Pathway Blog

The Big Wish

July 19, 2021

Given no restraints, what do you want most in life? Power? Profit? Mortality? Notoriety? Knowledge? Comfort? Security? What would it take to make life suit you? What is your highest hope … your big wish?
Let’s swim a few laps around the deep end of the human mind. In this pool we find logic that figures things out rationally. We discover emotions that show us how we’re responding to what’s going on around us. There’s memory … looking back. Looking forward, we have desire: the big wish.
Okay, let’s switch metaphors. What we desire takes up a far bigger piece of our mental pie chart than we might guess. Sometimes it takes up the entire pie. In our more impulsive moments, wanting something is the only rationale we need to obtain it. Why did I say/do/buy that? Because I wanted to. Period.
Dig into that. Why did I want to? That’s the question. It takes me back up to the first paragraph. What is my big wish in life. With little hesitation or consideration, I will pursue whatever helps that wish come true. And I’ll utilize the rest of my mental pie chart to make it happen. (yup, still on the pie metaphor)
Our big wish becomes our purpose in life. It colors career choice, family relations, hobbies, purchases, fashion, work habits, outlook, attitude, character etc. And once we near the final turn, it’s become our legacy that will linger on in the hearts and minds of those we leave behind.
I know people who bring hope and healing into every room they enter. I know others who walk in seeking all the attention. I had a Grandpa who made me feel like my simple presence made his day. But, I’ve also had friends who made me feel like they were sucking the life out of me. All of this, driven by their big wish.
Jesus was an open book with his big wish. “I didn’t come to condemn, but to save.” He never wavered … with tax collectors, adulterers, kings or paupers. And with his last breath, “Dad, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Can you name your big wish? To get to the bottom of this is not as easy as one might think. Some of us struggle to come at this from the positive. It’s more like, what don’t I want to be, instead of what do I want to be. It’s easier to identify what you’re trying to avoid than what you’d ultimately like to pursue.
Maybe a good place to start would be to ask, “What do I hope people say about me when I’m gone?”

Assumptions

July 12, 2021

Are you one who thinks most people try their best, or do you assume, given the chance, they slough off? I’ve noticed that if we’re in the group that thinks people do their best, we tend to offer grace and support for their effort. If we think they’re intentionally slacking, we judge and critique.
Where we stand on this creates the world we live in. Let’s come at this from several angles:
1 Start with yourself. Can you remember a day in your life when you set out to do poorly? You know … be apathetic, presumptuous, fumbling, clumsy, rude or disrespectful. I’ve been all these at one point or another, but not on purpose.
2 How do we even define what it means to do one’s best? Is it to perform perfectly? Push until you drop? Hit all your marks? Or is it more like that end-of-the-day sense of satisfaction … which would feel differently for each individual? You know, given the hand you were dealt, you did reasonably well (your best).
3 Egotistically, what do I get out of declaring whether you’re doing your best or slacking off? Is it even healthy to think this way? What does it say about my inner workings when I assume I’m qualified to know your motives?
4 What if there was a reset button that could flip our assumptions? Instead of picking apart the other person’s awkward stumbling, we’d celebrate their best attempts at running the race with crutches. Glowering from afar would be replaced with coming close enough to lend a hand and an encouraging word.
God gets misrepresented in all this, like he’s on the picky side. But watch, when we mess up and hide behind fig leaves and bushes, he comes calling for us. And after centuries of continuous hide-n-seek, he decides to become one of us and move in next door. A judgmental God in town would obsess over our half-efforts and rude behavior. Instead, he looks at Peter, who he knows is going to deny him, and dubs him the cornerstone of his future church.
There’s a little something in each of us that wants to wander off … duck and hide. But there’s something bigger that wants to offer God and his world the best we have. When I fail to access the best in me, maybe you can come along side and help me find it. And when you struggle with your best, I can do the same.

We’re Only As Good As Our God

July 5, 2021

I’m a recovery pastor in a multi-faceted, inclusive, grace-based church. Our particular ministry is called Pathway, where folks find help for hurts of all kinds, way beyond just substance abuse. We dig into all facets of recovery … emotional, relational, mental, social and theological (who God is).
I became a pastor in my mid 20’s. Even in my earliest years of ministry I had a nagging conviction that if we don’t know who God is, nothing else comes out right. Even from childhood, I’ve been searching, pondering, studying, crying out … trying to know what God is like and how he feels about me.
As a child, my God was far away, huge, very old and unapproachable. In his lap he held a note pad where he angrily wrote down my every infraction … even if I was only thinking of “infracting.” I went to bed every night afraid I’d die and he’d send me to hell. Back then, my God was a bully.
There was a lengthy phase when I labored under the notion I could up my game enough to pacify God’s wrath. Keeping the rules and tending to religious diligence might coax him to at least tolerate me. Like he’d allow me in the room, but make me sit in the far corner. At that point, my God was reluctant.
Early in my recovery, there was intense anger toward God. I’d worked hard for him and felt as though he’d hung me out to dry. None of that was true, as I soon discovered. But my anger proved to be essential, because it prompted the most honest conversations I’d ever had with God. This God listened to me.
Getting honest with God opened me to be honest with myself and trusted friends. When I showed God my true feelings, he showed me his. It was like a curtain was pulled back. What I saw was my heavenly Dad, arms wide open, inviting me to climb up in his lap for a hug. This God adored me. Always had!
Retrace all this. When the God in my head was a bully, I cowered in fear. When the God in my head was reluctant, I stayed preoccupied with myself. When my God listened to me, I dared to trust him. When I realized God adored me, I was able to truly love others … in ways I’d never been able to before.
God wants to be known. Our immature and false ideas of him don’t happen because he’s hiding or trying to confuse us. For all kinds of reasons, it takes time, patience and experience to discover who the real God is. But once we do, we are changed. And lest we forget, we’re only as good as our God.

What Is God’s Will For My Life?

June 28, 2021

I get asked this question all the time. I’m an old guy. People think I’m supposed to know stuff. Big mistake. Being old means mostly I forget stuff.
Before we get to my “heretical” opinion on this, let’s explore a few traditional answers … ’cause you know I ain’t going with any of them:
First, God has a blueprint plan that must play out like clockwork. Proponents of this idea frequent the OT prophets, Matthew 24, Mark 13 and John’s Revelation. Theoretically, the correct compilation of verses provides a look into how the plan will play out. But as current events shift, the latest theory falls apart and new ones have to be drawn up.
Second, I’m designed to fit like a cog into God’s clockwork plan. To miss or refuse this is the most grievous mistake I can make in life. Even being slightly off could screw things up. I have one chance to get it right … or else.
Third, since I work for God, my performance must meet the highest standards. He’s watching. How much I contribute to his master plan determines my value to him. In the end my work will be judged, which will set my eternal fate.
If all or even part of this is true, it’s no wonder people stress over knowing God’s will. The stakes could prove deadly. Reaching the goal feels impossible.
An alternative approach:
Jesus made it clear, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Watch him. His “plans” were routinely interrupted. He went with the flow. Never once do we see him treating a person like a cog in a machine. And even when his guy Peter messed up, Jesus restored him as if nothing had happened.
If God does have a “master plan” what is it? In the garden, it was to walk with us. In Egypt, it was to rescue us. In the wilderness, it was to identify with us. In Jesus, it was to become one of us. In the Holy Spirit, it is to partner with us. Catch the plan? He’s with us. He’s for us. He loves us. Right here. Right now.
Think of all the time you’ve wasted shaming over your past and stressing over your future. Right now is all you really have.

Let the God of the past and future love you in this moment. And then pass that love along to the person in front of you. This is God’s will for your life. And this you can know for sure.


Trigger-People

June 21, 2021

We all have one or two in our lives. They push our buttons, make us want to relapse, lose our religion, move to another state. Trigger-people come in all varieties: bullies, deceivers, whiners, braggers, know-it-alls, ticking bombs, motor mouths, self-consumed, hyper-extremists, fixers, hypochondriacs. They’re impossible.
We talk a lot about love and grace, which is easy with some people. How do we love people we don’t like? I’m not so good with lists, but I’m gonna try:
1 Slow down and imagine how God sees them. He adores them as much as he does you. And he’s just as invested and involved in their life as he is yours. They’re one of his treasured children.
2 In your mental picture, paint them as wounded, not evil. Granted, there are dark people who look to devour you. Most trigger-people are just living out the cliché: “hurt people, hurt people.” Misery does, in fact, love company.
3 Extract your needs from the equation. This isn’t about your comfort, self-worth or security. Stop expecting to feel happy or fulfilled around them.
4 They are dysfunctional with everybody. Their words and actions are not aimed at you. You’re simply the closest target.
5 Actively look for God’s fingerprints in their lives. When you see them, speak it out. Even negative traits are flavored with traces of God’s goodness. Plus trigger-people rarely hear genuine affirmation. It might just get them thinking.
6 Hone your listening skills. Read between the lines. The outer manifestations that bug you point to deeper issues. Why waste time obsessing over symptoms, when there’s a chance to explore the hidden wound beneath.
7 Show the respect to a trigger-person they refuse to give themselves. Let them know they’re heard and they count. You can affirm a person, without feeding their dysfunction.
8 Refuse to grade yourself. This is not about you performing well on a test. This is about you being healthy with an unhealthy person. It’s not your job to fix or change them. You’re just loving them. And awkward love beats no love.
Is this what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies?”

What You Believe

June 14, 2021

Sitting at a bus stop, two recently acquainted friends explore their new relationship. It comes up that they both attend church. Watch where this goes:
“What do you all believe about infant baptism? The rapture? Is it KJV, RSV or NIV? Can women speak at your church? The writing of scripture … dictated or inspired? What about worship style? Speaking in tongues? Prophetic utterance? Eternal security? How is one “saved”? Wine or grape juice for the Lord’s supper? How about alternate lifestyles? Politics?”
Isn’t it interesting … this is where we go with these things? It’s like sizing each other up on a dating site, as if there’s no point in pursuing further conversations if our religious beliefs aren’t a match.
Now expand this to the level of local churches, regional conglomerates and worldwide denominations. Groups of people joined together over what they believe. Mutual beliefs get set in stone. Don’t question or push back. Non-compliance won’t end well … demotion, dismissal or damnation.
We eat what we like: chicken versus burgers, veggies versus pizza etc. Friday PM we head to the restaurant that caters to our taste. Sunday AM we head to the church that does the same, only doctrinally. It’s like beliefs are less about study or conviction and more about flavors for which we’ve acquired a taste.
Maybe this is why Jesus didn’t hang his hat on beliefs. Sure, he invited us to believe in him, but that was about trusting him personally. He never laid out a blueprinted set of beliefs. And he certainly didn’t dangle us over a fiery afterlife if we didn’t march in lockstep with a dogma.
We do catch Jesus talking about the afterlife, but it’s to the religious bullies of his day. In one conversation he brought up sheep and goats. In this story it quickly becomes obvious, sheep are the good guys and goats are … well, you know. He outlined a day of reckoning, when the two species would be separated. Jesus’ deciding factor had nothing to do with what they believed. Instead, he talked about clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, comforting the downhearted. Love.
Isn’t it sad how the American church, that paints Jesus’ name all over itself, is currently mired in division? And the break-up conversations inevitably come down to squabbling over items of belief. While, if Jesus is any indication, God is more interested in how we love than what we believe.

The Big Story

June 7, 2021

At the beginning of The Big Story our God is unseen but clearly heard. He speaks and at the sound of his voice light happens. Planets and constellations are formed. With his finger he traces rivers out across the miles. Critters pop up like ants from a mound. Humans are born naked and unashamed. He is huge. We are small.
As the story moves along we make a practice of falling into holes from which we can’t escape on our own. Enslaved by Pharaoh, our God becomes our rescuer. Ignorant and self-destructive in the desert, God becomes our ever-present mentor. Embarrassed because we aren’t keeping up with our neighbors, God reluctantly gives us a king. When these kings lead us astray, our God all but begs for our return. He’s still big, but it feels different. We’re growing … painfully.
Then in Bethlehem, God is but a tiny speck in a big picture. He grows up as one of us, survives the ups and downs. The Son kicks off his short-lived ministry with baptism and an audible blessing from the clouds, immediately followed by a sojourn in the wilderness of deprivation, where in his most vulnerable state he faces a formidable set of temptations from the dark side.
His ministry meets with both praise and rejection. He touches people he’s not supposed to, probes our secrets, pushes boundaries, pokes coiled snakes and introduces lavish levels of grace. As if ignoring the same power we see at the start of The Big Story, he bends down to write in the dirt next to the prostitute, washes feet and comforts panicked disciples with “peace be still.” He looks smaller, while his love feels bigger. And now we can look him in the eye.
At the very end, he surprises his guys with more … and more is better. He has to leave them so he can send his Spirit to live in them, to lead them into all truth. He will be their Paraclete – one who comes alongside. Never will any of them, or us, awaken to a day when God isn’t close by.
If I’m reading The Big Story right he is with us, not as judge, policeman or boss. Jesus used the word Paraclete; partner. And did we mention, this arrangement is 24/7.
A blind person can only imagine the redness of a rose. A deaf person cannot hear a robin’s melody. This does nothing to diminish the reality of either. Me not feeling God’s presence can’t wash out or water down the truth of what we read in The Big Story. Next time you fret over not feeling God, remember he feels you strongly enough to make up the difference … and more.

Love Skeptics

June 1, 2021

Sorry for revisiting Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. We spent time on it over a month ago … called it The Good Father. I can’t get it off my mind.
In recovery, we connect the dots between current pain and childhood trauma. Parents mess up. Ours did. We are or will. Our kids are or will. It’s part of the human equation … just not the entire equation.
In this story we have two messed up sons raised by a perfect parent. One went wild, the other raged, yet their dad was the best ever. Apparently, perfect parenting is no guarantee. So, if you’re currently raising little ones, take a breath. You’re not programming robots. You’re raising a free-willed humans.
What’s the deal here? As good as dad was, his sons somehow misunderstood his love, which translated into them mistrusting him. It’s like they thought he was holding out. One worked harder to earn love he already had. The other asked for his cut so he could spend it loving himself better than he thought his dad was.
This is Adam and Eve all over again. God created a place he called “very good” and turned it over to them. Every day he came and hung out with them. The entire experience was drenched in love. And yet, they thirsted for more.
What’s with humanity? Is it dissatisfaction, restlessness or curiosity? Somehow God’s love isn’t enough. Our taste calls for something more. We want love plus: plus stuff, plus fame, plus power, plus immortality, plus instant gratification, plus zero pain or resistance, plus all the answers. If we’re legalists, love plus rules.
We’re love skeptics. This shows up in our broken relationships. Our fix-it attempts include coercion, intervention and correction. When they don’t work, as a last ditch effort, we throw love against the wall to see if it sticks.
God holds love in the highest regard. Read the big story. It’s his first move. Everything he says or does is driven and directed by love. It’s not a gamble to him. It’s his bedrock … his go-to. He knows at the end of the day, love will win. It’s not his plan “B” or “C”. It’s his plan “A”. John even says God is love.
Imagine a world where we’re this confident in the power of love. Every encounter is transformed. Mistrust and misunderstanding lose their footing.

Gut Reactions

May 24, 2021

A person’s first thoughts and feelings in a crisis provide an X ray into their soul. Do they blame? Get angry? Lend a helping hand? Freeze? Run? Empathize?
I’ve come to believe our gut reactions can be sorted into two boxes. One could be labeled “generous”, the other “stingy.” I also believe we’re hit and miss with this. In one setting we rush to self-protect. Change the setting and we’re all about helping the other person.
Over a year of the COVID crisis has provided us a long term, “in bulk,” wide angle view of ourselves. Our gut reactions are all over the map:
”I’ll rush to the front lines to help those in need.”
”Nothing else matters as long as I survive.”
“It violates my personal rights to ask me to wear a mask or get vaccinated.”
”This gives me a chance to figure out alternative ways to love on people.”
”I’ll just sit this one out. Binge watch. Pursue my hobbies.”
Given this crisis, do I buy supplies for my aging neighbor or hoard them for myself? Is my focus primarily on me or those around me? Am I looking for someone to blame or for someone to help? Do I get mad or do I get creative? There are no right or wrong answers for any of this. Our answers might even be “neither” or “both.” For certain, the best answer is always the honest one.
None of this is written to indict or shame. We’re only skimming the surface of the issue. What goes on in a person’s heart is more complex and nuanced than what you just read. Even so, we can explore.
COVID has taken our normal tendencies and injected them with radioactive dye that makes our issues glow for all to see. We are being exposed at our very best and our very worst. This feels precarious. Do we move out of state and enter witness protection? Or do we come clean and start learning how to apply grace to the rough edges we find in ourselves and others.
We will never grow in grace until faced with situations that challenge or resist it. Loving someone who reciprocates is smooth and fun. But, what do we do with love that goes unnoticed or is outright rejected? Grace shared during a personal crisis can feel ridiculous or frightening. But it’s grace at its best.

Anger and … The Next Time

May 17, 2021

These sessions have not been about eliminating or demonizing anger. We’ve tried to honestly examine it; what triggers it, what it can become. We’ve even acknowledged times when anger is appropriate and healthy. Just know for sure … none of us will ever live anger free.
This session we’re asking what we should do next time we’re faced with anger:
–Try doing nothing: count, bite your lip, hum a tune, leave the room. Buy time. Give the flame some time to die down. Shooting first and asking questions later may work with a charging bear, not so much with people. Big emotions like anger, lust and panic typically take a wrong first turn if left unchecked.
–Once you’ve bought time, do a quick check. Is the anger about you or someone else? There’s a world of difference between empathetic and ego-centric anger. Empathy steps up in cases of injustice, disrespect, exploitation, manipulation and abuse. When it’s the ego, it feels more like an invasion of your space: public image or treasured stuff like long-held beliefs, private secrets, political loyalties.
–What about chronic anger? Life is a steady stream of discontent and/or frustration. A slow burn. Ticking time bomb. Hair trigger. Whatever metaphor works for you. This brand of anger calls for some help. Chronic anger is usually walled in by the bricks and mortar of past memories. Honest sharing in recovery groups like this is the place to break through and find truth.
–Healthy anger … how do you know if it’s healthy and what do you do with it? Good anger is driven by love and a devotion to relational fair-play.(If you’re angry at the mistreatment of anyone, yet you do/say nothing, it’s as if you’re contributing to the abuse.) Speak for the voiceless. Shield the weak. And if you’re still a little hot under the collar, find an extra mile and walk it.
–Then, there’s the aftermath. You’ve had an anger episode. It might be justified, selfish or a little of both. Take time to process what just happened. Your thinking will want to head toward one of two extremes. Your temper will either get hotter, or it will want to turn inward and become shame. Both options are unhealthy.
Let’s wind all this down. We will routinely be faced with anger toward someone or something. It’s part of life, kinda like breathing. Maybe accepting that fact, with care and honesty, is where we need to learn to live.

Anger and Control

May 10, 2021

If I’m honest, most of my anger is ultimately aimed at God. I’m not as angry at you as I am at God for allowing you to be a jerk. I’m not as mad at my mean boss as I am at God for not nuking him. My anger over my current situation comes from a notion that God could have done better.
As loving as God is, we still want things he’s not willing to provide. What he withholds he does for our good. But we don’t see it that way. So we haul him into court to press charges: “God, you’re not doing your job.”
When we can’t make these charges stick, we take matters into our own hands. Let me handle the jerks in my life … give the boss a piece of my mind. We can’t resist control, from the big stuff down to arranging the pencils on our desk.
See the wreckage in our future?
For starters, none of us are equipped to control our lives. We lack the skills, the emotional stability and the energy. Plus, we have mixed motives. The rain we would have fall on our garden would flood out our neighbor. The food we would stockpile for our kids would deprive the hungry family across town.
What’s more, me being boss turns the universe on its head. Now, it’s as if God works for me. I’m the deity in my story. People aren’t so much my friends and family. They’re pawns I move about the board to suit my purposes.
This is our story. We don’t get many years under our belts before we start mistrusting God. He’s either tardy, apathetic or misdirected. We’d all agree he has what it takes to control. It just feels like he’s not seizing the moment. So we get mad at him for not managing things as well as we would if we were God.
I can only carry on this way for so long before it runs me off in the ditch, which makes me feel confused and powerless. Either I try harder, get madder and leave more wounded on the side of the road. Or, I surrender my grip on the wheel and let someone more qualified drive the bus.
The Psalms are a good place to go with this. David spoke out his anger at not being in control. He hated it when the wicked prospered. He told God how he’d like to “adjust” them, which could get quite graphic. But he was honest … and in the end, humble. This is it! We tell God what we’d do if we were in his shoes and then acknowledge he’s the only one qualified to fill those shoes.

Anger and Expectations

May 3, 2021

There are Christmas expectations: “I hope Santa gives me what I asked for.” Traumatic expectations: “This is gonna hurt.” Daily expectations: “That dog will bark at me when I run by. ”Unreasonable expectations: “I’ll win the lottery.”
Expectations come in all shapes and sizes. I can dread the worst. I can look forward to the best. Life is a continuous string of expectations and would be short-lived and painful without them. I expect gravity to prevail if I unwisely walk off a cliff. I expect the food I eat will sustain me. I expect to get burned if I touch the flame. I expect to feel love when we hug.
To NOT get what we expect, now there’s the bind. Promotion denied. Agreement reversed. Good deed unappreciated. Hopeful outcome of a medical test shattered. These can go sad. More often they go mad.
There’s a buildup of pressure with all this. It’s called anticipation. How do we release that pressure when we don’t get what we want … yell at the spouse and kids, slam doors, pull out the sarcasm? Anger is the intensive reaction to unmet expectations.
All of this is common to who we are. So, what do we do with it? Do we stop expecting altogether? That would slice off part of what it means to be human. Do we push harder and yell louder? This would be a reaction, not a solution.
What if unmet expectations aren’t just giant potholes on life’s highway? What if they’re crossroads? Like when we don’t get what we want, we have a chance to choose between anger and creative options? Who can calculate how much better life is today because imaginative minds were challenged to come up with a plan “B”?
Talk about unmet expectations … look what we’ve done to God. Yet, all down through our history of letting him down, he’s always come up with innovative, gracious responses. He’d be in his rights to go the angry route. But he doesn’t, which lets us know up front that anger is not our only option.
One more thought … if I struggle with anger over unmet expectations, isn’t it likely that what I’m expecting is self-serving? Maybe one solution for chronic anger would be to invest myself in something other than my own wants and wishes … like the person in front of me.

Anger and Fear

April 26, 2021

Fear is one of those primal emotions, essential to our early survival. There were large hungry animals roaming the neighborhood with plans to eat us for lunch. Senses were kept on high alert to insure that didn’t happen. Fear was the natural reaction any time we felt we were on the menu.
There are two exits in the fear room. One is marked “hide in here.” The other is “fight back.” Thing is, nobody gingerly opens either door. In our panic, whichever one we choose, we bust it wide open. So when we hit the fight door, our driver is typically anger and it is rarely calculated or under control.
This two-sided coin of fear and anger shouldn’t be hidden away in shame. Simply embrace it as part of the currency of human emotion. Let’s talk about it.
Fear-driven anger is sometimes nothing more than self-defense. As in, you beat on a metal pan to keep the prowling bear from getting any closer. He’s like the guy at work who has disrupted or threatened your day. You have no desire to hurt him, so your push-back is just enough to get him to leave you alone.
Then there’s pedal to the metal anger that wants to eliminate the threat. It doesn’t beat on a metal pan. It throws it with intent. The word “rage” works here. Some call it hate. It is often motivated by insane levels of fear. Maybe hyper-acute panic. Maybe chronic paranoia … long standing unsettled spirit.
People prone toward anger create a persona that intimidates. They seem “bigger” than average, maybe even stronger or more courageous than most. In time, they learn to use this to their advantage. Hit first, so the other guy will back down before he realizes just how frightened you are.
There are appropriate times to be angry: when you see exploitation, injustice, abuse etc. Anger, in itself, is not unhealthy. There are times when it’s the healthiest emotional response. A lack of anger might even indicate un-health.
But, nobody’s going to defend chronic, aggressive, raging anger as a healthy expression. It’s not cool. It’s not courageous. It’s actually little more than brazen bravado, like a loud-mouthed, puffed-up Chihuahua trying to pull off his best Doberman impression.
We’re going to dig deeper into this anger thing in the coming weeks. But for now, let’s do a soul search to see where we are with it personally.

Focus

April 19, 2021

Back in my Seminary days spiritual disciplines began trending. They mostly involved prayer, fasting, bible study, stewardship etc. The list was short. Today, a quick online search reveals we’re currently up to twelve.
These disciplines were meant to help a person focus. Eyes on the prize of spiritual excellence. Stay on course. Position oneself to be a worthy recipient of grace. This was a plan I could tackle with gusto.
I recall diving in with my prayer journal and high-lighted verses. There was a “runner’s high” at first. Wow, who knew I could be such a faithful disciple of Christ! In those days, I recall encouraging others to be disciplined like me.
Then, life happened. Like sitting in a car with a grizzled Vietnam vet as he declared I wasn’t worth what the church paid me. Or the fledgling congregation I served getting kicked out of its rental space. Or like moving to a new church in a new state with our baby girl only to watch my wife die of terminal breast cancer. Or the pain of realizing my time was up at a church I’d pastored 16 years, then moving my family to Bowling Green with no job, no home and very little money.
For 25 years I’d maintained my disciplines. They hadn’t maintained me. I felt alone, unloved and helpless against my habits and hang-ups. Inside I was a mess: angry, afraid, depressed, envious, bitter … etc. I wasn’t the husband or father I wanted to be. Professionally and personally I felt like a failure.
Then my wife and I stumbled into a faith-based recovery ministry. Neither of us were addicts or alcoholics; just bleeding out. Fast-forward a few years. It was in this same recovery community I first experienced God’s love for me. I knew, that I knew, that I knew. Everything changed. Hope and healing took hold.
Life became focused. Except this time it wasn’t on my disciplines. It was on the God who loves me. The same people, places and things I’d always had were still in my life. Only now, I was seeing God in all of it … where he’d been all along. All those years, my focus on disciplines had caused me to look right past him.
God’s love and presence are not rare or illusive. He’s always with each of us. So if we want to be disciplined, maybe we should devote ourselves to focus on all the ways he reveals himself in a 24 hour day.

Hate-Speak in Jesus’ Name

April 12, 2021

I don’t feel safe around people who speak hatefully. Everything inside me wants to run and hide. And if I can’t find the exit, I retreat into my private head-space. If hate-speak doesn’t trouble you, I want to know your secret.
In recent years it has become fashionable to verbally cut people to pieces. Social media is driven by it, and much of it is carried out in the name of Jesus. From deep inside I have hard push-back against this. I just don’t get it. How can you disrespect others in Jesus’ name?
Forget subtlety. It’s in your face. Christianity has beaten its plowshares into swords: “We have the answers, and should be the ones controlling the culture. Obviously, our rights take priority over yours. We are the keepers of the truth, which gives us license to speak in condescending (hateful) tones about you and your kind. And ,just so you’ll know, you’re an idiot if you don’t agree.”
I don’t want to argue good and bad Christianity. But, all this finger pointing about what is sin or not sin and who is in and who is out …where is the grace? These are nothing more than accelerants fueling the fires of Christian hate-speak. If this is what we’re calling “the good news,” I’m not interested.
If anyone was ever sinless and had firsthand knowledge about heaven and hell, it was Jesus. Yet, the only time he resorted to harsh tones was when dealing with arrogant, self-righteous church leaders. Watch him with hookers, tax collectors and street-level sinners. He invited and embraced.
We walk toward what we’re focused on. This is truth. If I’m all about being right or proving my point, I take up arms and march toward whatever battle line I feel is “under attack.” If I’m looking to bring hope and healing, I focus on the person in front of me. If they’re lonely, I listen. If they’re hungry, I feed them. If they’re naked, I clothe them. And if they want to know why, I tell them.
Some may say we’re splitting hairs here. The proof is in the side effects. A Christianity that rails against what it considers to be wrong, unintentionally becomes obsessed with policing others. A Christianity that presses into being helpful, unintentionally becomes possessed by love.

Running Wide Open

April 5, 2021

Most of you know I’m a recovery pastor in a ministry called Pathway. Like the rest of the planet, this nasty COVID has messed us up for over a year. Last night was our first night to be back in our “place” in the building … The Cup. It felt like home, so we treated it as such with an informal “family” discussion.
The focus question went something like: What does it look like to run wide open with God’s love? Rephrased … describe that sweet spot when you know down deep you’re loved by the Father.
(As the Pathway ministry at Broadway UMC has matured over the past 16 years, one core value has solidified. Hope and healing rush in when a person has that ah-ha moment that they are adored by their Father. We call it magic, ’cause that’s what it feels like to be in the same room when the realization takes place.)
So, here we were back in our familiar spot, relaxed and sharing our hearts. Some talked about experiencing God’s love in bits and pieces rather than a constant flow. Others shared about the toxic voices from their past that pulled them back toward the notion that God’s love must be earned. One mentioned a certain yearly event where they felt God’s love more keenly. Of course, a common place was out in nature.
Then a father of a toddler started to describe a recent walk he’d taken with his little boy in the woods. Every other step there was a new rock or a stick or flower.
Our young dad said it was one of the best times they’d ever had together and it all happened at “wide open” speeds of 8 feet per hour.
This was it. His little boy was both aware and fascinated with what we would routinely pass by or call mundane and insignificant. From a toddler we learn that running wide open with God’s love has nothing to do with speed or earth shaking events. It’s about awareness. God’s always there. Do we see him?
We can’t overlook the other player in this event. Dad was having the time of his life. It wasn’t the rocks or sticks or flowers. It was our young father getting caught up in the joy these little items brought to his son.
Put yourself in God’s shoes. He started the whole thing walking with his naked kids in the woods and he enjoyed it enough to show up every day. No agenda. No right or wrong way to do it. Just walk. Hmm?

Mom

March 29, 2021

We went over a year without seeing Mom. She’s in a healthcare facility across the state that was locked down due to the plague. We were able to talk on the phone and message, but nothing face to face.
Mom’s been bed-fast since before COVID. If it weren’t for her caregivers, she wouldn’t have survived these past 12 months. But they’re not family. I wondered how she’d be after a whole year of zero contact with her offspring.
A few days ago we went to see her. It was rich. Each moment counted. Every word meant more than usual. She actually looked more healthy than the last time we’d seen her. Pretty amazing.
We talked around the world … old times, family lineage, current affairs, daily routines, nursing home cuisine etc. What captured me was hearing about her connection with the aids and nurses who care for her. She doesn’t just know their names, she knows the names of their children.
Come to find out, she makes it her daily agenda to ask them questions about back-stories, likes and dislikes, concerns and worries. And in her 90’s she still remembers details so she can bring them up later. These oft underpaid hard workers know somebody cares about them up on the second floor.
Mom has several sayings she tries to live by: “God is silently planning for you in love.” … and … “Bloom where you’re planted.” A long and challenging life, which included raising five children, has ultimately “planted” her on her back in a hospital bed in a room at the end of the hall. But she’s not finished yet. She’s living out her own words, “You’re never too old to learn.”
One more thing … my mom has always been a private, rather independent person; slow to ask for help. Now, it’s her only option. I can only guess how hard that transition was for her. But it speaks volumes about the inner capacity of humans to deepen and expand if we’re willing.
If you currently have the world by the tale, enjoy the fleeting moments. At one point or another, we’ve all been ten feet tall and bullet-proof. But life marches on, through pandemics, arthritis, empty pockets and old age. One thing remains a constant. We are relentlessly loved by the Father and we can always find new ways to pass that love along to the person in front of us.

The Book

March 22, 2021

No one would claim this story, traditionally called the prodigal son, makes a definitive statement about scripture. But what if we let it? To begin with, let’s look at where we are with the good book today.
Most churches treat the bible as a policy and procedure manual. Leaders sift through, then collectively pick out parts that support their prescribed etiquette and protocol. Thus they can claim their core beliefs are in the book, meaning they have chapter and verse to back up what they believe and how they live.
This has become the basis for being un-friended by church. Break protocol by believing the wrong thing or misbehaving (kinda like these two sons) and they’ll show you the door. Something’s not right, ’cause neither son got kicked out by the father. Either we’re doing church incorrectly, or the father messed up.
If the family business here is the church, the good Father is the brilliant center. His business flourished, not so much outside the law, but by a higher law of love. Exploitative misbehavior was met with generosity and hugs. Anger received an open, empathetic ear. He left them room to explore and self-correct.
Neither son was asked to conform to rules from a book. Instead, the Father allowed both space to discover who they were and how they wanted to relate to him and each other. Dad just kept pressing in with love, all the way through broken rules, juvenile selfishness and ridiculous accusations.
What if this story is the bible in capsule form? Like, if we get this, we’ll get the big story as well.
It is reasonable for a Dad to set limits and boundaries for his boys when they were little, like God did in the O.T. Then in the N.T. invite them to discover how to relate to him as grownups like in this story we’ve been digging into.
Some claim it weakens or disrespects scripture to call it a story of a Father and his kids. Like, we need teeth/rules to keep us in line. But what if this story told by Jesus so many years ago was our invitation to mature into a more adult-to-adult relationship with the Father.
The good Father in this story is one of Jesus’ most vivid portrayals of love. Whichever adult son you identify with, be grateful your Dad has known you since childhood and is continually loving you to a better place.

Awkward Conversations

March 15, 2021

We’ve been watching a Dad in relentless pursuit of his sons. He scans the horizon so he’ll be ready to run to meet his wandering son. He leaves the party to head outside and try to tap into the heart of his working son. In both cases he takes the initiative, knowing the conversations will get painfully awkward.
What if we explore these encounters in the context of prayer?
Wandering Son starts out with an audacious prayer for his piece of the family pie. When he wastes the proceeds and winds up in the pig pen, he formulates a second prayer. Out of options, with one last chance at survival, he will propose hiring on with his dad. Rehearse your lines. Speak with conviction, humility and remorse. Grovel if you must. The goal is to acquire undeserved food and shelter.
When the conversation finally took place, he didn’t even get out of the starting blocks. Dad jumped in with hugs and party plans. Maybe he’d been rehearsing his lines as well: rings, robes and T-bones.
Working Son was a loaded grenade. Under his breath, he’d been composing his prayer for as long as he could remember. It only took a whiff of steaks on the grill to pull his pin and explode in his father’s face.
This prayer paints God as a courtroom defendant; a notion way out of bounds for many of us. But Dad gave his son freedom to speak his mind, even if it came from false assumptions and juvenile self-centeredness. Dad knew his son had to spew poison before he’d be ready for some much needed soul-searching.
Like these sons, we’re all over the map with prayer: Composed words. Log our time. Proper posture. Forced sincerity. All-out panic. Struggling to concentrate. Quoting the good book. Brow-beaten with shame. Daily grocery lists. Frozen by fear. Only counts if we feel something. Never miss a day. God has seen it all.
In this story, Dad didn’t dodge or deny selfish requests, clumsy reconciliations or enraged accusations. And whether they fully grasped their father’s love or not, at least these sons were able to express themselves honestly with him.
Neither son was a very good pray-er. But, Dad always heard their hearts and responded with grace. When it comes to prayer, God isn’t looking for proper or pretty. He just wants real, even if it gets awkward or audacious.

Sugar Daddy

March 8, 2021

We’re notorious for warping God’s gestures of affection to suit ourselves. God gives freewill and we use it to pick bad fruit. He provides speech and we use it to build a tower to our greatness. We use the guidelines he gave us to judge each other. Some even try to turn the gift of his Spirit into religious cocaine.
Both sons grew up watching their father’s generosity. Big brother competed for it. Little brother exploited it. “If he’s got deep pockets … I’ll get me some of that.”
For lengthy periods in Christian history this idea would have fallen on deaf ears. Hardship left no room for “extras.” This is not the case today. We want what we want … with sprinkles. If it gets a little worn, replace it. If we’re bored, grab the remote. We can’t live without the updated version. Instant gratification.
Young son enjoyed the grace of his father, apparently for years. At some point, the idea hit him that he could cash in on the generosity and “grace” himself better than his dad had been doing, so he asked for his ticket to happier days.
We don’t have to look far in the modern church to uncover this. Cherry-pick promises out of scripture to squeeze God like a genie in a bottle. Use our status as believers to justify hurtful treatment of others. Expect our Father to provide full protection as we chart a rebelliously careless course. He’s our Sugar Daddy. This is a family business. Why not get God to work for me?
When I embrace God as my good Father like in this story, I am perfectly graced. When I try to make him my Sugar Daddy, my thinking gets bent. So, if I’m in a bad mood, he must be holding out. Or if life gets rough, he’s fallen down on his job. He owes me perfect kids, an ideal marriage and routine promotions.
In all things we are certainly grateful to our Father. But, he doesn’t turn the lights green on our way to work. Nor does he provide convenient parking spots just because we ask. This is a contrived God of our own making. Not the good Father.
If I’m entitled, it’s not God’s doing. He’d much rather I learn to love my way through the same struggles and disappointments he experienced with his sons.

Life as a Contest

March 1, 2021

How about the oldest son in our story? He’s the center of attention until little guy shows up. Instant competition. But that’s okay, he’s got a head start. He’s pretty sure he’s figured out what Dad’s looking for. So, he’ll point out when he gets it right and point the finger when brother doesn’t.
But, little brother doesn’t have to do anything but be his cute little self, even if it includes breakage and spillage. To big brother’s dismay, he still gets hugs and high fives. Big brother will have to up his game: Little brother gets a hug. I’ll be huggier. Little brother pockets the same weekly allowance. I’ll work for mine. Little brother gets by with imperfection. I’ll be perfect.
Talk about an emotional storm. Suspicion. Envy. Rage. Bitterness. Fatigue. He finally blows up … calls his dad a slave-driver, labels his brother a whore-monger, and ruthlessly condemns and boycotts the celebration of his safe return.
For years older son has labored under a dark, misguided version of his good father, trying to earn a love that’s already his. His endeavor becomes so obsessive he’s willing to demonize those who love him the most … without even blinking.
Sadly, large segments of Christianity still share this older son’s DNA. God’s love and approval are something for which I strive. Try harder. Give more. Pray longer. Stay later. Read more faithfully. Strive for perfection and excellence. Make myself worthy. I have to persuade this reluctant God to look my way.
This turns church into one big contest. I may not be the most righteous person in the room, but I’m better than you. I don’t have all the answers, but I know more than she does. Sure, I mess up, but not nearly as bad as that guy over there.
Every gathering, I see myself as the only person in the room. It’s all about me. But as long as I’m preoccupied with how I measure up to others in some imagined pecking order, I’m blind to the Father’s love … and the welfare of my siblings.
And all the time I’m being my self-consumed self, my Father patiently waits for the day I’m ready to come inside the house and join the family celebration.

Father/Boss

February 22, 2021

We’ve been talking about two boys growing up in a family business, watching their dad in charge. As toddlers, he carried them on his shoulders out to check on the state of the work. It’s all they knew. Let’s unpack this Father a little more.
This family’s business must have been robust to survive a son leaving with his share of the estate. Watch, Dad didn’t even blink when he shared the estate with his inexperienced sons? Successful entrepreneurs would question these tactics. But then, they don’t understand that grace grows when you give it away.
This story isn’t about business strategies. Sure, it was a family business, yet the emphasis was obviously family over business; Dad first, CEO second. This was always the case whether the sons realized it or not. Remember the story’s end when he reminded his eldest that all he owned belonged to him.
The party when the young son returned … what does this tell us? It was never about how much work Dad could get out of either son at day’s end. Enjoying life with his sons was his heart. Dad sets the tone, “This family is not about competition or production quotas. It is about celebrating each other.”
This dad knew his boys … that one would become hyper-responsible and the other would wander off. He never told the dutiful son to sit down and rest. He didn’t stop the roving son from leaving. As the one in charge, he could have. But, he let them pursue their desired paths, hoping they’d one day discover his love.
To force authority on a person degrades the relationship. It may create order, but leaves the recipient feeling disrespected and confused. If made to stay home, the wandering son would have never come to his senses. If he’d not been given room to explode, the laboring son would have never owned his rage toward his dad. This father provided space for both discoveries.
Much of our culture’s religion assumes God has this hyper-need to be boss. He’s designed a cosmic plan that can’t vary one inch to the left or right. He’s the CEO. We are his minions. Work hard for the company. Follow policies and procedures. And you have one chance to get this right … or burn for eternity.
What if life is this story; not a job we do for God, but a family adventure we celebrate with him? And what if, like this story, God has this divine string tied around the heart of each child that he is gently tugging toward home?

Rediscovering the Father

February 15, 2021
I’m writing a recovery workbook by this title, based on Jesus’ tale of a dad with two sons. The story keeps exploding new truth for me. What will you see in it?
We know this one. Dad raises two boys in the family business. Older son is a no-frills hard-working guy. Younger is a free-bird who asks Dad for his piece of the family pie. Dad divides the estate between his sons. Shortly after, the young son decides to use his proceeds to fund a solo flight.
Obviously, he’s not ready to fledge, ’cause he crashes and burns. Out of money, out of friends. Out of friends, out of options. Working for Mr. Pig Farmer, he catches himself drooling over the slop. Time for his “ah-ha” moment … a plan.
His plan is to head home and hire on with Dad. Eyes on the horizon, Dad sees him far off and runs to meet him with hugs and kisses. Both bring their own plan to the reunion. But celebration out-votes obligation. Robes, rings, high dollar beef … time to party. Older son catches wind of the festivities and jumps in with accusations. When Dad consoles, the son goes off on him with pent up rage.
Jesus was born into a world that misunderstood his Father. Church leaders painted him as a demanding task-master. My own dad used to call this “the tyranny of the oughts.” Somebody else labeled it as “The Should Monster.” Jesus used this story to paint, with vivid clarity, a new picture of God.
What can you say about a God who doesn’t run his business so much as he freely shares it with his children. He lets his dutiful kids pursue their addiction to work. He lets his free-bird kids wander and wonder. When we choose unhealthy paths, he seems to love us even more. He responds empathetically the instant any of us open a door, even when he knows the conversation could get clumsy.
We call this parable “the prodigal son.” In reality it’s more about the good Father. Both sons misread him. Older son accuses him. Younger son takes advantage of him. But this Dad is relentless. Nothing either son does or says makes him love them any more or less. This is the God Jesus wants us to know and trust.
If you’re like me, you’ve typically identified with the foibles of the two sons in this story. This is distracting. What if we focus on the Father instead? Sit with him in this story. We’re about to get to know the best Dad ever.

Welcome to Love

February 8, 2021

God believes in love. He creates the world … constantly pursues humanity … becomes one of us … shares his Spirit with us, … all out of love.
His love can be gentle or seem harsh. It can get all up in your face or be subtle as a whisper. It can feel emotionally passionate or logically straightforward. It can discipline or coddle. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we don’t. God’s love for us is doggedly relentless. We cannot make him un-love us.
God left no room for confusion with his Son. Touching lepers, cuddling little ones, washing feet, all graphic statements of love. He taught it. He lived it. He died it. He exploded a grave with it.
Enough said …
For much of my life I struggled with damaged emotions: anger, anxiety, low self-esteem, lust, hyper-control issues, depression. I tried praying it all away. I read books. I was the dutiful Christian. Nothing worked.
I preached God’s love during my entire ministry, but I never believed it applied to me. Somehow I lived with the silly notion that my particular version of badness stifled any goodness God could come up with. That’s some warped arrogance right there. Then, one day it dawned on me; this isn’t about my loveability. This is about God’s ability to love.
This is where the water gets over my head. I have no idea how God’s love works inside a person to bring hope and healing. In the grand scheme of things, it is probably best to leave that up to him. All I know is that when I stopped trying to be something extra, his love was able to take over and work its magic. My life took a u-turn. I don’t understand it. I just know it happened.
Back in my wounded days, I tried hard to practice love. I was a pastor, so it was my duty. Plus it looked good on my spiritual resume. But it was all like forcing a right-handed glove on my left hand. Just letting you know … this isn’t something we go out and work on. Our role is to stop trying. Apathetic? No. Hard? Yes!
But know this … when you’ve been loved like God loves, it’s hard to keep it to yourself. It’s not so much that you talk it. It’s more that you breathe it. And it’s not a job you do for God. It’s a life you live with him.
Welcome to love.

Pathway Journey

February 1, 2021
You and I have issues. Most of us are aware of our failures and falling-downs. If by chance we forget, our loved-ones and the scabs on our knees remind us.
This being said, think back five years. Where were you with your issues? Did they control you? Were you even aware of them? Could you talk about them? Were you seeking help: therapy, recovery groups, self-help books, prayer and fasting, etc?
There’s this misguided idea that every issue should have an instant solution. If we read the right book or say the right prayer, our problems will vanish in a puff of smoke. Dr. Phil would ask, “How’s that work’n for you?” It’s not unusual to battle some of the same emotional demons for years.
In Pathway, the ministry I’m in, we hear newbies say, “I thought I’d be healed by now. Am I doing this recovery thing wrong? Does this approach even work?” Fair questions, for sure. Instead of quick cures, we invite them to keep coming back.
Pathway has two core values: Be real. Be loved. Bring your authentic self and let us love you. That’s it. The safety these values create invites people to open up their humanity. After a few visits, they realize the playing field is level. There are no “poster children” who have arrived. Week after week, God inhabits the honesty of his people. The magic can be palatable.
Over the years we’ve suited up and shown up, not knowing how our gatherings will unfold. A song may open an “ah-ha” moment. You might discover hope in someone’s story. It’s not chaotic, but there’s no rigid pattern, formula or strategy. The agenda is flexible. People always take priority over program and planning.
Recovery is not something you grasp. It is something that grasps you. It begins when you admit that you are powerless over your issues and fall back into the arms of your loving Father. And it happens best in healthy community.
Pathway… a journey in hope and healing.

Wendell VanValin, Pathway Minister

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