Living as if Hostility Has Been Put To Death On the Cross with Jesus, Because It Has, or the Buck Family 2016 Christmas Newsletter

wp-1482369131747.jpg

This is the online version of our 2016 Christmas letter, which includes our Christmas picture this year, which looks something like the one above. The letter’s a bit long but I hope you’ll find it to be worth the read, and so I shared it here too. Here it is:

It happened again. In the midst of a worship experience that was deeply meaningful this morning among our family, the people of Mill City Church, I found myself repeatedly unable to sing. I was just too choked up. I knew this was likely to happen when I realized that Nathan, who would be joining the other elementary school kids on stage to sing with the band today, would be singing “All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons and Daughters. This song is frequently in the worship rotation among Mill City, as are many of All Sons and Daughters’ songs, and their live album is on heavy rotation whenever I’m in the car (my total commute is at least an hour every day) or at home, writing as I am now. I’ve written, in part anyway while talking about other things, about “All the Poor and Powerless” recently on my blog, but some of the lyrics are:

 

All the poor and powerless
And all the lost and lonely
All the thieves will come confess
And know that You are holy
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah

And all the hearts that are content
And all who feel unworthy
And all who hurt with nothing left
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah
[x2]

Shout it
Go on and scream it from the mountains
Go on and tell it to the masses
That He is God
[x5]

 

There’s a little more to the song as it repeats some of the words above, but you get the idea. Here’s Nathan practicing with the band today while singing this song:

wp-1482364218092.jpg

That’s him to the far right on the second row. This song has been something of an anthem of mine of late.

It’s had particular resonance because for some time continuing to declare that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed instead of a joyous cry. It’s also been resonant because of the context in which this song has gained its currency for me. As I’ve said, we’ve sung it quite a bit during Mill City Church worship gatherings and this song and All Sons and Daughters’ whole “Live” album has been the soundtrack for our entrance into a faith community that, for the first time in a long time, feels like the family we were meant to be a part of, the people with whom we were meant to be on a mission together. If you’re interested in knowing more about the long journey that led us to become covenant members of Mill City Church, there’s a 6 part(!) series on this blog that culminates with the post: “Why I’ve Started Talking About Mill City Church.”

Speaking of my blog, lately I’ve been writing here about my summer in 1995 doing Kingdomworks, the life changing experience in which I and 8 other (relatively) rich white college students lived in an inner-city church building in SW Philly where we ran a day camp, Sunday School, and youth group for the neighborhood kids, hoping to empower that congregation to do ministry that it couldn’t do otherwise. Here are some pictures from Kingdomworks that maybe give you a little bit of the flavor of the experience:

wp-1482364267238.jpg

I’ve written a fair bit about Kingdomworks on my blog; so I won’t repeat it here other than to say what I usually say about it, that during that summer I was able to “build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.” This realization I had about suffering was connected to the larger awakening that was occurring in me at the time during my Gordon College days as I also realized (as I’ve also long said) that “God isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male that lives in the ‘burbs, shops at the mall, and spends his days pursuing the ‘American dream’ like most other people I knew at the time.” I’ve been writing again about Kingdomworks because of a recent sequence of events that included me learning something about one of my Kingdomworks’ teammates, someone that I was close to during that summer. This teammate, Holly, afterward wrote me that she longed to be back out there, “on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting, where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.” She knew that I felt called to be back in the city serving however I could (and indeed as soon as Kirsten and I got married that’s just where we went), and Holly wrote that she felt a similar calling and that when she and I both went back to serve in the city we’d do it “for them this time,” for the kids. This was a telling sentiment, as perhaps not surprisingly as an experience that was only about two months long Kingdomworks was far more effective at bringing lasting change for we (relatively) rich white college students than for the (relatively) poor, mostly black kids we had served in the inner-city. Perhaps this was the point. Anyway, I recently learned that while Holly is now doing amazing work that is very meaningful to her, it doesn’t have much to do with serving kids in the city, but more to the point she no longer calls herself a person who follows Jesus.

Bart Campolo, the son of Tony Campolo, started Kingdomworks all those years ago, and then not long after I did the program, he transitioned it from a summer program in one city to a year long program in multiple cities and renamed it Mission Year. Mission Year is still going strong today under new leadership. Like Holly, Bart no longer calls himself a Jesus follower these days and has some notoriety as the first humanist chaplain at USC. I love Bart and still consider him a friend (though I’m not claiming to be a close personal one). His impact on my life has been huge, and I think he’s doing great work at USC that’s not unlike the work he’s always done. He’s always been about building community and inspiring people to love and serve those around them. He’s just not doing it in Jesus’ name anymore, and his journey to reach that point is a story he’s told very publicly and continues to do so.

I bring all this up, though, in a Christmas letter no less, for a couple of reasons. I do so in the first place because the struggle to follow Jesus and the temptation not to, for lots of good reasons, is one that I can relate to. As I said above, for some time now declaring that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed rather than a joyous cry. There are lots of reasons for that which I’ve explored in depth again on my blog if you’re interested. The other reason I’m bringing all this up in this letter is because of a dream I recently had. I should mention that during my Kingdomworks experience I had a couple of opportunities to get away for a night over the weekend. During one such opportunity I took the train from SW Philly way out into the ‘burbs where I stayed at a Gordon College friend’s house. She and I weren’t particularly close but she knew that I was in the midst of an intense experience and she graciously offered me a momentary reprieve from it. I was grateful. So in my dream, I was back at her house, searching in her basement for something I had been storing there. I woke up before finding it, but when I recounted the dream to Kirsten I realized how symbolic it was.

Something happened to me during Kingdomworks that fundamentally changed me. That much is clear as I’ve spent the better part of 21 years trying myself to get back out there “where we belong,” as Holly put it, in the city, serving kids, but “for them this time.” I suspect that part of what my dream may be telling me is that I left something there in SW Philly in the hot summer of 1995, and I’ve spent a long time trying to go back and find it.

What exactly did I leave in Philly 21 years ago, perhaps in my college friend’s basement, at least metaphorically speaking? There were probably a number of things, to be sure, and some of them for the good. For example, I left behind, I hope, a childish faith that in its individualistic and consumeristic nature was likely as “American” as it might have been Christian. I left behind, I hope, a selfish faith that was all about me getting my “fire insurance” so that I could avoid hell and enjoy God’s heavenly retirement plan instead. I left behind, I hope, a narrow-minded worldview that only ever took into account myself and people who look and think like me. I left behind, I hope, selfish regard for my “own personal suffering” that I experienced in my abusive childhood home, and as I’ve said, in exchange I hope I gained empathy for the suffering that’s “out there, in the world.” In exchange for all those things I left behind during that summer, I hope I also gained an at least slightly more mature faith that is communal, not individualistic and consumeristic; that is about allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, not “America;” that is about living as if God’s kingdom of love, justice, and (especially) peace is already here, even when it so often feels so far away and not yet fully realized; and I hope I gained a faith that recognizes that if the inbreaking of such a good, loving, just, and peaceful kingdom into our troubled and tired world is to be good news, it must be good news for us all, especially those who suffer daily so that we rich white Westerners can enjoy our “great” way of life.

When I came back from Kingdomworks, I found myself experiencing culture shock as I went from a brief but intense experience in inner city Philly among folks who didn’t look much like I did and who lived very different lives than I had ever imagined possible, back to the serene, pastoral environment of Gordon College where I was again among (relatively) rich white young people like myself. I always said it was hard to be back there when I knew that “kids were dying on the streets of Philadelphia.” What I didn’t know then, but certainly do now and have for some time, is that however hard but beautiful the lives of black kids in SW Philly might be, it hardly compares to the lives far too many people, especially and including kids, still experience in the developing world in places like Africa and India, for example. And it’s again worth noting that, as I keep saying, there’s a direct relationship, a causal link, between the grinding poverty of the poorest of the poor, the 11% of the world that in 2013 lived on less than $2/day, and the “great” way of life we in the U.S. and other rich Western countries enjoy, where, for example, in the U.S. the average person lives on $140/day. Though some in this country are unwilling to face this fact, our comfort comes at their expense. The world simply cannot support everyone living like we do. If all of God’s children are to live sustainably, our way of life must change; our standard of living must come down so that theirs can rise.  

So back at Gordon College after Kingdomworks, I found myself questioning everything, starting with God and his alleged goodness. Thus began a project I’ve worked on for more than two decades, and will likely continue to do so. As a young person I had a deeply meaningful and vital relationship with Jesus as I learned to rely on God in the absence of reliable parents. The home of my youth was nominally “Christian,” but also terribly abusive. After Kingdomworks I found my childhood, child-like faith gone. I desperately wanted to trust and believe that Jesus loved me as I always had. I wanted to believe in a loving God that was actively loving the world just as I always had, despite the unloving home I had grown up in. Yet I found those beliefs impossible to reconcile with the brokenness I had witnessed in the inner-city and the abject poverty I came to know was the reality for far too many around the world. If I dared to believe that Jesus loved me and was looking out for me and even “working things out” for my good, what did that say about the lives of folks who seemed utterly abandoned, utterly bereft of such care and provision?

This is a question I still struggle to make sense of. Of course, underneath that question is another one: “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” One of the reasons I suspect Bart Campolo eventually decided not to follow Jesus anymore is because of the way he struggled with a similar question about evil in the world. He famously wrote a piece when he still called himself a Jesus-follower that got him into some trouble for reasons I’ve again explored on my blog, but in the piece he wrestles with a horrific act of evil that occurred and the question of why God didn’t intervene to stop it. Bart concluded then that the essential relationship between love and freedom required a world in which God would allow such an evil to occur, but because Bart could only believe in a god “at least as good as he was,” it therefore also had to be true that God would somehow redeem that act of evil and every other one throughout human history, a project which Bart said “apparently was a long and difficult task,” considering all the evil that keeps happening in the world. Such logic is cold comfort for those who face such evil in the here and now, and still we wonder why God doesn’t just fix everything. If God is good and loving and powerful, how long must we wait for a peaceable kingdom in which the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are beaten into ploughshares and enemies experience reconciliation and friendship at a common table?

Into this yearning, in the midst of this groaning and conflict, God gives us Jesus.  Jesus is the fullest and final revelation of who God is. He is the “lens” through which we must view the rest of scripture, and he is the answer to the question of if or when God will ever do anything. By putting on flesh and moving into the neighborhood, God chose to join us in our place of suffering and experience the worst of it himself all the way up to death, “even death on a cross.” As Michael Binder of Mill City Church said this past Sunday, Jesus not only offers us peace, but is our peace. Michael preached on Ephesians 2:14-18, which dealt with divisions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews were considered, or at least considered themselves, to be “near” to God because they were sons and daughters of Abraham, with whom God had first made a covenant and to whom God had first promised a blessing. It was to Israel that God had given the law “with its commands and regulations” that pointed the way toward right relationship with God, one another, and the world. Of course, this law was impossible to keep and broken relationships were the result. Meanwhile, Gentiles or non-Jewish people were considered (by Jews) to be “far” from God basically because they weren’t Jews. They weren’t natural sons and daughters of Abraham and so weren’t heirs to the promises given to him and his descendents. Sadly, these categories and the divisions that came from them ignored the fact that God originally blessed Abraham in order to be a blessing to all the world. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus addresses this and urges peace among the two camps, those Jews and Gentiles who had both decided to follow Jesus, because as we read in the text:

14 …he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Thus, as Michael reminded us, the cross acts to “level the playing field” not just between Jews and Gentiles but among all the groups we find ourselves categorized and divided into today. As I also said recently in a blog post, God didn’t kill his son on the cross in an act of “cosmic child abuse” in order to arbitrarily satisfy rules God established that we could never follow in the first place. Instead, God’s willingness to be “God with us” means that God was willing to be with us even in the place of our deepest conflict, where we experience the final separation from God and one another that our sin causes. Sin, after all, is “missing the mark.” It’s not living into and up to the ideal of right, loving relationship that we were made for. This failure to love each other as we ought (“sin”) causes brokenness in our relationships (separation), and the end result of that brokenness especially in our relationship with God is death, because it is in Jesus that “all things hold together,” and to be cut off from God is to be cut off from the very source of ongoing life itself. We cannot bridge this gap ourselves, but God can, and God did. In his willingness to be put to death on the cross in order to break into the place where we were ultimately separated from God and one another, Jesus put to death the brokenness in our relationship not only with God but with one another and with God’s good world.

Reflecting again on the Ephesians passage above, we obviously could not and cannot follow all the “commands and regulations” of the law that pointed us in the direction of the right relationships we were made for; so God again put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and “set the law aside” in that very skin, in his flesh that was pierced and bloodied and put to death on the cross. In so doing, God begins creating a new humanity, a unified humanity that no longer is bound to experience separation. In Christ then there not only is no longer Jew or Greek or male or female (inasmuch as we are divided from one another by these categories), but there is also no longer rich or poor, or white or black, or Republican or Democrat. Conservatives and liberals and Trump supporters and Clinton supporters no longer need to be separated from one another. Our hostility has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, and we all have access to the same Father through his Spirit.

If we who used to be Republicans or Democrats or “Americans” or Russians or Somalis instead lived solely as part of the new humanity God is making and citizens of God’s peaceable kingdom that is upon us, then we finally would be the ones we’ve been waiting for; we would be the change we hope to see in the world. God did do something about all the evil and injustice in the world. He put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and absorbed the worst violence, the worst evil, that we in our brokenness had set loose in the world. He allowed himself to be put to death to break into our place of separation and so put to death also the hostility between us. He began making a new humanity by preaching peace to those who were near to God and those who were far from God, and then he unleashed these redeemed and reconciled people to be a people who live as if that’s who they are, to be reconcilers and peace-makers in the world. God sent the world Jesus, and Jesus keeps sending himself into the world through us.

As I keep saying, I respect and love my friend Bart, but all the reasons I too might have for not following Jesus- all the brokenness and suffering and evil in the world- aren’t evidence that God has abandoned us and isn’t worth following or that there is no god after all. Rather, it turns out these are all reasons to follow Jesus. The world needs supporters of Black Lives Matter (and indeed black lives do!) and Trump voters to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Children in Aleppo desperately need those who support Assad and those who don’t to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Jews and Palestinians desperately need to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. By following Jesus, together, we become the new humanity God is making and thus the peace the world so desperately needs, which once seemed so far away, suddenly comes near.

It is true and lasting peace that in some ways I think I was metaphorically looking for in my friend’s basement in greater Philly in my dream, perhaps because I felt like maybe I lost it in the hot summer of ’95 as I did Kingdomworks. Certainly I “lost” something that summer, but I hope what I left behind was an immature faith that is even now giving way to a more mature one. That said, if it really is true and lasting peace that I yearn for both in the world and in my own broken heart, there is only one place to find it. True and lasting peace was born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. It is Immanuel, God with us. Thus as we wait in this season of Advent for Jesus to come to us again in a few days, I am filled with hope, and I pray that you will be too. I am filled with hope because for the first time in a long time I can joyously cry that “he is God,” especially for “all the poor and powerless.” For too long this was instead a painful duty, but no longer. Peace has come, and continues to do so. Let’s join Jesus in making it a lived reality for us all. Amen.

Family Update: Now, here’s a little update about each of us over the past year. Sam has a mentor through Mill City Church that he’s just about to start meeting with. He’s a middle schooler now and has been making that transition with a few bumps in the road here and there but mostly with great success. He’s on target developmentally to have the right level of teenage snark and angst ready to go when needed, but remains at heart an incredibly sweet, compassionate, and kind-hearted young man. We’re very grateful for him! Sam is in orchestra as a 6th grader this year and just had his first viola concert the other night. Here are some pictures from that:

wp-1482364640024.jpg

Nathan also had a big transition this year, into all-day Kindergarten. He’s a young Kindergartner but is doing great so far, and we’re also very, very proud of him. He remains the attention-seeking entertainer in the family and is always cracking us up with his witty zingers and antics. For example, it wasn’t long into his elementary school career that he got in trouble at school not once in a day, but twice, including having to go to the principal’s office, because he thought it would be funny to sit (clothed, thankfully) in the urinal in the boys’ room. We can get him to eat all of whatever healthy thing he’s being picky about at dinner by convincing him that he can beat me at arm-wrestling, but only if he eats it all. He always “wins” when he does, but I still beat him handily when he doesn’t. So he keeps asking when he’ll be the same age as I am, thinking once he “catches up” to me he’ll be able to defeat me. Also, noting their relative sizes and that he’s growing all the time, he assumed Kirsten is growing just like he is and asked her if she would be a giant some day. That’s Nathan, in a nutshell. Here he is for ya:
wp-1482364283949.jpg

Kirsten continues working at Gillette Children’s Hospital, though in March of 2016 she transitioned out of direct care and began working in their phone triage department. Telehealth has been an interesting transition for her that has brought new challenges each day. She’s enjoyed most importantly being off night shift and hopefully is adding back the years working overnight for so long had quite possibly taken from her life. Being in an office environment has also hopefully been a positive move. It remains challenging work, though, as the nursing shortage reaches all the way into her little office, which is chronically short-staffed, leaving she and her colleagues stressed and constantly risking burnout as a result. Kirsten says she dreams of opening a used bookstore/coffee shop with me some day. Maybe someone will magically pay off our debt and fund that. Meanwhile, the boys and I continue to be blessed beyond what we deserve by Kirsten’s other, more than full-time, around the clock work as a wife and mother. Here are some pictures of Kirsten being wonderful as usual:
wp-1482364294189.jpg

As for myself, I continue serving disabled individuals who choose to live in their own home rather than a nursing home through a case management role vocationally. That (sort of) pays the bills so that I can pursue my avocation, which is writing. I do that mostly on my blog, but I’ve also written a little for Mill City Church’s website and may do so again, if they’ll have me, and when I can make time I “blog for books” too. A former pastor once told me I might get “discovered” for my writing posthumously. I should be so lucky. In the meantime, if you know a good publisher and want to put in a good word for me this side of the grave, please do! Here I am recently with my “bundle of boys:”  

wp-1482365038787.jpg

 

Merry Christmas 2016 and Happy New Year 2017 from Robert, Kirsten, Sam, and Nathan

wp-1482367700955.jpg

Bravely Running Away…or not

Sir Robin I may or may not be, but I came across this today. It’s an article in Runner’s World about Peter Sagal. First of all, his NPR show- Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me– is one of my favorites. If you’ve never listened to it, do yourself a favor and do so. You won’t regret it. I also learned after I started running that he’s a runner too, and a good one (a Boston qualifier with a good time to boot). What I didn’t know is that he started running for reasons similar to my own, which I’ll get into later (mine aren’t identical, but definitely related). Anyway, it’s a great piece about him, and it reminded me of the one at the end of this post from the Dallas Morning News (also linked here).

I can also relate to Rick’s story, with the compulsive eating of sweets (especially ice cream) and all. I didn’t lose 300 pounds like he did. It was only about 110 in my case from my peak of 260 to my lowest on my 35th birthday (this past June) after a long run when I clocked in at 150. Still, his story really resonates with me, even to the point of experiencing what I guess both he and Peter and so many other dieters speak of, that is, the infamous diet “yo-yo.” Today, as I write this, I weigh much closer to 200 (still under, though, thanks be to God) than I do 150, giving me the unenviable task of dropping back down pretty quickly, hopefully in time for the half marathon I’m supposed to be training to run in a mere 45 days(!)…

So I guess that all brings me to this: as this final link points out, if you know someone (like me) who is struggling to train for a marathon or just to fully integrate a running/fit lifestyle, please ask us how it’s going. Encourage us if you get a chance and help keep us accountable. As you might imagine, it’s damn hard work, in my case requiring me to rise most days around 4 am so that I can get in the required training miles (and I hate running in the dark) before a full day of work, commuting, caring for Samuel and getting him in bed on days when Kirsten is at work, etc. As the article puts it:

So next time you know someone training for a marathon, don’t wait until the big day to congratulate them. Ask how their training is going — which, by the way, is a guaranteed conversation starter with a runner of any distance. Encourage them. Support them. And know that even non-superheroes like you and I can run a marathon.

Likewise, if you know someone who is now dieting or who struggles with weight (like me), ask us how that’s going too. If it’s going well, we’ll be eager to share. If not, though we might be inclined to hide it (until our body won’t allow us to anymore), doing so will only make it worse, and hopefully deep down we know that. In my case, I eat compulsively not only because I like the taste of the poison I pick (though who among us doesn’t at least at some level enjoy our vices?) but in order to mask or dull my pain. Of course, as I was recently reminded, I’ll never learn not to use/abuse food anymore until I learn a little more about that pain.

It’s frustrating and ironic, as after all the years of writing and therapy and cell groups and the like (and now running!) I think I ought to know my own pain pretty well. It’s a well-tread story, right? I grew up in an abusive, though “Christian,” home (my mother was the abuser and you can read all about it here, here, and perhaps especially here). So what gives? What am I still running from (no pun intended)? What is it I still don’t know about myself? Obviously, I’ve faced a lot in my life- from the abusive upbringing to the parent deaths to taking in the surviving parents to Samuel’s birth (and all that surrounded it) to our struggles in OH to uprooting ourselves to get here to TX due to my Dad’s cancer, and on and on the list goes. If I want to be depressed about something, I’ve got plenty to pick from, recognizing always that as a middle class white male in the U.S. I’m among the richest and most privileged people ever to walk the face of the earth. Still, by the grace of God and through various experiences in loving community I’ve been fairly resilient- or better said- I’ve experienced more than my fair share of grace. Sadly, it took writing those words just now for me to realize/remember that (again- that grace is what’s it’s all about). I’ve been hurt a lot, sure, but maybe it’s time to finally stop analyzing and categorizing and quantifying my pain because even if I could quantify it whatever suffering I’ve known will never come close to comparing to the grace I’ve been blessed with. I may not fully “know” that quite yet, but long ago I resolved that I may do no better in the Christian life than to spend it plumbing the depths of God’s great love for me, and it’s time I started living like that again.

In the meantime, I’ll run and swear off the sweets again. I may still be running away from my past and the pain and the fat abused kid who got made fun of in my “Christian” elementary, middle, and high school. But I KNOW that’s what I’m doing and even as I work my ass off to get fit, lose weight, and train for the half marathon, I’m also working damn hard to make a transition to start running toward something too. And eventually maybe I’ll run solely with my face forward rather than constantly peering over my shoulder. Some day I’ll run with head held high as I picture before me the future God has for me and do my best to enjoy the NOW of it all along the way. Until then, if you see me, ask me about my diet and running and encourage me if you feel like it because I sure could use it.

Oh, and I would be greatly remiss if I didn’t mention Back on My Feet. I discovered them about a week ago and have been so excited to connect with them and join up, as this gives me a reason to not just stop looking back and finally face forward as I run, but to finally stop thinking about myself and let God use me to extend to others some of that grace I’ve been so fortunate to receive. If you run or want to or even just care about justice at all, please, please check out Back on My Feet. You’ll be glad you did.

Below is that Dallas Morning News article, which I’ve copied for your perusal since they’ve erected a paywall for much of their content now.

Dallas man loses 300 pounds and keeps it off

Photo: RON HEFLIN/Special Contributor
Rick Salewske has found daily exercise and an almost fervent stance are the keys to maintaining his size.
A
Text Size

By DARLA ATLAS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Published 30 November 2010 01:07 AM

Rick Salewske hasn’t tasted ice cream in 10 years.

Until October 2000, the treat had been his favorite source of comfort, and he often overindulged.

“I’d always have ice cream at night,” says Salewske, 48. “Those Nutty Buddy bars – I’d have four of those. Or I’d go to Braum’s, where they have the hot-fudge triple sundae. Sometimes I’d go to the store at midnight just to get my ice cream.”

Back then, Salewske was a different person in mind and body. He weighed 538 pounds and was almost defiant about it: “I’d think, ‘I’m a good person. I love my parents, I don’t do drugs. I support myself. Why do I have to change?’ “It took an intervention of sorts, followed by unwavering dedication, to lose 300 pounds, which he’s kept off for eight years. While his weight has fluctuated by 30 or 40 pounds now and then, Salewske sees himself not only as a weight-loss success story, but a weight-maintenance winner as well.

For Salewske, a production scheduler at ClarkWestern Building Systems in Dallas, going back to his unhealthy self isn’t an option.

“I can’t believe there are people out there who lose 300 pounds and gain it right back,” he says.

He’d be surprised. Maintaining a weight loss – be it 50 or 200 pounds – is a challenge many aren’t up for, says Dr. Edward Livingston, director of the bariatric surgery program at UT-Southwestern Medical Center.

After all the work it takes to lose the pounds, why do people regain?

“One way it happens is that we sort of slide off the wagon slowly,” Livingston says. “One cookie becomes two and then three, and then it’s the whole bag. The other thing I’ve seen happen is that there’s a life event, and the person just gives up and gets depressed.” Salewske, who weighed 538 pounds 10 years ago, was almost defiant about it. ” onclick=”return clickedImage(this);” onmouseover=” this.style.cursor=’hand'” src=”/sharedcontent/dws/img/v3/11-30-2010.NGD_30RICK1.1.GKI2U1DU6.1.jpg”> Family Photo Salewske, who weighed 538 pounds 10 years ago, was almost defiant about it.

They begin eating – which, unfortunately, helps for a moment.

“Food activates the same pleasure centers in your brain as some drugs do,” he says.

‘The Biggest Loser’

Even losing weight in the limelight doesn’t guarantee keeping it off. At the end of every season of The Biggest Loser, victorious contestants are seen pumping their newly toned arms as confetti falls around them. Check back a year later, and several have ballooned back to their former sizes.

“It’s strictly a willpower issue,” Livingston says. “If you’ve got the willpower, you can do it.”

Salewske has enough of that and then some, but he didn’t in 1981, when he moved from Michigan to Dallas and ate out of loneliness. By the time he drove home for Christmas in 1999, his family was distraught by what he was doing to himself.

“My parents sat me down and told me, ‘Your sisters were crying last night. They think you’re going to die,’ ” he recalls.

By 2000, Salewske had a 66-inch waist and wore 6X shirts. He turned down a job back in Michigan, which he’d landed sight unseen, because of his weight.

The CEO at his job in Texas was grateful he’d turned down the other position, but he was also worried about Salewske’s health.

He said, ‘Rick, I want you to work for me for the next 20 years. But if you don’t lose the weight, you’re not going to be around for 20 years. Go find a program, and we’ll support you,’ ” he recalls.

That led Salewske to the Cooper Aerobics Center, which helped transform his eating and exercise habits. By 2003, he’d lost 300 pounds, was named Cooper’s Man of the Year, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in People magazine, and married his wife, Kelley, with whom he now has two sons. Success was his.

That success could easily have been fleeting.

“I haven’t been perfect, believe me,” he says of the fluctuations. Earlier this year, for example, he’d started making late-night trips for fast food again, and he’d find himself snacking on the kids’ potato chips.

“I got on the scale in March of this year and weighed 284 pounds, which was probably the heaviest I’ve been since I lost the 300 pounds,” he says. “I go, ‘Man, this has got to stop.’ ”

After quitting the junk food again, he dropped back to 245 pounds. As for exercise, Salewske works it in every day by going to the gym or jogging around his neighborhood.

Salewske takes an almost fervent stance on maintaining his size.

“In our lives, so many things can be taken away from us,” he says. “We could lose our house, our jobs, money in the stock market. If you lose the weight and stay committed and feel good about yourself, nobody can ever take that away from you. Nobody’s going to put that 300 pounds back on you.”

Except, of course, the person who lost it in the first place. To formerly overweight folks like himself, Salewske has some not-so-fun maintenance advice.

“If we’re the type of people that gain 50, 60, 100, 200, 300 pounds, that’s who we are,” he says. “It’s kind of like being an alcoholic. You always have to watch it.”

Ditch the falsehoods

Which means giving up the excuses or little mind games that lead to backsliding. Among them:

•It’s OK to have a cookie here and there.

“I don’t think so,” Salewske says, “because before you know it, it’s been a week, two weeks, and you’ve had a cookie every night. Now you have to break that habit again.”

•Life is too short to deny yourself all of its pleasures.

“I’ve never known anyone who hasn’t lost a lot of weight who isn’t much happier,” Livingston says.

“They feel better and they’re more energetic. So it’s a tradeoff.”

•After the weight-loss goal is reached, it’s fine to have a “cheat meal.” Or a whole cheat day, even.

“If you believe you should have a cheat day, then you believe you need those bad foods to get through,” Salewske says. “That’s just like an alcoholic saying, ‘Hey, I can go three months without drinking, but I deserve one day when I can drink!’ ”

Livingston agrees that “if you cheat once, it’s hard to stop cheating. Your brain just seeks that holiday day.”

•Once the weight is lost through a plan such as the Atkins Diet, it’s fine to gradually go back to normal eating.

Livingston calls such diets – along with contests such as The Biggest Loser – unnatural programs for weight loss. “After a while, you get tired of it and regain the weight. You need to make a lifestyle change you can live with, and live with forever.”

•Weight-loss surgery prevents people from putting the weight back on.

Wrong, Livingston says. “With bariatric surgery, lots of people are completely unmotivated and think surgery will fix the problem. They gain it back.”

At the other end of the spectrum are weight-loss winners such as Salewske, who work at it every day.

“You get used to saying, ‘You know what? Maybe I can go the rest of my life without ever eating a doughnut,’ ” he says. Or ice cream, even. Salewske is confident that Nutty Buddys and Dove bars are forever part of his past.

“Ice cream was really, really bad for me,” he says, recalling the hold it had on him and his life. “I haven’t had it, and I won’t. And it’s OK. I don’t need it.”

Darla Atlas is a Fort Worth freelance writer.

My Absence from the Blog-o-Sphere:

Does it make your heart grow fonder?

I could offer the usual explanations at this point for my lack of blogging, and maybe later I will. In the meantime, I can tell you I’m on my 3-week summer break from work (I work in a school); so "Vacation Robert" is in full effect- and I spent the first week of that time visiting with my Dad, who was in town just prior to his 75th birthday. Here’s Samuel and Grandpa in the picture below, which I think speaks for itself:

Shhhhh!

Well, here I am again. I really do intend to write daily, though adopting this discipline is challenging, as one might expect. I get so busy; maybe better said, I choose to be so busy that is hard to make the time for this important thing- writing/reflection. There is so much I want to accomplish, and the need to produce, to do, to distract myself from the inner life is so thoroughly entrenched that it seems as much a part of who I am as the need to breathe. The challenge to "simply" be is one that I can not even adequately imagine. Still, I do imagine it, and I wonder what secrets lie hidden in the stillness of my hoped for inactivity. I wonder if what lies there is simply my unadorned, unencumbered self- a self loved unconditionally by Jesus, awash in the grace of God- a self that is ready to be, and to love. In any case, that is the self I hope to become/uncover as I journey more fully into the abundant life Jesus has for me.
 
Of course, I recognize the truth of what I wrote above- that the need to do is so entrenched that it may never be successfully extricated from my core identity, and so I am glad for the season- for Lent. I pray that the mystery of who I am and who I am to be in Jesus will be wrapped up in that of Jesus’ journey to the cross, and that I might be counted worthy of dying with him and rising again to new life. I am glad to take this journey, however haltingly, today, and I pray too for the strength to undertake it again with each new day…until all the days of my life are at an end, and I am ready to begin that part of the journey which days can no longer measure.

The long-term value of a good pastor

I spoke recently with Debbie Blue, on of our pastors in MN for five years, and I am very glad that I did. She is wonderfully encouraging and even a bit prophetic, and she "gets" the gospel. Moreover, she knows us and our story- all that we’ve been through and all that we have to offer, and is specifically very encouraging along those lines. She’s in the process of writing another book, this one about how Christians make an idol of the Bible (which I am very excited to read), and I think that it was in part my conversation with her that inspired me to begin more proactively pursuing the writing life myself. After speaking with her, I was also inspired to more intentionally pursue a sense of community among those relationships that we do have here.
 
Tomorrow I go for a third(!) interview at the Blick Clinic for a Home Director position. It’s one full-time job that may actually work for our family right now and would permit Kirsten to cut back her hours a bit. I’m also waiting to hear back about my interview for a half-time Christian Ed. Director position. It sort of feels like the direction of my life hangs in the balance a bit. We’ll see.