A Story of Neglect

Imagine a mom leaving to run errands for the day. She leaves instructions for her teenage children while she is away. She tells them, “Clean the house. Pick up your clothes. Do the dishes. Clean the windows. Dust. Feed the dog. Clean up your rooms. Straighten the den. Make sure the house is spic and span when I return home. I do not want to return to a dirty house.” The teens respond positively to the instructions.  The mom returns at the end of the day and is astonished when she walks in the house. The house is not clean. She asks her children what they did all day. The following is their response:

“We fed the dog in obedience to what you commanded. And not only did we feed the dog but we read books on how to feed the dog better and what the dog’s food should be. And then we trained our youngest siblings how to feed the dog. The importance of feeding the dog was not lost on us. So we then went door to door and talked with others about the need to feed dogs everywhere. We let them know that they could not be good children if they did not feed the dog. Then we came back and fed the dog again. So the dog is fed.”

Shocked, the mother is almost speechless and is unsure of how to reply. “What…? How…? Did you not hear me? Yes, I asked you to feed the dog. But did you not hear my repeated requests…commands for you to CLEAN THE HOUSE? All of my instructions would be summed in the command for you to clean the house. I said it explicitly. And I said it repeatedly. And I told you what that would look like. How could you ignore this and only feed the dog and make the day about the dog? I told you to feed the dog once and you did it. I told you over and over and over to clean and you didn’t. How is this possible?”

“God help us.”

The Flaming Sword East of Eden

Growing up the son a minister had far more advantages for me than the disadvantages so many associate with such a lot in life. Hide and seek in the sanctuary. Access to the staff breakroom. And knowing everyone really well. A distinct one is familiarity with the holy book. Far from contempt, the longstanding relationship I’ve had with this book has bred a fascination on into middle age. And across the years I have not only been fed by those passages which make up the bone and marrow of knowing God and man but also by those I have sat staring into with wonder.

*      *      *

There are places in the sacred writings I seem to never get at.  They are the door of escape in a dream gone bad or the brass ring, which is always out of reach. These passages cannot be fully grasped and answers never satisfy. One of those places has been a favorite since I was a kid.

He drove out the man, 
and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim
and a flaming sword 
that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. 
– Genesis 3:24

So Adam and Eve eat the fruit and the pristine relationship between God and the height of his creation is broken, shattered like your grandma’s prized vase on the Linoleum. And so he kicks Adam and Eve out of paradise to keep them away from the tree of life so they won’t live forever. And then, get this…he sets up an angel to guard the tree with a flaming sword. A. Flaming. Sword.

And I just have one question.

Is it still there?

I mean, is there still an angel ready to go all book of revelation on intruders with a flaming sword wherever Eden was…is? I mean, there once was.

There is a part of me hoping so. The 10-year-old in me, who likes to still think in terms of Indiana Jones and likes to stare into the sky and dream of Narnia, wants it to be true. I want the tree of life to still be standing there majestic, unspoiled by the fall and all its hellish effects. And in its shade, one of the mighty and holy cherubim, with no less power and energy than the day he began his charge, standing sentinel to take down any who come close to his keep. He is able to elude all who do not threaten but when no other option is available, the flaming sword is wielded with holy fury. There he is placed till the end of days and the beginning of time undone, reminding us all of what was lost and has been promised to be regained.

*      *      *

Actually, it’s a fairly sad picture, epic though it is. This soldier of the heavens was positioned just there all because the height of God’s creation declared war on God. Did he think it was familiar? Were there whispers of another coup among the heavenly host? This was not the first time God had moved defensively in response to an act of war. So while the boy in me is mesmerized by the idea of an otherworldly being clutching a flaming sword, its presence was…is an echo of the curse that made it all so necessary. Perhaps that is why it sounds so sad when Emmylou Harris sings,

I have seen the flaming swords,
There over east of Eden,
Burning in the eyes of the Maker.

The result of him being on guard there is death. Death was the great punishment for the insurrection in the garden. As it were, death guards life. And does so with fiery ferocity.

So every time we face the final effect of sin in the face, we are looking into a pair of eyes set like a flint on limiting the length of our time here east of Eden. The sharp pain of every sickness threatening future health is the piercing of sharpened steel forged in the fires of eternal intent. Every spouse who looks in the eyes of their beloved after getting the news of cancer is staring down into the unfathomable depths of a sheath emptied in opposition to forever knowing.

For those who believe, death ushers us into the great hall of reversal. A world where the sword has been beaten into a plowshare. A world where sharp-edges bounce off skin and pointed tips are no longer pointed at those who have sinned. Sin is no more. Death is no more.

*      *      *

Maybe it’s a mercy he was situationed there. Adam and Eve and everybody else’s passion to be like God should be squelched as much as possible. Adam and Eve had already procured a knowledge forbidden them, to their great detriment. So as an act of mercy, the severe kind, a sword burns bright. Even now.

"Hello, My Name Is Matt and I Am An Attacker."

I’m part of a little Bible Study that meets downtown. And this past week’s study was the finishing up of a study called The Gospel-Centered Life. The subject was conflict. To be honest, I was already in a crappy mood. There was no way this was going to help.

The basic gist of the study was our need to deal with conflict in a way that protects the integrity of the gospel and demonstrates the gospel’s power to heal broken relationships. And there are two ways people deal with conflict wrongly. These two ways are demonstrated by two different types of people: attackers and withdrawers. We either attack people to make ourselves feel better by wining arguments or we withdraw so we do not have to deal with the messiness of conflict resolution.

As our teacher read the descriptions of these two people who deal with conflict in a way that is out of step with the gospel, I became a little uncomfortable. But I knew. I knew the material had me pegged. My day just got worse. Even in the midst of my blackguard heart being exposed in a room full of young people half my age, I wanted to defend myself and make myself look good in front of everyone with a stellar argument detailing why this discussion was not worth our time. Stupid study.

“Hello, my name is Matt and I am an attacker.”

It took about 2.3 seconds for me to find myself in this description. I did not want to be this person. But I saw myself clearly. I could feel that deep down soul anxiety that all attackers feel and must deal with by attacking. And I knew it for what it was: insecurity.

My brother Jeff once called me insecure long before I had a clue what the word meant. He was a college student at the time, so he knew everything. But he was right. I was. I am. I attack people and ideas because it gives me the sense of being right and therefore provides with a rightness/righteousness before God and people. Mainly people. When all the time I have the righteousness of Christ credited to me and I am accepted and beloved. When I forget this or ignore it as is often the case, I make moves in order to establish some kind of alternate righteousness. I have mad attack-mode skills.

Afterwards we always trek over to Buffalo Wild Wings. We were sitting around and before I had the first bite of those glorious bites of culinary genius, I had gone into attack mode three times. As I drove home, I thought,

“I need to just shut up, eat my Mango Habanero Wings and be quiet.”

“No, that’s just withdrawing! Don’t do that.”

“Crap, how am I even a pastor?”

Talking to yourself is weird enough. But when it’s attacker Matt versus withdrawer Matt, it can get ugly.

But I knew what I needed. I needed security in something outside of myself. I needed…need the security of what God has done for me in Christ so I won’t feel the need to attack and I need the security of what God has done for me in Christ after I have attacked.

So, all in all it was a crappy day. But one for which I’m thankful.

Ten Thousand Steps of Ordinary

Everyday is one of ten thousand steps taken without a thought. Unless you have gout or something like it. Once, I was afraid I might be getting gout. This was probably because my oldest brother had already had it. And he carries a gun. For some reason this made the possibility of me getting gout more possible. Because I don’t even know anything about guns. Looking back I know they are not related but fear does weird things. So I thought, “Wait, If my brother who carries a gun can get gout, I can get gout, even though I am much younger and I have no idea what gout feels like.” I didn’t have gout. But for a few days just putting one foot in front of the other was not so ordinary.

We live as if the only steps that matter are the ones, which take us across the threshold of our destinations or the false ones, resulting in twisted and swollen ankles. All the others are ordinary, forgotten because they are numbered among the many steps never noticed. Now don’t get me wrong, we take sharp objects away from those who we find taking notice of every step; careful that each one is taken properly. Or we videotape them and then change their diaper and give them a bottle.

You know the question, “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” Your Sunday School teacher is wrong, some questions are dumb. And that is one of them. We tend to think that if we do not see something, hear it and so not notice it, then it either did not happen or if it did, it was inconsequential. So the tree does not make a sound.

But what if all these small things we do, like taking a step and blinking and buying bread were no less exceptional simply because we have called them ordinary? Simply because we have not noticed them. Simply because they are numbered among that which we must do daily.

And yet these are our days. For most of us our days are full of this stuff. Each twenty-four hour period is a mass of the ordinary. Even the most exceptional people must be involved in the ordinary.

My wife went to lunch with a lady at our church today. So I was at home with my 2 sons. My daughter was at school. My wife was enjoying soup and sandwich at Panera. It was just us guys. So we got loud.

One of my kid’s favorite toys was also one of my favorite toys: measuring tape. You know the kind with a button. My fascination as a young boy was in the form of light sabers. I am not sure what it is for my kids. But they love these things. We buy them crazy nice toys and they want to play with measuring tape. Go figure.

So, Knox (4) and Dylan (18 months) and I are playing with measuring tape. We have it stretched out with one boy holding each end and one holding it in the middle. And we just shake it so that it is so loud, you cannot even hear our collective. I look over at Dylan and he is so happy, his smile is taking over his face and drool is pouring over his naked gums. He stands there so beautiful in his jumper with a dump truck on it. And while I am thinking about this, I start thinking about it. I’ve done this sort of thing many times and not noticed the wonder of it all: the wonder of a father and son, the wonder of a child smiling at such a small thing, the wonder of his wanting to do this with me.

What if I had not noticed it and just done it?

Would it be any less wondrous?

Are these moments ordinary only because we do not notice them and then forget them in the chaos and conflagration of all that is being a parent?

The irony is we need the perspective of God while realizing we do not have it. (Hang on. I promise this will make sense.) If we acknowledge there is a God and he knows and notices everything, then even the little moments of ordinary matter. We need to realize this. But we also need to realize that we are not God. We do not see everything. Heck, I have trouble seeing beyond my own nose most of the time. And I do not have an unusually large nose. At least I don’t think I do. I…we cannot see the ends of all things and cannot the glory in the ordinary. Why? We are not God. We are limited created beings. So we may not be able hear the tree falling in the forest but this is no reason for us to think it did not thunder.

The Lives of Celebrities As Conversational Footballs

I suppose I never thought about it till I saw Notting Hill. I never really thought twice about the feelings of celebrities. They were conversational footballs to be kicked around and thrown and caught.

I never thought about the fact they were people. Real people with hearts that break. Heads that swim in the confusion of life’s difficulties. Lives that deal with pain, sickness and death. They have parents, who they love and are grieved when their children are mocked for the world’s insecurity. Sisters in the shadows. Brothers serving overseas. I never thought about how they must look in the mirror and see themselves as less beautiful than we do, wishing we would like them for who they are and not the parts they play. And ironically, wanting to be liked because of what they do, because it is what they must do.

I never thought about how they must feel, knowing we talk about their marriages and divorces with less than the gravity and care we show towards the parts they play on the screen. I never thought that the laughs we effuse at their expense were callous and unkind. It was as if such concerns were off limits. When was the last time a parent said, “You should not talk about her that way” and they were talking about someone who is famous.

The most common thing coming out of my mouth while reading or watching a news story on the newest escapades of the jet set stars and starlets is, “What an idiot.” And while this makes me feel better, something tells me it isn’t what should be coming out of my mouth. Or my heart, for that matter.

Why do we feel that we should be pursuing our enemies with love and yet ridiculing the famous? Why is it  we can feel so bad for so many sins and not really be all that bothered by the way we talk about celebrities? Maybe we think they have such a wealthy deposit of money and attention, our debt of kindness is not worth mentioning. Maybe we think their sinful behavior deserves the jabs, gossip and laughter heaped on them? Maybe we think, “That’s what you get for being famous!”And perhaps we really think we are better than they are.

I wonder if our image-driven celebrity culture has made it all but impossible to see celebrities as those who are made in the image of God. The bright lights blind us to this reality.

When Your Best Friend Is An Encyclopedia

My best friend Jonathan is smart. When we were growing up he would help me with my homework even though he was 3 years behind me in school. And when I say ‘help’ I mean ‘practically do it.’ And then we would go outside and I would own him in basketball. He was short and I was tall for my age. And yes, it made me feel better.

He is now a doctor. I can actually remember him telling me he wanted to be a doctor when we were just kids. He was probably 5 or 6 at the time. Whenever I think about him telling me this, I picture his Fisher Price doctor’s kit sitting in the floor of his room. Sometimes I would find him reading encyclopedias in that same spot. I’d be watching Scooby Doo and then realize he was not around. So I’d go looking for him and there he was in his room reading the letter Q.
“Do you know what a quid is?”
“Be quiet!”
“Why?”
“Umm, I don’t think you should say that word so loud while your mom is here in the house.” 
I don’t think he ever studied. He went to what is probably the most academically rigorous High School in the area and I do not have one memory of him ever saying, “I need to study.” So, we have this in common, neither one of us studied in High School.
I can remember hanging out on the weekend and we would be driving around Birmingham aimlessly and there are these vivid memories of Jonathan getting really quiet and then I would realize he was reading something. Anything.
“Hey man, you’re reading and we are out cruising.”
“So what?”
“It’s weird.”
And then he would give me this sheepish look and then shrug his shoulders and go back to reading the car’s manual or a Sports Illustrated from 90 weeks ago. It was weird. I mean, girls existed and that was one of the reasons we were out and about. But it’s paid off because now he is a doctor and makes a lot of money and gives some to me because I am a poor pastor.
But walking around with an Encyclopedia has it’s advantages. Because sometimes you wonder about things no one else would know about like the amount of water in a watermelon. Jonathan has a brain like a sponge, so he would be able to answer questions we did not even know how to ask. So if we saw the symbol for pi, he could tell us what that was, its history and the square root of it. And the whole time he was explaining this, we were thinking, “mmmm, pie.”
Every now and again, I would assert something and he would say, “Actually…” and then correct me. I am sure there is someone out there with the spiritual acumen that makes it possible for them to like being wrong. Those people are dead to me. It was difficult to be corrected by one who had yet to hit puberty. I resolved from then to stay away from all discussions involving quantum mechanics. This was around the time I resolved to no longer play Monopoly with him. Or Risk. Or anything where my height and strength did not give a distinct advantage.
However, I did know more about Duran Duran than he did. Rock on Doogie Howser. Rock on.
But see, here’s the thing – my friendship with Jonathan is not because of his smarts or in spite of it. But it is one of the reasons I love him. It’s what makes him who he is. Some friendships may exist because of very dramatic events people have experienced together. But my guess is that most friendships are the result of dozens of little pieces of relational minutia. All mundane under the microscope. But in the aggregate they form an extraordinary picture of friendship. That’s why, 31 years later we are still friends.
You should also know, his knowledge of the Bible was crazy. My favorite verse was probably John 3:16, the only one I knew more than a day after Vacation Bible School was over and the tokens for Showbiz had been used that I earned memorizing a verse each day. His favorite was probably always something from Habakkuk or Lamentations.
“Jonathan, that’s not even a book in the Bible.”
“Yes it is, it’s in the Old Testament. Look, here it is.”
“Let’s go play basketball.”

That Day

We were living in St. Louis so I could attend Covenant Seminary. I remember walking out of the classroom in the library and Mark Winton telling us. Kirk Adkisson might have been with me. Mark didn’t get all the information right but he was mostly right. The fact he was an Army Ranger made it feel more serious in all our present ignorance. He could snap us like a twig. And he looked scared.

Classes were suspended. Or maybe I just left. I just wanted to be with Bethany. I called her. Bethany was being sent home. We only had one car so I went to pick her up, listening to KMOX all the way. It was time for Rush Limbaugh but I do not remember him being on. We got home and immediately turned on CBS News because we did not have cable. For better or worse, Dan Rather is a huge part of that day’s images.

We cried long and slow tears that day as we silently watched the footage of planes colliding with steel and glass, flesh and bone. Newscasters were not able to contain their emotion. That may be the thing that told me this was different. Different from anything I had seen before.

I think I smiled once while watching the footage and Bethany asked why. It had nothing to do with happiness. It was the smile of a boy seeing something new and different and a thing of awe and horror. I can no more explain it than I could explain physics.

We sat there for hours before we decided we needed to get out. Late in the afternoon we put our bikes on the bike rack and drove west of the city and rode the Katy Trail for miles. It was beautiful and possibly the best thing we could have done. The silence and solitude, replete with late summer and early fall’s collision calmed us.

The phrase, “This changes everything” was constantly with me.

I’m Thinking About Dying

I’m thinking about dying.

Not suicide. I like living. And that is why I’m thinking about dying. I guess it happens to everyone around my age. I’m 38, which isn’t old but I do turn 39 this year. And that feels old. Actually the only thing I really don’t like about getting older is the dying part. And diapers, which I actually fear more than death, itself.

Getting older has many advantages. The distance between now and High School is ever growing and for that I am thankful. Wisdom does come with age. And you have money. People call you ‘sir.’

But dying is the hard part.

When I was a youth pastor, I was into dying. You know, making kids feel bad because there are martyrs in China and “all you want to do is drink beer and play ball.” I probably said that. So we talked about death a lot. Dying to self. Dying to sin. Dying one day soon…”sooner than you know.” I probably said that too. All these are important subjects but I was obsessed with the idea. And I admit it was because it got their attention.

Driver’s Ed was the coolest non-class I ever took. Not sure why, but there were two teachers and I guess they gave us grades but I remember mostly sitting in the classroom teacherless and some guy flicking pennies at me. This hurt but I preferred this treatment over a real class with work. And a teacher. I do remember driving around in an American me-maw car with a brake in the passenger floorboard and then going through drive-thrus of fast food places on Roebuck Parkway. I liked fast food.

The creepiest part about the ‘class’ was the pictures shown to us of mangled teenagers in mangled cars. Polaroids. Slides. Flannelgraph. Blood was the common theme. The point was to scare us into driving slower and more careful and without alcohol. But the teachers seemed to love this part of the class the most. I remember boredom on the part of the instructors being the consistent tone. But when they brought out these pictures the room was electrified…like driver’s ed porn.  Maybe it would have scared kids from the suburbs in the ’80s but all my friends were watching Faces and Death by this time. Most of the guys were not grossed out or freaked out in the least. They were entertained.

I was the ministry equivalent of the driver’s ed teacher in High School.

So I used videos and stories from books about martyrs who put the paltry faith of my hormonal teens to shame. It worked sometimes. I kept their attention. They were even entertained a little.

But back to me. I know Paul says dying is gain and all but something inside me tells me that I should not be in a hurry for it. I like it here. When I wake up in the morning and my wife is beside me…well, that’s what I want to happen everyday. Death is the end of that. I know we have the promise of something greater. But, I’m mot sure I am supposed to want it more than waking up next to Bethany.

For many, I have just finally proved to be a carnal person. But, I mean, if we are supposed to just want to go to heaven above all things, how come we eat? Wouldn’t it just be OK to stop feeding our bodies and then eventually die? I know it sounds painful but we are also supposed to move toward suffering too, right?

I think that cover on the spare tire of my teenage next door neighbor’s jeep is right. Life is good. And Death is not good. No one celebrates cancer and heart attacks and strokes and fatal car wrecks (well, my driver’s ed teacher really liked showing us those pictures). We may be glad someone has gone on to be with God. That’s certainly pretty great. But death? It’s a reminder of how bad things really are.

Death should revolt me, and not only because I don’t like the idea of someone else marrying my wife if I die sometime soon. If my neighbor’s tire is right and life is good, then death is a problem.  It ends marriages, friendships, puts holes in communities. It creates fatherless children and mothers with holes in their hearts the size of a toddler bed.

So my thoughts about dying are not the romanticized notions they once were. There is a lot to leave behind. Sure, I know God is greater than life. And I know the promise of the gospel is that death has been conquered. But he gave us life and he placed me where I am for a reason. He’s smart that way. Guilt should not be the result of being in no hurry to go. We all have those folks in our life who can utter, “I’m ready to die and be in heaven.” And they mean it. I always feel guilty on the inside because lunch is coming and I like lunch. But I nod on the outside and I make that sound all Baptists learn at an early age to show we agree with something really spiritual and profound. You know, the sound you made a few paragraphs back.

So there’s a tension. We should live while we are here. Be present and faithful where we are. All the time recognizing that Death is not the way things were meant to be. But also realizing that death has no more sting. It is now because of Another’s death, death is the next great adventure. Either Dumbledore or Gandalf said that. I can’t keep the two apart.

Awkward Daughters

My daughter is awkward. Beautiful but awkward. I know, she is only seven and has just entered second grade. But if you ask anyone who has been around her for any length of time, they will most likely agree. Perhaps the apple does not fall far from the tree. I remember feeling awkward when I was little and trying hard not to be. But I do not even think she notices. The experts say she has a severe case of ADD to the point she struggles to finish sentences. We can see some improvement but a parent will worry.

We worry about friendships. I worry more about her not having any than how well she does at school. On the first day of school she made a friend, Lilly. When she told us, we were skeptical. But then we met her mom and her mom was glad to meet the parents of “Emma R.” I could have taken on the world that day. It’s just one of those things you never expect to have fears about till you are parenting that age.

She is beautiful. And tall. My wife tells me that being tall and female can be hard as she grows older. Her legs stretch from here to Homewood. I assume she will be easy to find in all her class pictures. My hope is since my wife had to deal with the same, my daughter will be cast into her mold.

I say all this because I sat in the library yesterday preparing to teach a Bible Study focused like a laser on our call to love one another. And as I sat there, I watched this one girl walk by. She was not pretty.

She had a severe overbite and walked with a hitch in her step. Her hair was stringy. Attention to what she wore, seemed to be only in the utilitarian sense. Actually, her shirt and jeans were not worn as much as they were placed on her body. She would have had to gain a great deal of weight to fill them. And she carried a Bible. But not a pretty one. No, this was the kind you might see in a pew. The gold lettering betrayed the sacred book had not only been around since the early nineties but it had been used a lot.

Now there is still enough of the mean little boy and hormone-laden teenager to be disappointed in what I saw. But within seconds I thought of my daughter. And my desire for no one to look at her with such disappointment overcame the young boy within. For she was also someone’s daughter. Most likely loved. I imagined a father who longed for her to sit in his lap and laugh and cry like those days which were so long ago and went by so quickly. He probably sees nothing but beauty and love and reasons for affection. He probably has high hopes for her and wants her to know she will be loved regardless of where she ends up.  Her tender kisses upon his whiskered cheek are worth the world though he would trade nothing for them. He is glad she carries a Bible in hand.

If I were more capable there would be some great profound lesson attached to these thoughts. All I know is yesterday not long after I watched this girl pass in front of me, I held in my arms a breathtakingly beautiful newborn girl. It reminded me of my awkward daughter and the spellbinding grip she had on me from day one. And the love. And the wonder. And the fears. And the hopes.