There was a funeral last Friday for a lovely woman.
I’ll sometimes force my sons to attend funerals or memorial services with me, to which they usually respond, “I don’t want to,” because they’re teenagers and human. I usually ask, “why?” because I am their dad and horrible, to which they say, “I don’t like them.” Here, I lie and say, “nobody likes them.”
I tell them that lie because sometimes you have to do things you don’t like and it’s mostly better if everyone else is doing things they don’t like, too. Like eating vegetables or running.
The truth is that I love them. I know how that sounds, but it’s not to be confused with loving death, dying or anything weird like that. I’m not a psycho. They’re thin spaces, and I find thin spaces – where, according to Eric Weiner in The NY Times, the “distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine” – absolutely inspiring and beautiful.
When you stare out of the car window, flowers, grass, guardrails, and other cars blur into one undefined smudge. Nothing is clear. You can’t even tell where the flowers start and the Honda ends. This is like my life. I have a full schedule, see a lot of people, go a lot of places, drop off and pick up from practices, grocery stores, and on and on. Too often, I hurry, don’t stop to listen, don’t pay attention.
Last March when the world stopped turning, I dreamed of a new normal where we would find that we quite liked the slower pace. Instead, almost a year later, the new normal is just the old normal with more Zoom meetings and Amazon deliveries. It’s still a blurry smudge if we’re not careful.
Funerals operate like isolated March 2020’s. They stop us where we are, open our eyes, heaven and earth collapse, and we are invited to see these divine glimpses. Now, maybe we don’t accept the invitation. Maybe we stuff our emotions and check the boxes on what “has to be done,” work like crazy until we can finally get back to work (because who knows if the company will actually be standing if we’re not there to hold it together.) Maybe we numb and check out. Maybe we pretend we’re SuperSpiritual and read from the list of cliches while we convince ourselves that it’s somehow selfish to acknowledge the honesty of the loss and stifle anything that looks like tears and feels like grief.
But, baby, if we do accept the invitation… The clean lines of the Honda, blades of grass and bright colors of the flowers come into focus and we can actually see the beauty all around us that we’re too busy to notice any other time. We cry our eyes out when we need to and often find those tears surprisingly becoming laughter and smiles at the wonder of our tremendous gratitude.
[There is a pink elephant in this room. What if the tears are of sadness but also anger or rage or bitterness or resentment? Then, there is no laughter and gratitude is in short supply. This sort of situation is even more important that we accept the invitation into presence. There’s a character in the movie Magnolia who says, “we may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.” The longer we run from the fact that there are chains around our necks, the longer those chains stay around our necks, strangling us slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, just taking our lives a breath at a time. I know it’s horrible, but we face what comes, dump it on the ground, look at it, and then we maybe pick it up and do it all again next week, but at some point, we leave a little on the ground, we pick up a little less, until the tears feel less like acid and more like peace. It’s not quick and it’s not easy, but we have to believe it’s possible. If the tomb was empty once, nothing is impossible ever again.]
So, all of this mourning, grief, celebration, gratitude, looking at an empty place at the table or in the chair… well, it hurts like crazy when our hearts break. But we are awake. Our eyes are wide open to the blessings of today, and open to the blessings of yesterday, when they were here (It was awesome when they were here) and what a gift it was that, of all the people in the world, they were here with us and it was great.
My back is feeling much better. Several weeks ago, I forgot who I was and what I was about and worked out my ego instead of my body and ended up with a small injury that is slowly meandering it’s way back to health. Who knew that I wouldn’t recover immediately, like Wolverine, now that I’m not 18?
I guess everyone. Anyway. Sometimes our body gives us subtle warnings to get our attention and sometimes it gives red alert total shutdowns. This might not be a red alert shutdown, but it might as well be, because I have received the message clearly. I mentioned months ago on a Facebook mini that both of my shoulders were acting up and now I couldn’t sleep in the position in which I’ve slept for as long as I can remember. An old friend who is becoming a better friend than ever posted a comment, reminding me that she is in fact a physical therapist and could help. Her advice was to stop the traditional moves, start some injury-specific exercises and stretching. Also, she gently scolded me: “you aren’t earning a living walking on your hands or carrying things overhead so there is no need to destroy your shoulder over these exercises.” Of course, I listened (for the most part;) and my shoulders are better every day.
Why do I tell you this? Because our spiritual walk is very much like our physical walk.
At any time, we are doing any number of exercises that work out our egos and “destroy our shoulders.” Usually, these exercises are kept hidden, our pain remains secret and we pretend that we are sleeping fine and that putting a coat on isn’t excruciating. The uncomfortability is the first nudge; low grade anxiety, nagging stress, butterflies, interrupted sleep. This moves to pain; higher grades of everything, guilt, shame, sleep is only possible with pharmaceutical help. Then, there are lots of ways this would go from here. Either our pain will increase into the unbearable, driving us closer and closer to breakdown or we will harden, numb, check out, build thick walls and survive keeping warm under a thick blanket of independence, anger and selfishness.
All of these symptoms can be teachers and all of these steps can be gifts.
Now. Ideally, we don’t hide and we can listen openly to the “physical therapists” in our lives before we get hurt. This is why honesty is so vital. We aren’t alone, aren’t under the weight of secrets and pretense, are able to see some light through the hands and hearts of those who would show us the light exists, however dim it appears to us.
But this isn’t an ideal and instead, we often hide behind an image of capable independence, superhero-esque and bulletproof. Like the kids on my sons’ basketball teams that are arrogant and mean to cover up their towering inadequacies and insecurities, these images are sadly, obviously, charades. Children playing dress up. We exercise our egos instead of our bodies & souls. And we end up injured.
This week, I am struggling through a passage of Scripture that painfully illuminated a blind spot I have. It felt like a sledgehammer and knocked me down. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see where I missed or ignored the first and second nudges; a text, conversation, movie dialogue, and other experiences pointing me to this ramp that would lead me back to the narrow path. Whether I innocently missed them or willfully turned away from them is pretty unimportant now – mostly unimportant because I don’t know the answer – but what is important is that my vision is improving. I see how far I have wandered. And I see how to come back. I have no idea which is the bigger gift, but what’s clear is that the 2nd can’t happen without the 1st. Coming back is awesome but it’s impossible without the revelation that we’re lost. There can be no healing without the injury.
So, here I am today, kind of thankful for the pain.
Our holidays looked a little different in Pennsylvania as the Governor tightened up restrictions, which kept most of us at home. There is much to be said about this, and I’ll say none of it. Not that I think politics should be left out of spirituality or the local church (I don’t), but I want to make a different point here, today.
My gym closed down for a month. Now, this didn’t mean that working out was canceled, but there were some things for which I simply didn’t have equipment. I could do body-weight squats and pushups but not shrugs or deadlifts. Everything looked different, felt different, was different. When it opened back up on the 4th, I was inside doing masked deadlifts as if nothing had changed. Who has time for a step back, even if it is wise?
Maybe there are people who can take 1 month off and not miss a beat, like college kids, but I am not a college kid. I cannot take 1 month off and put the same weight on a bar. However, I don’t have the sense of the gravel in a fish tank, so I did just that, and now if I drop a sock on the floor, it’s lost. It is now a sock I used to have and go to the drawer and get another.
Of course, the thing to do was reintroduce slowly and work back up. Of course. The problem with that is that I am human being and we don’t reintroduce slowly and work back up for anything at all. Patience isn’t a strength. Ours is a culture where “immediate gratification” is the chief virtue. I skip breakfast, eat salad for lunch and dinner, and if my weight isn’t significantly lower in the morning, then it’s a failed experiment. I start a 2021 devotional, read 14 today to catch up for the year, fully expecting a fully transformed life by bedtime. If it’s not fast and easy, we call it not meant to be, and forget it and move on.
There certainly isn’t anything new about this, there are plenty of examples in the Bible. Saul couldn’t wait for Samuel and offered the sacrifices himself. Aaron couldn’t wait for Moses so he made a fancy metal cow. Abraham couldn’t wait for God and Sarah so he took Hagar instead.
In Abraham’s case, he waited 10 years, and it wasn’t quite long enough. Maybe he shouldn’t be judged by me, I haven’t waited 10 years for anything. Zechariah was an old man who had waited his whole life for a word from God and a son and got them both on the same day. I pray for a day or 2, maybe a week every other day, and then move on. Who can wait? On t he other hand, we can’t get stuck, right?
Is it stuck, though? Maybe. Or is it patience? Faithfulness? Again, maybe. I think we might not be able to tell the difference anymore. The lovely Veruca Salt once said, “I want it now,” and we seem to have taken that as a prescription for living a meaningful life. I can’t wait a few weeks to regain the weight on a deadlift, I want it now! I can’t wait for Samuel to arrive or Moses to come back, now now now.
My stubborn impatience has resulted in physical pain, but many other times it has left me in emotional or psychological pain, in spiritual agony. How many times have I left relationships, jobs, situations simply because it didn’t happen (whatever ‘it’ was) in the time I wanted it to be? When something didn’t immediately deliver? When my lack of control was too much to bear and I ran?
I wonder when I will learn to be present and patient. When I will no longer confuse patience with passivity.
My backache will subside, I’ll be deadlifting in no time (with much less on the bar;), but I’m left wondering when the lesson will stick. Hopefully today.
Yesterday was a bad day. My very good friend with the biggest softest most beautiful heart you’ve ever seen wrote to me: “I’m sad about yesterday and how ugly we are to each other.” And all there is to say is, me too. I’m not surprised, though, and so far I can’t tell what is more depressing, that it happened or that none of us are surprised.
But there is this other side of things that came out of me to her and cleared things up for me. Have you ever felt like you honestly don’t know how you feel? Like there are so many emotions, some polar opposites, and they aren’t creating any sort of cohesive environment. Like it’s snowing and you’re warm and sweaty. Or like you’re listening to Britney Spears and enjoying it. It doesn’t make sense, you don’t make sense.
Yesterday was this no good horrible very bad day and as I watched the news and refreshed my browser every 30 or 40 seconds to see new reports of tear gas and evacuation and then broken glass, my heart was indeed breaking but I was strangely hopeful amid the wreckage. Now I know why.
Because she also ended her message with “How are you?” That’s why.
You see, sometimes something really terrible happens and it leads to change that couldn’t happen otherwise. We spend a lot of time pretending that we are just fine, but then we get fired or she leaves or we have a breakdown and there’s no more point in pretending. We run and run until we simply can’t run anymore. Sometimes, the darkness has to be complete before we realize how dark it is and look for a light.
The system has been broken for years, and now there’s no use in pretending it’s not so bad anymore. And only now that we can’t ignore it can we begin to look at how to repair it.
I drove the same car for 16 years and, when asked when I would get a new one, always responded, “Why? It’s perfect.” It wasn’t perfect, had many warning signs it was on it’s last legs, no heat, no air, I couldn’t use lights and wipers at the same time, but they were minor enough that I could look the other way. Then it turned itself off while I was driving. Now I have a new car.
So, I’m sad and hopeful. The car not only turned itself off but burst into flames and exploded. And now maybe we’ll get a new car.
It’s a huge mountain to climb. Where do we start? How do we start? Do the actions of you and me amount to anything? Who knows, but what I’ll do in the meantime reminds me of a joke (more like a story) that goes, “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time.” What I’ll do in the meantime is take bites. I will Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” AND I’ll love you like crazy. Agape love. Kindness. Gentleness. Peace. Patience. I believe love is way more contagious than any virus, so soon we’ll all be Philippians 4:8-ing and loving each other as if we were made to do it, which of course, we were.
The other way hasn’t worked, we’ve tried it for sooo long, and it is now obvious to everyone. My friend in her heartache reached out to/for me to see how I was, “How are you?” She has a son and that son who is growing up with her, watching her, will see this empathy, this compassion, this care. He will see a new design for life, which isn’t new at all, it goes all the way back to Genesis 1 & 2. But this “new” design will be the one he uses to craft his life and his life will “storm the rotunda” of every building we’re lucky enough for him to enter. It’s this design that can change history.
Maybe it won’t, maybe there will be no reversing our downward spiral. But what empty tombs and Sundays prove to me is that it can. And that is more than enough to eat another bite.
The video you’ll hear at the very beginning is just absolutely perfect! So thankful we have the amazing worship leader and paster we have at the Bridge. We are extremely blessed.