Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Me Report (pt. 1)

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received included a reproduction of an assignment I completed when I was 11 years old. It was called “The Me Report” and closely resembled one of those internet forwards where you fill in the blanks about yourself and then send it to 20 of your closest friends or else you’ll break your leg or lose $50 or some other such nonsense. Anyway, according to this report, I loved penguins and skateboarding and planned on becoming an orthopedic surgeon. (Not bad for 5th grade, huh?) I know a minister who has something similar in his office - only he filled out his when he was 6 and even then he knew he wanted to be a minister. If only things were so neatly laid out for all of us, right?

When I was in high-school I did all the things you are supposed to do when deciding what you should do with your life. I talked to guidance counselors and took the skills tests they recommended. I interviewed professionals and did internships on the job. From many peoples’ point of view, it would seem that all this effort was put to good use. I graduated from Messiah College with a dual degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering and landed what many would see as the perfect job working for a defense contractor in Virginia.

I had a great job, a nice car and a house before some of my friends were even done with school. And I was happy, at least at first. At the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (The real one, not the one with Johnny Depp.), Wonka asks and answers, “Do you know what happened to the boy who got everything he ever wanted? - He lived happily ever after.” While I wouldn’t say I had everything I ever wanted, it was fair to say I had quite a bit. You might think that would make the happiness last for quite a while, but you’d be wrong.

In time I started to realize that while I liked what I was doing and while I was good at what I did, it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. There was more for me out there, I was wasting my life doing something that only seemed really important.

Meanwhile, I realized that I had been interviewing some other professionals and doing some unofficial internships with the ministers at Antioch Christian Church. There, I met Paul and Dave, two ministers who were in their own ways a lot more like me than any ministers I had met before. What’s more, they took the time to get to know me as a person, to build a relationship with me and show me what its really like to live in the ministry. The more I got to know them, the more I knew what had been true all along - God did have a different calling for me.

What may seem like a big decision became no decision at all. I knew what I had to do, it was just a matter of diving in and not looking back. So, I resigned, put up the for sale sign and headed to Cincinnati, CCU and the next step in the journey that God had known all along.

The Biggest Adventure

“Master, must we go on?”
“Of course, young one, of course.”
“But why? Each day all we do is walk and walk - I’m sick of walking. I’m bored and my feet hurt.”
“Now is the time for walking, so we walk. But, that is not all we do each day.”
“It seems like that is all we do. We walk and we talk and that’s all. I don’t even know where we are or remember where we’re going. All I know is that I’m sick of walking.”
“Is that really all you know?”
“What else do you know?”
“I know that when I left my family to follow you we were supposed to go on an adventure. This is no adventure, just walking.”
“What is an adventure?”
“Adventure is fighting bad guys and saving people and...”
“And what?”
“... and... and... not so... boring.”
“You’re bored?”
“well, mmm ... yeah I guess.”
“And you want adventure?”
“Yeah! Adventure.”
“Did you know that we are being followed?”
“We are?”
“We are. Soon they will catch us and then you'll get a taste of what you call adventure. And you won't like it.”
Sigh. “How do you know they're following us?”
“I watch, like I taught you when we began. With each step I scan the horizon, taking in everything that changes as we go. From the top of the last two summits we have passed, one yesterday and one three days before that I have seen the same small speck in the distance growing closer. What do you watch as we walk?”
“Not nothing. You watch the puffs of dust that spring up around your feet - and fret about how they dirty you with each step.”
“How do you know that?”
“I already told you, I watch.”
“Well, how are they following us?”
“What do we do each day?”
“We walk.”
“And when we are finished...?”
“We make camp.”
“And in the morning..?”
“We walk.”
“Before we walk.”
“You make breakfast and I clean up.”
“Is that all?”
“I pray while you cook breakfast and you pray while I clean up.”
“Is that what really happens?”
“No. I don’t pray, I sleep.”
“And you don’t really clean up. They’ve been following us by following the messes we’ve left along the way.”
“But why? If you knew I wasn’t doing what I needed to do and that I was letting them follow us, why didn’t you stop me? Why didn’t you make me clean up better? Why did you let this happen?”
“Me? This is your adventure. An adventure is not just the exciting parts, it isn’t just the highlights. Adventure is every step you take, every responsibility you fulfill. It’s the small things you don’t want to do, but have to do. They add up, they contribute to the whole - they matter. If we overlook them, they will still add up, but only to our detriment. All of life is our adventure, we just won’t look wide enough to see it.”

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.”
  - GK Chesterton

AUTHENTIC |ôˈ-θ-entik| (abbr.: auth.)

real, genuine, bona fide, kosher, honest-to-goodness, honest-to-God, sincere, true, unfeigned, unfinished, heartfelt, unaffected, affected, complete, incomplete, utter, knowingly tainted, thorough, absolute, through and through, changed, changing, total, prize, imperfect, perfect, veritable, legitimate, flawed, strong, lawful, legal, valid, the real McCoy, reliable, dependable, trustworthy, authoritative, honest, open, broken, faithful, accurate, factual, true, truthful, veridical, veracious


The soft white flakes had just begun to fall, each one floating gently, slowly down as if to prolong the time it had before it would melt helplessly on the quickly moistening ground. His boots routinely trudged along the familiar path to the side door of the garage.

Inside, he flicked the light-switch, the cold of the morning causing the ballast of the fluorescent lights to hum as the overhead lights flickered and struggled to life. In the slowly brightening chemical glow mixed with the sunlight from the windows, he made his way to the far side of the shop, weaving between the customers’ cars in various states of disarray. Today’s project sat in the corner, away from busy work that paid the bills. He slowly pulled back the tarp, looking at the familiar lines of the car he’d known for so long. He knew every angle and every curve as well as he knew himself, maybe better.

He put the tarp away, stealing a glance out the window. The snow was falling harder now, the flakes quickly giving up on their ill-fated attempt to stay afloat and plummeting to the rapidly cooling earth. Small patches appeared on the ground, expanding islands of white in a damp sea of the black asphalt parking lot.

He ran his hands along the car’s rear fender, his experienced fingers feeling the ripples of decay underneath - hidden from view only by a thin layer of green paint. At the workbench he picks up the orbital sander and pulls a circle of sandpaper from the roll. He sprays the disc and smoothes it over the head of the sander as he makes his way back to the car. The tool makes a familiar whir as he switches it on and soon it is covered in faded green dust that matches the car. The green gives way to gray and then silver - all surrounding the familiar pink hue of a years-old fiberglass patch and the deep umber of rust that has bubbled up around and through the old repair. More sanding reveals the extent of the damage, and the sander is exchanged for a wire-brush wheel.

A quick glance out the window shows a stark reversal in color. Islands and seas have switched places, now it is shrinking dark patches that struggle to stand up to an encroaching sea of white.

The wire brush does its job, digging out fiberglass and oxidized steel, leaving a hole-scarred, pock-marked, swath of silver metal in an expanse of green. He leans down and inspects the metal closely, removing his safety glasses and positioning himself in the best light. Deep within the marks, beyond the reach of the bristles, he can still see tiny pockets of brown. Another pass with the wire brush makes no difference. Neither does a different brush. The man sighs and hangs up the brush, he walks over to the mixing bench and gets down the can of fiberglass and the hardener. His hands scoop out the pink fibrous mud and he scrapes it absentmindedly onto a mixing board. Almost without thinking he measures out a portion of the hardener and begins to mix the compounds together and get the patching process started.

As his hands continue the familiar work, he looks out the window situated above this bench. From here he can see the whole parking lot and the street on the other side. Nearly everything he sees is white. It looks clean and fresh, unspoiled and untainted. No plow trucks have gone by, no footsteps have trampled the snow. From his point of view, the world looks perfect.

His hands still at work, his gaze moves closer to the shop and suddenly his eyes stop. There, in front of the far garage door is a spot, a blemish, a scar. He watches as white flakes continue to fall on the spot and instantly disappear into black - powerless to cover this one spot of ground. A month prior one of the mechanics spilled a basin of used oil there and the fluid soaked into the asphalt before it was sopped up. Now, the normally invisible stain was all too obvious and it glared at the man through the glass.

He looked at the spot and then at the silver swath of fender. He saw the invisible stain and the barely visible spots of rust. He saw the mix of green, gray and pink dust that had fallen throughout his work area and at the pink mixture on the board before him. He scraped the mixture into the trash and swept up the floor. Putting away the broom, he pulled out the die grinder and cutting wheel. The falling flakes of snow that had captured his attention in the window were replaced by shooting sparks of flaming hot metal that flew from the grinder’s wheel as he cut out the diseased section of metal from the fender.

As he searched through the sheet metal bin, looking for a piece to fill his newly created hole, he thought about his decision, the oil under the snow and the rust buried in the fender. This wasn’t someone else’s car, it was his. This wasn’t a paycheck, it was his passion. This mattered to him, it was important. He knew the only way to fix the problem was to get to the root of it, cut it out and rebuild it. Anything less would just be a temporary remedy, another patch that would have to be replaced in time. Things this important shouldn’t be patched, they should be fixed.

He picked his piece of metal from the bin and carried it with him as he walked back across the shop. He walked right past the cutting tools and right past the welding equipment. He set the piece of metal down and reached for the shop telephone. His fingers brusquely punched in the numbers and he scarcely breathed until someone picked up.

“Hey, its me.”
“Yeah it has been a while. And I’m sorry for that.”
“No, no excuses.”
“Uh... We need to talk - can we meet and talk? - I... I want to fix really fix us.”

Broken Rearview

The wheel feels familiar beneath my hand, the worn leather over soft foam giving beneath my skin as the stitching pushes back against my grip. The gas pedal gives way beneath my foot, as the orange needles on the dashboard shakily climb higher.

In a sequence practiced hundreds, thousands of times one foot rises as the other lowers, one presses and the other releases. An orange needle drops and a tug on the gearshift causes the pinion to disengage with a dull click like a key being removed from a lock. For an instant things flow freely on their own, power disconnected from direction.

Pushed up and to the right, the gearshift finds the next ratio. The mechanism gives with only the slightest effort and grasps the intruding lever, holding it tight as the clutch reengages, the pedals switch places and power and direction are joined again, hurtling the vehicle forward and causing both needles to rise again.

Outside, things become more and more confused. On the right, telephone poles whiz past, their proximity is felt in the ears as much as it is heard. On the left, the lane divider seems to change from short white lines to blurred white dots to a single translucent white line. Trees, houses and oncoming traffic quickly come into a peripheral focus and even more quickly disappear, devoid of detail and strangely misshapen by speed.

Up and to the right a different view is found. A small window to a more stable world. The things behind are clear. Dotted lines remain dotted lines. Telephone poles are not blurs, cars have detail, houses have shape. The world looks right, normal, calm, comfortable.

Ahead, insanity reigns. Curves, turns, traffic, lights and rules jump out in front, demanding action, demanding effort and reflex and change and pain. The mirror shows peace. It shows where I’ve been, what I’ve come through, what I’ve learned, what I’ve loved. There is no madness, no grief, effort, turmoil.

The mirror shows an image of the best of what was. But it is only that, an image. And it is a twisted one at that. It is protected, shaded from the true harsh nature of what is there. I protect myself by dulling the edges and angling the details. The view through the mirror is nothing like the view was through the windshield.

No matter how pretty the picture, how comforting the view, my focus must be forward, on the road ahead, not the one behind. I cannot go back, I cannot retreat. And even if I could, what I found would be much different than what I remember. The good old days are not as good as I delight, but they are just as old. And no matter how much I may painfully long for the contrary, objects in the mirror are NOT closer than they appear.

Turn, Turn, Turn,

The world has turned and left me here
Just where I was, before you appeared

What of the interaction between a man and his world? We are surrounded by things out of our control. The car we drive is under our control, but just barely. We depend on four small patches of rubber which depend on a certain coefficient of friction. We depend on three (2?) small pedals which rely on levers, cables, pistons and cylinders (or wires and electricity). We depend on a wheel which depends on gears and fluid and racks and pinions which depend again on those patches of rubber. Change that coefficient of friction, remove some of that fluid, break one of those cables and suddenly control is gone. Suddenly the car is controlling you. Suddenly the world turns and drops you off in a place that is completely new, a place you don’t know and don’t understand.

You remain, turned away
Turning further every day

So many people stay there. In the new place, wallowing in what has happened, absorbing the pity of what they couldn’t control. Instead of looking at where they are, taking stock of their new situation, they continually look back at where they were. They constantly look back, remembering when they thought they were in control, when things made sense, when it was easy, when the problems were buried, when the car wasn’t spinning. This new position, this turn, is seen as evil, as a hazard, as an inconvenience.

Do You Believe?

What if the world turns for a reason? What if it turns not in spite of you, or even because of you, but for you? It turns in just the right way, to just the right degree, that you are left specifically in the only place that could produce the necessary result. But in order to recognize the value of this turn, painful as it may be, we must realize that the world turned for us and cease lamenting. We must find out why it turned and recognize who really did the turning.

The World Has Turned - words and music by =w=

Friends and Brothers

Here I am, flat on my back, helpless, defenseless, beaten. Intense pressure crushing down, intense heat closes in from all sides. Again.

It hadn’t started this way. This time was supposed to be different The heft of my armor had come to give me confidence, the pommel of my sword was worn and true, my shield was dented, but still strong and now it was all I had.

The fight erupted seemingly without warning, as always. I had seen the shadow approaching, extending along the ground as it silently slithered out from beneath my feet and poured into my path. Yet I’d ignored this obvious sign and brushed it off as a passing bird or a simple storm-cloud.

It wasn’t until the first blow hit me that I recognized what was going on. Upended by the sudden impact behind my left shoulder, I tumbled forward and tucked into a roll; it seemed an eternity passed before my feet were under me again. How could I have been so unaware? How could I miss what I knew to look for?

I found my bearings and laid eyes on my attacker. The dragon slithered through the sky. His black body effortlessly glided on scaly wings, his eyes of fire laughed at the ease with which he had once again surprised me. My eyes followed as he circled around and he placed himself between me and the sun.

I squinted and raised my sword to shield my eyes so as not to lose sight of my attacker. But, as he glided toward me, staying in the path of the sun, the corona of his evil eclipse baffled my mind as I saw an angel of light. Mesmerized and artfully distracted, it was only at the last second that I dodged his attack.

The closed claws of his front legs that had knocked me forward were now open and swiping towards my face. I countered and felt the claw tear along my shield as I spun with the blow, using the dragon’s force on the shield to swing my sword around and into the soft underside of his outstretched wing. The dragon screamed out a paralyzing roar of pain, fury and fire as his momentum brought him to the ground and my wound ensured he’d stay there.

He tucked his wings behind him and reared up to his full height, towering over me. Sensing what may be my only opportunity I sprang forward, overly aware of the dangerous flames spewing from his mouth. With my sword held like a javelin, I lunged towards his midsection, attempting one great blow to finish him. I felt the tip of my sword slide between two thick scales, ready to tear through the soft flesh beneath.

The slight smile was wiped off my lips as the dragon crouched and turned. Returning to all fours, the dragon’s scales clamped down on my sword, ending my attack before it did any damage. As he turned, the sword was wrenched from my grip and his tail swept around from behind me and hit me in the back of the knees, sending me hard to the ground.

Now, here I am again, flat on my back. I cower behind my shield as the dragon’s front leg pushes me down and peals of fire curl around the edges of my shield. Everything I see is distorted and moving, the waves of heat rising like those from a parking lot on a scalding summer day. I smell my own hair being singed off and the leather that holds my armor together begins to burn. No matter how hard I push, the weight of the dragon is too much, my shield is too small, I am too weak. I close my eyes and await the inevitable.

Before the flames envelope me, something unexpected happens. I’ve been here before, I know the ending, but this time its different. This time. With my eyes still closed I feel my shield move imperceptibly. Just a slight change in the slow downward progression. I recognize that my right side is not quite so hot. I slowly pry open my eyes and see something beneath my shield. My arms are both there, crossed in front of me and shaking from exertion, but between them is another arm, reaching out from my right and holding up my shield.

I turn my head to the right and there you are, lying next to me, the edges of our shields just overlapping. You have scars, just like I do. You are bleeding, just like I am. And now the flames lick at your skin, just like they lick at mine. You have fought the same dragon I have. But your arm is under MY shield. As we push together my shield stops moving downward and it hovers there, balanced from above and below for just a moment. As my shield stops, yours starts to drop. I take my arm and place it beneath your shield and push with strength that I didn’t have a moment ago.

There, on the ground the two of us together push. The flames are still as hot, the cuts still bleed, the pain does not subside. But there, under the dragon’s weight, amidst the flames and with the pain, for the first time we begin to stand. Together

Peter swam across the water and found it on the beach

Everything that had gone on the last few days had taken me to the lowest place I'd ever been. My heart was shattered and my spirit was crushed. Sure I'd had disappointments before in my life, but this was something else entirely. This was a continuous state of torture, a constant gnawing at the pit of my soul. I needed something that I could relate to something familiar, so I rounded up my brother Andrew and our friends James and John to head back out on the Sea of Galilee, back to the life that was all I knew for so many years. But in those few short years that I spent away from fishing, so much had happened. My life had changed and now that was all gone, nailed to a tree and buried forever. And here I was, left on the outside. The last time I'd spoken to him he had corrected me (yet again) and the last time I'd looked him in the eye... he looked at me with love and sadness - not because of what he was experiencing or because he was disappointed in me - but because he understood the anguish I was experiencing. He had every right to be angry or to be ashamed, I had just denied that I even knew this man who had done so very much for me, but there was none of that - just love. But from there they took him and as I ran away, he stood firm as they beat him, mocked him, humiliated him and killed him. He was gone and all the words I wanted to say, needed to say, were locked inside my heart. I would never get the chance to see him again, to tell him I was sorry to feebly try to make things right. So, here I am, back in my old life, out on the water early this morning trying once again to eke out a living . Well, it seems I'm not the only one who's head is in a different place. John isn't even paying attention to what we're doing - he's just staring at the shoreline, wishing for some hope. These nets seem way too heavy today. Why won't John pay attention, we could use the help over here. What's he looking at anyway, its just the shore, you can't see anything from way out here. "Try the other side," the distant voice echoes from the shore. As though in a trance we all drug up the empty net and dropped it joylessly on the other side of the boat. How could we hear that voice from the shore anyway? That's way too far. Wait, this net is heavy - too heavy!
Did John see something on the shore?
Why can't we pull in this net?
James, pull your share!
Can John really see something on the shore?
I think its a person.
The hairs at the base of the back of my neck stand up and then those above follow, sending a shiver up and down my spine like dominoes falling in reverse. Before I know it, I'm standing along with the hairs on my arms.
Is it?
Oh my...
It can't be!
It is!
Oh, My God!
Suddenly the shore doesn't seem so far. I can only see one thing, it consumes my vision and nothing will keep me away. I'm coming, Lord. I'm coming, friend. I'm coming...

Wasted Life

I have faced it...
A life wasted...
I'm never going back again

I think its every little boy’s dream to live a life that means something, a life that is more than just a statistic - a life that impacts other lives. I know that dream has always been mine. Is it possible that we have this dream because our purpose, the very reason for our creation, screams out from somewhere deep inside of us before we can even realize what that purpose is? Maybe we can’t even really know what that is - until after we have tasted what it cannot be. I’ve been there, I’ve tasted a wasted life that spit in the face of purpose and the whole time the screams got louder and louder. I faced it...

I escaped it...
A Life wasted...
I'm never going back again

Countless times I swiped by badge to let myself into my own three-walled prison cell, separated from the outside world but by ethernet and telephone, lifelines to a world that doesn’t include timecards or spreadsheets. Timecards - a written record of the hours spent wasting my life, my energy, my God-given gifts. Spreadsheets - countless cells filled with data that seems vitally important inside that world, but means nothing. Is this what life is about? Is it worth spending so much time (and realizing it will never be enough)? Is it worth what must be given up? Is it real? Does it make a difference? Is it a waste? Guidance counselors don’t think so. Professors don’t think so. Society doesn’t think so. My boss didn’t think so. I knew. I escaped it...

You’re always saying you’re too weak to be strong...
You’re harder on yourself than just about anyone...
Why swim the channel just to get this far...
Halfway there why would you turn around?
Darkness comes in waves... tell me,
why invite it to stay?

It was supposed to be easy. It was supposed to be fun. It is still work. It is still life. It's still hard. But not a waste. Not empty. Not hollow. Not pointless. Not alone. Not anymore.
 It's a hug and a handshake. It's a hospital room. It's a hammer. It's humanity. It's humane. It's honor. It's humbling. It's hope. It's love. It's truth. It's infinite.
All the paychecks in the world can’t buy the feeling of knowing that your life has meaning - of seeing it on people’s faces and in their eyes - of hearing it in their words and their voices - of feeling it in their embrace and in their hearts. Meaning is more than this world. Its more than right now. Meaning isn’t a waste. Meaning is giving something, the only thing, to those who have nothing - while expecting nothing in return and yet gaining everything.
I’m never going back again

Life Wasted - by Pearl Jam