Loose Ends (part two)

Be sure to read “Loose Ends (part one) first.

To view the cruelties, the pains, the rejections and the injustices in life as a gift is not an easy perspective to embrace. In fact, I don’t believe we truly can embrace it until we have first passed through such experiences, emerged from their grip, and have come to comprehend their meaning…that the difficult, and even overwhelming obstacles, of life have a purpose. They are trials of our faith, crucibles for our character, and intense fires of refinement for our souls. They carry with them the capacity to teach us endurance, humility, patience, compassion, understanding, and wisdom. Ultimately, the fires of life provide us with a tremendous redemptive opportunity. They can bring us closer to God and help us to walk as the person He created us to be, rather than stumbling about in the darkness of isolation, trying to live up to the image we project to others.

Fire Refines, but Love and Revelation Transform

To purify metals like gold and silver, they are melted by fire in a furnace. In the process, impurities (called dross) are extracted from the surface of the molten metal, and the remaining product, once cooled and reformed, is a stronger and more valuable item. Early on I embraced the idea that God often allows us to be put into a “spiritual furnace of testing” and trial. The process refines us like metals. It exposes impure elements in our lives while separating out and establishing the greater elements. Ideally, the greatest element established in us is God Himself, who is able to live more freely in our hearts and flow more purely through our lives.

In the mid-1990’s, I was in the habit of asking God to bring fires into my life. I do not recommend that! The reason I do not recommend such a prayer is because “trial and fire” will enter our lives whether we request them or not. I will, however, stand by my intentions at the time. In my heart I sensed that though I had a sincere faith in God, it was superficial. I read about and proclaimed high ideals; I expounded deep spiritual principles; I held deep convictions; I had the heart of a radical, sold-out, believer. But deep down, I knew that I was untried. I sensed superficiality to my faith and insecurity in my trust in God.

In the early days, I overcompensated for that insecurity by projecting a false boldness and an arrogant approach to “speaking the truth”. I decided that “the truth” was powerful in-and-of-itself, and that I had a responsibility to deliver it to others without soft-pedaling. But truth can also be a weapon. When placed in the hands of someone who has not learned humility, compassion, and the wisdom of experience, it wounds and then inoculates others from being open and may even hinder them from receiving truth later from someone else. In those days, I thought that if someone became offended at my delivery, it was only because they refused to accept the truth. What arrogance!

I also overcompensated for my insecurity by reinforcing myself with pride. I developed a putrid, self-righteous, self-important, self-referential outlook, and viewed myself as being “more correct” than others in my life. The funny thing is, I never viewed myself in this way until I began walking with Christ and tried to clean up my life. Previously, I had spent a number of years living a self-destructive life. When I committed my life to Christ, I began to experience some freedom and the blessing that came from avoiding sin and embracing righteousness. I wanted to be a “good witness” of who God is, and I wanted to please Him. So, I aggressively tried to do all that the Bible commanded.

But deep down I sensed this pain and darkness that still existed within me and it scared me. I was trying so hard to be good, obedient, and a “vessel of healing for others”. Yet, I was plagued by this question: “How can I heal others when I feel so broken myself?” It was an internal paradox; a Divine dichotomy. So, I deluded myself into believing that I was more put together than I was so that others would see me in the same way. And if they saw me that way, then perhaps I could relax because it had finally come true. But in the process, I lost my humanity, my vulnerability, my love, and my identity.

It was the fires of life that shook me (and continue to shake me) out of such strange mindsets.

Cycles of Fire

I have experienced three important cycles of fire in my life over the past 15 years. The first was between 1997 and 1999; the second between 2003 and 2005; the third between 2010 and 2012. The most recent was, by far, the most difficult and spiritually devastating. The details of these circumstances are far more layered and complex than I could possibly articulate in a blog post. The important point, however, is that on the heels of each of those cycles, I experienced unique personal and spiritual breakthroughs, and also experienced deep personal change in my life. In between the cycles, God worked with me to apply what He had been teaching me while I was still “in the fire”.

What I have just written above is hardly new revelation. The “dark night of the soul” has been explored thoroughly by philosophers and theologians for centuries. It seems high-minded and lofty until you have been there. Through the fire, I discover more about who God really is, what His priorities are in this world, and the sort of person He wants me to be.

The real miracle of the fire is not necessarily in how heroically we perform while in the midst of it, but rather in how God carries us through and uses the experience to change us. The greatest victories we achieve are not always in how well we perform, but rather in how low we bow in the process. And, it is the love and forgiveness of God that preserves us and keeps us from a permanent descent into bitterness.

Loose Ends Tied Up

Around six years ago, I began reading about our government’s concerns over the potential threat of an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack by terrorist agencies. In short, an EMP attack is when an enemy detonates a nuclear (or comparably powerful) device in the atmosphere over American territory. The impact would be a massive disruption of the magnetic field, triggering a complete shutdown of every electronic and computerized system from coast-to-coast. As a nation, we would be thrown back to the dark ages.

As to my most recent experience in the fire…it was a bizarre, confusing, and frightening journey that, frankly, took more out of me than I ever thought possible. I have often described this past few years as an EMP attack on my life. A bomb went off, my systems were disrupted, my communications were blocked, and my ability to see clearly was removed. I was thrown back into the spiritual dark-ages. Three years on, I am happy to look in my rearview mirror and see that period fading quickly into the distance.

I don’t have all the answers as to why things went down the way they did, but I can accept that now. Little-by-little, I find myself getting stronger and seeing things clearly again. My primary goal at this stage in my life is more solid than ever: to continue to discover who God is, who He created me to be, and how He wants me to cooperate with Him in this life. In the process, I look forward to experiencing more of His presence and understanding the depth and strength of His love.

Loose Ends (part one)

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Lately, I have been thinking about my failures. Yes! I have them! And lately, once again, I find them intruding rudely into my life. They interrupt my daily routine with their nagging pleas for attention. They weigh down my heart with their constant accusations. They tell me lies about myself that, sometimes, I believe. But, they also tell me truths about myself that I need to face (those are, perhaps, the scariest things my failures bring my way).

We all have different ways of dealing with failure. Some people ignore them and pretend they never happened. They stuff them deep down into the underbelly of their souls, fix their eyes ahead (not behind), and keep moving forward. Some people rationalize their failures. They give reason upon reason for what happened until they come to the conclusion that they never actually did anything wrong. Some people analyze their failures endlessly, looking for the exact thing they did wrong so that they can correct it, or fix their dysfunction, or understand their mistake so that they can make sure it never happens again.

Some people, consciously or unconsciously, sense their failures and live everyday of their life as an act of atonement. They go out of their way to do charitable works; or to be more accepting of others; or to work harder and achieve more. Some people hide their failures in a closet and live every day of their life beneath a blanket of shame, protecting the secret(s), fearing exposure.

Personally, I have done all of the above. But, there came a point in my life when I realized that confronting my failures was necessary for me to grow and mature in life, spiritually and emotionally. And, confronting my failures meant I had to confront myself and take a good honest look in the mirror and decide whether or not what I saw reflected the person I aspire to be. I can’t think of a single time when doing so was “easy”. But it did, after some practice, become more “normal”. And the fruit of walking through that process is a heart that can draw closer to God, understand His heart, discover truths and wisdom, carry more compassion and understanding for others, and be an extension of His grace.

The thing is…sometimes our failures come from a place of inner woundedness. We fall consistently into negative behavior patterns, and we’ll continue to fall into the same behavior patterns until the wound is healed. Sometimes, our failures come from a lack of character. We know the right thing to do, yet we choose the opposite way anyway. And sometimes our failures come from a conspiracy of circumstances that put us in a position to fail, no matter what we do. There are times when we are outmanned, outgunned, and under-equipped, and yet we still rise to the challenge and overcome. Other times, we rise to the challenge and find defeat. And sometimes, we don’t rise at all.

I find myself in the past few years trying to come to terms with a “conspiracy of circumstances” that occurred in my life that were very difficult, very painful, and very confusing. Things went suddenly and horribly wrong. No matter what path I took to resolve them, the atmosphere just got heavier and the light dimmed further into darkness. I struggled for a very long time, trying to find an answer. I looked inside. I looked to God. I looked to others. I finally just “let go”. What has been the most frustrating part of the process has been trying to come to terms with what was “my fault” and what was not. There has been this constant feeling of “loose ends” — dangling threads from that situation that have yet to be resolved; a part of the story that has yet to be told.

Those loose ends make clear-eyed confrontation difficult. So many unanswered questions. So many possible causes. I find myself purposefully moving on, and yet, hindered at the same time as I continue to question myself. Still, I have been in this type of situation before and have come to look upon it as a gift from God. In each circumstance, I discovered aspects of my life that needed transformation. Sometimes it was inner healing; sometimes it was growing up in some areas; sometimes it was being set free from spiritual chains. But, in each instance I discovered more about God then I ever thought imaginable, and I discovered something even more amazing…His capacity to restore and redeem what seemed lost forever.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Pepsi Toast

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A Memorial to a Restored Relationship

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I used to fantasize about a day far in the future when my father would be old…possibly in a wheelchair. In my fantasy, I would take a baseball bat and beat him with it until he finally felt the way he had made me feel all my young life: weak, helpless, and terrified every day. Growing up, we were not what you would call “close”. In fact, by the age of five, I had learned to keep my distance from him. By the age of fifteen, I often said in my heart, almost like an inner vow, that I may have a father (someone who provided the genetic material for my life) but I never had a dad. I had rejected my father because rejection was all I ever felt from him.

The Memories

Throughout my childhood, I always felt that my father was ashamed of me. I wasn’t the tough, rugged, manly kind of kid who would tear up the football field and bring home trophies. I was a sensitive, artistic boy who went through a “chubby phase” from age 9 until age 16; who was probably more comfortable talking with a group of girls than with a group of guys; who enjoyed thinking deep thoughts, writing stories, and smelling scented candles. Those were not the kind of “accomplishments” that a man like my dad, who grew up in a poor family with 16 siblings and had to fight for everything he ever had, could trot out with pride before his friends and brothers.

To this day I remember the smacks to the head, the “boot in the rear” that would literally lift me off my feet, and the words…the devastating, berating words that cut to my heart, made me ashamed of myself, and ashamed to be alive.

We had our tussles. Even now I remember vividly one evening when I was twelve, lying on the floor and watching TV. As my father walked by, he dragged his foot over my neck in a way that made me feel very humiliated (you had to be there). I snapped. I lunged directly at him like an animal, grabbed him by the shins, and tried with everything I had to bring him down. He put his boot in my stomach, shoved me back three feet, got in my face and screamed intimidating threats, none of which I remember, but they all added up to one conclusion: that I had better never do anything like that again.

Those are sad memories. But, those are not the memories I carry with me today about my dad. Years later, I came to love my dad (and actually liked him). I enjoyed his personality. I understood him. The restoration was gradual in one sense, and happened almost overnight in another sense.

The Meeting

In 1994, I was in a church meeting where a man named Bobby Martz, a long time missionary and preacher, was speaking. Bobby had a long track record of praying for people and seeing them healed. I even heard tales at the time of “angelic visitations” that would occur at some of his meetings. Bobby was not your stereotypical evangelist in a $1,000 suit, Ronald Reagan hair, and extended hand (awaiting your dollar). He was quiet, humble, and quirky.

Bobby delivered his sermon, prayed for people, and was just about to close the meeting when he suddenly stopped and said he felt the Lord wanted him to pray for people who needed healing in relationship with their fathers. By this point, I had worked my way to the back of the room and was chatting with a friend. But, when I heard his words, my head snapped left and I knew I needed to go up front and have him pray for me. There was no emotion in my heart. No sense of loss or sentimentality that was getting tapped by Bobby’s words. I had long since gone cold on the subject of my father and, frankly, could not have cared any less. But, in that moment, I had the vivid realization that he was talking about me and I needed to go forward. So, I walked to the front, presented myself before him, and said matter-of-factly, “I need you to pray for me to have restoration with my father.”

Bobby laid his hand on my shoulder to pray, and immediately I began to weep from deep inside. I stood there hunched over, sobbing, tears pouring down my face, and never heard a word that he prayed. He moved on and I continued to sit in the front row, bent over in tears. To this day, I mark that moment as the beginning of restoration.

The Healing

A few months later, my sister told me that my father had been having minor strokes. She was trying to get him to incorporate some natural, nutritional methods for physical healing, but he was resistant. Typical. One evening, I sat alone on the couch thinking about my father and wrestling inside. I felt like God wanted me to call him, encourage him to listen to my sister, and tell him I love him. The idea repulsed me. Nothing in me wanted to do that and, to be honest, in my heart I wanted him to die. But, God kept after me for the next hour. So I called. The conversation wasn’t long. But, I told him that I knew about the strokes, that he needed to listen to my sister, and that I loved him. We ended the conversation, and I went back to my evening with a greater sense of peace.

My heart did not well up with love for my father that evening. But, it was a first step of faith and obedience that started me walking down a new path with my dad. He did listen to my sister, by the way, and the strokes ended.

As the years progressed, I looked forward to visiting my parents. We went to their place twice a month on average for almost ten of what my sister and I call “the Little Falls years” (the years they lived just under two hours away in Little Falls, MN). Those were great years filled with moments and memories that I will keep with me the rest of my life. My sons got to know their Grandpa Phil and he got to know them. Going to Little Falls to visit my parents became an escape from the rest of life, rather than being the place I needed to escape from.

I discovered my dad’s humor. I saw his tender side (especially with his grand kids). I saw how protective he was of his kids. I saw his humanity. The moments that stand out the most to me now are the simple ones: visiting Coborn’s Market on Saturday mornings to “go freeloading” (his term for walking around the store and getting free food samples from the numerous display stands); Christmas holidays, like the one when four of us all separately gave him a package of fudge as a gift; the Annual Craft Fair weekends; the time he gave me a plaque congratulating me for my 104 mile bike ride; the first time I asked his advice in business and genuinely wanted his opinion. (My mom later told me how happy he was that I asked for his advice).

I discovered who my dad really was during those years, and the shroud of darkness that overshadowed our relationship began to lift. The truth is, my dad loved me and he loved his family passionately. He always did. He made mistakes in the heat of the battles of life. He said and did things he can never take back. But then, so have I. During the Little Falls years, I came to appreciate him as the man he was, and not the monster I thought he was. I can’t say that my relationship with my dad was ever perfect. But it was good, and I truly enjoyed him.

The Memorial

In 2003, my dad sold his business and my parents returned to Missouri where my dad built a huge house near a beautiful pond. He had plans for those years and for that land. But, in May of 2004 he was diagnosed with cancer and died five months later. Eight years ago today, my father passed away. It all happened so quickly.

In the last month of his life, my sister and I traveled to Missouri to help my mother care for him in their new house. We each took a two week shift. During my two weeks, I found time to talk with my dad and spend so much quality time with him. We watched “The Price Is Right” every morning at 10:00am and “Wheel of Fortune” every night at 6:30pm. In between, I filled pages in my notebook as he gave me instructions on what to do with some of his possessions after he died. He shared stories of his days in the corporate world that I had never heard before. I gained more understanding of the pressures he was under during those painful years when our family was young.

During those final weeks, there came a point when Dad could no longer eat or drink virtually anything. Everything he tasted seemed to have a metallic flavor, which disgusted him. Strangely, the only thing that tasted good to him was Pepsi. He had purchased these cute, eight ounce cans of Pepsi, and we got in the habit of having a glass each morning as we watched “Price is Right”. It became a tradition. Every morning we did a “Pepsi toast”. And, every time someone came to visit, we did a “Pepsi toast” with them.

Those days in October of 2004 were intense. The experiences we all had in that new house my dad built less than a year earlier, established it as a new home in our hearts. And, my dad and I found a level of peace between us during that period that we had never had before.

My final, most important memory with my dad came a few nights before he died. I had gone back to my life in Minnesota for a week or so to attend to business and be with my family. My two older sisters took over Dad’s cares in Missouri. They called one evening and said the end was getting close. So, I packed up my wife and kids, and we returned to Missouri.

I walked into his bedroom that evening, alone, but he was not really conscious. Death was close and he was already transitioning into a different world. I took his hand and said, “Dad. I’m here. I just wanted you to know that. I love you, Dad.” The tears that filled my eyes were quiet, but full.

His eyes opened and he looked straight at me. Weakly, but clearly, he said, “I love you, Bud.” And then he slipped back into a semi-conscious, transitional state.

The final words my dad and I exchanged were “I love you.” Because of that, in spite of the years of anger and pain, in spite of all the things I wish could have been different, I can look back on everything and have no regrets. The healing that began with a simple prayer, a simple choice to open up to my dad, and the simple and powerful grace of a God who works harder toward redemption rather than judgment means I can now have joy when I remember my father’s life.

So now, each year on the anniversary of his death, I raise a glass to his memory and tell him I love him all over again.

Friendship

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Around ten years ago, someone said to me, “There are many people who love you, and many people that you love. But you have few friends.” I knew that was true then, and know it to be true even now.

I once had close friendships that I deeply treasured and valued. I had people in my life with whom I looked forward to spending time. I enjoyed hanging out with them on long weekends and doing whatever seemed good to do. We took short trips together. We talked endlessly about subjects both deep and shallow. We laughed (didn’t cry much, but let’s save that for a future blog post) and never tried to put ourselves in a position of being better, or “higher”, than the other. We engaged our hearts, enjoyed each other’s presence and personalities, and provided a safe place of refuge for one another in difficult times.

The Loss

That part of my life was largely lost (perhaps stolen is a better word) almost twenty years ago. It is a loss that I have felt and tried endlessly to get back ever since. It is a loss which I am finally grieving through in a healthy way, and I believe that now is the season to see that restored. The source of that loss is layered. It’s not simple, as we often try and make the complicated stories of our lives. It transpired through a series of events that introduced death into my soul, and another, more subtle and insidious series of moments and events over many years, that worked that death into the flesh of my soul like some sick marinade. In many ways, it led to the pre-mature death of my heart and terrible emotional loss.

But, “the loss” is not what I intend to glorify or highlight through these writings. “The loss” is merely a catalyst toward discovering who I am, and how a perfect God can love an imperfect me. And then, how I can share that redemptive love with everyone who enters my life, whether we know one another peripherally or intimately.

This Blog

This is not a blog about friendship, per se. This blog is really about sharing my life and my stories. It is also about a personal God and His complicated relationship with me (insert smiley face here). It is about the twisty and windy paths He walked / walks me through in life to continually bring me toward the end goal of one thing: unencumbered, open, honest friendship with Him.

It is the kind of friendship where we are able to talk without me jumping through religious hoops and performing “spiritual acts” in order to approach Him “in just the right way”; the kind of friendship where He can love and appreciate me, even when I am still broken and hurting. It is a friendship where He can tell me the truth about myself by holding up a mirror, and then carefully help me to confront what I see in that mirror in order to find redemption and restoration. It is the kind of friendship where He can help me wrestle through the unjust events that transpired in my life and find the thread of hope that leads to something sorely missing in this broken world…LIFE.

You will, I hope, forgive me as I have the habit of talking about specific events, and then find myself floating up into the clouds to express the “higher ideas” or the “bigger picture” that surrounds them. That is simply who I am. You’ll get used to it.

Back To Friendships

Today, there are people in my life (both distant and near) with whom I am friends. We know each other. We like each other. But, my desire is to move deeper into those relationships. The only way I know how is to open up again at a new level and share. To me, there is nothing in life quite as frightening as that. But, I know the pay-off is great.

Sometime back I was watching a popular television comedy. The closing scene of one episode touched me so deeply that I kept rewinding it and watching it over. About two weeks ago, I stumbled on that exact same scene on You Tube. I posted the scene below.

The background of the episode, in short, is this: A married couple named Carla and Turk, a nurse and a surgeon, have been trying for a year to have a baby. The entire TV season followed them through their story arc as they tried to conceive, along the way experiencing hope and crushed hope. They searched out every reason why they were not able to conceive, even alternately blaming each other with being physically incapable of doing so.

One day, Carla took a home pregnancy test and the result turned up negative again. A few moments later, Turk looked into the trash can and saw that it had turned positive (they had not waited long enough for this particular test). In his excitement, he told his best friend JD. So, Turk and J.D. then told all of their friends and planned to gather them all together in front of the hospital where they worked. They would, as a group, announce to Carla that she was pregnant.

En route to the gathering, Carla tells Turk that when the day comes that she IS pregnant, her greatest desire will be to experience the joy of telling her friends one at a time, and savoring their individual reactions of joy. Turk sends an emergency “cancel the gathering” text to all the friends waiting to greet Carla. The remainder of the episode is of Turk and his friend J.D. trying to keep the news that her friends all know she is pregnant from Carla, while getting her to take another test so she can have what she wants the most…to tell them all individually.

The scene I posted below picks up from there. I post this because the tone that the writers, the actors, and the editors hit with this small scene perfectly spoke to a craving in my heart. It illustrated so simply the incredible beauty that comes from genuine friendships that pass through the fires of this world. It illustrates the joy true friends share with one another. Friends love each other, hurt each other, support each other, and fail each other. But, those rare friendships that are able to see past everything and continue on together are priceless. It eases the inevitable pain we will experience in life and doubly enriches the joys we are able to share with them.

Redemption and restoration in the real world will be key themes in this blog. Friendship with God and friendship with man is where I start expressing it.

One thing I know from personal experience…God makes all things new. Enjoy.