Germany, Gospel and Last Samurai

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There are some trips you take that help you to recharge, perhaps to break away from normal routine if nothing more. Then there are others that exist to merely entertain and indulge your senses. Still there are a few that seem to mark your life in a significant way, trips from which you take away lessons or impressions that will stay with you long and true for the next leg of your journey.

When I initially flew out to Germany, I didn’t think it would be that kind of trip. After all, the primary reason for the visit was business, and I was spending only a week in town. I figured, if anything, I’d book an extra weekend so that I might actually explore Germany beyond the view from my office window. To be quite frank(furt), I wasn’t expecting much other than to say I did my 40 hours and stuffed myself with brats and bier. But sometimes these things hit you when you least expect it.

I guess it starts with the country terrain. The land alone is beautiful. Lots of trees, mountains, rivers. (I say this knowing fully that I only explored one region [and a half, I suppose, if you count my day in Heidelberg] and that there is so much more to see.) But as Friedrich would show you, the Germans are inseparable from mother nature. Germany is a biker and hiker’s dream. In addition, there is a lot of history contained in the country, as evidenced by several castles, cathedrals, and government buildings. Not to mention, the people are friendly–most of them speak decent English–and the food was wonderful. If the trip consisted only of this, I’d have been plenty satisfied.

Yet what stood out most was the people. The Germans are a very direct people. They will be upfront with you when pressed with something, and when they say something they mean it. My roommate Matt told me not to greet Germans with “How are you?” because over there it is not a trite greeting. “If you ask, expect an answer that is anything but good.” Because they will tell you how they are doing, really. It was refreshing because I didn’t have to second guess their intentions or what they were really trying to say. Their words are measured carefully. (Which reflects heavily upon me as a man. Do I measure my words carefully? Do I mean what I say, do I follow through on my commitments, is my word my bond?)

So, the few people I met there who considered themselves “Christians” really meant it. They lived out their faith. Their words and actions validated their claims. It was none of this going-to-Sunday-church-but-living-godless-Monday-to-Saturday business. When they say they are committed to being a disciple of Christ, they show what it means to have a definitive break from the world. It means they will say yes to doing some hard things, no to some others, and that persecution from family and friends is expected. They understand they will look weird to the world. They have counted the costs and determined that he is worth it.

Throughout my week, outside of work, I felt like I was on a missions trip, with the main difference being that the mission was me. I felt a bit like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, where I was coming into contact with a new culture and people that reflected a way of living I had not known before. I experienced sincere kindness from people who consistently sacrificed time and energy to share their lives with me. On a pizza & movie night, I witnessed how a man devoted himself to loving his wife and four kids. I thought to myself, He’s got it right. I want to be like that one day. The German believers made me reconsider how I was living and approaching life, and the beauty in their lives inevitably led me to rediscover the beauty in mine.

What’s more, I think it made me reconsider my bearings on the gospel. Do I truly believe in what Christ has done for me? Do I believe in his power to change my life? How am I reorienting my life–how does it look different–if I claim to be a disciple? I say I believe in God’s all-sufficient grace, but I’m afraid I still live most days with an identity wrapped around what I achieve and what others think of me.

There is still much to process, but I’m thankful for trips like this. God not only gave me what I wanted, but what I needed. It’s like a kid who expected action figures for Christmas and got a shiny bike instead. He went the extra mile to surprise me. Thanks, God.

Only time will tell where this bike will take me.

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Big Sur: Thanks for the Memories

“The saddest thing about life is you don’t remember half of it. You don’t even remember half of half of it. Not even a tiny percentage, if you want to know the truth. I have this friend Bob who writes down everything he remembers. If he remembers dropping an ice cream cone on his lap when he was seven, he’ll write it down. The last time I talked to Bob, he had written more than five hundred pages of memories. He’s the only guy I know who remembers his life. He said he captures memories, because if he forgets them, it’s as though they didn’t happen; it’s as though he hadn’t lived the parts he doesn’t remember.” – Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Lately I’ve been fortunate enough to be living life in the active sense of the word. Not just alive, but living. I’ve been traveling to new places, seeing different sights, meeting new friends, and learning from various wonderful men and women. Not a day goes by in which I am not aware of this wondrous privilege, and I am thankful for the Maker who has generously allowed for this rich period of my life. Lord willing, I intend to make more of these experiences in my days ahead.

Yet in the midst of it all I realize there must be a necessary time to pause and reflect. How tragic and disheartening it would be to simply take an experience as sensory and not allow it to marinate deeper within us. To record our memories, then, is to acknowledge their power not only to speak in the moment but to nurse and minister to our souls in ways that we can appreciate only with the passing of time.

Big Sur will live as one of those memories. It speaks to me now, and I entrust it will speak to me again (perhaps in new ways) as I return to take from this jar in the future. Some trips are made because of the people, others because of the place. Yet the few that become sacred are the trips forged by both. I have not experienced another trip in recent memory that made me appreciate the beauty found in nature and friendship as much as I did walking through those majestic hills and sharing laughs around the campfire.

One of my biggest fears is that one day I’ll forget it all. In the event that I am ever stricken with amnesia or dementia or what have you, I pray that I will be led to this page and recall a part of me that experienced something I would dare call divine.

There is something about moving through a mountain enveloped in fog that will not allow you to settle. What I mean is, fog creates this sort of tension that has potential to lead to either a subtle disappointment or wonderful crescendo. You are walking through a seeming mystery, the sight of rocks and ocean veiled by an atmospheric curtain, and there is no promise it will be lifted. Yet the day assumes the sun (as does the weather forecast), and so you walk on through the Wordsworth-like scene and take in the sublime awe of dirt, grass and trees in the fog with the ever slightest sliver of hope that the mighty sun will awaken.

At some point along our trail we come across this plot of forest, and though slightly off the beaten path, we enter. With all the imagination our minds could muster we dream our own Narnia, pretend we are our very own adventurers and queens. Meg transforms into a french hostess of the woods and we, her delighted guests. We assume an impromptu game of hide n’ seek and Murray darts through the thin redwoods with vulpine aplomb. In this moment, I–I am transported back to my innocent days as a young and wide-eyed explorer–and my mind is filled with wonder.

Through thin and tortuous trails, we make our way through the leafy maze. Rays of sunlight begin to shoot through the uncovered forest; tension builds. We are eager to make our way out of the forest, to see what might greet us on the other side. So I stepped over the ivy, ducked my head under the low-hanging branches, and kept trekking (though I stopped to chuckle at Shelley when her shoe caught in a branch’s knot). Though the track was steep, we eventually find our way out.

What greeted me at trail’s end was a masterpiece presentable only by God Almighty. Our group of seven was struck breathless in the sight of radiant glory–there were no words. Quietly, easily, we laid our bags on the ground and took our time in silence to share this uniquely communal-yet-personal experience with our Maker. The moment had transcended into the sacred.

Around the campfire later that night, we sat around on full stomachs looking to entertain one another with old tales of horror. What we got instead was a “popcorn-style”, group ad-libbed story initiated by Brittany that was unraveled and expanded on for the next half hour. It all began as a “Once upon a time in land far away, a land like Ireland…” but included Stevo-sponsored “Meanwhiles…” and led to crazy twists and turns involving dogs with injured legs, magical leprechauns, a love-sick spinster, and a tough New York priest named Brooklyn Dave (along with his friend Crocodile Marty in Australia).

We all laughed heartily at the accents (and at the people who attempted them) and the intricate yet nonsensical machinations of the story, while appreciating the inner-workings of the people who delivered them. I sat there marveling at someone like Feibes who possesses such a God-given ability to entertain others with his humor and charm. I was equally amused by Murray whose attention to details (not to mention, his failed attempts to keep a nonsensical story straight) exposed his practical, engineer-like hardwiring. It is a great joy when you are able to see a glimpse of God through His people.

The story abruptly ended. As each person filtered out to clean up and tie up loose ends, I stood there alone before the fire, full of life and cheer. The adventure was ending, the trip rounding near to its close. Yet it was not lost unto me the subtle narrative that was being told by the Grand Storyteller. “I am glad you get to enjoy Me and enjoy My people. This is the better part of life, and I give this privilege of life to you.”

In a world of cruise-controls and autopilots, it is easy to default into our work days and family lives without much thought. But listen with your heart, learn to look for the subtle graces you’ve been granted, and never lose that divine wonder. May we stake our life at seeking and sharing the greater story.

Winning Half the Babble

It was the three of us that night. It was grown men slumming it on the couch, randomly browsing through Facebook, acting like jokers. We were enjoying ourselves when, seemingly out of nowhere, we found ourselves in the middle of a heated discussion. Words were being exchanged but something wasn’t getting across.

I felt like a dead mic. As though I were saying all the right things but the amp had blown up. Static. It was frustrating. No matter what I had to say or how appropriate I thought it was, he wasn’t hearing it.

Then finally he broke. “I already know all this, man. I’m just trying to explain how I’m feeling but ya’ll won’t listen. You’re just trying to tell me what’s right. Sometimes, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s just knowing that there’s someone who sides with you.”

The funny thing is he felt the same way I did.

It’s a tricky thing–that thing they call communication. We know it’s the key to any solid relationship. It sounds basic. Yet, it’s one of the hardest things on earth to master. I know this because I’ve been in situations in which there was a lapse of communication. I know this because as a speaker and writer I still find myself constantly misunderstood. And there wouldn’t be so many books written on this topic and this entry wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t.

We can talk about all the various psychological, biological and other factors involved here. How most men are wired or trained to fix a problem or share facts and figures (“report talk”), whereas women look to talk for the sake of intimacy and building relationship (“rapport talk”). Or how men talk to establish status while women talk to express feelings. Blah blah blah…

Perhaps some of that might explain why we weren’t totally getting him. He was cutting loose on his innards while we just wanted facts and resolution to the matter.

But…

What I think it boils down to is this. Being quick to listen, slow to speak. It’s about learning to understand people’s perspective, sympathize with their story, and reassure them that you “get them” before you get in your two cents.

It might be difficult for some of us because we live in a society that has taught us to look for quick fixes, assume the worst about others, and make our voices heard. We are the iGeneration that has become all about self and consumption and words like “easy” and “instantaneous.” (Perhaps this is why DFW’s commencement speech resonates so much with us in our present time.)

But I had to ask myself: How many of my past friendships and relationships have been lost on this failure to communicate? To really listen to their fears, needs and struggles? To side with them, regardless of whether they were wrong or right?

As I sat there for the remainder of the evening, I tried to listen. I had to die to my need to speak. I had to lay aside my subconscious want to claim independence or wisdom by saying the “right things.” He needed open ears more than sharp counsel.

After all, he knew the battle that he was fighting. He didn’t need me to tell him who the enemy was or how to put on his flak jacket. At the end of the day, he just needed to know that there was a brother who was with him in the trenches.

“I’m with you, bro.”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes for a man to gear up and fight another day.