We Are Strangers in a Strange Land

My wife’s ninety-year-old mother died last Thursday and we mourn. Someone reminded me that when we grieve, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

I grew up in a family that camped. My father was a pastor who got four weeks of vacation. We took all four weeks at once, camping the whole month of July, mostly in wooded campsites next to windy lakes. We strapped our small Sunfish sailboat on top of our sagging station wagon.

Williamson Family Vacation, July 1968

Those vacations were a young boy’s fantasy, filled with mysterious forests and stormy seas. Four weeks wasn’t enough. We hauled our home wherever we went. It was often hot, but sometimes cold, and occasionally rainy. The car always broke down. And I loved it.

I recently heard a quote from the Epistle to Diognetus that resurfaced all those old memories,

The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life…

For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.

Living a Staged Life

A year ago, my wife and I decided to sell the farmhouse we’ve lived in for twenty-five years. While we were excited about moving into the next chapter of our life, the grown kids were less enthusiastic: our daughter’s next blog was entitled, Don’t Buy This House.

staged-life-r2

Nevertheless, we followed all the commonsense guidelines for home-sales:

  • We decluttered our closets, removed beds and furniture to make the house more spacious, and rented room at a storage facility.
  • We removed antique wallpaper and painted the walls with neutral colors.
  • And we updated older appliances and countertops, and revitalized the landscaping.

No bites. Not a nibble. Undaunted, we hired a stager who suggested we suck all personal intimacy from our home. Family photos were banished and personal artwork was expelled. Including the life-size, cowboy-hat-wearing skeleton in my office (in my office, mind you, not my closet).

Next our stager replaced every stick of sitting furniture with pure white pieces: sofas, easy chairs, and love seats. Which we immediately covered with sheets. Our stager styled it Farmhouse Chic. Our kids dubbed it, Farmhouse Sheet.

After hundreds of hours of expectant preparation for the dozens of hopeful showings: Nothing.

Last week my wife and I realized we spent our last twelve months living in limbo, neither here nor there. We were like swimmers treading water, going nowhere.

We’ve been living a staged life.

Our Plans, God’s Plans

Last week’s ideal plan didn’t translate itself into reality. Instead, life happened. While on an errand, I met a man and we talked for two hours; a friend called to say her father is dying and I went to visit him; and our water main sprung a leak, drenching the basement.

our-plans-gods-plans

I’m traveling west for a retreat, so last week was filled with dozens of tasks to get ready. I use a planning app that helps me prioritize action items for each day. And then (hopefully) I complete all the items. But  last week I failed utterly.

At the end of that “life-is-full-of-surprises” week, a well-known Christian blogger sent an email describing how “elite” entrepreneurs and executives accomplish their goals by eliminating the competing distractions. I thought, “Distraction-free life-management? Sign me up!

And then I paused: How does it leave room for God?

How To Be IN But Not OF — That Is The Question

My grandfather was a missionary in China from 1917 to 1936. He once told me of some early Pentecostal missionaries to China. They decided it was unnecessary to study Chinese before traveling because they “spoke in tongues.” But when they disembarked in Hong Kong, their abysmal language skills made them a laughing stock.

In but not of

My grandfather (who was also a Pentecostal missionary) said to me,

“They refused to be of the world, which was good, but they completely forgot that they still must live in the world.”

Discouraged but determined, they took language classes. One man learned quickly, so they paid for him to study the advanced art of Chinese oratory. He would be their primary preacher.

After months of preparation, the missionaries organized their inaugural evangelistic event in a local town square. They shook their tambourines, sang several songs, and soon a crowd gathered. Their confident preacher began to speak.

To hear a foreigner speak such grand rhetorical Chinese was a novelty, and the crowd grew, but soon the yawns began, hecklers laughed, and the crowd shrunk. A less fluent missionary stood up and urged the crowd to listen. He bumbled his way through his own conversion history, and he stumbled through his story of hearing God for the first time. The crowd listened in silence.

Those missionaries traced their first convert to that botched-up-Chinese testimony.

“After learning to be in the world,” my grandfather reflected, “they forgot ­not to trust in it.”

Spiritual Insanity

A few years ago, a twenty-eight-year-old woman shared with me what she called her “unseemly struggle:” she was dissatisfied … with most everything. Growing up, she had simple desires for life: a decent husband, a nice family, and a moderate house.

restless couple

Soon after college she married a good guy; they both found jobs in their fields; they bought a nice house; and within a few years they had a healthy baby boy.

She had every significant aspiration she had ever desired. Yet she was restless.

So they bought a new car, repainted the house, added granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. They were promoted. Her husband got an MBA. She quit her job to become a full-time mother. It felt good. For a bit.

Soon she felt restless all over again. “Is this all there is?” She saw the same unease in her friends, pursuing raises, cars, promotions, and kids. Then she heard an Einstein quote,

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.

She said to me, “I wonder if we’re all spiritually insane.”

What’s So Important About Hearing God?

For God does speak–now one way, now another–though man may not perceive it” (Job 33:14).

Humanity was created to be in a relationship with God; not God as a simple supplement, nor God as mere miracle worker. God created us to know him personally, as a father with a child, friend to friend, and even (breathtakingly intimate) as a husband with a wife.

Hearing God in Conversation

At the beginning of time, Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in the cool of the garden. That’s what we were made for.

When humanity disobeyed God, we didn’t just break a rule, we broke a relationship, exactly—exactly!—like when a spouse commits adultery. And that broken connection with God shattered our rapport with him. The root of all relationships is communication and we lost our ability to hear God.

Oswald Chambers said, “If you are not sensitive enough to detect His voice, you will quench it, and your spiritual life will be impaired.” Failure to hear God harms our wellbeing!

At immeasurable cost—the cost of the cross—God entered into history and acted to save us. But save us for what? Just to be good little boys and girls? No! The God of the universe saved us to restore our relationship with him. And that means communication…

“…So that we might know him” (Phil. 3:10).

My book Hearing God in Conversation was released early by Amazon last week (surprising my publisher). I wrote it to help reconnect us with the creator, to embrace his repair of our impairment; to hear his voice in our daily lives, to grow in intimacy with the One who loves us.

And to rediscover a conversational relationship with God.

Deathbed Advice

My father died twenty years ago last Friday, April Fool’s Day, 1996. (I often wonder if he planned that day.) A week before his death, knowing his death was imminent, my father made a suggestion. Deathbed advice has power other suggestions can’t match.

Deathbed Advice

My dad told me that many of the people he counseled lived their adult lives being controlled by their parents. Most parental-control situations are easily recognized: parents who bully and browbeat or those who provide unceasing, unsolicited advice.

He told me there is another insidious control which most people fail to recognize. It’s the unconscious control our parents exert when we try our hardest not to be like them.

My father summarized his advice like this:

If you spend your life trying not to be like somebody you will spend your life not being somebody.