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Awaken the Outlaw
Discovering Your Process for Transformation
By Benjamin W. Stroup
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Benjamin W. Stroup
All rights reserved.
The Way It Has Always Been
Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.
—Pierre Marc Gaston de Lévis
The greatest failure in life is not failure itself. It is, rather, our inability to approach the possibility of failure with reasonable excitement and embrace it as a path to success—however we choose to define that. I often choose to avoid failure and attempt success at all costs, wrongly assuming that failure is the opposite of success. But this couldn't be further from the truth. Failure is not the opposite of success but is deeply embedded in the experience of successes both big and small.
From as early as I can remember, I was socialized into following the leader. I learned to take cues from my parents, my brother, my teachers, my spiritual leaders, and my bosses. I didn't realize just how early boundaries were imposed on me until I was the one imposing the boundaries.
I am the father of two young boys. Dinner—or any meal for that matter—is similar to a chess match. You're not really sure what is about to happen, but you are paying as close attention to what you'd like to happen as what is actually happening.
Somewhere in the process of moving from a bottle to table food, we are taught to wait patiently, chew thoroughly, and try everything at least once. But those are the easy things. The hard things are sitting in your chair for the entire meal (or keeping all four chair legs on the floor), not showing everyone at the table the half-chewed food still in your mouth, or even not climbing across the table.
My oldest—as most first children do—adapted to the rules quickly. My youngest is another story.
Sitting down for a meal may be a time-honored tradition for some families. It's a game of trial and error in ours. My youngest believes it is an interruption in his otherwise busy schedule. He sits long enough to take one bite and then bounces out of the chair faster than a cat jumping out of water. He's always running somewhere. At dinnertime, that is typically around the table.
I'm confident both sons will leave an unmistakable mark on the world. But they will do so in very different ways. One will naturally write the rules, and the other will break them. Perhaps it is divine humor to provide such a cosmic counterbalance in our family.
As a husband and father, I want to provide a certain degree of order and stability. It is the expectation of society that parents—especially fathers, from my experience—provide that anchor or security. But you can't have any sense of security without establishing boundaries. There is very fine balance to strike between stability and confinement. This, I believe, is the truth we bump into at moments of interruption that seem to disrupt the natural order of things.
If you are willing to learn to live with a small amount of chaos in your life, you will open yourself up to moments of clarity that will ultimately lead to deep satisfaction in life. Whatever discomfort you experience is worth it.
The Order of Chaos
Authority and rule of law are important. We had to give up certain rights as individuals to come together and live in society with one another. This is the basic premise of the social contract that Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau thought and wrote about. But somewhere along the way of learning to follow the leader down the hall to recess in kindergarten, we forgot to remind the little human beings in our care that boundaries are meant to protect us when the variables and circumstances are the known and predictable. But when the variables change or the situation is unknown, boundaries can contain us and hold us back from discovering new things about ourselves and the world around us.
Most of the rules we are taught are simple. Respect your elders, work hard, pay attention, follow the leader, and always do your best. The net result of these rules when we are young usually comes with some sort of instant gratification. We earn a cookie, extra time to play outside, or the chance to go pick out a new toy at the store. The benefits of following the rules remain fairly straightforward as we grow up. The distance between the act and the gratification isn't quite as instant, though, as we get older.
When we are in middle school, we are asked to decide if college is in our future. We need to know this because, at fourteen years of age, we must decide what college track we follow in high school. When we are eighteen, not even old enough to legally consume alcohol, we are asked to choose a degree program that will dictate our next four years of study and ensure our path to success postcollege. And, of course, we better not screw it up or we'll be in college forever and will send ourselves on a trajectory of failure that we will never be able to recover from.
It makes you feel all warm inside to check all those boxes, but life is not as cut and dry as the expectations imposed on us through community and cultural expectations seem to suggest. But it doesn't stop in college. The insanity continues.
With our degree in hand, we are asked to hand over the next three to four decades of our lives to a company that will offer us security, training, a steady paycheck, and opportunities for professional advancement. As long as we don't do anything criminal or unethical, the company will find something we can do reasonably well until retirement. During those three to four decades, we get married, buy homes and cars, raise children, send them off to college, and lean into and prepare for our retirement years when we have exhausted our use at said company.
That's a great life plan except for one thing: it's not true.
The truth is that some will never have the chance to go to college. And some who can are passing it by without blinking. For those who do go to college, our pursuit of the American Dream will most likely come with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. On career day, we are greeted not by the warm and loving arms of a company who wants to invest in us but a company who pays enough to get us to sign on the dotted line. And when we are no longer useful or it is possible to get the same amount of work in a cheaper or more efficient manner, our jobs will be eliminated.
Our golden retirement plans are left for us to fund. Pensions are something of a relic these days. And most family budgets will buckle under the cost of benefits alone. The house you buy will be mortgaged long enough to carry you into retirement or beyond. Family vacations are a luxury rather than an expectation.
Sometimes you feel like giving up. You feel depressed or angry because the world you thought you were promised isn't the world you seem to be living in. But when you set aside your despair, you realize there is a profound opportunity here. An opportunity to move beyond the illusion of certainty.
Life Is One Big Illusion
In every life there is moment when you realize some part of your life is an illusion. We carelessly demand the truth from others while letting ourselves off the hook from accepting the truth that is before us. This truth comes when all the variables of the equation are in place but the desired outcome doesn't match our expectations.
For me it came early in my pursuit of vocational ministry. I took my first church staff position in college at the ripe age of nineteen—just young enough to still believe innocently in the purity of peoples' intentions. While I was building bridges to students in the community who had never been part of church and to their families, others were frustrated with me. And to this day, I'm not sure I understand why.
It eventually led to verbal confrontation in a room full of angry and bitter people, which happened when the youth ministry was at its largest and most active. I thought I was about to be fired, and I had no idea why. But it became painfully clear that months of activity had been happening behind the scenes that culminated in this moment. All the while those who could have stepped in to help never said a word.
I wasn't old enough to know what was happening. While I had my eyes on the work I thought I was called to do, others had their eyes on me. This was not even an inquisition; it was a death squad intended to intimidate me and condemn me. And I didn't even understand why.
A few weeks prior to this meeting, I had learned of a list of names that was being circulated among a small group of restless and noisy church members who were not pleased with me. They couldn't argue with the amount of participation of the student ministry, so they focused their attention on me personally.
In the backdrop was my entire college experience, which was predicated on the plan to continue on to divinity school and spend my career in full-time ministry leadership. The presidential scholarship was awarded to me—in part—because of the declaration of this decision. My major was religion with an emphasis in psychology and ethics. My minor was biblical languages. By my senior year, I was assisting the professor with his first-year Greek class and reading Hebrew in public.
I did everything I knew to do to follow the rules, and that was supposed to be enough. But it wasn't; those rules failed me. And I suspect I am not the only one. Maybe your pursuit was something very different. Nonetheless, the details should sound strikingly similar.
In that church boardroom meeting, I realized this was not what I had signed up for. This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. I was doing God's work and reaching people who needed hope. Good things were happening, so why was this happening to me? But it wasn't the people I was helping who were eating me alive. It was the people who called themselves Christians and were dedicated church members.
It left me bitter and disillusioned. The next year was a long one with a long line of challenges that seemed unfair and calculated. I tried my best to keep my heart and faith intact, but I never was able to completely recover.
The confidence I had in my life's trajectory dissipated. All that I had prepared for seemed meaningless. Everything I was working toward seemed useless. I lost my balance—and my conviction—about the things I had hoped were true.
Whatever you want to call that entire experience, it sent me into a tailspin and into another direction I had neither asked for nor anticipated. All I knew was that I couldn't go back to "business as usual." That moment signaled a shift in my life that would, ultimately, shift everything.
The Truth of a Lie
I was scared, lonely, angry, and frustrated. All I knew to be true felt like a lie. What was I supposed to do now? The next steps that seemed so clear and calculated were now uncertain. I had never been more lost than I was during this time. Nothing seemed right. The pain of pressing on was too great. I would have to leave behind the dream I thought was mine for the taking. My only reasonable response was to leave behind the pursuit of professional ministry and exchange it for something else.
But what? I hadn't asked for this pivot; it had found me. And I knew I was not alone.
Abraham, that prominent patriarch and key figure of the Hebrew Bible, was challenged to leave behind the land of his fathers. Joseph—the prized son of Jacob—was sold into slavery by his brothers. Moses was compelled to leave Egypt. Paul was made blind on the road to Damascus.
Each of these remarkable characters embodies the fear and anxiety ancient people had with respect to the chaos of change. Growing up, I had heard their stories presented in a happy sort of way, as if they gladly and willingly accepted the pain and chaos of change. But now I realize it had to hurt them, confuse them, and frustrate them. Perhaps everything I was feeling at the time was also experienced by those individuals who also endured great disruption and transition and whose stories of faith were preserved for me and you.
If there had been Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, we might have seen the evolution of these characters' situations more clearly. I wonder what Joseph would have tweeted from prison, or what Moses would have broadcasted from the mountaintop on YouTube, or even what Paul would have posted as a status update on Facebook as he went from church to church.
The changes these characters were asked to make were so significant that they marked a demarcation that rerouted the rest of their lives. Most people never experience this because they never allow themselves to think beyond the story they have been told or—more importantly—the stories they tell themselves.
When Life Breaks Down
The power behind "the way it has always been" is broken when we refuse to accept the variables and principles that make that story true. I wonder what Joseph thought when he was sold into slavery or what Moses felt when he had to leave the glory of Egypt and the position he held in the royal family. Paul was on the fast track to superstardom. Had there been a top-ten list of up and comings, he would have been on it.
All of these people painfully broke away from the story they had been telling themselves because unanticipated situations and circumstances forced them beyond their normal way of thinking.
The same is true for you and me. Few people seek to break the rule or destroy the illusions before them because they have yet to realize which stories are true and which ones are illusions. It isn't until a cataclysmic moment that we realize all we knew to be true has shifted—and its meaning along with it.
The irony is, the more we try to possess something, the more it will possess us. When we hold loosely to things of which we are certain, only then will we firmly gain that which will last forever.
The Outlaw Within
When those pivotal moments come, something is activated within us that we didn't know was there when we began. Call it gut or instinct. We know what we have to do even though seconds before the event the thought had never occurred to us.
There is a remnant within each of us that some call the Outlaw, that part of us that is activated and put into motion in times of great transition. The Outlaw is that part of every one of us who can no longer operate within the story we have been told. Whatever has happened has closed the door behind you. As much as you pound on it to open back up, you won't be able to retreat. The only option is to move forward.
Tapping into the Outlaw is the first step in the process of transformation. Until we are ready to destroy that which we know to be true, we are not ready to be transformed.
The Outlaw is a raw character who isn't accepted by the system but challenges it in every way. Much like the friction between a teenager and his or her parents, the Outlaw chooses to live in contention with the community. The Outlaw is feared by the rule followers because this person represents someone who willing to ignore the way it has always been. The Outlaw disrupts, challenges, and refuses to get entangled in the web of lies spread by the community because he or she sees them as they are—illusions based on "truths" that are not actually true. This understanding is the first step in the life of the the Outlaw.
There are consequences we must expect when we activate the Outlaw within us. We will be forced to confront ourselves and our participation in the creation of the story. True transformation can only take place within. Changing circumstances isn't enough; we must allow ourselves to be changed.
Another consequence is that you will be misunderstood. You will feel awkward, alone, broken, and likely angry. That's OK. Those are all the right feelings—even if they don't feel right. It's no different than a teenager separating from his or her parents. It's also not neat, clean, or tidy.
Finally, you will never be the same. That is part of the rush and excitement. You're not really sure what's next. You must learn to embrace chaos because it is the standard mode of operations now. That will never change. The story of stability must be rewritten to follow a new set of rules, and you'll discover those rules along the way.
Biology teaches us that cells must multiply and die. It is the process of life. Personal trainers teach that building muscle mass begins with tearing down the muscle that presently exists. Then when the muscle repairs itself, it is stronger than it was before. Life coaches teach us to stop doing the things that are holding us back from what we truly want to achieve.
The Outlaw may be a figure we want to avoid identifying with, but it is the mythic archetype we must live into if we are to journey through and beyond that which presently holds us back. At first, activating the Outlaw in your life will allow you to channel your hurt, frustration, and fear into something that will provide an outlet for your pain; but ultimately, it will cut a unique path for your transformation that will light up your soul.
The Courage To Let Go
When all that happened at church, during my college years, I was devastated. I knew I couldn't go on in my religious studies because my heart had been completely gutted. But I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do after graduation. My identity was wrapped around one path very tightly. I felt completely lost and as if I had let God down in a very substantial way.
Excerpted from Awaken the Outlaw by Benjamin W. Stroup. Copyright © 2015 Benjamin W. Stroup. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Robert Benson xiii
A Note to the Reader xv
Part 1 The Outlaw 1
Chapter 1 The Way It Has Always Been 3
Chapter 2 Collective Complicity 19
Chapter 3 Denial Is Not a Life Strategy 30
Chapter 4 The Evolution of Ourselves 44
Part 2 The Magician 57
Chapter 5 That Which Slays the Same Is Always Changing 59
Chapter 6 The Illusions That Captivate 73
Chapter 7 Finding Courage in Destruction 88
Chapter 8 Living Beyond Our Balance Sheets 102
Part 3 The Hero 113
Chapter 9 The Paradox of Faith 115
Chapter 10 Doing Is the New Believing 128
Chapter 11 Rediscover the Creator Within 142
Chapter 12 A Personal Offering 157
Journal Exercise 173
Suggested Reading 181
About the Author 183