Such As I Am …

… I’m back.

Eight and a half months. That’s how long it took to figure it out. And let’s not tiptoe around the obvious. This isn’t figured out.

It would be great to tell you that I’ve conquered all my personal demons. I would love to say that everything is shipshape in my life and outlook. There’s part of me that really wants to let you believe that the 3/4 of a year that’s passed has been tidily archived and that none of the mess remains.

None of that would be true.

I’ve written that believing that there’s something wrong with me is one of the lies I believe. It’s not a lie. There’s something deeply wrong with me. I run away. I’m weak. I’m inconstant. I’m afraid. I’m lonely.

But this is all I know how to do. So, I’m back.

A friend asked me a great question recently. He’s not a believer, and the irony that his question was the fulcrum for what God was whispering into my heart is rich and deep. Maybe I’ll tell you more about him later. He asked me “Rick, what makes you happy?”

In the middle of all my denial and doubt, in the middle of my self-medication and management of suffering, in the middle of all the agonizing and writhing, the misdirection and self-deception, the pretending and the fakery … there was only one answer to give.

The only thing that makes me happy is knowing and loving my Maker. (I wanna stop you here, because this is the point where you’ll be tempted to think “Aw, how beautiful! Even in the difficulty of his life, he runs after God.” Please don’t fall for that. I really want you to believe that, but the reality is that the moral filth I was sitting in at the moment of this realization makes the Prodigal’s pig pen look like a spa by comparison. I’m not going to share details. Just trust me.)

But, nonetheless, that’s the moment I started to stop. That’s the moment I began to believe the promise again. The promise that He would never leave me nor forsake me. That He never had. That He was chasing me and pursuing me and loving me and calling me back to Him. That He already had one arm out of the robe and the ring held tight in His hand, and was trembling in anticipation of a long run down a dusty road to embrace his beloved son who keeps dying and coming back to life.

So, I’m back. Such as I am.

Ecuador Will Break Your Heart

As I write this, I’m traveling eastward. The mountains are at my back. There’s always something that feels wrong on a visceral level about turning away from them, about heading back to Kansas. They are cathedral to me, sanctuary, a place I have gone to find God so many times. As we were preparing to leave my sister’s house this morning, I told my dad that some day God is going to let me live in Colorado. I also told him that I realized that was just kind of like saying that some day God is going to let me live in heaven, because … well … Colorado.

I was riding somewhere with my nephew and his girlfriend a couple of days ago. We were driving west, toward the Rockies, as the sun was preparing to set behind them. We came over a ridge, and there they were. The view made my breath catch. I leaned forward from the back seat and slowly turned my head to take in the glorious eastern face of the range that stretched as far north and south as I could see. I drank it in with intentionality, aware of the sacredness of the ground beneath me. After several long moments, I was gently shaken from my reverie by the conspicuous lack of reciprocal awe from my vehicle mates.

“You guys don’t even see them anymore, do you?,” I asked. “The mountains.”

My nephew barked a laugh and said “Nope!”  His girlfriend explained that they primarily served as navigational guides for Coloradans.

As we were driving north toward I-70 this morning, they were about the clearest I’ve ever seen them. Fresh snow on distant peaks outlined the stark silhouettes of the foothills. The solidity, the permanence, the predictable constancy reached out to me, comforted me. I soaked it in again, knowing I was getting ready to make that right turn and drive nine hours. I said it almost to myself, perhaps to convince me. “I wouldn’t take this for granted. It would not become common place to me. Not even if I lived here.”

I lived on the side of a mountain in Ecuador for almost five years. Pichincha tops out more than 1,200 feet higher than the highest peak in Colorado, and that was just the mountain in my back yard. The highest point in Ecuador (Chimborazo, which translates from an indigenous tongue as “The Ice Throne of God”) beats Colorado’s Mt. Elbert by more than 6,000 feet. The Andes make the Rockies look like speed bumps. Sure, I remember plenty of requests for directions that started out with the question “Is the mountain on your left or your right?” But I also remember whispered prayers ripped from my soul almost weekly when a thunderstorm would roll over the peak, or that last beam of the waning sun would blaze into your eye as it dropped behind they volcano’s ever-present mass … “My God! I live here!”

For a guy for whom nature virtually shouts of glory and mystery, Ecuador was a soul-bending place to live. Our apartment was at 9,300 feet. We were five hours from the beach on one side of the country and five hours from the Amazon basin on the other. I’ve seen condors circle me at the top of a foothill in the highlands. I’ve seen crater lakes with unfathomable depths of alien blue water. I’ve eaten weird rodents five-hour canoe rides deep in the jungle. And I’ve watched from the beach many, many times as the sun fell dying into the Pacific in fiery struggles of purple, orange, and red. Ecuador was glorious … and it was the hardest place I’ve ever lived.

My marriage did most of its dying there. I have many close friends from Quito, but I was more betrayed and wounded at the hands of believers there than anywhere I’ve ever been. People who claimed the name of Christ were hateful and nasty to me (and I was hateful and nasty right back.) The missionary community there was a cold, distant, and unforgiving place for a guy who fought hard to avoid plastic shininess. I was lonely. I was depressed. I was shattered, and left alone to cobble together the pieces of who I would be after the smoke cleared and the ashes settled.

I don’t say these things here to get you to sympathize, to feel sorry for me. I say them to illustrate a point. Two points really, I guess. My experience with the Rockies this weekend has reminded me of two truths:

I miss things all the time.

My nephew, bless his heart, doesn’t really feel the awe of the mountains because he was born and raised in their shadow. He’s 17 now, and they have become fixtures for him. They are for him what the rolling, deciduous forests of the Ozarks, the fertile, patchwork plains of the bread basket, and the stark, undulating minimalism of the Flint Hills are for me. They are blind spots, gaping holes in our vision where we are numbed to glory. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously put it this way:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes”

The X-Files’ Agent Scully said it perhaps even more poignantly. Though known for her skepticism, she said that the idea didn’t so much bother her that God might not be speaking. What made her afraid, she said, was the possibility that God is speaking, and that no one’s listening.

I need to listen harder. I need to see.

I was made to miss things.

Even before the fall, even before the brokenness that mars my spiritual complexion, I was made for more than this. I was created for a purpose that is frustrated and short-circuited at my every turn. There is no amount of beauty, no depth of intimacy, nor even any power of real, Divine connection that will complete me. Not here. Not in the tension between the already and the not yet.

C.S. Lewis (of course) says it better and more succinctly when he says “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

The holes in my heart, the vacancy and emptiness I feel, the deep hunger that haunts me will not be met by the ideal relationship. I will not find ultimate satisfaction in the perfect job that will afford me comfort and security. I will never rest my head carefree at night because of the beauty I’ve seen and experienced. (And here’s the controversial part.) Not even any amount of time in prayer, or number of verses memorized, nor long walks with God in the evening, nor right theology, or attending the right kind of church the right number of times a month … none of it will satisfy me.

Only Jesus will, and that face to face. We were created for a relationship that will one day be consummated. Until then, even places like Colorado and Ecuador will break your heart.

He Won’t Be A Means To An End

My last post was mostly written on a Sunday morning. I had made it to worship practice, but quickly realized that the grief, guilt, and deep sadness that I was wrestling with was going to leave me completely incapable of keeping things casual. There was no way I was going to be able to sing a lyric like “Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on when we will be forever with the Lord. When disappointment, grief, and fear are are gone, sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored. Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed, we shall meet at last” without completely breaking down. As I’m pretty sure there’s something in the Shorter Catechism about public displays of emotion, I left church and went to the coffee shop. (Sorry if that’s not very Jesusy. It’s where I was at.)

When I finished writing, I got up and stretched my legs. “So, You want to be everything I need,” I said to God. “That sounds pretty great, and right now I’m even feeling like I could believe it enough to trust-fall backwards into Your arms.”

I felt Him smile.

“So,” I said, ruining the moment, “how do I get access to this provision?”

I felt Him just look at me intently with a half-smile, waiting for it to sink in.

“Oooh … I’m still doing it, aren’t I?” I dropped my head.

Then He said this:

“I do not dwell in temples made with hands. I need nothing. Worship is what you owe me, but it doesn’t add to Me.

“Everything that is in the earth and in the heavens, visible and invisible, all things, all powers, all authorities were created by Me and exist for Me.

“I am the beginning and the end. I am before all things, and it’s only through Me that they hold together.

“I give life, breath, and all things to all people. By me rulers reign and decree justice. The hearts of kings are like water in My hand. It is in and through Me that you live, and move, and have your very being.

“I am able to do so far beyond anything it could possibly even occur to you to think to ask of Me.

“I am.

“I will not be a means to any end in your life but Myself, Rick. Anything else would be less than what I have promised you.”

I cried in the coffee shop. No one seemed to mind.

I am beginning to know Him. I am beginning to believe. I am beginning to be slowly persuaded that He is really able to sustain and grow the fledgling faith I have in Him, and that He will continue to sanctify and make me more like His Son. That’s what I want.

I’m trying not to want less by adding more.

Nothing But You

I’m a verbal processor. Frequently things come out of my mouth/fingers when I’m talking/writing to someone that had never occurred to me before. I often find myself listening to things I’m saying for the first time, and thinking “That’s interesting.” One such instance happened recently as I was praying for a friend of mine. In the middle of the prayer, I said this:

“Give him the courage to follow You with no promise but You as reward.”

I remember stopping and lifting my eyes. I stopped and wrote it down, realizing that I’d just prayed something for a brother that I desperately needed for myself. I strongly suspect God was being sneaky.

I am so not there right now. I know that I should be, but I’m not. That’s terrifying.

I am not content to give everything I have to follow Jesus with no guarantee of anything from Him but Jesus Himself. There are so many things I add to my list of requirements.

Friendship/Intimacy. I don’t have her anymore. No one to go home to and tell my day’s stories to. I don’t have anyone to share life with, to share space with. I’m not looking for a lover. My heart belongs to one woman. I just need people I can do life with. I need guys with whom I can wrestle through the difficulty of this season. Guys for whom the demands of career, family, kids, or other life activities hasn’t rendered genuine brotherhood an unrealistic drain of resources. I want to walk closely and intimately with other men who want to push me toward Jesus and want me to do the same. I need that.

Stability/Comfort. I’ve got nothing. I live in the corner of a friend’s basement. I drive a borrowed vehicle. I got fired from my last job because my boss was insane and thought the universe was telling her to protect herself from me. I need a job. But, I’m 44. Could the job be something that might conceivably be in an area of marketable skill for me? Could it be something that could possibly be construed as career potential? Could it be something that would build my portfolio? Something that would grow me as an artist? I feel like that’s all I really have. Do I have to go to work at Starbucks?

Restoration/Respect. I feel shame and guilt everywhere I go. I haven’t tried to hide what I’ve done. I guess it’s good that I don’t really know how to do that. But I feel the looks. It’s probably partly projection, but the behind-the-hand whispers are sometimes almost audible. “Poor Rick … If only he’d been able to resist temptation … He really screwed his life up … He’s so broken and needy … It’s sad, but he has no one to blame but himself … etc.” I feel the judgement. Not the kind that looks like wagged fingers and public condemnation. More the type that comes from withdrawn connections, less frequent phone calls, aborted weekly meeting commitments, and awkward silences. It’s a double edged-sword of shame and frustration. I feel frustrated that I can’t find the help I feel I need, while also feeling intense shame that I even need it in the first place.  Can I ever be respected again? Can I be restored? Can I get back to that place of people looking at me and not pursing their lips and shaking their heads?

God, help me. I don’t value You above all else. I am not content to chase after You and leave You to fill in the blanks on everything else. There is so much I feel like I need that I insist that You bring with You in order for me to sign off on this whole “surrender” thing. I have to know that You’re going to meet my needs in ways that are sustainable and viable for me. I have to know that it’s going to be just a little bit about me. I have to know that You’re not going to lead me into even more uncomfortable waters. God, the level of pain and shame and fear and heartache is already at the point where I don’t know how to bear it. Please tell me You won’t give me more. Please tell me that from here on out, things will get easier. Please.

Even as I write that all out, I strongly suspect that Your Holy Spirit is praying something very different for me. It probably goes more like “Help Rick to see the mind-numbing value of what is being offered to him. Help him to see that when his Maker comes down and says ‘I want to provide personally for everything you will ever need,’ that it means more than any temporary fixes and fleeting hole-filling activities could ever hope to signify. Help Rick to understand that anything that You don’t offer and provide is something that will kill his soul instead of save it. Help him to rest in your ridiculous, nonsensical love for him, and to trust in Your completely sufficient mercy, grace, and provision. Right now, he’s not able to do that. Do it for him.”

Probably You should listen to His prayer instead of mine.

Things I Don’t Believe

I got word a few hours ago that a friend of mine is dead.

I don’t know much more than that. He was an internet buddy, a connection made through a mutual friend. I’ve known him for years. We weren’t close, but we spoke pretty often. He was always an encouragement to me when we did connect. I spoke to him last about a week and a half ago. I was in a pretty dark place. Evidently, so was he. He obliquely mentioned a cancer diagnosis, but when I tried to follow up on it, he deliberately changed the subject and asked how I was doing. I made a mental note to ask about it next time we talked, and proceeded to talk about me. (Those of you who know me won’t find that shocking.)

He struggled with addiction, chronic illness, and depression. He was a broken man who was deeply in love with Jesus. He realized that his only hope, in this life as well as the one to come, lay in God’s ridiculous, senseless love for him. The last time I spoke to him, he laid aside his suffering to try and hold mine for a few minutes. I let him.

I don’t know if he died of cancer, of an overdose, or because he took his own life. I have no idea. I’m not going to try to tell you his story. I’m not qualified. I didn’t know him that well. I’m going to try to tell you why I’m so disgusted with myself right now.

I am growing increasingly repulsed and furious at the idea that you can hold to a belief about God solely in the theoretical abstract, while never really allowing it to make any practical difference in your behavior. I am getting weary of holding up under the weight of a reality characterized by half-measures of commitment to truths about our faith that never seem to create lasting change in the functional outworking of day-to-day life.

I’m weary of people whose compassion for those struggling with habitual sin is not mitigated by the reality that God has forever forgiven their own cosmic treason and made relationship with Him possible through the death of His perfect Son. I’m tired of those who have been at the Prodigal’s welcome home party long enough that they’ve genuinely begun to believe that God looks more favorably on their struggles with pride, dishonesty, and selfishness than He does on more pigpen-smelling struggles like sex, addiction, and alcohol abuse. I’m repulsed by the mentality that greedily sucks in grace and mercy and forgiveness and unwarranted favor and unconditional love and never looks for ways to be a selfless conduit of the same in the lives of people God has so clearly placed in their lives. I’m disgusted by the kind of person who could know deeply the importance of sitting on the ash-heap with someone, yet use the last earthly conversation with a suffering friend talking about their own mess and putting off dealing with someone else’s to a more convenient time.

There’s a phrase for the kind of beliefs that don’t translate into action … they’re called “things I don’t really believe.”


Peterson on Snake Oil

“The great danger of Christian discipleship is that we should have two religions: a glorious, biblical Sunday gospel that sets us free from the world, that in the cross and resurrection of Christ makes eternity alive in us, a magnificent gospel of Genesis and Romans and Revelation; and, then, an everyday religion that we make do with during the week between the time of leaving the world and arriving in heaven. We save the Sunday gospel for the big crises of existence. For the mundane trivialities … we use the everyday religion of the Reader’s Digest reprint, advice from a friend, an Ann Landers column, the huckstered wisdom of a talk-show celebrity. We practice patent-medicine religion. We know that God created the universe and has accomplished our eternal salvation. But we can’t believe that he condescends to watch the soap opera of our daily trials and tribulations; so we purchase our own remedies for that. To ask him to deal with what troubles us each day is like asking a famous surgeon to put iodine on a scratch.”

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction