Graduation 2

My youngest nephew graduated from high school last night. The plan was for this gigantic school to hold this ceremony at 6pm outside, but the rain appeared to have other plans. The forecast was for 90% chance of rain, and as of 4 o’clock, it was still pouring down. At 5, as we drove in, the sun began to peek from behind dark clouds and the drops slowed, then stopped. They began at 5:30, just in case, and ended just before 7, when we hurried to our cars as the rain began again. There was a 2 hour window or calm, clear skies for our celebration. A gift from God to my nephew and his classmates.

Now, last week I wrote a post on graduations, sadness and celebration, presence and attention, so I won’t do that again. What I will talk about is bleachers and space.

We sat in the metal bleachers, crammed in like sardines, and when we should’ve been thinking about the moments we’ve spent with Nathan and the man he’s becoming and how significant this moment is, we were instead thinking about the heat and sweaty forearms and being careful not to shove our knees into the backs of the grandparents in front of us.

It’s easy to underestimate how important those small details are, like the music in the background or the temperature.

When the Bridge moved into our current building, we were buried under an avalanche of sound problems. Then, once they were fixed, we enjoyed about a year of quiet before the heating system attacked. It is impossible to underestimate how disruptive a deafening shriek of feedback can be, or how distracting a 90 degree sanctuary is.

Last year, during this same weekend when my other nephew graduated, I wrote a post about hot HIIT yoga. This year, my torturous sister treated me to another class of hers; this time, plain old boiling hot yoga. It was hotter this time, like the surface of the sun, but the movements and workout just as uncomfortable. The music was loud and perfectly mixed, the instructor’s voice constant and encouraging – 2 huge details that allowed us to endure.

[2 things about the instructor, Mona (who looks exactly like you think she would.) Before the class, she said to me, “If you can’t do the movements or go on, just stay in the room,” which is terrific advice for a life of growth and becoming. Then, during the class, we were twisted like pretzels and my muscles were threatening to be torn from my bones, and I felt her hands on my hips, gently, firmly, nudging me even further in the direction I could not go. Except that I could go further. I may have whimpered or cried a little, but sometimes it takes someone to ‘help’ us stretch.]       

My sister’s house is comfortable and her dog is amazing, The Best Dog On Earth, and she had lots of food on the counter. 

It’s these small details of our lives that make our lives. These ‘small’ details make obstacles and trials manageable or unconquerable monsters. That make relationships new and fresh or misery. That make workouts challenging and fun or boring boxes on our “things I have to do” lists. They’re the difference between existing and living. 

It’s the reason the Bible spends so much time and so many words on what we can mistake as irrelevant minutiae. These details are the bricks upon which we build our world. 

Chuck Palahniuk writes, in Choke: 

“Paige and I just look at each other, at who each other is for real. For the first time.

We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are.

Letting our past decide our future.

Or we can decide for ourselves.

And maybe it’s our job to invent something better.

In the trees, a mourning dove calls. It must be midnight.

And Denny says, “Hey, we could use some help here.”

Paige goes, and I go. The four of us dig with our hands under the edge of the rock. In the dark, the feeling is rough and cold and takes forever, and all of us together, we struggle to just put one rock on top of another.

….

It’s creepy, but here we are, the Pilgrims, the crackpots of our time, trying to establish our own alternate reality. To build a world out of rocks and chaos.

What it’s going to be, I don’t know.

Even after all that rushing around, where we’ve ended up is the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

And maybe knowing isn’t the point.

Where we’re standing right now, in the ruins in the dark, what we build could be anything.”

What we build could be anything. We should probably pay attention to these little rocks.

How We Talk

Last Sunday, we walked right into a trap. We were just learning about how to live like the new creations that we are, how to love God and each other, and “love” is supposed to be soft and squishy, like walking in healthy morning grass or good night kisses. These weeks are supposed to be comfortable greatest hit albums.

Then, verse 10: Honor one another above yourselves. So far, so good, relatively innocuous, we can usually ignore the ‘above yourselves’ part and keep reading, right?  

But upon closer examination, I found this (in Gill’s exposition of the Bible): “In honour preferring one another; saints should think honourably of one another, and entertain an honourable esteem of each other; yea, should esteem each other better thou themselves; and not indulge evil surmises, and groundless jealousies of one another, which is contrary to that love that thinks no evil. They should speak honourably of each other in Christian company, and discourage that evil practice of whisperings, backbitings, and innuendos; they should treat each other with honour and respect in their common conversation, and especially when met together as a church of Christ. They should go before each other in giving honour, and showing respect, as the word signifies: they should set each other an example; and which also may be taken into the sense of the word, should prevent one another, not waiting until respect is shown on one side to return it again.”

I always love the extra English ‘u,’ as in honour or favourite – bringing to mind the Depeche Mode classic ‘Blasphemous Rumours,’ but we can’t get distracted by its superfluous beauty. This evil surmises and groundless jealousies business hurts, because I often know exactly what everyone else’s motivations are, and that they are not often positive. I know just what the politicians aims are, what co-workers and neighbors really mean when they ask favours, what my sister means when she says that, or my wife with that look she gives. Our expositor Gill seems to think we should stop that. What?!? He seems to be writing that it’s less than honouring to the other to pretend we have clearly discerned their heart.     

And whisperings, backbitings and innuendos? How else is there to talk about someone?

Gill goes on to call us to treat each other with honor and respect in conversation. Ok, but what about the sarcasm, condescension, or manipulation in which we have become so proficient? Sometimes, they don’t even know we’re talking down to them! So funny, isn’t it? Or the open rudeness we proudly call honesty and rationalize as one who “tell(s) it like it is?” Principle and strength of character.

[I was just about to shift the tone of this piece and confess that I am one who has trafficked in sarcasm for much of my life, but the funny part is that you already know that. I’ve been unwittingly employing it for the past several paragraphs, thinking how clever and subversive I was. There wasn’t any in my expressed love for the extra ‘u,’ though.]

The first problem with these tactics we so casually employ is that their chief purpose is to tear down and to minimize another’s worth and value. It’s garden variety judgment – we decide they are less (using whatever qualification) and act accordingly.

Of course, we engage in this judgment for just one reason: our own poor self-esteem. I am afraid that I am actually the one who doesn’t measure up, so I point at others, spread news (always negative information,) gossip, mock. I actively try to belittle and demean thinking that I am fooling everyone into thinking that I am the powerful, the moral, the intellectually superior, when the sorry truth is that I am scared to death of being ‘found out,’of being exposed. This is simple bully behavior. Kids who bully are the most insecure of all, and it’s the same with us. The meanest, most arrogant, selfish, condescending of us are without exception buried under our own perceived inadequacies, desperately wearing masks to hide behind. 

The second problem is that, as we tear each other down, we also destroy any true, authentic relationship. It’s impossible to relate on any deeper level without trust, care, kindness and love. We use our words as a wrecking ball to clear the area around us, further isolating ourselves until we are finally alone. 

The Scriptures are laying out details to bring us closer together, to create a beautiful unity. I’ve only recently begun to read these many lists of ‘shall’s and ‘shall not’s as gifts to protect us from ourselves, providing a vision that we may flourish. We simply can’t achieve this vision while our goal is, ultimately, to defend the altar we’ve erected to ourselves.   

    

  

Graduation

Today my youngest son will graduate from 6th grade and move on from the elementary school into junior high. I’ll just let that sit for a second and allow the weight of that statement to wash over me.

My oldest son is moving out of junior high into the high school, as well.

I have no children in elementary school.

Yesterday they were sleeping on my chest, or nursing, or needing a diaper change. Last night I was spoon-feeding them from a jar. And this morning, Samuel (the soon to be 9th grader) drove his shoulder into my belly (probably breaking 3 ribs,) lifting me off my feet and into the couch.

I can no longer throw him over my head and into the air, drawing the concerned gasp from their mom. As long as we’re at it, she is now “mom” exclusively, no longer “mommy.” It would be the sweetest song to hear the word “daddy” again. I tried to throw Samuel over my head like I used to at the pool last week and I’m pretty sure I tore several muscles in my back. 

I have no children in elementary school. 

[Now it’s 2 days later and the graduation is over. Summer vacation has begun!]

Yesterday, during the music/photo montage at graduation,  I had absolutely no hope of holding back tears as I saw that sweet 1st grade boy smiling and running and laughing. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really want to, either.

Elisha (the graduate) is growing into a really wonderful human being, I love who he is and watching him become who he will be is overwhelming. He is kind (mostly;) and polite and self-assured and grounded and hilarious and has moves on a basketball court that only show me how old and slow I’m getting. He’s so handsome and lovely it would break your heart. He gets the haircut and wears whatever he wants – which only the most stylish can/will do – and sings out loud. He reads, tells jokes he makes up, can run like a deer and would rather eat nails than let you win. At anything. He’s not always nice and he’s not always concerned with your feelings; He has rough edges, which only makes me like him more. 

The boy that he was is gone and isn’t coming back, and that fact must be mourned, an offering of salty tears. But the young man that he is becoming, and the man that he will become, are worthy of euphoric celebration, also an offering of salty tears. Both of these are 100% true.

My heart works exactly as it should. In that graduation, I was fully present, engaged, feeling all of the emotions of this beautiful gift of life. I am so, so thankful. How could I not weep?? Why would I hold anything in? 

2 of my favorite people in the world gave birth to twins this week. All four of them are unbelievably lucky and blessed. And I know the tears they will cry as the pictures of babies in car seats will transform into teenagers in the drivers seat, the cribs into graduations, and the loss and the hope and the mourning and dancing and the times for weeping and laughing and the times for tearing down and building. And I wish them everything. I hope nothing more for them than that they are there for all of it and hold nothing in.

Holy Hell

Last year, my family made a switch to DirecTV from Comcast to save some money, and it would be impossible to understate the mountain of regret it caused. I was happy to tell them about my poor decision (in emails, phone calls, customer surveys, etc…all of them completely unacknowledged. For example: “Mr Slabach, is there anything else I can do for you?” “Yes, I have rued the day I chose to become a customer, hostage to you monsters, so if you could roll back time and prevent me from making the terrible change to DirecTV and your horrible customer service, that would be great. Or you could release me from my contract so I can go somewhere else TODAY. That’s something else you could do for me, but I don’t guess your script has a generic response with up-sell for that.” And without even a pause: “Well, if there’s nothing else, thank you for choosing AT&T and DirecTV. Have a great day.”) I’d be happy to tell you about it, too, but not here. The point of mentioning the woeful telecommunications behemoth is to tell you the nightmare is over. I paid the ransom to release myself from it’s grip and returned to Comcast and, in the process, gained Netflix. With this marvelous addition, we also gained it’s treasure trove of documentaries.

Today I had some free time and chose to spend it watching one called Holy Hell, about a religious cult called Buddhafield. What began as a beautiful space of community and belonging was revealed to have been a blanket covering a bottomless pit of spiritual and sexual abuse that damaged some members for over 20 years. 20 years!!! To tell you the truth, there was nothing surprising about any of it, you could see where it was going from the opening shots. Probably, anyone watching this group function at the time would’ve easily seen it as well. As is pretty standard, the only ones who couldn’t see the group (and it’s despicable leader) for what it was, were the ones on the inside being victimized. But it was the closing interviews that were very interesting, where they reflected on their experience. It had been 10 years since their escape, would they still be full of rage, hatred, resentment? Would they blame the others? Were they able to move past these atrocities? Were they able to have healthy relationships, jobs, careers, and spiritual lives? 

Of course they were angry and wounded, they wept while they told the story. Or at least they were angry, then. As they recounted the horrific details, clearly painful, it was swirled with a peaceful acceptance that was shocking. Each one spoke honestly, never avoiding even the worst of the abuses, but each one used words like thankful and gratitude. The true, lasting sadness was in the mourning over the loss of the community they all shared that was taken from them by the evil of the guru. 

In Jeremiah 24:5-7 “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.” The worst thing that could happen was exile. They were removed from everything that mattered to them; their land, history, name, their temple and their God. Yet this perspective was as one of beauty and grace.

Maybe the DirecTV debacle was actually a good thing? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t have been offered the package with Netflix if I was a current customer. (I wish it wasn’t that way – it’s like marriages, all too often. Once you get the girl, you let yourself go and take her for granted, stop pursuing her. Like telecommunications companies.) When I look back at the worst things that happened to me… I don’t hate them as much anymore. In fact, I’m almost thankful they happened, because they changed me in profound ways. They taught me lessons I might not have learned otherwise. 

As usual, it’s never the circumstance, it’s our response to the circumstance.

We’ve all been victims of someone’s violence, we’ve all been exiles, we’ve all experienced DirecTV. It’s how God uses these trials to grow us that can be the most astonishing gift… Now, if we can only be open to the transformation.

         

A Busy Week

This week is a busy one, where the demands on time, energy and attention seem unreasonable. There are anniversaries, holidays off, field trips, school presentations, moving, baseball games, yard sales, and any number of the routine responsibilities that populate weekly to-do lists.

This is the kind of week where I’ll end up exhausted and irritable, and by the end of the week, the voices in my head will begin the familiar chorus of ‘should’s and inadequacies, the ‘not good enough’s. Sometimes, I’ll get the selfish buzzing of pride where the noise in my head is simultaneously inflated because I’m sooooo important the world couldn’t continue without me and frustrated because the world can’t continue without me, angry that I have to do everything. Both of these are terribly misguided and idolatrous, yet they come just the same.

I see this coming (because it always comes,) so the only question is, Now what?

It often seems like that is the only question. We learn something new, now what? We find a different side of an argument, now what? Our circumstances change, now what? 

I don’t want that entire 2nd paragraph, so now what?????

There isn’t really much I can do about the 1st paragraph… Well, I guess I could. I could not go to school to see my boy present his book buffet project, not chaperone the Kenbrook field trip, not coach baseball, not whatever. Probably a lot of the stress that produces our fear and anxiety is directly related to the feeling that we are totally out of control, that someone else is pulling our strings, that we are powerless. But that’s simply not true, usually. (But that is a conversation for another day.)

The truth is, I don’t want to do anything about the 1st paragraph. 

But how can I avoid the 2nd, how can I change my response?

The answer is ‘putting God first’ and ‘letting go and letting God,’ obviously. But no one knows what they mean, (and again,) now what? Yesterday in the message we spoke about learning spiritual truths through everyday practices. 

Putting God first will nip that gross impulse to think I am the one in charge, with all the pressure stemming from the demands of being good, and being god. How do I do that? Read the Scriptures (Genesis 1 is a very nice place to start – the world was created by Him, His words, and Colossians 1:15-20). Of course, I would say the Scriptures, and the reason I would is because it’s the right thing to do. Not that I always do – sadly, I don’t always do the things I want to and instead do the things I don’t want to. (I think I read that somewhere…) But it is the right thing to do and the best way to ‘put God first.’ Before the gym, before the People’s Court, before Facebook, read Genesis 1. I also have this devotional on my phone that can point me towards the light when it gets too dark (if I let it.) This will also help to combat the onslaught of negative thoughts and unhealthy self-talk: if I know who, and Whose, I am, free of expectation and obligation.

As for the exhaustion and irritability, ‘let go and let God,’ even though I still don’t know what that means. But I now have a better idea than I had yesterday. Today, I think it’s gratitude, being fully present and awake to the reality of the blessings that not everyone gets that I wished my whole life for but way too often take for granted as they are happening, getting great sleep and finding rest whenever I can, taking off my shoes and walking in the grass, but the ABSOLUTE MOST IMPORTANT thing I must do is breathing. Not the mindless kind that I mostly do, but the kind where I count and my belly moves as I inhale and exhale. It works as a slow motion button on the world and especially me, because the real problem isn’t necessarily the schedule, it’s my posture of hurried distraction. I don’t notice anything, don’t see you or the shine or sadness in your eyes, don’t listen to all of the communication in between words, miss the breeze on my face and the melody of the song and of my life. 

Just breathe. Breathe myself into consciousness.

At the end of this week (and every week,) the point is to not wake up and say, “God was in this place and I did not know.” I’ll let you know how it goes…