When Words Kill

I was reflecting recently about a time a few years ago when I completely blew it.

I was picking my daughter up from a late evening practice. It was dark outside as we drove and talked about her day. I was heading south on Taylor Road in Columbus, Indiana and approaching a stoplight where there were cars already stopped three-wide.

All of a sudden, mid-sentence, a man and a woman wearing dark clothes walked out from between the vehicles and directly in my path. I slammed on the brakes and was able to avoid a disaster. The only problem is that the guy gave me a dirty look, as if I had done something wrong.

And then I did the unthinkable.

I yelled, “Watch where you are going! You idiot!”

It absolutely kills me to write that story. I never call people names. Never. I rarely get worked up enough to get angry at anyone. That is why it kills me to write that down and share it with you. You may be thinking, “Lighten up Brandon. Everyone is entitled to a little road rage now and then. Besides, that guy deserved it, right?!”

I get it.

But man, ever since that happened the Spirit had been sitting on me like an elephant. There had been a disturbance in the Force, if you will. So much so that the next day I wanted to find some time with my daughter so I could apologize to her.
She was doing her homework the next evening at the dining room table. I asked her if she had a second.

“Hey, I want to apologize to you for the way I acted and what I yelled at that guy last night.”

“Uh ok. I don’t see why you have to apologize to me though for something you did to someone else.”

She had a good point, but I couldn’t get off the hook that easily.

“The reason I have to apologize to you and ask for your forgiveness is because I have been entrusted by God and given the awesome responsibility to teach you guys by my words and actions how Jesus would be toward people… and I completely failed at that last night. Do you forgive me?”

Still thinking of ways to help me get off the hook, Anna said, “You know dad, I am not sure that the guy even heard you.”

To which I responded, “Anna, whether he heard me or not is inconsequential. It is what was in my heart, not the words I used, that was the problem. I am really sorry about that. Will you forgive me?”

Of course she did.

So why do I tell you this story?

Well, first, I want to be honest and let all of you know that just because I write a nice blog and have a cool podcast, I am still a work in progress. And that should give each of us a tremendous amount of hope.

No matter where you are in your life and no matter how close or far from God you might think you are, God always unconditionally forgives and works moment by moment to transform you into something exceedingly more beautiful and loving than you ever thought possible. It’s only by the power of God that I can see my sin clearly and ask for a new heart.

But even more, Jesus equates name-calling to murder. I know you may be rolling your eyes at this point, but hear me out. If any one of us calls our fellow human being a fool, or an idiot, we suffer the same judgment as one who commits murder.

But how can the words we use even begin to be as bad as murdering someone?

As with murder, our verbal insult or attack dehumanizes our victim. Our careless, hurtful, negative words are like daggers that penetrate deeply and then severely wound that person at the soul level.

That is how seriously we should take the words we use, because they really matter, they have a deep and lasting impact, and they can kill a person in ways we may never know or understand.

So this isn’t just Jesus creating a new law or new commandment that we ought to follow, but rather it is Jesus showing us that our words significantly matter in the lives of others and they emanate, or spring forth, from what we have in our hearts.

And from a heart that ought to work toward the healing and restoration of people, for the lifting up and edification of our brothers and sisters, for the value and dignity of every human life, and for the blessing and reconciliation of people and relationships, I significantly failed.

In the tenuous and divided country in which we live right now, where dehumanizing others and name-calling are our primary modes of operation in dealing with those whom we disagree, let us not forget that the words we use have value and power, for good or evil.

For every kid in school who is battling through bullying and harassment, contemplating his or her worth and value, and teetering on the edge of killing him or her self, let us not forget that the words we use can be the difference between life and death for others.

For every person who has been torn apart and ripped to shreds their entire life and just can’t handle another hostile and demeaning word, let us not forget that our every word can be the fatal blow or that which brings a person back to life.

Let us not forget that our divisive and hateful words are as lethal as a weapon used to murder. Let us not forget that the words we use are indicative of a deeper heart problem and the place in which our words are ultimately rooted. And let us be individuals who are cut to the core when we use careless language to hurt, wound, or dehumanize another person and then let us look inwardly to see what healing we need at the heart-level.

For the words we use can be powerful weapons that wound, kill, and destroy, or instruments of blessing, healing, and life.

Peace…

Brandon

Learning to See Beauty in the Wreckage

This is the beginning of a larger work that I hope to finish one day, but I want to share it with you in the meantime.  So maybe if you can get a publisher to back me, I will do it… : )

I remember walking into my backyard one early summer afternoon when I was six years old. I walked passed the clothesline that held the nearly dry sheets that danced in freedom and swayed in grace with the gentle blowing breeze. It was a profound metaphor in that moment of my life. With my back to the ground, enveloped by the cool green grass, I stared into the vast blue sky painted with puffy, white cumulus clouds that seemed to completely surround me. It was in that moment, on that infinitesimally small patch of earth, where I was wholly embraced in perfect freedom and perfect love.

I have always wondered why that particular memory stayed with me even unto this day. What was it about that simple and seemingly uneventful moment that still has my heart? What was so transformative about that afternoon that it still taps into my soul’s deepest longing? And why do I, in my spirit, keep going back to that place behind my late 1970’s home where all I did was lie in the grass and stare at the sky?

To be honest, I think about this moment all the time. How many six-year olds remember the most seemingly mundane moment and remember it four decades later unless it was so meaningful and so evocative that it just can not be forgotten? I believe it was in that place, in my backyard, lying in the grass, when I was four years old, where I knew for the first time, definitively, that heaven and earth literally came together and God was pouring out and showering me in presence and love.

The crazy thing is that I remember it all so vividly and so thoroughly. No matter what else was going on around me or in the world, it was in that place at that moment where I knew without question in my heart and in my soul that I was wholly embraced in perfect freedom and perfect love. I was in a place where I felt fully and completely alive. And I believe the reason that moment stays with me, nearly forty years later, is the reality that no matter how far I have wandered, no matter how fractured and disconnected I have become as a war-weary and war-torn human, I desperately long with every ounce of my being to be enveloped in that overwhelming and all-consuming love once again.

This may come as a surprise to you, but I believe you have been in that place as well, whether you remember it or not. It may not have been behind your house staring at the sky, but it may have been in a moment of being held by a loved one, or in a moment running into the woods to your secret spot, or in a moment closing your eyes while the sun shined down on your face and the wind blew through your hair, or in a moment rolling down the car windows and singing out to the top of your lungs.

Despite who you are, where you came from, what your background is, or the life situation in which you grew up, I believe each of us have had that moment, no matter how temporary or fleeting, when we felt wholly embraced in perfect freedom and perfect love, where we knew without question that, if even for a split second, heaven and earth came together. And in that moment we felt fully and completely alive, our hearts experienced a peace and joy we never knew existed, and we wished it would never, ever end.

We have all been there.

And the truth is that this embrace, this freedom, this love has always been present with us and has always surrounded us, whether we have acknowledged it or opened ourselves up to it or not. It has been there all along completely enveloping us, fully immersing us, and never abandoning us, despite each of us slowly and progressively, many times unknowingly, losing sense of it, becoming closed off to it, or turning away from it.

That is the great casualty of this life- we have become disconnected from this great embrace and allowed ourselves to be separated from the source of perfect freedom and perfect love. And it is this disconnection that, no matter the paths we have traveled or how it happened in each of our lives, has steadily closed us off from the life we were always meant to live, the life we were always meant to experience.

Instead of lives immersed in love, outpouring in joy, flooded by peace and contentment, and baptized in grace, we have walked in shallow puddles, always longing for ocean depths.

Instead of abundant lives in which our senses are fully awakened and fully alive, experiencing this beautiful world, this wonderful life in it’s fullest sense, we have become increasingly desensitized to and uninspired by the miracle and majesty that we awake to each morning, consequently pursuing other avenues that artificially stimulate us and close us off to the richness and bounty of this life.

And instead of lives in perfect union with God that then extend outward through each of us in all of our relationships, we have walked down a path where our relationships have become as fractured and as disposable as the relationship we have with our Creator.

The truth is that life can feel like a real struggle sometimes. And I am certain I am not shocking you when I say that. Instead of it feeling like grace, life can many times feel like punishment, judgment, and condemnation. Instead of it being full of opportunity, life can feel like closed doors, empty promises, and dead ends. Instead of it being an invitation into something greater, life can feel quite average, extraordinarily ordinary, and like you are just barely making it through the day, barely making ends meet, or barely hanging on.

Our lives can feel so far from what our hearts desire, so far from what our souls craves.

We have been, in a very real way, walking through a minefield with enemy fire passing by us with every step and ripping us away from experiencing this eternal life presently. Sometimes we are hit and wounded, but at other times the ground explodes beneath our feet and it seems as if we have been completely taken down with no way out and no one to help us.

We are those who have been wounded by other’s words or actions. We are those who have been wounded by loved ones who abandoned us. We are those who have been wounded by the ways others have taken advantage of us. We are those who have been wounded by substance abuse and addiction. We are those who have been wounded by our addiction to pornography. We are those who have been wounded by our pride and self-sufficiency. We are those who have been wounded by the expectations other people have for us. We are those who have been wounded by a negative self-image or self-doubt, sometimes leading to self-hatred, self-mutilation, and then possibly attempts at killing ourselves. We are those suffering from the wounds of broken promises, broken relationships, and failed marriages. We are those suffering from the wounds of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

And it’s hard to remember, let alone believe, that there is anything better than the war we entered from birth. Our wounds and pain, our cynicism and skepticism, our apathy and indifference have become a normal part of our lives through the years, for some people more than others, of course. But, we are all victims to the great tragedy and it’s wreckage to one degree or another.

So while we may have, at one time or even in one single moment, rested in the sweet embrace of perfect freedom and perfect love lying in the backyard or being held in the arms of a loved one, it’s easy to become jaded and hardened through the years, cynical about the present, and completely resigned to the future. We can very easily begin to believe that life is something we try to endure, rather than something we have the opportunity to live to the fullest.

That is the lie we begin to believe and then the way we begin to see everything around us.

I remember one spring when we first moved into the house in which we currently live. The backyard was a blanket of yellow dandelions. I hated it. I absolutely hated it.

But first, as a proper backdrop, my dad is a meticulous and obsessive manicurer of fine lawns. And as you can probably imagine, I grew up detesting this vile weed bent on disrupting the gentle and unbroken sea of green surrounding our house.

This was the case each day as I turned onto the street leading to our new house. It wasn’t just a mental frustration of having so many dandelions in my yard. It was, in a very real way, a physical frustration. I could feel the frustration deep in my bones.

One Saturday morning, and very likely the day I was planning to treat the lawn to get rid of the weeds, our sweet five-year old Caroline gazed intently out the window. I wasn’t immediately sure what she was looking at, but then it became obvious as she said in the most innocent and exuberant voice, “Those are the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen, daddy!”

What a punch to the gut. Ugh.

I was completely and utterly caught off guard. Caroline was exactly right. Why did I not see it that way myself? How could I have been looking at something so unimaginably and miraculously beautiful the entire time, but yet been so viscerally disgusted by the sight of it? What I saw as a nuisance weed that needed to be eliminated immediately, Caroline saw as a real life floral tapestry in her own yard that amazed and delighted her. That may have been the first time in my life when I realized how dramatically the “lenses” we wear transform how we see and experience this life.

Unlike me, Caroline had not accumulated years and years of baggage that influenced and shaped how she viewed the world, or how she was experiencing her young life. Caroline was able to see a world surprising her with the blessing of tiny, yellow flowers in her very own yard! She could see beauty clearly with the eyes of her heart, while my distorted lenses saw nothing but a hideous curse that had to be dealt with.

Maybe that’s why most children have an easier time finding those places where heaven and earth overlap, where they experience perfect freedom and perfect love, because they are not so battle-torn and war-weary. They still have eyes that are open wide and that can still clearly see the world without the fractured lenses that distort how we see people, situations, and the world around us.

The truth is that children are still open to the possibility of awe and wonder, the inherent goodness in all people and things, and the sense that the only moment that matters is the one they are living in at that exact moment.

It’s no wonder Jesus says unless we all become like little children we will never get to experience this great embrace of heaven and earth; we will never be able to presently enter into the perfect freedom and perfect love of God. Becoming like a child opens our hearts and awakens our lives to awe and wonder, allows us to rediscover the inherent goodness in all people and things, and births in us a sense that the only moment that matters is this moment right now.

But is this really even possible?

It’s certainly one thing to be told that each day is grace, full of opportunity, and an invitation into something so much greater, but quite another to actually be able to enter into that kind of life. Sure, the dandelion story is beautiful and it is a really nice sentiment, but there is simply too much wreckage and too much heartache around us for that kind of unrealistic idealism.

While I admit that I am a wild idealist, and my wife would probably say that I am idealistic to a fault, I will always stand uncompromisingly in the gap between “what is” and “what could be.” However, I do not stand there completely oblivious to reality or in blind ignorance.

I see the wreckage around me and I feel the burden of it every single day. I know you do as well. We live in a world of immense tension and great suffering, a world literally caught between heaven and hell. And sometimes there are just no words. Our souls just ache.

Today as I write these words I am one degree of separation away from friends whose marriages are wrecking or completely wrecked, friends who have children growing up without the support or involvement of the other parent and who are suffering through the emotional pain of it, a friend who just overdosed on drugs a few months ago, another friend who was just charged with multiple drug-related felonies, friends and family who are battling for their lives with Stage 4 cancer, another friend with three young children who just lost her husband to brain cancer, friends who are unemployed, friends who suffer from mental illness and depression, and friends who have children who have been suicidal in the last few months.

Believe me. I get it.

But while we hold together the tension of smiles and tears, the tension of joy and pain, the tension of celebration and mourning, the tension of happiness and sadness, the tension of life and death, we are still, even now, being wholly embraced and completely enveloped in the perfect love of God through it all.

You may find that incredibly hard to fathom, but listen. Despite the war, despite our battle wounds, despite the wreckage around us, there is another reality surrounding us, immersing us, in unending life and beauty, longing to revive our broken and wounded hearts so that they may beat again and to wash over our blinded eyes so that we will finally see clearly.

We live in a world that explodes with great artistry and creativity. It is a world that offers limitless freedom and opportunity. It is a world that flows with the greatest expressions of love and goodness. It is a world with incomparable life and beauty. And we have been invited, to not just see it with new eyes, but begin living in it presently and then helping others see it and experience it as well. Yes, even in the wreckage, even in the very worst circumstances, and even through immense pain. We have all been invited to presently enter the great embrace of heaven and earth.

And this embrace is no different than the one that so tenderly held me in my lawn that day as a fully awake and fully alive four-year old. It held me and nurtured me, but then began pursuing me through the years, as I grew distant, hard-hearted, angry, prideful, and self-serving. I didn’t have the eyes to see it, though. The only thing that changed through the years… was me. The open arms of the father were always outstretched, awaiting my presence, and continually longing to hold me again.

But the path leading back to that place was not a straight line, nor was it pain-free. It never is. We can’t snap our fingers or will ourselves into eternal living. It is a daily pursuit, and one that navigates through the pain, heartache, and wreckage of a war zone. And sometimes it can be completely brutal. It can tear your heart out and make you ask questions about who you are, what you are doing, and why you are doing it. I know. I have asked those questions, myself.

For me, it was a road of humility and contrition, introspection and self-reflection, crucifixion and resurrection. And all of those words are just fancy ways of saying that I needed to take an honest and humble look at myself to see who I had become. I desperately needed to discover what was keeping me from living a full and abundant life and keeping me from returning to the embrace of perfect freedom and perfect love.

My wife would frequently catch me sitting at the dinner table by myself staring out the window into the backyard many times over the last ten years. I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t having a midlife crisis in my 30’s. I just had so many questions and I felt like I was completely suffocating. I found it hard to find happiness and joy. It seemed as if my life was about enduring each day and I was only happy when anticipating something big or exciting, whether that be a vacation, a hiking trip, or something like that. I battled through each day in hopes of some larger outcome. My happiness and joy were predicated only by what I wanted or by what I believed I deserved or needed out of life. I was so blind. I could not see beauty around me. I was so ignorant of the miracle and mystery in which I lived and breathed.

I had become bored and discontented with this life.

But there was this moment when it all started to change for me. I was in the family room after supper with my oldest two daughters. They were playing with each other on the floor, but it was the kind of playing that just grates on a parent. If you are a parent of little kids you know what I mean. There is nice, quiet playing and then there is the loud, blood-curdling, excessive playing. This was the latter. I was tired from a long day at work and I really didn’t feel that well. To be honest, I had been wishing it were a bit later so I could just put them to bed. I am not exactly sure what hit me at that moment, but I closed my eyes and rested my head on the back of the couch… and just listened. I heard Caroline’s sweet voice. I heard Anna laughing at her. I could hear my wife cleaning up in the kitchen. I could hear Aberdeen, my dog, running around and barking at the girls. It was chaos, but the most beautiful chaos I had ever heard. Tears ran down my face and I thanked God.

I felt like Emily Webb from the Thornton Wilder play Our Town. But, rather than looking back in pain and regret for blindly missing the treasure of every single moment when it was too late, I was resolved to live this life to the fullest while I still had the opportunity and to learn how to see and experience it in it’s fullness, even when it is tough, even when it is painful, even when I want to give up. My life was going to change. My mind needed to change. I needed a new heart. I needed eyes that could see clearly. I longed for happiness. I longed for joy. I longed for presence. And I now knew it was possible in my adult life, in ways I had never imagined.

That is where my pursuit began… on the couch in the middle of chaos. What a contrast from the green grass and gentle winds forty years ago when God first had my heart, but this time it was sweeter. I understood it better. I appreciated it so much more.

A few weeks ago my four-year old son and I went on our very first overnight backpacking adventure. I can’t underscore how important this first trip was for us. I am a serious backpacker. I have been all throughout the United States in some of the most beautiful places on earth, completely cut off from civilization and communication, fighting with grizzlies and running with elk and caribou. Well, I haven’t fought grizzlies and run with elk and caribou, but I have been dangerously close to them! Anyway, this first overnight backpacking trip with Will was very important to me because I didn’t want it to be a bad experience for him the first time out. Of course we had previously set up the tent and camped in the backyard several times and he really enjoyed that, but leaving the familiarity of our house and going into areas in which he was unfamiliar was a complete wild card.

We drove an hour away from our house and ended up in the Hoosier National Forestry in south-central Indiana. This area is beautifully wooded and hilly and perfect for a first-timer. I could tell that Will was excited based on how much he talked for the entire hour that it took us to drive there. He peppered me with one million, four-year old questions that ranged from what we were going to eat to how we were going to brush our teeth. He was so pumped up.

When we pulled into the parking area he was already out of his car seat and standing by the car in wild excitement. He put on his jacket and asked me to help him with his backpack. I helped him and then put on my own backpack. We were off. It was a cool spring evening, not quite sunset, and everything was exploding to life around us. It was absolutely perfect. Will knew it as well.

Every thirty seconds for the next hour, Will kept yelling out, “For Heaven’s sake! This is soooo awesome! For Heaven’s sake! This is soooo awesome!”

I am there with you, brother. This is soooo awesome! This is soooo awesome! For Heaven’s sake, this is soooo awesome!

I don’t believe I have fully and completely arrived, though. Learning to see beauty in the wreckage is a lifelong pursuit and one we will only fully and completely realize in the Age to Come, but one that will begin to presently open our eyes to new life, deepen and fulfill all of our relationships, awaken a profound sense of awe and wonder in us, and create a heart of expectant hope along the way.

Peace…

Brandon

Church Around the Table

My wife suggested that we have “church” at home this past Sunday.  I love it when she suggests that. We haven’t done it much, but each time it has been something special.

There is just something really sweet and simple about our family gathering around the dinner table to talk about our faith, to share our hearts and our stories, and to give examples of how God is working in each of our lives.

Of course we currently don’t have high expectations of Will, our three year old. Just last week he told us he knew what God looked like.  After we inquired as to what God looks like he replied, “Well, God has pink hair.”  From the mouth of babes, right?

But for our girls, 15 and 12, this is an amazing opportunity for my wife and I to shepherd them with our words and example, while teaching and encouraging them in the way of Christ. It’s not that we do not do this on a daily basis already, because we do. It’s just that when we intentionally gather around the table for the sole purpose of discussing our faith, there is a level of intimacy and depth that we may otherwise miss. It’s so easy to get caught up in the rat race and to only have daily superficial conversations with each other in passing… without ever truly getting beneath the surface to discuss those things that really matter, those things of substance, those things of the heart, those things of the Spirit.

So I began by asking the questions each of us would answer. What gifts and talents has God given you and how are you using them? As you examine your heart, in what areas of your life do you need to “deny yourself and pick up your cross daily” in order to be more like the example of Christ?

As we went around the table, each of us looked inward and shared with profound vulnerability. We talked about the way God had wired each of us so differently. We listened as each person spoke about the talents by which God had blessed us. We even encouraged each other by mentioning other gifts or attributes we could see in that person.

It was a beautiful thing… each person feeling loved and cared for.

Then we began to look introspectively at the ways we had fallen short of God’s glory. Each person opened up doors of the heart that had previously been locked, exposed dark areas that had been hidden from the light. We shared about our self-centeredness, our lack of grace to others, our bitterness when wronged by others, and our reluctance in caring about the feelings of others.

Our confessions to each were real and raw. They cut to the heart and exposed all the ways we had easily remained hidden from each other. They even brought us closer together, as we discovered things about each other that we had not previously known. We even walked away knowing how to pray for each other more intimately. There wasn’t a hint of judgment or self-righteousness. There was compassion and healing and unity in our shared brokenness and we knew in these moments God was doing something amazing for our family. We were each moving from places of personal, individualized faith to a place of a shared, relational, and communal faith as a family.

And it was in this, our time together around the table this past Sunday, that I saw something I didn’t quite expect… I caught a glimpse of the future church.

It’s a church that continues to find ways to center around Christ and disciple one another in smaller, more intimate, more relationally connected ways.  In fact, it is precisely these characteristics that will become the defining hallmarks of the future church.

One only has to look at the trajectory of our culture to realize that people are starving for meaning, purpose, substance, real and intimate relationships, and a place to unpack all of the burdens they have been carrying around. This cultural trajectory affects every age demographic, but it is the most pronounced and is having the greatest impact on younger generations.

I just met with a young man the other day who has been contemplating suicide. He is a regular church attendee. He is actively involved serving at his church. All outward signs look good, but yet he is silently wrestling with the demons of suicide.

It is examples like this, and I have witnessed many over the years, that continues to prove to me that the church of the future will be one that gathers together more intimately (and less formally) to talk about our faith, to share our hearts and our stories, to honestly discuss our heartaches, burdens, and struggles, and to give examples of how God is working in each of our lives.

The church of the future is a place where the playing field is made level and everyone (pastors, elders, lay-people, and seekers) realize that we are all sinners, that we all need to bare our hearts and souls to each without fear, and that we all need the encouraging words, love, prayers, and care of others.

The church of the future is one that is raw and bare bones in its vulnerability and honesty, and also renown for its depth and hunger for Christ. It is a church that lacks pretense, judgment, and self-righteousness and simply allows people to come together around a table, to roll up their sleeves, and to speak with an honest heart in pursuit of the healing, mending, and restoration of God… even if laced with a few F-Bombs or coming from someone who is high off the street.

The table of Christ always has room and there is always an empty seat of invitation to everyone.

It’s only in this non-sterile, unvarnished, and truth-seeking place of meeting where the sick (all of us) can meet together with the doctor. It’s only in this place where the doors of our hearts will be unlocked, and where the dark places that we have so easily hidden from each other will finally be exposed to the light.

The church of the future is around a table- breaking bread and taking the cup together. And it is in this place where we move from a personal, individualized faith to a place of shared, relational, and communal faith as a family.

That is what my family taught me this past Sunday.

Peace…

Brandon