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Month: February 2016

The Great Closet Collapse of 2016: Tips for when life caves in

Pretty sure this is what happened in my closet.

Last week, my closet collapsed.

For fourteen years, the shelving worked perfectly. It did its job like a real trooper. Then, without any warning, it just failed. The overloaded bolts finally gave way and ripped out of the wall, dumping the shelving and all of its contents onto the floor. My semi-organized constant now lay in a crumpled heap. In a moment, my closet went from constancy to chaos.

To make matters worse, I am not much of a handyman. Beyond a basic screwdriver, I don’t know much about building / fixing / repairing / installing things. So, after moving the mountain of debris out of the closet and into my office, I faced the added stress of not knowing exactly what to do next. A true handyman would know. But in my case, even if I can make a lucky guess about what might need to be done, I still have no idea how to actually do it.

This situation feels like a metaphor for my life. At times it feels like I am standing in a mountain of debris, in the form of change and disruption.

First, February is the anniversary of the day when my postgraduate dream died. Pain and loss sap me whenever I remember walking away from the university and leaving England for the last time. I love England and long to return – but I still don’t know how to make sense of what happened there. True, my life is incredibly blessed in so many ways, but that whole confusing episode still feels like a huge heap of you-know-what. I wish the heavens would open with a downpour of redemption to turn it all into something meaningful, but instead of a downpour it feels more like a dribble.

Second, this year is an election year, and I feel overrun by mindless mobs speaking of “revolution” and “making America great again.” However, for most of the candidates, I have less confidence in their vision than apprehension that they might make things worse. Information races by me in blips and flashes. Change bombards me by the nanosecond. Nothing feels solid or stable. Order collapses, just like my shelving. My head feels ready to explode and disappear, like a volcanic island erupting and slipping under the sea.

This year is also the year I’ll turn 50. At an age when many people start planning ahead for retirement, I still don’t know what to be when I grow up. Writing has been a great release, but it feels like I am risking everything on an unknown. My goal for 2016 is to complete my next manuscript by the end of the year. However, I struggle endlessly with distractions of every kind—most recently, the catastrophe in my closet and the subsequent mess in my office as I try to figure out a solution.

I crave constancy – but the more I seek it, the more I find chaos.

The trouble is, nothing on this earth is constant. Despite all the secrets of the universe that we think we have unlocked with our finite minds, life can still throw us a curve ball—an accident, a betrayal or rejection, a medical diagnosis. We can’t predict it. We can’t prevent it. Try as we might to avoid or prepare for it, life simply caves in. One minute the world is normal and orderly, and the next minute everything blows up. And with the threat of the cave-in always lurking just beyond our awareness, we simply cannot cling to any certainty on earth.

My head knows that, but my heart still wants to believe otherwise.

And now, just days after “The Great Closet Collapse of 2016,” I sit in my office, trying unsuccessfully not to be distracted by the mess. But as I survey it, I do have some tips which bring perspective to both my closet and my life.

Be flexible. During this season of Lent, I have been thinking about my heart which I have allowed to harden as a defense mechanism against unwanted changes in my life. Unfortunately, a hardened heart is not flexible. Under pressure, it doesn’t bend; it breaks. Likewise, people who are not flexible have great trouble dealing with unwanted change. But change, like a tsunami, is unstoppable: the more we resist it, the more rigid and brittle we become – and the more damage we suffer when it finally breaks us. Growth comes not from having our lives in order, but from how we respond to unexpected disorder. When the collapse happens and we find ourselves buried in debris, we need to just take a breath, get our bearings, and start considering the next step.

Mt St. HelensRemember that God is the only true constant. Silly me – putting faith in a closet. We live in a universe where stars die and mountains disappear. The ground is constantly moving beneath our feet—sometimes we don’t feel it, but other times it moves with such force that it destroys whole regions. Everything in the universe is changing all the time, and we can’t stop it. So if we seek constancy in any created thing, we will be disappointed, because nothing is constant except God. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and he will never collapse under the weight of burden.

Find opportunity in the debris. For fourteen years my shelving served its purpose, and its collapse was another unwanted distraction—another problem I wish I didn’t have to solve. But after I cleared out the mess, I realized I had a choice – I could keep grieving the disaster, or take the unexpected opportunity to reorganize. For days now I’ve been staring at my blank wall, like DaVinci staring at the blank canvas that became the Mona Lisa. I’m considering the possibilities. Maybe I’ll reinstall the shelving exactly like it was. Maybe I’ll think of an even better setup. Maybe I’ll actually get rid of useless junk I forgot I had. In the same way, when life collapses we have a choice: focus on the tragedy, or find new opportunities in the rubble. When my postgraduate studies flamed out, God helped me turn that pain into a book to help others who have experienced failure. Countless others have also turned their pain into something beneficial. Opportunity is often buried beneath, and rises up from within, the brokenness of our lives.

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Breaking a hard heart

Recently my church offered a time of prayer for healing. As I waited for my wife, who was praying for someone, an elder approached me and asked if I myself needed prayer.

I thought I didn’t, but my heart knew. Immediately I said yes, and when I was asked what to pray for, the words rushed out: “My hardened heart.”

05-19-2011I realized just how badly my hard heart did need healing prayer. After a wonderful advent season, as 2016 began I had started to feel deluged by political speeches, social media debates, and “awareness” campaigns over injustices about which I can do little, except worry over how little I can do. At such times, my old patterns of cynicism, sarcasm, and apathy tend to start sneaking back into my heart. After all, my flawed logic assumes, if I act superior or uncaring, then all of the bad things can’t bother me.

But this assumption is not true; those things still do bother me. And so my heart unconsciously hardens. I build a wall against the world—a defense against watching humanity make one bad choice after another, with evil flooding in wherever goodness seems weak or absent. At times I‘ve tried to deflect my feelings with humor, but sometimes that can offend people too. So withdrawal and apathy seem to provide better protection from the overwhelming feeling that the world is spinning out of control.

I begin to see myself as a detached, objective observer, sitting above other humans and mocking them as idiotic Neanderthals. However, my passion and emotion always seem to slip out as sarcasm, passive-aggressive put-downs, and biting comments. Though I try to stuff it inside, I seethe until I reach a boiling point. Then, I launch.

Unfortunately, the sinful choice to withdraw and harden my heart has serious side effects. The heart, as strong as we think it is, cannot completely close itself off from others. It cannot create an unbreachable wall. We angrily try to make sure no more pain gets in, but we cannot prevent our own corrosive bitterness and aggression from leaking out.

I’m guessing this is not God’s intended modus operandi for Christ-followers.

After all, when Jesus approached Jerusalem for the final time, scripture says that he “wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41-42, NIV).

What brought on Jesus’s deep, unexpected emotion?

Simply put, his heart broke for the people.

In Jerusalem at that time, the Jews were hard-pressed on every side – taxed, abused, and marginalized in their own land by Roman occupiers. Seeking freedom from Rome, some Jews—one could even call them terrorists—issued stealth attacks against both the Roman oppressors and their Jewish collaborators. The city was in great turmoil and unrest.

But that wasn’t all. In addition to external oppression from Rome, the Jews also faced internal oppression from their own spiritual leaders, who had created a huge body of religious regulations governing every detail of life. Breaking just one small rule, intentionally or not, could lead to serious consequences and penalties – so everyone lived in constant worry and fear, trying to follow all of the rules. In about forty years, Jerusalem would be razed and its temple destroyed. And within a week, Jesus’s own fellow Jews, who would at first praise him as their king, would turn on him and kill him.

Yet his heart broke for them.

Me? Most of the time, I just want to shake my head in disgust and brush the dust from my shoes as I desperately seek a saner, less stressful life. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket,” I say to myself from my lofty perch. “Screw it. Let them. World, meet sin. Good luck. I will have no part of it.”

pulling stone heartBut I’m pretty sure my response is not the right one. I don’t need a tough, hard heart. I need a broken one—one that weeps for my city, my country, my world. A hardened heart wants to fight; a broken heart wants to heal. A hardened heart is selfish and stands apart to judge; a broken heart is selfless and jumps in to help.

So how can a hard heart be softened – or, better yet, broken?

Once I understood the process my heart took to become rock-hard, I realized that I cannot soften it through will-power. That’s what prayer is for. Only prayer and repentance can undo the damage.

In the last year, some political and spiritual leaders – even some Christian ones – have implied that praying is basically doing nothing. But these skeptics are blinded to the supernatural power found in prayer.

Prayer acknowledges our helplessness. It is a concession that despite all of our supposed knowledge, we cannot fix our problems but can only present them to a good and holy God and ask for his help.

Prayer includes our confession. It is an admission that we are—I am—responsible for breaking this world, which God created as good, and it forces us to see things through God’s eyes instead of our own.

Prayer restores our unity. It is an affirmation that I am not apart from the world God created; instead I am involved in it, both as part of the problem and as a living reflection of grace. And I definitely can’t reflect grace if my heart is hard.

Every heart must be broken. God can get us there in infinite ways—some very forceful and painful. However, having experienced some of those other ways, I do not recommend them. I think prayer is God’s preferred method.

Because becoming like Jesus requires that our hearts break over the world, seeing it the way he saw Jerusalem.

This is the world he died for.

This is the world he loves.

This is the world he invites me to love as he loves.

And that invitation to love starts with prayer.

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