When I was twelve, my parents taught me to read a chapter of Proverbs a day. Proverbs has thirty-one chapters, so the day of the month determined which chapter to read. (Some months, of course, have fewer than thirty-one days, and I just skipped those last chapters without guilt.)
After ten months of Proverbs, I finally—dare I say it?—got bored. So on a whim, I decided to read Hebrews. But then a Sunday school teacher told me Hebrews is a horribly difficult letter, and I would do better to begin with something easier, like Timothy.
I immediately stopped reading Hebrews. (I didn’t even look at it again until I was thirty.) But studying Paul’s two letters to Timothy was good. I read them three or four times.
And then, once again, I was stuck. What should I read next? My Proverbs / Hebrews / Timothy venture sparked a multi-year struggle to find a reading plan that could pass the test of time.
When I was a teenager, family and friends used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Now they just ask me when I will grow up). I always wanted to be a missionary.
Immediately after college I began mission work in Europe. But one day, during a “normal” (that is, non-exciting) prayer time, I heard God speak two words: “Not now.” I sensed him say that if I did mission work “now” I would be creating an Ishmael not an Isaac; I would be birthing mission service out of my natural flesh and not out of God’s spiritual promise.
The sense was puzzling (I was serving God in the mission, wasn’t I?), but it was also compelling; so I left the mission field and entered the business world at the ripe old age of twenty-five. I eventually became an executive and owner of a software company.
Twenty-five years later, in another non-exciting prayer time, I sensed God say, “Now is the time.” I asked friends for discernment, and together we agreed that God was calling me away from my job. But none of us knew what God was calling me to.
That was why eight years ago, January 1st, 2008, I woke up with no job, no client calls, no meetings, no paycheck, and no clue about what I should do with my life. When people asked me what I do, I always answered,
“Well I used to be a software exec….”
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.
And we want to be somewhere else.
The speaker was persuasive and moving. He asked us to hug a friend, stomp on the floor, and even pinch our own forearms. It didn’t hurt that he could have been a GQ model: six foot three, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and funny. When he looked each of us in the eye, we felt his personal care.
(This is not the actual speaker, just a photo of an unknown preacher I found on the web.)
The conference theme was Knowing God. Its most popular presenter was this man with passion for feeling God’s love:
- He asked, “How can we know God’s love?”
- He answered, “We feel love in the hug, we sense the solid floor in the stomp, and we experience pain in the pinch.”
- He argued, “God knows our frame, our need for hugs; he longs for us to detect his touch. And that is how we’ll know his love. When we feel it.”
He scorned the old evangelical formula, “Fact–Faith–Feeling” with its mundane illustration of a train: the locomotive represents “fact,” the coal-car “faith,” and the caboose “feelings.”
If we put our faith (fuel) in the facts (locomotive), our feelings will follow. He snickered at its antiquated answer.
“That perversion,” he laughed, “is completely contrary to the God-man of the gospels. Jesus was a man of compassion. We know his love only when we feel it. Feelings teach us facts.”
A couple years ago I had an awful day in the middle of a horrible week in the midst of a bad month. A sniffle turned into post-nasal drip which turned into bronchitis—for the third time in five months. When I inhaled, it felt like shards of glass shredding my lungs.
I canceled everything so I could have some recovery time. But, later, that same day, I ended up with six hours of unexpected, unscheduled, and exhausting meetings.
Now I was both sick and tired.
That same night an organization I belong to sent out its weekly email. Hidden in the email was the description of a decision that I considered a tactical blunder. So I dashed off a short email to the leaders asking them to reconsider.
Alas! I ended the email by shooting off a nasty, sarcastic barb:
“Why don’t we think first? For a change.”
The next morning several people emailed back, correcting me for my caustic comment.
My initial response was self-defense: I was sick. And their decision made little sense. And my day of recovery had been stolen. By one of those leaders. And besides, in their haste they had failed to consider a crucial element.
But that was just defensiveness. The truth was I had been a jerk. No one forced me to pen those final words. They were unnecessary and inflammatory. And no one had a gun pointed at me when I hit “send.” The gun was in my hand, pointed at others.
Why didn’t I just think first? For a change.
[Click here for an audio version of this post: The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness.]
Our romantic 30th anniversary trip to Italy began the same week Dan Brown published his latest book, Inferno (Italian for Hell). I think it was prophetic.
Carla and I have very different ideas of vacation. She likes cultural sites. I like scuba diving. She likes exploring museums. I like exploring shipwrecks. We are very different.
Our differences make it difficult to find a good place for anniversary getaways. We went nowhere for our 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, except out for dinner. In the past we’ve had several family scuba vacations, so I agreed to a trip to Italy for our 30th.
On our first day in Italy we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. On the second day we visited the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. After two days, I had walked 33,134 steps through museums and cultural sites, and I had seen approximately 4,741 masterpieces.
My flat feet ached. My fat brain overflowed. I was irritated and I didn’t hide it. I kept thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of this!” Maybe I sulked. I was tiresome enough that Carla was thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of him!”
The countless masterpieces were driving me nuts, and my sulkiness (I’m ashamed to admit) was driving Carla nuts.
Our first two days in Rome were hell.
We’ve been remade through a re-birth; we’ve become new creations and given new hearts; and the walls that imprisoned us have been bulldozed. And yet . . . we still fear our bosses, speak harshly to friends, dwell on anxious thoughts, and obsess about ourselves. Why is that?
Years ago I read an article written by a counselor who worked with concentration camp victims shortly after World War II. The sheer breadth of the war’s destruction restricted the Allies’ ability to help feed and shelter people, so refugee camps were built for the victims.
The counselor noted that many of the victims in the refugee camps acted as though they were still in prison. While they had been freed from the camps, they asked permission for the smallest liberties, such as a nighttime stroll outside their dormitories. The therapist made this observation:
We took the victims out of the camps in an instant,
but it may take decades before the camps are taken out of the victims.
Their story is our story. God has opened the prison doors on the outside, but we still need him to free us from the prisons walls within.