Stronger Stuff

My dad has always been a tinkerer. He’s always liked being able to solve problems and repair things. Growing up, I don’t remember my dad ever taking our car to get an oil change. That was just one of those things he did himself.

Over the course of a a few oil changes he’d slowly fill up this metal container with the used oil, and that stuff was filthy, basically sludge. Once the container was full he’d take the used oil to get recycled, but in the meantime it sat alongside the wall under the eave outside our garage. My brother and I would pass it several times a day, and we’d been told expressly and repeatedly to stay away, to keep our distance.

One lazy summer afternoon when I was seven or eight I was shooed outside the house because “A beautiful day like this shouldn’t be wasted.” I was wandering around, hot and bored, when I happened to stroll slowly past the oil pan by the garage.

I stopped and backpedaled a few steps. I looked around. No one was in sight.

I could hear my heart beating as I got up close enough that my toes were touching the edge of the container, and I could see myself reflected in its inky surface. I knew what I shouldn’t do.

And I did it anyway.

I plunged both hands in until I was up to my elbows.

And it felt good. It was the stuff of kids’ dreams. Thick. Slimy. Dirty.

Not until I pulled my hands out did I realize the depths of the trouble I was in.

The dark muck clung to me even as it dripped from my fingertips. I shook my hands and managed to splatter it all over my legs and shorts. I tried to skim it off my forearms to no avail. I wiped my hands on the t-shirt I wore, but I couldn’t sop up enough of it.

I started to panic.

I snuck inside to the bathroom. I ran the water in the sink and scrubbed and scrubbed with the hand soap, but only managed to smear the oil all over myself, the white porcelain sink, and the tile of the bathroom floor.

I turned off the water, and stood there for a few moments.

And finally, I called for help. I took a deep breath and shouted, “Dad!” The sound of it reverberated off the tiles. Then I heard his footsteps from the other room, then in the hall, and as he opened the door I burst into tears.

I squeezed my eyes shut and lifted my hands to show him. I was covered, head to toe. I’d tried to clean up my mess, and I’d only made it worse.

Without a word he took one of my hands and led me to the kitchen. From under the sink he pulled out a bottle, and from it he squeezed an orange-scented, sandy kind of soap into my hands. Then he stood there and helped me wash away all the mess I’d made. I watched as it disappeared down the drain.

Sin makes an ungodly mess. It makes a mess of us. It makes a mess of the things and the people we use to try and clean it up and cover it up. And it simply cannot be gotten rid of.

Unless… unless you’re given stronger stuff.

The good news is, if we call on him for help, Jesus has… stronger… stuff.

But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:13

The live performance of this story is available at

Curiosity and Confidence

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.Eleanor Roosevelt

Every once in awhile I start to feel like I live in a fortress. Not the kind from fairy tales where it sits atop a dramatic cliff shrouded in a quixotic mist. I’m talking about the grey kind. The dull kind. The kind made mostly of concrete and located somewhere that’s of no interest whatsoever. Like Bakersfield.

This is the fortress I’ve built out of painful experiences, losses, failures, comparisons, and insults. I think most of us have some version of our own dull and dreary fortress.

Inferiority, or at least the feelings of inferiority, cause us to reinforce the fortress, erecting increasingly impenetrable walls so that we can withstand an anticipated onslaught from the outside. All the while, the greatest battle is usually the one waged within.

Inferiority holds us fast. But curiosity takes us places.

I recently finished the book The Curious Mind by Brian Grazer—frequent collaborator of Ron Howard and the producer of Apollo 13, 8 Mile, A Beautiful Mind, and a whole host of other films. He prides himself on his curiosity. He asks questions. All the time. And he purposely makes himself uncomfortable for the sake of asking questions. He makes appointments with people so that he can be uncomfortable so that he will ask questions. He has made the practice of curiosity his lifelong purpose.

It got me thinking about the use of curiosity to overcome fear… or inferiority.

To be honest, almost any appointment on my calendar elicits a certain level of anxiety. If I’ve known the person forever, or if the purpose of the conversation is clear as crystal, I’m usually okay. But if we’ve never met or if I’m not sure where our talk might meander off to, I can feel the walls of my fortress closing in the closer the time comes. I conjure illogical anxieties. I worry that we’ll just stare at one another with nothing to say. I wonder if I’ll blurt out something that will confirm their assumptions that I’m a crackpot, or a racist, or a bigot, or a blasphemer. Maybe worst of all I worry that they’ll find me boring.

Another name for all those fears… inferiority. (Welcome to an area of my brokenness.)

Lately my schedule has been filled with appointments where I can easily imagine all these scenarios playing out. But instead of fear and inferiority I’ve been choosing curiosity. I’ve been asking questions. I’ve been listening carefully to the answers. And I’ve been letting those answers lead me to more questions. Over and over again my fear of being boring has faded into the background as I find the other person increasingly fascinating. The more I lean into curiosity the more I’m finding story. The more questions I ask the more I’m beginning to understand what makes each person tick. When you start to get into the heart of a person it gets hard to hold real interest, empathy, and even friendship at bay.

Sure, I still choose to avoid rooms full of people now and then. Sure, I’m still painfully awkward in conversations here and there. Sure, I sometimes feel a little flutter of anxiety when I see a calendar day full of appointments. But…

Curiosity makes my fortresses fall. And it often seems to break through the defenses of the people I talk with because the more I ask questions the more they begin to trust that I care. And that’s good because I really do care. I care a lot, and curiosity is helping me communicate that care.

More than anything, cultivating curiosity has the beautiful byproduct of making me brave, brave enough to relate, to learn, and to wonder. And I’ll choose that over living in a fortress any day.

Hard Lessons

The cigarette lighter on the dashboard popped up with a metallic click, and my brother flashed me a grin. We were little kids that had been left alone in the car for just long enough to make mischief. He grabbed the black plastic top of it with his fingers and pulled it out sharply. He flipped it around to look at the business end briefly before showing it to me. I leaned in close, hypnotized by the orange glow of the tightly-wrapped coils.

As if reading my mind he said, “Go ahead. Touch it.”


“Why not?”

I hesitated. “It’ll hurt.”

“No it won’t,” he scoffed, as if I’d just said the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. “It tickles.”


“Yeah. Try it.”

I looked at him, trying to read his inscrutable expression. Then something—naivety, trust, hope, curiosity—got the better of me. I reached out my finger.

I can still hear the hiss. And my bet is that my brother might have suffered some hearing loss from my howls. He tried everything he could to quiet me, to say he was sorry, to keep us both out of trouble, but I fully intended to cry until the pain stopped or the tears stopped. That took quite awhile.

Trust your gut. That’s what I learned. But it was a hard lesson, as so many of the most important ones are. Many of them have burned a lot deeper and longer than the tip of my finger did that day.

I wish we could learn everything wrapped up in the warmth of safety and comfort. I wish we could learn all our lessons from laughter and light-hearted living. There’s little doubt that I have gleaned a thing or two from moments like these, but the majority of my most soul-shaping lessons have come as dispatches from despair. Maybe that’s a result of being hard-headed or hard-hearted; more likely, it’s simply the result of being human.

Frankly, to live means that good lessons get learned in awful places. When we fall we learn to hope. When we’re scared we learn to have courage. When we’re hurt we learn to be resilient. And when we mourn we learn to live.

And that may be the worst one of all. How cruel that death should teach us how to live.

It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Ecclesiastes 7:2

The living will lay it to heart. The living would very much like to tuck those moments and those lessons behind the woolen socks and shut them up in a dark drawer forever. The living would like to say, “I’m fine” and mean it. The living would like for the boat to stop it’s infernal rocking.

Last weekend I went to the house of mourning when I attended the memorial for my grandmother, a woman who lived a good life for 101 years. Dear friends were just at a very hard funeral, one where a well-lived life wasn’t lived long enough. And today after work, as I crossed the church parking lot toward my car, I got caught in the flow of mourners streaming out from a late-afternoon funeral, and I politely pretended not to notice the deep sighs and sniffling.

These kinds of moments stir up the chattering of big question and… something else, something a little louder. C.S. Lewis describes it this way:

God whispers to us in our joy and shouts to us in our pain.

Joy and celebration warm the heart, but hardship gets our attention. Hardship makes the heart steadfast, tested, proven, fired, and refined. I’m not looking for some silver lining, but I am trying not to refuse the lessons, the tiny graces that salve these wounds.