Welcome to Our World

Throughout my faith journey, music has been one of the ways that God has led me into deep places of connection with Jesus and abandonment in worship.

The choir of the church where I was baptized and confirmed offered Mozart’s Requiem, the entire mass, every year as part of our worship on Good Friday.  Though I didn’t understand the words, there was something so profound about the music – tied into the story in which we were walking, and I felt a deep sense of connection to Christ’s suffering.

Often times, when I am walking in the early morning, I will listen to worship music, and my soul will be transported into the throne room of grace, as I am overwhelmed by the goodness and majesty of God, and the love with which I am held.

And even with the tendency toward sentimentality that we can all fall prey to during the season of Advent and into Christmas (and though everybody has incredibly strong opinions on when it’s appropriate to sing what songs during this time of year), I have also found that my own experience of Advent and Christmas would be terribly lacking without music to provide the soundtrack for my journey to Bethlehem.

Whether it’s the minor key of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that echoes the longing of a people waiting in darkness for the light of messiah to come, or the invitation to worship offered by O Come, All Ye Faithful, or the exuberance of singing Joy, Unspeakable Joy as the promises of God are born as a Yes in Jesus, music has become more than a backdrop to my own times of worship during this season.  For me, one of those songs is “Welcome to Our World,” written and originally recorded by Chris Rice.welcome to our world

When Chris Rice wrote and recorded the song, “Welcome to Our World,” he didn’t originally intend for it to be a Christmas song.  In an interview with CCM magazine, quoted on http://www.umdiscipleship.org, Rice says that the song, “deals with the reality that God invaded our planet and became one of us, which is just astounding to me.  I wrote about God coming to our world in a naive way, knowing that it’s not ours anyways, it’s [God’s]…I thought…about the face that [Jesus] took on what He did so that we would be able to find God and be found by God.”

Tears are falling, hearts are breaking, how we need to hear from God.

You’ve been promised, we’ve been waiting, Welcome, holy child.

The Advent season is a season of waiting.  It’s a season of longing, as we not only prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but join in creations looking forward to His return.  God’s people had been longing for the One who would come and set the world aright, according to the promises and prophets we have recorded in the Hebrew scriptures.

But we know that the longing of God’s people for the promised Messiah is not an unknown yearning for those of us who live on the other side of the incarnation.  We recognize that, even on this side of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, we still live in the now and not yet of God’s kingdom.  Yet, though we know that our longing will never be fully relieved until the day when Christ returns to wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death and pain and mourning and loss will be no more, we hold onto that promise, because we serve a promise-keeping God.

Hope that you don’t mind our manger – how I wish we would have known.

But long-awaited Holy Stranger, make yourself at home. Please make yourself at home.

John the Baptist invoked the spirit of the prophet Isaiah, as he became that voice of one calling in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord.  Rice’s second verse reminds me of an anxious grandmother, longing and planning for company to arrive, only to feel completely unprepared when the moment comes.

Though the people of God had been longing for the arrival of a messiah for centuries, when it happened, they seem to have been caught off-guard – leaving Jesus to be born in less than ideal circumstances in less than princely accommodations.  And yet, this has always seemed to bother us way more than it bothers God.

The reality is, our lives are a mess, and yet Christ chooses to be born there, if they are open to Him making our hearts His home.  No amount of camel-hair wearing warning can fully make our paths straight enough for the very king of the universe to travel to where we are.  And yet, Christ still comes, and we say, make yourself at home.

Bring your peace into our violence, bid our hungry souls be filled.

Word now breaking heaven’s silence, Welcome to our world.

Part of the waiting in 1st century Palestine and 21st century everywhere is the recognition that our world is not as it should be.  There is this overwhelming sense that we need a fresh word from God to break through what seems like a too-long silence.  Those words, bring your peace into our violence and bid our hungry souls be filled, encapsulate for me the fulness of the gospel that has broken into the world on Christmas night.  Christ comes, to be sure, to fill up the empty places and broken spaces in our souls.  And yet, He also comes to bring peace into violence, and shake the systems of oppression that keep people from experiencing the freedom for which all of humanity was created.  I believe that we miss who Jesus is if we ever forget either one of those pieces of his mission.

Fragile finger sent to heal us, Tender brow prepared for thorn.

Tiny heart whose blood will save us, Unto us is born.

Early on in Jesus’ life, when others were bowing down in worship, singing songs of praise and going to tell it on the mountain, we know that Mary was pondering and treasuring things up in her heart.  Even as the time came for the family’s visit to the Temple, Simeon, in the midst of his celebration, alludes to the future in store for Jesus, and because of that, our future as well.  And that truth was that the very piercing of Jesus’ hands, feet and side would one day pierce Mary’s soul.

We can never fully separate the Christmas story from the passion and Easter stories.  We can’t extricate the incarnation of God from the mission of God to redeem the world, and Jesus’ role in that unfolding rescue plan.  On Christmas, as the angels would soon sing, one is born who is the Savior, Christ the King – whose crown would be fashioned from thorns, and whose saving would come through his own sacrifice.

So wrap our injured flesh around You, breathe our air and walk our sod.

Rob our sin and make us holy, Perfect Son of God.  Welcome to our world.

Finally, the song closes with what has become my Advent (and year-round) prayer.  Jesus, invade our world, and invade my life again and anew.  Work in me, and in all of creation, to redeem and restore, to make new and to set apart for your purpose in this world that you so loved that you came to save.  Let every heart, including this one, hold onto your promise, and prepare the room for your coming.  Welcome to our world, Jesus.  Amen.

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The Waiting

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD,

when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

Jeremiah 33:14

Let me be clear: The spiritual discipline of waiting is not my favorite.  From my earliest memories surrounding Christmas, my lack of interest in waiting displayed itself in always being the first to have unwrapped all of my gifts.  And even that didn’t always hold surprise, thanks to my well-honed skill of shaking and shifting packages with the intent of detecting the gift held inside.

Yet, here we are, entering Advent – a season of waiting.  The prophet Jeremiah gives voice to the waiting in this Sunday’s Old Testament reading from the lectionary.  The people of God were waiting for the Messiah – and the waiting wasn’t fun for them either.  Jeremiah doesn’t deny the pain of the present for God’s people.  He is, after all, known as the weeping prophet.  And still, in the midst of the dark days, in the midst of the hard waiting, Jeremiah holds out the hope that is found in the promise of God.

I can almost hear God whispering through the proclamation of the prophet, “Children, I know it is hard, this waiting.  But hold on to my promise.  The day is coming, I promise you this.  Justice and righteousness are on the way – new life, springing from what seemed like a long dead hope.  Jesus is almost here.  Just hold on.”

I know there are a lot of folk who feel like they are waiting on a Word from God that is taking way too long to be delivered.  Waiting for the call from an estranged love one.  Waiting for a plan from the doctors for treatment.  Waiting for what the future of our church may hold.  Waiting for justice and peace to replace hatred and oppression.  Waiting for someone…anyone…to tell them that they are loved and they are enough.  Waiting for the good news that their hope will not disappoint.

If I could have the audacity to speak a word from God to God’s people in this moment, it would be: Whatever promise you are waiting for God to fulfill, child, hold on.  I know the waiting is hard, and it seems like it’s taking forever.  But I promise you this – God has a 100% record of faithfulness in keeping promises – and the streak is not going to end with you.

Lauren Daigle, whose lyrics and voice and heart regularly come together to wreck me, sings these words:

You are not hidden

There’s never been a moment

You were forgotten

You are not hopeless

Though you have been broken

Your innocence stolen

I hear you whisper underneath your breath

I hear your SOS, your SOS

I will send out an army to find you

In the middle of the darkest night

It’s true, I will rescue you

There is no distance

That cannot be covered

Over and over

You’re not defenseless

I’ll be your shelter

I’ll be your armor

I hear you whisper underneath your breath

I hear your SOS, your SOS

I will send out an army to find you

In the middle of the darkest night

It’s true, I will rescue you

I will never stop marching to reach you

In the middle of the hardest fight

It’s true, I will rescue you

Songwriters: Jason Ingram / Paul Mabury / Lauren Daigle

Rescue lyrics © Essential Music Publishing, Capitol Christian Music Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

 

The promise to which we cling during this Advent season (and always), is that help is on the way.  And His name is Jesus.  The One whose birth we celebrate, whose presence is our sustaining, and whose return we long for, hears and knows and loves and rescues.  Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!

 

Kicking and Screaming, #thismexicotrip, part 1

I didn’t want to go.  I mean, really didn’t want to go.  Don’t get me wrong – I love short-term mission/learning experiences.  I can’t wait to be back in a local church and lead or participate with teams that go to new places to learn and to love, to transform and be transformed by those trips.

But this trip to Mexico was not that.  It was 9 more days away from family in a fall season that already had more days away than the same time last year.  It was right in the middle of Charge Conference season (which, along with appointment and one-on-ones are the three seasons in a DS’s church year).  It required use of continuing ed and personal funds that would have been directed elsewhere.  Though many folks I love have poured themselves into this mission over the years, this was someone else’s passion.  And the scorpions.

My attitude vacillated over the last year between irritation, resignation and determination.  Irritation at “having” to go, resignation to “suck it up, buttercup,” and determination to try and not make everyone else miserable because I was there.  There were even occasional glimpses of enthusiasm – because I knew I already loved the people with whom I would be travelling, I do love opportunities to connect with international missions, and I’d never been to Mexico.

Then, I went to start packing on Thursday night and realized my passport had expired.  In addition to feeling stupid for not checking it sooner (though Marian had reminded us several times to do so), I felt sure what folks would think – mainly because I would have thought the same thing: “Sure, it was an accident, Larry.  You never wanted to go on this trip anyway.”  Maybe, I thought, I did unconsciously sabotage my own trip – my mind has done crazier things than that before!  But determination kicked in, and after a few frantic calls, a 9 pm trip to my local CVS to get my mug shot taken, and an unplanned trip to the Liberty Bell and the US Customs House to get a new passport with same-day service, I was ready to go.

Then, Mount Popo erupted.  I mean, seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.  A volcano spews some ash in the area, and the airport in Puebla is closed.  So, we’re suddenly those stranded travelers with bad breath and messed up hair that get interviewed by the low reporters on the local station’s newsroom totem pole.  But wait, there’s more.  There is a flight into a different airport, which will connect us to a 2-3 hour bus trip, getting us to our original hotel at 3 a.m. the next morning – if we can transfer all ten tickets, describe our suitcases well enough to get them off of one plane and onto another, and make the new flight which takes off in less than an hour.  Shoot. Me. Now.

And yet, somewhere in the midst of those 48 frantic hours, I believe God’s voice broke through my hard heart and even harder head with a word from Scripture.  Please forgive the arrogance and foolishness of thinking that this compares at all, but here goes.

In John 21, after a post-resurrection breakfast, Jesus speaks to Peter – him of the hard head and hard heart and big mouth (my spirit animal if there ever was one).  Jesus asks Peter to confess his love as many times as he had denied it a few days earlier, each time telling Peter to feed, tend and care for his sheep.  Then Jesus says this (John 21:18) to the disciple whose confession laid the foundation for the whole of the Church to come, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

Now, I know – because John tells us – that Jesus was referring to the kind of death Peter would eventually suffer.  Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified, but not thinking himself worthy of the same method of death as Jesus, asked it to be done upside down.  But I also believe that, in Jesus’ simple words that came next to Peter, “Follow me,” came my own conviction to follow Jesus to places that I don’t want to go either.  While I am under no delusion that taking a trip I didn’t want to take required sacrifice anything close to the cost Peter and so many others have paid in being faithful, I believe that I heard loud and clear a command from my Savior to stop whining (yes, I believe Jesus says that to us sometimes), and get on with following Him.

There are times when we get so caught up in the fact that we are someplace we don’t want to be, that we forget that:

  • Jesus is there with us.
  • If following Jesus never takes us places we don’t want to be, we may want to make sure we’re actually following Jesus.
  • Even if it’s not what we, or even God intended, we are not excused from the following because of it.

If you find yourself in one of those places, start looking for Jesus.  Keep doing what Jesus has already told you to do.  Trust that Jesus will work in you, maybe even through you, and most often in spite of you.

Popo

Burn the Ships, #thismidlife

One oburn the shipsf my favorite bands, For King and Country, recently released a new album. From the title cut, these lyrics jump out at me.

Burn the ships, cut the ties
Send a flare into the night
Say a prayer, turn the tide
Dry your tears and wave goodbye

© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Capitol Christian Music Group

As I continue to journey into the second half of this life that I’ve been given, one of the core commitments I am holding onto is Risk – in order to live without regrets.  This is so tightly connected to fear and trust, but draws me into action.  Burning the ships is about completely committing to a course of action, holding nothing back.

This is no easy feat for me.  I’ve recently connected with the personality typing of the Enneagram, and have identified myself, using the lingo, as a 6 with a 5 wing (such weird terms).  The upside?  That means, I’m a Loyalist – which means I appreciate order, plans and rules, I value community, and once you’ve won my trust, I’m with you for life.  The downside?  I’m full of doubts, worries, questions and anxiety.  I can look at both sides of just about anything.  According to Ian Morgan Crohn and Suzanne Stabile in their book on the Enneagram,  The Road Back to You, Sixes, “keep their eyes peeled for possible threats and mentally rehearse what they will do when the worst happens.” Which means that taking risks isn’t in my DNA.

I can see so many times throughout my life that my aversion to risk has impacted me.  Conversations that have been avoided or made worse, because I have thought through all that could possibly go wrong in having them.  The D.Min. program that I still haven’t begun, because no matter how much I’ve been encouraged by Barb, by colleagues, and by potential leaders of said programs, it has never “been the right time.”
On the flip side, I can also number the times when taking a risk has led to incredible blessing.  Asking Barb out on a date, though she was way out of my league.  Challenging congregations to take God-sized leaps of faith that led to incredible kingdom-building fruit.  Taking the zip-line tour in Honduras, even though I was 25 pounds over the weight limit – the lady at the desk said, “Oh, don’t pay attention to that.” 🙂  Trusting friends enough to share scary goals and deep struggles – only to find out that they hold that trust deeply and prayerfully.
And there have been times when risking led to failure – but was still worth it.  There have been ministries started and stopped because it wasn’t the right time or the right idea.  There have been staff members that were hired and were the absolute wrong match.  There have been friends whom I’ve trusted who have hurt me and betrayed that trust.  There have been fashion choices that I’ve risked, even against Barb’s pleading, that have gone horribly wrong.  But most of those have been opportunities to learn.  Some of them have left me with a limp in my spirit, like Jacob after wrestling with the angel.
But I think we still need to keep risking.  While I’ve undoubtedly read it before, the advice of the teacher in Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 hits me deep in this season of reflection:
Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return.
Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
   you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
If clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth.
Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
   in the place where it falls, there it will lie.
Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.
As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s
   womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.
Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle,
   for you do not know which will success,
   whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.
I don’t know if I’ll ever complete a D.Min program, or write a book.  I’ll probably never skydive, because that’s just plain dumb.  But I’m committing to take the kind of risks that connect me with others, connect me with a passion for the Church and the work of the Kingdom, and connect me with possibilities that I might not have yet imagined exist.  I’m willing to have hard conversations, and to work hard at not being a jerk while doing it.  I’m not shutting as many doors as I used to.  And I’m hoping that I can hear Jesus telling me, like he did Peter, to get out of the boat and try walking on water.  That’s a risk worth taking.  And if I can do that, I’ll live without regret.  Hope you can, too.

Become Love, #thismidlife

As I’ve served churches over the years that host preschools, a common theme for early in the year has been inviting the kids to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  The children would draw their responses to the question – and the images that lined our hallways reflected everything from firefighters to veterinarians and princesses to monster truck drivers.

Often times, I’m afraid we stop asking that question too early.  Once we graduate, or get the degree, or find the job and start the career, it’s assumed that we’ve fully exhausted the depths of that inquiry.  But lately, I think partially because of this midlife moment I’m navigating, the question has been rolling around in my head again.  Like a locker room at halftime, when coach and players put their heads together to identify changes that need to be made for the second half, I’ve been reflecting on the question, what do I want the life to look like at the end of the second half, and what changes do I need to make to get there?

Recently, Pastor Jacob Armstrong, of Providence United Methodist Church in Mt. Joliet, TN, preached a series of messages that spoke powerfully to me (as his often do).  The series, which he titled, Becoming Love, helped me answer the question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”  What do I want to become? I want to become love.

The apostle John writes in the first letter bearing his name the following:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.  There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” – I John 4:16-18

Thinking back to my geometry days (I was once a math major, believe it or not) and proving theorems, this is what I think of:

  • When I put my faith in Christ, God the Holy Spirit comes to live in me.
  • If God lives in me, love lives in me.
  • Since there is still some (OK – a lot of) fear in me, I haven’t yet become perfect in love.
  • I’m still becoming love.

You don’t have to ask my family and friends if I fulfill the promise of John that says, “In this world, we are like Jesus.”  You only have to be around me for a half a minute to realize that.  However, though I’m not where I need to be, I thank God that I’m not where I once was.

At halftime, I need to re-calibrate my life in order to keep becoming love.  For me, that means that I have to – every single day – be honest about those places where fear broke through, expressing itself in anger or hiding or self-centeredness.  I have to confess that to God, and when it has impacted someone else, confess it to them as well.  When I do that, I simply say, “God I don’t want to stay here, because it’s not where You want me.  Forgive me, and on top of that, make me new.  Help me to become love.”  For me, that means I have to spend time listening for God’s voice in Scripture and in prayer.  I have to spend time with the people in my life who model Jesus to me and for me.  I have to look for opportunities to, without fanfare or recognition, do the loving thing for someone else.  I have to endure the hard truth that those I trust and love need to sometimes point out – those places where I’m not looking all that much like the Jesus who lives in me.  And I have to surrender those hurt places and those hard places and those rough edges to God, so that the Holy Spirit can do the work that I can’t.

Then, I have to hold on to the words Paul wrote to the Philippian church so long ago, and could have written to me today (and yesterday, and the day before that, and again tomorrow): that the One “who began a good work in [me] will be carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

I’m not there yet.  But by the grace of God, I trust that I am, and will continue to be, becoming love.

Finding My Voice, and Using It – #thismidlife

If you’ve been journeying with me through this season, you’ll know that rather than buying a convertible (wouldn’t want it to mess with my hair) or some of the other trappings that often accompany men reaching the middle years of life, I’m trying to see the crisis as an opportunity.  In this opportunity, I’m making some decisions to do the following:

  • Trust – Confront fear with courage.
  • Invest – Make intentional time and space for my most important relationships.
  • Speak – Find and use my unique voice.
  • Love – Become love.
  • Risk – Live without regrets.

As I’ve been talking with friends over the last few months, I’ve stated that my midlife crisis involves getting healthier and speaking my mind

Now those that know me personally may see that  and either do a spit-take with your morning coffee, or laugh out loud.  The thought of Larry Leland needing to speak his mind, or find and use his unique voice does bear a bit of irony.  “At a loss for words,” is not a phrase that has ever been used to describe me.  One of my earliest memories is being reprimanded by the nuns at my Catholic pre-school for singing too loud and purposely off-key at the age of 3.  To be honest, I would be shocked if, “Please, let him keep his mouth shut,” were not a consistent prayer whispered from the heart of my wife, my friends and my work colleagues.  As I have often said, I have rarely entertained a thought in my head that I haven’t spoken aloud.

However, this conviction that I need to speak isn’t about saying more (to which you may all say, Thanks be to God!).  Instead, here are some things that God has been stirring in me:

  • You don’t have to voice every thought or opinion you have, even when asked.  This has been a steep learning curve for me.  If nature abhors a vacuum, this talkative “J” on the Myers-Briggs, abhors silence when a question enters the room.  In the local church, and now as a District Superintendent, I have had to learn that my voice carries a certain weight for some people and in some groups.  I have been in too many meetings that, once I voiced my opinion, conversation grinds to a halt.  Whether or not the incredibly gifted people around me had a different thought, discussion was moot because the Lead Pastor, or the DS had spoken.  (Just to be clear, there are also times when because the DS says something is seen as license to decide in the opposite.)  But sometimes, because my voice can also tend to the critical – another not-shocker for those who know me well – I have to be careful not to be the one pointing out everything that could possibly go wrong.  Finally, holding a thought for a bit can sometimes allow God to reshape it in me before it comes out, and the result is usually much more honoring to God, to the people around me, and to the process.
  • Sometimes, you have to say the hard thing, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it.  Again, a learning curve with the trajectory to strike fear in my heart.  There is a significant part of this season for me that I’ve felt called to speak some hard truths into situations.  Whether it’s been the situation in which my tribe of the Church finds itself, a conviction or discernment I have regarding a pastor or church that I work with, or even in defending some of the decisions I’ve made personally, there have been numerous times when I’ve felt a conviction that I need to speak, when everything in my conflict-avoiding self wants me to muzzle it.  However, the danger that I have (and maybe you struggle with this) is I jump straight over assertive conviction to downright aggressive jerkdom.  The message that I’ve been hearing to “rein it in,” doesn’t mean that I don’t speak the hard thing, but that I do it with a grace that allows it to be heard.
  • There is someone who needs to hear what you have to say.  I’m convinced that I haven’t had a particularly original thought in my life, and God knows that my mouth has gotten me in trouble and spread way more hurt than I will ever get over in this lifetime.  And yet, for purposes that only God understands, God wants me to keep on speaking in response to the Spirit’s nudging.  Every time I step into a pulpit, every time a friend meets me for lunch, every time my son looks at me when I’m talking to him, every time you click on the link to read this blog, I have an opportunity to use this voice that God’s given me to speak life.  Someone needs to hear that encouragement that you feel led to offer.  Someone needs you to be honest enough with them to tell them the truth.  Someone needs to hear “I’m sorry,” come from your lips and your heart.  Someone needs to be challenged to chase a God-planted dream that terrifies them, or to take a smaller next step in following Jesus.  Someone needs you to speak life into their life.  Don’t miss out on that opportunity.

The apostle Paul closes what we know as I Thessalonians, beginning with chapter 5, verse 11, with words that I think speak to followers of Jesus finding their voice and using it.  May they be a benediction, a sending, a commissioning for you today.

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.  And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances;for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

Brothers and sisters, pray for us.  Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss.  I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

#thismidlifecrisis, Part 3 – Invest

Friendship

“To the ancients, friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”        C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

If you’ve been journeying with me through this midlife crisis, you’ll know that I have made a series of critical decisions at this crossroads moment – decisions that will hopefully help determine the trajectory of the second half of this life that I’ve been given.  Those decision points are:

  • Trust – Confront fear with courage.
  • Invest – Make intentional time and space for my most important relationships.
  • Speak – Find and use my unique voice.
  • Love – Become love.
  • Risk – Live without regrets.

Investing in my most important relationships, for me, starts with God, Barb and Henry (in that order), and expands beyond that to family.  I’m not focusing on those relationships here for two reasons: 1) You’ve heard me yammer on about those before, and 2) Quite frankly, I have some significant work to do there, and I am striving with God to figure out some next steps in bolstering those primary relationships.

Instead, I want to write about friendship this week.  A recent article in Relevant magazine, entitled “The Importance of Persistent Friendships” began with that Lewis quote, and it couldn’t be more perfect for one of the areas I’m placing some energy in this season.

Those of us squarely in midlife can find ourselves in a relational Bermuda triangle.  Work demands make it difficult to prioritize family.  Our mobile society presents challenges when we live away from biological family, sometimes farther than any others in previous generations.  For those married couples who have children, schedules sometimes leave us with little more than a taxi rotation – and even less margin for marriage-keeping and quality kid-time, let alone hope for friendship beyond the bleachers or drop-off line.  For single parents, the challenge is magnified even more.  For married couples with no children (by choice or not), it adds another layer of navigating.  For guys, we’re allowed to have drinking buddies, work pals or sports bros, but nothing that ever gets too deep.  If, however, we believe the old adage, that, “A friend doubles your joys and divides your sorrows,” we can’t let those barriers get in the way of developing

So, here’s the message I’m wanting to get out.  Developing and maintaining grown-up friendship, authentic and deep friendship as adults is hard work.  Do it anyway.  Invest the time and energy into friendship – because it matters.  A 2013 article on friendship in Psychology Today reminded me of an important truth. “Close relationships help us to see ourself as we are and our impact on others.  Friendships are invitations to re-examine ourself and to grow.”  I am incredibly blessed to have developed a small circle of close friends without whom this journey would simply not be the same.  These are women and men with whom I’ve worshiped and worked, coached and shared meals, struggled and celebrated – and simply lived life.  I have cried with them (or at least in front of them), and have laughed until my sides hurt with them.

Make no mistake – it’s work.  It takes effort.  Everyone is busy enough that friendship could easily fall into the category of “Something nice to have when life gets less crazy.”   I’ve decided, though, that if I’m going to experience the fullness of life that I believe God wants for me, I’m going to need to invest the time and space to maintain and celebrate those friendships.  So, if you look at my calendar, you’ll see chunks of time set aside for lunch with a friend, or coffee or breakfast (relationships and food often go together).  If a friend’s child is participating in a sporting event nearby, I’m going to get there.  If there is a Friday or Saturday evening not already scheduled, there’s a significant chance it’s going to involve  a text conversation with friends about Chinese take-out and cards.

But another investment I’m trying to make in this season, particularly in the time of year where my own crazy calendar often means weeks in between lunch or coffee, is a three-fold discipline of prayer, encouragement, and checking in.  Seems easy, but I know it’s meant a great deal to me.  I pray for my friends by name, and by circumstance.  I’ve tried to make it clear that I want them to tell me specific ways to be praying, in addition to the ongoing seeking of God’s blessing over their lives.  Encouragement is a discipline that God is growing in me – partially out of my own experience on the receiving end as I seek to get healthier – and so I’m working to shoot the occasional text or e-mail in response to what I feel is the Spirit’s nudging.  I hope that God uses even the drive-by encouragement to remind them that they matter to God and to me.  Finally, checking in is just about going beyond the surface a bit to ask, “How are you really doing?  What’s the best thing that’s going on, and the hardest thing that’s going on?”  This can be as simple as asking, “How is it with your soul?” and then listening deeply for the answer.

I believe that, investing time and space for real and meaningful friendships makes us healthier in other areas of our lives.  My friends encourage me to be a better husband and father.  They talk me down off the proverbial ledge and remind me that God is still on the scene when things feel out of control.  My closest friends celebrate the steps I’m taking to improve my health, and meet me at lunch in places where I’m forced to get a salad (not really).  They offer feedback that is honest – reminding me that I’m never as bad as I think I am, nor am I as good as I think I am.  In my Facebook memories this morning, I was reminded of a friend’s counsel a few years ago that has become a bedrock prayer of mine – “I am yours, God.  That’s all.”  We all need people in our lives who can speak that kind of word to us and into us.

So, do the work.

Find the time.

Make the call.

Send the text.

Be the friend.