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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My 4 Rules for Responding to Nasty Emails.

Every so often I receive an email written out of anger, hurt, or any one of the various emotions that cause people to lash out against others. Sometimes these emails are specifically written to inflict pain and shut down communication, while other times they are written to elicit a specific response from me.  I’ve only ever been a pastor, so I’m not sure what other people endure, 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 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 many people fear, and, until recent history, this is what has 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, through email. And for the bitter minded, this is far too 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, combined with unfetered 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.…