Because life is a series of edits

Rural Reflections

In Calling, Family, Holidays, Nature, Places & Spaces, Vacation on July 5, 2014 at 11:29 am

IMG_5173

“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives…but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else.” Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter

After our Colorado trip and two days back in the office in Oklahoma City, we’re here in Illinois wrapping up the last of our vacation days. Altogether, it’s been a good and much-needed break from the past 18 months of school merging and managing, and I’m (almost) ready to jump back into things in earnest next week.

In the meantime, I’m making the most of our last few days here in Pike County where I – along with four previous generations of Dunhams – grew up on our centennial farm. Our girls love being here and connecting with their four Pike County cousins (I have two younger sisters who each have two kids of their own), Megan graciously tolerates the latest tales of townsfolk she has never met, and even our dog, Peaches, seems to have an affinity for the rural life (in particular the John Deere Gator rides, as shown above).

I love the farm. For as long as I can remember, it has meant much to me as a place, an anchor, a stopping-off point, a means of provision, a muse of creativity, a home…the list is endless. The stability of associating myself with a particular 600 acres of God’s green Earth is rare in today’s transient world and has always mesmerized me in its value, both felt and perceived. Even when I didn’t want to be here, or thought there was no future in it for me here, I’ve always loved the farm…and I always will.

But then I ask myself, do I love the farm or do I love the idea of the farm? The answer to both questions is “yes,” which transforms the inquiry into one of degrees (i.e. which one do I love more?). That’s when things get confusing.

There was a time  – when, for instance, I would plow the living room for hours on end as a five-year-old – that my family may have expected me to remain on or eventually return to the farm. At some point, though – exactly when, I don’t know – they let go of that expectation most likely because I did. I remember being 16 and chomping at the bit to leave for college, to graduate and move to The Loop in downtown Chicago (to do what, I had no idea), and never look back. The desire did not spring from some dislike for the rural as much as a fascination for the urban; after all, as the post-WWI song goes, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

I can’t say I ever felt direct pressure to “be about” the farm; chores (what little of them I had) never came before studies or school events, and farming was never cause for missing a game or performance or church as long as Saturday mornings were kept open for hog work. If anything, there were times in my early teens when I probably felt frustrated that I couldn’t do more to help out in the fields or on the bigger equipment in a more significant way, but God had his reasons, and my parents – perhaps seeing the writing on the wall before I did – acquiesced to those by supporting (and at times, directing) me in other endeavors.

As I’ve grown older, I confess that my pride in telling others of our family’s fifth-generation farm quickly erodes even before the end of the sentence when, inevitably, I know the next question that’s coming: “So what’s going to happen to the farm?” Many times I have felt guilty at being the only son or (though I would not trade any of my daughters for all the farms in the world) that my Y chromosomes couldn’t figure things out enough to produce a male heir to carry on the Dunham name and take to farming more than I did. Neither feeling is fair, but guilt (in particular the self-inflicted kind) does not play by the rules.

As much as the thought of returning to Pike County can be nostalgically attractive, I’ve yet to figure out how to make it happen practically; it would seem I have very little of what it takes to “make it” in the country. While the urbanite wrongly assumes that those living outside city limits are somehow “less than” because they haven’t made it to the city, he would never survive in rural America, which is why he doesn’t try beyond buying some miniscule weekend/vacation acreage upon which his existence does not depend.

I think of Thomas Jefferson’s words concerning agriculture and those who practice it:

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”

Jefferson’s sentiment describes my father and my grandfather; it does not, however, describe me, a truth that at times grieves my heart and disturbs my thoughts. There is no solution or salve for this affliction, save only the choice to still care and the decision to still visit, both of which seem trite compared to the calling and effort of my forebears to sustain this land over the past 100+ years so that I might still engage with it now.

As predominant a sculptor as any in my life, the farm – as a tool in the sovereign hands of God – seems to have shaped me for something other than itself. It’s no secret that I’m eternally grateful for this, but it is also a reality that saddens me some nevertheless.

Insecurities and the Seven Sons of Sceva

In Calling, Church, Family, Friends, Humanity, Musicians, Places & Spaces, Theologians, Thought, Travel, Vacation, Young Ones on June 27, 2014 at 12:43 am

“But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?'” Acts 19:15

This verse (along with the passage from which it comes) has run through my head about a hundred times in the past week. Believe it or not, we’ve been on vacation, but my insecurities are no respecter of calendar dates, locations, or accommodations. I’m never surprised (though never ready) when feelings of unworthiness and personal contempt raise their ugly heads and say hello.

Without boring you with too many details (ask my wife: vacationing with me is about as exciting as watching paint dry), I started off our trip alone, flying to North Carolina to cover for Michael Card, who was teaching an intensive Bible seminar at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville. It’s unfortunate that many folks my age (43) and younger don’t have a knowledge of or appreciation for Mike’s music, writing, and teaching, but the older (50 and above) folks know a good thing when they find it; many of them follow Mike across the country for his concerts or Biblical Imagination conferences or even around the world (he had just gotten back from a tour in Ireland in May and takes a group to Israel every year in January).

Mike’s “fans” tend to have more gray hair, available time, and discretionary funds than most, all of which equate to big expectations when they’re shelling out $429 a pop at one of the premier conference centers in the country to hear arguably one of the best Bible teachers in the world. The topic for last week was the Gospel of John, for which Mike has just finished a new book and album (pre-order yours here). The good news was he was able to teach Monday-Thursday; the other news was, due to a mistaken double-booking, he was going to have to leave late Thursday night and needed a pinch-hitter to wrap up the week.

Overlooking the Smoky Mountains at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, NC.

As Mike and I have done conferences together off-and-on for 12 years now, he asked me if I would fill in for him. Without really considering the dynamics, I said I would. I flew out Wednesday night, sat in on three sessions on Thursday, and then Mike and I executed a brief baton pass toward the end of the Thursday evening meeting. It went well, but I still had two sessions by myself on Friday morning and 120 folks who, without intending to be evil, had to be asking the demon’s question with a twist:

“Jesus I know, and Michael Card I recognize, but who are you?”

Fast-forward to Sunday morning. After leaving The Cove Friday afternoon and flying to Denver that evening, I met up with Megan and our two youngest daughters and drove to the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park to pick up our two oldest daughters who had just finished RYM Camp with our City Presbyterian Pyretics group (major props to youth director Jarod Mason and intern Laura Parsons for coordinating and chaperoning). From there, we drove to Colorado Springs and up to Eagle Lake Camps, where Megan and I met and invested ten years (1992-2001) of our lives, and where I was to speak at staff chapel on Sunday morning. (As their two older sisters had three years previously, our two younger daughters were also set to attend camp this week.)

With Maddie, Millie, Katie, and Chloe on the deck of Lilly cabin at Eagle Lake northwest of Colorado Springs, CO.

As you might imagine, the crowd was much younger than at The Cove; instead of 120 senior citizens, I was looking down the barrel of 120 wild-eyed high school- and college-aged students who will spend the rest of the summer caring for over 2,700 kids from all over the country. The energy was overwhelming, as was my self-doubt. I had worked weeks in advance on my message, but now that I was onsite, I wondered if it would actually connect; most of these kids would have been in diapers (if they were even born) when I was at Eagle Lake in my twenties, and it’s never pretty when an older speaker attempts to play hipster (which I didn’t) to reach a younger audience.

While many of the staff had apparently heard of me (it’s not hard to be a camp celebrity just by virtue of having lasted ten years at one), I couldn’t help but imagine them saying to themselves:

“Jesus I know, and some counselor I heard a story or two about from twenty years ago I recognize, but who are you?”

Who are you? Luke records that the evil spirit asked the question not of Christian believers but of “itinerant Jewish exorcists” who “undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits” (Acts 19:13). In other words, these “seven sons of Sceva” (great ska band name!) were trying to coast on the coattails of Jesus and Paul, but the evil spirit would not be fooled. The result wasn’t pretty: “The man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (Acts 19:16).

The story is a reminder as well as a warning. Whether speaking to a weekend conference or camp audience or to our family and friends on a daily basis, are we doing so as followers of Christ or as Christian posers? Are we ministering out of the overflow of our relationship with Jesus, or are we name-dropping the Savior and his apologists in hopes that – somehow – His power will transfer anyway? As the passage records, there are few more dangerous sins than the sin of presumption.

The question of “Who are you?” is as pointed an accusation Satan and his agents of evil can throw at us, as there is no more powerful attack than one that attacks our person. But this is when we remind Satan (and ourselves) of who the Lord says we are. Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:9-10 are helpful:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

In case you were wondering, the two sessions at The Cove went better than I hoped (there’s no more honest compliment than conferees confessing afterward that, yes, they had been disappointed you weren’t the original speaker, but they saw God’s hand in it and were glad and grateful after all). The talk at Eagle Lake seemed to hit home (there’s no more humbling thanks than when semi-awkward 19-year-olds try almost too hard to convince you that your message was exactly what they needed that morning). Whew.

The good news of the Gospel is that, while feelings of insecurities may be frequent and no fun, they can keep our poser potential in check if we confess them to Jesus so He can remind us who – and Whose! – we are. To do otherwise – to “fake it ’til we make it” despite our insecurities – will leave us naked, wounded, and in a vulnerable state that we will only want to hide from others and from God.

The Lord Is Our Refuge

In Calling, Church, Education, Friends, Oklahoma City, Places & Spaces, Travel, Vacation, Young Ones on June 22, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Cross (low res)

(The following manuscript is of the message I gave at Eagle Lake Camps chapel on Sunday, June 22, 2014. It was an honor to speak at such a beloved place from my past.)

I’m going to be speaking from Psalm 16 this morning, so while you’re finding your seats, you can begin turning there in your Bibles. While you’re doing that, let me introduce my family. Megan and I have four daughters: Maddie is 15, Chloe is 13, Katie is 12, and Millie is 10, and have lived in Oklahoma City, where I serve as Head of School of The Academy of Classical Christian Studies. Maddie and Chloe came to camp three years ago, and Katie and Millie will be joining you this week. As perhaps you’ve heard, Eagle Lake is a special place for us. Megan and I met here 21 years ago. I served as a Rez counselor, program director, musician, and Onsite Director from 1992-2001, while she served as a Kitchen staff, Rez counselor, Crew counselor, store manager, and nanny 9 of those 10 years.

If I remember this time of summer correctly, you’ve been here long enough to know what’s supposed to be going on, but that whole “fourth week/first week” thing is perhaps beginning to ring hollow. You’ve probably heard others – if not yourself – begin to grumble, and the idea of six more weeks is perhaps not quite as rosy as it was four weeks ago. There’s no place like camp to discover what we’re capable of – good, bad, and ugly – but there’s also no place like camp to learn to trust God with the good, bad, and ugly we discover.

This is what I want to talk with you about today. If you have any hope of lasting the rest of the summer – of God preserving you – it begins with taking refuge in Him. Look at Psalm 16:1-2: “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’” Taking our cue from David, what does taking refuge in God yield? I’d like to suggest four preservations:

Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for godly company. Look at verses 3: “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” Now notice the comparison in verse 4: “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips.”

Whether in college at the University of Missouri, when we were on staff with the Navs for 12 years here in the Springs, when we moved to St. Louis to begin seminary, or during the past three years of our lives in Oklahoma City, we’ve always been with good, godly people. But here’s our secret: we’re not the ones doing the surrounding; we just happen to enjoy the providence of God – in his refuge role – doing so.

Whether you recognize it happening or not, God is at work building at least one friendship (though I’ll be surprised if it’s only one) that will continue on with you ten, twenty, even dare I say fifty years as a result of your time at Eagle Lake. I say this out of experience, and I’m not even talking about the yahoos in the back.

We moved from St. Louis to Oklahoma City three years ago, and in doing so, have since reacquainted with Molly – one of my wife’s Rez Campers back in 1994, who with her husband sent their little girl and twin boys to the school I lead. One of my Grammar school principals, Alison, was one of my Program Coaches for two years in 1995 and 1996. We go to church with Brian and Matt, who were former counselors and now are both married to their wives and have a couple of kids. At church, we also get to see our pastor’s wife, Julie, who was a counselor in 1993, as well as a founding board member of our school. And speaking of board members, Jonathan, is about to come on our board, and he was a former camper! (This should give each and every one of you pause as to how you view that camper who keeps throwing rocks and won’t listen.)

These are just former staff and campers living in the same town. All of these friends came through Eagle Lake back in the day, walked with God through their twenties and thirties, and were established in Oklahoma long before we ever got there. The same has been true of every place we’ve lived, and so many places in between. This is what God does when he tells Peter in Matthew 16 that, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Because the Lord is our refuge, he is at work keeping us from the sorrows of those who run after another god and drink the ungodly offerings of blood and take their names. Because the Lord is our refuge, he is preparing excellent ones, in whom will be our delight, not just for when you return home or to school in August, but for the rest of your days and wherever you go as part of his universal church.

But that’s just the beginning. The second preservation is this: because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for contentment. Look at verses 5 and 6: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.”

We need to understand something here: the language used is not of preference but allotment; that is, God – not us – is the one choosing our portion, giving us our lot to hold, drawing where our lines will fall, and the one from whom we inherit whatever inheritance he decides. We are not learning to be content with what we choose; we are learning to be content with what he chooses for us.

I know of no better place to learn a lifestyle of contentment than camp. Notice what I said there – not a lesson, but a lifestyle – of contentment. As our American culture sees generation after generation more and more infected with an entitlement epidemic, we see this illness come to camp in campers and sometimes (I hate to say it) in staff. The plain and reality is, if you’re only content when you’re comfortable, you’re not content but pacified.

I don’t remember what summer it was, but I do remember that one of our counselors that year – I’ll call her Maggie – had no interest in learning about contentment at Eagle Lake. It was about the third or fourth week when she came into my office every day crying, begging to go home. She’d been a little sick the week before, was more than a little homesick since she’d arrived, and when we tried to help her through it by assigning a co-counselor, giving her three afternoons off to rest, and just trying to listen to and love her, she would have none of it. Her heart was hardened and her eyes were angry. She had what I call the two-year-old syndrome: she wanted what she wanted and she wanted it now.

That Thursday evening, she followed me into my office, demanding that she be allowed to leave. I reached into my filing cabinet, pulled out her staff agreement, and told her that if she was going to go home, she was going to have to rip up her signed agreement then and there. As I pushed it across the table to her, I told her I hoped she would think about the worth of her name and what her signature on the agreement meant. Without batting an eye, she grabbed the paper, held it up in front of me, and dramatically ripped it into four pieces. Without saying a word, I took a phone book, placed it on the table, and told her to book her flight out the following morning.

A few years later, I received a letter from Maggie, in which she asked forgiveness for her discontent. By the conviction of the Holy Spirit, he had led her to repentance, embracing what was surely awkward and uncomfortable for her and trusting him – and me – to walk through it with her. It was an amazing privilege to forgive.

Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for our contentment with our chosen portion – lot, cup, drawn lines, inheritance. I’m sure you’ve already recognized areas of frustration this summer – 3-minute showers, uncomfortable conditions, whiny campers, time that’s not your own – but God is sovereign and sovereignly at work in growing you by these means. These opportunities are providential for you to learn in whatever situation – whether brought low or abounding, facing plenty or hunger, in abundance or need – to be content. Confess your covetousness and expose your feelings of entitlement to one another. Admit when you’re acting like a two-year-old and put on your big boy or girl pants and grow up. And trust that you can do all these things through Christ who strengthens you as you pursue this contentment, which is the actual context of this most misquoted verse.

The third preservation is this: because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for delight in his constant presence. Look at verses 7-8: “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.”

At our school back in Oklahoma City, we spend a tremendous amount of time pushing back on a modern culture fooled into thinking that education is all about information transfer. When I talk with parents, teachers, and especially with students, I’m always asking the question posed by James K.A. Smith in his book, Desiring the Kingdom: “What if education isn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?”

At our school, we don’t want kids to just learn the Law; we want them to learn to love the Law because, as Calvin reminds us, the Law reflects like a mirror the perfection of God; it restrains like a bit in a horse’s mouth evil; and it illuminates like a lamp that which pleases God. But where are kids going to learn to love the Lord and his Law? My friend Andrew Kern of The Circe Institute suggests that, “We become what we behold.” This is why the psalmist can speak in verse 7 about the counsel and instruction he’s received. As verse 8 reads, he has set the Lord before him; he is at his right hand and he is not shaken because what he beholds is not shaken.

This whole “becoming what we behold” idea should sound familiar. What is the goal of Eagle Lake Camp? “The goal of Eagle Lake Camp is to inspire Christ-centered love and commitment, through counselor relationships, in the midst of exciting outdoor experiences.” The worst thing you can do with kids this summer is reduce Jesus to an intellectual idea to be merely accepted, catalogued, or easily referenced. Paul says it beautifully and simply in 1 Corinthians 11:1 – “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Trust in this – and rejoice! – that somehow – by God’s unbelievable goodness – campers might become what they behold in you because you – together – are becoming what you behold in Christ.

The fourth and final preservation I want to remind us of today is this: because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for hope of everlasting joy and the path of direction. Look at verses 9-11: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

When I consider the story God has written for this place from before the creation of the world, I am blown away. And, when I consider the few pages of that story that happened to include Megan and me, my heart is overcome with thankfulness to the Lord. I think of all God has done here and the thousands upon thousands of challenges He has overcome to ensure the 57th summer of Eagle Lake Camps happens, and my whole being rejoices. Personally, when I consider all that the Lord did in me in my time here, my flesh dwells secure, for He did not abandon my wretched and pathetic soul, nor let me see corruption, but made known to me a path of life by way of His presence and His people.

The Lord showed me here that I had an anger problem…because I had a control problem…because I had a people-pleasing problem…because I had a pride problem. The Lord loved me enough to place me in a beautiful place surrounded with good people through which He taught me the importance of Luke 16:10, “That he who is faithful with very little will be faithful with much.” He taught me to be teachable – to recognize correction from my leaders, my peers, and (gulp) my campers – not as punishment but as discipline for my good, for He disciplines those He loves. Hebrews 12:11 – the first verse I ever memorized – reminds us that, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” These promises have rung true in my life, not because I was always true to them, but because the Lord – our promise-making, covenant-keeping God – always was.

Which is why I can be confident in reminding you of four promises in Psalm 16:

  1. Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for godly company.
  2. Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for contentment.
  3. Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for delight in his constant presence.
  4. Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for hope of everlasting joy.

Let us glory in God’s preservation, reminding each other and ourselves that He is our Refuge, that He is our Lord, and indeed, we have no good thing apart from Him.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 47 other followers