Dialogue

I just received a new book as a Christmas gift from a very good friend who buys me books I always love. Not this Christmas. This was a gift from last Christmas, but we couldn’t find the time to get entire families together to exchange presents and, more importantly, presence.

I’m embarrassed to say we couldn’t find the time, but all I can say now is that I won’t say it again.

The book is called Daily Prayer, and there’s a passage I want to share with you: “Most of us are in dialogue when we read a book. I know I am. That’s the point, I think; to listen to the writer, to listen to yourself and to listen to the space between where things said by neither are nonetheless said. The things we take away are the things that we were already looking for. What you seek is seeking you, said Rumi, and while this is a frightening concept, it can be a consoling one if we listen to the desires that will feed us, not destroy us. Rumi asks us to trust that wisdom waits, and might be found in unlikely corners.”

We talk a lot about these conversations with the Bible. We find what we find, sometimes it’s in the text and sometimes it’s not. But it is absolutely vital that we acknowledge this dialogue and listen to what is being said to us in this personal space. Every now and again, someone hears a talk of mine and comments on what they heard and it’s impact on them here, now, and I wonder where they heard that because it sure wasn’t in my message. It hardly matters, it’s awesome either way.

[An unrelated observation: “the desires that feed us, not destroy us” – can you think of any 1 piece of advice more important than learning to tell the difference between the 2?]

This passage is in the How To Use This Book chapter, then on the page called 30 (for the day of the month): “May we listen to our hearts when they burn with life knowing that You are speaking with us. Because You are with us along the way in the faces of many strangers.” That is what’s called a Benediction, which is a sending off with a blessing, and often it’s just words. But today, as I read it and talk back and listen, I’m thinking of the times when I don’t listen to my heart, don’t know it is God who is speaking. In my distraction, leaving those words unnoticed, I take this beautifully sacred divine moment and treat it like it was no more than hollow noise. And I’m thinking of the stranger’s faces that I ignore, walking past the very face of Jesus. Maybe there aren’t ordinary moments, just spectacular holy moments that we miss.

I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe there is ordinary time, but as that time is truly lived, fully present, it becomes holy. And spectacular.

I’m having dinner with close friends tonight and it’s “just” dinner on a Wednesday evening in November. No event, no real reason to get together, nothing special. Hold on, “nothing special?” We are brothers and sisters sharing a meal, what could be more special? That’s the event. That’s the reason. Lives lived together. If only that would be the ordinary.

I will remember this passage, will notice my heart burn, at dinner. Then, afterwards, at a high school basketball scrimmage. Then, at 1am, as the Angel and my boy Samuel arrive home from a school trip to DisneyWorld. I’ll hug and kiss them both (and then I’ll do it again.) The more I think about it, how could I miss anything? This morning I sat with a brother and listened to his soul cry out. Tomorrow I’ll go to the gym, eat a salad and tapioca pudding, and work in the weight room before the 4 of us (together again!!!) sit down to dinner. Can any of this really be called ordinary?

Or maybe it all is ordinary, unexceptional, until we turn our eyes and hearts and jump in with our whole selves. We participate in this Story happening all around us, and in the engagement (in the dialogue) it becomes…actually, it crackles and hums with meaning, significance, with life. The Spirit sings and in the listening, we finally hear it.

It’s a pretty good book so far.

Giving Thanks

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. It has become everybody’s favorite holiday because the day includes all of the best parts of Christmas without the commerciality and gift drama. In my case, my immediate family gathers in New Jersey at my sister’s home and we eat too much and laugh the perfect amount.

Sadly, we were missing my aunt and cousins, which feels a little like going outside without a coat – incomplete and a little chillier. They weren’t there because my cousin’s boyfriend had recently lost his father, this was the first Thanksgiving without him, and they all chose to stay in and celebrate (and mourn) with his mother. This was the right decision, of course, but I can’t help missing them.

That’s the thing about holidays, right? They can serve as a sort of magnifying glass, bringing the sadness we can carry all year into focus. We picked up my mom early, and I purposefully drove the neighborhood streets my dad used to drive – the streets that are ancillary, totally unnecessary, only adding time and distance to the trip. I did that because there is an empty chair at Thanksgiving forever. He loved to eat as much as I do, though he was much messier leaving corn, crumbs, and anything else in his mustache. (I have no hard evidence for this, but I believe he had that mustache because Magnum P.I. had the greatest mustache and my mom, like everyone else, loved the way Magnum P.I. looked.) I miss him and I feel his absence on holidays the most.

This isn’t a terrible thing, by the way. It only feels like it is for the first few years, then that searing pain become an ache, which dulls over time, never fully disappearing.

So, I love my sister’s dog, Ty. He loves me, too. You might think you’ve met the best dog, but you’re wrong. He is. He’s a pit bull mix that looks a lot like the living gargoyles in the first Ghostbusters movie. He’s a gentle giant, who could shred bad guys but who probably wouldn’t. The odds are very high that he wouldn’t, but not zero, which only makes him more and more awesome. Every time I get there, I hug the humans, then settle in with my dog and pet him for as long as we do.

He is aging, he’s a big old guy now, and when we left, I stayed after everyone went outside and kissed him on his nose and told him through tears how much I love him and how thankful I was that he was there, just in case. One of these holidays, he won’t be there.

Ty isn’t my dad, or my cousin’s boyfriend’s mom, or the many empty chairs in our homes and lives, but let me tell you why I said earlier that it ‘wasn’t a terrible thing,’ which I intentionally understated. Not only isn’t it terrible, but it is one of the absolute greatest gifts we can ever receive.

You don’t remember everyone, people pass away every minute of every day. We remember, we mourn for, and our hearts break out loud for those who made space (and who we made space for) to live in our lives. We shed those tears, our stomach’s hurt, our chest tightens, because they mattered to us in ways very few do. Their impact was heavy and left/leaves us forever different, forever transformed. My dad’s passing broke me and when I healed, broken pieces still visible just not sharp anymore, I was very very different. Most of the parts of me you like best were forged in that season, where, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Jesus was in the fire with me, holding me, comforting me, whispering in my ear that this suffering was a gift, too. I didn’t exactly believe him then, but I sure do now.

When Ty isn’t on his bed for a future Thanksgiving, I’ll miss him, and as I do, I’ll thank the God of Everything that I do. I will have loved this dog, this beautiful blessing, and what could be better than to have loved? Nothing, that’s what.

And this is why I hug so well, why I tell you how much you matter so much (and sometimes so uncomfortably), why I hold hands too long, why I cry often, why I ask so many questions, listen, overshare and allow my emotions to rest on the outside of my skin. Because I am finally awake, and being alive and awake means that I am grateful for all of it.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Church on Thursday Night

Last night I took my son Samuel to see his first live music show. 2 artists (American Authors and the unfortunately named Phillip Phillips) in the Midtown Arts Center in our state capital. Adding to the excitement of the adventure, there wasn’t any parking and the building was barely marked and so easily missed that we weren’t entirely sure we had arrived even as we were walking inside.

So, we go in and sit and wait for the doors to the concert area to open, watching people and talking like friends. It is a beautiful under-acknowledged gift to actually like your children. Of course, we love them, we sort of have to. Also of course, there are times they drive us craazy. But to like them? That is an unguaranteed, unexpected, overwhelming blessing that is not to be overlooked.

American Authors opened – they were the reason we went, he feels like he discovered them and loves them like they’re pretty much his secret – and were terrific. He even got his picture taken with them that I’ll show you when I see you. But they played this one song, Deep Water, that is providing the thread that stitched us all, the entire night, this entire season of our lives, together, and is sliding seamlessly into the narrative of our communities (at the Bridge, work, school, towns & cities.)

Before I give you the lyrics, there’s a story in the book of Kings where the prophet Elijah is fleeing an evil king and queen and ends up hiding in a cave. He thinks he’s alone, but it’s there that he is ministered to by God. He is definitely not alone. Elijah is scared and complains that he’s being chased, and why is he being chased, what is going on, why why why, and that he’s the only one left. God answers the way God usually answers, without answering any of Elijah’s questions, BUT what He does is tell Elijah that there are more just like him and where to find them. God knows what we so easily forget; we don’t actually need answers (we only think we do), we just need someone to hold our hand. We just need someone to walk alongside. We just need someone to listen, to care, and to love (and who will love us in return.)

Now, Deep Water – the singer-songwriter referenced some heavy struggles (the deep water of the title) and his gratitude for the people who willingly waded into that water, sometimes to rescue, other times just to tread the same water in which he was treading.

“Please, tell me I won’t wash away. When it pulls me under, Will you make me stronger? Will you be my breath through the deep, deep water? Take me farther, give me one day longer Will you be my breath through the deep, deep water? When I’m sinking like a stone, At least I know I’m not alone.”

It’s not a superficial pretending that there isn’t water, or that the water isn’t deep, or that he wasn’t sinking like a stone. There was, it was, and he was. It’s not the need to fix that overflows from our fearful uncomfortability of this deep water. It’s only presence, sensitive to the times where we can “tell [him he] won’t wash away,” “make [him] stronger,” to “be [his] breath,” or to simply be in the water when he’s “sinking like a stone.”

This is our call.

I looked through watery eyes at my son who is, and will be again, in deep water. Just like the rest of us in that room and in every room. I pray that he has a tribe who will hold him up and be his breath, and that he can become the kind of person who will be theirs.

The most beautiful thing about a concert is that we are all there, we are all now, inextricably connected by the purity of our shared love. Life can be hard and we can think we are very, very different, but in the dark, on a Thursday night, affirming the creative spark that has been generously given by our Creator, we were all human, nothing more and nothing less.

Then, Phil Phil performed his biggest hit, Home, with these lyrics: “Hold on to me as we go, As we roll down this unfamiliar road. And although this wave (wave) is stringing us along, Just know you’re not alone ‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home. Settle down, it’ll all be clear. Don’t pay no mind to the demons, They fill you with fear. The trouble, it might drag you down. If you get lost, you can always be found. Just know you’re not alone ‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home.”

Well, this is just great, now I’m writing through watery eyes as I think about him again, about those who I have held onto as we go, who have been my breath, who found me when I was lost, as I think about you. I know I’m not alone, you have all made this place my home.

The thing that gives me the most hope is the pyramid scheme. If we can do this for each other, and we have, and we will continue, eventually we can all know we’re not alone and that we are all extravagantly loved. Then, anything is possible.

Depth

Nahum was a prophet tasked with warning of coming judgment on the city of Ninevah in the ancient empire Assyria. If that sounds to you exactly like the call of Jonah, you’re right, it IS exactly like the call of Jonah. The only difference is the when – Jonah wrote his book in 785-760 BC and Nahum wrote his in 663-612 BC, roughly 100 years later than Jonah. When Jonah went, the people of Ninevah listened, mourned, repented, and changed their lives…for a little while. Obviously, that’s a little (a lot) convicting when I start to think of how many times I make a nice change until I don’t.

Anyway. Verse 6 in chapter 1 reads, “Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him.” That isn’t a very feel-good passage, right? But verse 7 sounds different, “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.”

The note in my Bible says, “For those who refuse to believe, God’s punishment is like an angry fire. But to those who love Him, His mercy is a refuge.”

An awful lot of the Scriptures, maybe all of it (from a perspective), details the choice we all have: whether we will or will not enter into a relationship with this God. Will we believe, follow, fall in love, and if we do, what does that actually mean? These verses seem to say, this relationship is up to us. The kind of relationship we have with God depends on our engagement. I think that’s true, God extends His loving hands to all of us, the question is if we will hold it or not. God gives us all the coat, we decide if we’ll put it on. There’s a place already reserved for us at the table, will we sit down with Him? What kind of relationship do we want, what kind will we choose?

It’s a big question, maybe the biggest.

But what I’m thinking about now is, in our daily lives, how much is left to our engagement, or lack thereof. Is the level of meaning we find in our lives closely linked to our level of participation? Does the depth of our relationships correlate to the depth of our immersion in those relationships?

Some very good friends of mine once criticized a church I belonged to as “clique-y” and “closed to anyone new.” Maybe it was. But would it have been so closed if they had shown up more often? Do we consider groups to be cliques if we are on the inside, and if showing up is the only requisite to our entrance?

(I recognize there are actual closed groups where the walls are made of steel, immovable, impenetrable, and awfully nasty. But are these the much more rare exemptions, as in ascribing psychopathic behavior to the general population? OR, now that I’m farther into this, is this simply another example of the importance of perspective, the idea that we get what we’re looking for? I find notably less locked doors now that I operate as if all doors are wide open. Is that true?)

What I know to be true is that showing up to our lives, awake and accepting of possibility, while not leading to a perfect life (and what is that anyway????), certainly leads to beauty, significance, and weight. We won’t ever experience the exhilaration of the ocean if we only dip our toes and run from the tide. Maybe the only question left is, (in our relationship with God, our spouses, friends, neighbors, strangers, enemies, our world, ourselves), how deep are we willing to go?

Re-Feed

Let’s talk about 2 quick things before we get into the point of this post.

First, I follow a man named Aadam Ali (physiqonomics.com) online who talks about fitness and nutrition, and he uses a beautiful term to describe the increase in calories following time in a deficit (I don’t use the word diet anymore, it doesn’t have positive baggage in my head): Re-Feed. It’s great, right? When I eat a little too much (over the number my tracker tells me should be my intake), the Angel & I and now my boys call it a re-feed.

I’m going to use it in a slightly different context here.

The other is that I follow several other people virtually; some churches, pastors, artists, podcast hosts, comedians, experts in different things I care about (like Aadam Ali). It’s one of the best things about the internet. 3 weeks ago I emailed a podcast for the 2nd time, they read both on air, and now we’re best friends. A woman in Denver and I comment on each other’s posts on Instagram like we’re neighbors. This complex network connects us in ways we couldn’t have imagined only a few decades ago. It also gives us the sense that these screens and “friends” and connectivity are community, but that isn’t exactly true.

Following a church online is not the same thing as belonging to a local church. It can supplement, but it can not substitute. Having said that, those supplements are very important to living lives of faith, and can serve as spiritual re-feeds. We add devotionals, emails from mailing lists, sermons from around the world, instructional articles & videos, practices to our usual routine, and they give us fresh perspectives, inspiration, encouragement, and a voice different from the local every-week pastor (no matter how compelling that voice is;).

This is Thursday’s email from someone named Justin at WiRE (clever alternative spellings are not necessary, I guess, but they sure help – maybe from here on out, we’ll be “thaBridGe?!”):

“. . . build up the ancient ruins

. . . repair the ruined cities – Isaiah 61:4

Three relationships broke when man fell, so long ago: the relationship between man and God, the relationship between man and himself, and the relationship between man and other men (and women). Our jobs now, are to repair and rebuild those relationships, in our own unique ways, as much as we can during our lifetimes . . . and to encourage and assist others in doing likewise. Our King, Jesus Christ, gave us our instructions—love “God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and love “your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 27:37-29). His two-part directive covers all three relationships: love God more than anything else; love yourself sufficiently; and love other people at least as much as you love yourself. It’s all there.

So how do we begin? Well, we restore relationships with God when we soften our hearts, decide to trust him more than we trust ourselves, and bend ourselves toward obedience. We restore relationships with ourselves when we soften our hearts and decide to care for ourselves as God intends, finally dealing with self-condemnation or idolatry or addiction (to work, to food, to alcohol, to pornography, or anything else). And, we restore relationships with others when we soften our hearts, decide to look around for people who need us, and bend our lives toward loving and serving and forgiving them.

Okay, so what do we do?

Take a moment to survey your life. Which type of relationship is most broken? If none is obvious, take time for listening prayer. Ask your counselor, God the Holy Spirit, to guide you. Once you’ve focused-in on what’s most in need of rebuilding, what’s most in need of repair, you’ve got your own, individualized blueprint for “what’s next.” Begin working on it this week. Start with something practical.”

Right??? How are those 3 BIG relationships in our lives? What a great question, and a very important one. Most days I read this Justin’s message quickly, distracted by something or other, just moving through it as fast as I can so I can delete it. But on other days… Last Thursday I read this and it stopped me in my tracks, yanked me away from my distracted mind, and remained stuck in my head since. I’m reflecting on the answers to his question “So what do we do?” and creating my own blueprint.

However, this particular email, these 3 important relationships, or practical blueprints aren’t the point. The point is that we are learning how to build lives of faith, individually and corporately, to re-feed. Our local community provides the community, a shared place, and a common vision to walk together, and as we grow, the community grows. You can picture the early churches meeting for meals, sharing Gospel teaching, discussing theology and it’s practical application, reading letters from Paul and Apollos and social media cultural influencers, holding more and more hands in prayer each month. It’s an idea that probably has been hi-jacked by so many cultural factors, damage, misinformation and misinterpretation. Now it’s time to reclaim this beautiful tradition and create lives based in/on Jesus, the Gospel, and faith, plant and nurture communities, let every step be taken in love, for Him, each other, and ourselves. Revolutions like this don’t happen by accident, they happen through intention. We’ve been rescued, now what?

Sex

I think it’s hilarious to title this post “Sex,” and wonder what you’re thinking/expecting when it comes across your email or Facebook feed.

On Sunday, we discussed a passage in 1 Corinthians that referenced “sexual immorality,” and it was my assumption (not an entirely incorrect assumption, I don’t think) that, historically, most church leaders’ perspective was that all sexuality was sexual immorality, and therefore, not to be discussed on a Sunday morning – there were (gasp) CHILDREN there! – outside of a strict warning of the dirty inappropriateness of it all. But it’s absolutely not dirty or inappropriate, God created it, blessed it, called it holy.

[Of course it has been twisted and dragged through some great rivers of mud, but that doesn’t make it twisted and muddy any more than all music turns into brain dead misogyny simply because a band called Limp Bizkit existed in the ‘90’s.]

So, I knew what I was going to talk about, and then I saw 2 young(er) girls sitting in front of me, and faced a moment of hesitation. Is this the sort of thing that will offend? Their parents are some of my very favorite people, will I get nasty phone calls questioning my judgment? What had I prepared exactly, was it in any way blue? Would it warrant a higher age rating on Netflix? Would I deserve those phone calls, if they came?

As it turns out, I didn’t pull back and I didn’t apologize. Maybe that was the way to go, and maybe it wasn’t. (I haven’t yet gotten any angry messages.) But the way I figure, the church has to have a voice in reclaiming words and concepts that have been hi-jacked and lost. These girls have, no doubt, heard much much worse in school hallways and on TikTok. Sex has been inexplicably referred to as “casual” more often than I can count even though we all know it’s not. A church that sees physical intimacy as completely taboo is doing us a huge disservice and creating a vacuum that (like all vacuums) will be filled, in porn sites if not in sermons.

But ultimately, the reason I talk about sex as often and as openly as I do (and it’s actually not that often, it only seems that way), to the horror of my boys, is because the Bible talks about sex openly, honestly, and very often. It’s there, in most of the books, whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s really important that we don’t just ignore the parts that make us uncomfortable. We’ve done that for too long and that pretending has allowed the beauty and truth of the Scriptures to become either irrelevant or a hammer used to hit others to prove our own tightly held opinions.

I hope nobody was scarred, I didn’t talk one second about the biology of sex (which is more than I can say about Song of Songs, a book with lots and lots of biology). But the way I see it, if it begins a conversation on respect, selfless giving & receiving, commitment, holy intimacy, and fidelity, then we will begin the long process of taking our sexuality back and returning it to where it belongs, back where the rest of us belong as well: in the arms of a loving God.