The Canvas

I was talking with a friend tonight who is currently in the midst of a journey of wonder.  It was a sobering time for me.  He is in a place in his life where is looking back over decades in a profession, decades in a marriage as a husband, and decades as a father.  He is an artist, in more than one sense.  He is an amazing actor; I’ve seen him perform.  He’s an incredible people person; I’ve witnessed his brilliance in his interactions with others and have seen the impact he has on them, and they on him.  The passion with which he engages his life is itself worthy of an Oscar, not because it’s an amazing act, but because it is authentic, it is who he is at his core, it is worthy of accolade and is something to aspire to and be inspired by. 


As a man who is nearing retirement, he is asking all the right questions. Have I loved my wife well?  Have I loved my children well?  Have I been an honest worker?  Have I been a good steward of money?  Have I lived life as God would have me live?  Where have I messed up?  Where have I been selfish?  What does the rest of my life look like?  Is my life over?  Am I just waiting to die?  Is there anything left for me to do here?  Tough questions, but appropriate ones in my judgment. 


I would judge that these questions have been asked, are being asked, and will continue to be asked by all of us as we live out our lives, as they should be.  Since my friend is also a painter, we spoke of his life in terms of canvas paintings.  What does it look like to begin a new painting?  What colors would he use?  What would his medium be?  Oils, pastels, what?  He had a hard time answering these questions because up to that point, it seemed there were no more paintings to be made.  As he looked back over his life, he saw plenty of regrets, but more importantly, plenty of closure.  His choice is simple, but difficult.  “Do I choose to paint a picture of my regrets, or do I choose to paint a picture of what could be next for me?”  I encouraged him to make the choice to believe that maybe, just maybe, there are more pictures yet to be painted.  He is only 59.  The question was simple, “Do you want to keep painting?”  That question was loaded with metaphor.  Painting IS LIVING.  If he is going to be here and continue to be that good husband and father, then there is more to paint!  So much more! 


I believe my friend was actually asking if he was allowed to paint.  Is he allowed to paint again based on the fact that he has regrets, hasn’t always been the best worker, husband and father?  Is he allowed to paint something totally new that he had never tried before, simply because his life had never been in that place or because of his regrets and failures?  But here he is, in the new place, in a place where he can take all his regrets, his failures, his accomplishments, his love, his care and create a priceless work where all colors, all experiences, all regrets, all failures, all successes, all his memories of his marriage and kids, all his relationships that mean the world to him, and blend and weave these stories of highs and lows, successes and failures, pride and regret into a painting that would be his greatest work yet?  What would THAT painting look like?


He spoke one word to answer the question of what his painting would look like. ”Harmony”.  Isn’t that what life is all about anyway?  I have to take the things I do, combine them with the things that “happen” to me and somehow find a way to blend them all together in such a way that out of the process of the blending comes a smooth, soothing, calming, flowing and harmonious painting of a life well lived. 


I know I have loved because I have been rejected and without rejection I cannot truly know what love is.  I am thankful for my past rejections.


I know I have lived because I know death and the pain and sting that go with it from losing those I have loved before their time.  I am sad and thankful to have lost so that I may appreciate what I have NOW. 


I know I have been given grace in my life because I can immediately recall the times I have felt accused and condemned, and without accusation and condemnation, I cannot experience grace and forgiveness.  I am thankful for being accused and condemned because without them, I would not know what God’s grace and forgiveness feel like.


Finally, I know I am not alone, because someone has pursued me at some point, whether I wanted him or her to or not.  Walking alone for many of us, including/especially me, is tantamount to death.  Isolation is my prison.  Loneliness is a trigger on a gun that is pointing at me every time I choose to try to do life my own way, without testing my thoughts, my desires, my wishes, my dreams, my intentions, without testing all of me with a someone I trust with my very life.  For that is exactly what I am asking of them.  Help me figure out my life because there are things I am blind to and cannot see no matter how hard I try.  My shadow stands behind me and since you are walking beside me, you have a better chance of seeing it than I do.  I don’t like looking behind me.  I’m afraid of what will be there.  I’m afraid that when I look behind me to see my shadow and what it holds that I will lose my way, or run into something ahead of me because I am looking back, so please look for and name my shadow and help me see it for what it is.  I can’t do this alone.


I’m not an artist, but I want to paint. I want my last painting to be my masterpiece.  I want to take the paintings of my past, the ones with bold colors and definitive lines, and take the messy paintings I am carrying around presently that seem like they are one dimensional and one color, and mix them with a palate of warm colors and paint a painting that I can look at and see my story, from beginning to end, and see the journey it has given me and the people who traveled with me on the way.  I want to paint a vision on canvas that compels me to take the rest of my time here on earth, love others well, forgive myself for my failures, and walk calmly into the love and hope of a PERFECT Father’s arms waiting to welcome me into His house, where my painting will hang proudly on His wall, or fridge, or above His desk.  Wherever.  He will give it a place of honor and be a very proud papa showing off His son’s work. 


What will your painting look like?

Thoughts on Marriage for Men

Who is going to blink first?


I have seen it a lot (unfortunately).  Marriage is hard......REALLY HARD.  Whether it was my own marriage, my parent's marriage, siblings' marriages, friends' marriages or marriages being worked on in the therapeutic setting, someone always has to blink first.  Why is this so hard?  What keeps someone from laying down their sword, dying to self, in order to begin the process of reconciliation, redemption and healing in their marriage?


I'm not exactly sure I have the answer(s).  One obvious reason is pride, always thinking I'm right and they are wrong and they should just wake up and see that!!!  One of my favorite questions to ask when I hear that is "Is that actually working?"  And I don't mean that flippantly, sarcastically or judgmentally.  Seriously, DOES THAT ACTUALLY WORK?  What happens when both people in the relationship are operating out of that space?  Hurt, rejection, more hurt, criticism, even more hurt, yelling/screaming/degradation, more and more hurt, and the perpetual circle of hurt and distance continues.  Pride doesn't work.  Pride makes me stare, not blink.  Not blinking to my pride perpetuates my need for being right over my need to love and to be in a healthy relationship.  


Another reason someone might not blink in a relationship is because they have been burned either way too many times in the past, or bad enough once that they refuse to get hurt like that again.  This is more understandable, yet unseen many times by the person it has happened to.  I know I form many of my current thoughts and feelings out of my experiences from the past.  I make judgments about people, without actually having any data to go along with it, based on people/situations that have hurt me before.  Many times I do not see that I am doing this, but my past informs me of my present and, if I allow it, even my future, as well as influences my decision making in the present without me even knowing it.  I SHOULD learn from past experiences.  "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me".  That saying is forever burned in my memory.  I need others in my life who know me and who I allow to speak the truth into my life (regardless of whether or not I want to hear it), so I can better see the spaces out of which I make decisions.  I cannot (and should not) do this alone.  I have to submit my relationships, marriage especially (if I were in one), to those I trust so I can make informed decisions and clear the fog of past experiences out of my head before I speak or act.  That would be honoring of my past and present.  That would honor the marriage.


I heard it said once, by a really good friend of mine that I do life with and trust implicitly, that "being in relationship is a dangerously beautiful and scary thing".  He said "it is all about submission".  Think of it like this.  You and I both have a shield and sword.  The shield represents all the ways I self-preserve, the healthy and unhealthy ways I protect myself from allowing anyone to hurt me.  My sword represents all my crap.  All the things and decisions in my life from the past that could hurt me if they were ever known.  The things that if ANYONE knew about me, they might reject me, or try to ruin me, or even kill me.  Being in relationship, healthy relationship, a healthy marriage, is me getting on my knees, looking up to, and handing her my shield, all my defenses, making myself truly vulnerable to her.  Likewise, I need her to also hand me her sword, all the things she could use if she wanted to, to end me, hurt me, ruin me, kill me.  Then and only then can the relationship even begin to become safe.  When both people in the relationship are WILLING to take that posture of getting on their knees, and giving the other their shield and sword, then true intimacy and trust can be cultivated into something that I believe was intended by God since Adam and Eve.


I have failed miserably over the course of my life in this area.  I have been prideful, I have used past experiences to hinder me in relationships, sometimes knowing exactly what I was doing, sometimes not.  I have been stubborn, refusing to give up my shield and/or sword.  I have been a testament as to what NOT to do. I don't say this in a self-deprecating way, I say it as a reminder to myself that if I ever want what God intended for a man to have with a woman in a marriage, then I need to remember the posture of getting on my knees and relinquishing my defenses and weapons to the other.  I have to risk.  I have to submit (a word most men DESPISE, myself included).


Another great and trusted friend said that "Marriage is dying to yourself on a daily basis."  Gee, that sounds fun!!  Sign me up for that!!!  That scares the you know what out of me, because it's true.  If someone wants to get everything that is good out of the relationship, then this must be done on some level throughout the marriage.  If they don't, then they will keep their shield held tight, their sword sharp and they will start swinging it wildly.  They are going need it, but only for a little while because their relationship will not last, nor will it be fulfilling on any level. 


It just hit me, that I have to do this (submit in this same way) with God too.  I even try to withhold these from God!  And the ridiculous part is that He knows my failures and my pride, so He is holding my sword already!  He already knows how to penetrate my shield, so why hold on so tight to it?????  What good does it do me to even pretend that they are going to work?  They just become a heavy burden that weighs me down more than being defenses that protect me.  Why is it any different in marriages?


When one or both people refuse to blink, then where is the faith, trust and hope that there is something better waiting for them in the relationship?  Healthy marriages, at least the few I have seen, look like two people who are both on their knees in submission to each other.  Not a master/slave type of submission, but a submission of "I love you more than I love being right/prideful/protective of myself/etc."  


Men, we are called to love a wife like Christ loved the church.  We have to be WILLING to lay our life down for her.  We have been commanded to love her in this way.  I would contend that being WILLING to die for her means not only being willing to step in front of a bus for her, but being willing to die to yourself/your control issues/your pride/your need to be right/what you think you deserve, and the list goes on and on.  


Love her well.

The Circle of Feet

Why are these feet so important?  This circle of feet are are important to me because they are the feet of the men who have chosen to walk with me in this life.  Every week, we circle up and pray to end our time together.  This is typically the view I have as I bow my head.  It hit me last week just how many miles and years we have been traveling together.  Six or more years for most of us.  It is flying by.  


We have walked through many fires together.  We have also used these feet to kick each others’ butt from time to time when needed.  We have tripped along the way, stubbed our toes so to speak.  Some times our toes have been stepped on by others.  But all in all, these feet have been dependable, supporting the weight of us all in good and bad times.  


These feet run toward each other when help is needed.  These feet support the weight of a fallen man, a broken marriage, a sick child, depression, loneliness, grief for those who have lost someone dear to them, divorce, unemployment, destitute, drunk, strung out, the addict, and the abused.  


These feet are also the feet that dance, celebrate a new birth, celebrate a new marriage, celebrate the small victories that most men take for granted, if they even know it was a victory in the first place.  These feet have been washed by other men in this circle.  They have been commanded to walk a certain type of of integrity and congruency, honesty and purity, faith, dedication, trustworthiness and confidentiality.  They have also been commanded to walk a life of humility, grace, forgiveness, and walk to the best of their ability the path of Jesus Christ.  


I write this tonight as I sit outside in the cool fall air, listening to the crickets and some U2 from the ol‘ iTunes playlist.  I write this tonight because it hits me just how important it is for a man to be in a circle of feet like these.  I’ll never be alone again....because of these feet.  I’ll never have to carry a heavy burden all by myself again......because of these feet.  I will have help to walk the path I am called to walk...because of these feet.  


Men, and women alike, I hope and pray you have a circle of feet of your own.  If you don’t, I hope and pray you find one or take the initiative to try to start one of your own.  I know for me, I cannot imagine NOT having this circle of feet to look upon week to week.  Tonight I am thankful.....simply thankful to a Heavenly Father who loves me enough to provide this for me.  Lord may I never take this gift for granted.  Thank you Jesus... 

C.S. Lewis on Forgiveness

We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying. For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”. I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed. At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in. “If one is a Christian,” I thought, “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins. It goes without saying.” But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief, which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church. And I have begun to see that, as far as I’m concerned, they were right. To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

We believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us. There is no doubt about the second part of this statement. It is in the Lord’s Prayer, it was emphatically stated by our Lord. If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven. No exceptions to it. He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins, provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t we shall be forgiven none of our own.

Now it seems to me that we often mistake both about God’s forgiveness of our sins and about the forgiveness we are told to offer to other people’s sins. Take it first about God’s forgiveness. I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.” If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites. Of course, in dozens of cases between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two. Part of what at first seemed to be the sins turns out to be really nobody’s fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven. If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your actions needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it. But the trouble is that what we call “asking God’s forgiveness” very often really consists of asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some “extenuating circumstances.” We are so very anxious to point these things out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the very important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.

There are two remedies for this danger. One is to remember that God knows all the real excuses very much better than we do. If there are real “extenuating circumstances” then there is no fear that He will overlook them. Often He must know many excuses that we have never even thought of, and therefore humble souls will, after death, have the delightful surprise of discovering that on certain occasions they sinned much less than they thought. All the real excising He will do. What we have got to take to Him is the inexcusable bit, the sin. We are only wasting our time talking about all the parts that can (we think) be excused. When you go to a doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong – say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and throat and eyes are all right. You may be mistaken in thinking so, and anyway, if they are really right, the doctor will know that.

The second remedy is really and truly to believe in the forgiveness of sins. A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it, from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. But that is not forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.

When it comes to a question of our forgiving other people, it is partly the same and partly different. It is the same, because, here also forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart – every wish to humiliate or hurt him or pay him out.) The difference between this situation and the one in which you are asking God’s forgiveness is this; In our own case we accept excuses too easily, in other people’s we do not accept them easily enough. As regards my own sins, it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really as good as I think; as regards other men’s sins against me, it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think. One must therefore begin by attending to everything, which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought. But even if he is absolutely fully to blame we still have to forgive him; and even if ninety-nine percent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one percent of guilt that is left over. To excuse, what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.

This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life – to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son – How can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night “Forgive our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for our selves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says.