12 April 2006

Letter to a friend...

Dear anonymous friend, ;)

Thanks for sending these reflections on [your trip to the Gulf Coast to help hurricane survivors]  – it’s always cool to hear how folks are encountering Christ and how it effects them.

I remember coming back from Kenya and all the stories I told and I all the experiences I had and how I KNEW that I would never, COULD NEVER, be the same. The poverty, the indifference to life, the endemic corruption – it was shocking and terrifying and so very sad. And yet, less than six months later I looked at myself and felt that in fact nothing had changed at all. I was in my same old grooves, my same old habits and I had stopped talking about Kenya because so many folks seemed like they simply weren’t interested in anything but my photos of elephants. I was sad for that. Like I had missed an opportunity to learn an important lesson (to say nothing for the people who yawned at another Kenya story).

But later still, on further reflection, I saw that Kenya had changed me but it wasn’t so obvious. There was a new plank added to my personality and when it was brand new it seemed dramatic and fresh and stood out like a sore thumb. But inevitably, life continued and that plank was slowly integrated into a structure with all the others. In time it no longer stood out, but rather it supported. It was a starting place – not an ending place.

So in the end I’ve come to see that despite all the things I’ve seen around the world, all the good experiences and all the traumatic ones, I’m called to bloom where I’m planted. That experience, like many others in Hong Kong, Panama, Mississippi, Nagasaki – they change me, but they don’t define me.

As this powerful memory dims in your mind like a setting sun, I hope you won’t begrudge the normal work of time. Instead, relish the fact that God has laid a new slab in the deep foundations of your life – and look expectantly toward what he will build atop it.

Grace and Peace – Chris

03 April 2006

On Ownership

Ownership is a powerful thing. To look at a thing and say “That’s mine.” even better to say “I made that.”

For a man, owning things can often be a proxy for where we’ve gone in life, what we’ve achieved. Our first car is like a right of passage, a symbol of adolescence becoming adulthood. Of course, that car also teaches us some of our first real-world lessons about responsibility – it’s no longer an exercise in mom and dad’s laboratory. Often we get our first job just to pay for gas for our first car. Even more so a house - I had my house about 2 months when Darrin Miranda told me “From now on, every time you walk out the front door it will cost you $50 at Home Depot.” - he wasn’t far off.

I’m not really talking about ‘stuff’ here, I’m not talking about materialism. I’m talking about this powerful drive to have something that’s my own, whether it’s a physical thing like a car, or a house, or a baseball card collection, or something intangible like a degree or a business.

So there’s this guy I know, we’ll call him Fred. For the last two years or so, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Fred and his wife’s business grow from a neat idea with one customer who practically had to beg them to sell him something, to a growing-too-fast-dear-Jesus-help-us-keep-the-wheels-on success story. It’s been exciting and fascinating to watch God work in this thing almost despite anything they do to help or hinder the thing. But that clearly cool business story aside, what’s really intrigued me is how it’s changing the two of them, particularly Fred. I’m not certain this is 100% true, but I think this business is the first thing either of them have ever owned that was worth more than about $5,000. (not counting what their wonderful kids might fetch on the black market) And the effect on Fred has been deeply transforming. I’m sure it’s not only this, but there’s this new thing in his life, he now has the ability to look around that room with all the pots and pans and pepper and say “This is mine. I made this.” and no man can gainsay him. That is seriously powerful. It gives him a sense of pride, an anchor for his self-esteem. From there he can look around at the world and have faith for even better things – even more, that HE might be a functional part of those better things, hat God might actually use HIM.

In ‘Wild at Heart’ they say that a man’s deepest question is “Do I have what it takes?”

It’s the question that really asks – am I a man at all, or just a boy? And I’m watching Fred approach this question with a different look on his face than was there four years ago. Because there is this thriving, growing thing in his face every day – a business that he owns – he’s accomplished something that most men never do and you can see the thoughts racing in his mind – doing battle with the older, darker thoughts born of failure and fear. “Maybe they were wrong about me? Maybe I was wrong about myself? Maybe I really do have have what it takes...”

Today, more than anything I think, Fred finds himself at a moment where he needs to be on his own for the simple sake of proving to himself and others that he can be. It’s an unexpected crossroad, and that giant step forward yawns before him like the Grand Canyon. It’s a delicate moment here – this opportunity to assert our independence, because we can easily come to think the moment is about success or failure. But it isn’t – it’s about the courage to try. For my part, I’m trying to cheer him on in the way you encourage the kid frozen at the top of cliff dive. Is there real, actual danger? – yes, the water to the left is too shallow. But will this moment by pivotal – very much yes. If he turns away it will be a set back, a delay to this next phase in his life and the problem with these delays is that we never know which will be our last opportunity. But for now, it’s just that gut-wrenching, inch-by-inch approach to the precipice as you peer over the edge and fight the vertigo...you can do it Fred. You can do it.

But ownership cuts both ways. In another corner I have another friend, we’ll call him Bob. Bob has always been a superstar. Popular, self-confident, excelling in everything he puts his mind to. If Bob ever asked “Do I have what it takes?” he was able to confidently answer with a “Well duh!” And yet, like Fred, Bob doesn’t really own much at all. It’s certainly not for lack of trying, the guy’s been energetic and entrepreneurial for as long as I’ve known him, but nothing seems to stick. Another central theme in Wild at Heart is the notion that our strength is not for ourselves – it is given to us by God to serve others. Bob knows his strength, perhaps too well, but it’s hard for him to serve, hard for him to submit. The simple truth is that he’s usually smarter, better, faster, and more talented than the people he works for – it’s no wonder he finds it hard to get in line. Also like Fred, Bob finds himself at a crossroads these days – with decisions before him and he too, like Fred, has gone through some major growing these last 18 mos.

Now in fairness, I don’t know Bob as well as I know Fred, so I could be way off, but my sense is that ownership has become twisted in Bob’s heart to become more of a lure than a reward. He wants to own something so badly that it colors the way he sees other things, it changes the way he acts. Like a starving kid who finds a salad bar and eats himself sick...so sick he misses the main course. Maybe more accurate would be a kid whose BEEN hungry – who’s learned to take what he can today because you never know if there will be bread tomorrow. For Bob, it doesn’t even seem to be about owning any particular thing, just owning SOMETHING. He wants so very bad to say “That’s mine!” that he has a history of sabotaging the very things that would satisfy that need in his heart. It’s the lure of easy money and a quick fix and looking so long for the pot of gold.

It’s the juxtaposition between these two men that has got me thinking about ownership.

The one wondering if he can actually own anything, the other wondering why he doesn’t own more already and what he can own right now.
One who probably ought to leave the safety of the nest for the open sky, the other who probably needs, more than anything, to stop being a one-man-band and commit himself to sharing and collaborating.

I suppose, like most things, the relationship between ownership and sin is a gray area. The impulse to own can strengthen us or consume us. We can get unhealthy with a drive to have something that we become unwilling or unable to recognize that it’s really God’s in the long run – we’ve just been allowed to hold it for a while. We can likely grow to feel that we oughtn’t own anything because we’re too dumb, or too irresponsible, or too dirty – so we reject the gifts God offers us, or fail to recognize the opportunities he presents.

Perhaps the most compelling part of these men’s stories is the fact that from where I stand, both men have practically been buried by God’s advice in these matters – and both of them see just what I do...but they resist it. Whether it’s for fear, or pride, or just because it’s not what they expected, they hedge, they hesitate, they want more confirmation. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not criticizing here. I’ve certainly been in the same place, where you can’t see the forest for the trees and the electric bill. It’s just fascinating to be watching these stories unfold from the bleachers. That’s where I hope to take the time to reflect on my own vision of ownership. I’ve certainly been afraid to reach for something – been there. I’ve certainly lunged for a grape only to discover I missed the watermelon – done that.

And so often, the true motivator in me was fear. Fear of taking on responsibility, or fear of being left-behind by the Jones’. I think of the evening that Saul winds up camping in the same cave where David is hiding. Who would have blamed David for thinking “Here is Saul! God has delivered my enemy into my hands!” With this kook chasing him through the countryside trying to kill him, how much would fear have played on David’s heart – Make the strike! End your trouble now! This may be your only chance! But David didn’t give into fear – instead he’s able to step back and see the bigger picture and declares (in essence) “Just ‘cause I can don’t mean I should.” I even wonder if God HADN’T delivered David his enemy. Is it possible, that taking Saul’s life would NOT have been sinful, but it simply would have been less – less righteous, less inspiring, less wise – but not exactly wrong? What do we think of the incredible coincidence of the story’s set-up? We’re told God doesn’t temp us so we shouldn’t consider it some kind of test for David. Would the Devil lead Saul to that cave? That seems out of character for him to sacrifice his king, but more importantly there’s no indication of that in the story. Perhaps we can learn something from David’s son Solomon. When God offers him just about anything he might ask for we have every reason to believe the offer is'nt in earnest. Riches? Land? Dominion? They are all on the plate and given that situation I don’t think asking for those things would have been sinful for Solomon. But he asks for wisdom – given an invitation to be almost anything, he puts all his ambition and all his anxiety aside and chooses instead to submit. “God, teach me about you. And that will be enough.”

As a result he gets both.