The Tension

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Life is full of irony. Sometimes it’s a light-hearted, funny irony, and at others times it’s an irony that causes you to enter the tension. We want to be successful in business, but for many it comes at the cost of a healthy family life. We long and fight for justice, yet many products we buy are unjustly produced. We long to eat healthy, yet most of the “good” tasting food is full of sugar, fat, and grease (at least for my taste buds!). We want to be unified, yet we have this pull to label, box in, and identity on a certain side. We want to serve the poor, but when we do, we often realize it’s we who are being served. We pray for answers, but when the answers come, they aren’t what we’re looking for, so we miss it. We hate racism, but when we truly address it we can’t deny the small (or large) seeds of racism in ourselves. Our children are living in relative comfort, while other children are rocked by a bomb, sitting alone and bloody, scared, confused (I guess this isn’t irony as much as tragic disparity). As Christians we brag about being servants of Christ, but when we’re treated like a servant, we become angry and feel entitled to better treatment (again, this is at least true with me…) Irony, yes. Irony that produces tension.
Tension: the state of being stretched tight. These issues, when exposed to us, seem to stretch us tight, create discomfort, and the tension sets in. “What do we do with this?” Most of the time, the easiest answer is to find a way to relieve the tension, so we run to one side of the issue and neglect the other side. Problem solved. Until the next issue arises, and if we’re honest with ourselves, these tense issues rear their ugly heads every day. We can’t run from the tension, but we can deny it, numb ourselves from it, remain ignorant. We can… but could it be that these are the very things that destroy our souls. 
This is why Jesus constantly drove people into the tension. Time and time again when asked questions like, “What’s the greatest commandment?” “Who’s my neighbor?” “Do we pay taxes or not?” “How do you inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answers created tension. He didn’t give a pass to those looking for a quick way out or a quick answer through a doctrinal loophole. He pressed them to be honest, to live in to the tension of honesty, self-reflection, humility, sacrifice; to die to the habits that were killing them, and oppressing others. 
Most of the answers we are looking for in life, aren’t easy ones, or else we would’ve found answers already. And most of the time, the partial answer is mysterious and left open ended. It’s in this place of tension, where we can’t fall back on programmed responses. It’s here that we are thrown into the depths of our desires, our beliefs, and we are left to wrestle with who we truly are. Are we going to live in to the mystery, the tension, and trust that we aren’t the ones holding all things/all beliefs together? Are we going to allow the process of unknowing to shape us into a people who truly know the one who does hold it all together, at the cost (or risk) of being labeled by your own tribe as “going off the deep end,” according to your tribe’s standard, or are we going to settle, run to one side of the camp, and stake our flag on the “right” side. 
It’s in the tension where we have the opportunity to become properly tuned. Jon Foreman gives a great metaphor for tension, likening it to guitar strings that are strung tight enough to hold a tune. It’s in the tension where we play on tune. Strung too tight, we bust. Not strung tight enough, we make awful noises. If you have honest friends around you who aren’t just a fan of yours, they’ll tell you when you’re  about to bust, or if you sound horrible. When you are offended by a friend or acquaintance, you are then offered the gift of tension. Who are you going to choose to be? Are you going to run to one side and stake your flag, or will you live in to the tension of teachableness, humility? This is all too convicting for me, even as I write this. 
Right now, in this season, we have a great opportunity to live in to the tension of life without running to one side or the other, claiming the other side as demons, or wrong, or lost. I confess, I’ve done plenty of flag staking, and I am not proud of it, and neither has it produced any beautiful lovely sounding music. It won’t, because it’s not tuned. Today, we have opportunities to embrace the beauty of mystery and unknowing. To admit we’re not the ones holding it all together (or to admit that our country or tribe isn’t the one holding all things together). 
Jesus constantly broke the mold of what was right, and I’m convinced followers of Jesus are called to live in to the same ethos, to passionately stand in the middle, confidently living in mystery and certainty. Embracing the tension in our own lives first, then embracing others who are struggling to find the confidence to stand where it hurts as well.
The glory of God is revealed through a broken man. Tension. 
The cross, the greatest act of love. Tension. 
The tomb becomes a womb. Tension. 
Beauty is found in death. Tension. 
Ashes produce life. Tension. 
The way up is down. Tension. 
The way to access power is to give up power. Tension. 
To become the greatest, you must become a servant of all. Tension. 
Gain life by losing your life. Tension. 
“With that in mind, I feel like dying to myself is a daily task necessary for true abundant life.” Jon Foreman
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The Beauty of Marriage

I’m writing this a day before my wife and I’s 17 year wedding anniversary. I have been reflecting about love, beauty, marriage, and commitment quite a bit this year. From year 16 to 17, it has been one of our more challenging years of marriage for many different reasons within and without of our family unit. Naturally, when times are tough and love and beauty have to be intensely fought for, it’s easy to think, love isn’t there, beauty is being lost in this relationship, and is it worth it to continue fighting this hard for something that seems that won’t always last on this side of heaven.

But I believe today, that it’s precisely these moments, the ones that no one is proud of, the moments we like to numb ourselves from and pretend they’re not as bad as they really are (thus the featured photo of Amy and I not looking perfect Christmas morning… with tired eyes and bedhead! She’s gonna kill me for posting this one!). It’s the moments that you want to ignore when you go to a 20 year high school reunion, as you and our spouse are putting on your best face, because the beauty of struggle wouldn’t be understood the way you now see it. The worth of the struggle in marriage, and sticking in it regardless of the resistance that brokenness has created in the midst of passion, love, and desire. This is true for any relationship, not just marriage.

Much has been written about love, marriage, beauty, and the power of belonging. This is what some of the best movies create their plots out of. The “little guy” being called into something greater than he deserves to be involved in. The outcast making the big difference as fate would exalt her. The unlikely hero, the odds stacked against the main character, only for him to succeed after a type of death has been faced and conquered. This is the beauty of the stories we all love.

When I think of this in lieu of marriage, I think of the commitment a thriving marriage must have to stay committed to the other person regardless of the situation. I think of the times one of the spouses is the underdog, the poor pitiful mess up who can’t get it right, the one who has failed time and time again, who has mud on their face and is full of shame, the one who can’t seem to shed their childish ways, etc. I think of the plots that don’t end up happy and no one wants to write about. These moments aren’t just happening at an external level for everyone to see. No, all these failures and mess up’s are mostly happening in the privacy of a marriage, in front of the person who once fell in love with you because they loved who you were and likely because of the way you (or they) wooed and pursued you.

And now you find yourself in the midst of a marriage screenplay and you may feel like the character with the odds stacked against you, except you don’t have the hope of a Hollywood screenplay ending. There’s no more pursuit, and you are in the midst of the tension… “Will I be loved if I continue to fail.” “Will she still want to “belong” together if I prove to not have what it takes in business?” What’s gonna happen if I’m honest with all the shit underneath the surface of my poor pitiful existence?” “What if he stops being attracted to me?”

It’s in the midst of these moments where we have an invitation to allow the layers of self-protection we’ve gathered around us over the years to either fall away a little bit more, or to accumulate a larger collection of self-protective clothing. Each one of us, at some point in our younger lives, encountered messages that said we weren’t enough, we needed to be different in order to be loved, we had something wrong with us, others aren’t trustworthy, pain is to be avoided, etc. And in those moments we tried on new ways of being ourselves so that we would be protected from these negatives messages/experiences.

Over the years, as children, these protective layers worked, but when we become adults, they interfere with intimacy and closeness and the challenges of a close relationship begin to create a vulnerability in you that either pisses you off or scares the hell out of you. The choice to continue the status quo of our childhood or to walk into the mysteriousness of vulnerability is now staring us down in the eyes, and we want to crawl in a hole and die, or wage war! But there is another way….

Usually, the deciding factor of which way one chooses to behave (internally or externally) is dependent upon on the nature of the marriage or relationship. Is the environment of the relationship one of love and trust, or is it one of performance and deceit? This can only be honestly answered by you alone. We know ourselves, we know our layers, and we know what we’ve anesthetized ourselves from because of brutalness of being honest about what’s really inside. And to be honest about this, will indeed take a great act of vulnerability.

Love and trust flourishes in the context of a vulnerable relationship. A relationship that has offered the grace to the screw up, the failure, the one who can’t always perform at a level of perfection. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to offer a secure place to be totally exposed, yet still told that they belong. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to communicate how significant the other person is, regardless of all the past years of messages that have said the other person isn’t significant. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to grant forgiveness when the other person isn’t able to offer one of the two routes above.

The beauty of marriage is created ultimately by God, who always fought for the wife who was childless, the man who wasn’t capable of a great speech, the outcast arrogant brother, the lying son who labored for his father’s approval, the oppressed wife who wasn’t given the protection she deserved, the prostitute who was constantly told that she was only worth the money she was offered for a night, the corrupt businessman, and the social outcast and untouchable leper.

God married himself to such people, and offered beauty in place of their ashes. Instead of asking for these people to perform, God came to them, fought for them and offered a place to belong. God came to such poor people (you and I) in the form of Jesus, and not only did he model the beauty of love, but made the reality of our poverty and death to be something that would actually give us life.

His death for our failures; this produced the greatest return ever. In the dark tomb of our failures, sin, and shame, we get caught up into a womb once again. A second conception now begins, a new birth story happens. As Jean Vanier puts it, with Jesus, a tomb always becomes a womb. And after the resurrected life, Jesus asks us to take his hand in marriage, first to receive a new life in a relationship that offers love and trust, a place of security and significance; and second, to be able to offer this relationship to others. This is the beauty of marriage.

I am thankful this weekend for a wife who has displayed the beauty and worth of Jesus to me in the midst of my narrative that has found me out as the fool, the screw up, the hypocrite. When I was down and out, she didn’t try to rescue me in a way that would anesthetize us from what was really going on. No, she courageously allowed death to take place, no matter how scary it’s gotten, so that in the burial of the tomb, the womb would produce a deeper more intimate new life, a life of vulnerability that cuts out the pretense and celebrates weakness and poverty as something rich and fruitful.

May you experience the beauty of marriage, or the beauty of love, that allows the proper parts of us to die, so the true self could be resurrected and rescued from all the self-protective layers that have kept us from intimacy from God and others. It’s the commitment to the fight, the commitment to allow death to take it’s course, to stay up on the cross as Jesus did for us, the journey of vulnerability, and the offering of second chances and grace in the worst moments in life. Put this definition of the beauty of marriage to the test, and I promise you, you’re ending will be significantly better than a “Hollywood ending.”

For Revolutionaries and Visionaries Only

One of the gifts I’ve been given from the construction world is that I understand it takes time to create something beautiful. And that ‘time’ includes lots hard work, sweat, many mistakes, sometimes broken bones, blood, busted budgets, mental toughness to keep the vision in mind when all you see is a mess, and the willingness to keep at it, to do it the right when things get difficult, and not cut corners. I have many terrible stories of what cutting corners does in the construction world… just go out to a new housing suburb and ask a homeowner what issues they have with their “new” home. Good work, beautiful work, takes time and commitment to do things right.

With many jobs I work on, there is demolition that has to happen before we can start actually ‘building.’ Whether it’s digging the footer for a stem wall that is going to hold the bearing load of a building, jackhammering out old concrete and rebar to build something more functional or more aesthetically pleasing, or tearing out walls, ceiling or floors for a remodel. The homes or buildings where demo takes place becomes a dusty mess, full of hazards and is in need of strong labors to tear out and haul off all the junk that is no longer necessary.

It takes this…

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To get to this…

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Or this…

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To get this…

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In life, this struggle is the same. We all want the beauty without the work. We want the resurrected life without the death. We want healing but not the pain. We want the finished product, but not the long journey of demolition and clean up to get to the point where you can actually start building again. We want to live in peace, and run from disorder. We want to ignore what’s broken. We want to cut corners. This is a human desire. I don’t know anyone, who in their right mind, loves pain and waiting a long time for things to become whole. But not loving these things does not mean we can dodge them and expect the beauty we long for.

You see, this work is hard because if forces us to deal with that which we are afraid of: exposure of our shame, ignored trauma and loss, an invitation to grieve, asking others to help us haul off the junk that’s been demolished… This work is hard because it invites us into the truth of the way things really are, and to ‘willingly’ move into our shame and grief seems like a death wish at worst, and stupid at best.

But it is precisely the digging into the shame and moving into the grief that is what creates the beauty. It’s the asking for help and recruiting strong laborers to help with the heavy lifting. But remember, it’s the ashes covered over the forest floor that brings about a plush forest in years to come. It’s the work of sitting in your pain long enough to die to the old ways that have kept you numb isolated, and without passion and intimacy for years. Death must be at work within us for beauty to ever surface in the purest sense.

So here’s to the hard work of creating beauty when there is no clear vision of what it will look like once we get there. Here’s to sitting in our pain (not completely on our own though) long enough to die, and in the tomb of grief, in time, it will turn into a womb. And once again, you will be invited into the pain as you will labor to give birth to the hidden beauty waiting to be revealed.

This is an invitation for the revolutionary, the visionary, the one who is not happy with the way things have been, for those who are not willing to cut corners, and move past the comments that are meant to keep you from feeling and dealing with what’s really going on under the slab. May this encourage you today to stay the course, and as Mumford and Sons puts it, to not succumb when the world is wrapping round your neck. Find your broad-shouldered beasts and invite them in to your shame and grief to share to weight and pain of this journey towards beauty.