndrome. We give it a name so that we can acknowledge the issue is something other than us. We are not the problem. The problem is that we have bought into a vision that is weak, corrupt, and wrong.

Too often, however, we blame ourselves and think we are weak, corrupt, and wrong. By realizing the source of our frustration and the root of the difficulties we face we can begin to do the things necessary to shift our focus.

This is what AA and other 12 Step groups do. The first step is always admitting there is a problem. That problem, whether it is alcoholism or some other addiction, is named. Once it is named, strategies can be developed to fight against it.

Third, we create the story we wish to live out. This is when we get to shake off all those old messages that have hindered us. We get to look forward to what we think our lives should be. We don’t have to live up to anyone else’s standards or visions. We get to set our own goals and outcomes.

The amazing thing about this step is that people do not dream unrealistically. My clinical experience is limited so this not a claim that I could publish in an academic journal, but based on my ministry, my work with 12 Step groups, working with students at FaithWorks, and my limited clinical experience, people who break down the root causes of their issues and then give them a name go on to state realistic, attainable goals.

And that is what we need to do. We are informed by our faith and spirituality. We are informed by literature, music, and art. Most importantly, we are informed by open and honest conversations with people about what life truly looks like. We take the messages we have been taught and sift through them to separate the good from the bad. It is good to work hard and sometimes acknowledge that we do need to be a little less sensitive. But we also need to realize that real life happens and not every day is going to be a good one.

The story we create does not have to be a utopia. And to be honest, I think very few of us would try to create one. The story we create needs to be real; complete with an acknowledgment there will be good days and bad days. Our story will also tell us how we will survive when the days are tough and how we will celebrate when victories are won.

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We need to realize that we will have days when we miss that person who has been gone for more than 20 years. We will have days when it takes a herculean effort just to get out of bed. And we will have days when we seem to be floating on air.

And all of that is normal. And all of it is good.

So maybe those who have anxiety attacks or bad days or moments of paralyzing grief actually have it all together more than any of us have ever realized.

I Will Never Measure Up

Last week, I took a vacation. It was not a vacation week for the whole family, so most of the time was spent resting, relaxing, reading, and watching NBA and NHL playoffs. I spent a lot of time with my wife. I was able to pick my kids up from school during the week. I was able to drive to Dallas and visit family.

All in all, it was a restful week. I needed a break. (Full disclosure: other people recognized I needed a break and my boss told encouraged me to take the week off.)

I enjoyed my time.

Now, however, I would like to talk about why I hated it.

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I have been busy for a long time. My normal schedule the last few months in New Jersey consisted of 12 hour work days (9-10 hours of work; 2-3 hours commuting), three weekly small groups, regular 12 Step group attendance, church, and helping out with homeschooling.

Since we have been back in Abilene, I have had periods of time with either three jobs or two jobs and graduate school. Then there was the time I did one of the most intensive two year degree programs that involved 12-14 hour days.

Oh yeah, and I had family stuff to do, too.

So when I graduated in August and started working a job that required me to work 8-5, five days a week, I received that as a welcome rest.

Now, I work my job and participate in a few other activities. Some might say I am involved in too many other activities. In fact, one former professor told me I should never have more than 7 roles at one time (including father, spouse, etc.). Last time I counted, I had 15.

But I will tell you I am not too busy. And I have proof:

Just look at that guy over there.

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I often feel like I don’t measure up. And based on conversations I have had with a number of people, many of you feel the same way. We compare ourselves to others and find ourselves deficient in many ways.

A number of my favorite female bloggers have been talking about the destructive forces of moms comparing themselves to: Pinterest pictures, party ideas, school involvement, media images, and on and on.

Yet guys suffer from the comparison game, as well. Men want to be as strong as, or as muscular as, or as athletically gifted as, or as financially secure as. Also, while the media blitz against women is much more pervasive and overwhelming, the standard that most men are held to in popular media is unattainable, as well. From Josh Hutcherson to Chris Hemsworth to Brad Pitt to Sean Connery, the image of the cool, suave, sophisticated, rugged-with-never-a-hair-out-of-place guy is an image I can never match.

And that’s just with body image. Although I often find myself wishing I was as attractive and appealing as the stars of the screen, I actually find myself more often wishing I was as accomplished as the people I go to church with.

Successful business people; published authors; happy, carefree families; families that take fancy vacations; families that buy name brands and eat out a lot (well, at least more than I do).

All of these people seemingly exist to remind me how much I have left to accomplish.

Not to mention the ones who are really busy.

I know the life of a minister and how it does not fit into a nice 8-5 schedule. I know how emergencies pop up and need to be taken care of right away. I know there are meetings upon meetings to discuss the direction the church is taking.

I am learning about the life of professors with all their grading and dealing with student issues (not to mention administration issues). I see the amount of work they put in late into the night.

So I cannot say I am busy because just look at all those people that are even busier, more attractive, more put together, and more accomplished than I am.

Those are the busy ones.

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The other day, my wife and I were discussing this issue of comparisons. As I was talking about the pressures men face when they play the comparison game, Shawna was telling me how much worse it is for women.

Yes. In a conversation about the evils of comparison, we were comparing how different genders play the comparison game.

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I will never measure up. Because I will always know something about me that I do not know about you. I know my inmost weaknesses and failures. I know my struggles. But I see your successes.

In other words, I am comparing my insides to your outsides.

And that is why I struggled with my week off. Because when I compare all that I have not accomplished to all I am guessing you have accomplished, I am left feeling like I need to work harder and do more. I don’t have time to rest.

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I wish I had a conclusion. I need a powerful, profound paragraph right here to explain how to overcome the comparison game. But I don’t have it.

All I have is this: I hate not working. I hate resting. I hate taking time off. Because it makes me feel like I am not doing enough.

But I loved my week off.

I rested. I recharged.

I am grateful.

And maybe, just maybe, that is enough of a start….