My good friend Kandace Terry has written a remarkable reflection on the importance of praise. I am reposting her blog entry with her permission so that more people (who still read) can appreciate her deep revelation.
Any of you who have known me for any length of time are sure to notice that my typically upbeat nature has been, ahem, shall we say, tested,the last few weeks. Writing? Yeah, not happening. There have been so many questions. So many demands. And on top of the legitimate challenges of the last couple years, there have been so many insignificant, first world nuisances that somehow have become a big deal to my normally easy going disposition. There have been these brief moments when I think I’ve heard something from Daddy God, but distraction is right there on the spot to keep me from soaking in it.
“Are there themes that you’re showing me, God? Help me to see.”
“What are you saying? What am I missing?”
“I’m sorry I’m so distracted, God. My kid is flooding the bathroom.”
But it’s coming into focus, and I’m unsettled about it. “What do You want me to DO with this, Lord?” Here’s the thing, friends: I don’t think God is interested in our glossed over and insincere platitudes that we call “praise”. I’m going to go ahead and put myself in the middle of the intervention circle and admit to you straight up that sometimes (a lot of times) I DON’T KNOW HOW TO PRAISE GOD. Yes, I know the formula: A.C.T.S — adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. But let’s all be honest for a skinny minute: don’t we really just want to jump to the supplication part? That’s what comes most naturally. I’m excellent at thinking about myself and the things I think I need in order for my life to be more comfortable. (And in all fairness, we can usually come up with quite a few things to be thankful for, too.) But adoration (and confession — that one deserves a post all it’s own)? Yikes! Those are harder for most of us. So we sit with it. We think hard. We ask, “God, how should I praise you? What do I say? …Do? How is praise any different than thanking you?” We may eventually come up with a few things to name off as praises, but when we muster our courage to name them out loud — be it in a crowd or in private — where is the sense of conviction? Where is the brokenness over our sin in relation to His holiness? The strength of spirit? The emotion? We (I) sound so…melancholy. So unconvincing. And the painful reality that I can’t help but to remember is that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). Yeah, I’ve been mulling over that convicting truth.
I’ve come under conviction, friends. I’ve had to look at myself in the mirror and allow myself to see down into the ugly parts of my soul that I’d rather keep hidden in darkness. He wants us to participate in praise, not observe it (or worse, critique it). He doesn’t require a dark room with flashy lights, the latest music, and a producer at a board in the back of the room that makes it all look and sound good (or on the other extreme, He isn’t limited to our liturgical traditions or worship guides). He doesn’t require fancy or culturally “hip” words/phrases. He doesn’t even mind if I fumble over what I’m trying to say, or if I have some holes in my theology. He wants my heart…my mind. He wants me to let it all go in adoration, without regard for what other people may think. He wants me to come to Him ready, expecting Him to meet me. Ahhhh!!!His presence.
I’ve heard skeptics ask why God is so needy? Is He really that egotistical that He demands our praise and worship? But I would submit to you that while worship truly is about HIM…remembering HIM…esteeming HIM, He isn’t the only one who benefits. And this seems especially true when we cause ourselves to profess the affection of our hearts toward Him even when we’re not feelin’ it. Because here’s a cold hard truth: sometimes we identify with David in Psalm 22. He’s broken. God feels absent. He feels abandoned…forgotten. The fascinating thing that is being revealed to me, though, is that something remarkable happens with praise. Watch and see if you catch it:
¹My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? ²Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.
That’s honesty right there, friends. My guess is that when David penned and sang those words, the bent of his emotion didn’t lean toward praise. But YET. The next word is YET. (I have so much to learn from this example):
³Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 Our ancestors trusted in you, and you rescued them. 5 They cried out to you and were saved. They trusted in you and were never disgraced.
David makes himself remember the praiseworthiness of his God. And my guess is that if we were a fly on the (cave?) wall when he first sang this song, we would be emotionally moved. Praise in the midst of hardship, that’s what this is. I can’t say with any true authority what David was feeling outside of what is written, but I DO know how I would feel: I wouldn’t feel like praising God. Remembering God’s goodness and faithfulness wouldn’t be my natural response. I would probably have a hard time thinking of any kind of praise to offer to (in my estimation, a confusing and absent) God. Maybe that’s how David felt too, because it sure seems to me that it was a battle even for him to keep the perspective and heart of praise, because what comes next?
6 But I am a worm and not a man. I am scorned and despised by all! 7 Everyone who sees me mocks me. They sneer and shake their heads, saying, 8 “Is this the one who relies on the Lord? Then let the Lord save him! If the Lord loves him so much, let the Lord rescue him!”
Honest confession, ache, groaning, despair, feelings of abandonment and rejection…that’s what came next. And then there it is again…YET. There’s that word.
9 Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast. 10 I was thrust into your arms at my birth. You have been my God from the moment I was born.
Do you see it? He sure is trying! Even though he anguishes, he is naming the steady presence of God in his life, from the very beginning. He is naming things that prevent despair from isolating him from God and the rest of the world. Again, in this example David demonstrates that sometimes praise looks like the discipline of remembrance. Sometimes we have to make ourselves remember God’s faithful goodness even when we don’t see it. But even so, discipline to remember and praise God ≠ sullenness. Or melancholy. Or apathy. It doesn’t mean we sit on the sidelines or the folding chairs or the pews and watch other people praise. It doesn’t mean we wave the white flag when we can’t think of anything praiseworthy to say after 2 seconds of thinking about how to fill in the gap when we’re praying the “A” section of the A.C.T.S prayer.
David goes on to name the grim stakes of his dire situation. He begs the Lord to be near. He pleads for breakthrough…for mercy. And as he goes on, you can almost hear it in his voice: “whom have I but You? This situation is impossible. You are my only chance for survival.” And yet…as he goes on, you can feel David’s confidencebuilding once again. He knows the despair of his situation, but he also knows the LOVE and POWER of GOD. He remembersGod’s goodness from the dawn of time, and His constant faithfulness throughout his own life. His discipline to remember, to praise, has fed his own spirit. If he had been John’s contemporary, I’m sure he would’ve agreed: Greater is He who is in me than He who is in the world.
How encouraging would I be as a mother if I never praised my children, only asking them to do things for me? And how effective would my praises to my children be if I lacked any depth of sincerity or applause in my expression of them? When our spiritual ancestors praised, they did so with musical instruments and singing, shouts of joy and clapping hands; they praised with broken and contrite hearts, weeping over their own sin as they reflect on the holiness of God; they praised in the assembly and as individuals; they praised sitting, standing, kneeling, lying prostrate, bowed heads, lifted hands, and dancing.
They meant it.
They felt it.
They expressed it.
I guess it may seem like I’m harping on the outward appearance of our praise, and yes, I do wish we invited and welcomed a move of the Spirit that just may surprise even ourselves in the way that we respond with our expression of worship. But even deeper than that is my grief that we, *I*, forget His praiseworthiness. That’s the real heart of it. We’re so focused on ourselves that we rush past Him. We’re so concerned about the things we desire from His hand, that we miss His heart. But I can’t help but believe that we’re no different than David, and that as we remember our God, His mercy, His breakthroughs, His sacrifice, His revolutionary grace; as we lift our eyes from the despair of our situations, we see HIM. And when we see HIM, confidence climbs, boldness builds, faith flourishes, and praises pour. It honors our God, and it movesus. In fact, I also believe it moves Himtoward us. And as we come closer to one another, His presence overwhelms us. Our perspective is made right.
The beginning section of Psalm 22 and the ending…talk about stark contrast. Despair has turned to boldness. Groaning has turned to declarations of authority. Hopelessness about even living to see another day has turned to hopeful confidence for many righteous generations to come. The difference?
A heart of praise.
So today, I will choose obedience. I will choose remembrance. I will choose praise…even if my circumstances aren’t comfortable. Even if things aren’t going as planned or hoped, I will remember His faithful goodness. I have to, lest I become angry and isolated from the One who has always been faithful. …and I will meanit when I speak it. My heart and mind will join together in solidarity as I speak with gumption about His praiseworthiness. And I expect that He will exchange my despair, and give hope; He will take my questions, and give peace; He will take my offering, and give joy. As I look to Him, I will remember and name what He said, and my own confidence will rise. Will you join me? Let’s try this together!
Yes, a true heart of praise is humble and it is focused on the One who is worthy of praise. But like David, I expect that in lifting His name, He blesses me in return by lifting my spirit.
This story is included in a book I’m reading called Organic Community, and it has so much truth in it for parents, I thought I’d pass it along. If you haven’t been there already, you will likely find yourself there at some point. Stay the course, you’re doing great!
Denise VanEck says this in a sermon titled “The Ache of a Mother”:
“What was it like for [Eve] as she had that second baby? Did she expect him to be exactly like the first one? What were her assumptions? What were her expectations? What was it like for Eve the first time that she looked at her little boy and thought to herself, ‘I could give you life, but I can’t decide what it is. I can’t decide who you are.’
“I think all of us moms when we have our babies, we know that they are going to be themselves; they are going to be an individual. But at some level we still believe that we can control that person and who they are. I remember the moment for me when I had to learn this lesson.
“Steven was [in] about the fourth grade, and I had always thought Steve would be my little blonde baseball player — I thought he’d be the little blonde builder like his dad. And so I was always buying him trucks, and trains, and all those boy toys and even though he’d play with them, what he really gravitated toward was the crayons, and the paints, and the clay.
“And so by the fourth grade Steve realized that he wanted to be an artist when he grew up, and in order to be an artist he was going to need to study art in Paris. He also realized that he only had about eight more years to get ready.
“So he started growing his hair out long, and he bought himself a beret, and then he begged me to spend twenty dollars on ‘Your First Thousand Words in French.’
“Steve grows his hair. Pretty soon it’s long enough for a ponytail. And this back in the ’80s — this was back when the big movement in the public school systems was the whole self-esteem movement. So I get a call one day from Steve’s teacher.
“I dutifully go in and the principal is there, and the teacher is there. They say, ‘Mrs. VanEck, we’re very worried about Steve. All the kids tease him about his long hair, his ponytail, and his beret. We think you should get his hair cut.’
“At that point, I thought there was God and the principal, and if [the principal] told you you had to do something, you had to do it. So I did!
“I made an appointment and he went off to get the haircut. I sat in the waiting room and finally I decided I needed to go back there and check on how this was going.
“The woman was just finishing this really hideous mullet. [She] turns him around slowly in the chair to face me, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, he’s going to love his new haircut!’ But as she turned him around and I looked at his face, what I saw instead was was one tear, dripping down his cheek.
“And in that moment everything changed for me as a mom, because that was the moment that I realized that being a mother is more about discovery than it is control. That I had not just gotten my son a really bad haircut — I had violated him. I had violated who he was, I had violated his dreams, I had violated his sense of himself.
“And I realized in that moment that I really needed to learn who this little person was. My job wasn’t to just buy him baseball caps because that’s who I thought that he should be. My job was to make him everything that he could be.”
“When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” (Acts 16:7)
So, I’m at an interesting time in my life. As all of us do who are older, I imagined that when I got around 60 years old, my life would be settled and routine. But I’m starting to think that view of growing older is misguided. God has been gracious to allow me to serve Him in a variety of ways, from being a teacher and professor, to being an elder, to being a missionary. It’s been a full life for sure! And I guess I imagined just continuing in all of those things, though truth be told, there was a time just a few years ago when I was having a hard time fitting it all in. Then seemingly overnight everything changed. Doors started closing, and they didn’t stop closing for over a year. It was all very unnerving! Things I thought I would be doing for the rest of my working life just stopped and my ministry river slowed to a stream. Unfortunately, many of us find our worth and esteem in the ministry we do and the ability to keep the plates spinning and the balls up in the air, like some sort of circus performer. That’s kind of sad when you think about it, not only because it’s not biblical, but because when the plates stop spinning, we actually begin to question who we are.
But after a lengthy season of doors closing, as with the apostles in the verse above, I’m beginning to see this as a move of the Spirit in my life. What I’m left with is significant and it would be wrong to try to minimize it. Rather than be involved with ministry a mile wide and an inch deep, I now have the opportunity to make a strong leadership impact in one area while also speaking deeply into young believers’ lives. That’s no small potatoes! Still, the challenge remains of not getting my feelings hurt about the other areas. I’m not going to lie, it feels like rejection. Honestly, I can count on one hand how many times in my life a door of opportunity has slammed shut – it’s just not something I’m used to and there’s nothing enjoyable about it. Yet, as Revelation says, Jesus is the one who closes doors no one can open. I don’t want to be the fool who tries to open the unopenable, just to satisfy my own ego. So I’m becoming ok with seeing closed doors as God’s grace. I mean, after all, it allows me to be more focused and it gives me a much more manageable workload. So, who am I to worry or complain (though, of course, I still do)?
God could easily have stopped at the creation of the angels and had enough praise and worship for eternity. But in His creativity, He decided that the ultimate creation would be of creatures who could also create, those who were actually created to do good works. Among those good works, certainly, is art. God inspires us every day with His creation, from sunrises to sunsets to animals and flowers and the stars. As His creation, we also inspire through our good works – drawing, painting, writing, singing, as well as telling each other about the good news of Jesus Christ. And this good work is, in some mysterious way, fulfilling to God. Ephesians 1:22-23 says, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It is one thing to say that Jesus completes us, which is obvious, but it is even more profound to say that we complete Christ. We are His Body, and it is unavoidable that we have work to do that is important to Him. But that work should be interpreted broadly, as broadly as God’s work is pictured in Scripture. In the fullness of time, God created His masterpiece, the Church. In the same way, we should be working toward our ultimate masterpiece, being the spotless Bride in complete obedience to what He has called us to do on this earth.
I’ve often been asked why I mostly only draw in graphite, in black and white. Why not use color? I tell people that I haven’t even mastered black and white yet, so why attempt color? But the truth is, I am fascinated by the play between light and shadow, and that contrast is nowhere more interesting than in a graphite drawing. The thing I continue to ponder after over a decade of making these kinds of pictures is the focus that I need to have on shadows or negative space. We are told so often in Scripture that we are to be people of light, that as Philippians 4:8 says; we should dwell on the good, stay in the light. Yet, to be a successful pencil portrait artist, I need to dwell on the dark parts of a subject, because that’s where the realism comes from. If I can just successfully define the dark portions of the subject, then mysteriously, the viewer’s eye will be drawn to the lighter portions. In fact, if I do my work well, they will not even notice the shadow areas, which will recede into the background. The thing I spend the most time on, they will spend the least time looking at. Without them even knowing, they are being forced away from the dark and made to consider the light. This is especially true of the subject’s eyes. The eyes “work” in a drawing because of the shadows all around (and even in) them. I believe there is something of the work of Christ in all of this. Jesus hung on a cross, wearing our sin-suit, completely immersed in darkness, so that we would be driven to the light and see God for who He truly is. As a result of Christ’s sacrifice, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can desire to be people of the light and we can dwell on the things that please God and that bring Him glory, including our art.
How is your spiritual life? Is it vibrant and amazing? Or not so much? Do you feel like you are right where God wants you, that you are living out the gospel, or do you feel stuck? And if you feel stuck, do you know how to get unstuck?
Luke 4 is a fascinating chapter of the Bible. It is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and it is full of highs and lows. Recall that Jesus did not start his ministry until He was 30 years old. That’s a long time. That’s enough time for routines and expectations to build up. It’s even enough time to think that things may never change. We get in that mindset sometimes. We’re looking around and saying, “Well, I guess that’s it. This is all I have to look forward to.” The same responsibilities, the same opportunities, the same relationships. I doubt any of those thoughts were on Jesus’ mind when He went into the wilderness, but then again, He was the perfect Son of God. Yet, what is true is that He needed to break out of His habits and lifestyle to follow the call of God on His life. Here’s the first part of the story (vss. 1-13):
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully; 11 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
So, how did Jesus get to the wilderness? The Spirit led Him there. This is where we have to begin in our quest to get unstuck and get moving. The first principle of getting unstuck is that we need to let God’s Spirit lead us out of wherever we are at. It’s not enough to talk to someone about our situation, as wise as their counsel might be, and it’s not enough to plan a way out. The world’s way of thinking about this is, try something, then if that doesn’t work, try something else. The emphasis is on getting out of the situation we’re in, rather than actually feeling a calling to something else. The Israelites were led out of Egypt, but they were also led to the Promised Land. Without the Spirit’s wisdom and timing, we are just operating in our own limited understanding and ability, and one of two things will happen:
1) we will simply remain stuck where we are, or
2) we will do something unwise and wind up in an even worse situation.
And this takes us to the second principle, which is that we have to agree with the Spirit. Jesus had a part to play in starting His ministry – the Spirit led Him, but He had to follow. He had to agree with His heavenly Father that this was the best possible plan for Him, despite the fact that I’m sure He was aware of what awaited Him. This is a subtle reality of getting unstuck: if we are just along for the ride and are not completely committed to God’s plan, when we wind up in an uncomfortable situation it could cause us to doubt our agreement with God and go right back to being stuck again. God has His sovereign will, which will be accomplished no matter what, but the remarkable thing is that He has given us a moral will to say yes or no to Him. There is no more powerful position as a follower of Christ than to agree with and submit to God’s sovereign plan.
Which brings us to the third principle, that we have to keep on agreeing with the Spirit, even when things get tough, and even when we see loss, not gain; conflict, not peace. Following the Spirit into the wilderness was just the beginning of the challenges for Jesus, not only with the devil’s temptations, but with the town folk back in Nazareth. Let’s keep reading the story:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Have you have been to Israel? I’ve been to Israel twice. The first time, when we arrived at Nazareth, the tour guide took us to where there was an amazing view, just on the edge of town. Nazareth is elevated, and it overlooks the Jezreel Valley, the valley that Revelation identifies as where the final battle of Armageddon will take place. Can you imagine, as the One who would come one day riding on a white horse, to look at that view every day growing up? And now, Jesus’ neighbors and relatives want to throw Him off of that same cliff. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. Have you ever asked yourself, why was everyone angry enough with Jesus that they wanted to kill him? There are actually many reasons, but here are two:
First, as Jesus said, a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown; or as Keith Green put it in one of his songs, prophets don’t grow up from little boys, do they? The townspeople just couldn’t stand to be told off by one of their own.
Second, interestingly, the people of Nazareth did not turn on Jesus for saying that Isaiah 61 was fulfilled in their hearing. We are told that once He finished reading they spoke well of Him. One assumes this was because He perhaps read eloquently, or maybe He reminded them that their servitude under the Roman Empire would one day end.
But then everything changed, not because of the Scripture reading, but because of Jesus’ reminisces about some Old Testament stories. But what was the big deal? Because in all of those stories, God showed favor for Gentiles over Jews. Nazareth was part of “Galilee of the Gentiles,” as Scripture puts it, and the Jews of the town lived with that label. And here Jesus was, Jesus who had grown up with them, chastising the Jews because of their unbelief, and telling them, as John the Baptist had, that God could raise up children of Abraham from stones. In one way, we can say that Jesus’ fate was sealed in the very first days of His ministry; that His three-year journey to the cross began this day.
So, Jesus had broken out of the routine of his growing up, had faithfully followed the Spirit out to the wilderness, had endured the temptations of satan, relying on His Father every step of the way, only to return to the relative safety of Nazareth and have the people try to kill Him. As a tv commercial once said, “Hard work is the reward for hard work!” So, here’s the fourth and final principle of getting unstuck: we need to eliminate the words “unfair” or “unjust” from our vocabulary. I mean, really, what do you think Jesus’ response was to the threat of being tossed off the cliff? “Father, this is so unfair! I chose to agree with your plan and follow you, and this is the way you repay me?” No. In speaking about Jesus’ determination to fulfill His calling, the King James version uses the powerful phrase, “I set my face like a flint.” It was just sheer determination in the confidence of the Spirit that allowed Him to complete those three years of His ministry.
We Americans want our way, don’t we? And we will whine all day if we don’t get it. It’s funny, isn’t it, how very objective we can be when it comes to assessing the lives of those in Scripture, whereas we are completely subjective when it comes to evaluating our own lives. We know the stories of the Bible characters, we know how they turn out, so we believe somehow that it was easier for them to be obedient than it is for us. But just imagine deciding for God’s plan, and as a result being threatened by an angry mob made up, not of strangers, but of the people you grew up with! Even if you did know the ending of the story, it wouldn’t make it any easier to endure.
We all wish we knew what was coming after we got unstuck, as Jesus surely did, but the truth is we should be grateful we don’t. As I’ve thought back on it, I’m so glad my wife and I didn’t know anything of what we were getting ready to experience when we said yes to going to Ukraine as missionaries. We never would have gone. I just wanted to get unstuck, and when the invitation came to go, we agreed with the Holy Spirit and went. We went for one year, which turned into two, then three, then seven. In hindsight I can say that we would never trade the experience. But in the midst of our time in Ukraine, of people saying and doing ugly things, of conflict with co-workers, of possessions being pickpocketed, of spiritual warfare, of sleepless trips on uncountable overnight trains, there were most definitely times we thought about quitting. Yet, we set our face like a flint, we kept agreeing with God about His plan, and tried (as best we could) not to utter the words unjust, unfair, or cry foul over some perceived wrong we had to endure.
And please know that these principles of getting unstuck apply everywhere and at any time, not just on the mission field. No matter where we are stuck or why, these principles need to be applied, every day. It’s not easy. But as Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own, “If it was easy, everybody would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.” So I encourage you, if you feel stuck today, to allow the Spirit to lead you, to agree with the Spirit, to keep on agreeing with the Spirit, and to try not to tell our loving and just God what justice and fairness are supposed to look like. I know you will be blessed as a result.
Today would have been my father’s one hundredth birthday. My father was a complicated man, and ours was a complex relationship. He was of the service-oriented G.I. generation, and I was a privileged Baby Boomer; he was hard tack and I was Meals Ready to Eat. He sacrificed for his family because that’s all he knew to do – it was the greatest possible expression of his love for us. My father lived through the Great Depression, went to work at an early age at his father’s pharmacy, watched that business be completely lost to flooding not once but twice, worked his way through college, fought in the war in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, started his career hoofing as a pharmaceutical salesman on the streets of Philadelphia, and ultimately wound up as Executive Vice President of U.S. operations for that company, in charge of a one billion dollar budget. If there was ever a man who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, it was my father, and as a result he cast a long shadow. Once, in the heyday of his executive career, my mother and he had been at a conference and were hobnobbing at a reception. My mother was asked if my father was the same at home as he was at work, to which she asked what he was like at work. Genghis Khan, came the reply. She thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, he’s the same.”
If God didn’t have a plan for your life, my father did. Growing up, I had a dream of being a career officer in the Navy. But the truth is, it was my father’s dream. He had enlisted as a pharmacist mate in 1941, then became a commissioned officer, ending his active duty service as a lieutenant. When he was released from active duty in 1946, he went into the reserves, but then his own life got very busy, and he committed the unpardonable sin (in his mind) of leaving the Navy altogether. He could never forgive himself for that error in judgment. I believe he saw in me a way to right the wrong. Thus, surreptitiously the seed was planted in my mind, at a very young age, that the Navy would be my career. To fuel the fire, my father took me to innumerable Blue Angel demonstrations at uncountable airshows up and down the east coast. We also visited every naval base we could enter on his credentials as a pharmacist, east coast and west coast. I have wonderful memories from these various shows and visits, but I also have no illusions about their purpose. I was being indoctrinated. And so it happened that, in high school, I applied for and received an NROTC scholarship, and as a result, upon graduation from college had a four year commitment to active duty. However, one fly in the ointment that my father had not counted on was me meeting the love of my life in college, with the result that my number one priority quickly became her and not a military career. Due to two six-month deployments spent apart while married, it was mutually decided by my wife and I that I would leave active service and enter the reserves. My father was heartbroken. He put on a brave face, but you could see him thinking, “No, no, no! He’s going to make the same mistake I did!” But I didn’t. I hung in there for twelve years in the reserves, grateful for the opportunity to make some extra money while teaching high school. Yet, once a professor job presented itself and I was making decent money, and I had the assurance I could retire with full benefits (the thing my father had missed out on), I grabbed that brass ring with gusto.
The Navy, however, was not the only thing we had in common. Though we were about as different as two people could be, my father and I shared an important trait that would cement our relationship later in life: our quirky sense of comedy, which I can only describe as story-based humor. Some people are gifted at telling stories, so-called raconteurs; but some are themselves the subject of such anecdotes, and these are the people, stories and situations to whom my father and I were naturally attracted. We were the best possible audience, hugely appreciative of those who gave us the opportunity just to laugh. People like Hoggie Dietrich, with whom my father played basketball, and who he remembered going after a loose ball one game, running right off the court, through the gymnasium door, and out into the snow. These characters and stories lit up our lives and made even the most mundane or disagreeable tasks not only tolerable but enjoyable. As my father once said of his early work life, “we were having fun and we didn’t even know it.” Though I did not much appreciate my time on active duty with the Navy, nonetheless, those were good days with my father. He was recently retired from his pharmaceutical firm. He not only had time to spend with me, but he had also mellowed quite a bit. We would watch a tv show or video and laugh until we were both crying and wiping our eyes with joy. This was a kind of redemption for my younger years with him.
Though we had some good moments together as I was growing up, riding in the car or attending some sporting event, life with my father was mostly rules and expectations. I could never quite live up to his lofty standards, and he was, I felt, usually disappointed with my attempts. I have a vivid memory of us buying a model airplane together (it was a Boeing 727), and my father telling me that the following day, a Saturday, we would build it together. I had never built a model before, and so my father’s guiding hand made sense, at least until early the next morning. For whatever reason, I simply could not wait for him to wake up that morning, so I decided at my very young age to glue the pieces together myself. It was, inevitably, a gluey mess. It’s difficult to describe the look on my father’s face when he saw what I had done, or the depth of despair I felt hearing him say the dreaded words, “Oh Paul,” telling me that I had disappointed him yet again. That’s not to say that he never expressed his pleasure over some accomplishment of mine, but those times were rare, and I can count them on one hand: getting an NROTC scholarship, being commissioned as an ensign in the Navy, graduating with my doctorate. Other than those times, silence was about all I had to go by in terms of whether I was on the right track with him. That’s why it was shocking when, after his funeral, my mother and my wife and I were speaking with one of his lifelong buddies, and this man told me, “Your father’s sun rose and set on you.” Why hadn’t he say that to me while he was alive? But then, if he had, I suppose he wouldn’t have been my father. One week before he died of prostate cancer, we sat talking about nothing in particular, knowing his time was short. As I was leaving, with the crushing realization that this might be the last time I ever spoke with him, I hugged him and told him I loved him. That’s when he told me, for the first time I could ever remember, that he loved me. Why had he waited so long to tell me? But if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been my father. It might seem that I would have experienced some measure of relief when he died, but quite to the contrary, the day of his funeral was and still is the darkest day of my life. Before the service, his casket was open for the family, and I just bent over his lifeless body and sobbed. The realization of what I had lost was completely overwhelming. Once, my father and I had been sailing out on Bogue Sound near Morehead City, North Carolina. Unbeknownst to us, the tiller had worked loose, and when I went to make a course change, the whole apparatus, rudder and all, fell overboard. We both watched it float away from us, adrift, wondering what to do. That was the feeling I had the day of his funeral. I had lost both my rudder and my anchor, and though I was already 36 years old, I felt like a child left behind at the department store. Surely my father would return for me; but he never did, and I was left to fend for myself. I had lost purpose, direction and joy, and I didn’t know how to get them back.
That was a unique time in my life, a time of endings and beginnings all mashed up. The same year, right before my father died, I was branded a new PhD and got my first position as a professor. Though my father had been disappointed with my decision to leave active duty, viewing my time as a high school teacher with a mixture of bewilderment and disdain, everything changed when I became Dr. Shotsberger. This was, for my father, redemption, and he literally willed himself to live long enough to attend my graduation. He was gone just five months later. As a way of righting the ship of my life, I threw myself into work and became incredibly busy. The following year, the Navy announced a draw down, as they call it, offering retirement to those with 15 to 20 years of service as if they already had 20. I jumped at the chance, and thus ended my naval career, only a year after the passing of my primary reason for entering the service in the first place.
A year later, there was another ending, one that brought closure for me after my father passed. In August 1995, there were 50th anniversary commemorations across the United States remembering VJ Day. One of those remembrances was in my city of Wilmington, NC, onboard the battleship USS North Carolina. As with so many things I experienced in the months and years following my father’s death, I wished so much that he could have been there to witness the stirring tribute to his generation, the Greatest Generation as Tom Brokaw has named it. The moving ceremony was brought to an end with a flyover of vintage World War II airplanes. It was rare in those days to see even one in flight, let alone a squadron, and it brought me back to the days of airshows with my father where these kinds of warbirds were as common as seagulls at the beach. But by the 1990s, most World War II-era bombers and fighters were static displays in museums and not capable of flight. As a result, I was not satisfied with the brief flyover at the ceremony; I wanted to see those planes fly again. So, when I heard that they would be taking off the next day from the local airport to return to their bases, I knew I had to be there. I found a perch where I could watch each plane roll down the runway and off into the air. The fighters left first, being the faster planes, followed by the larger bombers. The last plane to leave was a beautiful old B-17 Flying Fortress, a mainstay of both the Atlantic and Pacific wars, just like my father. Until that final plane lifted off the runway, I had simply been enjoying the thrill of seeing these magnificent aircraft fly once more. But as the large bomber receded into the sky, I had the awful yet important realization that this was the end of my father’s era, not only his generation’s influence on the country as they aged out, but more personally, my father’s influence in my life. I would always miss my father, but I no longer felt adrift and directionless. I, like the country following World War II, had moved on. It was a healing moment I will never forget.
When I was in high school, my father’s pharmaceutical company merged with a similar-size company. My father became the executive vice president of the newly formed organization, overseeing the smooth transition from two companies to one. By the time I was a junior in college, the merger was complete and a new executive board had been voted in, populated primarily with young lawyers who put my father in their sights. By then he was a 25 year veteran of the company and had poured every bit of his energy into making the company as successful as he knew how (it was a one billion dollar corporation in the 1970’s, if that gives you an idea). But none of those years and none of that sacrifice mattered. My father was making too much money and was too old for the lawyers to rest easy. It was only by God’s grace that my father found out about their plot, and before they could sack him, he resigned, thereby preserving his significant pension. I always thought that whole scenario was such a shame — you can imagine how very disillusioning it was for my father.
I am now the age my father was when all of that went down, and I’m just beginning to understand what he must have felt. I have served in various positions, at universities, in churches, in ministries, where judging from the response of those around me, I could have (and did) convince myself that I was being effective in my position. I don’t mean that people just acquiesced to my bidding. I mean that there was enthusiastic support for the vision I put forth, and there was real enjoyment of the process of making that vision a reality. But then everything changed. At first there were only hints and allegations, distant rumblings of dissatisfaction. But then the chants grew louder, until it was obvious I was no longer the one for the job. I’m very pragmatic, and I can handle that kind of reality. There are seasons of service, and when that season ends it’s often the best course to move on and work other fields.
But what has been difficult, much more difficult than I imagined, is to begin hearing feelings and impressions of others come to light that had been suppressed while I was still in my position. I doubt those expressions are really meant to hurt me, but hurt me they have. And I’ve come to understand at least some of the pain my father experienced. It’s not just negativity, it’s rejection. Whereas I felt that I took the initiative to leave, and did so in a timely manner, I have the lingering impression that people had been looking at their watches wondering, “why is he still here?” The word that comes to mind is Obsolescence. That’s a scary word for someone approaching his 60th birthday, for myself and for my father before me. Was it simply that those around me changed, or was it the recency effect where people just wanted a newer model? Or was it that I was misinformed the whole time? That latter thought has really shaken me, especially given the fact that I had served in those positions for years. That’s a long time to be self-deceived. Or was I? I’m just not sure. I guess one reason I’m writing this is to try to think things through more clearly. Your comments are welcome.
We find ourselves in a presidential election year, faced with some tough choices. In this convention season, the rhetoric is getting more shrill and the facts are harder to come by. An individual’s vote in November, it seems, is less about choosing for a candidate as defending against everyone else. And it seems to me all of life in the United States has become about defending ourselves from something or someone. More and more of my friends have a weapon or weapons at home, and about the same number are getting concealed weapons permits. When they ask me if I will be doing the same, I tell them no. They ask me why, thinking that I have an aversion to guns, but my answer surprises them.
You see, when I was in the Navy, I was a gunnery officer on my ship. I have shot most every kind of weapon you can imagine, from single shot pistol to machine gun. I was on a pistol team in college, and I received a sharp shooter ribbon on active duty. I was very comfortable with weapons in the context in which I was responsible for them, either in competition, or as part of an arsenal that was to be used by professionals. Because of that experience I knew one thing without a doubt: weapons are dangerous, and they are most dangerous in the hands of people who don’t think they’re that dangerous. I didn’t want a weapon at home, because I heard about all of the accidental shootings of friends and family; I didn’t want to carry a weapon because this isn’t the old west and because I wasn’t convinced I could use it on another human being even if the situation became dangerous. I don’t have a good answer for the question, “What if someone breaks into your home?” or “What if your family is threatened?” Maybe I’m naïve, but I think I or someone in my family is a bigger threat holding a weapon in the dark than most anyone who would break into my home or accost me on the street.
And in some ways, I think of our votes the same way. There are a lot of reasons to use our votes in anger, defensively trying to keep others from taking away our slice of the American dream. But that is a dangerous way of looking at the freedom to vote, because it becomes less about what’s good for the country and more about what’s good for me. I’m concerned that we’re losing the sense of being part of a collective. We’re losing our national identity and substituting a weaker version where there is little cohesion, little concern for others, and our priorities distill down to isolation and comfort. Many years ago, the group Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote a bit of social commentary called “Saturday Night Special,” in which they sang, “Hand guns are made for killing, ain’t good for nothing else.” As our bullets, so our ballots. God help us.