You Shall Not Pass

A few coworkers around the office have given me the nickname Gandalf - the great wizard from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books and The Hobbit. They have not given me that name because I am a wizened old man gifting sage advice and calling in giant Eagles to save the day; while I enjoy providing guidance, my eagle-calling skills leave something to be desired. Not because I have a long flowing beard; I generally will not allow my stubble to grow for more than a week. Not because I wear a pointed floppy wizards hat; if there is anything covering my head, it will likely have a Seahawks or Mariners logo on it. And it is not because I dress in threadbare grey robes; although, grey is my favorite color.

They have christened me with the Gandalf moniker because of what I do. If they forget their passwords, I am the person that fixes it for them. As soon as they see me, their first thought is "You shall not password." They have even said that out loud the second I walked in the room. It is tempting to tell them "It's a dangerous business, going out your door."

I have become the Gandalf of our corner of the corporate world. But I will not complain. While I hope to live another 40 years before my appearance begins to resemble Tolkien's good wizard, I do not mind being compared to him now in my relative youth, especially when the line of dialogue that prompts such association is one from a moment of Gandalf’s greatest sacrifice.

Gandalf and the fellowship fled through the mines of Moria to escape the wrath of an ancient and dangerous balrog. Realizing the plight of his friends, Gandalf stopped while crossing the Bridge of Khazad-dû and turned to face the beast. He took a stand so that everyone else would be able to escape safely and continue their journey.

image courtesy of New Line Cinema/Warner Bros.

He told the balrog, "You cannot pass. I am a servant of the Secret Fire, a wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the shadow! You cannot pass." After that, Gandalf used his staff to crumble the stone bridge and sent the balrog plummeting into the abyss below, unfortunately plunging himself to the same fate as his foe wrapped its whip around Gandalf's legs. With moments remaining before falling, Gandalf looked to the friends he saved and told them to go, "Fly you fools."

Then he was gone. For the fellowship, this was heartbreak. Their leader and protector was gone and presumed dead.

Gandalf was the fictional embodiment of words once spoken by Jesus, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." Gandalf gave up his life in order for his friends to keep theirs.

This is why we love characters like Gandalf. They represent the better natures of humanity, those that set aside our selfishness and hold the lives of others as greater than our own. We see this quality in Narnia's Aslan, in The Matrix's Neo, in Harry Potter, and (surprisingly) RoboCop. There is something powerful and alluring about those characters who willingly face death for the benefit of others. This is the same intent that drove Christ to the cross.

Today is Good Friday, the day when Christians around the world celebrate Christ's sacrifice, as he was crucified so we might live. Today we honor his selfless act. And hopefully we are compelled to respond through the way we live our lives. If Christ died so that I may live, then I should live as if his efforts were not wasted.

In this, I am reminded of Paul's instruction to the church in Philippi: "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

In the letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul said "Be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God."

As a Christian, it should be my goal to model my life after the life of Jesus. To be best of my ability to live like him. While I frequently fail that pursuit, I still aim high. Someday, it may require me to humble myself in obedience to the point of death, to give myself as an offering and sacrifice to God. And maybe not. But if I am to love, I should be willing to lay my life down for those whom I love. To be honest, I am not sure if I am capable of such selflessness.

When I look into the world of Middle Earth, Gandalf was (as far as can be achieved in fiction) an imitator of Christ. He loved his friends and died so they may live.

If I am to be compared to any of Tolkien's characters, then I welcome the name Gandalf. If only I could live my life so humbly.


Grace Like a Child

After an early Saturday matinee movie, the kids were restless and need to expend their extra energy. I took them to a park and set them free upon the playground. I sat on a bench along the perimeter of the wood chip covered play area and watched as my munchkins gravitated toward the swings and slides and monkey bars.

From my comfortable seat, I was able to watch each of the kids as they found something they loved. My oldest found a new friend who had an extra toy lightsaber; they spent the next half hour role playing adventures of Jedi knights. JJ climbed every climbable surface and told me he was pretending to be Indiana Jones. Zu alternated between her two favorite playground activities (the monkey bars and the swing set) before settling into a game of tag with other kids whose parents had motivations similar to mine: let the kids play hard before going home for dinner and bedtime.

Then something peculiar happened. Actually, I shouldn't say peculiar; it was something rather ordinary for my kids. I watched my daughter stroll from one side of the playground to the other so she could swing on the swings. She sat in one of the seats and started to pump her legs when she noticed a little girl struggling to get into the other swing. This other child was too short to climb into a standard swing without assistance and her parents were nowhere in sight. Zu jumped out of her seat and picked the girl up, helped her get situated comfortably, made sure she had a good grip on the chains, then gave her a few good pushes to get a pendulum like momentum going.

Zu did not get back into her own swing until she knew the other girl was moving and having fun. My daughter sacrificed her own pursuit of happiness to contribute to the happiness of a stranger.

My kids know the rules. They know that they need to be gentler when there are smaller kids on the playground. I have done my best to instill in them a sense of kindness and positivity in all their interpersonal interactions. At the same time, I know they're kids. I expect some level of juvenile narcissism. Yet my kids continually surprise me with acts of grace they show above and beyond the attitudes and behavior of typical children.

I have lost count of how many times my kids have stopped doing what they were doing when a preschool aged kid shows up. They go out of their way to help smaller children ascend the different levels of playground platforms, hold their hands as they cross bouncy bridges, and guide them safely down slides. They make extra efforts to teach younger kids how to climb a rope or use the monkey bars. They turn into little cheerleaders encouraging other kids to try and accomplish new things. Many new parents have thanked my kids for including their kids in playtime, then had them thank me for my kids gift of a short respite from parenting duties.

My kids did not get this trait from me. Truth be told, I am not overly fond of children. I love my kids more than I knew I was ever capable. But other people's kids? Well, I prefer the company of adults and grownup conversation.

With that in mind, it is a little awkward when I study the life of Jesus. In reading the Gospels, we find a Jesus who loved interacting with kids. And he made grand statements about children. First, he said that we must become like a child if we want to enter heaven. Then he said that the worst punishments were reserved for those who caused a child to sin. Finally he said heaven belonged to people like our youth.

Then you have people like me. I react to babies in diapers like they are alien creatures born of another world. I shy away from any kid that drools or still drinks from a bottle. I am ill equipped for conversations about Minecraft and Pokemon (even though my kids love both of those intellectual properties). My inner child would rather watch episodes of the X-Files after his parents thought he went to bed. Yes, you have a cute kid but do not ask me to play with them until they're old enough for scary campfire stories.

Yet we have the words of Jesus: "I tell you the truth, you must change and become like little children. Otherwise, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Most people interpret this passage of scripture with the familiar phrase "having faith like a child." But the original Greek text did not use the word faith. In fact, it did not specify what aspect of kidhood we should adopt. The passage from Matthew 18:3 used the words στραφῆτε καὶ γένησθε. Straphēte and genēsthe.

The Greek word στραφῆτε (straphēte) is a verb meaning to be converted, transformed, or changed. γένησθε (genēsthe) is the Greek verb to become something else or to prove yourself as something. Both of these words together, στραφῆτε and γένησθε, transforming and becoming, imply a new state of being. A childlike state of being.

What aspect of being a kid did Jesus recognize as being so valuable? Is it the childlike faith, willingness to believe without question? Maybe. But I think it is something more profound.

As I watched my daughter help a younger girl up and into the swings, I thought about this passage from the gospel of Matthew and another word came to mind. Grace.

We do not need the faith of a child as much as we need the grace of a child.

Sure, they may be at the stage where they're growing and nothing more than bumbly awkward; far from graceful in their movements. They are the age where they are discovering autonomy and trying to define their identity as an individual separate from their parental units. Yet the way they interact with their peers show greater grace than many grownup conversations. The comment threads under YouTube videos seem primitive and barbaric in comparison. Children treat each other with mutual admiration and cooperation that is completely absent in American politics.

In seeing my kids give up their selves to benefit strangers, I noticed something. The age, gender, religious, and ethnic differences between my kids and the other kids they play with at the park are completely irrelevant. They approach their companionships with a perspective that says "I'm a kid, you're a kid, we're the same. Let’s be friends!"

In a kid's world, if two of them both like playing tag, they are going to play a game of tag. In the real world of corporate structure and grownup responsibilities, two people with similar interests would sooner condemn each other to hell for disagreeing on finer details of partisan beliefs than spend five minutes of conversation over drinks.

Even as children begin to notice differences, those divisions do not matter. Unless we - the adults in their lives teach it to them. Until they are taught otherwise, kids naturally give each other grace in abundant measure.

They live an existence where no one has told them that girls are better or boys are better. They have never seen one skin color as superior to another. They have never been encouraged to criticize someone for their religious or political beliefs. They have never viewed someone's physical disability or lack of financial privilege as making them less important.

Racism. Sexism. Bigotry. These are learned behaviors. Kids do not instinctually hate anyone. Discrimination is something kids learn from grownups.

When Jesus said that we should be changed and transformed to become this new childlike creation, perhaps this innocence free from the bonds of hatred is what he had in mind. Maybe Jesus wants us to approach our fellow residents of planet earth from the perspective of a level playing field. That none of us are better than any other. We are unique, yet equal. Each of us possess worth. Each of us deserves respect.

If I am to become like a child, then I pray God gives me grace.


Taking a Mulligan

My brother loves golf. As far as I am aware, he is not a particularly adept golfer but he enjoys playing the game. Even with his amateur skills, he considers golf to be a calming experience. More of a leisurely pursuit than a sport.

When the two of us get together, we will often chat about different places to golf. I tell him about local courses he would enjoy if he was ever in the Coeur d'Alene area for more than an overnight stay. He will tell me about his favorite (and sometimes disastrous) rounds. I am not a golfer but I know enough to hold my own in a conversation about fairways, drivers, wedges, and getting stuck in the rough. However, with my knowledge of the game comes the assumption that I actually want to play.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not opposed to playing golf. If someone is willing to cover my green fees and allow me to borrow a set of clubs, I will go. But if you ask me how I would prefer to spend a free day, there are greater activities I could choose to occupy my time. I would rather spend my money on something other than balls and clubs and those fancy covers for the clubs. I do not hate golfing, but rather just indifferent.

Yet with my brother, I will play along. It is of interest to him so I have no reservations indulging him. He frequently mentions how he wants to take me out for a round of golf during one of my future visits to Cheyenne. As long I can use someone else's clubs, I might take him up on the offer.

Despite my reticence to play golf, there is a concept about the sport I do appreciate: the mulligan. In golf, if you make an unnaturally atrocious shot, you can (depending on who you play with) declare a mulligan and retry it. If you have a sloppy swing which results in a wild hook or slices into the trees, it is OK. Ask for a mulligan and you can pretend it never happened. No penalty. No impact against your score. No shame on your golfing reputation.

In the few times when I have participated in a round of golf, I made one thing abundantly clear. I am a player in desperate need of liberal mulligan usage. I once tried to explain my golfing handicap to my brother; the conversation was not as simple as I had anticipated. It went something like this:

Me: “When I go golfing, whatever is par, I will quadruple it.”
Aaron: “I did that once. By the time I reached the green, the best I could do was a bogey. But I had a bad approach so I knew it would take me at least two putts to sink it. However, I overshot the second putt and cruised past the hole. Then I was looking at a triple bogey. That putt fell a little short and I had to tap it in for a quadruple bogey.”
Me: “No, Aaron. I am worse than that. Not par plus four. More like par times four.”
Aaron: (dumbfounded) “Oh.”

My brother might not be a good golfer, but I am terrible. Thankfully, there are mulligans.

I love the concept of a mulligan. Sometimes, we need a second chance. Sometimes, we need a do over. And if that maxim is valid on the links, it is even truer in life.

Unfortunately, reality can be a bit crueler than a day of golf. Life does not often reward us with a chance to do it all again. Usually, what is done is done and we must suffer the consequence of every decision we make. Good or bad, we know we are stuck with the results. We have to play it as it lies. Yet there are moments of grace; times in our lives where we get a do over even if undeserved. To be honest, this is how I would describe my year so far.

I ended 2015 on a high note: surrounded by my kids and some of the best friends I have ever known. The holiday season was wonderful and better than any I have had in recent memory. Things were looking up. Between church, kids, and work, my calendar was filled. From my professional routines to my writing projects at home, it seemed like everything was going my way.

Then life fell apart. The first weekend of the new year brought crisis. By the time January was over, I was ready to write the month off as a practice round. And by the end of February, I needed a mulligan.

While I had an awful start to the year, it was not all bad. I discovered a lot about grace. I learned how and when to ask for help. I was humbled. I risked a few brave choices. I took a break from blogging. I put in a lot of exercise. When I asked, “Who is on my team,” I received an answer. I am thankful for a rough couple months, yet those are two months I do not wish to relive.

As for the mulligan? I got one. January was a sand trap. February was a water hazard. All things considered, I am calling March my first month of 2016. I may be two and a months late in saying this, but happy New Year. Welcome to my mulligan.


How does it taste?

There are flavor profiles which (when blended) complement each other with delicious results. Consider the classics: peanut butter and strawberry jam or chili and cornbread. But there are others more unique and pleasantly surprising. White chocolate and crème de menthe. Mesquite seasoning and citrus oranges. Cilantro and lime. Cumin and cinnamon. Coconut milk and rice. Bacon and asparagus.

Now I'm hungry.

It is not only food though. Some activities feel as if they were intended for specific elements. Telling ghost stories around a campfire, walking barefoot along a sandy stretch of beach, kissing someone you love as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, cosplaying at a comic book convention, or listening to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's Summertime at full volume while driving around town with your windows down on the first sunny and warm day of summer.

In life, we know some things belong together. It is like getting a box full of pieces of wood and a few screws from Ikea. You follow the diagrams, stick the widgets in the whatsits, and an hour later you have a stylish lounge chair. If you did everything correctly, there will not be any extra parts. Every bit had its place exactly where it was supposed to be.

Yet in life, we also see combinations that should never exist outside of the Mad Hatter's darkest nightmares. Haphazard amalgamations. Kitchen experiments that would send Gordon Ramsay into a profanity laden tirade. Flap A does not fit in slot 2B.

Given a choice between the natural blends and unholy unions, the latter is how I see the relationship between Donald Trump and Evangelical Christianity. These are two disparate entities that have no business promoting each other. Seeing the way some Evangelicals have gleefully embraced the potential of a President Trump disturbs me. It proves to me that the Religious Right has lost the plot. Evangelical fandom for Trump is like eating an ice cream cone after it dropped to the ground at the State Fair.

Pictured: How I think it feels to vote for Trump

Many other people have presented their evidence that Trump is dangerous, unethical, dishonest, maniacal. All of them smarter and more eloquent than I. Psychologists, a Republican Congressman, pundits, fact-checkers, media figures, conservative authors, church leaders, and students of theology. All of them agreed that we should not vote for Trump. They have already pleaded their cases that Trump embodies the traits of a narcissist, a sociopath, a habitual liar, and a hedonist.

There are enough convincing memes that tell us other nations on planet earth view our upcoming election as an IQ test that we are failing; demonstrate the hypocrisy of Trump's talking points; dredge up his numerous divorces, lawsuits, and bankruptcies; reveale his admiration of inhuman dictators from China, North Korea, and Russia; or display his offensive mockery of veterans, women, disabled people, and a multitude of religious and racial minorities.

I could even point to a recent Trump gathering where Donald asked everyone in attendance to raise their right hand in a salute to pledge their allegiance to him in a scene that I am unable to adequately describe without invoking Godwin's Law.

It breaks my heart to see notable religious political personalities surround Trump and lay their hands on him to bless him as the inevitable GOP nominee. It boggles my mind how anyone could scream out "I love Jesus" then "Go Trump Go" in the very next breath.

Anything I could contribute to this discussion would do little more than add to the noise. Instead, I only ask for someone to explain it to me in light of scripture. As far as I have ever understood, Evangelical Christians have one purpose, to evangelize. To share the Good News, the Gospel of Christ to those who need God. To follow the great command to preach hope and reconciliation to the ends of the earth. Does ardent support of Trump improve your efforts to share God's love for all people? (Including Mexican immigrants, "the blacks," and Syrian refugees?)

Better yet, read through Galatians chapter 5. Verses 19-21 list off the traits of mortal flesh: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and more attributes than Paul's letter actually lists because these traits should be obvious. It would be easy to reference a multitude news stories to show how Donald Trump's words and actions fit this biblical description of a person who Paul said "Will not inherit the kingdom of God."

The next couple of verses list the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance (restraint and tolerance), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is why I cannot fathom how any Evangelical can support Donald Trump. I have not seen anything from Trump that exhibit any of these Godly fruits. He is a greedy, hateful, ego-driven, quarrelsome man who stands opposed in every aspect to the type of person God wants us to be.

If you are an Evangelical Trumpeter please explain to me how, in the name of all that is good and holy, how do you reconcile claiming this man as ordained by God to be the next ruler of our already great America? Can you (with a straight face) call Donald Trump loving, joyful, peaceful, kind, faithful, gentle, or self-controlled? What kind of fruit does he show?


Nervous Energy

Do you know the energetic nervousness you feel when you are about to take a step into something unknown, thrilling, and potentially fabulous? Not quite anxious but you are still nearly paralyzed with anticipation. You feel as if the air you breathe is filled with danger yet it makes you powerful like you could conquer the world. You posses the intimidating knowledge that the next moment of your life will change everything and all you have to do is move. It is an emotion of trepidation tempered with awe.

I am familiar with those butterflies fluttering around my belly, forcing their way into my chest with the intention to make my heart stop. There were days in my life when I could sense every muscle in my body taut and ready to react as soon as my brain gave the command. Good memories.

Like the night of a final performance at the Everett Performing Arts Center. I was dressed in costume and makeup was applied. I huddled behind the curtain waiting for my turn to walk out on to stage to follow the choreography and deliver my scripted line of dialog. It was only a bit part but still a fun experience. Closing night was even more nauseating than opening night because it was a sold out audience and I knew most of my friends and family were in attendance.

Or the day my buddies took me cliff diving. Clothes left behind at the car, we walked barefoot to the river wearing nothing but our swim trunks. Steve and Nate were the first into the water. I found myself alone at the edge of the rocks looking 20 feet down into a section of river where the current was slower and the water was deeper than other parts both upstream and downstream. A long breath, a small leap, and a descent that lasted no more than two seconds but felt like eternity.

There was the snowy morning I dressed up in a rented tux and stood in a hall outside the sanctuary, awaiting the moment to stand before everyone I knew to say "I do" to the girl with whom I had fallen in love.

And the time I spent in a small office with the people who would decide if I was qualified to accept a promotion that would have doubled my income. I did my best to answer their questions and paint myself as the ideal candidate. Not to mention the following days not knowing new whether I would be offered the position or if they chose to go with someone else.

Again recently. A first draft, re-write, proofreading, and editing. Save it, title it, attach it to an email. Those few seconds with my mouse cursor hovered over the send button to submit my first freelancing opportunity.

These are little glimmers of reality that shape who we were, who we are, and who we will become.

You know these feelings. Of stage dives and mosh pits. Of first dates and first kisses. Of waves crashing into the beach's shore. Of roasting marshmallows over a campfire and watching a meteor shower. Of singing songs with a bunch of friends and an acoustic guitar. Of merging onto the freeway at the beginning of a road trip. Of the roar from a waterfall and the soft chirping of crickets. Of city lights and sunsets. Of trying a new restaurant that quickly becomes your favorite place to eat. Of dancing in the rain. Of taking a stand for justice. Of checking an item off your bucket list.

That sensation is back but I cannot explain why. It is like I am dancing on a live wire. I have had that feeling gripping my nerves all day today, as if I am about to do something bold and reckless and amazing. Problem is, I do not know what that thing is.

But the vibe is there. Pure unbridled excitement on the verge of ... of ... well?

I have felt like that all day and the reason is beyond what I am able to explain. Yet I wouldn't trade for anything. This. The butterflies, the giddiness, the awkward wondering of what is about to happen. This reminds me that I am alive.


The Bible Verse I Wish was Never Written

Divorce was not on my to-do list. It was never something I planned or wanted to happen. Growing up in a conservative Christian church I was always taught divorce was sinful, on par with murder, robbery, and speaking profanities. It was something that happened to other people, not us good Christians.

The biblical text is clear about how God views divorce. Matthew chapter 5 tells us divorce for any reason other than infidelity makes the divorced party an adulterer. In chapter 19 Jesus says that a man and woman are united by God in marriage and no one should ever separate them. When asked why the Law of Moses allowed divorce, Jesus answered, "Because of your hardness of heart."

From this exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders, we get the inclination that the only reason divorce exists is because our hearts are hard.

Because we are stubborn.

Yet even in those passages, Jesus provides an acceptable reason for divorce: an unfaithful spouse. In Paul's letter to the Corinthians, he confirms Jesus' instruction to avoid divorce, but he provides an additional out: abandonment.

But to truly understand how God feels about divorce, you have to go back a little further in scripture. When addressing the topic of marriage and separation, the prophet Malachi used blunt language: "The LORD God of Israel says, 'I hate divorce.'"

God hates divorce. You cannot find any clearer expression of God's heart toward marital relationships. Keep it together because God hates divorce.

As a fairly recent divorcee, I sometimes wish that verse did not exist. I wish that God's desires were more nebulous, more open to interpretation.

Perhaps that is due to being raised with a harsh judgment toward divorce. Perhaps it is because I misinterpreted the scripture, falsely assuming that if God hates divorce then he must also hate divorcees.

When my wife left me, I had a trusted friend encouraging reconciliation. He challenged me to fix some things that I had done wrong and encouraged me to view the situation through my ex's eyes to the extent that I was capable. At the time, we were only legally separated. The decree for divorce had not yet been filed; as far as the courts were concerned, she and I were still married; reconciling was still an option.

During this time, my friend asked me a tough question: why does God hate divorce?. I cannot remember the exact answer that I provided, but I can guarantee I was incorrect. I said something about how marriage was supposed to be a reflection of God sacrificially loving the church and that divorce insulted the way God designed us to function. My answer was super spiritual and overly wordy. In response, he provided one word: interesting.

I was still wrestling with the idea that divorce was sin - something that would separate me from God.

Looking back now, I think I was misinformed.

After that conversation with my friend, I received the email from my wife notifying me that she was not interested in making it work. Since then, papers were filed, lawyers were hired. We have been through court appearances and mediation and I have watched the toll it has taken on our kids. I have endured harassment from her friends, rearranged my schedule to maximize the time I have with our kids, and waded through discouraging text message interactions that I wish never happened.

After these experiences I have two words to describe divorce. It sucks.

As a married man, I wrapped so much of my identity in being a husband that I have been forced to rediscover who I am. Since losing my marriage, I have been walking wounded. It has been a season of trials, growth, and healing.

I still believe God hates divorce, but not for the same reasons I once held. I now believe that God hates divorce because it sucks. I believe in a God whose plans for us are to prosper and not disaster, who provides for our needs, wants us to soar like eagles.

I believe that God wants what is best for us - that he has our best interests in mind. God hates divorce because it is devastating. The emotional turmoil, the financial stress, the strained relationships. If God wants the best for us, this is not it.

One other false belief I have abandoned: the notion that God would hate me if I got divorced. Instead, my new-found singleness has brought me closer to God. Even in the least ideal situations our God is still a God who works in everything for the good of those who love him.