Month: June 2018

We Lost Again!!!

Last night, we lost again and our season came to a crushing end. In shades of the single most heartbreaking moment in sports history, when the New England Patriots went 18-0 before losing to the hated New York Giants, we didn’t lose all year and then dropped the first 2 in the playoffs. 

The team that eliminated us was a nice group of boys from ELCO (who we beat twice during the regular season.) Sigh.

I’ve been sitting here, looking at this screen for quite a while, and I guess I don’t have much to say. Last night, after the game, I said all I could through choked emotion, to our boys, “I will miss you.”

(If you’ve ever read any of these posts, listened to a message, or talked to me for longer than 2 minutes, past my uncomfortable attempts at small talk, you know exactly what I’m going to say. You could write it yourself. Nevertheless, here we go.)

I’m sad it’s over. 

But as I am reflecting on these days and months, each of the games, the boys, the coaches, the high fives and handshakes, the smiles, the challenges, the bruises, the cold, the heat, the lessons learned (for me as well as for them), the parents, the effort, all of us different people now than when we began… As I reflect on this, I can absolutely say I was there.

I was there, for all of it. 

Sometimes, I didn’t feel like going. Maybe I didn’t feel good, or was tired, or annoyed, or whatever. But when I got to the field, I gave everything I had – which was me. I opened my heart and soul, kept my eyes open, thought of nothing else, was fully present. And how often can you really say that? 

I think a life lived well is one where we are where we are, with our eyes and hands and arms and hearts wide open. Where we never have to wake up and say, (as Jacob did, in Genesis 28:16) “Surely God was in this place and I was not aware.” I was aware, and as sad as I may be right now, I sure didn’t miss it.

Sometimes, things end and we look back, saying, I wish I had taken the time, been less distracted, said that thing, listened more, held her hand longer. Those are emotions and regrets I have known and mourned. But not this time. I was there.

This is a different wave of emotions, and I can now realize what a blessing, what a celebration, our being here (truly being here, now) is. 

I love them all, it was very good, and I will miss them.  

We Lost!!

“How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” – Tyler Durden

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

Last night, our baseball team got ‘punched in the mouth,’ metaphorically speaking. After an undefeated regular season, where they proved themselves the best team in the league, they lost in their first playoff game. My boy pitched and gave up more runs in the first inning (2) than he had given up all year combined (1). Baseball (and all sports, really) is so wonderful because it can be just the best, complete euphoria in one moment, and rip your heart out, stomp on it, and leaving it lying on the floor the next. 

So. They lost, and I don’t mind too much. Sure, I’m shocked and more than a little disappointed, but there has always been something more to learn here. It’s easy when things go right, everyone can pitch a 1-2-3 inning, go 4-4. The thing I’ve always been concerned with is what happens when you lose, when you’re in a slump, when you give up a home run. What do you do then? 

The passage that’s taking me apart lately is in Romans 5: “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope”

Suffering is also translated tribulations, or trials, and that sounds so big and dramatic – but it’s really anything that goes wrong, an obstacle, an illness, a loss in a playoff game for a 12 year old. It’s any and all fights, anytime you get punched in the mouth. And life does it to us all the time.

And it absolutely reveals who we are. 

So, who are we? This team will find out – it’s a double elimination, our season isn’t over. We had a plan, and now we’re going to have to have a new one, but this one is much more interesting to me. I can’t wait to see how these boys respond. We are coaching baseball, and that’s important, because baseball is awesome, but the best coaches are (far more importantly) teaching capital-L Life. I don’t pretend to be one of the best coaches, but what I can do is invite these boys into the bigger story, one where this game is preparing them for THAT day (you know THAT day, right?) That day, when the worst-case is reality, when you are buried under an avalanche of pressure, anxiety, pain, drowning in your own tears – when life suffocates and constricts. Now what?

What I’m learning in Romans (and in Fight Club) is that suffering reveals who we are, but it also refines us, shapes us into who we will be. The stressors and tests are too gracious, doling out numerous opportunities for growth, punching us in the mouth, knocking us down, over and over, offering us the chance (and the choice, especially the choice) to pull ourselves up.

Last night, my oldest had a bit of a tough night on the mound (like everyone does), and he also made 2 stellar plays at 3rd base, and had 3 scorched hits.

My youngest made 2 (very uncharacteristic) errors, struck out, and never wavered for a second, in himself or his teammates.

I’m very proud of them, it takes character to lose with class and honor, giving everything and never giving up. But there is another whose character I can’t shake. 

This boy, after giving up 2 home runs, stood, visibly shaken, tearful, on the loneliest place in sports – the pitcher’s mound, with everyone watching. But he stood, and came right back with strike one to the next hitter. 

We may lose tonight, or tomorrow, and not win the championship I would’ve sworn was ours – the best team doesn’t always win. And maybe we were never the best team, after all, despite the wins. 

But I’m more convinced a championship trophy doesn’t matter. It is in that boy, gathering the strength to remain standing, that we all prevail.  

Locked Doors

Last week, a traveling Russian preacher rolled into our service 45 minutes late, walked the aisle, took his place next to me and addressed us all. This guy (who may have been crazy as a bedbug) was certainly bold, unembarrassed, outrageous, but I never felt that what he did was rude or disrespectful. 

I do, however, think his ‘literature’ is. He handed out packets of papers to most of us on his way out. Papers that were scattered and random, as if he stumbled across the cut-paste function on a computer and compiled verses with no purpose, no thought to organization or continuity, incoherent ramblings that ended with phone numbers and first names. Who are they? Who knows?

I’m not going to call, obviously, but that doesn’t change the fact that his visit sure feels like a holy disruption.

Every other week, for the last few years, we had locked our doors once the service started. Once, we neglected to do that, and we were exposed.   

This isn’t going to become a discussion on physically locking doors – that is, perhaps, for another time. But we plan these services, we consider order and topic and ideas and how best to remove the barriers we’ve all built between ourselves and God. We lock the doors to try to eliminate anything that might distract (and feeling unsafe sure might). But when we lock doors, there is a cost. What else are we keeping out?

In our lives, we often plan away any hint of the unknown. I suppose it’s human nature. How many times have we stayed in toxic relationships because, though it may be painful, at least we know what it is? That, somehow, the familiar is preferable to the risk of the exotic and strange. So, we choose to walk a clear, wide path, avoiding the rough, unkempt wilderness. Where does faith fit into that wide path? In our desire for comfort (or at least the uncomfortable routine) and safety, what do we lose?  

The unknown carries with it a (very real) threat of danger, choosing to lock the door can ease our worry. 

Are we called to lives free of danger? If we could eliminate all hazard, would we? Is that/Should that be our highest aim?

Whether in our lives, our country, or our church, there is a cost to building walls, locking doors to keep others (people, experiences, emotions) out.

When was the last time we tried something new? When was the last time we failed?

In September of 1998, I met a woman who had, months earlier, emerged from a long relationship. She had made the very rational decision to steer clear of another, but as we spent more and more time together, it became as obvious to her as it has always been to me that I was awesome. And she was faced with the same choice we all are, every day. To lock the door, or not? She didn’t want another broken heart, but what if this story had a different ending? It might not, most romantic relationships end, and end badly (as a character in Cocktail says, “everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.”) Anyway, 3 years later, we got married.

I met with a friend last week, and he told me a story. He moved to a new part of the country, found a church he began to fall in love with, and some of the men invited him to their weekly pick-up basketball game. He has always been an athlete, but hadn’t played basketball for years and years, was now over 40 years old, maybe he shouldn’t play, he hadn’t shot a ball in forever, embarrassment loomed large, and injury was a real possibility. To lock the door, or not? He played, and tore his calf muscle – couldn’t walk for weeks.

I’d love to make a great, big, profound point, but I can’t. Maybe we lock the doors. And maybe we don’t. 2 of my favorite verses in the Bible are Proverbs 26:4-5, 

“4 – Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. 

5 – Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation.”

That’s right, they’re the exact opposite! Consecutive verses, one saying to “Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools,” the other saying, “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools.” Sometimes, things get pretty complicated, right? Right. 

I guess the big, profound point is:

Locking the doors keeps out traveling Russian preachers, 

BUT locking the doors keeps out traveling Russian preachers.  


Sacred Disruptions

Sunday morning, in the middle of what I imagined to be a particularly inspiring message;) I noticed a man walk in the door. In our building, the main aisle of the sanctuary leads through double doors through the narthex and through the front doors. If all of the doors are open, from where I teach, I can see into the parking lot. Or, in this case, I can see a man walk in 45 minutes late for the service.

The older, grey-haired man moved hesitantly inside the building, stopping for a moment at the pews. His presence distracted all of us, as it was designed to do. I welcomed him to “take a seat, brother.” His answer was to continue wordlessly down the aisle, towards me. I suppose I should’ve had a twinge of fear, I watch the news, after all. I didn’t, though. I felt nothing but curiosity. What was happening? How would this play out?

I asked him again to take a seat and, when he didn’t acknowledge my request, I drew back my fist and sunk it deep into his face, immediately erupting in a rush of blood… no, that’s not true at all. I did ask, he ignored, walked straight to me and turned around to begin his 2-minute sermon. He asked for 2 minutes (and took 4) to tell us about Jesus (perhaps figuring I had been neglecting my duty) in a Russian accent as thick as a Bond villain.

When he finished, he wouldn’t stay, as he was visiting all of the churches in town to give his message.

So, that happened.

Then, yesterday, I had the unbelievable honor of officiating a funeral service for a 90 year-old woman I had never met. The service was in a breathtaking stone monument at Fort Indiantown Gap National Cemetery on a cloudless day.

There is a sad dynamic that can occur on days like this, a judgment springing from the misguided notion that it is somehow selfish to mourn, that it is less spiritually faithful to acknowledge that your heart is broken. This is theology that has no basis in the Scriptures, so what I do in sacred spaces like this is give permission. I invite them to hold each other’s hands and walk into the most authentic spaces. We mourn and celebrate, weep and laugh. These tensions at hyper-significant moments are charged with the Divine, we must enter with our hearts fully exposed.

Feel this. And feel that. Miss her with every ounce of your being. And at the same time, dance in gratitude for having her at all. Everything matters. We are called to bring our honest, full selves to our relationships, especially the one with Our Creator. Do you think He doesn’t know??? Who told you to try to pretend? To try to hide? No, no, no, we bring it all, and give it to Him, and there (only there) find comfort, peace, life.

I love these things, where the lines between us are so blurry, sometimes they’re even invisible. We are truly present, here, now, together – it’s wonderful.

Now. The message I was giving when the mad Russian interrupted was on faith. The faith that believes the promises of God so deeply AND acts on them. The faith that allows us to say Yes to people, places, opportunities we otherwise wouldn’t, that we think are impossible. Maybe they are – certainly they are if we never try. I told a super-cool story about Elisha climbing onto a balance beam and reaching for my hand, taking for granted that it would be there – then I asked, “If you knew you had a hand that would be there, what would you be willing to try?”/What are your balance beams?

Would it be walking straight to the front of a church you’ve never been in, being seen as a complete weirdo?

Or would it be, despite the deafening voices in your head that tell you you’re nowhere close to good enough, agreeing to speak at a funeral for someone you’ve never met, where you feel hopelessly out of your league?

Who knows? Our beams are as different as we are, but we all have them, and sometimes it takes these sacred disruptions to notice.



Ice Trays and Litter Boxes

Last Sunday, in the message, I spoke a little about romance. Now, I recognize, this is a little like me speaking about the Russian Blue Cat (which is a thing, I just looked it up) or the history of basket weaving in the Philippines, but nevertheless, I had a microphone and a room full of wonderfully kind friends who would listen, so…

I work awfully hard on these messages, and use pretty careful notes for my messages. I use these notes not because I’m unfamiliar with the material and need to know what to say next, otherwise, I’d be stuck in front without a thing to say. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I spend an overwhelming amount of time praying, studying, and crafting these weekly pieces – time I would more accurately define as worship, so I can enjoy sharing on Sunday, free of the stress of remembering my next line, open to any timely prompts that may come. These notes serve as boundaries, as a carefully manicured path confining me to a topic and time frame. If I stand with no notes, I fear we would have a Paul-in-Acts situation, where people would be falling (jumping?) out of windows after hours/days of discussion. 

Anyway. I had intended to mention a perceived lack of romance in a scheduled word, task, or rendezvous. Just a quick mention transmogrified into a momentary diatribe, where I suggested that to schedule was THE most romantic thing we can do for each other.

Sunday afternoon and Monday mornings are usually reserved for focusing on others, what they may have shared with me, prayer concerns, and every now and again, diving deeper into the ideas we explored.

Did I really talk about romance?

Its mention came in a section of what to do when we don’t want to do anything (THIS is a subject I can speak about – I KNOW not wanting to.) 

As I was thinking, I often don’t want to, often don’t feel like it, whatever ‘it’ is. I don’t want to take the trash out, do the dishes, work out, respond, fold the laundry, change the rabbit’s litter box, eat the vegetables, not eat the ice cream, fill the ice trays. And sometimes I don’t. But when I do them anyway, it’s for no other reason than love and service to the others in this house, and in my life.

Now that I think about it, I spend the time on my messages for the same reason – love and service to God, and those who offer the most costly thing we all possess, their time. To just ‘wing it,’ or ‘see where the Spirit leads’ (assuming the Spirit does no leading while alone in preparation) is unbelievably disrespectful.

Anyone can do the dishes when they’re in the mood, or if they love to do the dishes. Anyone can eat peas and Brussels sprouts if they like them. Anyone can hold your hand if they get something out of holding hands. 

It’s when you don’t feel like it that is the wonder.

It’s when you love someone when you don’t feel it that is the real beauty.

When I clear my schedule, or choose to get off the couch and fold underwear, it is ONLY an expression of value and worth. An intentional act of selfless grace. Roses and candles is sometimes love, but for me, changing the litter box always is.