Hearing God in Conversation

When I was growing up, my dad taught me to sail our small Sunfish sailboat. We took month-long summer vacations, and we always camped on lakes. So we could ride the wind every day.

Father son sailing

I probably sailed with him for a hundred hours before I faced the wind on my own. During those hours, my dad would have me either manage the sail or handle the rudder. Of the hundred hours sailing, I bet his actual instruction time totaled one hour. Two at the most.

He might say, “Pull in the sail a bit,” or, “Turn a little more to the left” (yeah, I know, starboard and port, but my dad didn’t care much about proper terminology). Those short comments took mere moments to say, and he didn’t make them often. Mostly we just sailed together. For hours and hours. And bit by bit, gust by gust, wave by wave, I learned seamanship.

Instead of lessons, we mostly just chatted.

He would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d say, “Be a pirate” (of course) and he’d heartily agree (“Yo, ho, ho”). He’d ask why I had yelled at my sister, and I’d ask why he got angry at my mom. We’d talk about books we were reading, sermons he was preparing, what girls I was interested in, and what it would be like to sail across the ocean.

Our relationship with God can be like that. Conversational.

The Usefulness of Un-Usefulness

A few weeks ago, I wearily dragged myself home from a retreat. Exhausted. The retreat was terrific, but I had slept abysmally and felt utterly spent. Empty. Pathetically useless.

Broom 3

I despise that feeling of uselessness: I want to accomplish something, to make a contribution, to feel I did my part. I didn’t feel completely worthless, but I somehow sensed the sorrow of barrenness.

This morning I read the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. More than ever, I sympathized with Peter. His reaction seemed honest. Think of your best friends. If you could choose between washing their feet and letting them wash your feet, which would you prefer?

I would choose washing the feet of my friends ten times out of ten. A thousand out of a thousand. It’s not that my feet are especially disgusting (I do bath occasionally); it’s just that I can’t stand the idea of my friend bending before me and doing something so menial for me.

Ask me to climb Mt. Everest or to steal the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. Some great deed. Even washing their feet would be tolerable; just don’t let them wash my feet. That would be unbearable. Far worse to let Jesus wash my feet. Let me wash his.

I would far rather be helpful to God than be helped by him.

The Death of Difference

I’ve always loved playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps I’m just contrary (or maybe just the devil). I was delighted to discover that my differing nature was a genetic gift. Hey, it’s not my fault!

Look at this tombstone of my grandfather’s brother. Do you notice anything strange about it? DSC_01

My great uncle (I think that’s what he would be called) hated conformity. All the tombstones in his cemetery faced the road. To revel in a life of difference, he willed that his tombstone face perpendicular to every other stone in the cemetery. Even in death he celebrated his difference.

DSC_06

Apparently, the town council was furious at this desecration, so they outlawed the practice going forward. The irony, of course, is that the new law meant his differences would live forever. Every tombstone in the cemetery—before and after—faces the road. Except his.

Which is exactly what he wanted in the first place.

How Do We Forgive Betrayals?

I ended last week’s story of betrayal with the faint beginnings of a desire to forgive. But our wanting to forgive doesn’t mean we’ve granted forgiveness any more than wanting a beach vacation gives us tickets to Tahiti. It’s a start, an important start, but only a start.

Our desire to forgive is undermined by our memories, recollections of the betrayal that relentlessly resurface with stunning clarity. With the vividness of slow-motion video, I recall a half-erased whiteboard, the buzz of a fly, and the shadows on the wall.

A friend of mine remembers the jingle of an ice-cream truck and the smell of lilacs through the screen porch.

Memory

We want to forgive, but images flood our mind, and something in our soul recoils. We try to forgive and forget, but those memories scratch their way out of the holes we buried them in.

We want justice; somehow, in some form or fashion, we want payment. Like David, our heart cries, “Let death take [them] by surprise; let them go down to hell while still living” (Ps. 55:15).

Or as Freud said, “One must forgive one’s enemies: but preferably after they’ve been hanged.”

How Do We Handle Betrayals?

Last week I woke up to an intensely vivid dream. In comparison, past dreams seemed like a hazy video on a scratchy black and white TV, while this dream felt like an IMAX theater with heart-throbbing surround sound and mountain-shaking sub-woofers.

I dreamt of a long-past betrayal, and I felt raw fury, pain, and shame wash over me. Again.

Saruman r1

Have you ever been betrayed? Few men and women I meet are unscathed. Sooner or later—and most likely sooner—we will all experience a betrayal.

I don’t mean a stab in the back; I mean a face-to-face, kiss-on-the-cheek treachery that leaves us reeling, bleeding, and bewildered; all this from the former ally who afterward smilingly asks, “What’s the big deal?,” suggesting, “Let’s grab a cup of coffee for old time’s sake.”

The depth of our former friendship increases the magnitude of our pain. The friend whose betrayal most brutalizes us is the comrade whose care most comforted us. As David once sang,

For it is not an enemy who taunts me—I could bear that; it is not an adversary who deals twistedly with me—even that I could bear. But it is you, my comrade, my companion, my close friend. We used to enjoy sweet intimacy. (Psalm 55:12-14)

It may have been a wealthy parent who willed you one penny, a callous gym teacher who called you a coward in front of other kids, or the partner who embezzled your retirement funds. Probably the worst is an adulterous spouse.

How do we handle the pain, fury, and shame of a personal betrayal?

The Cowardice of Christian Niceness

Many years ago, a young man was transferred to my department. During his first annual review, he asked me why his raises had been consistently lower than the company average. I said,

“Well, you’re kind of a jerk.”

And he was. If a colleague asked a question about our software, he’d sigh, look at his watch, and then bark, Rude customer-service r2“Don’t you know that by now!” If a client inquired how the software worked, he’d huff, “Didn’t I explain that just last month?”

But he was smart. He dissected software bugs with scalpel-like sharpness. His technical keenness took the edge off his social rudeness. But just barely. His low annual raises reflected the mixed feelings his previous boss had toward him.

When I told him he was “kind of a jerk,” he seemed stunned and simply squeaked, “Really?” Then he read several books on human relationships, and he began to change. Something really seemed different.

Different enough, that he got a huge raise the following year. He then asked his former boss (a Christian) why the boss hadn’t been honest and direct. The boss admitted, “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” My new employee retorted,

Damn it! Your cowardly Christian niceness cost me thousands of dollars. Thanks for nothing.”

(Hey, he was a recovering jerk; I never said he was cured.)