This past November we learned Eden needed to get both braces and a spacing device lodged in the roof of her mouth. It was a bit of a shock, seeing as she’s just seven, but they carefully pointed out to us all the reasons. Too much crowding at the top, which can only result in a toothy mess. A severe overbite that would eventually bring about chewing issues. All of this working together to create significant gum and jaw pain. I’m sure there was one reason more – the orthodontist’s son needed a new car – but that one was wisely left out of the PowerPoint presentation. We took it all in and decided what needed to be done needed to be done, and it would be done over Eden’s Christmas break. Eden was none too pleased, but she was largely quiet about it, except one initial outburst of tearful anger over there being far less popcorn in the near and foreseeable future. As the big day drew closer, however, she grew even quieter, folding in on herself despite our attempts to talk with her about it. Spotting the agony, Sarah and I did what any good parent does – we kicked around calling the whole thing off. But we did what any good parent does – we didn’t. So, just after the first of the year, Eden got her braces.
We had long planned to get some ice cream after the appointment, and on the drive there, Eden asked if she could play a game on my phone. What she really wanted to do, however, was fire up the camera and use the self-display option to get a good look at herself. And when she did, unbeknownst to her, she took a picture. There she is, peering down at the screen. She doesn’t look too certain as to whether or not she likes what she sees – as to whether or not she likes who she “is.” But the way the lips are slightly curled back and the corners of her mouth are just starting to pull up – it all has the appearance of someone finding their way toward a smile.
Now here’s a curious thing: Each time I’ve looked at this picture in the last several weeks, my phone has become a mirror. Strangely enough, as I’ve looked at the picture, it’s felt as though I’m using the self-display option as I do. I’m looking at myself as I look at her. Because her story right now is my story right now, though the particulars are quite different.
One of the great sins of my life has been an ongoing self-loathing that flirts with self-hatred. Of course, this is no brave confession on my part, because we are all often laid low by this sin – and for two reasons: We allow self-loathing to settle in when we remember who we’ve sometimes been (think “sinful”), and we just as often allow it in when we think on who we’ve never quite been able to be (our very “self,” at its base). Self-loathing has certainly come about time and again in my life for the first reason, but for a good number of years in my life, the second reason has been my source of spiraling.
In the summer of 1994, right at the mid-way point of high school, I began to have an uneasy feeling that God was in pursuit of me for a life of ministry. I describe the feeling exactly as it was for me – uneasy – because I wanted nothing to do with ministry. Because – my father. This is not to say he was an unbelieving man who would be ashamed over, or angry at, his believing son and his vocational decision. (He was a New Testament professor at a seminary, for goodness’ sake!) And this isn’t to say I was worried my father would accuse me of misreading God. (He was much more likely to whisper an “I told you so” on the other side of a playful nudge with his elbow.) I’m actually being as straight forward as I can be when I say “my father” was the source of my unease. He – who he was, all that he was – was the reason for my reluctance to enter into ministry. You see, I knew I wasn’t my father. I was not – nor could I ever be – Robert Lowery. Dr. Robert Lowery. Searingly brilliant. Golden-tongued. Courageous and decisive. Strikingly pastoral. Near-endless capacity. Prophetic in both prescience and the ability to address the critical here-and-now issues. When this fella is your model of ministry, a call to ministry in your own life will make you tremble, or at the very least – on your better days – make you laugh to the point of tears.
But God’s pursuit continued despite my trembling and guffawing, and what was I to do but yield?
I do wish I could tell you I remember all the moments the Body breathed life into me in the first five, six, seven years of ministry – this via comments whispered in my ear after a sermon or the little notes taped to my doorframe a few days after a counseling session. Because those moments were there. But these are the moments I remembered then, and sometimes still now when I’m in a weaker state: The moment just after I had preached at a small church in Springfield and a man sought me out at the back of the room to say he could hear a bit of my father in me – to which another man standing nearby called out, “He’s no Bob Lowery.” Or that Sunday after I had invited my dad to guest lecture in a study of the Sermon on the Mount I’d been leading – one of the attendees said, “You’re good, but your dad sure is a whole lot better. When’s he coming back?” (To be fair, his wife punched him in the arm and said, “You could have said that better,” to which I added, “He couldn’t have said it worse.”) Or that elders meeting I expressed my desire to lead us through a study of servant-leadership, and the first and only response was, “Do you think you could get your dad here to do it?”
These moments and more are what I carried around with me for the first several years of ministry – which explains, in part, why at one point I decided to retreat to the world of editing for nearly four. (As I look back with new eyes on my editorial career, I do think my vocational choice served as a quiet confession: “I don’t have much to say that’s of worth, so perhaps my call in life is to tweak and tidy up the words of the lions among us.”)
And then a flurry of things.
I read Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, and it started to unlock me a bit. (To borrow one of his opening metaphors, I started to identify a good and raging river in my life that had been trapped somewhere under the ice.)
If you’ve read them, maybe you’ll understand, or if you have, maybe you won’t (who knows!), but I’ve thanked God often for leading me along to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Frederick Buechner’s Godric (and really, anything by Buechner). I am nothing like the whiskey priest or the fumbling saint; I am the whiskey priest and the fumbling saint.
And while we’re on the subject of reading, if you’ve read it, maybe you’ll understand, or if you have, maybe you won’t (who knows!), but the story of Jacob. Somewhere in a box is an old Bible of mine from a few years ago, and the pages that lay out his story – Genesis 25 and following – are dog-eared and tattooed to the extent they are barely readable.
And then a quiet conversation with my father three days before his death – the substance of which I’ve never shared with a soul and never will. But when I see Dad again, I’ll thank him for it a thousand times over.
And counseling. I took a seat on a gifted man’s couch one day a week for a year. (Funny: I knew several dear friends who had gone to counseling to address the issues in their lives born out of having a terrible father; it had never occurred to me there might be some issues in mine because I’d had a wonderful one.)
The books, the stories, that conversation, those counseling sessions – they urged me to ask if I liked what I see, if I liked who I am. And somewhere around 2012, I began to like how I think, how I see, how I speak and write – how I had been fearfully and wonderfully made to partner with God in teasing the kingdom into the world in unique ways. Somewhere around 2012, I found my way toward a smile.
Took me a while, but I got there.
Trouble is, if you don’t relentlessly protect it, you can lose the smile much faster than it takes you to find it – something I’ve learned over the last year-and-a-half.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, in the late spring of 2015, my family accepted the invitation to move down to Florida to minister to and within a church in Lakewood Ranch. And as I’ve also noted elsewhere, before we even pulled into our driveway, right around 120 people had left the church – a little over half the folks. I discovered in time there were various reasons as to why, but the majority of the departures were due to a “the new guy ain’t ever gonna be the old guy” mindset. Soon after I arrived, while I absolutely felt welcomed by many – truly welcomed and loved with immediacy by many – I had my fair share of conversations in the coming months where folks were quick to point out, “You know, he saw things this way,” or “Well, now, he didn’t think that was all that important,” or “He would have never preached that,” or “Just so you know, he did it this way,” or “I bet if he were here, he would…” – you get the picture. I would have had to have been a fool not to acknowledge that for a good number of folks, I was ever and always going to be guilty of at least this, if nothing else: I wasn’t him. And it was as if I was standing once more in the back of that church building in Springfield. As if I was sitting again in that classroom that one Sunday morning. As if I was back in that elders meeting. As if I was caught up in several moments from years ago. And so yes, each time I’ve looked at that picture of Eden in the last several weeks, it’s felt as though I’m using the self-display option as I do. That I’m looking at myself as I look at her. Because her story right now is my story right now, though the particulars are quite different. Do I like what I see? Do I like who I am? By the ministry of the Spirit, and the love of the Body near and far, even these days, these darker days, the way the lips are slightly curled back and the corners of my mouth are just starting to pull up – it all has the appearance of someone feeling their way back toward a smile. Because I can’t be anyone other than me, which is the truth. And I shouldn’t be, which is also the truth.
I don’t know if the old Hasidic story is real or apocryphal. I often think of what my friend Chuck Sackett would say when he was unsure of a story’s authenticity: “I don’t know if it’s true, but it should be.” It’s the story of Rabbi Zusya staring down the end of life. It’s said he said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
I am me. And Dad is Dad. And he is he. And Zusya is Zusya. And you are you. And this is good. This is more than good. This is holy. This is thrilling.