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Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Playground in The Rubble. Trusting God when it's hard to trust God

A couple of weeks ago, Greta Van Susteran posted a picture on her Facebook page. It was a picture of Yemeni children, happily playing amid the bombed-out rubble that used to be their town. Greta remarked that she found it amazing that children can be so resilient, and able to find some measure of joy in the midst of absolute destruction.
The picture is here:

I was moved as well. I instantly thought about some of my favorite quotes from Brennan Manning, one of my favorite Christian authors, and a man who was well aware of the necessity of childlike faith. In Brennan’s book Ruthless Trust, He teaches about what it means to be childlike in our faith. I believe the photo above illustrates this perfectly. Brennan wrote:

 “Childlike surrender and trust, I believe, is the defining spirit of 
authentic discipleship. The supreme need in most
of our lives 
is often the most overlooked: an
unfaltering trust in the love of 
God no matter what goes down.
I think this is what Paul taught 
when he wrote in Philippians 4:13, "There is nothing I cannot 
master with the help of the one that gives me strength."

These are hard words to live by, and a difficult standard to bear. It’s hard to trust. It’s even harder to trust like a child trusts. Think about that. My daughter is seventeen now and well aware –too aware in my opinion- of the brittle, dangerous state of the world she is growing up in. She stresses over the news as I do. But when she was little, she didn’t have a care in the world. She had a dad who loved her immeasurably, who provided for her every need and almost every desire. She had a wonderful home in the country, two dogs she raised from puppies, a cat, a pony, a garden, sunshine, peace, contentment. Her life was never something she needed to give thought to. She could focus on just being a little girl, enjoying the love of her mom and dad (albeit in separate homes) and finding wonder and amazement in the everyday happenings of the world around her.
But she is an adult now. She has seen her daddy’s life implode because of the economy, she has watched her mom’s bad choice in remarriage explode in violence and terror until she finally escaped it by moving with me to Virginia. She has seen me rebuild on far less than I made in my heyday as a mortgage lender. She worries about the prices in the grocery store. She almost never asks me for clothes or shoes or basic necessities without the look of concern on her face, worried that I won’t have enough, or that I will have to go without so that she can have something.
Her childhood –and resulting child-likeness- ended prematurely in 2008 when my world collapsed. Around that same time, her mother’s husband began to reveal what kind of monster he really was and fear replaced her innocence.
My daughter has not been a child in five or six years now. That is heartbreaking for me in ways I cannot describe to you. I long for the days when only my word was needed to calm what few fears she held in her heart. When she never gave a thought to “'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?” (Matthew 6:31) When she fell to sleep at night, exhausted from a day of happiness, play, learning, excitement, safety, and deep abiding joy.
Now she is often restless at night. She worries, She frets. She has retreated into the safety of introversion and she has built walls around her to prevent anyone else from letting her down and hurting her.
As a dad it breaks my heart into tiny fragments. She is missing so much of the world around her simply because she is so afraid to drop her guard and see the joy that still remains in this world.
Morgan and I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. On any given clear day, the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding this region is stunning. Most evenings are ushered in with the most breathtaking sunsets I have seen in my fifty-two years. I work at the largest, most dynamic Christian University in the world. She has opportunity beyond anything she could have imagined and could have ever had back in Nashville.
Yet she only sees the risk. She only notices how she is going unnoticed.  She worries and frets and has scant few people to talk about it with. She is lonely by choice, because in loneliness and isolation there is, at least, safety. Nobody can hurt you if you never give them the chance to. And so she is torn between wanting to make friends and have relationships and open up about her life, and the dread of being wounded and hurt again. She just wants to be a kid again.
Like all of us.
I am the same as my daughter. Five years of brokenness and homelessness, and rejection and isolation left me hardened in ways I never was before. I was always a gregarious people-person, who enjoyed just being around other people. I excelled in my former career, not simply because I was a great mortgage man, but because I loved helping folks and seeing their dreams come true. I love solving problems for people and bringing happiness if I can.
But five years of failure and disappointment and rejection –especially the rejection- hardened a side of me. It drained my optimism and emptied me of my joy. And sadly…it all but exasperated my trust.
Just as my daughter began to have problems trusting that her dad would always have answers, and always be able to do what he had done, so I have those same problems.
With God.
I seldom pray for myself. I pour my heart out for my daughter, for my co-workers, my friends, my family. But almost never for me. I never sit back in the arms of a loving, doting Father and give Him my worries and my fears and the troubles of my soul.
Jesus said “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe God, believe in me too” (John 14:1)
He also warned about “People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” (Luke 21:26) People losing heart because of the world disintegrating around them. I know I am. I am ashamed to admit it, but I lost my childlike trust years ago. I stopped “casting all my cares upon Him, because he cares about me” (I Peter 5:7)
I stopped asking Him for the answers first, and then trusting Him enough to not try fixing it myself.
First I stopped trusting, then I stopped asking altogether. I started seeing the devastation around me, and not the power of the Father who is above all this. I saw the rubble of my life and I only lamented the destruction.
And yet, little Yemeni children can make a playground in their rubble…
And so must I. I was talking with a co-worker about this over the last few weeks. The stress and concern and worry of just being a dad, and trying to be a provider and a protector, and a wise man and a good employee, and a friend, and in his case, a husband. We talked about how demanding this is and how hard it is for men to say “I don’t know the answer…will have to trust God.” For me, that is almost weakness. I am supposed to know. I am supposed to have the answer. I am supposed to be the rock in the storm. I can’t seem to do that when I am admitting I am (sometimes) none of those things and that I can only “pray about it.”
It’s not that I don’t trust God. It’s that I was born and raised to feel that I am still supposed to do something. Prayer and trust are great, but rolling up my sleeves and doing something…That’s what a man does. That’s what a dad does.
If my daughter applied that logic to me I would be hurt. If she refused to trust me to provide, if she refused to see my protection or my provision, I would feel like a failure. Yet I do that to God daily.
Fourteen years ago, I raced across town on the morning of September eleventh, to pick her up from her pre-school. Just like all the other parents that morning, I was scared. I was worried. I was wondering where we would really be safe.
I walked into the daycare center and there she was…playing happily with all the other kids who were as unaware of the world’s condition as she was in that moment. She had no idea that her whole life had just changed. She had no reason to. There was rubble in New York and Washington DC and in a field in Pennsylvania, but all she and her friends did was play.
I have to learn that. I have to get to that point again. I have to drop my self-consuming demands that I “fix this right now” and just let Him work. I need to do what I can and then let Him do what He is going to do. I need to start enjoying this life. I need to more frequently stare at the sunset on the mountains. I need to spend more time hearing the sound of birds, enjoying the job I have and the friends I have here. More time listening to that amazing voice God has gifted my little girl with.
I need to give Him the time to work these things out. I need to remind myself that He is always in control. Always. I need to remember that the problem comes not because He is not in control, but because I don’t let Him control it. Jesus said He came to give us joy. I need return to where I spend more time with Him.

…and let Him make a playground in my rubble.

Monday, September 7, 2015

What Abraham Saw...(A birthday message)

Today I turned 52.
I have to introduce this entire story by telling you right up front…I hate my birthday. Absolutely, positively, despise the day. I try my best to ignore it and hope to God everyone else does. I hate the end of summer and with my birthday coming at exactly that time I hate it even more.
I don’t remember when I started feeling like this. Probably in high school, but I pushed it down inside because I didn’t understand some things. I had questions that would not have answers for a few more years.
This is going to sound like sour grapes, but that is not my intention. I decided yesterday to write this in the hopes that it might help someone else. I learned a valuable lesson at age twenty-nine and that’s the real reason I am writing these thoughts tonight.
The beginning is where we need to start.
52 years ago today, September 7, 1963, I was born in a neighborhood in Philadelphia to a 20 year old mother. My father was in basic training and by my first Christmas, would be neck deep in the hell that was Vietnam. They never married, and after he served two tours, and won numerous medals and commendations, he came home to find the mother of his now-four-year-old son was about to be married. Not much time was allowed for discussion or consideration. The offer was made to let this man raise me (an offer much more about eliminating another potential rooster from the hen house, and not at all about any desire to have me as a son) and my father took the deal.
That’s it. Plain and simple. I don’t pretend to grasp it nor do I desire to sugar coat it. I couldn’t have done it. I stopped trying to figure it out, about five years ago. It simply is what it is.
But it hurt. It hurt then and it hurts now. There was no bond between my mother’s husband and me. Being so young, and never having really met my father, I was told my stepfather was my father and without any prior knowledge…I had no reason to question it.
Except when I got older and there was no connection. In fact there was a connection vacuum. There could not have been a more opposite person in the world to me than her husband. He hated everything I loved. We had nothing in common. Even the scant things we did together, were more a means to an end. If he couldn’t get her permission to go deer hunting, or to the drag races he would simply take me along. That way she’d say yes. And so those two activities were all we ever did together, and when we did do them, it really wasn’t together.
The bond was noticeably absent especially at my birthday. My brother and sister had big parties, sometimes taking all weekend long. I remember only one party, my sixteenth. It took me a long time to understand why my birthday was never celebrated like my other siblings (his natural children with my mother) was. That is the real point to this story. It happened like this…
I was 21 when I found out about my real father. I could write for days about what that did to me. In this tech-driven world in which we live, I will explain it simply by saying this: it was like someone reached into my computer and pulled out the hard drive. I was left wondering who I was and why I was here and who really cared, and what family was I really a part of?
I went into my twenties with these questions growing louder in my ears and yet no answers. I was twenty nine when the answers came. And that’s what I want to share now.
I was attending Praise Assembly in Newark, Delaware. I had been there for about a year or so and I have to say, it was about the best church experience I have ever had. There were a lot of my school friends attending Praise back then and it was comforting seeing familiar faces right away as soon as I made that my church home.
One of those familiar faces was my friend Pam Owensby. I had known Pam since High School, having met at a summer camp. I knew her sister as well. Pam is one of the genuinely nicest, sweetest people you’d ever want to meet. She had already been married to her husband Fulton (“Fully”) for several years by the time I started going to Praise Assembly. As I reconnected with Pam and some others, and as we’d begun catching up with where our lives were by that point, I found out that Pam and Fully had been struggling to have children. It was something the entire church had been praying for on their behalf and, having reconnected, I was praying for them as well.
One day, the miracle news was announced…Pam was expecting twins. The church was thrilled. 400 or so people prayed and trusted and believed all through the difficult pregnancy. There were times when the twins surviving until birth was tenuous. But at last they arrived. A boy and a girl. Kelsey and Ryan. They were premature and it would be almost five months before the church family would actually get to see them. And that is where God began to teach me the lessons about my own birth, and my own special place in His world.
The day Kelsey and Ryan were dedicated was an incredibly special day for Praise Assembly. Pam and Fully and their families were beaming and happy. When Pastor Walters invited “anyone who wanted to pray” to come to the altar and gather around the twins and pray for them, at least half the congregation responded.
I sat in the back with tears flowing. Not tears of joy for my friends, as should have been the case, but tears of pain. I saw the joy on the faces at the arrival of these children. I saw Pam and Fully’s happiness. I saw two babies who were so beloved. So desired, So anticipated. And so cherished.  Then I saw my own life. I saw a single mom and a dad somewhere in a place half a world away; both scared and both fighting for their lives in their own way. I saw no smiling faces at my arrival. No one who was happy. No lives changed for the better.
I began to weep openly at the back of the church. I started to ask God, “God was anyone happy when I was born? Was anyone excited? Was I a good thing for anyone at all?
The pain was tearing at my heart. Amidst the sounds of joy emanating from the front of my church, I was feeling pain and hurt and emptiness. Then I heard God…
It was so simple it startled me. I asked Him again; “God was anyone happy about my birth?
His answer came in the form of one line from a song. One of my favorite songs from Rich Mullins:
“Sometimes By Step.” The line says “Sometimes I think of Abraham. How one star he saw had been lit for me…”
That was it. That’s all it said. I sang it to myself through sobs. Then I heard God whisper a verse in my ear. It is Psalm 147:3-4 “He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.”
In the next instant, he reminded me of Genesis 15:5 “Then the LORD took Abram outside and said to him, "Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That's how many descendants you will have!"
Suddenly it was coming together. I saw Abraham as he tried –if only for a second- to count the stars. I saw God as He smiled at Abraham’s temporary foolishness. And it all came together.
I heard God, deep in my soul, asking me a question. “Why do you think it says that I “know each star by name?” I’d wondered that myself. Counting them I get…He is God. He knows the number before he even created them. But why would he name them. A claim he repeats in Isaiah 40:26 “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”
Twice in scripture God tells us he names each and every star. Why? Because he made a promise to Abraham and he knew exactly how many stars would be needed to keep that promise. When God laid out the heavens on day four of creation, He already knew about me. He already knew I would one day accept the gift of his son. He knew I would choose the gift He offered and he set a star there so it would be lit on that night when Abraham saw a visible rendition of that promise.
I was a star that night.
Then God tied it all together. As moms and dads were celebrating their babies in the front of that church, for the first time, my Heavenly Father was celebrating me there in the back. I heard him speaking clearly now. “I placed that star there. I gave it a name. It’s not “Craig,” it’s the name by which you are known only to me. The name in Revelation 2:17. It’s the name I call you in my heart. The name I will call you in heaven one day. I longed for your arrival. I celebrated your birth by “dancing over you with singing and rejoicing.” I could not wait to be your dad.
I broke down in tears that day. Tears that are here now as I write this.
I don’t remind myself of this nearly enough. I needed to remind myself when I was homeless and broken and wounded. Sometimes I did. Sometimes when it was so cold that my tears froze to my cheeks, I looked out the window of the car I was sleeping in and saw stars and imagined that one of them “had been lit for me,” like Mullins wrote. But much of the time, I forgot this lesson. So I decided that I needed it this year. Things are difficult right now. My daughter is still adjusting to college life. I am still smarting from the damage of homelessness and loss. The relationship with my father has not changed. He does not budge. It causes difficulty with the rest of the family sometimes. It makes me feel “different” from them in a small but important way.
I needed to remember that there was a star place carefully in the heavens, thousands of years ago, and it was a placeholder for the promise to Abraham. It reminded God that I was coming, and once I got here it was a reminder that I was one of those promises.
My life has a plan. A plan that I have doubted more than trusted. A plan that I have resisted when surrendering to it would be so much easier. A plan designed by Someone I have not seen, but whom I know so well. There is a star out there, and If I will just look for it, I will be reminded again about the promise I am a part of. I was wanted. I was desired. I was longed for. There is a Father who sang and danced when I was born.
The same is true for you as well. You are not alone or unwanted in this world, no matter what this world will try to tell you. Whether you are living a full, rich, blessed life, or you are shivering in the darkness of homelessness as I was…God sees you, He sees your star, and he has a plan for your life. You matter to him. He knows you by name. A name only He knows.

Come as you are…