You Can’t Go Back

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You Can’t Go Back.

This morning I tried. I really did. I knocked on the door of the first place on this earth that I can remember being. At the end of a peaceful cul-de-sac, across the street from a park. The house felt smaller than I remember but I guess when you are ten years old everything seems huge. A young woman in her early twenties answered the door. I think she might have been high, either that or I woke her up. Either way, it is probably annoying to be interrupted in either of those situations.
“I’m sorry to bother you”, I said. “I grew up in this house and just wanted to take a couple pictures and didn’t want anyone to look outside and get creeped out”. She stared blankly. “Yeah, do your thing”, she replied. I backed away and turned to walk back out the the street, on my way I pointed at a huge tree in the middle of the yard, “my family planted that tree” I said over my shoulder as I glanced back at her. She looked at the tree, then back at me, then shut the door.
I took a few moments in the driveway to take it all in. The fire hydrant that used to be the base for my G.I. Joes. The grass spaces between ours and the neighbors driveway that I was so proud of jumping over on roller skates without falling. The basketball hoop that my dad and grandfather had erected that used to stand right at the edge of the driveway (now missing, but an obvious patch where it was taken down).
Somehow I expected it to seem much more magical than it actually was when I stood there. I mean, I haven’t stood here in 25 years. But here I was. And I remember everything. A flood of memories. I stand there for a couple more minutes and think to myself “So this is it, huh? Hmmm, wheres the magic?”.
I walk across the street to the park where I used to play little league games. Past the playground where I learned to be brave and climb. The field where I have memories that are as clear as day of my dad chasing me across the grass while I ran full speed with the football under my arm. Again, wheres the magic? A million more memories flooded my brain with every bench and hill and baseball backstop. But it wasn’t magical. It was just a park.
I learned today what I think everyone comes to learn in their adult years. It’s not the place. Its the people.
It was my childhood home, but my brothers weren’t there to pull me on my skateboard behind their bikes. My mom wasn’t there to yell “good job T!” everytime I climbed higher. My dad wasn’t there to cook burgers on the grill. Family, that is what made it magical. It isn’t the house, the field, the playground, or the yard. It was love. It was the human beings that shared it with me. Yes, the magic is gone away from this place, but it has not gone from my life, or even this world. It has gone to New York, and Indonesia, and Tampa. It has gone everywhere where the people who made it joyous have gone.
Many of you have fond memories of your life. The places, the people, the experiences. You might even have the urge to try and return. I want you to know that even if you did manage to return to the location, the house, or the city, the magic is not there.
The fondness that your soul has for certain memories and periods in your life will often times disguise itself as an affinity for a place or a time. Sometimes when we look back, we make the same mistakes that we so often make when we think about the future: we think fondly about a house we will buy, or a place we will live, or a thing we will do, and we think our pleasure will be there. It will not.
The truth is that the fondness that your soul has is for other souls. Family, friends, community, and God. We were created this way. The connections that we form is where the actual magic and joy deep within our souls resides.
My job is not to go back and try and enjoy those times again, it is to bring those times into the present. To do everything in my power to ensure that my children feel these same experiences. When I am old I want to hear them talk fondly about all of the amazing memories that they have with their father, mother, sister and brother, grandpa and grandma. I want them to, one day, go back to their childhood home (that they live in at this very moment) and to realize the full truth that what made this place great was not the toys or the basketball hoop or the parks, it was their Father and their Mother and the fact that we took every opportunity to enjoy their youth alongside of them.
Your job, parents, is not to give them a great childhood, it is first and foremost to enjoy them. To reflect back to them their joy and their pain and their laughter and their imagination. And to make sure that they understand that this is what God does for us. It started with the first man and woman, Gods first son and daughter, whom he dwelled with and enjoyed. And then he taught them to be fruitful and multiply that love and communion and enjoyment generation after generation for thousands and thousands of generations until this very day.
It is in the intrinsic things that life is found. Pour yourselves out for your children, your neighbors, and the world around you, and you will find true joyous life. You were created for this. Created by a God who does this for you every day.
You cannot go back. It wasn’t the time. It wasn’t the place. It wasn’t the activities.

It was love.

So may you look back and move forward, remembering and resurrecting Gods love. For generations to come.

P.S. – Its time to turn off your screen and be present. Starting now.

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Where Does Happiness Come From?

Hello all. I took last week off to rest my brain as I felt like I needed to fill myself and not pour out for the day. As C.S. Lewis used to say “All things in moderation, including moderation”. Anyways, I have been pondering happiness and joy lately and I thought I would spend some time writing down my thoughts on where I believe these things come from, and some of the ways that our thinking can go wrong in regards to finding and maintaining a joyous attitude.

I want to start with a bit of a grizzly scenario.

Lets say that you find yourself alone and freezing to death, and you are becoming increasingly convinced that your demise is steadily approaching. How would you feel? I know it’s a dumb question, we would all feel pretty awful about the whole situation. Hopelessness is saddening, pain is never fun, and being alone while feeling hopeless and in pain only piles on more misery.

Now, lets say that the situation changed. Someone comes to you and gives you a jacket that was of such high quality that your body was warmed and your life was saved. How would you feel then?  I dare say that you would probably feel quite happy. And the jacket had allot to do with that.

A jacket, when you are cold, makes you happy.

Now, if this statement is true, what could be said of ten jackets? Would ten jackets make you ten times happier? Would a hundred jackets make you a hundred times happier? Would a thousand jackets make you a thousand times happier?

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No. It will not.

Happiness is not about having an overabundance of one thing. Studies have proven that, in fact, an overabundance of anything is almost always harmful.If you’ve read the recent reports about people “binge watching” netflix, you will find that this type of behavior actually causes depression. A well crafted show is a good thing. But binge-ing on a good thing is destructive and will actually bring about the opposite of what you are seeking. Happiness and genuine joy come, not from having more and more and more of a good thing, but from receiving just enough of the right thing.

We know this. Deep down inside, we all know this.

This fact, however, does not keep us from trying to acquire a whole bunch of the same thing. A good meal brings us joy, but too much of that meal will leave us miserable, overweight, with low self-esteem and will eventually contribute to an early death. Studies have also recently found that running as exercise is healthy in moderation. But in fact, people who run every day for more than 45 minutes have the same death rates as those who do not run at all.

You are happy when your needs are met, and become saddened when you live in too much abundance and excess. That drive that is inside of you for more and more is a clue that your other parts do not have what they need… namely, your soul.

Your soul has an insatiable desire for more. Theologian Hans Walter Wolff wrote a book called “Anthropology of the Old Testament” and in that book there is a chapter about the “nephesh”, the Hebrew word for “Soul”. In this chapter he repeatedly refers to nephesh as “The needy man”. Wolff uses dozens and dozens of passages of scripture to show us just how needy the soul is. It has a constant desire for more and more, but unless it is fed exactly what it needs, it is never filled.

Thomas Aquinas wrote:

“We are limited in every way but one: we have unlimited desire, unlimited longing”.

When the makers of Netflix added the “autoplay” feature last year, causing shows to play continuously, one after the other, they knew exactly what they were doing. They had stumbled upon the same thing that made Youtube so popular… one more videoAnd Facebook… one more scroll down. And the snooze button… one more quick snooze. But none of it ever gives us what we are looking for… in fact, it takes away what we want. We have all lost precious time because of our insatiable desire for “just one more”.

“Simplicity is freedom, duplicity is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear., as Richard Foster wrote.  The discipline of simplicity is an important one. I believe it was meant to remind us of these simple facts that we can readily observe, but rarely notice, every single day. Jesus said “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). I don’t think that we really believe this anymore. It is so ingrained in all of us to literally judge a persons life by the abundance of their possessions… which is why we tend to despise the poor and homeless. This is also the viewpoint of those who would abort a mentally handicapped baby, because we believe that our lives consist of our possessions, and a fully functioning mind is considered among the commodities of a developed society. But Jesus tells us that our possessions, wether it be money, intelligence, willpower, or marketable skills, do not determine a life.

Our request to God should be:
Not for more intelligence, but the simple wisdom to make the decisions that we currently need to make.
Not for more money, but the providence to meet the current need.
Not for more time, but the diligence to live what time we do have to the fullest.
Not for more friends, but the love, compassion, and empathy to be the best possible companion to the few that we have.
Not for more, but for better and more meaningful: moments/relationships/conversations/meals/experiences/marriages/work/etc…

Feed your soul what it needs first, and let the body and mind follow that. When you find yourself wanting more more more… stop and ask yourself where that is coming from. Ask yourself if more has ever really satisfied. Observe all the ways in which more has been destructive in your life and the lives of those around you. And reject the idea that more of this or that will really satisfy.

Ask God for what he calls “Our daily bread”. It is not a lifetime supply. It is right here. Right now. It is all you need.

More on this next week.

Graceful Responses To Nasty Emails.

I woke up that Sunday morning and perused my sermon notes over coffee. I was pretty satisfied with the effort that I had put into crafting a teaching that would help us, as a church, put some things in perspective, but I knew what Monday morning would bring. I told my wife as I headed out the door “I’m probably going to receive a nasty email after I this sermon”. She looked at me with a furrowed brow and responded “Why, what are you preaching on?” . “Community”, I answered. She nodded, “The loners don’t like to hear about community”. As I walked out the door I looked at her and said “And, lone rangers are always looking for a fight”.

The next morning the volume on my phone was set at full volume. Just loud enough to hear the “ding” of an incoming message. It was my sabbath, so I rolled over and put the phone on “Do not disturb” mode. Eventually my intrigue got the better of me, and I opened up my email to read the scathing, ungracious, angry, insulting and deriding pile of steaming excrement had been launched at my soul on, what was supposed to be, my day of rest. My morning was ruined.

I’ve only ever been a pastor, so I’m not sure what other people have to put up with, but I’m fairly certain that this can’t possibly be the only profession that invites these kinds of letters. I imagine that many of you receive them from time to time.

Today I want to address this seemingly new phenomenon of human beings, professed followers of Jesus, launching virtual cannonballs from the comfort of their couch and pajamas. I imagine that the rise in this type of behavior is due in part to the easy access that we have to the people we are upset with. It used to be that when you had a grievance you would either set up a meeting and prepare your thoughts to be delivered face to face. You were forced to look into the eyes of the other person. Where your body language spoke far more than your words ever could. Where there is a sense of respect and decorum. That type of scenario is exactly what cowards fear, and what kept them (and their emotional outbursts) in check.

But in this day and age we can inject ourselves, our anger, our unhealth, and our spiritual darkness directly into the souls of the person who has become the object of our ire during their family dinner, their prayer time, or the busiest parts of their day. And for the bitter minded, this is far to big of a temptation to pass up.

So what do we do? How do we respond? How do we interact with ungraciousness? Well, I can only tell you what I have learned over the years (through both my failures and successes) about how to respond to this type of behavior. So here are some simple rules that I follow. Rules that have helped me turn many of these interactions into helpful dialogue instead of heated and destructive breakdowns in relationship. So here we go.

Rule #1: Wait 48 hours before responding.

I make a general habit of trying to treat the majority of digital correspondence as if it were not digital at all, but tangible. Like a handwritten note that I received via old fashioned snail mail. Putting some chronological distance between the initial emotions, and the response.

This does 2 things:

1) It gives them time to think about the repercussions of their actions.
It takes time for information to be processed. They probably haven’t taken that time. They acted out of anger mixed with access to you. A couple of days of letting their thoughts settle will do them (and you) some good. Often times I will receive a follow up email a day later that will try and soften their previous letter, and sometimes even a request to meet in person… which is the best possible scenario. Regret and shame weigh heavy on people. It can drive them to the realization that they are in a dark place and need to draw near to people, not push them away. Time to think and to let the spirit of God do his work can soften the heart.

2) It gives you time to think about your response.
Your first instinct is to defend and fire back. You, no doubt, know about some easy jabs that you could throw at them: pointing out their struggles with some sin that you know about, stupid things that they have done, all of the misinformation that they have gathered. This is not only unhelpful, it throws more heat on the fire.
Remember, they weren’t thinking clearly when they wrote the letter and, at this moment, neither are you. Let things settle, abandon the scene of the accident and return when the adrenaline has worn off. You will find that you can easily look at things differently, and only then will you be able to respond with your integrity intact.

Rule #2: Do not defend yourself.

Let me quote a passage from my favorite book, “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster:

The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.

Silence is a spiritual discipline, and spiritual disciplines are there to bear fruit in our lives. One of the ways that we can practice silence is to remain silent when our reputation and motives are under attack. The fruit of silence is freedom. Freedom to let God justify us.

If there are personal attacks, things specifically written to demean your character or bring pain and insult to your soul, say nothing of those. If they are true, then you have some internal spiritual work to do that has nothing to do with them. If they are untrue, then be at peace. Be silent. Rest. Your integrity is intact, and now you can enjoy watching God be your defender.

Rule #3: No negativity!

Diamonds and emails are forever. I have said things that have come back a decade later and sucker-punched me right in the kisser. Those negative and emotional words will live forever in someone else’s inbox. They will never be deleted. I know this because I have kept every awful email that I have ever received. I use them as a reminder to either set up boundaries in the future, or for when I find out later that there was sin that the sender was hiding that has come to light, and now I can read it through the lens of their pain and guilt. It is a reminder that most of the time they don’t hate you, they hate that you have reminded them of themselves… and they can’t stand themselves. That email, sent out of a sinful place, now becomes a warning sign for your future interactions with them. If you see them going down that same path again, you now know what to look for and how to help them confess, repent, and cope.

Sending negativity through email is akin to sending your kryptonite out into enemy territory. It will be forwarded to others, and your problems will only increase as more and more people see a side of you that you wish would disappear.

If you must respond through email, do so with positivity and encouragement. Express your desire for reconciliation and grace. Be hopeful with them that you can find common ground. Apologize if necessary. Tell them the spirit with which you are writing, and ask them to read it in that tone.

Rule #4: Look for substance. 

Print that nasty email out, and get a sharpie. Black out (redact!) all of the personal attacks and insults. Things that are unfounded and assumptions that are not grounded in actual reality. What are you left with? Is there a legitimate concern? Address it. Address it with dignity and grace and a desire to find a remedy. The entire email probably could have been boiled down to that one point, so pretend that it was and focus all of your efforts towards meeting that need.

Those are the rules that I have for myself, perhaps they can help guide you when someone is firing arrows in a fit of emotion.

Above all, remember. There is no reward in winning the argument. There is no joy in destroying another person. There are no spoils of war that will make you happy. Our God does not delight in the destruction of relationships. He is not proud of you for winning the argument, having a great comeback, or laying waste to those who attack you. He loves them as much as he loves you.

They might not ever fully enter into relationship with you again, and if the relationship was abusive then it is best to set up boundaries to protect yourself and the ones you love. I’ve had to let many relational seasons come to an end, and its okay. Seasons come and go, and sometimes unhealthy influences need to be removed from your life. But God is not willing that any should perish, and our desires should mirror His. Our desire should be exactly what God desires: “that all should come to repentance”. This is not only about eterna relationship with God, it is also about our relationships with each other here and now.

When the dust settles you will be left either standing side-by-side with them again, or standing alone. But then you will have to answer to God for your own responses, your own motives, and the current state of your soul. Will you still be at peace then?

I leave you with the words of Paul, who had far more attacks leveled at him then you or I ever will, and still had the purity of heart to write this in Romans 12:17-19:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.…