This is My Story

An old hymn suggests that every believer has a unique story to share and song to sing, in which the name of Jesus will be praised “all the day long”. The following post is lengthy, but there was no other way to do this. What can I say? This is one of the climactic verses of my life-hymn thus far. If context is helpful, visit these posts first: 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Here we go.

Upset little boyI don’t recall the first time I was exposed to pornography. But I do recall far too well the guilt and shame introduced into my life from that day forward. I never needed someone to tell me that lust was wrong; my heart could feel that point like a dagger. But that recognition did nothing but cut more deeply every time I was reminded that I was not pure, as God desired. However, grace comes in many forms, and my heart has often thanked God for two simple mercies. I praise Him that I grew up in a pre-internet world. And I praise Him that a very real sense of fear resided in me, preventing me from falling into more destructive realms of darkness. What I had to handle was enough for me. As a teen and young adult, I recall self-loathing intense enough that I could not imagine why one would desire long life if these types of emotions needed to be carried the whole way. I recall certainty that the people around me would cast me aside with distaste if they knew the unseen rooms of my heart and mind. I wished to cast myself aside if there were a way! How could anyone else feel differently? And I can remember nearly two decades of “Christian living” in which my fixation upon my own failures distorted my view of the Father so completely that if Jesus had been a sketch artist, he would not have recognized his Abba if he had tapped my heart for a description.

On an aside: If this is your first visit to the blog, didn’t you pick a day to jump in?! I should’ve started you off with a post about the Toronto Blue Jays or something. No such luck today, my friend. We’re about to get close!

One Prayer
If one charted my prayers from age thirteen forward, I cannot imagine that those two decades would reveal a close second-place item behind my request that God would purify my heart. My sensitivity to this weakness was, in fact, an oversensitivity. Rather than fix my eyes on Jesus and his sufficiency, I fixed my eyes squarely on myself and my shortfall. When a person evaluates his level of spiritual health entirely upon a one-item moral scorecard, you can be pretty sure that you’re involved with something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I don’t wish to belabour this matter – trust me, this is already the blog post I thought I would never write!

Praying kneelingBut one thing needs to be clear: I had one prayer in my heart, heads above every other. And I imagined that if God would ever dare to answer it, I would have nothing else to ask. Surely He saw this exactly as I did, no?

Entering the Arrow Program, I had high hopes for a breakthrough beyond what openness with select friends and accountability partnerships had provided in the past. These hopes were based on the fact that even prior to our first residential, we were put through thorough inventories about personalities, leadership styles, relationship patterns, spiritual gifts, and more. These inventories were completed by ourselves and a group of those who lived around us, including our spouses. There was a psychologist on staff with whom each of us would be spending time, and it seemed that no rock would be left unturned. I was nervous but optimistic. To my surprise, the first residential (September 2011) left this completely untouched, and I recall a sense of disappointment. I returned home to press into the next six months until we met again, with tempered prayers and no real sense of anticipation.

Def Leppard drummerAs a teen, my ears enjoyed the sounds of Def Leppard. Don’t ask me why? But how many rock bands have a one-armed drummer, come on?! Whatever the case, I now retroactively imagine God dialling the call-in show of the heavenly radio station: “Yes, I’d like to send out a song to Jason. Please play ‘Do You Wanna Get Rocked?’” He never told me to tune in. He just began the rocking.

Dreams and Words
One facet of lust that had always bothered me was my suspicion that there were deep layers out of my view. I imagined that if I could understand what ticked in the unseen levels of my heart, I might have better footing to step into victory. What was the allure? What was the draw? Any simpleton could suggest that it was just the power of human sexuality, the draw of male to female, hormones and desire and fantasy. And that simpleton would be right, but not right enough. What was beneath those? I often wondered.

Days before our second residential (March 2012… finally), I had a dream.  It was a flashback to childhood, prompting a memory of loneliness, a pre-teen desire for meaningful connection with others. None of that was so clear at the time. Instead, it was merely a morning when I woke up, chuckled at the random nature of dreams, and sloughed it off to enter my day.

Days later, an Arrow presenter made a passing remark about his own life that instantly took me back to the dream, still fresh in my mind. I chuckled again, internally noting this as an unusual coincidence, particularly for a guy who never remembers his dreams.

The following day, a classmate made a comment that piqued my curiosity. It was one of those remarks where you suspect a substantial back story exists. Seeking him out privately, I asked if he would tell me “the rest of the story”. He obliged and began to describe how he had been deeply convicted six months earlier to confess openly to his wife an ongoing struggle with lust and pornography. I appreciated his vulnerability and knew that I was due to re-open such a visit with my wife as well. But here’s the part that surprised me. He had always credited his wife as possessing an unusually insightful spirit, an intuition of sorts that he counted as a spiritual gift. In the course of their dialogue, they determined that his sin was actually overflowing the banks of his life and having a negative impact upon her spiritual capacity. It would be difficult to express the weight and purity of conviction that I felt in that moment. Allow me to elaborate on that.

Round and Round
There is a cycle familiar to many. It looks something like this:

1) We feel close to God.

2) We feel less close to God.

3) We go seeking fulfillment elsewhere.

4) We do something we regret.

5) We condemn ourselves and stew over our own stupidity.

6) In anger and shame, we vow to do better next time.

7) Through some combination of confession, repentance, and penance, we rediscover our footing back at step one.

It would be one thing if all of us ran around the circle just once or twice in a lifetimes, but I’ve logged enough miles and heard enough stories to know otherwise. Most of us have run a nauseating number of laps. So you’ve likely discovered that the only point on the loop where a hopeless person feels any sort of leverage to change their situation is that place of anger and shame (#6). Fuelled by those fiery feelings, this is the spot where we plant our feet and thrust our strength forward in the quest to “do better”. It seems noble. Probably even Christian. The problem is that the whole thing is built on darkness. Shame and anger have never birthed righteousness. Life does not spring forth from such wells. Sometimes we use the word “conviction” in this place, but all too often, we’re speaking of a counterfeit form, tainted by the devil with condemnation. I have swallowed that brew more times than I can count, but on that day, I experienced a completely different thing.

Light OnIn listening to my friend’s story, my soul received a most pure and proper sense of conviction from the Holy Spirit. He was gracious yet uncompromising. He had no desire to destroy me, but full intent to restore me. And in that moment, I was blown away by a newfound motivation for healing: I wanted my life to wield spiritual power, to cause ripples for the Kingdom of Christ, and I had no doubt that a purified heart internally would contribute to greater fruit externally. In short, I wanted God to change me for His sake rather than mine. And that was a new feeling that presented me with a wildly new footing for confession and repentance. New hope was sparked in me.

Shepherd Speaks
The following day involved three hours of private and silent retreat. Some simple instructions for Scripture meditation and prayer journaling were provided, and each of us set out for solitude. Our assigned text was Psalm 23, a passage I’d known since childhood. What epiphany could possibly await me in these familiar verses? I quieted myself and prayed for some form of revelation. And the God who is always near asserted Himself. By the end of verse 1, I knew something unusual was brewing. Rolling that verse’s phrases over and over in my mind, I created a prayer refrain still dear to me today:

“Yahweh my Shepherd is. In want I shall not be.”

Thought mixed with prayer mixed with stillness, and a million-watt lightbulb went off, as if God were shedding light on a twenty-year prayer with this message:

“There are two pastures in which you may live, Jason. In the first, you are a sheep and I am your faithful Shepherd. When you trust Me and draw near, My caring provision satisfies you deeply. This is life at its finest, and you have known moments like this. But when you stop trusting Me and create distance between us, then your heart grows restless for the satisfaction you no longer feel. This drives you to explore the wilderness. And in the wilderness, you discover plants that poison and terrain that threatens and enemies that devour. Please trust me. And please stay close. This is all you need.”

Lord is ShepherdIt is impossible to recount the force with which my head spun as this message downloaded into my heart. It was scriptural and timeless — it could have been for anyone — but it was precise and personal, for me right now beyond any doubt. It made my heart leap, as I received it like a customized gift from the One who loved me most. What’s more, this experience of revelation was woven intricately into the conversation and the comment and the dream of recent days, flooring me with the realization that God had been lovingly setting up this moment long before I had any sense of His approach. I was overwhelmed by this. The remainder of my solitude was spent revelling in the nearness and kindness of God, neither of which I had ever felt so strongly. It was shocking to me, and I felt as though every prayer I had ever prayed had just been answered.

And it wasn’t even lunch time. 🙂

Weird Words
After eating (I had no words to share at my table that day; I just ate and smiled), we were placed into our small groups of four, for prayer. We were given scripts to follow and sharing to carry out. One group member was a Manitoba pastor who had become dear to me. He shared words of heaviness. I again had the sense that there was “more to the story”, so I asked him a question and his sharing became more profound. A facilitator named Gretchen sidled up beside me, her mouth right near my ear. She gently asked, “Jason, do you know how to guide him from here?”

Completely confused by her question, I replied, “No, I don’t.”

She insisted, “Oh, I’m pretty sure you do.”

Annoyance now mixed with my confusion, “No, I’m pretty sure I don’t.”

Gretchen then entered the conversation, prompting my classmate into prayers of confession and repentance. The exercise ended, and we all dismissed with instructions that a bus would soon take us to the base of a mountain, where we would end the day with an afternoon hike.

I headed toward the bus with my head now spinning in a completely different direction. My morning had just involved the mountaintop experience of my faith journey, and now the glory of that encounter felt undercut by this strange exchange. And it wasn’t about to get better.

Sliding into the empty seat beside me, Gretchen appeared to be on a mission. (If you read this, Gretchen, please know through and through that I love and appreciate you. But on that particular day, you were a mighty unsettling presence for a bit. 🙂 ) She looked at me intensely and posed a question, “Do you have the spiritual gift of discernment?”

I laughed and explained that discussions of spiritual gifts were relatively unfamiliar to me despite the fact that I’d been forced to complete a couple inventories as part of this course. I shrugged and confessed that I hadn’t paid those results much attention. Beyond things like preaching and teaching, I wasn’t sure what to do with many of the other spiritual gifts included on my results. Then I paused and admitted, “It’s strange that you mention discernment though. That one actually came up on both of my inventories as something worth noting, but I just dismissed it because of its unfamiliarity.” Then I posed a question, “Why do you ask me this?”

She revealed, “Discernment is one of my spiritual gifts, and I’ve had that affirmed by people around me for many years. As your classmate was sharing, I could sense that there was another level that needed to be tapped, but I didn’t know how to get at it. Then you asked one question, and we got there in a hurry. I don’t think you could’ve done that without some gift for discernment.”

Coin Collecting
I don’t actually remember how the conversation moved from there. I do remember that it was making me uncomfortable, and I felt some measure of relief when the doors opened to release us on to a forested path inclined upward.

Forest HikeThe crowd quickly spread over the path: Aggressive hikers moved fast and stragglers hung back. I settled into a comfortable gap in the middle with space before and behind me; I needed some time alone. My dominant train of thought was a confused debate with myself: “What am I to make of this, that this morning was a high point of my spiritual life, with God revealing Himself as more close and more caring than I had ever known Him to be. Yet here I was, mere hours after, and my wish to soak in that encounter is being sabotaged by a nutty woman rambling about the gifts of the Spirit!”

As I walked, I thought. And I stewed. And then I prayed. As I neared a grassy-knoll near the peak, this was my prayer:

“Lord, is there something here for me? I mean, I know there was something for me in Psalm 23. That was a word I’ve sought for twenty years! If one matter has unsettled my heart and stolen my joy, you addressed it this morning, and everything in me wishes just to set up camp there and linger with what was so obviously Your revelation to me. But what am I to do with this? Surely, this is a distraction, right? A tangent unworthy of further focus? That’s how I want to treat it, but I need to feel peace to do so. So I’m asking you, ‘Is this for me, or am I free to discard it?’”

That was the prayer hanging from my heart as I approached that grassy knoll. As I looked toward that point, I was intrigued by a sparkle on the ground. I assumed it to be a marker of some sort or perhaps a fallen earring or coin. It was right up on top of the knoll, impossible to miss, yet person after person walked right over it without even stopping to check it out. I chuckled at the oddity of that and committed that I would be stopping in a dozen steps or so to investigate. As I knelt down, I saw a dirty brown circle pressed into the damp soil. It looked like a penny, but it was anything but sparkly now that I was up close. I pressed my thumb beneath to pry it out. As I raised my hand and rubbed the coin between thumb and forefinger, this sentence fired through my mind: “You’re about to get messed up.” My breathing changed, and I paused. I already knew what would happen next. I moved my thumb aside to reveal the penny and gulped to see its year: 1977.

That’s my year. My birth year.

If you know me, you know this: I’ve super-cynical. My skepticism is finely tuned, and my head leads me fifty times before my heart gets a say. I don’t try to be that way; I just am. I love sound logic. I trust it, and I seek it. And I’m leery of voices that sound too loose in their language or too flaky in their processing. I measure my thoughts and select my words with caution, and my distaste for drama and aversion to hype will prompt me to understate something long before I dare to overstate it.

All that said, I possessed neither ability nor freedom to interpret the coin in my hand as anything other than a tangible answer to the prayer I had just dangled before God ten seconds earlier. A part of me wanted to, but I couldn’t do it. There was no way. And the word “coincidence” felt idiotic in that moment. So I just said nothing and held my coin.

I didn’t tell this story to anyone for quite some time. If I’m honest, it embarrassed me. Why? Because God doesn’t do stupid things like that! He doesn’t plant pennies on mountains for people to magically find as answers to prayer. That’s fine for YOU to have a story like that, but even five minutes earlier, if you’d have told me of an experience like that, I’d have listened and nodded and said, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And then I’d have departed and rolled my eyes and mentally noted you as a nut-job. Everybody knows God doesn’t do stuff like that.

Except when He does.

If you’re still reading, you’re really amazing!

Next post: How did I process all that?

Hint: It didn’t happen quickly.

Two Flashbacks

I closed my last post with a teaser toward being “bowed at Arrow” in March 2012. That story does need telling, but allow me to backtrack in this post. In case you’re joining this series of entries mid-stream, you might find it helpful to begin with these earlier posts: 1, 2, 3.

flashbackI told you that this story “began” in January 2010, but that’s not true. Hindsight now shows me at least two spots long before that where I was nudged in ways that should be noted. A couple flashbacks:

CTS
Between 2000-2003, I attended Canadian Theological Seminary (now known as Ambrose University College). This school was operated by the Canadian Missionary and Alliance Church, and I remember those years very fondly. As something of an outsider, I felt warmly welcomed and lovingly poured into. As with most education, the facts I committed to memory in those days have long since faded, but the ways in which my “processor” was rewired will stay with me forever.

One particularly impacting course early on was titled “Ministry Foundations”. It deeply explored what it meant to live and serve in the name of Jesus, and while it did involve discussions of plans and strategies, it was far more interested in the theological and spiritual underpinnings of the whole venture we call “ministry”. At the age of 23, I remember being bowled over by the realization that on my own, no lasting fruit could be generated. Discussions of interests and skills and talents, the types of factors that typically drive people toward career choices, had little to no bearing on the production of kingdom fruit. This was all about connection to Christ and empowerment by the Holy Spirit. As a barely-begun minister, I remember feeling as though this discovery would change everything.

By 2003, my wife and I were serving overseas as English teachers, and by 2006, we had returned to Canada for me to take a “senior minister” position back where we had spent my seminary years. And right up until 2010, when the wrecking ball started to swing, I went about my “ministry duties” more or less as I would have, had my seminary epiphany never happened at all.

I learned something huge.

And I learned nothing at all.

What happens to such a student?

China Coffee
During our “English teacher years”, we returned home from China each summer to reconnect with family and friends. Over one cup of coffee with one wise friend, I began to share the churnings of my heart. I have no recollection of what I said that day. But whatever it was, it prompted my friend to look at me with seriousness and to rhetorically ask, “Oh, you’re not a cessationist, are you?”

Don’t bother interrogating me over the shoddiness of my post-secondary studies, but I don’t believe I had ever heard that word before. I asked for a definition to confirm what I thought it meant. My friend replied, “You don’t believe that the power of the Holy Spirit or the gifts of the Spirit have stopped. You don’t see any reason to believe that they aren’t still in effect today.” I weighed that for a moment and responded, “If that’s what it means, then no. I guess I’m not a cessationist.”

At least a couple things about that moment are odd to me.

Firstly, I don’t recall any significant dialogue on this topic prior to that moment. I hadn’t wrestled this through with other believers. I hadn’t been presented detailed arguments on all sides of the matter, from which I then carefully reached a conclusion.

Secondly and perhaps more noteworthy, I didn’t have any personal experiences driving me. Whereas we’re often driven by personal experience to revise our theology, I’m not sure by that point that I had ever experienced even one thing that would be described as blatantly supernatural. [On an aside, it’s not all bad to have your theology revised by experience, as many of us suspect. Ask Peter how he came to revise his “Gentile theology” or Thomas how he revised his “resurrection theology”. Of course, we don’t trust every experience blindly, but God is wise enough to know that when He really needs to push us past a breaking point, a new idea in the safety in our skull isn’t likely the way to go. Experience is one of His bigger guns.]

Yet somehow, by reflecting on what I thought I knew of God and Scripture (I had an MDiv) – and I think I may have read “The Heavenly Man” by Brother Yun by that time — I determined that my typically-cynical, anally-analytical mind had no level of comfort with cessationist theology. I could make no sense of it: neither why someone would desire it, nor how someone would defend it from sound use of Scripture. I went home from that visit, feeling as though some of my inner puzzle pieces were rattling around in a way that unnerved me, but I had no means to lock them back in place.

Yet just as in seminary, this learning — which seemed as though it might be monumental — went on to change nothing in how I functioned from that day forward. Perhaps internally, it spawned some dreams or hopes in the back rooms of my heart and drove me to be marginally more open to mystery. But externally, those around me would’ve noticed nothing at all.

If spiritual summer school exists, surely I was due to be sent there at some point.

Queue up March 2012.

Bowed at Arrow

This post is preceded by two earlier posts (HERE and HERE). Without that context, I can’t guarantee anything below will make sense.

In the last post, I described a “wrecking ball experience”. That was a period of significant personal insecurity and deep questions about the strength of my spiritual roots. Professionally, I was also experiencing real uncertainty within myself. I remember reaching a point of self-evaluation where I determined that I was no more than “a decent guy who could give a decent lesson”. I don’t say that to solicit strokes or invite countering compliments. This was all part of the process of reaching the end of myself. (Allow me to be honest enough to confess: I have been to the end of myself multiple times already, and I’m certain that God will march me down that path many more times yet.)

Beyond self-evaluation, that single sentence was a statement of longing. A restlessness and a hunger began to rise in me, quite quietly — for that seems to be my way – but with more force than usual, to be sure. My heart entered a place of pleading that God would “do something” in me, in my heart, in my household, in my church, in my world. I don’t claim that I prayed any special prayers during those days, but I do feel fairly sure that whatever I prayed was prayed with at least a sliver more want than was typical for me. Many of these prayers had no words; I couldn’t recount what I said or even thought. They were simply my spirit pushing itself in God’s direction. I’ve concluded my phrased prayers, particularly in private, are consistently second-rate in comparison to these groaned ones, for whatever that’s worth.

arrow logoIn September 2011, I began participation in a two-year program by Arrow Leadership. I cannot speak highly enough of this organization or its leaders, and I am indebted to my brother-in-law Steve (you know who you are!) for nudging me in that direction in the first place. If you’re looking for a next level in your professional development, you should CHECK THEM OUT. I’m sure there are all sorts of great leadership courses out there, but the nature of this particular course might be best summed up in a single story.

The program was designed around four one-week residentials where our class of 20-ish participants (all employed by non-profit organizations and aged between 33-41) would gather at a retreat centre with our facilitators. The rest of the course work would be tackled back home as we went about our lives. At the conclusion of our first residential, which quickly thrust us into positions of vulnerability and openness with one another, we reflected in chapel. That’s when Tony spoke.

My first impression of Tony was a highly confident, slightly macho Hispanic fellow. Chapel wound down with Tony in tears, describing what most of us were likely feeling: “If I’d have known what this was going to be, I wouldn’t have come.” He didn’t actually regret coming; he was just acknowledging that this was going to be far more intense than he’d bargained for. He continued, “I thought we were going to learn some new strategies for leadership and get some tips on how to do it better. I didn’t know we were going to blow ourselves up and then hope to get put back together again.” (Tony, if you read this: I love you, my brother.) Unlike Tony, I wasn’t so unnerved by the bomb as I had already been wrestling a wrecking ball for 18 months. I had nothing left to protect, but I do remember feeling very exposed, fairly raw, and honestly somewhat short on hope that this highly-regarded program, or anything else, was going to deliver me from broken state I was calling home.
As we headed home, we were given a handful of homework assignments. One of them was to find a local mentor of some sort. It could be a professional mentor or a trained counsellor or a spiritual director. Several years earlier, I had read a couple novels that featured a story line involving spiritual directors within the Church of England. The fictional dialogues in those books had been nourishing to my soul, and I recall noting that if I ever had opportunity to pursue such a relationship, I would be a fool to pass it up. And now that was my homework: Game on!

Morning Fog in Hyde Park London, England, UK

Always the keener, I determined to pursue two local mentors. I soon made contact with David, a Catholic psychologist, and Catherine, an Anglican priest, both certified as spiritual directors. In short, I committed to visit with each of these individuals once per month for the next two years. The timing of those relationships was perfect, and their insightful minds coupled with their gentle spirits were oh-so-good for me. In case the concept of spiritual direction is new to you, such folks have no desire to “give you the answers” to whatever is happening in your life. They don’t offer advice and freely admit up front that they don’t know where you should end up or what you should do. Rather, they seek to listen unnervingly well and direct you, with piercing questions, to discover for yourself what God is likely already whispering to you. Truth be told, close friendships are likely intended to be the settings in which we do this for one another, so that may be something to aspire toward with your loved ones. But I can certainly vouch for the value of some trained professionals as well.

While it is impossible to summarize the content of that course, allow me to mention at least two pieces of learning that left a mark:

1) “Christ as Center”
This was the theme of our very first day of class, presented by Mark Buchanan. My only regret from that day is that my notes are frightfully incomplete, as I was simply too engaged in listening to focus on writing. Because of this, much of the content is now lost to me. But the impact remains. To live or minister in the name of Jesus means to operate in relationship with him and reliance upon him. If you need an image, it’s the “vine and branches” of John 15. Wonderful image aside, we are incessantly tempted to reduce that relationship to a scale that guards us against vulnerability and to minimize our reliance to an extent that maintains the illusion that we are in charge. Far too often, we exchange life in Christ for yet another attempt at protectively insulating ourselves and pursuing the illusion of independence just one more time. My heart, still swimming in the clothes of the older brother, was deeply convicted yet again. Keep swinging that wrecking ball!

2) Grace Cycle VS Guilt Cycle
In our third residential, we conversed around of these two images. Check these out, and see which path you have logged more mileage on.

Grace Cycle

Grace Cycle

These simple diagrams highlight two diametrically-opposed ways of life. One of them is what gets created when we embrace the Gospel of Jesus. The other is an anti-Christ alternative that often serves to harden our hearts against the Gospel. So there I sat, surrounded by a room-full of top-of the-line Christian leaders — folks who longed to faithfully live and lead in the name of Jesus — and there was an overwhelming, stop-the-class-right-here recognition that the Guilt Cycle was our far-too-familiar home.

Guilt Cycle

Guilt Cycle

Nobody wanted it that way. Nobody set out for that path. But as I had already discovered: The most insidious way to get lost unfolds when you are sure you’re walking the straight and narrow. And that path can become a rut that becomes a circle that becomes a life that is light years removed from “life to the full”.

For many of my classmates, “Grace Cycle VS Guilt Cycle” was a watershed moment in the course. It gave us imagery and language to describe life as we knew it and to consider life as Christ intended. For me, those diagrams fell right into an already-moving flow that had begun six months earlier at our second residential.

I’m sure the Lord still laughs when He looks back on what He did to me in a week of March 2012. No exaggeration that I was bowed at Arrow.

Lost Boy Come Home

This post will make little sense without an EARLIER POST, so head there first if you haven’t already.

wrecking ballIn the months that followed January 2010, I entered an internal storm. As always, hindsight is helpful, and six-plus years now provides enough distance to see that what I was experiencing at that time was a wrecking ball. My identity was being deconstructed, and God himself was the one swinging the ball progressively lower until every level of my construction was flattened. At that point, a rebuild would take place. But I lived in that state of demolition for nearly 18 months, and it rattled even my typically-steady nerves.

  • What was going on?
  • Was I stressed out? I didn’t think so.
  • Was I having a breakdown? That didn’t seem right, but something was definitely being taken apart.

At times, I believe that one of my best qualities is a simple ability to “keep trudging”. If I did anything right during that stretch of time, perhaps it was to pray my weak prayers, to find quiet ways to ask friends for support, and to trudge on, trusting God that He was up to something I could not see or feel any hint of.

Somewhere in that span, I began preaching a series on Jesus’ parables. I selected a couple handfuls of the stories I felt most inclined to dive into, striving to include selections all over the spectrum ranging from best-loved to least-known. In that mix was the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), a Sunday-school classic that it simply seemed wrong to exclude. All I had done was created a series outline as reasonably as I knew how. How could I have known my entire landscape was about to shift?

I love the labor of preparing to preach. I love sitting slowly with Scripture, soaking in it and conversing about it and spinning it around and around, in the hope of discovering angles and views that will breathe life into my self and my circles. I feel that pleasure almost every week. Even when I hate preaching, I love it. (Can I get an “amen” from any preachers out there?) But I was not prepared for the grip that Luke 15 was about to wrap around my life.

Rembrandt-The_return_of_the_prodigal_sonFor months, I became fixated by this parable. It was an outright obsession, as I accumulated books, music, artwork, and more. I felt as though I’d discovered a rosetta stone, capable of interpreting the very-intense-but-beyond-words state of my heart. This story’s message was set to translate the disorientation that I had been living in. Why did my heart feel so off? I had found my answer.

Careful readers of “The Parable of the Lost Son” have long observed that it is more rightly titled “The Parable of the Lost Sons”. The story of the young and rebellious boy, who is received back home by his father, has touched hearts for two millennia. The power of this tale will never wear out for all who feel they are too far gone. And if I’d have told the tale, I’d have closed that portion with, “And they lived happily ever after.”

Except that they didn’t. Or at least we don’t know for certain.

Surprisingly, that most-famous portion of the parable is merely the preface for the real story. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a stunning story. It’s just not the main part of the parable. The heart of this story beats within the chest of the older brother. And by the end of the parable, we are faced with a few stunning considerations.

Apparently there are at least two ways to get lost. The first and most obvious path involves rebellion and running. It is a blatant turning from God, marked by dogged disobedience and desire to be one’s own master. Any reasonable mind expects this path to end a million miles from home, in a pigpen or worse. Everyone knows you can get lost this way.

But there is another path. The parable suggests not-so-subtly that just as one can get lost by trying to do all the wrong things, one can get lost by trying to do all the right things.

One can get lost by being rebellious, everyone knew that. But one can get lost as well by being rigourous. Who knew that?

Shockingly, the son who never stepped outside the yard has strayed farther from home than the one who ran to distant lands. In the closing scene of the parable, we are speechless to behold that the careful son — the measured fellow, the boy who cautiously strove to walk the straight and narrow — has arrived at a point where his heart is closed to the joy of his father. He does not wish to enter it, and he is the lost-est one of all. In fact, he is so lost that the curtain falls without even granting us assurance that he ever joined the celebration of his father’s kindness. What a mind-blowing consideration that the love of the father was sufficient to welcome the scoundrel back into sonship, but we conclude the story with no certainty that the lost-er boy would enter the same seeking love.

It would be impossible for me to express the force with which that story struck my life. Mack trucks have been softer; middle linebackers have been gentler. Scripture describes itself as a double-edged sword, sharp enough to penetrate right into our core. I testify to that truth. I’ve got the scars to prove it.

How does one stay so close to home and yet reach a place of utter lostness? How does one maintain the same mailing address as the Father yet fail to cultivate in himself a heart with resemblance? My experience suggests that one arrives at that place by being more religious than relational, by functioning more as a servant than as a son, by being more bent on duty than compelled by love.

There are numerous Bible characters that I would love to imitate, multiple examples after which I aspire. But five years ago I spent a way-longer-than-was-enjoyable time in a season of unsettling and undeniable conviction: “You are the older brother.”

Gratefully, the Father wants that boy to come home too.

So I started walking.

Lay Your Burdens Down

BSSM logoMy wife and I are on the cusp of beginning as students at a school called Bethel School Of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM), based in Redding, California. Whether you have heard of it or not is hardly relevant to me, but suffice it to say: Five years ago, I wouldn’t have considered applying to such a school.

That statement begs a very natural question: Then how did you end up there?

The answer is rather lengthy, and I will forgive you entirely if you bail on the next set of posts. I will strive for a balance of concise yet detailed — I can’t guarantee whether I’ll hit either. But for those of you who have been asking for some of the back story on our current season of life, I’ll offer what I can.

A few pieces of background information might help those of you who don’t know me personally. I grew up on the Canadian prairies, attending church at least once a week within a conservative Evangelical denomination known as the Churches of Christ. (Many inside and outside of our movement might debate my use of the words “Evangelical” or “denomination”, but they can sort that out on their own blogs. :-)) This heritage was a real gift, fostering in me a love and reverence toward Scripture, and a desire to seek after the simple Gospel.  My church settings have always been rather small, and even near the age of 40, I’ve never spent significant time in a church numbering more than 200. I was baptized at age 15, and the whole time before and since, I’ve been surrounded by genuinely good people who have desired to seek God’s will with sincerity and follow Jesus in faithfulness. More people than I can count have directed love and kindness my way.

fork in roadAround the age of 18, I began discerning a call toward ministry as a profession. It began quietly and increased in volume until I could no longer shrug it off, despite my best efforts. I remember quite vividly a “fork moment” when it felt very clear that God was allowing me full freedom to choose my path. Even so, I felt a strong conviction that if I pursued any future other than full-time ministry, I would experience future regret every time I looked across the gap from the path I’d chosen to the path I should have. That was over two decades ago. Certainly, there have been days along the way when ministry has provided mighty challenges, but I’m not sure I’ve ever looked back with regret. I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

As for where I am specifically these days (BSSM), let’s see if I can sketch out the first few steps of that journey before this post is done.

robin markIn January 2010, I attended the largest Christian conference in Western Canada. Sitting in a darkened assembly of 2000 worshipers, I sought the Lord in the songs of Irish worship leader Robin Mark. One of his best loved tunes at that point was a song called “Revival”. Its lyrics look like this, as the tune builds from a single wistful voice all the way to its full-on fiddle-fest, whistle-blowing, belt-it-at-full-volume climax:

I hear the voice of one calling, prepare ye the way of the Lord.
And make His paths straight in the wilderness
And let your light shine in the darkness
And let your rain fall in the desert.

As sure as gold is precious and the honey sweet,
So you love this city and you love these streets.
Every child out playing by their own front door
Every baby laying on the bedroom floor.

Every dreamer dreaming in her dead-end job
Every driver driving through the rush hour mob
I feel it in my spirit, feel it in my bones
You’re going to send revival, bring them all back home

I can hear that thunder in the distance
Like a train on the edge of town
I can feel the brooding of Your Spirit
“Lay your burdens down, Lay your burdens down”.

From the Preacher preaching when the well is dry
To the lost soul reaching for a higher high
From the young man working through his hopes and fears
To the widow walking through the veil of tears

Every man and woman, every old and young
Every fathers daughter, every mothers son.
I feel it in my spirit, feel it in my bones
You’re going to send revival, bring them all back home

I can hear that thunder in the distance
Like a train on the edge of town
I can feel the brooding of Your Spirit
“Lay your burdens down, Lay your burdens down”.

Revive us, Revive us,
Revive us with your fire!

By this point in time, I had been working at my current job with the Glen Elm Church of Christ, for approximately 4 years. Since beginning in 2006, they had been a caring congregation with whom I was grateful to spend my days. My wife and I enjoyed a satisfying marriage, with our second child on the way. Life was full of good things, and if you would’ve interviewed me about the state of my heart five minutes before “the moment”, I would have replied, “I’m doing quite well. Thanks for asking.”

“The moment” arrived somewhere in the midst of that song, with not a second of forewarning. It was an experience of revelation. That’s the feeling when a veil gets lifted or a light pierces darkness. You see what you never saw, despite the fact that it might have been right in front of you. Or right inside you. In the singing of the lines “lay your burdens down,”  I was hit  with an overwhelming and undeniable realization: My heart was heavily burdened — bent over and breathing raggedly and in a state of distress. I returned home seeking understanding. Like any person, I had stresses in my life. My wife and I both worked jobs that didn’t really turn off at the end of the day, we were raising a young family, and our church was in a season of change that involved care and wisdom. Still, it boggled my brain that my heart might feel so heavy, while my mind – less than a foot away – was oblivious. If something was so wrong, what was it?

Boy, I was about to find out.

Week One

A number of you expressed interest to read the “how we got here” posts I promised in my last entry. Those are coming, but I confess that they will involve more work than I’ve cared to tackle this past week. So for now, allow me to share a few observations from our first week HERE.

School is in.
On Monday, our two oldest began second and first grades at Bethel Christian School. On Tuesday, our youngest started at the same-leadership-but-different-location preschool. It’s Friday, and we have three happy girls! Really, we’ve been quite impressed with everything on this front. The schools are well-run, faith-focused, lovingly-staffed — easy places to entrust one’s children to others. I have no doubt that there are good schools everywhere, but since we’re here this year, allow me to say that we think these ones measure up very well! In addition to regular classes, the oldest girls will stay for an hour-plus of “daycare” afterward, once Shannon and I begin our classes in September. Their four-year-old sister simply has a longer day of class, meaning she has jumped from a ten-hour class week last year, to a thirty-two-hour class week this year! And she’s all over it! In great wisdom, the state of California legislates nap times into such schedules, so she comes home hoppy and happy at the end of each day.

Schedules are forming.
With school now providing a framework for life, the most obvious change here is that days start early! The oldest girls are considered late if they’re not in their desks at 8 AM, so they are generally dropped off around 7:45. Then I head to the preschool to drop the youngest right after. Needless to say, our alarms are set for earlier than they used to be, and our bedtimes have adjusted accordingly — most of us! I’ve renewed my efforts at an exercise routine (with encouragement from my better-at-it wife) so school drop-offs are followed up with a DVD workout that forces muscles to strain, limbs to stretch, and sweat to flow. If sports opportunities arise down the road, those would be more fun, but a guy has to start somewhere. Daytime hours are still being spend on sorting some life-in-a-new-place details, but we did receive our first letters in the mail last week, so thanks to sweet friends who have confirmed that our mailbox is officially locked and loaded! (Upon re-reading this draft, I’m seeing that last sentence features a poor blend of Second Amendment meets “going postal”, but I’m leaving it in as an honest new-to-America accident. 🙂 )

Time to prepare.
As the year unfolds, I’ll continue including some daily details from our family in these updates. A number of those who read are folks who have loved us for a long time and care about such things. But I imagine that future updates — particularly once our classes begin — will involve more sharing of the truths we’re tasting and the responses that are brewing inside of us. The past few days have provided us with some precious child-free hours. Besides house-stuff and life-errands, we discovered a very tasty India lunch buffet for a daytime date. I’m sure we’ll return! But beyond even tandoori chicken, we’ve designated some of those hours for quiet.

Some is task-oriented: We know a number of the books we’ll be assigned in the year ahead, and we want to get a jump. But some is just about placing ourselves before God in quiet — Scripture, music, worship, prayer, journaling. There were so many levels of logistics to wade through just to make this trip happen that I somewhat-intentionally neglected any focused soul-prep until later. And later is now.

We’re here for a season of restful listening to God and receptive learning from His people, whatever He has to say and whomever they may be. We’re trying to be available and attentive and adventurous, and it’s all a very profound privilege. But I’m still all-too-often all-too-poor at such things. I hesitate, I ride my brakes, I overthink, I drag my feet, I slack off, I get scared — I’ve got a bunch of unhelpful tendencies that I can sometimes hide in my average flow of life. But I feel as though they are going to be pulled out into the light this year, and that makes me uneasy. See — more foot-dragging.

But my slowness to plunge in is also being offset with a building anticipation for a year of learning. I love school and Scripture and spiritual formation, and chances to blend all of those have marked several of my best seasons of life. So I do have expectations of good things. That said, I feel a pleasant freedom from pressure. I actually have a healthy dose of what was described in a friend’s thoughtful text the day after our church family lovingly sent us off:

A note for you as you drive. A strange thought popped into my head yesterday [at church] that I thought I’d share with you. That thought: “I hope Jay & Shannon don’t feel any pressure to have an amazing experience in Cali!” There was so much talk yesterday about excitement, and how great this experience is going to be. And that’s all good. We share some of that excitement for you! But for some reason I felt the need to clarify. Whatever experience God gives you in Cali will be good enough. Even if it’s not earth-shattering. Our prayers go with you! We’re sad to see you go but know that God’s called you to Cali for a purpose.

Of course, the Father expects faithfulness and devotion from us, but those are our responses to the His initiations in our lives. He moves first, He initiates contact, He issues invitation, He makes things happen. And that’s the pressure I feel pleasantly free of: I don’t need to make anything happen. I don’t need to force anything or strive beyond myself. But I do need to receive, and then I do need to respond. And that’s not a sabbatical-specific pattern. God always works that way, and the temptation to seize control or charge off ahead of His lead has been in our hearts since Eden.

It’s here in Redding too.

I have moments of self-centred thought-floods. Mixed in with the desire to pursue God with purity and passion is this reality: I waste brain cells and heart beats on where I’ll fit in the “pecking order” of my class. Will people be impressed by me? Will I appear as smart or skilled or likeable as I hope to be? Will I appear authentic and genuine? Is there a safe way to appear as authentic and genuine without actually taking the risk involved in being authentic and genuine? Is there a place here for me, the real me, the one who’s not entirely sure he’s going to fit here? Some moments, I’m peaceful about it. Our being here has God’s fingerprints all over it — I’ll still aim to tell more of that story in future posts. But some moments, my own hands are too eager to get graspy and grabby.

Sitting quietly with oneself can be surprisingly loud.

And it’s not always as tasty as butter chicken!

Live from Redding

When I posted my last entry on this blog, I had neither idea nor intention to wait over a year before posting again — wow! That’s unreal.

But it seems like a reasonable time to get back at it. For starters, I’ve missed it. I love to string words together toward some form of meaningful sharing. Secondly, our family is queued up for a very different-than-usual year. Who knows? Perhaps there’ll be something worth writing about. 😉

So what are we up to?

In a sentence: I’ve been granted an eight-month sabbatical from my ministry position, and we’ve determined to spend it in northern California.

What will we do there?

Another sentence: Shannon and I will attend a ministry school operated by Bethel Church in Redding, while our girls all complete a year of school here (Gr 2, Gr 1, and Pre-K).

So how did this plan come about?

That will take way more than a sentence. Those of you who live closely with us will know much of that lengthy story already, but for others who care, I’m aiming to post portions of our journey over the coming weeks, before our classes begin in early September. For now, allow me to make some more mundane observations about our first few days of life in Redding, CA.

redding_caIt is stunningly hot here!
We’ve been in the mid-40’s since we arrived on Tuesday, and the locals say we’re not at the top of the scale yet. Our suite is part of a complex that has two pools — we plunged into one for the first time today. And then we wondered why we waited so long! Seriously, the “most comfortable place in town” by Shannon’s delirious description. It’ll likely be on the list again tomorrow. And Saturday again.

Getting set up takes work and dollars.
It’s been a while since I walked into an empty home and began again. While our eight-day trip down here was vacation-like, as much as 28-ish hours in a van can be, it’s been fairly work-like since arriving. Steady attention has gone into tracking down basic furnishings to make this place feel homey, setting up accounts for utilities and mail and internet and more. Today we had meet-the-teacher time with our oldest two daughters; tomorrow we’ll do it again with our youngest. Both of their schools (the elementary and the preschool) have orientation processes and parent volunteer hours to fulfill, so we’re wading through info at a quick pace these days. And between those tasks and keeping children happily alive, we’re getting a feel for the city and its layout and visiting Target and Dollar Stores way too much!

There are lots of good people in lots of good places.
Even in a few short days, I’m impressed at fine folks we’ve met: The oh-so-helpful techie who set up our TV and internet today (he’d worked an earlier season of his life in Colorado with a bunch of Canadians following an oil boom); two friendly neighbour boys, Umberto (12) and Omar (18), who came to introduce themselves; Jan, from Florida, who sold us a futon (if you’re visiting, we’ve got your bed) and then shared some fantastic insights about her past experiences at the ministry school; and Paul & Rachel, a retirement-age New Zealand couple from whom we’ve bought some furnishings and who spent an earlier season of life in Moose Jaw and a more recent season helping international families settle into Redding. We’ve also meet a handful of folks who will be our classmates this year, ranging from hometowns in San Diego, CA and Eugene, OR and Steinbach, MB. As humans, we live in a small world, and as Christians, we live in a grand Kingdom. Even my first few days here have confirmed that we are set to spend the year surrounded by folks who love the Body of Christ, who long to see the Church built up, and who wish to see His Kingdom come. And they use capital letters on all those words, not just in spelling but in living. And that just seems a steady mark of the great folks I know everywhere I go. Thanks to so many of you who have blessed my path by “teaching me which words to capitalize” too. 🙂

Allow that to suffice for tonight. I’d love to hear from you — long-time friend or first-time reader or anyone in between. Stay tuned for more from one Canadian family seeking God in the burning-up city of Redding.