This is what I wrote last post: “We have the ability to choose life. I know it sometimes doesn’t feel like that, it feels more like there are footsteps marked out for us from which we are unable to deviate. That our lives are scripts where improvisation or rewrites are impossible. That we are powerless to our fate. That it is what it is. That I am what I am.”
Then I read this, by Erwin McManus: “What if we are more than we know and in our disconnection with God have become less than we were ever meant to be?”
And these, also by Erwin McManus: “If you are filled with despair, you fill the world with despair; if you are filled with bitterness, you fill the world with bitterness; if you are filled with fear, you fill the world with fear. Additionally, that’s all you will ever find. No matter where you go, your world is filled with the same energy and intention that fills you. In the same way, when (you are) filled with hope, you fill the world with hope; when you are filled with joy, you fill the world with joy; when you are filled with love, you fill the world with love.”
“Your internal mind-set designs your external world. If you believe the world is full of possibilities, it is.”
“We do not see the world as it is; we see the world as we are.”
Each of these segments are connected tentacles that have the potential to impact our lives on a level we can’t quite imagine. How we see God, the world around us (people, environment, art, etc), ourselves, our worth, simply cannot be understated.
We all stay in jobs and relationships that make us miserable because the pain of change is greater than the pain of staying the same. I know that’s generally regarded as true, but I don’t have to like or accept it.
More likely is, a lie was told and we believed it. I heard a guy say in a documentary that if somebody says something is true and somebody else believes it, it becomes true. That’s hogwash, right? If it’s not true, it doesn’t matter how many believe it, it’s still not true. (Or at least it shouldn’t matter.) We were told somewhere along the way that we didn’t deserve more than this, and for some reason, it played on an endless loop in our heads until it was fact. The lie continued to convince us that we couldn’t hope for more, that there were no possibilities, that there would be no joy. We settled for table scraps when we belong at the table, eating with the royal family as children of the King.
Since we bought a lesser reality, that reality becomes the lens through which we see the world. There are no possibilities and no joy for anyone else, either. They’ve been replaced with fear, resentment and despair. All of this is all it ever will be. I am all I’ll ever be. You are all you’ll ever be. This marriage, this job, everything stuck in suspended animation. It’s a skipping record (hopefully you remember what a record is and recognize the undeniable beauty of vinyl) that chains us to this moment, never changing. Our surroundings are bleak, unfulfilling and hopeless largely because we are.
I don’t want us to settle. I want us to Philippians 4:8; “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.” I think Paul probably wrote that verse because he knows us. As much as we evolve into such a sophisticated species, we stay pretty much the same and spend the moments of our lives thinking about what is false, horrible, wrong, and broken, dwelling on worries of tomorrow and regrets of the past.
We listen to that awful song “Watermelon Sugar,” lamenting the state of music today instead of focusing on how awesome Sea Girls, Strumbellas, Mat Kearney and Cold War Kids are.
I know I write about this lack of imagination a lot, but that’s because I talk about it a lot, and think about it even more. I want the world around me to be lively and bursting with life and color and I’m more and more convinced that it’ll only be that way if I finally acknowledge that this is God’s creation, He’s all through it, and the tomb is empty. It’ll only be that way if, filled with His love and abundance, I am lively and bursting with life and color, or as Jesus says, if I have eyes that see and ears that hear the beautiful music that is already playing all around us.
Another season of youth basketball has come and gone. I wonder when we can no longer call it “youth” basketball and it’s just basketball. My boys are in 8th and 10th grade, both in the high school next year, so maybe then. Next year’s reflections will concern “basketball.” (Maybe you don’t care about basketball or what I think about it – in that case, this post will have nothing for you. I wrote another one this week about addiction and the Joker and hope in darkness, try that one instead.)
I guess both seasons were disappointing for them, in terms of wins and losses, but wildly successful considering the very real COVID possibility that there would be no season at all. We couldn’t attend most away games and were only allowed 2 tickets at our home court. The away games were live streamed on YouTube and that wasn’t terrible. The interesting exceptions were Palmyra (who simply didn’t bother with the junior varsity) and Camp Hill (who charged a membership fee!??!). As a marketing/business major in college and child of American culture, I can’t blame Camp Hill. If you have something people want, why give it away for free? Wring those parents wallets like washcloths until they’re dry is what I say.
Anyway. This post isn’t supposed to be about consumerism and monetization, it’s about my boys and how important sports can be. Of course, as Northern Lebanon consistently displays, sports can also be an embarrassing indictment on the death of respect and sportsmanship. (That is mostly a joke, hilarious if you are familiar with Northern Lebanon.) Incidentally, I wrote an email to the AD of NL this morning, very self-aware at sounding like some old “get-off-my-lawn” guy. HA! I guess generations change. They thought Elvis Presley was too risqué once, too, only showing him from the waist up.
Elisha is very good and struggles with what and when to do it, like all of us. Samuel is very good, as well, far better than he thinks, also like all of us. Marianne Williamson famously said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’” Sometimes, their fear of being awesome is paralyzing. I am a little (a lot) scared of heights and a few years ago chose to take these same boys indoor rock wall climbing. Why? Precisely because I am scared of heights. As I scaled the wall, slowly, my body tingled and tensed, at some points freezing solid, my fear keeping me from moving at all. This is what it is. It can be better to not try than to fail, to not shoot than to miss. But I did eventually move my hand and then my foot, getting to the top through tears of terror and gratitude no one saw.
Sports are a terrific metaphor for life and faith. In Genesis 3, Adam passes to Eve and stands back, scared to stand up to the lies of the enemy, scared to shoot. Who knows what would’ve happened if he didn’t shrink?
Like all of us, they have some very bad teammates, who mean-spiritedly point out those misses and ridicule. This is also obviously fear-based. The ones who are nasty and condescending are, without exception, the ones who feel the most inadequate and insecure, but the pain of the bully hardly matters to teenagers, they just hear the insults.
But they have great coaches, who support, encourage, push them to shoot, like all good coaches, parents, people, do. They are better now than they were in November. If I am honest, I don’t really care if they’re better basketball players, my concern is what sort of men they’re becoming. In their lives, will they give all that they have, will they be fearful and passive or will they shoot? That is what I am watching. I played a lot, won a lot, and lost even more, I don’t need them to live or play for me. But no one lives the truly great, meaningful life they’ve been created to live behind steel bars of fear, hiding their power, brilliance and talent.
There will be 2 travel tournaments next month, but the regular basketball season is over. My wish for all of the boys, bullies, the hesitant and the confident, for you and me, is that we all take the shots. That we all spur each other to shoot, to grow, to be brilliant in whatever we do. That we ask, fail, win and lose. That we live. That we no longer ask ourselves, “who am I to be…” and instead start to believe (to continue the Williamson quote):
“Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
We – Children of God, all of us – are here, now, and we are alive. There’s nothing else to do but shine.
So, last week was another week in 2021, which is shaping up to be even more of a bear than 2020. I’m soon going to be able to stop that sentence immediately after “last week was another week,” and we’ll all know what that means.
As you know, I lost a buddy I knew last week to a drug overdose. He left behind a wife and 2 small children. He struggled with addiction since high school, maybe earlier, and his was one of those stories that they say will end in a jail cell or a coffin. 2 days before his overdose, he posted a long grateful note of thanks to God on Facebook. It was his 7 months clean anniversary.
It’s common to wonder in situations like this, why? Why was he so sick? What was so bad that he would spend his life in the familiar pattern of detox and relapse? Or the question I asked of my own dad once he passed that will surely haunt his family, why weren’t we enough? Where did these demons even come from?
I know some of those answers in my buddy’s case, if all that he had shared over the past 4 years had been true. This is not a certainty, of course. His service was for a person I never knew and barely recognized. If there weren’t pictures, I would have questioned if I stepped into the wrong church. But with this, for some reason I believe him. Like so many, the damage inflicted upon him by his family of origin (broken, dysfunctional in every way) was crushing, ultimately leading to his death. They all dutifully carried on what are called generational curses. Midnight Oil, in the terrific song “Forgotten Years,” sing, “Few of the sins of the father, are visited upon the son.” In this case, it was significantly more than “few.” It was an avalanche to dig out of, too much in fact, and he simply could not.
Now. I have to be very careful when I get overwhelmed with the weight of loss and sadness, it can be pretty oppressive and increase my already hyper-sensitive soul. And there, on my dresser, was a borrowed copy of the movie Joker. I had good advice from the Angel to, under no circumstances, watch it while in this state. Very good advice that I ignored.
This movie was, essentially, a re-imagining of my buddy’s life. Abuse, neglect, illness, loneliness, depression, on and on – the Joker turned his violence outward and my buddy directed his mostly at himself. But other than that difference, it was the downward spiral of self-loathing that looked for all the world completely inevitable.
One of the arguments against both is that, at some point, we have the choice and responsibility to build something new, something better. Maybe that’s simplistic ‘bootstrap’ psychology from those who have never been in that sort of darkness. (I happen to know that darkness, so total that the hope that there could ever be light again has faded and been replaced with emptiness.) But maybe it’s not.
We have the ability to choose life. I know it sometimes doesn’t feel like that, it feels more like there are footsteps marked out for us from which we are unable to deviate. That our lives are scripts where improvisation or rewrites are impossible. That we are powerless to our fate. That it is what it is. That I am what I am.
If you’re familiar with me or my work, you’d think this is the point where I start painting pictures of love conquering all, detailing pyramid schemes of love, how love drives out that fear, how a small perspective shift and a bit of imagination and a hug will break those chains. Maybe this is that part, probably it’s like that part in the Bible where Jesus asks Peter, “Are you going to leave me, too?” And Peter says, “Where else am I going to go?” It’s not exactly a rousing declaration of victory, it’s a cold, broken “Hallelujah.” It’s the acknowledgment of Truth in the face of suffering and discouragement, that Sunday is coming even though we cannot see it, that tombs can be empty because once, one was.
I totally believe those things I say, by the way. I have to. Otherwise, I’d have to resign myself to the robotic hopeless futures of those 2 sweet boys, and that is something I can not do, something I will not do.
Joker is a fictional character, but his story is real for so many of us. It’s a pretty good film (even if it isn’t the feel-good hit of the summer), but it’s a really bad story and one that we have to believe can change. The 4 minute mile was impossible until it wasn’t. It just has to start with one (or an army of us) who keeps running into the impossibility.
It’s snowing again and it is absolutely lovely. I haven’t always thought this way, that it was lovely. In my family, we would see the forecast for snow in the 10-day and fear would grip us tightly, first in our stomachs, then our necks. I thought it was a thief and a killer, waiting to take and take from us wherever it could. I don’t think that anymore.
Last weekend a friend of mine died of a drug overdose.
If you happened to see the sermon on Sunday and thought, “what a mess, that guy is coming undone,” you were right. Grief and confusion tend to do that. I’m not too sorry, either. This is also relatively new for me. I was raised to be nice, unoffensive, and pleasing, without edges or confrontation, like that horrible white Wonder bread that everybody kind of likes and nobody really likes at all. Or McDonald’s hamburgers. I thought that was how I would not be alone, if I was nice and soft and squishy. I don’t think that anymore, either.
My friend and I spent hours and hours together at the gym. He would mostly talk and I would listen, just be there, sitting Shiva to the suffering in his soul. He had a wife and 2 small boys.
I often stand up on Sundays and say, in the middle of all of this bad news (like the devastating stories in my town of people we know or the news of people we don’t), that we just need to keep loving each other. Love will be the thing that changes everything and, until then, makes every day bearable. And sometimes I feel like I’m wrong. Maybe nothing can change anything this side of Heaven. Maybe we’re just in a downward spiral of pain, and there’s nothing that can keep the wheels on anymore. It’s hard to stand in front of people if you think the things you’re saying are wrong. It’s even harder to stand in front of the mirror if the things you think you believe are wrong. There’s no peace there. No rest.
But here’s the thing that I realized. I wasn’t having a crisis of faith. I was not doubting Jesus. In fact, it ended up being quite the opposite. I was just sad. And in that depression, I realized that those things about loving each other…they’re true. And even better, even if they’re not, it’s what I’m doing. Maybe it is, or looks like, a downward spiral, but it is without question the thing that makes every day bearable and that in itself can change anything, can change everything. It is love that did change everything.
And then I read this today, in front of my window looking at this beautiful snow falling, in a book by Anne Lamott called Stitches:
“This is all that restoration requires most of the time, that one person not give up. For instance, when I was in school, there were a few teachers along the way who must have seen in me a hummingbird of charming achievement, all eyes, bird bones, frizzly hair and a desperation to please and impress. They knew that there was power and beauty deep inside me, but that I was afraid of this and I was in fragments. Men and women alike, old and new at teaching, were like aunties or grandparents in their firm patience with me, in their conviction of my worth. They had a divine curiosity about me – “Hey, who’s in there? Are you willing to talk straight and find who you actually are, if I keep you company? Do you want to make friends with your heart? Here – start with this poem.
This is who I want to be in the world. This is who I think we are supposed to be, people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness.”
I think so, too, Anne Lamott!!!
There are 2 phrases that I will carry with me until the last day.
“In their conviction of my worth.” We have all looked into someone’s eyes who held a conviction of our worth. Maybe we didn’t believe it. Maybe we couldn’t receive it. But even in the darkest spaces, it holds the hint of possibility that it might be true. That we are worthy, in our mess, whatever that mess is. Can you imagine?
And “Are you willing to talk straight and find who you actually are, if I keep you company?” In the sadness of a buddy dying of a drug overdose (and I am awfully sad), it’s easy to question if keeping each other company matters. It does. It really really does.
So. This is who I want to be in the world, too, a person who helps to call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness. The very bad news is that this carries with it a certain amount of risk that hopelessness can crowd out the Gospel from time to time. And even so, we keep calling.
I’ve been telling everyone who will listen how much I love the author Fredrik Backman. Last month I read and wrote about Beartown, a devastating novel about a community and a horrible thing that happens that threatens to tear it to shreds. Reading it was a rough experience. So you can imagine how surprised I was to be reading its sequel, Us Against You. The story continues to detail the fallout from this horrible thing in this community. We often think the horrible things are like band aids; we tear them off and then throw it in the garbage and we don’t have a band aid anymore. It’s really more like a tattoo; it might fade but that’s about the best case scenario. It will probably leave traces behind so we can always see where it was, how and when we got it and how much it hurt. We are different afterwards, changed.
This horrible thing leads to a vastly transformed landscape. Relationships deteriorate between spouses, parents & children, neighbors, teammates. Maybe the most damaged is the relationship they have with themselves and the people they thought they were.
I learned a lot about me through these 800 pages across 2 books, about who I am and who I want to be and how far apart those people still are, sometimes.
These characters are faced with decisions to respond, to stand…or not.
The choice to speak or not. To move forward or not. To build or destroy.
Some make great decisions that cause them such unbelievable pain and loss.
Some act in shameful ways and their careers advance, their teams win.
Sometimes relationships fall apart for no more complex reason than we don’t hold them together.
We don’t know how to come home, so we stand on the porch unable to turn the handle while those inside ache at our absence as if we were worlds apart instead of on the other side of the door.
The whole narrative could’ve changed, reconciliation was still possible, if only we could turn the knob. If only we could take 1 step, tell the truth, say something, stop. If only.
This horrible thing happened between 2 people and ravaged an entire town for generations. There are no victimless crimes. But it would also be a mistake to suppose that the horrible thing was the only ravager. The entire town, over generations, carelessly set the scene for this horrible thing between 2 people. Everything is connected. By the end, it was so hard to tell who were the victims and who were the perpetrators, but this writer didn’t seem to mind leaving it to me to figure that out. And (with the exception of 1 15 year-old girl) I couldn’t. What I discovered is that it’s a lot like real life, that the brainless simplicity of us/them is never adequate. Maybe its authenticity is what made it so uncomfortable.
This is a very difficult post to write, not because I can’t think of anything to say, but because there’s just too much. My head and heart are overflowing with ideas that I delete, false starts and a screen that is blurry through new tears.
Earlier, I typed “the whole narrative could’ve changed,” and I think that’s what is so heartbreaking to me. It takes work and attention, food and water, but often we don’t have those to give, for whatever reason. So the distance between us grows and we stop seeing, stop listening, stop saying.
The books were amazing. I’m sad but, like always, hopeful. This story in Beartown is our story and like that one, we can change it. We don’t have to stop listening, seeing, saying. We don’t have to stay on the porch, we can come in and fall in love again. One Sunday there was an empty tomb, a moment where everything changed forever, and there can be one today, too.
The good news is that it’s absolutely beautiful outside, a nice soft blanket of white covering our streets and towns.
The bad news…well, I guess there’s no really bad news. You can stay in bed, toasty warm and in your pajamas. But instead of meeting in person at the Bridge, we’ll only meet virtually today on 10:30am on Facebook Live. There will be no in person service today.
I’ll miss you. Stay safe and have an awesome day!
On the mini earlier today, we began to tie the clouds of our lives together. It’s like that scene in The Karate Kid. After Daniel-san has been painting fences & houses, sanding the floor, and waxing on and off for who knows how long (it’s about 15 or 20 minutes of the movie), he begins to pout. Well, he doesn’t just begin to pout here, he begins to pout about this here. He pouts often in the movie. Probably, Daniel Larusso is the most unlikeable hero we’ve ever seen. Anyway. Mr Miyagi miracles the soreness out of his shoulders and unleashes a barrage of punches and kicks that Daniel-san expertly blocks with his surprising new ability. Given connection, context and application, the isolated moves have become skill and talent and will eventually win him the All Valley Karate Tournament and Elizabeth Shue.
We’ve been talking about weight, values, showing up, effort, energy, time, choice, quality, quantity, intention – and when Jen spoke this weekend, saying “Garbage In Garbage Out,” (she was talking about input to our hearts, but later the words themselves met me in a space where I was receiving so much stimulation from all directions) everything coalesced into a nice fiery ball of awareness for me.
What we give (the quantity and, even more so, the quality) can directly inform what we get and how we experience our surroundings and circumstances. If I pour in the very best of me to my relationship with God, my marriage, community, children, career, fitness, friendships, on and on (wherever I choose to spend my time & energy) the chances go up exponentially that whatever it is will be positive and fulfilling. If I don’t, it won’t.
(Now of course, it’s not 100%. If we’ve learned anything at all, it’s that we are not the ones who are in control, right? This is not our story.)
I have a very good friend with whom I used to spend an awful lot of time, we were tight and deeply connected. Then we stopped attending the same church community, didn’t see each other as much, the tight, deep connection loosened and now, though we still care for each other, the friendship is largely superficial. You get what you put in.
If I stay up late Friday night, eat a bunch of junk food, and wake up late Saturday morning, when I log in to the retreat I am tired and uncomfortable, and where I usually find the retreats very meaningful, this time it happens and leaves me unaffected. Garbage in garbage out.
Now, the million dollar question is, how do I know where to choose to give my time & energy? How do I decide what to give?
This is where the hard work we’ve been doing on weight comes back to reward us. We’ve been praying, relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discover our values. We explore what we think is important to us and examine if it actually is. This revelation of our hearts is painstaking but vital, and now we know why. We give our time & energy to what weighs more, we give the best of us to the most valuable.
If we don’t know where to focus, we’ll just give more and more pieces of us to everything. We respond to all of the personal emails, forwards, ads, and spam in our inboxes, unable to tell the difference. We’ll feel drained and used and confused as to why our relationships suffer, why our work suffers, why we don’t feel inspired, why we’re tired all the time, distracted, bored.
If we do, and don’t act on it, we can become angry and/or resentful because we aren’t doing the things that give us life, that we are made to do, that mean something to us. We’ll feel drained and used, our relationships will suffer, our work will suffer, we’ll feel tired, uninspired, distracted, bored, but this time, we know why and that makes us disappointed in ourselves.
The idea is that we listen and follow the Spirit into the depths of our souls, start to find out who we are and for what we’ve been created and called, then step (however lightly at first) onto that path, show up and give everything we have, and see where it leads. I bet it leads somewhere awesome, miles from where we thought we would be.
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.