emarkthomas

Trying to live love well through the power of the Everlasting.

Monthly Archives: October 2011

Facing a New Season

Five days into my new job, and my life looks dramatically different than it did one week ago. It really hit me tonight when I got home from work and looked at the clock. Wednesday night: men’s group. Not anymore. This Sunday morning will come: church at CFC. Not anymore. And so on, and so on. Much will change in the coming days, but I think the biggest loss for me is my boys. My men’s group. This rattles me, just a bit. The vast majority of my life and my social circle stems from my connection to my church and, more directly, my men’s group. Without them, and with the requirement of a new social sphere in the form of my job and the way it changes my schedule, there is a huge vacuum to be filled. And it won’t stay a vacuum for long. And that hits my heart hard; I don’t like the idea of my life without my boys.

Let me share something with you:

All throughout college, I had the same thing for lunch almost every day. A sandwich made from a toasted plain bagel, mayo, swiss cheese, and tuna fish. My friends would marvel at the routine. It was almost as constant as the rising of the sun. Likewise, I clocked in an enormous amount of hours in the old Sprague Library. I had a “library thing” in addition to my “sandwich thing.”

My first stop was almost always the circulation desk, last station on the far right, closest to the periodicals. That’s where my dear friend Jilian almost always was, as she worked there. I’d lean on the counter talking to her until her boss would banish me, and then I’d head off to the quiet section, turn right through the doors, and walk all the way to the very end, to those floor-to-ceiling windows in the far right corner. I’d burrow into one of the desks there and do homework, read a book, study, whatever. It didn’t really matter; I was just so comfortable there. Like I was comfortable with my sandwich at lunch.

I’m not one of those creatures of habit that can’t function if my schedule is interrupted. I’m actually really flexible with my days and my time. But in the midst of the chaos that is my life, I forge for myself a couple little things, like library time or bagel-swiss-tuna sandwiches, that act as pillars for me. Rocks in the rapids. Everything else about my day/week/month can go in a completely different direction, and I can just shrug and adapt very quickly. And when I get over my head, I grab one of my rocks. My days at Roberts, even my best days, were laden with despair and depression, and all the chaos and stress that comes with them. Things like sandwiches and library time acted as safe houses, a place of refuge from the storm. A brief time of peace from the bone-crushing, heart-wrenching Sadness.

Of course, rocks change for different seasons of life. I’m not in college anymore; there’s no Garlock Dining Commons anymore. No Sprague Library. Well, there’s no Sprague Library anymore at all since Roberts built the B. Thomas Golisano Library, but you know what I mean. My rocks these days are my boys, my guys. My men’s group. Life gets pretty stormy, but then there’s a men’s group meeting, or a men’s group camping trip, or I’ll see them Sunday morning in church. Something. Peace of mind: restored. My soul: refreshed. Check and check.

Ah, but life moves on, and circumstances change.

In this new day-to-day season, my rocks will be gone, and I’m a bit overwhelmed by that. I know it’s theorectical that we can still see each other but really, once life gets going? I’ll no longer be able to be a physical part of our group, and that’s a big loss. Keeping in communication is great, but not being able to be physically present with my boys? Ouch.

I think on this, and my chest literally begins to ache with a very familiar Sadness. Ah yes, the aforementioned Sadness. I know this Sadness well. He’s an old, intimate companion. There was a time when this Sadness ruled my life, heart, and mind with an iron fist. He’s rousing in my chest tonight, and I know I’ll probably have to do some battle before morning comes, but I’m armed with something I didn’t have during the days past. I have the hope of the gospel of the Living God, and all that that implies.

Now really, what chance does the Sadness have against that? What chance does my chaotic new season of life have against it either? Yeah, none.

See, I may be facing a future in which I feel totally alone and insufficient. I may be looking at my new life and feeling despair ebb into my heart at the thought of being cut off from my community.

But I’m in good company, really. Moses, Joseph, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Abraham and dozens and dozens and dozens of others from the books of the Bible all found themselves in similar situations many, many times. Joseph sticks our particularly in my mind. Several times Joseph stared into a future that looked bleak and miserable at best, alone without even the hope of communication with any of his loved ones. Yet I Am That I Am showed up, and yeah, enough said. 

So tonight my future may seem bleak, and my heart may ache at the thought of facing a new season without my guys or my church, but the Everlasting is still the Living God of Joseph, and the Living God of Ethan. He sees my circumstances for what they really are, not just what they currently seem to be from my eyes. And even better, he’s not just a passenger, but God. He’s going somewhere with this, to the benefit of many people and the glory of his great name.

And that’s good news.

Life with the Living God: Two Parts.

I’ve had a lot to contemplate in the past few days, and I’ve had some pretty awesome people to help me do so. To help me see things that I couldn’t see by myself. Once again, community forged me into something stronger than before, urged and equipped by the Spirit of the Living God.

What community helped me to realize, better, these past few days was that I live life in a very familiar pattern. It’s familiar because it’s all over the Bible. As a human being, I am… human. I’m limited in my understanding, my perspectives, my definitions of what is good and evil, my grasp of time, and so many other things. This interferes with my relationship with the Everlasting. Let me explain further:

Several years ago, I was working at a resort in the Recreation department. We took weekly rafting trips on a very small, family-friendly river. It was safe and fun and one of our most popular trips. Since my youngest brother was now old enough to go on the trip, I drove the two and a half hours from the resort to my parent’s home late at night, and the next morning woke up my three youngest siblings very early and told them to get in the car. I was taking them somewhere for the day.

Eli, my youngest brother, was still young enough that the state laws required him to be in a car seat. He was just old enough, however, to know that he hated that car seat. He was the only member of the family who had to be in it, and he knew from his older brothers and sisters – such as myself – that there was a time when the older state laws would have allowed him, at his age, to be free of the car seat. But he wasn’t under the old laws, and so in the car seat he was safely buckled.

We drove about thirty minutes and stopped for breakfast, giving Eli a small break from his seat. Then it was back in the car for a straight two-hour stretch to reach the resort in time. No breaks. Eli made it about forty-five minutes before he began complaining. An hour in,  he was whining heavily. An hour and a half in, he was literally kicking the back of my seat – he was sitting directly behind me – and squirming and crying. He had reached his breaking point. He was six years old, he had been woken up at 5:00 in the morning, he was packed in a small car with three of his older siblings, none of which had to suffer in a car seat as he did. Life was unfair, he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he was showing that in every way possible for him at the time.

He didn’t trust me anymore when I told him that staying in his seat had a purpose: to transport him somewhere so that he could have a day like none he had ever experienced before. He lost perspective of that promise in his circumstances; the misery he was in washed away the promises I had made that I knew what I was doing. I was going somewhere with this. All would be made well in time.

Of course we eventually made it to our destination, and he had a day full of mini-golf, whitewater rafting, sight-seeing, swimming, and eating all three meals at his favorite restaurants in the world: McDonalds. Such a day for a six year old! He still talks about that day, nearly four years later. And in his re-telling of those events, he doesn’t remember the car ride. He remembers his daring adventures on a whitewater rafting trip. He remembers our neck-and-neck game of mini-golf. He remembers the triumphant joy of me hitting the signal light when he would see those Golden Arches and shout/ask, “ETHAN CAN WE STOP AT MCDONALDS?!”

I have lived the last few weeks as my brother. I forgot that me throwing a tantrum in the car is not the end of the story.

The second part of the story is God showing up and taking me where he promised.

Part I, and Part II.

I just forgot that Part II was coming.

Sorry, Papa.

These excerpts from Psalms 88 and 89 not only reflect my point, but they also happen to be from psalms that have expressed the very core of my heart during some of the most meaningful times of my life. These psalms appear back-to-back in the modern versions of the Bible, and the significance is not lost on me. Neither is the author of the second psalm.

Part I: Psalm 88

O LORD, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to hear my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.

I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,

like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,

like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.

Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with your waves.

Selah.

You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.

I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.

Every day I call on you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.

Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?

Selah.

Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

But I, O LORD, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.

O LORD, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?

Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.

They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companion is darkness.

 

Part II: Psalm 89 1-8 (a maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite)

I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever;
with my mouth will I make your faithfulness known
through all generations.

I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant,

‘I will establish your line forever
and make your throne firm through all generations,'”

The heavens praise your wonders, LORD,
your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones.

For who in the skies above can compare with the LORD?
Who is like the LORD among the heavenly beings?

In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared;
he is more awesome than all who surround him.

Who is like you, LORD God Almighty?
You, LORD, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

Amen, brothers and sisters. Amen.

Further up and further in.

[Update: this post should be read and filtered through the 24 October 2011 post, “Life with the Living God: Two Parts.” Reading only this post is like reading the first half of one of the depressing psalms, and then stopping without reading the part where the good news comes. In writing this orginally, my perspective was off. My bad.]

Papa answered countless prayers this week.

I got a job. Outside of the farm, I mean. A new job. A job that will enable me to begin paying the bills I haven’t been able to pay, to start knocking down more than just the interest on the student loans, to begin to get my feet back under me. Many people have prayed for this for a long, long time.

I received a “word” from a man at church on Sunday. During the worship time, he was standing across the aisle from me. He’s a deacon. He’s well known for giving words, or messages, to people from God. I thought, as I glanced at him sideways, “Papa, why has he never given me a word? Someone like me, with my well known history? Where’s my word, hmm?” Yeah, my heart wasn’t exactly in the right place. I chastised myself soon after, and asked for forgiveness for my judgement and bitterness.

Then, after worship, he turned towards me and gave me a message. I was kind of floored, and also kind of disappointed – it was a message that I had heard many, many times before. An idea that I had genuinely encountered and wrestled with more times than I can count. I felt like I was jogging, waiting for  help on how to begin running, when I received instruction on how to begin walking. I’ve already been there. What’s with the back-tracking?

I was disappointed because I expected a word from God to correspond to my relationship with God. Still, I was rattled by the fact that I spoke to Papa about it, and it happened fifteen minutes later. What was that about? A wrong answer to a sort of prayer?

Several other things happened as well, but these two stick out to me as I type now. God answered prayers. In his time, in his way. I should be thankful. I should be grateful. I should be full of praise.

I am not.

What is going on here? I’m not thankful. I’m disappointed in the way the prayers were answered. You see, the job seems just as out of place as the deacon’s word for me. I was waiting back for word regarding a much better job, working with an old friend in a place with lots of room for promotion and raises. I had excellent references from current employees on the team. Whether I ought to have been or not, I was counting on God answering the job prayer with this one. I didn’t get the better job.

Whether I ought to have been or not, I was banking on a certainty that, should God ever give me a message from any deacons or church pillars, it would be one of intimate knowledge and communication. It would be a message commending me for the tremendous growth and desire to live and love well. It would provide some sort of clue as to the next steps of my life. It would finally bestow upon me the respect and admiration of brothers and sisters in the church; would finally allow them to see me not as the creature with a lying and spiteful heart but as the redeemed and renewed man with a passion to love and spread reconciliation and hope that the Spirit is making me to be. I didn’t get any of those things from this man’s words.

So here we are. Two disappointments, and I’m moping around for the last few days. Like the Israelites, I have watched God act mightily many times over many years, and now I am grumbling about my current circumstances. Even now, as I type, I know that God’s doing something, and whether or not it works out for me it’s gonna be good. He’s trustworthy. He’s God. I know these things – intimately – having learned them through times of fire and darkness, being purged and tested in the crucible. Fire and darkness as most people I know haven’t had to experience, and that also upsets me. Why are they being blessed so with so much and so little trial, and I am put through fire after fire and have not the relatively small blessings I ask for?

Why is everyone else extended the grace of the gospel in their communities, and I am denied it?

Why do they prosper, and I am abandoned?

And in the midst of these thoughts over the past few days, my heart broke -again- and I said yet again, “You, Papa. You are holy. You are God. You are big enough. You are doing something, and even if it doesn’t work out for me, you can be trusted. There is no other. Even though you slay me, yet will I praise you.”

I’ve been here before, I reminded myself, and I’ve not yet perished.

Papa, I need you to be big enough to handle this. I thought we’d dealt with this, and then you brought to light a deeper layer with a stronger fortress in my heart. Not the first time, is it?

I’m sorry that I keep treating you like you’re me. I’m sorry that I keep rationalizing that since I love you and strive to be more of what you ask me to be, you would begin to act like a Genie. I’m sorry I keep approaching you through manipulation and a system of points, as if I could acquire enough to cash in somehow.

I’m sorry that despite it all, I still get hung up on what the world values and expect you to show your love and faithfulness to me in that manner.

I’m sorry that all of these things were lessons that I had learned well at one point, and lost somewhere along the way.

Put me through the next crucible, Heavenly Father, until all this newly found junk is also burned away. Allow me to trust you more than I do today.

It’s amazing how far I’ve come, and yet how far there still is to go…

Heresy in Modern Christians: Marcionism

[Update: this post probably ought not to have been published when it was. In the comments section I explain why.]

Let’s do something, just for a few minutes. Let’s remember that Christianity existed between the death of the Apostles and the founding of the colonies of the United States of America. I know, I know, it’s hard. But bear with me: let’s remember that there are, in fact, roughly two thousand years of Christian history.

See, I exist in two worlds: that of North American Progressive Christians, and that of North American Evangelical Christians. Depending on whom you ask, those two worlds are one and the same. I tend to find, in my experience, that the Evangelical communities of which I am a part tend to think that the two worlds most certainly are not the same, so that’s why I differentiate. In the Evangelical community to which I belong, I find a widespread trend: we focus on, and possibly only believe in, specific times of God interacting with his people. We love and believe in everything from Adam right up through the Apostles. Then, somehow, nothing at all happens until the Pilgrims and such came to America. We don’t focus a whole lot of them, but at least we’re aware of their existence and we tend to believe that they were, in fact, Christians. We hit the highlights of various denominations over the next two hundred years, and we might know the history of our own congregations. We view Christian reality the same way that irresponsible students view educational reality.

By that I mean this: A student in a class is preparing for her final exam. She is intimately familiar with the material for chapters 1 – 21, and also with chapters 47 – 49. She does not, however, know much at all about anything that chapters 22 – 46 cover. But it’s not that big a deal, because hey, there couldn’t really have been anything all that important in those chapters anyway, right? Besides, she only was interested in the chapters that she studied.

She will fail her exam. Period. Reality, the test, is nothing like her reality: thinking that what was worth knowing was only what she chose to know.

All that to say this: there are things that happened with Christians from the years 100 AD – 1700 AD. Things that happened that are worth knowing. Things that happened, that are worth knowing, that could have a tremendous impact on our modern churches.

Today we focus on Marcion of Sinope. Who? That’s right. I thought so.

We have Marcion to thank, quite frankly, for the Bible as we know it.

Marcion is credited with being the one to suggest having a Biblical canon, which is to say, to choose books that we decided were actually God-inspired, put them together in a collection, and call it sacred. The Bible didn’t just fall out of the sky amidst lights and angelic voices, human beings sat down and voted on which letters and writings made the cut.

A popular thing to do in the ancient church was to write a gospel. There are tons of them surviving, and who knows how many that didn’t make it. Everyone and their brother had a gospel, it seemed, and it was clear that they couldn’t all exist together in harmony. So some that didn’t seem to fit with the orthodoxy of the day were purged, and others sanctified.

That was Marcion’s idea. Or at least that’s what we reasonably believe to be Marcion’s idea, though I know that some scholars contest that. [Full disclosure: Marcion put forth this idea hoping to get rid of the entirity of what we now call the Old Testament and most of what we now know as the New Testament. So, idea of canon his, yes, but that doesn’t mean they did with his idea what he wanted. So don’t lose faith and think your Bible is tainted. That’s not my intent by telling you this.]

Also an idea of Marcion of Sinope: viewing God as two different Gods: the god of the Old Testament and the god of the New Testament. The Old Testament God, of course, is one of wrath and anger and judgement. That’s the God we’re talking about when we use words like, “smite” and so many others. The New Testament God is the one of love, compassion, mercy, grace. You get the idea.

Now Marcion took this idea pretty far, even saying that he thought the Old Testament God was a lesser god from whom Jesus and the New Testament God were freeing us. There’s a lot more to this whole idea, but suffice to say that the Church didn’t really think that this idea held water.  Marcion was excommunicated for heresy, and when scholars talk about Marcionism, they mean this idea of duality. This all went down roughly 1,867 years ago. Give or take. About 40 years after John died. You know, John of “The Gospel of John” and “the disciple that Jesus loved” fame. That John.

What’s the point of all this? Well the point is, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about ancient heresies lately. And I’ve been observing where I think that some version of that heresy is alive and well in the Church today. That’s right, I’m going there.

I think there are strains of Marcionism alive and well in the North American churches. And I think that’s bad.

Marcionism in modern churches looks like… people who say things like, “God isn’t like that anymore.”

I’ve said it before, and I say it again now: God is not who you think God is.

We attribute to God humanity, and as such we cannot fathom God being the same person in both Testaments. We don’t go so far as ol’ Marcion, but we’re thinking right along his lines. It’s too difficult to fathom the God of love that we focus on… killing untold numbers of people. Of women and children. Things like that. So we don’t talk much about it, and we don’t think much about it, and when we do, we offer up some half-baked explanation about God just not being like that anymore.

It’s okay to think about those things, and it’s okay to question them. God is big enough to handle it, and he’s faithful enough to walk you through it. I can’t help but think of the book Pride and Prejudice here. Elizabeth hates Mr. Darcy with a passion because she hears, “such differing accounts of [him] as puzzles her exceedingly.” She can’t reconcile the good with the bad, and thus her mental image of Darcy is poisoned from the get-go. The only way that that could be healed was by Elizabeth questioning and reviewing information and prejudices. If she hadn’t had the courage to do that, well, she could never have fallen in love and become Mrs. Darcy.

Again, what I really mean by that is this: Marcionism is dangerous in any form, because the very idea of having different accounts of God will poison you against him in your subconscious, and that’s bad.

There have got to be many, many ways to deconstruct why Marcionism is dangerous and how God can be both images painted of  him. I’m not a real theologian, though, so I’d probably just botch them all. I’m a dabbling theologian, so I’ll offer up the thoughts that go through my head now.

God is not bound by time. God exists outside of time; he can stop time as the story with Joshua goes. 

It is true that we get a glimpse of God working in his construct of time. Galations, for example, talks  of God relating to humanity through the construct of time. Paul uses the example of children with guardians placed over them and now moving on to being full heirs with no need for a guardian. This, to me, makes perfect sense and mirrors the way God interacts with us all: differently over time, working within his construct of time with us.

But I don’t think that means that God is limited by time. We can’t really worship a God that small, I think.

A God that exists outside of time, then, can concievably be interacting with me right now in the 21st century at the same time he is faithfully parting the Red Sea for Moses and the Israelites whilst keeping the Egyptians at bay. Not a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New Testament: one God. One God more holy and awesome and merciful and mighty than I can ever wrap my head around.

That’s a big God. That’s the God that Marcionism – among other things – takes away from us. Marcionism limits God to being powerless against the rules of time, and for this reason he has to resort to plans within plans, manipulation and trickery, to finally bring about his End Game. That’s why it’s possible for us to look at that God and cringe. But thanks to deconstructing Marcionism, we know that this God doesn’t exist.

Only our Heavenly Father, the same God of all time and outside of time.

I know I didn’t really nail Marcionism with the depth or thoroughness that a better person could, nor did I offer up perhaps the more important reasons why Marcionism cannot be. But I did it in a way that I currently understand, and in a way that seemed to make sense to me. And hopefully, one or two others.

Also, I’m very tired and fully intend to review this tomorrow or the next day to fix the disjointed parts and logic of this post. But still, for it being my thoughts on a blog that I’m pretty sure only I and a few of my friends read, I think it’ll do. For now.

Ah, perspective.

So in my last post, just a few hours ago, I wrote about how it’s my birthday, and through the consequences of my own sin, I’ll be spending it pretty much by myself and without the best wishes of my friends and loved ones.

I proceeded to let a dark cloud of self-pity grow into a sizeable storm that co-opted my judgement, my mood, and my temper.

It’s been an ugly day so far.

Then I got a card in the mail from my grandmother, ripping a hole in the poor-little-me-all-alone thing I had going on. I tried to argue it away by reminding myself that she’s my grandmother. She has to love me. That arguement died without me even trying to believe it, and I began laughing at myself and how stupid I’ve been.

I prayed and asked Papa for wisdom and perspective. I reminded myself that I am 27 years old today.

Time to grow up.

In the half hour since that happened, God has given me the wisdom and perspective that I need to get through today. I am not alone. I am loved and valued by many people still, and most of all, by my Creator.

I’m doing just fine.

My best friend in the whole world invited me to have dinner with him and his wife tonight, and I happen to know (even though I’m not supposed to) that his wife is baking carrot cake. My favorite.

I am blessed, I am loved, I am valued.

The Everlasting is able to remove the consequences of sin; able to redeem even the most wretched events into something more beautiful than I can comprehend.

He has and continues to do so in my life.

Thank you, Papa.

The consequences of sin.

[Update: this post should be read and filtered through the 24 October 2011 post, “Ah, perspective.” Reading only this post is like reading the first half of one of the depressing psalms, and then stopping without reading the part where the good news comes. In writing this orginally, my perspective was off. My bad.]

I live every day with the consequences of the sins I have committed against the Father and his children.

Every day.

I lied, I cheated, I stole, I betrayed, I manipulated. I did a lot of other things that I just can’t remember right now. Because of those things, I hopelessly destroyed relationships with so very many people that I really do genuinely love.

A lot.

Dear friends and loved ones from so many different seasons of my life. Childhood, high school, college, summer jobs, church groups, jobs, organizations, you name it. Anything and everything in life where you make connections, friends, forge relationships. Most people experience this in a culmulative way, adding more to the vast storeroom of relationships. Sure, some get purged, but not as many as are kept.

The consequences of the sins that I committed, repeatedly over many years, take many forms, but one particularly hits my heart hard today.

I don’t have those friendships anymore.

I can think of literally scores and scores of beloved people that I am not in contact with anymore. People I miss dreadfully. People I love. Most of them I’ve hurt unimaginably thoroughly. A few of them I didn’t hurt directly, but by making myself persona non grata and cutting ties with that part of my life, I’m not in their lives anymore.

I miss them.

I wish I had the courage to re-enter those social circles, those worlds. I just don’t. I know that speaks to a lack of trust in the Father’s plans to reconcile and heal. I want to give it to him. But I can’t yet. I can’t face them. I can’t do it yet.

I said that my relationships with these people were “hopelessly” destroyed earlier. That’s not true. Nothing is hopelessly destroyed when Papa’s on the job. But I do know that fixing those relationships will take decades upon decades of intense healing and grace.

I pray for courage. I pray for grace. I pray for a life – mine – made whole again, with friends and loved ones to share it with. You see, if I called a celebration and invited everyone from my life…

I’d get perhaps a half-dozen people that would show up who were not directly related to me through blood. A dozen at the most. Guys from my Wednesday night men’s group, my pastor, and two or three steadfast friends who, if they could make it, would travel absurd miles to show up for me for a few days before they returned to their lives, far away.

I don’t have the vast, vast majority of my friends anymore. And it’s my fault. People have tried the well-if-they’re-not-your-friends-anymore-they-never-were approach, and it just doesn’t hold water here. They were my friends. I loved them. They loved me. I love them still, even though they probably don’t love me anymore. I care about them. I want for their happiness, their success, their benefit, their joy. They’re my friends still, at least on my end, only I don’t have relationship with them anymore. I think about them so often, and always with the same emotions: joy and love for them followed immediately by the chest-crushing sorrow of missing them so, after which overwhelming guilt and shame lower my head until tears slide down my face.

I’m forgiven, but I still live with the consequences of what I’ve done.

There’s a gap there; a vast and ugly gap between the reality I live in and the reality God offers me.

I want to close that gap. Papa, show me how. Or do it yourself, if it’s something that I can’t do. Grant me the grace to trust that you’ve got me, even if it means facing the most ugly, horrific things that I cannot bear to think about: the results of my sins.

Why such melancholy thoughts today?

Well, it’s my birthday today. I’m officially 27 now.

My birthday. A day like few others for the soul-warming joy of hearing from friends from all seasons of life. A day that will, for me, be hauntingly silent.

Unto the sixth generation: the story of God’s faithfulness in my family.

*Updated 13 October: upon further reading through the family records and talking with my great-aunt and grandmother, I realized that my original version of this had some inaccuracies. I’ve fixed them in this updated post.

I live on a farm. It’s a family farm, handed down from generation to generation. John L. Armstrong and Anna Marshall Armstrong, my great-great-great-grandparents, bought it in 1869. They had a farm in a town roughly 30 miles away, right in the St. Lawrence River Valley. The soil in that town is much, much better than ours. That was important, because John and Anna were potato farmers. In 1867, their entire potato crop was loaded onto a train bound for New York City. Stopped overnight, an unexpected frost wiped out the entire crop. John and Anna lost their farm.

They packed up and moved closer towards the Adirondack Mountains, and bought a mill on the river of a tiny little town. Moving closer towards the mountains from the St. Lawrence River Valley was the exact opposite of moving up in the world. Two years later, they had just enough to buy a farm in that same town. They were farmers again. But they had a problem: the soil in this new location was too poor to really do anything, so they converted their farm into an inn. They built a large structure right on the road, and the barn became the carriage house. Their business consisted mostly of lodging the loggers that supplied the mill with timber.

John and Anna had four children: Abbie May, Ella Euphoria, Carrie Belle, and Frank Marshall. Ella and Frank died in childhood; Ella at 16 and Frank as a baby. John and Anna buried them both, before Anna herself passed away. John buried his wife and lived only two more years, dying without seeing either of his surviving daughters married and knowing that, since his only son had died, his family line would never bear his name: Armstrong.

Abbie and Carrie took up the reins and continued the family business. Carrie met a local man, married him, and immediately had a son. Within a year the son had died, and before she was an old woman Carrie would lose her husband as well. Tragedy had again claimed many lives, leaving the family line on the brink of oblivion.

I know all these things because John and Anna had a Bible. One of those great, big, tear-your-arms-off-as-you-try-to-pick-it-up Bibles. In the pages of this treasured family Bible, these events were recorded with beautifully chosen words to describe not only what happened, but in enough detail so that those to come would understand what happened. It was kept in the family, and is currently in the care of my grandmother.

Now I can’t know this, but I can guess it pretty easily: I’m guessing that Abbie had several days where she wasn’t sure things were going to turn out okay in the end. Her family had lost the farm she’d been born on, and with it everything they ever knew. Potato farmers no more. She would have been intimately familiar with the details, and the sorrow to her, though chiefly experienced as something that mostly affected her parents, was real nonetheless. She lived through her family losing everything. She buried her brother, her sister, her mother, her father. A few years later she would stand by as her nephew was buried and, later on, her brother-in-law. Grief coupled with the heavy burden of knowing that the survival of the family rested with her.

Yikes. Like, really. Yikes.

But there was a brilliant ray of sunshine that hasn’t been mentioned yet. She met a young man who stayed in the hotel when he came to town to work on a bridge, George Swift. They fell in love and were married. Together they made a go of the farm. Abbie gave birth, two years after her nephew died, to the sole member of the third generation: a boy whom they named John. John Swift. Tragedy struck again, when roughly five years later the inn burned to the ground. Abbie and George rebuilt and kept on going.

Abbie’s son John Swift grew up – a miracle in and of itself given the family history – and turned the farm into Swift & Sons, a dairy farm providing the local area with milk. He started a maple sugaring business in the forests behind the fields. He married and had five children. He started a general store in town that carried him and his family through the depression quite comfortably. I’ve seen ledger books of accounts started for neighborhood families during the depression. When his neighbors had no money, he gave their groceries to them on charge accounts that had no certainty of ever being settled. He bought up neighboring farms in foreclosure auctions, and added their lands and resources to his own.

John Swift’s youngest child was named Marian. Marian and her husband, Glen Thomas, took over the farm eventually. They had three children. They kept the maple syrup business going. They transitioned from a dairy farm to a hobby farm with a roadside stand selling sweet corn because the government began to regulate dairy products and the processes involved. Thomas’ sweet corn is a local staple now, with scores of customers swearing that they’ve never had any corn that was better. Glen and Marian poured money from their day jobs into the farm, to renovate it and restructure it.

Marian and Glen’s eldest son, Brian, runs the farm now. He’s the fifth generation. Brian (whom I call Dad) began adding new branches of business. We now are a staple for pumpkins, apples, squash, and all sorts of vegetables. The roadside stand is now our entire barn, cleaned out and decorated every fall to house the growing business. Right now, as I write this, you can walk through the entire barn and see vast displays of beautiful pumpkins, corn stalks, hay bales, apples, squash, maple syrup, and honey for sale. Dad also pours money from his day job into the farm, and that mixed with continued support from Marian and Glen – Grandma and Grandpa – combined with revenue from the farm’s sales, are helping to shape a new  business model for our family farm that will hopefully see us through a few more generations. I’m a proud member of the sixth, you see.

My grandmother and I talk often about what our ancestors might feel to know that we’re still here. We still live on this land, we still call it home. We’re not just scraping by here either, we’re thriving. Even though there are seasons in which we’re not sure how we’re going to scrape it financially, we’re still thriving. We have customers stopping who tell us with unbridled joy about their family tradition of coming to our family’s tradition.

Abbie Armstrong Swift’s life ended much better than her youth’s circumstances suggested. She saw the farm, a symbol of the harsh hand dealt her family, flourish and prosper. She saw healthy grandchildren fill her rooms, grandchildren with first and middle names that remembered and honored her parents, siblings, and husband. The family legacy she left behind wasn’t one of tragedy and despair, but of God’s provision and faithfulness. A story of God’s redemption working in circumstances and hearts through many generations.

 Now, 142 years after John and Anna Armstrong settled here, we have members of a seventh generation – my nephew and nieces – who are being raised in the hope and glory of the gospel of the Living God. John and Anna’s descendants don’t bear the name Armstrong anymore, but many of us do live in trust that the Father is up to something, and it’ll be okay in the end. Even if in the meantime you have to lose your farm, your parents, your siblings, and who knows what else. God’s doing something. God’s redeeming the pain and loss.

God’s doing something good to the benefit of many, many people.

I know, because it’s in the Bible.

A big, leather-bound, aged bible whose cover reads, in small gold letters, “J.L. & Anna Armstrong.”

Cuts and Perspective

I cut myself shaving this morning.

It was my own fault. I had stayed up far too late the night before doing laundry, so that I would have clothes to wear to church today. I ought to have done that earlier in the day, but I didn’t. I had to wake up earlier than usual as I was visiting a new church with some extremely close friends, a newlywed couple who are searching for a church for them.

I also hadn’t shaved in a week. I ought to have done that before, but I didn’t. So I woke up rather more tired than usual, earlier than usual, and proceeded to bumble my way through the morning routines. I stared at my face in the mirror and thought, “You’re much more likely to cut yourself this morning, because you’re in a hurry and you’re tired. So be careful and take your time.”

I then immediately ignored that advice.

And I of course cut myself. I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t notice it. I hurriedly threw on some clothes and noticed some blood right under my nose. It looked like a bloody nose, so I grabbed some tissues, applied pressure, and ran out the door to the truck, hoping that the tissue would stop the blood flow and not ruin my shirt.

I got to my friends’s house, from where we would all go together in their car, and had time to examine the problem in their bathroom mirror. It was no bloody nose; it was a cut. A deep one, and definitely from a razor. Also, most definitely in an area on my face that I simply couldn’t get any type of bandage on it to help. It continued to bleed the entire half-hour ride to church.

The whole ride to church, and half of the morning there, I was focused primarily on making sure that there wasn’t a stream of blood flowing down my face and onto my shirt. Now that I was aware of the cut, I was most accutely aware of it. I thought what an idiot I must look to all these people. I thought how absurd I was to not have been more careful.

Oh, for  a do-over at the bathroom mirror this morning!

Somewhere around the end of the worship time and the collecting of tithes and offerings, I realized that I hadn’t lifted a tissue to my face in a minute or two. I gently dabbed a clean tissue to the cut, and it came back without blood dampening it. Finally, my platelets had done their job and stopped the open flow! I rejoiced silently in the little victory.

Then, as I looked around the room, I realized how much I had been missing for the last two hours of my life. I hadn’t really been giving my friends much attention at all because I was too absorbed in my own problem. I hadn’t bothered to look around the room enough to realize that I actually knew quite a few people at this church. I quietly reflected on this new perspective, and wondered when the last time I had ever paid so much attention to the section of skin just under my right-side nostril before.

Probably the last time I cut it shaving.

Not fifteen minutes later, the pastor talked about the C.S. Lewis-inspired idea of pain being something that God uses to get our attention. In our bodies, pain lets us know that something is wrong in a certain area. Likewise, the pastor said, emotional pain helps  us to realize that there’s an area in which things could be so much better. An area that we probably wouldn’t have noticed unless there had been pain.

As always, there were parts of the sermon that I discerned as bones, and parts that I discerned as meat. In one of my father’s oft-used expressions, I chewed the meat and spit out the bones. But I really was kind of sold on the model [side note: my dad also often says that all models are ultimately wrong or insufficient, but some models can be useful for a season] of pain calling attention to areas or problems in which I may not have paid any attention to otherwise.

Like the skin under my right-side nostril.

I now wonder what else in life I’m missing when I focus everything on such pain. Quite a bit, I probably think. Perhaps more than I’ll ever realize.

So tonight my prayer is for the Spirit of the Living God to help me recognize what areas the pain is calling out for me to notice. To then have wisdom, given by Papa, to know what to do about it. And especially to help give me a wider, broader perspective in those circumstances. I don’t want to miss opportunities to be bigger, broader than myself – to in all humility consider others before myself. Not to my neglect, but to my credit. And not even my credit, but instead to the credit of the Sovereign Lord who transforms me from the inside out.

In a way, I’m kind of glad I cut myself this morning. It drew my attention to far more than a tiny cut on my face. It drew my attention to an invitation from Papa to go deeper.

Thanks.

The False Ethan

There was once a False Ethan. He was vanquished and buried a few years back, but pulled a Napolean and returned with a vengance to rule for a time, before being overthrown again and buried.

False Ethan isn’t just a past truth, however. He fights me for control every single day, and sometimes he even wins and gains control for a few hours. But he usually gets quickly buried again.

I am Ethan; he is not. He never was. He was never anything but a creation, a lie. He was the information that was carefully scrutinized before being posted on Facebook. He was the specially chosen profile pictures. You see what I’m getting at?

There’s a you that isn’t you. There’s a you that you present to the world, and then there’s the you that’s real. I’m rather of the mindset that you can’t help this until you’ve experienced this crisis of duality and overcome it. I, of course, am partial to the thought that overcoming it requires the help of the Holy God.

This idea of the False Self hit me much, much harder than many I know. This False Self, this False Ethan, is infinitely more dangerous to me because of my past, because of my personality, because of everything about me. As of this writing, I tend to think that the False Ethan is more dangerous to me than anything else in the totality of existence that I can think of.

This Ethan that I tried to show the rest of the world wasn’t me, and I knew it, but I spent so much time and effort attempting to maintain this false self that I bought my own lie.

I don’t have a Facebook anymore, because don’t trust myself to accurately be me on it. A Facebook account, with my name on it, would be better if the username and passwords were held by my friends and family, and all pictures, information, updates, etc. left to them. That would be a Facebook profile that would truly belong to Ethan Thomas.

You see, I only posted profile pictures that I liked. Ones in which I thought I looked good; showed my physical appearance in the best possible light. I posted updates about things that I wanted others to think I was interested in. I altered my favorites tabs to include things that I thought would catch the attention of whatever cute guy I was trying to impress at the time. Or, if there wasn’t a guy to impress, whatever group of people I thought it would be most beneficial to give a favorable impression of myself to. The Ethan that would take form there wasn’t really real.

That’s because I’ve spent my life attempting to be anything other than what or who I am. What and who I am was never good enough, so I decided that authenticity needed to be more fluid. If I could change who Ethan Thomas was at will, then I could become whatever those around me needed or wanted me to be. Or at least what I thought they needed or wanted me to be.

That, by the way, is a terrible idea. Do not follow that example. Ever.

From the time I was a very, very small boy I had practiced this. You get good at what you practice. So you see, by the time I was old enough to have a Facebook profile – in my later college years, when Facebook was brand new – I was already a pathological liar. There really wasn’t ever much hope for my Facebook profile to be real, was there?

Because how can the electronic Ethan be authentic, when the flesh-and-blood Ethan was trapped and dominated by my Napoleanic False Ethan? False Ethan ruled with an iron fist, and almost never encountered resistance. In the manner of the French Revolution, False Ethan would casually delete all of history and rewrite it as he wished it to be. The truth of who I was, where I was from, and what I was like was subject to whomever I was talking to and what I felt like that particular day.

 See what I mean? More deadly than the most potent poisons.

And the lies were so alarmingly, expertly crafted. After two decades of practice, I had become a sort of professional. All that I had ever thought was required of a human being to be something, to be important, to be valued, loved, cherished, and esteemed was summed up in my constant falsehoods.

In other words, the lies were necessary to me, because from where I was standing, I could never be what I thought I needed to be without them. There was a me that should be, and the only way to be that was to fake it.

Okay, all that to say this:

Paul writes in Philippians about this False Self. Not mine; he’s talking about his, of course. It’s right here:

If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

Paul’s False Self was, of course, everything he thought important to ever be anyone. The only difference between myself and Paul was that he lived his out. Mine could never be lived out because there was never any substance to it. Paul’s false self would have sustained a background check, and mine would have crumbled hopelessly.

But that doesn’t really matter at all, because Paul goes on to say that all of it, real or not, really isn’t real at all. Not to God. Not before God. Anything we think we need to be something or someone is not at all what God says is valuable or worthwhile. Therefore, anything we strive towards to make ourselves succeed is feeding a False Self. To drop all of that – anything that we ever thought was ever even a tiny bit important – and to listen only to what God speaks to us. To listen to God’s definition of important, of value, and of who exactly we’re supposed to be.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection, and participation in  his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

I really, really like this part of Philippians. I read it for years and years and never got these ideas out of it. [My thanks to Pastor Trey Hall of Urban Village Church in Chicago!] It brings new meaning to the power of resurrection, to living life. It reinforces the gospel, it shows us that the gospel is good for much, much more than good news for someday, when we die. It’s good for today, for our authenticity with our Creator today. The power of Christ’s resurrection acts today as well.

Today, the power of Christ’s resurrection resurrects the Real Ethan, and establishes him as the Living God’s viceroy over this body, this soul, this spirit. It vanquishes yet again the False Ethan, and binds him and banishes him. As the Viceroy of the Living God over my existence, I choose to step into that post. I choose to look to the Throne, from whence my authority comes, for direction, for life, for worth. The only things that matter come from my King. All else is, as Paul so eloquently puts, garbage.

That’s rubbish. (That one’s for you, Shawn.)

In the Greek, the word is much less polite. It’s shit.

The old life? What I was once about? It’s shit.

Today I reinforce that, I make that commitment to the Living God again.

And I’ll have to do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

Slowly the Spirit of the Living God continues to transform me from the inside out, and on the Last Day I hope that Papa will tell me that we did well, we made it through, and he carried me along in spectacular fashion.

Thank you, Almighty and Everlasting God.

Rituals? On the side, please.

After I withdrew from college, I spent a semester in a discipleship course with eleven other twentysomethings, learning to be a community. We spent every day, all day, together in classes, excursions, charitable activities, you name it. It was great. One of my favorite memories was every morning at 7:00 am, when we met for Matins. Named for the prayer service in Europe’s monastaries during the Middle Ages, Matins was our corporate morning devotional. We took it in turns to share, we sang hymns or simple worship songs, read prayers, read scripture, and prayed for one another. Then we began our day. Quite satisfactory.

One morning, our Fearless Leader Dave had us reading prayers he supplied. Many of them I now recognize as belonging to various books of prayer or ritual prayers from various denominations. I actually kind of love it. But the most loved of all of them was the one that I was to read out loud:

Lord God, Almighty and Everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do,  direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I loved this prayer. I still love it. It has become for me my own ritual – it’s how I start my day. Sometimes I say it as I roll out of bed, and sometimes I forget and several  hours will go by before I pray it.

It is not, of course, the only way I pray. I often pray and talk to God as my dearest and most intimate friend. I cherish that. But I hold a soft spot for ritual and formal prayers because I think they serve as an excellent reminder that in addition to being my most intimate relationship, God is also the Holy One, the ultimate king, Creator of all things. And that position commands and demands the formality and respect that so many rituals offer.

But today I realized something when I began to pray my “matins prayer.” I totally wasn’t feeling it. I was a bit upset with Papa; a bit restless and not at all remembering or believing that he is who he says he is, and what that means for the totality of existence, let alone me. [Side note: in my more intimate conversations with or about God, I refer to him as Papa. Yes, I’m copying The Shack. No, I don’t care. Yes, I love it. Also, as the post will be very intimate from here on in, I’ll be using ‘Papa’ now.]

I stopped halfway through the prayer, and remained silent for several minutes, deep in thought. I began to speak aloud to Papa, talking through my line of thought, and letting the Spirit flow. It was pretty heavy, and kind of awesome. I kind of love it when this happens. In the words of my friends Bob and Joni, it was a “thin veil” moment; a moment when I felt as if the other side of eternity were just in front of me, blocked by a veil that if I could but push through, I would be in the throne room of the Almighty. Again, kind of heady, but so intense and powerful that I was having trouble standing.

I came out of the conversation with the idea that ritual cannot be allowed to override relationship. I have a relationship with Papa, one in which ritual can be a very effective tool to help me view my Lord with a perspective that involves respect that he is due. That is excellent. However, he is also my Heavely Father. In my interaction with my Heavenly Father, in the most private and intimate arena of my heart, I can be wholly his son.

As a son to my earthly father, there are times in our private interactions in which I need to give him respect and honor. Other times, I can approach him with raw emotion and passion. We have a relationship as father and son. Relationship dictates our interaction.

With Papa, the same applies. Today our relationship was in a place where I could just burst into the room, throw myself on his shoulder, and vent. Cry. Communicate. Then, after a time, listen. In such a place relationally, it was out of order for me to come through the door, stand fidgeting and staring at the carpet, and begin to mumble a formal address. My heart wasn’t it in. I didn’t mean it. Relationship needed to trump ritual in that moment.

As I pulled myself together again, I began to think of this particular ritual – my “matins prayer” I love so much – as a thing that Papa and I do… most days. Kind of like the power of a nickname, I suppose. I think that most mornings, praying that particular prayer will be a thing that Papa loves to hear me do, as it holds particular meaning for us. But not always. Because relationship will triumph over ritual, as far as I’m concerned.

At least that’s what I’ve come to believe in this season.