Far Away

“All we are is all we made” is a line from a song by Breaking Benjamin called “Far Away.” I don’t exactly know what it’s about, some comments I read say it’s about the rapture, religion, and/or God. Maybe. You know, some songs sound very obviously about one thing to later find out that’s not what the songwriter had in mind at all. I just watched a short form documentary on Netflix (called Song Exploder) about “Losing My Religion,” by R.E.M. and I didn’t really know what the song meant then and any of the guesses I did have turned out to be totally wrong. The good thing is that, with very few exceptions, I have learned to a. release these artists from the weight of my expectations, and b. release my need to know everything about every band I liked to be super cool and impress you. No one was ever all that impressed anyway. All that to say I don’t really care why the band’s name is Breaking Benjamin (is anyone named Benjamin? Who knows?) or why they wrote that song.

“Far Away” might have been written with the rapture or casserole or artificial intelligence in mind, but when I heard the line “all we are is all we made,” I knew that it would mean a great deal to me and that it would soon appear in this space. I heard it on a very good friend’s phone and ran for the nearest pen and index card so I wouldn’t forget.

Our lives are the structures created from many, many individual bricks stacked by many, many individual choices. That structure doesn’t exist by accident, it’s the sum total of each of these bricks. If we use a certain brick, we can’t expect them to magically transform into something different, like logs or steel or straw. If I wake up in a cornfield, there is a better than average chance that I planted corn.

In January of this year, 3 months before the world are to a screeching halt, this space was going to be a year-long exploration of the small, seemingly insignificant decisions and details that become these bricks that become us. Of course 2020 had other plans, but now, with this song, I wonder if it isn’t time to point ourselves back in that direction. Maybe it’s exactly what we need. Maybe after months and months of disruption/invitation, it’s time to re-evaluate what is happening, what needed to go and what needed to stay, and what kinds of people we’ll be and what we need to plant to grow those people.

The lyric asks us, if all we are is all we made, what have we made? And what are we making? The state of everything has illustrated that our passivity, our sleepwalking hasn’t served us very well. This is all going to take attention and intention. I so often refer to the final page of the Chuck Palahniuk book 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.”

Now, we’re not exactly deciding for ourselves – we have a Spirit inside of us that is leading us into the beauty of our calling, if we would only listen – but you get the idea: we get to decide to listen. This time truly feels like “nowhere in the middle of the night…in the ruins,” and that’s either terrifying or wonderfully exciting. Maybe both. Yes, both. It’s a good thing we are here to do this together.

The Spectacular Us

Last week in this space, I mentioned the “just” fallacy. There is no “just” anywhere, no “just” anything, certainly no “just” anyone. Everywhere is sacred, charged with meaning and potential, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Every other Wednesday, we are studying a terrific book called Inspired by Rachel Held Evans.

(I love that her name is Held. There is a song called “Held,” too, that is gorgeous. I have no idea if her middle name is Held or if it was her maiden name or if it was her name at all. Or maybe she took the name as a constant reminder of her place in the arms of God. It’s easy enough to find out, but I don’t think I want to. Like a song, I think I’ll live with the story it is to me.)

The last 2 meetings we have been in chapter 7: Fish Stories. It’s an exploration of the many miracles throughout the Bible and belief/faith. Initially reading it, I couldn’t really find much for discussion, which was ok, because I wasn’t this chapter’s facilitator. I didn’t need to find much for discussion. It was somebody else’s problem. I simply needed to show up.

As it turned out, our time was lively and full of the fantastic in each of our lives, those occurrences that can’t be explained in words or reason, like car, train, and tree accidents, amazing coincidences, forgiveness, and love.

This book is wonderful, but the real draw of the group are the people in it. I suspect it’s that way with most groups and communities. Where it might be an activity, event or shared interest that brings us together, it’s the relationships that keep us there.

It’s a trendy idea that I can follow Jesus on my own, in my bed or living room, by myself, privately, just me and God. I really don’t know how that started. I do know how and why it’s trendy – the independence and arrogant self-reliance is very modern. The more I think about it, it’s not really modern, it’s human. But the point is, this notion didn’t start in the Bible. In fact, it’s just the opposite. In Genesis 1 & 2, before the fall, it’s only the man and God, and God specifically deems it “NOT good.” It’s the only thing that isn’t good. So He takes a rib and makes another person.

We’re made to be together. (Not all the time, of course. We all need a break from each other from time to time;) This group makes me remember, and sometimes the learning comes outside of the explicit lesson. We were talking about miracles, trying to explain our way into loaves & fishes or walking on water. But as I looked at the Zoom pictures of each of our faces, brought into the space by a mutual love of our Creator and nothing else, sharing the extraordinary stories of our lives, I understood. This was the miracle, this safety, this connection, this love. We were God’s miracle. And it isn’t confined to this particular book study group or any particular group, not confined to the religious or spiritual, not confined by anything at all. I guess we miss it, or are looking for a parting of the sea, when it’s right here in front of us all along. It isn’t “just” a small group, not “just” a local church, community, football game, gym, class, office, grocery store, not “just” you or “just” me. It’s the breathtaking, spectacular us.

Crying Room

In Acts 2:14, Peter “stepped forward…and shouted to the crowd,” giving one of the most powerful sermons the world has ever seen, before or since. David Guzik writes, “This remarkable sermon had no preparation behind it – it was spontaneously given. Peter didn’t wake up that morning knowing he would preach to thousands, and that thousands would embrace Jesus in response. At the same time, we could say that this was a well-prepared sermon; it was prepared by Peter’s prior life with God and relationship with Jesus. It flowed spontaneously out of that life, and out of a mind that thought and believed deeply.”

We often make our spiritual life one of 5 (or 7) steps and boxes to check, or like there is a spiritual me and another, everything else, regular me. Spiritual me reads the Bible, goes to church, prays. Regular me goes to work, brushes my teeth, does pushups, watches The People’s Court. We refer to our work or play or relationships as somehow less spiritual because it’s not for a church, Christian ministry, or agenda. “Just” a nurse or driver or technician or accountant. We think if it isn’t specifically focused in a discipleship plan, it doesn’t count.

This has always driven me crazy. Christian ministry can be lovely and pure and tremendously pleasing to God. So can grocery stores, video games, parenting, and Catfish. God doesn’t make this distinction, I wonder why we do. We can dishonor God just as easily in church as we can at the gym, maybe even more so.

Like Peter, all of our lives – lived in relationship with Jesus – are preparation. Every Sunday, Gisy and I go into a small room called the “crying room.” It’s a space where parents can take their fussy, restless babies and still hear and see the service, but I have cried in there, and held others as they have, as well. It’s an all-purpose crying sanctuary. We go in there, hold hands and pray that God will use our words & songs (carefully studied and practiced) AS WELL AS our lives to reach others.

It’s foolish to guess that a message I give could ever be received in a vacuum. It’s why Paul’s letters to Timothy focus so much on behavior outside of the church for those that serve inside. The most eloquent talk from a dishonest mouth, heart, and life is conflicting and usually quickly dismissed, in the church or not. Emerson wisely observed, “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” He’s right, of course, and that’s frightening. But it also works in reverse.

What if who you are is beautiful? What if who you are at work is honest, trustworthy, and loyal? What if who you are is a faithful, devoted spouse? What if who you are is a passionate follower of Jesus? Then where you are those things doesn’t matter too much, does it? Then, everywhere you are could accurately be called church and everything you do could accurately be called ministry. Then, all of life would be preparation. Then, the sermons we give (with or without words) would “flow spontaneously out of that life, and out of a mind that thought and believed deeply.”

There’s no “just” anything, no “just” anywhere, no separation, no distinction (if there is, the walls, boxes and labels are the ones we’ve placed). There’s just 1 integrated life, lived with purpose, meaning, passion, pain, joy, routine, crying, singing, practice, peace, awareness and everything else. But mostly love. These lives overflowing with the love of Jesus will speak so loudly, even the most perfect words won’t be necessary.

15 Seconds

My good friend (and extraordinarily talented author) Cyn Morgan writes in her book, Misericorde (which you can and should get on Amazon): “May we show our thankfulness through kindness and appreciate our blessings through generosity.”

I love that line, think it’s the perfect answer to the question we are always exploring: “Now what?” God created us, rescued/rescues us, accepts us, loves us without & beyond reason…now what? Well, Morgan is saying, now this. So, it’s awesome and I reference it often.

But in addition to an eloquent image of hope and beauty in practice, I suppose it also speaks to and defines the problem, doesn’t it? Kindness and generosity are in such short supply because thankfulness and appreciation are in such short supply.

I once read that a negative comment leaves an imprint on our psyche immediately, while a positive one requires 15 seconds. I don’t actually know if it is a scientific fact that you would find in journals and textbooks, but to be completely honest with you, I don’t care. I believe it, because it is absolutely true. We all believe it. It’s why 30 of “I like your new haircut” are forgotten after 1 thoughtless jab. Of course, we know the rude words of trolls only serve to display their wounded heart and insecurities, but that knowledge is utterly useless as we play and replay, feeling the hurt over and over. The haircut isn’t the point anymore, our worth and value are.

We don’t take the 15 seconds and let the lovely, the pure, the excellent and praiseworthy crowd out the trash. And there’s a lot of trash right now. Who could appreciate or be thankful for trash? Where are the blessings in that?

Another problem is that we live in a transactional economy. Nothing is for free, right? “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Receiving gifts, blessings, compliments with nothing in return is nearly impossible for us. It’s why I say, “you’ll have to come to my house next time,” or “I’ll pick up the check next time.” It’s why you get that knot in your stomach if someone gives you a Christmas gift and you don’t have one for them.

Now, what does this mean when it comes to God, grace, or salvation? I’ll tell you, it means entire systems of Jesus-plus religions that are wholly focused on sin management. Whole life games of chutes & ladders. Altars dedicated to the Should. Our spirituality becomes office buildings with door-keepers evaluating our work, grading our adherence to the great checklist in the sky. What we get isn’t a blessing, it’s compensation for a job well done or punishment for a job not so well done.

So, Tuesday, my revolution was to be thankful. (1 day – or small moments inside of 1 day – was more than enough of a beginning. That step was like going from 0 to a million.) My rebellion was to ignore the chains I usually carry on my shoulders around my neck that keep nagging me to prove my worth, and just bathe in the blessings of grace & love that have been poured on my life. For 15 seconds. Each. And it was wonderful. Like everything else, it was so much better than I could’ve imagined.

Let’s start with a paraphrase of only half of Morgan’s quote: “May we [be] thankful and appreciate our blessings [for 15 seconds at a time],” and then from there, who knows what’s possible????

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the title of a film on Netflix. It doesn’t have anything to do with me thinking of ending anything, doesn’t have anything to do with me at all, except that I just finished watching it. Written and directed by Charlie Kauffman, the creator (writer and/or director) of gems like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (my #2 favorite movie of all time), and Adaptation, among others, it goes without saying that it’s weird. Critics gave it an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes (a film review website) while audiences gave it a 48%. That sounds about right. I usually love films like this, that play with time, dialogue, narrative, and identity like they were blocks to be arranged and re-arranged, but I’m not sure I liked this one.

I’m not really sure that’s the point, though. Charlie Kauffman probably doesn’t care if you or I like his work. It’s polarizing, mostly you love it or hate it. I have a good friend who took my recommendation and watched Eternal Sunshine with his special lady and he credits it with effectively ending the relationship. It was their last date. He often thanks me for that (the end, not the recommendation, he considers it the worst movie he’s ever seen.)

I’m not recommending I’m Thinking of Ending Things. You can watch it or not, you already know if it’s your kind of film.

In Rob Bell’s new book, Everything Is Spiritual, he writes, “They were just four-minute songs, but they were teaching me how creation works. We didn’t have to wait to see what happened, we could create the happening.” This is what any and all works of art do to me, show me how creation works. Something is there/here that wasn’t before. Something that was impossible moments ago is not only possible, but realized.

These films that challenge, that take your accepted notions of how movies go and what they are capable of, and explode them are absolutely vital. You see, we are born with a sense of wonder and imagination and, over time, have that conditioned out of us until we protect “the way we’ve always done things” at all costs. Our perspective shrinks until we can only see what already is. Faith is wildly irresponsible because it involves hoping in what is not (yet.)

The world around us is crumbling and 2020 has not been kind. But that can change the second we begin to believe it can, the second we start to understand that what we do here, now, today, (even the smallest act of love and gentleness and grace) can shape our tomorrows. That the way we behave toward our neighbors (in person or on Facebook) will impact strangers across generations.

The Scriptures say “All things are possible,” and I don’t always see that, if I’m honest. I don’t see how taking cookies to my friends affects a global pandemic or systemic racism or widespread violence or political corruption or countless other illustrations of human brokenness. But this tiny 2 hour movie about a guy with problems driving in a snowstorm with his girlfriend makes me think its true. Anything great isn’t about something so superficial as if I liked it, instead it’s about transformation. Has it moved me, even the smallest bit, away from desperation and cynicism and into a larger perspective? Has it cracked the shell I have so carefully molded out of the status quo? And will this new shift into the possibility of creation inform my relationships, day-to-day interactions, thoughts, and responses?

I don’t know exactly what this film was about, but I am an inch closer to knowing what I am about & a mile closer to you, and those 2 make it a tremendous success.

The Slovenian Flute Maker

One of the books I’m reading is called Heroes and Jerks, written by Ed Daly. This massive doorstop of a book breaks down human history into segments and then, in each segment, lists the 10 Best and 10 Worst people of the time. Now, there might be a bunch I wouldn’t ordinarily like about such lists, but it’s educational and hilarious, so what I wouldn’t ordinarily like doesn’t matter in this instance.

I tell you about this book because I want to tell you about a Slovenian flute maker and me and times like these, in particular.

First, the Slovenian flute maker. He’s #5 in the best of the Early Ancient History category (spanning two million B.C.-501 B.C.). And he’s the #9 worst. In 43,000 B.C., he hollowed out a cave bear’s femur and fashioned the first musical instrument, so if you’ve ever loved a song, danced, or cry when Gisy sings on Sunday morning, you have this guy to thank. AND if you’ve ever heard a Britney Spears song (or that Extreme song, “More Than Words”) and hated it, you also have this guy to thank.

I’ll be 45 years old in almost 2 weeks and I’m only just beginning to embrace the fact that the best thing about me is also the worst thing about me. It’s the thing that makes you (and my wife and my kids and anybody else) love me and it is the very thing that drives you crazy and want to never see me again. Just for knowing, it drives me crazy, too. I used to want nothing more than to change it, to leave that part of me well behind. I don’t anymore.

2020 is hard. Yesterday my phone rang and on the other end was a friend I haven’t spoken to in quite some time. She was in distress over the tragic news in our town (and her job and the local schools and COVID and everything else that is making us all feel like the world is upside down and tearing at the seams). I am in distress over the same things, as well, so we mostly just talked about how hard it is to get out of bed some days. How it can feel like it’s all for nothing. And somehow in the middle of ALL of the emotions we were feeling, there were sprinkles of laughter and hope and genuine care.

Then there’s this boy who came into the weight room where I work yesterday. Usually, the early teen-aged boys are overcome by insecurity and inadequacy and are absolutely insufferable (!!!!!), but this boy came in quietly and asked me what to do. He is apparently often in trouble. But he is also the boy who brought a bag of pretzels to the school office to share with my wife last year.

I don’t really feel that much like writing today. But times like these are discouraging and depressing. But just like the Slovenian flute maker (and everything else), they are not simply 1 thing. They are full of tears, but they are full of beautiful old friends, too.

Last night I had a rehearsal for a wedding that I’ll officiate Saturday and as I looked at these kids, I knew what was coming for them, for their marriage: the fights, the fear, the illnesses, the funerals, the all night conversations, the shouting, the questions, the anger, the pain, suffering, heart aches. I also know what else is coming: the joy, the celebration, the wins, the healing, the reconciliation, the passion, the dinners, the cozy movies on the couch, the births, the answers, the kisses, hugs, the hands to hold. It’s all wrapped up in a swirly mixture of a full love and life. It hurts and it is THE GREATEST. It’s always more than 1 thing, (everything is always more than 1 thing), if we only can have the imagination and faith and courage to just keep going.