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

Your Name Is Dulcinea

Over the weekend, I was able to see a production of Man of La Mancha. It is a powerful story based on the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. While there are several layers to the story, the main plot revolves around Don Quixote’s love and admiration for the woman he calls Dulcinea. When Don Quixote sees Dulcinea he knows he has found the perfect woman of virtue and beauty. She has done and can do no wrong.

The only problem is that Dulcinea is actually named Aldonza, and instead of being a virtuous woman she is a tavern wench. She can see nothing beautiful in herself or in her life. Throughout the play, Don Quixote continues to call her Dulcinea and speaks to her of her beauty and worth. And throughout the play, Aldonza continues to argue with him and tell him that he is unable to see the truth.

Near the end of the play, she boldly declares that she is and always will be Aldonza. Yet shortly after that, she is at the bedside of Don Quixote as he takes his last breath. When his companion, Sancho, looks at the woman on the other side of the bed, he calls her Aldonza. Then she stands up and declares, “My name is Dulcinea.”

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All of us have reason to doubt our own inner worth or beauty. All of us have seen the ugliness in our lives, because we are the ones who have done it. We have committed atrocities. We have spoken terrible words. We have given in because we were too weak to stand strong. We have relapsed. We have lied. We have cheated. We looked where we said we weren’t going to look.

And others have confirmed our opinions. We have been reminded by people in our lives of all of our failures. Sometimes, our parents have told us we will never amount to anything. Or they have derided our dreams as unrealistic or fanciful. Sometimes, our romantic partners have told us that we are just good enough and we are lucky they stick around. They cheat on us and tell us if only we were better it would not happen. Or they beat us and tell us if only we would act right. Sometimes, our friends remind us of all the mistakes we have made. Especially when we are trying not to make them anymore. They ask us if we think we are better than they are. They tell us we really won’t last doing the right thing. They tell us they will see us back again.

All of these messages pile up and crush us underneath their weight. No wonder so many of us think, and maybe even say out loud, that we will never be more than Aldonza.

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You are amazing. You may not know it, but you are. I know you have messed up. I know you have made some poor decisions. I know you have failed.

But that doesn’t matter to me. You are amazing.

You are beautiful. All those imperfections that you notice when you look in the mirror do not stand out to most people. I know you think they do, and that is hard to overcome.

But you are beautiful. You are amazing.

You are a hard worker. I see you trying to do the right thing in each situation every day. I know you are tired. I know you are overwhelmed. I know you do not have a 100% success rate.

But you are a hard worker. You are amazing.

You matter to me as a person. I know others have cut you down. I know others have told you they don’t like you. I know those messages hurt down deep. But your life is important. Who you are as a person is important. You have gifts and talents to offer that no one else can. You have knowledge and experience that no one else does. You have something I need. And hopefully, I have something you need. Let’s figure that out together. I know what other people have told you.

But you matter to me. You are amazing.

I have heard the stories. I have witnessed the mess. I have walked alongside some of you through the darkest moments of humanity. I know why you struggle. I know why you doubt. I know why you question.

I know why you think less of yourself. But remember this: You are amazing.

Your name is Dulcinea.

Addiction Is Real

Addiction happens to real people.

The consequences that come from addiction happen to real people.

It is painful. It is messy. It hurts.

And too often, as with many issues, we talk about addiction in impersonal terms. We try to understand it, cure it, solve it, heal it. We don’t mean to, but too often we de-personalize it. Maybe we have seen too many movies and TV shows deal with it. Because when the show is done, the actor who portrayed the addict does interviews entirely cleaned up and we think the problem was resolved over the course of the production.

And then we see something that reminds us we are dealing with real people.

This post is from my friend, Zanna (she is the one who painted the background picture on this blog). Zanna is a real person dealing with the consequences of another real person’s addiction, her daughter.

to my beloved Attic crew and followers:

at this point in time, i’m willing to bet that there’s not one among us whose life hasn’t been touched in one way or another by addiction.

*deep breath*

some of you know that my daughter Casia has been dealing with a heroin addiction for quite some time. years. this last year has been the most challenging, and she started actively seeking help. she finally realized that detox alone was not enough, and got into a transitional home a little over a month ago. the program typically lasts 6-12 months, and so far the difference it has made in her life is tremendous. i recognize my baby again. i’d lost hope for that. LOST. HOPE.

this painting was made after a day spent trying to get Casia help, after hauling her tiny, fragile, traumatized, doped-up body around, trying to make some sense of what was happening, trying to understand, begging all that was holy to show me what to do.

i don’t know where we’d be today, where Cas would be, without the tremendous support of our circle.

so here it is. insurance won’t cover the housing program. Casia is looking for work, in the meantime i’m doing what parents do and finding a way. as you can imagine, this is not easy. the sale of this painting will cover Casia’s next month’s rent, a little pin money for her, and shipping to the buyer.

i’ll be sharing this multiple times to reach as many people as i can. please share freely!

Look Away (Portrait of My Daughter)
acrylic on 12″x36″ canvas, applied only by fingertip, painted in one sitting
2016
$600

thank you, friends

~z

And here is the painting:

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If you would like to purchase the painting, follow this link: https://www.facebook.com/ZannasAtticGallery/?fref=nf

Maybe you cannot purchase the painting. But will you do these things instead:

Pray for the people who are suffering from addiction. Addicts are not problems to be solved, but people to be loved.

Talk to the people in your life who are suffering from addiction. Let them know you care. Let them know you won’t turn your back on them.

Be honest about your own addiction. Seek the help you need. It begins by admitting to yourself that you need help, and the next step is telling just one person, asking just one person to help.

Addiction is real. The consequences are real.

And so is the love we can all share with one another.

How To Addiction-Proof Your Church

A lot of churches are uncomfortable dealing with addiction. It’s messy. It’s painful. It hurts a lot of people, not just the addict. And it appears like a lack of willpower. It is seen as a sign of weakness. And it is often obvious. If someone walks in high or drunk or hungover, it is usually easy to notice.

My guess is a lot of people would like to know how to addiction-proof their church. Is there any way we can move forward knowing that we will not be potentially allowing someone to stand in the pulpit, or be on the praise team, or lead a prayer, who may be high or buzzed or slightly incapacitated.

And there is. There is one simple step you can take to make sure addiction is never an issue in your church ever again:

Stop having church.

See? Pretty simple! In order to assure addiction is never present in your church again, your church has to stop accepting people. Which pretty much means it can no longer be a church.

Too many of us have forgotten the reason we have “church.” Church is not a place where the people who have it all figured out show up to pat one another on the back. Church is a place where we gather to acknowledge our weakness, our shortcomings, our need for community and to celebrate the grace that frees us from the bondage of ourselves.

Instead of ridding our churches of addiction or sin or problems (because to do so means no people can come to church), we accept those that come, warts and all. We welcome all the hurting, lost, hopeless, despairing, struggling people who walk through our doors.

Because that’s what church is. A place to offer grace, hope, and freedom to people who are lost, despairing, and in bondage.

Now to be sure, we don’t stay there. We hold one another accountable. We call one another to something better. We pray with and for one another to overcome the temptations in our lives. We serve others because that is what the people of God do.

So, yes. You can addiction-proof your church. You can even go all out and completely sin-proof your church.

But why would you want to? Thank God that Jesus’s mission was not to create a sin free zone. Jesus’ mission was to create a place where all the hurting, sinful, broken people could come and find healing.

And for that, I am grateful.

A Second Time

For those who have been following my blog, this post will look familiar. For those who are new: this is my story. At least a portion of it. I hope you can read, relate, and then share your story with me. That’s what this blog is all about!

Jonah has been one of my favorite Bible stories for a long time.  Specifically, Jonah 3:1 has been my favorite verse for a long time:  “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.”  When I left Abilene the first time, my family moved to Rochester, NY, so that I could preach for the Lawson Road Church of Christ.  It was great.  I developed great relationships with our congregation as well as the others in the area.  I was able to learn from some great preachers who had been serving God for a long time.  As I was preaching there, I used Jonah a lot.  There is so much to this short book, it continues to amaze me.

From the outset of the book, we see a character who is a spokesperson for God, a man who was used to speak the Word of God to God’s people, and he runs away from it.  God called Jonah; Jonah ran.  What really stands out to me is that Jonah runs; not because of a lack of faith.  Jonah is running from God, not because he doesn’t know what God is going to do, but exactly because he believes God will do what God always does.  Jonah, as any good Israelite, hated the Ninevites.  So being told to go preach against them should be something Jonah would jump at.  But Jonah knows God; he knows what God is capable of.  So Jonah runs away.

But God won’t let him.

All throughout chapter 1, God is acting; He is preparing so many different things for Jonah.  The storm, the fish, God is moving in Jonah’s life even as Jonah is trying to evade God.  And you know something, this is one of the ways that God, sometimes, if we’re honest, can be annoying.  I grew up the youngest of five boys.  The more my brothers didn’t want me around, the more I persisted to be involved in their activities.  The more they tried to get away from me, the more I fought to be around them.  I was relentless.  And so is God.  God wants the Ninevites to hear His Word.  God wants Jonah to proclaim that Word.  And Jonah running away is not going to stop Him.

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God does not just pursue Jonah and the Ninevites, either.  The sailors on the ship begin crying out to any and every god they can think of; they have to wake Jonah up to do the same thing.  These pagans are more willing to act in a spiritual manner than the man of God.  So they ask Jonah what he has done, they try to find some way to save him, and then they give in and throw Jonah overboard, and then the sailors worship God.

Up until this point, Jonah knows what God can do, but I think Jonah is starting to think God won’t do it for him.

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Sometimes, life is just unbearable.  There are times when we get to that place we call rock bottom and there is no way we can get any further down.  At least it seems that way.  We think, “Yeah, I know what God can do, and has done, for everybody else, but He’s not going to do it for me.”  And that is where Jonah finds himself.  Isolated, in a dark, damp, smelly place, all alone for three days and three nights.  He has nothing to do but think:  about what he’s done, about running away from God, about failing in his call as a prophet.  And sometime during this three day period, he finally starts to get it.

“In my distress I called to the LORD.”  How many times does it take a period of distress for us to finally call out to God?  How much of our difficulty, how much of our despair could we have avoided had we only reached out to God sooner?  But we can’t change any of that, can we?  So all we can do is cry out to God from where we are.  And that is what Jonah does.  He cries out to God in his distress, and he ends with a song of thanksgiving.  Jonah says he will worship God, Jonah will make good on the promises he has made to God.  It took him falling as far down as he could possibly fall, but he finally got it.

And Jonah is easy for us to pick on, isn’t he?  The prophet who ran away and was disobedient and didn’t pray and only called to God when he was in the belly of the whale.  But I wonder if many of us relate to Jonah more than we care to admit.

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So I have always known I was going to be a preacher.  From the time I was very young, I was telling people I was going to preach, just like my Dad.  My whole life, seemingly, was preparation for me to be a preacher.  I used to go everywhere with my Dad:  preacher’s meetings, Christian camp board meetings, Gospel meetings, area-wide sings, hospital visits, nursing home visits.  Every time I had to the opportunity to do something “preacher-y” with my Dad, I did it.  I went to Abilene (TX) Christian University and majored in Bible focusing on pulpit ministry.  I started a Masters of Divinity, and only left early because my wife and I were expecting our first child and I thought I needed to start finding a job.  I have always had a love for the Northeast, so all of my interviews and try-outs were in that region of the country, and the position at Lawson Road in Rochester was absolutely a sign of God working in our lives.

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When we got to Rochester, things started off real well.  We developed a lot of relationships with the families who were there.  We were able to connect with a lot of the young families and that brought more energy and life to the church.  There were three great, Godly elders who invested their time in me, helping me to develop as a person and a preacher.  Everything was going great.

Only something wasn’t.  I had begun drinking occasionally, but now the occasions were increasing in number.  I was being smart about it:  only at home, only when the kids were in bed, never in public.  Shawna was working part-time nights at a grocery store, so I would just kind of drink until she came home and then go to bed.  And two things happened:  one, Shawna told me she thought I was drinking too much and that I should stop; and two, life started happening at the church—arguments about what direction the church should take, struggles with people who led by manipulation, frustration with the elders for not stepping up to some of the people who were becoming overbearing. And I had a response to each of those two things.

First, I wanted to prove to Shawna that I was not drinking too much and that I didn’t need to stop.  So I started to hide my drinking from her.  I would make sure I was in bed before she got home or stay up real late until after she had fallen asleep.  I would prove that I could drink as much as I want and still be okay.  Second, I did not want to stand up to the people who were making noise in the church.  I was afraid of confrontation.  I was afraid to stand up and say anything, even something as simple as, “Let’s spend time in prayer to discern God’s will.” I found that the best way to quiet that noise was to drink.  But then I would wake up in the morning and feel guilty, which just created more noise in my head, so I drank even more.

And throughout this whole time, I never once asked God for help.  Because I knew He would help me and I didn’t want Him to.  So my drinking kept increasing.  People were questioning, wondering what was going on.  And finally, I had had enough.  I was ready to quit.  Only, I wasn’t ready to quit drinking.  It was a Wednesday night after Bible class.  I had packed a bag because I was ready to go.  I sat Shawna down and told her everything, all the hurtful things that I wish I could take back.  And instead of leaving with my packed bag, I watched as Shawna got up and left.  She called me later from the friend’s house she went to, and was understandably extremely upset.

But the next morning, she came back.  She came up to our room, woke me up, and said, “If you want to keep your family together, you better get some help.”  So I did.  I went to the elders and told them everything I had told Shawna.  And I broke down weeping.  And these godly men surrounded me with love and mercy and told me they would walk beside me and my family as we all recovered.  I continued preaching because they had faith in me.  I started attending AA meetings.  Shawna and I went to a Christian counselor to work on our marriage.  Once again, things were going well.  Only…

I had about three months of sobriety.  And Shawna went out of town for the weekend on a church retreat.  I still remember having the thought that I could take a drink while she was gone and no one would ever find out.  I also remember thinking that I should tell somebody, Shawna, an elder, my sponsor, only what would people think about me if they knew I wanted to drink?  So I kept it to myself.  And I drank.  And for the next year and few months, I continued falling deeper and deeper into my despair.  Still preaching, still attending AA, still drinking.

Until, finally, one Sunday morning, someone thought they could smell alcohol on me.  So they told the elders.  They had previously asked me to be willing to submit to random urine screens, so they gave me one.  And I failed.  And I was fired.  The only thing I ever wanted to be, the only thing I had any training in, the only thing I could do, was now taken away from me.  I had been swirling for so long, avoiding God, avoiding my support network, avoiding myself, and now I was in the belly of the fish.

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In order to make sure we could still pay the bills, I took a job working overnights stocking grocery shelves.  It was a mindless job, and that was exactly what I needed at that time.  Go to work, put product on shelves, go home.  But while doing that, I couldn’t stop beating myself up.  I couldn’t stop telling myself how much of a failure I was.  I had a lot to time to tell myself how terrible I had become and everything that my family was experiencing was all my fault and it would never get better again.

And then one day, driving home from work, I heard these words on the radio:  “Oh what I do to have, the kind of strength it takes to stand before a giant, with just a sling and a stone.  Surrounded by the sound of a thousand warriors, shaking in their armor, wishing they’d have had the strength to stand.  And the giant’s calling out my name and he laughs at me.  Reminding me of all the times, I’ve tried before and failed.  The giant keeps on telling me, time and time again, boy, you never win, you never win.  But the voice of truth tells me a different story, the voice of truth says do not be afraid, the voice of truth says this is for my glory, out of all the voices calling out to me, I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”

I had to pull over because I could not see through the tears streaming down my face.  Yes, I had messed up, yes I was in the midst of great distress, but now I could sing a song of thanksgiving, because God had not given up on me. All because the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.

There is a lot more to come. I hope you will join me for the journey. I hope you will be willing to share your stories with me. Let’s journey together!