A year ago, my wife and I decided to sell the farmhouse we’ve lived in for twenty-five years. While we were excited about moving into the next chapter of our life, the grown kids were less enthusiastic: our daughter’s next blog was entitled, Don’t Buy This House.

Nevertheless, we followed all the commonsense guidelines for home-sales:

  • We decluttered our closets, removed beds and furniture to make the house more spacious, and rented room at a storage facility.
  • We removed antique wallpaper and painted the walls with neutral colors.
  • And we updated older appliances and countertops, and revitalized the landscaping.

No bites. Not a nibble. Undaunted, we hired a stager who suggested we suck all personal intimacy from our home. Family photos were banished and personal artwork was expelled. Including the life-size, cowboy-hat-wearing skeleton in my office (in my office, mind you, not my closet).

Next our stager replaced every stick of sitting furniture with pure white pieces: sofas, easy chairs, and love seats. Which we immediately covered with sheets. Our stager styled it Farmhouse Chic. Our kids dubbed it, Farmhouse Sheet.

After hundreds of hours of expectant preparation for the dozens of hopeful showings: Nothing.

Last week my wife and I realized we spent our last twelve months living in limbo, neither here nor there. We were like swimmers treading water, going nowhere.

We’ve been living a staged life.

It Wasn’t Always This Way

In our eagerness to move into the future, we put our present lives on hold. We converted our home into a museum, and placed our pursuits on the bookshelf and our lives in gilded frames on the wall. All perfectly leveled of course.

We used to host dozens of church and family picnics. This year not one. In the past, over thirty people who needed multi-month transitional housing lived with us. This year not one. We used to hold spiritual retreats at our house. This year not one.

We fixed our eyes on the future and merely existed—holding our breath—in the present.

Living in Limbo

We live too much of life in limbos. We plan to begin X only after Y happens; we’ll start exercising after Thanksgiving dinner is digested, or we’ll write that book on parenting after the kids are grown. And I’ll finally learn to like eggplant. When pigs fly.

Last week I prayed the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and my house of cards collapsed. I ask God for enough for today, but then I lay my bare-bones down to breathlessly sleep in a crypt (very nicely decorated) waiting to wake tomorrow.

Enough!

My wife and I returned the museum furniture and brought back the livable, loveable stuff; the spare beds, like magic carpets, are flying themselves home. No more Farmhouse Chic, just Farmhouse Now. The kids and grandkids will be here for Christmas.

I plan to host another retreat in February. Picnics in the summer. We may be in home-limbo, but we’re going to sleep in it, not through it.

Unless you’re interested in buying a beautiful farmhouse. It’s no longer a museum, but neither is it a mausoleum; I’ll give you my real estate agent’s number. She’s great.

Just don’t tell my daughter.

Sam

A pastor-friend of mine once went through a series of disappointments. His favor with his followers faltered, his once fruitful ministry began to fail, and many of his former friends became his biggest opponents. And that was before events really got bad.

My friend was well known. If I told you his name, you’d probably recognize it. And his meteoric fall from favor was not due to any moral scandal on his part. Yet rejection and controversy, like circumstantial evidence against him, attacked from every side:

  • He began with a big splash and became famous in a few short months;
  • His fame attracted detractors, and major church leaders spoke against him;
  • His followers, who used to think he walked on water, began to drift away;
  • Then his treasurer embezzled funds;
  • Over time, his ministry crashed and burned.

And, of course, he asked God, “Why?”

Look at Job’s Life

We instinctively imagine that the events of our lives reflect God’s favor, as though blessings and blows are the barometers through which we gauge the rightness of our deeds. The sun shines when we’ve taken our prayer times, and storms threaten because we failed to tithe.

Simple formulas ignore Scripture. God said of Job, “There is none like him in all the earth.” Then tragedies immediately befell him: the theft of his working animals, the incineration of his sheep, the murder of his servants, and the death of his children.

Job cries, “Why?” We all do, even when the trials of our lives are mild. But much more so in the great heartbreaks of life: liver cancer, a spouse who divorces us, or a child born with autism.

We cry, “Why?” because we think these disasters display God’s punishment of hidden sin. Or obvious sin. But either way, retribution! Job keeps asking God, “Why, God, did you allow this to happen?” And his friends keep telling him that all his miseries must surely be his own fault.

God never answers Job’s question. God never breathes a hint of an echo of a shadow of an answer. He does something else instead. God simply reveals himself.

It’s Ingrained in Us

Whenever we suffer misfortune, we think it’s punishment. When the disciples see a man born blind, they ask if the blindness is punishment for his sin or his parents. Jesus says it’s neither, it is so that God’s power can be displayed through him.

It’s not the answer we want to hear. We want God’s power to be shown through his blessings.

But the revelation should relieve us. Circumstances in our lives are ordained by God so that his life shines through us. We try to wriggle out of them, fix them, or blame someone. When our kids disobey or our company downsizes us, we look for tips and techniques to improve our conditions. We cry, “Why?” and then fight adversities with our own abilities.

We are fighting God. God uses difficulties to invite us to greater intimacy with him. To see him.

And It Has Always Been This Way

We picture the disasters of our lives as circumstantial evidence to accuse us. God says these circumstances are evidence he is turning us into burning bushes. He allows them that we may share in the sufferings of Christ. And so let him live in us, with his life shining through ours.

My pastor-friend was a great, one-of-a-kind guy. Repeatedly, God used his words, deeds, and his life to say, “There has never been one like him in all the earth.”

And then they crucified him.

Sam

I once had a client whose business-gifting outshined the stars of the Harvard Business Review. Yet she scorched everything she touched. Relationships went rancid, projects were poisoned by punitive criticism, and her management style left associates embittered.

We met for lunch a couple times a year for much of the 90’s. Over time, my opinion of her zigzagged from initial awe, to distaste, and finally to pity. These facts emerged:

  • She was an identical twin, younger by twenty minutes.
  • Although an excellent musician, she played second chair violin; her twin played first.
  • She failed to get into medical school so she got an MBA; her sister became a surgeon.
  • When her boyfriend came home for Easter, he fell in love with her twin.

A year later that former boyfriend married her identical, twin sister.

What Lights Your Fire?

In the movie Chariots of Fire, someone asks Harold Abrams why he runs so fast. He says, “When that gun goes off, I raise my eyes and look down that corridor, 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence.” Eric Liddle says, “When I run I feel God’s pleasure.”

People who appear indistinguishable on the outside (fast, friendly, successful, or moral) are energized by competing powers.

Greatness and saint-ness are not matters of natural degree but matters of supernatural infusion. The “great” dispose themselves to endeavors, whereas great believers gravitate toward God.

It is not a matter of activism versus mysticism; the great go, whereas saints are sent.

Extraordinary heroes draw attention to the person or plan (“Wasn’t Steve Jobs brilliant and isn’t this church-growth plan wise?”) whereas spiritual heroes are ordinary people who are made extraordinary by the life of God inside them.

The worldly genius zigs. God calls us to zag.

Human Sweat

We believers are too easily vitalized by the sweat of human effort. When we worship worldly wisdom—the “Three Keys” to this and the “Seven Principles” of that—we make alliances with Egypt; it tells us to rest in our best.

We “go” when God calls us to “come.” Our plots hamstring God’s plans.

Recently (as if the world isn’t noisy enough), those worldly mystics of mysteriously numbered methods have begun to prefix their magic potions with awe-inspiring modifiers: “Life-changing Keys,” “Mind-blowingLessons,” and “Staggering Secrets.”

I wonder what their older siblings do.

Relationship as Fuel

Relationships empower us for good or ill. Some connections thrust us into rivalry, enmity, or despair, but there is another connection that supernaturally turns water into wine:

The most important aspect of Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain and the surrounding influence and qualities produced by that relationship. That is all God asks us to give our attention to. (Oswald Chambers)

We too have an older sibling who out-performs us in every conceivable measure. But he doesn’t compete with us, he completes us. The only fruit of our lives that matters is produced by the life of God in us.

It is not our gifts that distinguish us nearly as much as the fuel that animates them.

Sam

A business owner I barely knew once phoned to see if we could meet. He was an aggressive entrepreneur, a roaring lion among his peers. Yet on the phone, he seemed different, hesitant, a bit humbler, perhaps broken. He certainly choked up a few times in our short conversation.

We met the following Friday, which happened to be his fortieth birthday. He appeared vulnerable and exhausted, and something in my heart went out to him.

He said he had been struggling the last few months. Nothing he did relieved him of the pain. His restless nights were endless, every discussion with his wife ended up in a fight, and he had even lost interest in helping his son play soccer. As he shared, tears silently rolled down his cheeks.

His voice finally broke and he began to sob right there in the restaurant. I was still unsure what his problem was, but I felt sympathy. It hurts to watch someone suffer.

Eventually he gathered himself and explained. Ever since he was a young boy, he had aspired to run a successful business. He set a goal of having ten million dollars in the bank by the age of forty.

“Sam,” he moaned, “Including savings in my 401k, I barely have six million dollars to my name.”

[This conversation happened. As I re-read it here, I shake my head in disbelief. But it happened.]

S.M.A.R.T. Goals

When I was in the business world, we evaluated employees’ progress toward corporate objectives with SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound):

  • Salespeople were gauged by their number of cold calls;
  • Software support analysts were ranked by their average turn-around time on bug fixes;
  • Administrative staff were rated by journal entries keyed in and letters typed;
  • And owners calculated their value on the profits they made.

Even though ministries shy away from the world, the temptation of worldly measurement creeps in:

  • Pastors (and church members) fixate on the size of their Sunday worship attendance;
  • Campus ministries ask for monthly reports on Bible studies led and donor letters sent;
  • And bloggers use Google Analytics to see how many readers they have.

We quantify our lives with numbers: diapers changed, dishes washed, and golf handicaps. (I recently got my golf score down to 74. But then I fell apart on the back nine. Thanks for asking.)

What Is the Measurement of our Lives?

Allen Gardiner was a mid-nineteenth century missionary who passionately longed to plant a mission in South America. In 1850, he and his friends landed on an island off the southern coast of Chile with enough provisions for six months.

The climate was harsh, the local people hostile, the land barren, and the resupply ship was delayed. Short of food and medical supplies, all of Gardiner’s companions suffered the painful death of starvation. Gardiner too finally succumbed, survived only by his journal.

By all modern measures of ministry success, Gardiner’s life was a failure: no sermons preached, no souls saved, not even a single group Bible study. Yet the second to last sentence in his journal reads,

Young lions do lack and suffer hunger; yet they that seek the Lord shall lack no good thing (Psalm 34:10).

Beneath that verse he penned the last words he would ever write,

“I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God.”

Oswald Chambers claims that the “lasting value of our public service for God is measured by the depth of our intimacy with Him.”

Sam