An Emptiness

Last night as we pulled out of the driveway of my parent’s house, the overwhelming feeling of not doing something I should have done came over me. And then it hit me. I had not hugged and kissed my dad before leaving. I had not told him how much I enjoyed seeing him and mom.

I didn’t do these things because he was not there.

His body was over in a funeral home, where instead of getting the service times right in the obituary, they told my brothers and I how much we could save on funeral packages if we bought now.

On each of the eleven days in the hospital I told him how much he meant to my brothers and myself. How much he meant to my wife and kids. And mom. So he died and I watched, both of us, as he said, “with no regrets.”

So that’s not it. No regrets. But the realization that I’ll not tell him these things again in this life is beyond me. I understand the desire for the grieving to want to communicate with the departed much more now. Some do it because of regret, while others, like myself, have this emptiness because a habit of love has been interrupted.

The emptiness is only beginning, I know. Right now only the knowledge fueled by the memory of watching him take his final breath distinguishes this absence from his many other stints in the hospital. But the next two days of the visitation and funeral will make it clear he has gone on ahead of us and is not returning to his blue chair by the fireplace in the downstairs den.

Usually emptiness describes the lack of the presence of something. It is not a thing itself but the lack thereof. The emptiness signals the void where my dad once was. Sitting in the chair, smiling. Talking about books. Our kids. My dreams. So it feels like a thing…a thing I will walk around with for a good long while. It is nothing to what my mom will have to endure…lovers to the end, they were.

But it is a thing, this emptiness. And I am glad to have it.

The encouragement given by others of God being able to fill the emptiness is understandable. I get it. But I don’t really want him to. And I’m not sure that is what God is for. Do I want to be reminded of God’s love in the midst of the emptiness? Yes. Do I want to lean on the bare of God in the grief? Of course. But I want the emptiness to remain and even grow. Not so I can wallow in the pain but so that I can grow in it. Not in lieu of joy but because of it.

As we watched him die, a deep dread of emptiness hung heavy over me. But just as Jesus has conquered death and made it gain, so also the emptiness. The emptiness is not just a grim reminder of him no longer being with us. In all honesty, it is still that. Still. Still. But it is also the reminder of the gift that he was.

My mom and brothers and I have consistently talked of him as a gift. He was that. A tangible, living and breathing, smiling and laughing, poem-writing and ball-catching, tennis-playing and God-honoring, ministering gift of grace, always giving what he was. Always glad to graciously give himself and what he could. His life was a rare gift, and I am sure we will feel as if the gift has been taken away. And those will be bitter moments. But even as I write this I know there will be a sweetness too in the missing. The tears salty, the memories sweet.

The hope of the cross is wide and varied. One sliver of all that hope is the end of the emptiness we all feel. It’s end, when all the dead in Christ will rise and death will end and there will only be life and more life, world without end, and we will only know life, and death with all it’s rattles and disfigurements and shortness of breaths and those left behind to wait on hospice nurses and pronouncements of death and sales pitches from funeral homes –  that will be forgotten, time out of mind.

Until then may we be glad for all of what the emptiness represents. All the memories. All that was. All that will be.

Rich, Brennan, and My Need for Comfort

For the past two weeks I’ve been listening to Rich Mullins each morning as I drive to work. This past friday I wrote a short post about the one song I’ve listened to each morning. I make sure I get those words I heard before I turn off my car and exit into what has made me appreciate the word “labor.”

Friday night after kids went to bed, I got on YouTube and watched Homeless Man, a documentary about Rich. Friends and other christian artists are interviewed telling his still very unique story. Brennan Manning is among them.

It’s almost impossible for me to separate Rich and Brennan in my head.

When I was done, I went back to my office – which really is where I just have stacks of books and where Bethany works on necklaces. The book I came out with was Manning’s memoir, All Is Grace. I walked back into the den. Put it down and decided to pick up the iPad for a few minutes before digging into Manning’s life once again.

A friend on social media sent me a message telling me Brennan Manning had passed away.

It was no surprise, the dragon of alcoholism had dogged him for years. His health was tenuous, I knew. So this was no surprise at all. But the timing. The timing. I was not sorry to hear of him passing. It felt right. And yet, death does still sting in the sadness of those of us who have drunk deeply from the well he dug for us.

A few years ago. I had been given a gift card to a bookstore. Normally, it would never make it to wallet. But it was to a bookstore we did not have where I was living at the time. So I had forgotten about it till a few weeks later and we were living in Birmingham.

The card then burned a hole through my wallet and threatened my pocket. So I went to that bookstore and searched the shelves. I need to back up a little.

We had just moved to Birmingham, our hometown to be involved in church planting. The last church we had been in had paid me to leave and it still stung. It still stings to this day, if I’m honest. It was a wound that would continue to grow. Most of the time, I would go to a particular author in my Reformed tradition to get some help. Perspective. But none of the people I normally read and listened to sounded appealing. It may be telling to say that I was looking for comfort and none of those men sounded comforting at all. I kept going to them for grace but it was always a word of grace with “but” attached….hell, it sure felt that way.

So there I am, walking among those shelves, not even knowing what I’m looking for. And for some strange reason I picked up The Ragamuffin Gospel. Only God could’ve done it. I’d never wanted to read it before. Seemed too popular and not Reformed. Maybe rebellion made me do it. Glorious holy rebellion.

I’ve never been the same since. Only the Scriptures have comforted me more. While I do not believe in must read books, this is the one book I would recommend to anyone and everyone. If you only read one Christian book, this is it. A part of me still wishes I had read that book many years earlier. But I know I read it at just the right time. When I needed it.

So this is my tribute to Brennan Manning. I love him. He keeps me honest with myself and he has helped keep me honest with God.

This is my tribute to Brennan Manning. I love him.

A Sermon by Frederick Buechner, Lightning and then Sleep

Last night, in the dread of today, I read a sermon, “The Calling of Voices” by Frederick Buechner. The text was Isaiah’s vision in chapter 6 with the culmination of “Here am I, send me!”

My sons and I had driven clear across town for this book. No library near us had it. So we went. Them, to spend time with their dad. I, the same. The rain had just stopped and the grass and the trees were a green I’ll never forget. Azaleas and Dogwoods lined the streets we slowly traveled for to get this book.

He sets up three scenarios – a phone call for help in the night, a seagull carrying a mussel in its beak and then dropping it to the rocks below, a young boy realizing “with a kind of panic almost” his kindness to a handicapped boy is like “Christmas morning and a rocket to the moon.”

And he says about the young boy and anyone else these events might happen to…

“It was the summons that he had to answer somehow, or at considerable cost, not answer. Or in the year that King Uzziah died, or in the year that John F. Kennedy died, or in the year that someone you loved died, you go into the temple if that is your taste, or you hide your face in the little padded temple of your hands, and a voice says, “Whom shall I send into the pain of a world where people die?” and if you are not careful, you may find yourself answering, “Send me.” You may hear the voice say, “Go.” Just go.”

The rest of the short sermon is worthy of reflection. And maybe that will come. But it was this section that struck like lightning in the night. The kind of lightning you never forget, the brightest of all bolts in the darkest of all nights. The kind that pushes away fear if even for a moment so you can take a step in the right direction.

On Tuesday, I attended my uncle’s funeral. The dark blue suit was bought for the pastor-to-be but has of late been worn by the banker, was worn. Worn. And there it hit me how much more comfortable I was there among the mourners than I was at the bank, behind the desk. The wrong desk.

Whom shall I send into the pain of a world where people die?

I would not have planned to read this sermon just before attempting sleep had I known. I might as well be honest, it does no one any good for me to talk in code or veiled allusions. I dread each day of work and rarely sleep less than fitfully. Could I have ever known two years ago when I began to walk away from vocational ministry, this darkness would come? I don’t know. But it has happened and now I’ve read these words.

And last night’s sleep was sweet. Like a death itself. For I have not been careful.

The Prayer I Didn’t Know I Was Praying

Yesterday I was asked to be “sneaky” at work. My conscience reeled. And I asked again, “How did I get here?”

Fitful sleep and awaking with dread, while getting ready for another day of it, I turned on the cd I’ve been listening to every morning on the way to work. And then I realized I’d been praying this each morning…

“You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt
Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread?
Did You forget about us after You had flown away?
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While You’re up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that’s not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then
Did You ever know loneliness?
Did You ever know need?
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don’t see the blood that’s running in Your sweat
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You’re up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained
And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time?
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we can not get free of what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret
I can’t see how You’re leading me unless You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get”

– Rich Mullins’ “Hard to Get”

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1) I prefer swallowing 100% organic pollen.

2) Pretty sure last night at Regions Field was an example of the already/not yet of the Kingdom. At least an apt metaphor.

3) “…covered in wilderness, covered in stain…”

4) Went to my uncle’s funeral this week, worth the vacation day I had to take.

5) Whip me, beat me, and call me a geek, but I picture Viggo Mortenson when I read the book of Revelation.

6) No time for grief, gotta start a cause.

7) Most people sit in front of me and think money is the problem and solution. I see so much of myself in them, it’s painful.

8) Ran this morning. Glad there was a handle on fridge door to hang on to when done.

9) The pace of a baseball is rebuke against our hurried lives..

10) The reign of our King will never end.

When You’re On the Edge

As I continue to read slowly through the final book of the NT in the original language, I look for help.

What was John thinking and feeling when he wrote these things down?

What were the thoughts and emotions of the first hearers?

It is possible all my assumptions are wrong but I cannot help but imagine John is writing to those who are on the edge.

The edge of trouble.

The edge of faithfulness…faithlessness.

The edge of apostasy.

The edge of failure.

The edge of life, with death below.

And so the words in the greeting are not to be passed over as quickly as I would normally. They are the words of the Lord himself. Their Lone Hope is addressing them. And for those wavering, the hope they are tempted to forsake.

I have felt the jagged edge before. Nothing like what they are dealing with, I know. But I’ve wondered about the quality of my newborn wired to so many machines in intensive care. I’ve had all the doubts. I’ve felt the pressure of others pushing against the tender parts of my faith.

I’ve stared at the future and strained to see the light in the darkness.

As some of you have.

Our contexts are different from those in the first century, but our hearts beat the same.

So when I read these words over and over again, familiarizing myself with each word, I had a thought – only those who have need will want to be reminded that Jesus rules over the kings of the earth. The ones who wonder when all the pain will end will be glad to know he is the Alpha and the Omega. And only those who have suffered from those who trade in power will be glad to hear he is all-powerful.

Twice he says he is the one who is and who was and who is to come. It’s a reminder that this word of prophecy is about what he has done and what he is doing and what is coming. And he is the ruling King over all of it.

And for those who seem to be suffering from time’s relentless march and the year’s thieving demands, knowing the One who has bought us with his blood, is beyond time itself is grace.

Many of you are worried about what is coming. You are worried about your family. You are concerned about your health. You are frightened about the world that is changing before your eyes. The future is dark and you feel as if you are on the edge of something. I know the feeling.

So hearing he loves us is great. Sure. But hearing he is at once loving and all-powerful and not bound by the same things that constrain us is a good reminder when you are on the edge.

The darkness becomes less.

A Dusty Cover, Patmos, and Three Verses

 

A few days ago I opened my Greek New Testament. What was once a constant companion in daily use now had to be dusted off. While my Hebrew OT has not been touched in any meannigful way for almost a decade, Greek was my one constant. I used it to prepare for any and everything – Middle School Bible Study and sermons alike. My grades in Hebrew were better than Greek. But I preferred the latter.

The other night I awoke at 2:20. And while fighting a losing battle to regain sleep, the thought kept looping through my mind drunk on sleeplessness – I am not a good banker and I have fogotten my Greek. It sounds funny now even as I type it, but those thoughts came with all the terror that comes at that time of night.
So I woke up the next morning and walked back to the office and pulled my Nestle-Aland 27 off the shelf. The spine has been taped multiple times and its body has been worn soft and supple.
Where should I start? Romans and Galatians would be easy. I’ve taught through those the most. 1 John is the easiest to naviagte in the original. But I chose Revelation for two reasons. One practical and the other possibly born of a little hubris and more than a little hope.
I don’t know the book of Revelation all that well. I’ve taught through the words to the seven churches but that is as far as I’ve gone. So I chose John’s letter from Patmos because it was unfamiliar to me and I would be learning the book as a I relearn the language.
And the Aplostle John wrote this one while in exile. He was not where he wanted to be. And his enduring ministry while he was in exile is his writing. I am not sure what his exile looked like on Patmos. But I assume the ones who put him there were not concerned with what made his soul sing. He might have despaired. He might have felt isolated. He might have wondered about about his call.

Last Thursday I began with the first three verses. Most of the vocabulary was familiar. But there was difficulty for them to take me a couple days of spending fifteen minutes here and 30 minutes there to get those first three verses.

The value is twofold. First, it’s true, much is lost in translation. Not meaning so much as depth of meaning. Second, it makes me read slow. I see things I would have never seen in the bare English because I have to read so much slower and more careful, laboring over words in Greek I would just breeze through in my native tongue.

So, three verses.

The third verse is the one sticking. The blessing of reading and hearing and keeping the prophecy John is about to reveal is enough to make me pay attention. And then he says the reason.
For the time is near.
A lot Revelation is confusing. But it’s timeless message is not. Kingdoms will rise and fall and bare their teeth in pursuit of the body of Christ. And within the church apostasy will rage. But the King will triumph and will reign in truth and grace and provide an unimaginable peace until time is no longer worth the measuring.
And if you read this and listen to this and keep what is written, there is a happiness (makarios which we translate as “blessing” is best understood as “happy”) when you face these things.
Apart from the reading and listening and keeping, there can be no reason for happiness. The bloodshed, the pain, the frustrations, the struggle…all of it makes no sense for the believer. But if you read about the triumph of The King and you listen to stories of what the king has done and will do and you pay attention when told of the suffering that will come, there is a reason for happiness the systems of the world will not understand and cannot overcome.

Our own hearts will fail to understand in the dark moments. But when we pay attention to what he has told us – who he is, what he has done, what will happen, and what he will do for us – happiness. The kind of happiness we all ache for. The kind of happiness we catch in the breezes of spring and in the smiles of those we love. The kind of happiness that we know must exist for all our longings. The happiness of freedom from all the aftershocks of the Fall.

The kind of happiness that compels me to read and to listen and to keep.

The Pastor, Vocation, and a Job

Yesterday, a sobering event.

I sat with an older gentleman as a customer. He looked like I felt. Tired, ready to move along. In being faithful to my job, I asked him a number of questions, made suggestions.

He seemed squeamish as I continued. Averting eye-contact. I had pushed too far. This is my daily fear.

Finally he made it clear. He was only worried about “getting his house in order” and taking care of his hospital bills so his wife won’t have to worry about them. He made it clear he had gotten a diagnosis from the doctor putting all monetary concerns for himself at bay.

A few days ago I began reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir. I haven’t read it since being a pastor ceased to be my job. The night before I read the story of the artist who taught him the difference between vocation and a job.

Peterson learned from artists the two do not have to be the same.

One can have a job and have a vocation that is entirely separate. The job keeps the lights on and fills the stomach. The vocation brightens the life and sustains the soul. Both are important, but they are not, nor need be the same.

So yesterday, this all became very real for me as the two intersected. They were not running parallel like when I was paid to pastor people. I knew what to say as a pastor, instinctively. But as someone with a customer in front of me, with sales goals hanging over me…I don’t know, the two stood in stark relief before me like never before.

I stuttered and stammered and simply did my best to put at him ease as he rose and told me he’d let me know if he needed anything else.

The job was glad for him to go. The vocation wished for more. the job had nothing else to sell him. The vocation wanted to comfort him on the edge of eternity.

I hear from a number of men who deal with this tension. It’s not easy and sometimes has all the psychological drama of the Scylla and the Charybdis. And we veer always towards one or the other and rarely are ever able to keep the two in balance. Some are bivocational. Some are on their way to paid ministry. Some long for it.

And there are others of us, who were once pastors only, and now have a job set apart. We wanted to escape the tension but it has followed us.

Maybe we are supposed to feel it. Maybe the ideal is to always feel the tension between what we get paid to do and the vocation.

Makes it hard to leave the pastoring behind. No matter how hard you try.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1) The car makes me think Job. But usually it all feels like Jonah.

2) I may need counseling after this fantasy baseball season.

3) Doing something at the end of May I was not sure I’d ever do again…preaching.

4) We’ve been listening to a lot of hymns lately. Most sound dated. Not cool. And that’s fine by me.

5)Trying to eat less and run more for bathing suit season. Not going well.

6) (knocking on rib cage of whale) “Anyone else in here?”

7) Yesterday I was driving home after a particularly hard day at work…

and the rain fell gently
and the young leaves were a supernatural green
and the mountain I live on
swung steep before me.
And my cynical eyes heard “This. All this.”

8) Actually, my wife may need counseling after this fantasy baseball season.

9) Haven’t been sleeping well. You know what doesn’t help? Counting bacon cheeseburgers.

10) I have never been more hungry for the words of John the Revelator.

What’s the Catch?

So what you are trying to tell me is the you will lend me money only if I don’t really need it?”

“You who have no money,
Come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without cost.”

Some books just stay with you for years on end. You can see the lines on the page. The shade of the paper. The typeface. Even the original emotion can return in a memory.

Before I knew there was a list of acceptable books and authors, I read everything written by Phillp Yancey. Books. Articles. All of it. And then when I got to Seminary, I continued reading him, even though he seemed a little suspect.

I think about his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? all the time. The stories mainly. But the book’s tone and message stay with me. More than anything he helped me see — we live in a world of “ungrace.”

It’s not only an indictment. It’s a statement of fact. The laws, the rules and the expectations recoil in the face of grace. Conditions upon conditions. We have to look for loopholes as we make our through the marketplace. All is to be traded. Gifts are given but with strings attached. And even when they are given freely, we naturally ask, “What’s the catch?”

We often speak of the glories of God’s grace in Jesus in the context of relationships. Which is right and true. But our world spins on what is earned. At least the world we have created. And we’ve created it in our own image.

I don’t know that the call is for businesses and governments to be more gracious. I’m not sure. But I do know the good news of grace in Christ stands askew to the ungrace they trade in.

This is the world I work in now. This world of numbers and bottom lines and earnings and bait disguised as free products.. While full of good people, they must like myself, wield the hammer of law on an anvil of hard cold ungrace.

Not so much an indictment as a statement of fact.

The Kingdom of God is a shot across the bow of our hearts. Hearts that list toward toward ungrace. Hearts too comfortable with the world of ungrace. Preferring it. The church becomes a marketplace of trade because our souls are mired in the marketplace’s ideals.

And then there’s the Kingdom of God, where the poor in spirit have reason to be happy. It’s a different economy altogether, where the laws of supply and demand are turned on their head. Every capitalist must check it at the Kingdom’s door.

Needing grace with nothing to offer is the position of the Kingdom. The King offers it freely. The one thing the world values above all other things is lack of need. Having something to offer gets the attention of bankers and merchants. And everyone else.

The King knows our need better than we do, sees it for all it is. And then with lovingkindness provides all and then some.