Friday, June 17, 2011

The Redemption of the Tourist: Part IV

Post subtitle: “There and Back Again – A Tenant's Tale”

“The dragon was dead, and the goblins overthrown, and their hearts looked forward after winter to a spring of joy.”

This post is very difficult for me to write. I feel as if I’m recalling a dream, somewhat nightmarish in nature, trying to sift through vague, bizarre, difficult details and memories. It’s about a time in my life that was all-too real at the time. Now, looking back, it seems nearly unbelievable.

We really did that? We really voluntarily wanted these roles in this story?

It’s quite the drama, actually: there’s Shackleton-like endurance; a dragon and goblins; faulty and flawed, though maturing, “heroes”; plenty of character development; impeccable comedic timing; real-life lessons in redemption; and it conveniently parallels with Lord of the Rings analogies and narratives.

This story recounts our trials and tribulations as the tenants of Catherine Pickering’s basement, and also how God graciously provided a way for us to move back into our old apartment.

Last September, I wrote about how Lindsey and I had moved into the basement of an elderly lady named Catherine Pickering, and about our adventures with her Gollum-like dog, Jiminy Cricket (Jimmy for short).

I am sparing most of the “juicier” details of this story because this isn’t the place for that. My goal isn’t to vindictively drag out all the problems and shortcomings we perceived in our elderly tenant. It won’t do me any good personally to recount specific episodes that still to this day make my blood boil. The goal here is to show that God does work, he does restore, and he sends us through trying times for a reason. Hopefully this is the message that I convey.

For seven months – September, 2010 through March, 2011 – Lindsey I and rented out the basement in the home of Catherine Pickering, an 87 year-old widow with mobility issues. The agreement was we would pay a very moderate monthly rent, but would pay for all groceries and perform most of the cooking and cleaning duties. Through Lindsey’s time voluntarily cleaning Catherine’s kitchen and bathroom through Disabled Resource Services, we saw this as an opportunity to help a sweet, elderly lady in her waning years, all while cutting down our monthly expenses in order to save up more money for a house down payment.

We loved our apartment – it was our first home together – but we weren’t so attached that we were hesitant in taking calculated risks if we thought the outcome would be worth it. My mother, on the other hand, couldn’t believe we were leaving our “cute, little apartment.” But we saw it as a win-win: Elderly lady gets someone to help her around the house and keep an eye on her (mobility issues = high chance of falling), young, ambitious married couple gets an extra leg up on financial goals.

Or so we thought. I’m writing this from my new old apartment, so things obviously didn’t pan out as we had hoped. Proverbs 16:1-2 comes to mind.

It was messy from the beginning. Lindsey and I made a few communication and “assumption” blunders in the first month or so that wouldn’t have been a big deal if we were renting the basement of someone younger than 60, but with Catherine, they proved monumental in scope. We did a lot of learning on the fly with how to live and communicate with an elderly woman whose expectations of us seemed to be exceeding the written and agreed-upon contract. In her eyes, we did very little right. And whenever we were “to blame,” we were screamed at and berated. There was very little “normal” communication with Catherine. Even discussions that began in civil tones often times ended up with her going off on us, leaving my wife in tears and me having to leave the room before I lost my temper verbally.

It was a cycle. There would be two weeks or so of calm, and then out of nowhere – usually when Lindsey and I came up the stairs into the kitchen first thing in the morning – she would unleash a scathing report of how we had failed her recently. We lived in fear of surprise verbal attacks. No matter how much we implored Catherine to simply talk to us, to simply ask us to do something for her, the negative communication – or lack of communication altogether – continued.

On occasion, her niece Barbara – who, along with her husband, had previously rented Catherine’s basement for nearly a year – would play mediator. And it was through Barbara that we learned – after we moved in, mind you – that Catherine’s kids had long wanted her to move into an assisted living facility. Barbara also enlightened us about Catherine’s poor relationship with her late mother-in-law and how that still impacts her personal relationships and communication patterns. And because Barbara didn’t have a day job when she and her husband lived in the basement, she could attend to Catherine’s every beck and call. Barbara was certain that Catherine was projecting those familial expectations on me and Lindsey, and when they weren’t met, we were sure to feel the wrath of Catherine’s entitlement. We also learned that Catherine suffered from short-term memory loss, which explained a great deal about why she thought we weren’t keeping “our side” of the contract.

In one sense, the things Barbara shared with us were extremely helpful. But in another, they were maddening. Why weren’t we told any of this when we were first talking with her about moving in last July? Furthermore, if Barbara and her family knew all of this, why in the world would they let two 20-somethings move into Catherine’s basement when she was in such a precarious state of mental and physical health? We had no business being there. No one did.

One night in mid November, a couple days after the latest blowup, Barbara came over after dinner to tell us that Catherine wanted us to move out. We calmly and honestly told Barbara our side of the story, she took it to Catherine, and she relented of her desire to get rid of us. She said she would do a better job communicating. We said we would too, and that we would use a white board on the pantry door as a two-way message board in hopes that that would alleviate stress and miscommunication.

But we knew we couldn’t keep living like this – especially when we both worked full time and I was coaching. We didn’t feel like we had a home to come home to at the end of the day, and no matter what we did for Catherine, it never seemed to be good enough. I feared going upstairs in the morning before work. We were exhausted and losing hope. I was openly questioning our sanity for making the decision to move in here. We were desperate.

After the meeting with Barbara, we began looking at houses, as well as any cheap apartment we could find. We even called our old landlords, an older married couple living in Windsor, to see if they had any openings in our old building or in any of their other properties. The experiment had failed.

December rolled around, and things started to improve. No more yelling matches. The white board was proving to be quite an effective means of communication between the two parties. Or maybe all the “joy to the world” and “peace on earth” stuff was getting to us all.

Whatever the case, December, then January, then most of February rolled by without incident. Things were pleasant; we had found a rhythm. Maybe the experiment hadn’t failed. We cut back on our aggressiveness to find another place to live. Catherine was pleasant to be around, and Jimmy was getting more and more used to us. There was hope.

On Sunday, February 20, 2011, it was our turn to host our church small group, and we shared with our team our absolute gratitude and praise to God for coming through like He did. We had been through so much, and because of the trials we had learned more about what true contentment looks like. All of the past trials seemed so dark, but we knew that God was using it to grow us up. But things were good now, or at least remarkably better. God had come through for us. We were completely and thoroughly floored by His mercy and provision. Our team rejoiced with us. It was a milestone of a night.

The next day, Monday, February 21 – the day before Dayspring’s district playoff game – I got a phone call on my way home from basketball practice. It was our old landlords. The exact same apartment we used to live in was going to be available at the end of March. Our old apartment. We had the right of first refusal. They needed an answer by the end of the week.

I shared the news with Lindsey that night. To say we were stunned is an understatement. One day after we shared our gratitude and praise with our small group for the work God had done in our situation with Catherine, here, literally, was an open door to get out while the getting was good. So what if we didn’t have enough for a down payment yet? In the midst of the darkest days in the basement, we told ourselves that if our old place opened up again, we’d take it. So here was God, in our minds, really outdoing Himself with generosity, with a place for us to enter into and be revived and restored. After a few days of praying, thinking and talking with friends about what to do, we called our landlords and told them we were in. We didn’t want to chance a Catherine “relapse” into her former ways. We also didn’t want to keep living at such a frantic pace, always walking on egg shells and wondering if we’re doing a good enough job. We were ready to go home.

The move-back-in date was set for March 26. Welcome home. Again.

Sometime on the morning of Monday, February 21, I got a tweet from @JRRTolkien quoting The Hobbit. It read, “The dragon was dead, and the goblins overthrown, and their hearts looked forward after winter to a spring of joy.” I found it an inspiring and interesting quote when I first read it, but after I got off the phone with the landlords, the pieces immediately came together.

Catherine, so often full of verbal flames of false accusation, disgust and disdain, was the “dragon.” Jimmy, petulant, ugly and of dark complexion, was the “goblins.” Or maybe the dragon was the experience of living in Catherine’s home, and the goblins had to do with working at AMG Creative. At any rate, the long winter was coming to an end. God was pushing aside the clouds, letting the light of opportunity into our lives.

He had redeemed our living condition. (I told Lindsey that I felt like a hobbit, that I was going “there and back again.” She didn’t get it.) Maybe He would provide a new place of work for me, a job I could be passionate and excited about. Oh, the hope we felt in the last week of February was so rich, so promising.

“. . . their hearts looked forward after winter to a spring of joy.”

On Saturday, February 26, we told Catherine of our decision over dinner. She took it very well. We were a bit worried she would feel betrayed or abandoned. But she was cordial and understanding. It was going to be OK.

Two days later I was fired from AMG Creative.

Still, our “hearts looked forward after winter to a spring of joy.”

In spite of our reduced income and desire to save for a house, we stayed committed to moving back to our old apartment. March passed slowly for several reasons. Basketball was over. I was unemployed and trying to get my head around that. (Quick side note: being unemployed and living in the basement of an 87 year-old woman is a killer to the male ego. God was really working now.) And Catherine was becoming difficult again. We don’t know if it was in “retaliation” to our decision to move out, but within a week of telling her, her actions and words had made it plain to us that we had made the right choice.

March 26, 2011, dawned warm and glorious. Four hours and two trips with the U-Haul were all we needed to be back where our story began. We said goodbye to Catherine, even giving her flowers and a thank-you note. It didn’t seem to have much of a positive affect: she withheld our security deposit and demanded another 30 dollars because she thought we packed up some food items that were hers. We turned the cheek and paid the extra amount.

We felt bad – and I still do, to some extent – that she felt so ill-treated by us. But I will go to the grave with the peace that God will judge our time and actions there. James 1:27 is no small edict, and we knew the implications of our service when we first moved in. We busted our tails for her. I hope one day she can see the good we did; that God will redeem our time in her basement.

As for Lindsey and I, we love being back home. I don’t think “home” as ever carried as much meaning for us as it does now. Not that I necessarily took that concept for granted before, but being back here, being restored to our former residence, it’s a shadow of Heaven in a lot of ways; it’s an ever-pertinent example of God’s redeeming work and stubborn lovingkindness. We are thrilled for this opportunity, to be with old friends and to live with a revived intentionality to bring God’s love to our new old home.

Not that everything is fully or instantly cured by a change of scenery. I’m still looking for work; Lindsey and I are still sinful people who have unique challenges in our marriage; we are wrestling with spiritual disciplines, time management and making the most of our time in this phase of life; God is still making us into His image – that didn’t stop just because we moved to a “better” place again.

And even though the first official day of summer is only a few days away, we are still eager and hopeful, our hearts looking forward “to a spring of joy.”

Just don’t expect us to sublet your basement anytime soon.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Redemption of the Tourist: Part III

Post subtitle: "Moving in a Different Direction"

"Snow is of a loveliness beyond my most secret thoughts. . ." - J.R.R. Tolkien

It was a Monday. The last day of February. Six days after our loss to Heritage Christian in the district playoffs (see part II). I walked through the doors of AMG Creative at 8:03 a.m., ready to bid the first full week of work sans basketball a good morning.

Instead I was immediately ushered into the conference room by Terry, the VP, and Bill, the owner (also Terry’s father-in-law). They closed the door, we sat down, and I knew this wasn’t going to be good.

Terry did all the talking: Let me get straight to the point…we’re moving in a different direction with your position…this is your last day…here’s your last paycheck…you don’t have any vacation time left.

He opened up a manila folder he had with him and slid my paycheck across the desk. He seemed to be enjoying this – or, at least, he wasn’t finding it difficult.

I asked if I could ask why I was being fired so unceremoniously, so out of the blue nowhere.

A brief allusion was made to my performance review back in early December, but Terry repeated more than once that AMG was “moving in a different direction” with the Assistant Creative Director position.

“So, that’s it?” I said a little defensively, a little incredulously. “Nearly three years working here and I don’t even get a one-week heads up?”


Finally Bill spoke up. He seemed distraught; almost remorseful. His words betrayed the non-verbals on his face. “Do you want to gather your personal things now or later?”

“I’ll do it now,” I said, snatching up my check and quickly exiting the conference room without another word.

I was able to say a brief goodbye to the two graphic designers (we shared a common work space in the back of the building, the “creative den”) before Terry came back and called them into the conference room. They had no idea what was going on. It became clear then that my dismissal had been a well-kept secret in a company only eight people large.

Bill was polite and calm while I packed up my stuff and cleaned off my computer. I was a mix of anger, confusion, and a desire to try to save face and not douse this bridge with lighter fluid before I crossed it one last time.

Somewhat strange was how Bill hovered over me and frequently came back to see if I was done packing up my things. I later learned that my replacement was waiting in Bill’s office for me to vacate the premises, hence Bill’s sense of urgency for me to get out the door. Classy.

By 8:45, I was out the door. I offered a brief thanks to Bill as I left, hands full of boxes and books, but I don’t think I would have shaken his hand if mine were free, anyway. I sat in my car for a couple minutes, trying to figure out what had just happened, and thinking that this wasn’t how I wanted to part company with AMG.

Not because I loved the company and its management. Far from it. And it wasn’t because I was going to necessarily miss my job duties. Writing ad, website, direct-mail and personalized-letter copy for dental laboratories has a pretty short shelf life of passion/interest, and I had passed that expiration date several months prior to Feb. 28, 2011. But I was going to miss Mike and Mike – the designers – and Ben, one of the account executives. The three of them made my time there worth the struggle.

Now that basketball had wrapped up for the season, I had time to do some job searching and exploring of options. In this economy, I did not want to leave this job until another one had been secured. My animosity towards all things dental aside, I knew that this was better than nothing, and I was still mentally prepared to work as hard as I could, biding my time until another door opened. Lindsey and I were saving up for a house down payment, enjoying every perk that came with being DINKs in this day and age.

As I sat in my car, the future suddenly a blind curve in the Poudre canyon, I felt a little like George Costanza after being served up a deceitful helping of “It’s not you, it’s me.” We’re going in a different direction with your position. It’s not you, it’s the company. From Terry’s indifferent disposition, to the secrecy of the decision and the shame that accompanied the catastrophic suddenness of it all, I was in a state of utter shock and disrespect.
How dare they. I was raw. I had wanted to leave this place on my own terms, and instead I was dusted off their shoulders like an annoying speck of dandruff.

Bill is a certified dental technician, and started AMG specifically to help dental labs in their marketing efforts towards dentists. I would say that 95 percent of AMG’s clientele is from the dental lab industry. I joined the company first as a project manager right out of CSU in 2008, then worked my way up into the creative writer position. In January 2010, I was made ACD. By February, 2011, I was ready for some new scenery, a new stretch of road to experience – even though I was grateful for being employed right out of college. I was tired of writing about fake teeth and dealing with the nepotism and selfishness of AMG’s leaders. I wanted something new, something I was passionate about, something I actually wanted to do. I wanted to start the next journey of my life and career.

But not like this.

I sat in my car, not knowing where to go. I sat in my car, motionless. I sat in my car, thinking that at least I didn’t have to write dental copy anymore.

Events and activities over the next couple of days remain somewhat of a blur. I know there was lots of time talking and praying with Lindsey. I know I started treating my relationship with God like it actually mattered, and the Psalms became my hiding place. I know I tried to get over it too fast, resulting in my first mental and emotional breakdown. I remember going down a long and terrible rabbit hole in my mind, then “snapping.” The tears came as if through an overwhelmed dam on the Missouri somewhere in South Dakota. I cried for minutes on end, clutching my wife like a life raft, confessing my fear through the sobs. I could barely breathe.

The next morning Lindsey texted me Psalm 30:5 from her work and said she was praying for me. My prayers that morning were earnest, feeble, but enlightened with a slight awareness of hope yet to be fully realized.

I needed to get out. Being unemployed and living in an old lady’s basement aren’t exactly the greatest for one’s self-image and self-confidence.

I went snow shoeing in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Just me and God and the snow that fell periodically throughout the day. I was wanting to go all the way to Lake Isabelle, but the weather looked to be turning for the worse. Gray clouds crashed on the peaks above me; the pass was shrouded in cold secrecy. The high crags passed in and out of view as the clouds swirled. The snow fell harder. I turned home, my back to the wind.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Redemption of the Tourist: Part II

Post subtitle: "The First Season"

It’s not easy being a head coach when an assistant coach thinks I’m one of the players the first time we meet.

So I look younger than my ripe, 26 years of age. And at 5’9”, I don’t exactly possess the gravitas of Phil Jackson, John Thompson or Rex Ryan. The only players I stand above are the foreign exchange students from South Korea.

If these opening paragraphs let on a slight sense of self-consciousness and insecurity, well, welcome to my first year as a high school head basketball coach.

I came into Dayspring Christian Academy with pretty lofty ambitions: being a role model of godly masculinity for my guys, instilling life values through the framework of high school athletics, and turning Dayspring into a basketball powerhouse, because why should football get all the glory? But mostly, with this being my first time since 2005 coaching boys, I wanted them to teach, show and gird them with practical and meaningful insight about what it means to be a man. I didn’t want to just win games; I wanted to make them into men.

Except I had no idea how to do that. Or, at least, not a very intentional or mapped-out idea of how to build them up in the ways they needed to be built up. I was flailing and failing to connect with the older players, the captains. When outbursts and sarcasm trickled through my actions and words as a result of not getting respect or not meeting my exact goals or visions, it became easier to focus on wins and losses and not on how well I was lovingly leading these boys in greater pursuits of manliness and maturity.

As it turned out, the one who learned the most in my first year as head coach at DCA was me. A little about leadership, a little about the game itself, but mostly about my shortcomings, my inconsistencies, and the things I was keeping from God. These painful glances in the mirror were the clearest when personnel issues had to be dealt with, and in my five years of coaching, I have never had a more tumultuous in-house season like this one. My girls’ teams at Thompson Valley in Loveland were less dramatic and contentious.

This first year wasn’t a complete failure, though some of the parents may beg to differ. For the first half of the season I rarely felt like myself, and the team seemed to share in my struggles for authenticity, perspective, self-discipline and faith.

Harley Lowe, the AD, was a much-needed support and sounding board during these early trials. His insights were critical in my own, as well as the team’s, development. Towards mid February, many of the on-the-job lessons I had learned began to bear fruit, and our lopsided losing record began to straighten out. I was being (more) encouraging; the guys began to buy into what we were selling; there was respect and optimism; we were actually looking like a team.

Two games will always stay with me from this season. One was a raucous home win against Longmont Christian, who had beaten us by three back in January. When they came to our place with district seeding implications on the line, we blew them out of the water. My guys played with grit on defense, patience and execution on offense, and our crowd was fantastic. This was the basketball I dreamed about before I was a head coach. This was fun.

With only one game left in the regular season after Longmont, we finally felt our chemistry and purpose coming together. As it turned out, this win didn’t boost us in the district standings – we were basically locked in as the sixth seed – but we weren’t playing like the sixth seed. Heritage Christian would have its hands full with us when districts started in a little less than a week.

Thus, the second game that I will carry with me is the district playoff game against the two-seeded Heritage Christian. We had played Heritage twice during the regular season and lost both meetings by a combined total of 10 points. The recent win against Longmont gave our confidence caffeine high; we had a Cinderella story on our minds. We were a senior-heavy team; Heritage started three sophomores and two juniors. We thought we could handle the playoff pressure better than them. Even though the game was at their place, we knew we could win. After our last regular season loss to Heritage – in their gym – I guaranteed my guys we would beat them come playoff time.

Did I allude to Rex Ryan earlier? My guarantee came up begging. The game started off disastrously: we laid an egg in the first quarter. Yeah. No points. But our defense was playing well enough that Heritage had only scored 11 in that first period. We went into halftime down 15.

I don’t remember exact details from my halftime speech. Looking back on it, I can remember a general sense of what I said. There was a lot of imploring to keep fighting, to stay together, because that’s what we had been doing all year: fighting, playing our butts even when no one believed we could it. This is a football school, look at those poor basketball players, aww, aren’t they special, look at how hard they play. No, no more patronizing. We hadn’t come this far to go out quietly into the cold of late Colorado winter. I think I told them that this comeback would be our finest hour, that life’s great challenges require great resolve and faith, and this was a test of who we were as men.

Andrew Garcia played point for us most of the year, but it had been a massive struggle. Last season’s starting point guard blew out his ACL playing football, and Andrew, a natural scoring guard, was forced to learn how to lead a team. Kind of like his coach. A game or two before the Longmont win, we moved Andrew to the 2-guard spot and Thomas Martin, another senior, to the point. We liked how the experiment had worked so far, but nothing could compare to what happened in the second half.

Andrew came out of the locker room swinging. Three after three after three. Our crowd got into it. Heritage played tentative basketball. We chipped, chipped, chipped away at the lead. In total, Andrew hit six 3’s in the second half. He should have been playing this position all year. With a little over three minutes left in the fourth quarter, we were only down six. We were really going to do it.

But a goose egg in the first quarter of a district playoff game is too steep of a hill to overcome. I think we lost by eight or nine. Heritage hit their free throws down the stretch. When our bus pulled up in front of our school around 10:30 that night, Andrew approached me with a strange request: “Can you open up the gym?” I said I would, but asked why. “I want to say goodbye,” he said.

So he said goodbye, and the tears were still on his cheeks when he exited the gym for the last time about 10 minutes later. This was the same kid who volunteered to help a teammate finish running his 45 suicides because he was 45 minutes late for practice. A kid no more.

Can I get a redo? Can I start this season over again, so I can give Andrew the senior year he deserved? Can we restart this whole thing over again with the perspective, lessons and attitudes that I now have? Please tell me something is redeemable from all of this. I want another shot.

The line between success and failure is very blurred when I look back on this season. There is nothing wrong with failure. It’s a great catalyst; the best of all teachers. It is the best motivator to check where your joy, identity and fulfillment are grounded. But I’m still left wondering about what could have been.

Part of me believes that the reoccurring struggles throughout the season were manifestations of larger stresses in my life. Work wasn’t helping my overall mood and outlook on life. I was coming in early and working through lunches in order to be able to leave early for practice or games. On game days I wouldn’t get home until nearly midnight, and was up in a few hours to start it all over again. I sensed a giant bulls-eye on my back, and the bosses were constantly taking aim at me. On top of that, I was beginning to look for a new place of employment anyway. I had been at AMG Creative since graduating from CSU in 2008, and three years of writing dental laboratory copy can be a little wearisome. I wasn’t checked out mentally, but I had my books in hand and was looking in my wallet for the library card.

And at the time, Lindsey and I were subletting the basement of a house owned by an 87 year-old lady. She was demanding and angry. There was so much going on – basketball issues, work issues, an incredibly delicate situation at “home,” and, oh yeah, I’m married. Our next date night, babe? Try two months from now. Lindsey was more than a trooper; she was so patient, so supportive. I don’t know if I’ll truly know how hard this first season was on her. She was a renewing spirit throughout it all.

Naturally, due all of everything going on and no time for any of it, my quiet times and prayer life suffered. How could I be a godly role model to these boys if I wasn’t being a role model to myself? I was so unbalanced; life was moving too fast. I was running a spiritual deficit: imploring and teaching principles and values that I myself wasn’t practicing in my own life. I honestly don’t know how we got through it, or how things improved later in the season. God’s grace was pulling overtime. I don’t know if I fully realized it at the time.

Coaching is for the young. But the life Lindsey and I were living is for the dogs. We couldn’t keep up that pace. It’s no wonder that God pulled the rug out from under us only a few days after the season ended, but I’ll explain more about that in later posts.

This offseason, I’m reading all I can on leadership and resting in God’s joy. Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx is an invaluable read for coaches, parents and boys; it was convicting and inspiring all at once, and has provided a paradigm shift in my approach to coaching. I’m also reading Tony Dungy’s The Mentor Leader and N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. Dungy’s book is tremendous, and Wilson’s is, well, it’s “poetry with testicles,” as he would say. Get all three of these books.

So, you ask, here at the end of this bittersweet tale: Do I think my first year as a head coach was a failure or a success?

With a record of 7-and-10, it’s easy to say it was a failure. But one thing I’m learning is how to properly define “success” and “failure.”

This season was a success – but only because of the failures.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Redemption of the Tourist: Part I

"Few can foresee whither their road will lead them, till they come to its end." - Legolas in The Two Towers

I will not apologize for the amount of time in between posts. This space is not a diary; I don’t have to confess my lack-of-posting sins to the existential, or metaphysical, or whatever-isical nature of this space in order to be restored to the blogosphere’s good graces. Or yours, for that matter.

I’ve been on a long road since October, 2010, and my circumstances, emotions and duties have demanded every last second of time and energy. Every exit has passed by in a blur, and, as Garth would say, that white line just kept getting longer and longer. This road has gone ever on and on.

Until recently, anyway.

Finally, a rest stop with a view.

It probably sounds like everything since October, 2010 has been total crap. Not quite. There was actually a lot of good. Yet even the good brought its share of trials and stress. Here, from this brief respite along Highway Life, is what I see when I look back on this road, this weary stretch that's enough to turn the most seasoned tourist into a recluse:

• Coached my first season of high school basketball as a head coach
• Got fired from my first job since college
• Moved out of the basement of an 87 year-old woman and her 87 year-old Chihuahua back into our old apartment
• Took a two week sabbatical in central/eastern Europe
• Ongoing introspection and career counseling in hopes that this 26 year-old will figure out what he wants to do when he grows up
• Still looking for gainful employment in this intrepid economy
• Went on a church flood/geology expedition to Moab
• Am daily getting my teeth kicked in by the tough-loving, determined-to-grow-me-up God of life, the universe, everything

I will take all of these items in turn. Not because I enjoy baring my soul to you, but because God has been incessantly working on my heart and mind throughout this journey, and if there are others out there now who need perspective, encouragement, or hope, maybe they will find glimpses of whatever it is they’re looking for in my story. Life is narrative. This is for the greater good, I suppose, with a little bit of catharsis thrown in for good measure.

So, this is what’s on tap. Hopefully one post per day over the next week or so. Pull over with me if you have the time. Your destination isn't the most important thing, anyway.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Tale of Two Headlines

Two headlines caught my eye yesterday, one at National Review Online and the other on the BBC website. They speak Dickens-esque volumes about the current and future state of Europe and the West:

“What the Wilders Trail Means”

“Merkel says German multicultural society has failed”

Germany and the Netherlands share a border, and their respective capitals are only separated by roughly 400 miles. But these two countries are oceans apart when it comes to understanding the impact that foreign (read: Islamic) immigration is having on their societies.

Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that the multiculturalism Germany has practiced – especially in respect to the assimilation (or lack thereof) of immigrants from Islamic countries – for the last few decades has “utterly failed.”

Meanwhile, Dutch politician Geert Wilders is being tried for “hate speech” against Islam. What makes the Wilders trial so ridiculous/crucial is that he’s the leader of the third-largest political party in the Netherlands. In essence, this man’s own country is trying his party’s platform to ensure that no one’s feelings are hurt by said platform. Holy consequences, Batman!

It’s a good thing Chancellor Merkel isn’t an established political leader in the Netherlands, otherwise her “utterly failed” comments could be construed as “hateful” and land her in court.

This dichotomy lays bare the utterly self-defeating and un-multicultural foundation of the multiculturalism. The Dutch are apparently so accepting and inclusive that they can’t quite bring themselves to accept and include a certain culture/worldview if it isn’t, by their definition, “multicultural.” As Mark Steyn put it, “tolerant” liberal democracies pretty much suck at tolerating those who reject the “multiculti pieties.”

Germany, though, appears to be realizing the error of her ways.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Luther as the Rugged Individualist

I’m slightly perturbed by the bad PR that the concept of “rugged individualism” gets from the Tim Keller/Tullian Tchividjian brand of evangelical Christianity. This hyper individuality, the narrative goes, is a uniquely American ego trip that places the individual above community, relationships, and even the need to be saved. In sermons and books, I’ve been told that “rugged individualism” is a deterrent to godly fellowship and true, Gospel-oriented lives. By pulling ourselves up by our boot straps, we deny total reliance and affection for Jesus, and fall into the American/Western capitalist cowboy trap: living life on our own.

Obviously and of course, there are pitfalls, downsides, and levels of emotional emptiness in this rugged individualist stereotype. I would just ask for some perspective on the issue. The way I see it, this super-individualized, American cowboy trope that is lamented by a popular evangelical leaders actually got its start with one of Protestantism’s founding fathers: Martin Luther.

It was Luther, after all, who nailed home the point (literally) that you don’t have to go through a certain church, or a certain group of anointed men, or succumb to herd-mentality religion to be saved. His message focused on the fact that you – you, the individual – are capable of having an intimate, redeeming and personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. Some guy wearing a big hat and fancy robe has no business arbitrating your relationship with God.

Luther made salvation personal again. The Protestant Reformation was revolutionary precisely because it called attention to the individual, but not in a way that glossed over our sinful nature and need to be saved. Luther recognized that we each have a sin debt owed to God, and no amount of corporate worship activity can redeem and regenerate the individual soul.

The pervasive quality of freedom enjoyed by Americans was born precisely out of this same belief: that the individual alone is accountable to himself and to his God. The government shall have no “positive” rights over the individual, and our fates – as well as spiritual/religious affinities – should not be tied to the “collective” population. I am free. Hear me roar. The Catholic Church heard that roar via Luther, and the British crown heard it all the way across the Atlantic in 1776. What’s the lesson here? That once an individual realizes his freedom in God’s eyes, he can then begin to free the rest of society.

Sure, maybe two hundred years down the line this individualized society has taken that freedom to some unfortunate outcomes: The value, need and importance of building healthy communities – especially the church – can be downplayed in this environment. iPod spirituality says I can still belief in God, pray and read the Bible, but I don’t need those hypocrites at church telling me what to do. Or, individuals become so confident in their own abilities, wealth, and mistaken assumptions about the nature of sin that they don’t think they need to be saved. Epic fail on both counts.

But I fail to see how that is only an Americanized problem – let alone the direct result of “rugged individualism.” Are we the only society in the history of the earth – bloated by wealth, arrogance and pride – to not seek God for fulfillment and purpose? Are the social democracies of Western Europe, crippled with group-first socialism and “let’s all get along” multiculturalism, teeming with spiritually-alive, God-seeking populations? By devaluing the importance of the individual, Europe is choking under a “tyranny of good intentions,” where over-regulation trumps creative choice, and the State poses as a benevolent (albeit a financially insolvent) deity that doles out service after service for the “good of the whole.”

The rampant socialization/communalization of government and society is just as much of an anathema to vibrant, Gospel-focused communities as unchecked rugged individualism. It might behoove evangelical/Reformed leaders in America to pay tribute to the heritage and value of Western individualism, while still exposing and correcting the dangers that come from blind self-reliance.

Otherwise, I think we risk alienating a good chunk of the population that sees “rugged individualism” as more virtue than vice – especially in an election year featuring heavy evangelical involvement and rife with backlash against an increasingly socialized, anti-individual government.