thoughts from an island.

I am at Seabrook Island and St. Christopher’s for a brief respite.  The sun continued its perpetual resurrection this morning.  It rose from it’s grave to kiss every storied grain of sand with warm lips.  The salty moisture captured in these earthly kernels is temporarily offered up as a sacrifice to the sun’s embrace until, of course, the sun grants reprieve this holy evening.  Perhaps a storm will haste this process.

Seagull, Ocean, Seabrook Island

Here, the feathered clouds are white backdrops for the simple shapes of bird wings.  Butterflies roam and nestle in flowered perches.  Deer graze lazily at the forests edge by daylight or moonlight.

The constant wind caresses everything.  It reforms the dunes in ancient ways.  It caps the ocean’s waves and causes the reeds to become like a conductor’s baton.

In this symphony the seagulls are French horns, the steady waves drone in the low end of an orchestral organ and children playing in the distance ring bells with their laughter.

Dolphin, Ocean, Seabrook Island

It’s not silent on this island.  It’s never silent.  The sun, the wind, nature’s orchestra pull my thoughts out and threaten a cacophony that has become dangerously normal to my life.  I am like these waves: coming, going, crashing…coming, going, crashing…I am never silent.

The voice of God is upon these waters; the God of glory thunders.

I’m writing from the screened porch of this cottage.  It feels safe in here somehow as if the elements are exposed to me but not in reciprocation.  There is still much more exploring of this island to do but I start with the interior.  I drift in and out of my head rhythmically with these waves, this wind, these leaves and those birds.  The pages of my mind turn backward and forward.  The non-silence thankfully brings meaning.

Storm, Ocean, Seabrook Island

There is something very unambiguous here.  Equivocation is my normal coping mechanism but such defenses seem unnecessary, even useless.  This cottage and this island demand nothing of me except to just exist.  Both simply beckon and house a sense of being.  I’m not a human ‘doing’ here; I am a human ‘being’ here.  I will soon return to a world of expectation but for a brief moment I can sense the beauty within.

I’ve always struggled with self-identification.  Richard Rohr says the dilemma to my personality type is that I’m trapped in myself; I live as if I wasn’t in my own body and in my own soul, but were standing alongside and watching myself perform.  He says that one of my tasks is to listen more frequently and carefully to the voice of my own feelings instead of doing what promises recognition from the outside.  I’m grateful for Rohr’s insights into what feels like a consistent theme.

Revelation sits on the watery horizon and I am in pursuit of her, not knowing what secrets she holds about me nor for me.  Fortunately, she is not very elusive on Seabrook, here at St. Christophers.  Instead, like her sister the mystic Sophia, she is rapt and rich and everywhere.  I am beholden to nothing and everything all at once.  Sadness and joy are medicinal tools; this island is a surgeon and I am a patient.   I pursue.

Bike, Beach, Shells, Ocean, Seabrook Island

Have you ever felt so absolutely overwhelmed by something, anything that you want to vomit?  As if throwing up is the only appropriate response to nervousness, excitement, fear, danger, exhaustion or perhaps laughing so hard?  In contended loneliness, I vomit thoughts about myself, God, this world.   Even so now in response to the non-silence.  I am both fearful to share such things and am compelled all at once.  I hope to leave equivocation on this island but am also resolved to leave it regardless of wherever I am.

I came here a bit restless but when I leave this screened-in porch or this beach or these haunted woods, perhaps I will leave rested.  I came a bit arrogant, perhaps leaving a bit more humble.  I came a bit destitute, perhaps leaving a bit richer.

I’m going to go exploring a little more now and with a greater sense of contentment.  I’m unplugging again.  Back to the island…

Deer, Woods, Beach, Ocean, Seabrook Island

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…and God is still good.

Has life ever felt like one brand new experience after another, some experiences you have asked for and some that you haven’t?

Personally, I think that we are often prepared only for those enterprises in life that are familiar and rote.  Rarely are we prepared for those experiences and times that hurt, that would offer us growth as a person.

A recent example is an outdoor adventure involving refugee kids from a local community here in Charlotte.  Our church partnered with Camp Canaan to bus in about 50 kids to experience a sand island in the Catawba River, complete with hiking, soccer and a zip-line.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

As I approached this zip-line with its platform approaching the lower canopy of leaves, I already began to feel a little shaky.  The wooden planks forming this veranda in the sky seemed to me to be a bit too small.  Yet, what better motivation for a new adventure than watching 6 year olds scale this ladder of wood and bark, leaving only their fear behind to taunt me upward too.

I was the adult there.  As in, I have responsibilities like…breathing and…my legs…but that didn’t stop me (or my pride rather) from tracing the steps of many brave souls gone before.  Maybe the platform was about 30 feet up but then again, it could have been 100 feet up.  It didn’t matter because I was there and people are watching and I may not ever be here again.

So I climbed…

…and God is still good.  But what makes Him good isn’t my understanding of the word “good” because I often ascribe a definition of goodness that would benefit my current state of being, or doing or thinking…

…and I climbed…

…because you see I have a rather small definition of goodness.  This definition of God’s goodness generally revolves around me getting something positive or feeling a certain way.  The inverse of this small definition, or rather, the risk of this small definition is that if things aren’t going my way or if don’t feel a certain way then perhaps God isn’t quite as good as I think He should be…

…and I stood on the edge of that platform…

…realizing that the problem for me isn’t that the Lord is good but that I often put Him in a box of ‘goodness’ that is just too small…kind of like the platform I was standing on.

“God, you are good while I’m here on the ground.  You are good while gravity is my friend and while I’m looking up instead of looking down.  God, you are good when I have a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear, family and friends to love.”

There’s only one way off this platform that allows me to keep my dignity.  Of course that’s just my pride talking because I can climb back down.  The deeper issue is that there is only one way off this platform that lets me leave all the questions behind…questions like, ‘what if I had just jumped’ or ‘what does it feel like to fly’?

Shaking, nervous, scared, unknown…God is still good.  There’s only way to know that goodness and leave the questions behind: to trust Him and jump.  The Lord was good way down there on the ground, safe and comforted.  Up here…my definition of goodness has to expand.

There’s only way to know that God is still good despite the hurt, pain, confusion or anger and that is to trust His goodness in spite of it.  There’s only one way off this platform that redeems every aching, scary step up to it and that is to let go and jump.

“God, you are good while I am way up here on this platform.  You are good while gravity is vengeful and while I’m looking down instead of looking up.  God, you are good when I don’t have a bed to sleep in, naked and ashamed having lost all family or friends.”

God, you are good and we leap…

…and we laugh, breath taken, loving deeply this wind in our hair and this view so magnificent and we laugh…

…because You are still good, so very good to us.  Not because we jumped but because that’s just who You are.  A different experience, another stretch, a bigger definition and the box I’ve kept You and my heart in is slowly crumbling.

Hey, look back there…do you see that?  That platform isn’t quite as high anymore.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

A Birchcroft kid coming down after the long zip!

what the 80’s taught me about manhood.

I’m a fairly typical guy when it comes to action movies from the 1980’s.  I’m literally a “Die Hard” fan of the genre.  Give me some Predator or Aliens to watch and I’m good to go.  The prototypical tough guy served well as my stereotypical hero.  I loved these guys and I wanted to emulate them.  Mostly brawn, little brains and cheesy catch-phrases was the tried and true way to finding and rescuing a girl on the big screen, so why not real life?

Unfortunately, this recipe for “success” helped carry me into a high school social scene that was frankly devoid of girls.  What was up with that?  Not that I had big muscles or great hair.  In fact, my ears stuck out like antennae and my buzz-cut did little but attract the local Marine recruiter.

The idea was planted and germinated that if I look tough, act tough and speak tough then everything is just going to magically go right.  I took a “Boyz in tha Hood” approach to respect: if you want it, you have to give it.

What happened over time was that this idea infected more than my notion of respect but eventually my notion of manhood.  I needed to have an answer for everything.  I should be able to fix every problem and if I didn’t have an answer to a problem, I would get one.  The idea of being comfortable with the “unknown” was entirely foreign to me.  Why trust in others when I can do it myself?  Why not be like Jean-Claude Van Damme who could train a little harder, run a little faster and do crazy nasty splits to prove how much of a man he could be?  Believe me, I tried to do those splits and let’s just say my manhood wasn’t cool with that.

I eventually left Mr. Miyagi’s waxing techniques behind as I grew up but I didn’t leave behind the idea that being tough was surely the key to success.  The directorial vision of my post-adolescent life was more characteristic of the late Tony Scott, rather than his brother, Ridley: a “Top Gun” Tom Cruise versus a “Legend” Tom Cruise, if you will.

This isn’t to say that the 80’s lacked balance.  Who can forget John Hughes’ ‘Breakfast Club’?  In fact, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson portrayed a transformation in two hours that is taking me 31 years.  They initially conveyed an exterior toughness.  That kind of toughness which helps to preserve a rather frail masculinity.  That kind of toughness which makes your eyes and mind wander from insecurity to insecurity.  That kind of toughness which demands far more energy than the human heart can afford to spend.  At the end of the movie Estevez and Nelson are like two different people, emotionally vulnerable and empathetic to their peers.  Good grief, it’s at this cathartic point in the movie that I wish art imitated life…my life!

I have learned, indeed am learning that my toughness, my emotional insecurities, my need to always have an answer is a poor excuse for masculinity.  Who wants to be around that person anyways?  Those women in the 80’s action movies were paid to portray a helplessness that didn’t reflect reality.  I don’t think that women are looking to be rescued, I think they are looking to be respected.  That respect doesn’t come at the end of a demand but rather at the end of a sacrifice.

My role model for masculinity didn’t get paid $20 million to star in a blockbuster action movie.  He didn’t drive a 1961 Ferrari GT California like Hughes’ other 80’s star, Ferris Bueller.

Rather, my role model for masculinity submitted himself to death, even death on a cross.  He hung between sky and earth, dejected and without fanfare.  His vulnerability knew no end.  His masculinity was submissive and without category, peer or demand.  His eyes didn’t wander from insecurity to insecurity.  He was meek but not frail.  He knew his own belovedness and could expend that energy without fail.  He was and is Christ.

For too long, I’ve allowed a definition of masculinity derived from popular culture to dictate my thoughts and actions.  Who knows where that definition was first formed and cultivated, whether nature or nurture?  Who knows and who cares?  80’s movies aren’t exactly the most relevant topic for today’s increasing eclecticism in media saturation.  However, emotional vulnerability, selflessness and humility are relevant and increasingly so.

I’m convinced and have decided to define my masculinity apart from the glow of the TV screen or the lights of Time Square.  I’m convinced and have decided that my masculinity will be shaped by the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table, both broken and poured out.  I’m convinced and have decided that I am most masculine hidden in the lap of my Heavenly Father, letting him speak that same belovedness to me that He does to His Son.

In the Breakfast Club, Estevez’ character tells everyone “We’re all pretty bizarre.  Some of us are just better at hiding it.”  I completely agree.  It’s just that I don’t want to hide it anymore.  There is the beginning of masculinity and there is the beginning of it all.

why true leaders are powerless: a reflection on the cross.

It was my first magazine interview.  And by magazine I mean ‘denominational publication’ and by interview I mean a Q & A sheet.  In fact, they really just wanted to fill the last page with something, so I was picked for “Meet The New Guy”.  One of the questions asked was for a favorite quote.  I really wanted to sound smart and well-read, especially since I was new to the position…

So one Google quote search later, I picked a Henri Nouwen gem you might have heard.  It is from In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.  In it he says, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”  I read that and thought, ‘I’m definitely going to look good quoting this guy.’

Then life happened.

Five years later, two different jobs later, ‘coming out of retirement‘ later, I met Henri Nouwen again.  It was amazing how insightful he had become in that time.

the temptation of power…

I was just asked recently by one of my seminary professors, “How have you seen leadership give in to the temptation of power?”  He wanted us to answer it after reading Nouwen’s leadership text.  Some of my classmates chose to identify prominent pastors and other failures of Christian leadership.

This stung a little as all I had to do was look at my own story.  While I know this is a Christian professor teaching Christian content, I do want to call attention to the fact that all leadership is tempted toward power because all leadership is human.

I can easily point to historical figures like Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon who yielded to power.  To point out the failures of bishops and pastors isn’t wrong but it doesn’t get at the root of the matter.  I’m tempted to power and control not based on my position but based on my humanity.

It just so happens that when a leader has an audience and they give in to the temptation of power it’s broadcast for all to see.  The temptation to manipulate power can take any shape and form and I would dare say that we look no further than our own hearts to find it.

According to Henri Nouwen, the temptation for a Christian is to consider power as an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel.  In fact, he would even say it’s the greatest temptation of all.  What Nouwen is driving at is that we are all guilty when we choose power as a means of control.  Based on this definition, many of our most successful leaders have given into the temptation of power and been praised for it.

I’m one of those leaders.

Five years after first proclaiming that “it’s easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life”, I still find myself wanting to be God, control people and own life.

powerless is good…

This same seminary professor immediately followed up with another question, “How is the cross a symbol of power and powerlessness?”

I knew what he was driving at even though I’m sometimes tempted to think of the cross as neither a power-full or power-less symbol but rather a commodity to my faith.  Or worse, a commodity to my religion.

The truth is, I believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I believe the cross is the centerpiece of history.

I do believe the cross is a power-full symbol of power in that it represents the sovereignty and providence of God.  It is because of the cross that I am free from sin and brought into right standing before and with God.

Nouwen again writes, “Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.”

It’s when I look at the cross as a symbol of powerlessness that I find shelter from the temptation to manipulate others with power.

In fact, I see the cross is more than a symbol of powerlessness, it is an instrument of powerlessness.  It was an instrument of torture and death.  There are only a few sadistic machinations from human history that match the depravity of death by cross.  The cross means to kill us.

One doesn’t climb onto a cross and hang for a little while, hurting until they are brought down.  Once you have been hung on a cross, you don’t come down until you are dead.  If I or anyone could come down from the cross before death then I would have defeated its power.

It’s only when I am powerless to come down from the cross that I have discovered its nature and purpose.  Essentially, Christ gave up his power to come down.  He chose it.  A common criminal couldn’t make that choice…you and I couldn’t make that choice but the Son of God could.

For a brief moment, He gave up His access to the powers of the universe so that at our hands He could die.

why true leadership is powerless…

We are commanded to take up that instrument and let the due diligence of its weight work on us.  If I could add an additional point to Nouwen’s, it would be this, “It’s easier to like the cross, than to die on it.”

Knowing, being and doing aren’t always hand in hand.  To lead, as Nouwen points out, is to be led.  It is to offer ourselves up.  It is to trade our dreams of power for something beyond ourselves.

Five years later, Nouwen still says it best: “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?  Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

the waiting room.

The young man sits and waits, with anxious thoughts and sweaty palms.  He was here last week and the routine is the same.  Come in, sit down, grab a magazine and watch the faces of people coming and going.

Very few make eye contact.  Nobody really wants to be recognized.  Anonymity is a strange solace.  The illusion of control has been shattered and we have all surrendered to the mercy of complete strangers.

Last week was hard.  The counselor probed into some sensitive areas.  It didn’t feel fair to experience such forced vulnerability.  Exposure of the soul always led to this same choice.  Tense muscles, clenched fists, gritted teeth, anger or the pain of honesty.

More than pride is at stake.  Marriages are on the line.  Some are in this waiting room because they put themselves in it.  Others are in this waiting room because they love that person who did.  For all, the question remains, “Why do I have to be here?”

The young man dreads the waiting room.  Just once, he would like to leave this place without crying.  For once he would like to avoid some painful memory or relive a poor choice.  Why do all his choices have to be held under a microscope? Haven’t we all made mistakes?

He looks over to the person sitting in the chair next to his and remembers why he’s here.

His tears will never match the number of hers.  His pain will always pale in comparison.  Self-inflicted wounds have a tinge of justice…a quasi-karma is attached.  Her wounds are just unfair.

How many times and in how many ways can an apology take shape?  The balm of confession is most effective in solidarity.  You just keep doing and saying what it takes until peace breaks through.  The broken ways are made whole again through time and trust.

The waiting room.  They’ve both been here before.

His name is called and he looks up.  Standing there is a very masculine man with a voice like thunder.  He just asks one question, “Are you ready?”  A deep breath is drawn in like a diver before piercing cold water.  It’s into the office and away from the crowd.  No more anonymity.

It’s time.  The young man says, “Yes, I’m ready” and steps into his office one more time…

a soundtrack for the valley.

This past week has been trying.  My faith has been stretched.  I’ve been reminded that trust is the currency of God’s kingdom.  I’ve also felt renewal and strength in His presence.  Here are some songs that have given me heart.  Some are old, some are new, but I can worship with them all.  Enjoy!