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.

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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.

Circumstantial Evidence

A pastor-friend of mine once went through a series of disappointments. His favor with his followers faltered, his once fruitful ministry began to fail, and many of his former friends became his biggest opponents. And that was before events really got bad.

circumstantial-evidence

My friend was well known. If I told you his name, you’d probably recognize it. And his meteoric fall from favor was not due to any moral scandal on his part. Yet rejection and controversy, like circumstantial evidence against him, attacked from every side:

  • He began with a big splash and became famous in a few short months;
  • His fame attracted detractors, and major church leaders spoke against him;
  • His followers, who used to think he walked on water, began to drift away;
  • Then his treasurer embezzled funds;
  • Over time, his ministry crashed and burned.

And, of course, he asked God, “Why?”

Twin Motivations

I once had a client whose business-gifting outshined the stars of the Harvard Business Review. Yet she scorched everything she touched. Relationships went rancid, projects were poisoned by punitive criticism, and her management style left associates embittered.

twin-motivations

We met for lunch a couple times a year for much of the 90’s. Over time, my opinion of her zigzagged from initial awe, to distaste, and finally to pity. These facts emerged:

  • She was an identical twin, younger by twenty minutes.
  • Although an excellent musician, she played second chair violin; her twin played first.
  • She failed to get into medical school so she got an MBA; her sister became a surgeon.
  • When her boyfriend came home for Easter, he fell in love with her twin.

A year later that former boyfriend married her identical, twin sister.

The Starving Lion

A business owner I barely knew once phoned to see if we could meet. He was an aggressive entrepreneur, a roaring lion among his peers. Yet on the phone, he seemed different, hesitant, a bit humbler, perhaps broken. He certainly choked up a few times in our short conversation.

young-lions-do-lack

We met the following Friday, which happened to be his fortieth birthday. He appeared vulnerable and exhausted, and something in my heart went out to him.

He said he had been struggling the last few months. Nothing he did relieved him of the pain. His restless nights were endless, every discussion with his wife ended up in a fight, and he had even lost interest in helping his son play soccer. As he shared, tears silently rolled down his cheeks.

His voice finally broke and he began to sob right there in the restaurant. I was still unsure what his problem was, but I felt sympathy. It hurts to watch someone suffer.

Eventually he gathered himself and explained. Ever since he was a young boy, he had aspired to run a successful business. He set a goal of having ten million dollars in the bank by the age of forty.

“Sam,” he moaned, “Including savings in my 401k, I barely have six million dollars to my name.”

[This conversation happened. As I re-read it here, I shake my head in disbelief. But it happened.]

Relationship or Religion?

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.

relations-vs-religion

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.”

I Wonder if Our Agendas Crucify the Life of God Within Us

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.

when-our-agendas-crucify-the-life-of-god-in-us

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.”

She snapped, “What good will that do?”

The Riddle of the Psalms

For the last forty years, my prayer time has started with the Psalms. And for forty years they have alternately given me hope and then pulled that rug of hope from beneath me. They make great promises, but when I pray them with honest self-reflection, the promises fade away.

the-riddle-of-the-psalms

Look at the hopeful assurances offered:

  • Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. (Ps. 27:3)
  • The Lord preserves the simple. When I was brought low, he saved me. (Ps. 116:6)
  • The Lord is my Shephard; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)

The problem is simple: these promises seem reserved for Saint Francis, not me:

  • The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. (Ps. 18:20)
  • Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! (Ps. 17:1)
  • If I have repaid my friend with evil … let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground. [YIKES!!] (Ps. 7:4-5)

When I try to pray phrases like, “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” the words dribble out of my mouth and splatter on the floor.