Most Sundays after church, my father invited us kids to critique his sermon. He disliked “Atta-boys” and he loathed a “Nice job!” He loved to observe how we thought and what we saw.
He delighted—really delighted—when we said things like:
I think your illustration of the boy on a bike didn’t explain predestination well;
I wonder if your second point should have come first, and your third point eliminated;
I think the best part of your sermon was the final, “Amen.”
His partly wanted to ensure we listened to his sermons, sure; but even more, he genuinely wanted to engage with us at a heart level by hearing what we thought. Dad encouraged honesty and offered no repercussions when we criticized, disagreed, or misunderstood.
It was my dad’s way of inviting us up into his life.
My best friend in the world, from ages eight to eighteen (except for three long months), was Mark Maxam. Inseparable companions, we walked to school together, slept over on weekends, jumped off church roofs together, and shared every conceivable secret.
We also wrestled. One day, when I was ten, Mark put me in a scissor-lock that I couldn’t break. So, I bit him. He released me with the roar, “You bit me!” The blood-blush of mortification set my cheeks on fire as I bellowed back, “No I didn’t.”
The thing is: he knew I was lying, and I knew that he knew I was lying, and he knew that I knew that he knew that I was lying. The shame of my scarcely-veiled deceit (not to mention my little nibble) sent me on an emotional, self-protective tail-spin.
I left his house in a huff. I neither called him back nor visited.
Three months later, Mark stopped by my house and silently resumed our friendship. After a few days, I hesitantly asked why he never mentioned my biting. He answered,
“I realized friendship is more important than being right.”
Seven years ago I met a mother in anguish because her smart, capable son was living in an abandoned house, playing reggae music on the streets, and panhandling when the busking money fell short. He bathed irregularly and communicated inconsistently.
After he graduated from high school, his mom enrolled him at Stanford while he took the summer off to hitchhike around America. He called rarely, so when it came time to register for fall classes, she picked them for him.
After three weeks, her son dropped out of Stanford and began busking and house-squatting.
Two years later, his mother was desperate. She begged me for ideas. I suggested she call him and ask how he is doing. She plotted, “Oh, so then I can bring him home and re-enroll him in classes.”
“No, just to engage with him on a personal level. No pressure for anything. No agenda.”
“Oh yes, of course, that makes sense, so he’ll come home and enroll himself in school!”
“No, just ask him questions like, ‘What do you like about reggae music?’ and ‘What’s it like to live in an abandoned home?’”
“So I can figure out what’s wrong with him and fix him?”
“No, talk with him just so you can get to know who he is as a person; just for himself.”
A friend once told me of a dark moment in his life, a time when he felt alone, frightened, and falling apart. He described his interior life like this: “I was an engine without oil.”
My friend instinctively took a common but abstract experience—loneliness—and brought it to life by painting a picture of his pain. He imagined his life as a movie screen and he projected onto himself the image of a motor thrashing about without lubrication.
In his four short words, “an engine without oil,” I saw a machine grinding to a halt as it ripped itself to pieces. I imagined hidden gears scrapping against rusted cogs, and friction, chaos, and destruction. I gasped as something inside me connected with his pain.
Metaphors speak to our hearts in ways detached concepts fail. If I say my wife is mad, we all have some cerebral sense of her state. If I say, “She’s a mother bear with her cubs,” we picture bloody teeth, razor claws, a ferocious growl, and an uncontrollable rage.
Many years ago, I lived in London with a bunch of friends, working in campus ministry. One of my friends spent a couple hours with Dr. John Stott, an internationally-known pastor with a church that also ministered to university students.
Dr. Stott and my friend discussed prayer. Dr. Stott confessed that his best prayer time is spent in thinking with God, reflecting on scripture passages, and meditating on eternal truths.
My friend argued that the best prayer is found in corporate worship, enthusiastic singing, exalting in the presence of God, shouting his praises, singing, dancing, kneeling, and bowing before the throne of God. We considered Stott’s “prayer” of reflection too intellectual, too shallow, too unenlightened, and perhaps unspiritual. We chuckled.
In fact, I’d say we snickered.
By the end of his life, Time Magazine identified Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the world; he had written over 50 books; and he had helped hundreds of thousands of people —probably millions. And we twenty-something neophytes snickered at his shallowness.
Thirty-five years later, I’m rethinking spiritual reflection—actually practicing it—and it is rich beyond belief. Stott was oh-so-very right, and I was oh-so-very wrong. Spiritual reflection is one of the deepest ways to connect with God that I’ve ever experienced.
I love to brainstorm, whiteboard, and creatively go after innovative ideas. I love doing this with friends when considering anything, so I am trying it with God. And I love it.
Spiritual reflection is connecting me to God, and I’m hearing his voice.
Mary Magdalene is called The Apostle to the Apostles; she was the first human to see the risen Christ; Jesus ask her to preach to the apostles the truth of the resurrection; for a time, she was the church.
Why Mary Magdalene? Of all the followers of Jesus, why does God choose her?
What can we learn from Mary?
What four words does Jesus say to Mary Magdalene that we need to hear today?
Listen to this 31 minute podcast from Easter Sunday:
I had a high school friend who was insecure, socially awkward, and overweight. He envied the skills (and good looks) of classmates; he vilified himself for his frequent social blunders; and he castigated himself for his shortcomings.
My friend, however, was in the top five percent of the honors class of a magnet, honors high school; he just never reached the top one percent. And he was the second chair trumpet of a nationally recognized orchestra; he just never made first chair.
Despite his many successes, he saw others do better and it discouraged him. My heart went out to him. We became friends, and in the lunchroom I listened as he told story after story of how students, teachers, and his parents misunderstood him.
His discouragement deepened into depression, and he finally sought a counselor. The counselor said his problem was self-hatred, and that he needed to grow his self-love.