Pathway Blog

Prayer

October 18, 2021

I’ve been rediscovering prayer over the past 15 years. I had to. I was all over the map with it. Monday I was mindlessly mumbling memorized “poems” I called prayer while reading the back of the cereal box at the breakfast table. Tuesday my screw-ups would cause me to crawl to God in reluctant trepidation.
We have written prayers, traditional prayers and prayers in unknown tongues. We pray passages from the bible. There are ritual prayers, mostly said in church. Somebody told us it works best if we kneel, close our eyes and fold our hands. Wandering thoughts are a no, no. Bruised knees are proof of sincerity.
Prayer often resembles a job or obligation. Like mowing the lawn or doing the laundry, it has to be done if we want to maintain a healthy, tidy walk with God. Whether it produces ecstasy or simple satisfaction over doing our duty, once we’ve said “amen” we can carry on with the rest of our daily routine.
Then there is crisis prayer, when life is threatened. These are the rare occasions when we get real with God. This is also when we show him we mean business … make big promises that will get his attention.
Your adult child calls you once a day to recite something they’ve memorized. You won’t hear from them for a while if they’ve messed up. For sure, when they need something, you’re on speed dial. Can you say parental vending machine? You’ve heard them with their friends. They never talk with you like that. Their calls to you feel like a have-to thing. They rarely feel like a want-to.
“What’s a God to do? I created Eden so I could be with you. I called Abraham so I could adopt you. I gave Moses guidelines so you could be happy and safe. I sent you my only Son so I could be one of you. I gifted you with my indwelling Spirit. I’m at work in everybody all the time.”
When it comes to this God-human thing, he is the initiator. He does all the heavy lifting. We aren’t asked to have the faith of a mountain to move a mustard seed. It’s the reverse. What we bring to the table is very small. Just being aware of this changes our prayer life.
I no longer believe in the power of prayer … well, at least not my part in the conversation. My part is to be aware, to watch and listen, to stay engaged. And the question is not will God give me what I want. The question is, do I trust God to be who he says he is? And do I trust him when he says he loves me?

Triangulation

October 11, 2021

If you have symptoms, you get tested for COVID. Nobody wants to infect others with this virus. But what if we have a relational virus like what we’ve been exploring these past few weeks? Codependency. Gas-lighting. Passive-aggression. They are equally hurtful.
In Pathway we test positive for these viruses all the time. It happens as we share our stories. We inevitably see the truth about ourselves as we listen to others describe their issues. Outsiders are skeptical. It works, actually really well. This time we’re exploring triangulation … toxic relational triads:
-Divorced Mom and Dad force their child to pass negative messages back and forth in the middle of joint custody. “Tell your dad he’s a sorry excuse for a father.” “Tell your mom I’ve found a girlfriend way better than her.”
-Three people are talking on the porch. One has to leave. The two remaining immediately start talking about him, like they’re intoxicated on slander.
-A brother shares his secret thoughts and feelings with a sibling, only to have them go straight to a third family member with all the information.
-An office worker needs to confront a fellow employee, but hates conflict. So they snag an innocent third person to do the dirty work.
Obviously, triangulation takes many forms. Our first question might be, “Am I the one doing the triangulating or am I the one stuck in the middle?” It’s likely we’ve all played both roles at one time or another. None of it is healthy.
A victim of triangulation feels betrayed and disrespected, rather like a pawn in a game being played by others. This leaves an indelible mark when a child is the one who gets caught in the middle. They either become expert triangulators or create their own victim’s hideout.
No easy answers here. First, if you feel like you’re a victim, say so and step away. Second, if you talk about or use others, ask yourself, “What am I getting out of criticizing and diminishing others in order to feel better about myself?”
We press into truth because truth sets us free.

Passive Aggression

October 4, 2021

Last week we tried to tackle gas-lighting. This week, let’s see what we can do with passive aggression. These two words … how did they wind up sitting next to each other? The weather is really hot cold. He drove north south down the road. These words are exact opposites. It doesn’t make sense.
No way can I write a definition that feels solid or permanent. This critter has too many sides to it, too many masks in the closet. Here’s what I’ll throw against the wall today: I express my feelings toward you in a way that can later be plausibly denied. I’m mad, but I’m not mad.
This takes on way too many forms to provide an exhaustive list of clues. Roll of the eyes. Tone of voice. Slamming door. Sicky sweetness. Isolation. Going mute. Body language. Hidden verbal barbs. Drama. Stoicism. Sarcasm. Etc.
“I guess some people don’t think about how lonely it gets around here.”
“I’m the only one in this house who cares that this has been broken for weeks.”
“Well, it’s not the brand I usually buy, but I’ll try to make it work.”
“No, really it’s no trouble to help out. I’m sure you tried to find someone else.”
“Why would I be mad that you’re the only invitee who didn’t attend my party?”
Instead of throwing a brick to make your point, you pepper the other person with pebbles. It’s a way of releasing emotions while appearing harmless.
We prioritize our safety and reputation. Being brutally honest with our feelings “vulnerablizes” both. So we craft an approach that artificially creates a halo of niceness we wear around others. Cultures and religions even turn this nice thing into a core ethic, which only ups expectations.

Passive aggression is little more than a carefully crafted lie. I make sure you get the point while deceiving you about my true feelings. Intentionally or not, I’m assuming I’m smart enough to run the con and you’re dumb enough to buy it.
In Pathway we have two core values: be real and be loved. Instead of running around sweeping up after the messes caused by passive aggression, we’re intentionally building a community where it’s okay to express our true feelings and know we will be loved for it. It’s working.
Jesus made it simple: “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.”

Gaslighting

September 27, 2021

We had an open discussion in Pathway last night about gas-lighting. I knew right off I needed to take notes. This topic is the fourth session in a workbook I wrote that we’re currently using here at the church. I now realize my writing only touched the tip of the iceberg.
control.
This workbook deals with various family dysfunctions like codependency, toxic dancing, hierarchy, triangulation etc. Gas-lighting is the dark, deadly, diabolical one on the list, a premeditated attempt to shatter the soul of another person.
control.
Goal: Make someone doubt themselves on every level. “You’re crazy. You make stupid choices. You’re a loser. Your hopes and dreams are ridiculous. You couldn’t survive without me.” The gas-lighter does all this in an attempt to feel powerful and in control.
Strategy: The gas-lighter hurts their victim then turns it around claiming the wounded person is actually the one at fault. Or they claim it didn’t happen at all. Then, they explain it away as proof the recipient is losing their mind. The gas-lighter accuses the victim at every turn, while declaring their own innocence.
Tone: The gas-lighter might use bravado, tears, anger etc. It amounts to a relentless barrage of manipulation mixed with condescension, whatever it takes to create a pretense of credibility and sound reasonable to the victim.
Outcome: The victim is typically left shredded, second-guessing themselves at every turn. Isolation is common. Depending on the severity and longevity of the abuse, they’re looking at significant time in therapy or recovery.
Gas-lighting happens everywhere; between friends, in marriages, in parenting, between siblings. We find it in the corporate world, on ball teams, in the classroom. It even shows up when politicians and the media strive to convince constituents theirs is the only true reality.
Much like our discussion last night, what I just wrote feels like a gut-punch. We’re talking widespread cancer eating away at our relationships. But I’ll not forget how our Pathway host closed out last night. “So, I’ve listened to what we’ve been saying tonight. Very informative and helpful. But it makes me wonder. What would it look like if we did the opposite of gas-lighting to each other?”

Codependency

September 20, 2021

What can we say about codependency? The word has been tossed around for decades. Psycho-babble in its purest form! Working as a recovery pastor, the concept has become as common as air and just as relevant. I’m yet to meet a non-codependent person. We’re talking standard equipment.
Prepositions … you and a tree. You can be on the tree, in it, beside it. You can go around it, through it, under it, over it. Your entire life is defined by how you relate to the tree. Take it away and you’re lost … no clue who you are. Codependency.
There is a dark side to codependency that comes out when I use you to help me feel a certain way about myself. I over-work to gain your approval. I cuss you to relieve tension. I need you to need me. I play the fool so you’ll correct me. I awkwardly intrude until you notice me. This goes on and on.
Codependency’s primary danger is its parasitic nature. My relationship with you obsesses over what I can get out of you as a “host” from which I withdraw. And if everybody is codependent, we’re literally swarming mosquitoes sucking the life out of each other. No wonder we’re collectively unhealthy.
So, who am I if you take away my tree in the second paragraph? I’m not sure! I’ve always relied on it to tell me who I am and who I ought to be. Might I find my true nature if I walked out of the forest for a time? This sounds like a good idea since self-discovery is the biggest part of recovery.
Once I find myself, my encounters with you are no longer about me relying on you for my identity or internal well being. My ego can heal. No need for you to inform or massage it. I don’t have to invest it in our conversations. I have nothing to prove, defend, fix or fight. I can be a healthy human sharing life with you.
This finding of myself doesn’t just happen. Only my Creator knows the difference between the real me and all the protective fig leaves I’ve piled on over time. Given a chance, he helps me shed my wardrobe. Yeah, he’s good with this level of meticulous. Anyway, he’s never really been into fig leaves.
Imagine a world free from codependency. Folks meeting eye to eye with no hidden agenda, no raging ego, no ax to grind, no hierarchy to maintain. We walk up to each other … “How can I invest myself in you today?” We’ve just stepped out of codependency and into community on steroids!

Cage Fighting

September 13, 2021

Cage fighting involves mixed martial arts where no holds are barred …very few rules. Fighters show up trained in Ju-jitsu, Karate, boxing, wrestling, Judo, Taekwondo etc. The boxing expert wants to stand up and slug it out, while the wrestler wants to tackle their opponent and decide the contest down on the mat.
Before any of us get knocked out, let’s dig into this metaphor. Relationships come fraught with conflict. It is impossible for two people to walk freely and happily through life without disagreement.
Take a young marriage for example. He is a Judo guy. No offensive moves. Wait until the other person acts … and then react. She is a wrestler; likes to get in your face, pin her opponent until he says “uncle.” She accuses. He ducks and hides. She interrogates. He dodges.
Over time, their disputes become patterned. Once the first move is made an observer, taking notes in the corner, can predict what comes next. Like Big Time Wrestling, their arguments have become choreographed. They don’t respond to each other. They react like cage fighters.
These predictable patterns didn’t just happen. They were modeled in their family of origin. Mom threw dishes. Dad punched the wall. Mom cried. Dad pouted. Mom took refuge in her work. Dad watched TV. Dad fortified with alcohol. Mom used food. Growing up, all this was caught more than taught.
Does this offend you in any way? It does me. God created us with a freewill. To think we’re locked into some kind of pre-set package of reactions? Yeah, I’m not good with that. Jesus talked about freedom. Surely there is some way to break free from all this, so we can begin to respond versus react to relational friction.
Let’s start by admitting we’re all cage fighters with trained techniques. If we can make peace with this admission, we can backtrack to where we learned these moves originally. After we’ve processed the feelings these discoveries might trigger, we’ll be free to take an objective look at why we do what we do.
This gets us to the hope and healing of recovery. Unwrapping the “why” behind our thoughts, feelings and actions helps us uncover those broken and bent places in need of restoration. Mind you, God will be at the center of all this, loving you to a better place, which will certainly be somewhere outside the cage.

Family of Origin

September 6, 2021

Last night Pathway was stellar … one of those spaces in time when you know God is working his magic. Deep thoughts. Authentic sharing. We began with questions that required popcorn answers.
Question 1: In one word, describe the home you grew up in … manic, safe, controlled, stoic, depressed, chill, shallow, passive.
Question 2: What was your primary emotion growing up … insecure, anxious, happy, fearful, insignificant, content.
Question 3: Do you tend more toward replicating patterns from your upbringing or breaking from them? Most people said they wanted to break cycles.
A thought/question lingered in the air as our hour drew to a close. Obviously, good or bad, our upbringing shaped us. Some of the nurturing and guidance served to empower and enhance the gifts and goodness God designed into us. But, our early caregivers also mistakenly mishandled, mislabeled and miscast us, which negatively impacted us into adulthood.
God had something unique and beautiful in mind at our conception. But we were born into a world that misled us from the get go. Sometimes, it was on purpose. More often, we just misunderstood. Either way, it all stuck to us like mud. Mom leaves the room to answer the phone … I’m abandoned. Uncle Joe touches my privates … I’m a bad person. Dad cheats on Mom … it’s my fault. Big brother bullies me … I’m weak. Big sister makes straight A’s … I’m second class.
What do we do with all this? We can overcompensate. We can become angry and bitter. We can curl up and sulk. We can medicate. We can punish our current friends and family for mistakes made back then. Or we can seek hope and healing.
We’re not talking over-the-counter pain relief. This healing takes time. It takes brutal honesty. It takes trust of at least one confidant. The most important facet is to open up to God’s love. Let it grow from concept to experience. Only God can see past all that sticky mud to the essential you he had in mind originally.
Layer by layer, he peels off the mud. And as he helps you unwrap your true nature, you discover something beautiful and awesome.

Salt

August 30, 2021

I’m straight up plagiarizing this week from Pastor Laura Vincent who preaches at Broadway’s Greenwood campus. She gave me permission. This truth is too rich.
From an early age, we ask our children what they want to be when they grow up. We quiz college freshmen on what they plan to do with their major. Almost every introductory conversation we have with a new friend, “So, what do you do for a living?” Our culture links our identity and even our worth with work.
Dr. Phil steps in right about now … “So, how’s that working for you?” Some of us love what we do for a living. I do. But we’ve all had or still have jobs that feel like a sharp poke in the eye … or a dull ache in the backside. What do we do when what we do for a living feels more like dying?
How can we find purpose or fulfillment in daily drudgery? Jesus talked about us being the salt of the earth. We flavor our surroundings; calm down the bitter and enhance the sweetness. We’re not the main course. It’s not about us. But then, it is kinda about us. We’re either a victim of our surroundings or we enhance them.
This applies to whatever badge you wear when you walk through the door. If you’re the CEO, are you creating systems and procedures that respect and value your employees? If your a group leader or foreperson, do you lead with a tone that brings dignity to those under you? If you’re a worker, do you take the time to lift up the person laboring next to you?
Salt comes in tiny little packages and small glass shakers. It only takes a little. Small gestures, backed by great love, can change an entire day for a person, even a pod … or an entire office. And, it’s worth it.
The intentionality of all this will completely change your outlook on your occupation. There is a momentum to grace. Once it gets up a head of steam, it’s futile to try and stop it. It’s beautiful. It’s restorative. It’s infectious.
One word of caution: saltiness doesn’t mean we’re trying to fix or correct the people with whom we work. No preaching. No self-righteous posing. This is about noticing what God is doing (or wanting to do) in the other person or even in the work place and then participating in it. We encourage. We empower. We enhance.
Salt.

Freedom

August 24, 2021

There’s a lot of talk about freedom these days. It centers around mandatory COVID prevention/protection. I fear the dialog has leaned toward reactionary and away from rational.
First, to an outside observer, America’s version of freedom sends off mixed signals. The original declaration of freedom (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) only applied to white males; not women or people of color. Both of these inconsistencies have been corrected on paper. But, in reality, not entirely.
Secondly, we have a history of making laws that limit personal liberties for the good of the larger community. The personal right to own slaves was abolished out of respect for human rights. To save lives, the personal freedom to drive all over the road was mandated to right side only. Seat belts and child restraint laws overruled parental rights. These are some of America’s mixed signals.
What did Jesus say about freedom? He said “the truth would set us free … free indeed.” And his truth, above all else, was love. He lived, taught and died love. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it won’t produce fruit.” “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his brother.”
Given all the power of the Godhead, the One who could have called ten thousand angels, surrendered his personal freedom in order to free humanity. Only once in the Garden of Gethsemane did the issue of personal rights come up. In the end, he gave his up and became the grain of wheat that fell.
So, here’s the question: how do we, as Americans, reconcile “taking up our cross daily” with demanding our personal rights? Jesus understands our struggle with this and helps us work our way through it.
Jesus invited the rich young ruler to give it all up so he could find freedom from his dependence on wealth and power. Jesus promised to quench the thirst of the woman at the well, who was obviously addicted to relationships. Jesus offered freedom through spiritual rebirth to scholarly, self-protective Nicodemus.
The players in that last paragraph were locked into their own tiny world called “me.” Freedom could be theirs only if they willingly switched their focus beyond themselves to something greater. Personal freedom … Americans fight for it. Jesus gives it up for the sake of something greater.

Agreeing to Disagree

August 16, 2021

This is a mainstay for healthy community. I have my opinion. You have yours. The two don’t always line up. Still, our friendship is strong. We agree to disagree. Sounds honorable and diplomatic. Let’s explore.
How about some extremes? Drinking gasoline is unhealthy. (Not a matter of opinion.) That brand of gas is the best. (Matter of opinion.) Skateboarding in rush-hour traffic is a dangerous hobby. (Not a matter of opinion.) Wearing my favorite shoes makes skateboarding fun. (Matter of opinion.)
One human owning another is good for our economy. What about this one? At one point in our history many held the opinion that slavery was okay, even backed by scripture. Now it’s illegal and unethical. What happened?
If community is to progress in a healthy manner, certain opinions can no longer be held as viable. This doesn’t go over well because one side now realizes their opinion is unacceptable instead of just different. Hence the Civil War.
This is a sticking point for democracy. We celebrate freedom of thought and speech. But from time to time we have to ask some to surrender their freedom to carry out certain activities for the sake of the larger community.
Our current national crisis is no longer a matter of opinion. Scientifically proven measures point to the direction out of this. We’ve run out of time to agree to disagree. We either cooperate or pay an awful price.
I know three scientists/doctors personally. They are competent, honest and generous; qualified to do research I don’t pretend to comprehend. I trust them as friends and experts. Even with a strong aversion against vaccines and masks, I’ve heeded their advice as they’ve assured me these measures save lives.
Continuing our metaphor … if folks insist on owning slaves, those in authority have to step in with mandates. The motive is not to steal personal freedom, but to save lives based on mature thinking. By its nature, science is on the cutting edge of fresh discoveries, which only strengthens the idea they should take the lead in this. And even if they don’t have all the answers, they’re our best bet.
There are two ways to hear what our leaders are asking. They are either covertly plotting our demise through coercion. Or, they’re openly inviting us to cooperate so we can collectively rise above this mess. Then one day soon we can get back to agreeing to disagree.

Don’t Put That In Your Mouth

August 9, 2021

The stuff kids put in their mouths. Gravel, feathers, bugs, leaves, sticks … into the pie-hole it goes. Thank God it’s only a phase. But is it?
Granted, Jesus said, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles us … but what comes out.” In reality, it actually does matter what we take in: values, influences, information, experiences, relationships etc.
When we’re little we don’t have a say in what they feed us. Our diet is up to someone else. And what we ingest is caught as much as taught: habits, attitudes and outlook on life. For a while it’s all we know. We get used to it, chugging it down as correct, normal and good for us.
Healthy input cultivates healthy growth, which we celebrate. But if anger, abuse and misinformation are our steady diet, over time we actually develop a taste for that which is dark and toxic. We build a tolerance for venomous attitudes, expect people to be harmful. Putting crazy stuff in our mouths is our daily bread.
In recovery, we seek healing of memories from our past and make amends for the harm we’ve caused as we find our way out of the fog of trauma. This is our sweet spot, but we can’t get there as long as our diet keeps dragging us back.
There’s a saying: “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” If you’re stuck in your recovery, you may need to switch menus. This calls for a careful examination of the voices that currently speak into your life. Consider asking for help here.
It’s likely these toxic voices are part of your daily pattern … voices you never question … voices you even echo. Our taste buds have more to do with habit, acquired taste and convenience than good health. “I always watch this news … read this author … listen to this preacher … visit this website … hang out with these folks.”
You can’t tell the toxicity level of food by tasting it. You monitor its aftereffects. So, if what you’re hearing from familiar voices consistently stirs up feelings of aggression, disgust, anger, fear or hopelessness toward the world around you, maybe it’s time to heed the advice: “Don’t put that in your mouth.”

Pathway Recovery

August 2, 2021

I’m the Pathway recovery pastor here at Broadway UMC. Over the past 15 years, we’ve collectively discovered and cultivated what we call recovery. Our understanding of the word centers around the healing of relationships.
The first hitch we see in God’s creative flow is when he said, “It’s NOT good for man to be alone.” Like the Trinity, we were meant to live in relationship. But these days our relationships are broken: with God, ourselves and others. True recovery needs to go deeper than clean and sober, like digging in and healing broken relationships.
Relationship with God: tradition tells us our wickedness has broken this one. I’m not so sure anymore. My relationship with God started to heal when I realized the fearsome God of my youth was not the real God. Knowing all the bad stuff I’d say and do, God created me anyway. Discovering this changed everything.
Relationship with me: once I fell into God’s love, I found I could love myself. I still mess up. But, this doesn’t define me. Being loved by my Father is who I am … not my behavior, performance or even my motives. Gone is shame, anger, depression, anxiety etc. Health keeps happening in me, almost like magic.
Relationship with you: once my inflamed emotions calmed down, they no longer cried out for medication. Harmful habits and obsessions lost momentum. My fragile ego no longer expects you to carry it around on a pillow. Our interactions are becoming reasonably healthy, replacing the old irrational codependency.
I’ve stopped seeing you as a threat and started exploring what it looks like to share love with you like I do with God. With a healthier self-image, gone is my need to fix you, to self-defend or to seek your approval; all codependent residue from the old version of us.
Recovery is not a task you and I complete. It’s not a byproduct of diligence, discipline or practice. It starts with capitulation to God’s love. For years, I tried and failed to make myself more lovable. I finally gave up and let God love me the way I was. No determination … only trust. The rest just happened.
If you and I want relational healing, we slide over to the passenger side, where there are no controls, where we’re just along for the ride. We don’t work recovery as much as we let it do its work in us.

Bicycles

July 26, 2021

To ride a bike, grammar-school level skills have to be learned. Balance. Braking. Momentum. Steering. After a few scabbed knees and a slightly bruised ego, you manage to peddle a block or two without crashing.
Leapfrog a few decades. Those who remain serious about cycling explore the landscape on cross country bikes. The scenery is breathtaking. The experience is far more intimate than racing by in a car. No more obsessing over basic skills. This is about soaking in the adventure.
Both activities take place on essentially the same machine. Pedals must be pedaled to go forward. Brakes must be braked to stop. Handlebars must be handled to turn. But while it’s all fun, the first paragraph takes place in a safe, cloistered neighborhood, while the second happens out on the open road.
At 65, I’ve studied scripture all my life. It started with SS, VBS and family devotions in a pastor’s home. I attended a Christian college and Seminary, plus have pastored over 40 years. This book has been my bicycle for the duration.
These days churches split over the bible. Politicians will grab a photo opp with it. We still swear on it from time to time. And, in some circles, it’s called good scholarship to cherry pick bits and pieces to prove one’s point. Church signs declare, “We are bible-based.” Same bicycle … completely different destinations.
Many who ride this bike studiously stay within shouting distance of home. Don’t wreck (behavior management). Don’t get lost (no new ideas). We have to wonder how God feels about this. The story of him loving on his children over thousands of years … walling off a mere 2 block radius.
If nothing else, a story this beautiful and diverse should spark curiosity over what’s beyond the next bend. Look back at the big story of scripture. Over each rise, paradigm-shifting moments leave us breathless. Laws apparently set in stone, get dislodged and replaced with an invitation to experience a fresh expression of grace from the heart of God.
What should you and I do with the bible? Stop using it to validate my rightness and your wrongness. Stop picking at verses and start looking for God’s footprints in the big story. Stop asking it to be scientifically accurate or mathematically consistent. Just let it be what it is, the profoundly true love story between God and his kids. This book can take you places you’ve never been, but only if you exercise the courage to ride it more than two blocks from home.

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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