Merry Christmas. We pray that in this season of Jesus, and in the new year, you can come home, into the arms of a God who loves you just as you are!
Thank you Joy for sharing about your journey and the people who inspired you to be better. It takes a community to surround us and love us through all the hard times and the best times of our lives.
I genuinely want to wish you all a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!
I suspect this will be my last post for the year – everyone is home from work/school next week and I don’t think I’ll sit down to write until they go back. I have some thoughts today, with the end of the year in mind, and there’s the chance it could get lengthy. (Since it’s the end of the year, I also want to thank you from the deepest parts of my soul for reading any of the things I write – and extra special thanks if you’ve liked, commented on, or shared any of this. There are an awful lot of choices of the things that compete for our attention, it is always humbling, appreciated and never taken for granted that you might spend a minute or 2 here.)
In the Bible (2nd Samuel to be exact), King David sees a woman named Bathsheba, spends time with her, she gets pregnant, and he (indirectly) kills her husband, Uriah. Now, this is the same King David that is called “a man after God’s own heart,” and we could explore the implications of God’s forgiveness and grace and what it might mean for us forever. But not today. Today we’ll only talk about the mess David got himself into. Usually, when we make a mess like this, it’s an ‘accident,’ a ‘moment of weakness,’ a ‘slip,’ like falling into a hole. This is very nearly never the case. It’s a long series of small, seemingly insignificant decisions that create a new road – a guy named Michael Fletcher called them “neuropathways” – somewhere we don’t think we’d like to go, but the long distance from “I’d NEVER do something like that” to the pregnant Bathsheba is shortened in increments until it’s no longer a giant chasm and instead becomes a very natural step. That story of David begins with “In the spring, when kings go off to war…” David didn’t, even though he was a king, even though he had always gone before. So many places to turn back and change the story. He could’ve gone to war. He could’ve seen her and averted his eyes, could’ve gone inside and watched Netflix documentaries, played his harp, had a nice meal, took a bath of his own, spent time with one of his 9 million concubines, anything. But he didn’t. He looked, kept looking, and the action that would have been so appalling earlier was right in front of him, leaving Bathsheba pregnant and Uriah dead. It’s never just 1 misstep, it’s 100 exit ramps along the way that we pass on the way to the big “Oops” that we pretend was an accident.
There is a flip side to this, one that is wholly positive and encouraging. This principle works in reverse, as well. We just as rarely become the people we want to become overnight, like we’re struck by lightning or possessed by an angel of light. It’s the result of a series of small, seemingly insignificant decisions that create a new road, shortening the distance from “I could never be like that” to “maybe…” to “I am almost like that.”
We don’t change behaviors (quit drinking, lose 30 pounds, stop telling lies, make good friends, build a beautiful marriage, get in shape, whatever) overnight, we change them a moment at a time. We didn’t gain the 30 pounds overnight, why would we lose it by tomorrow? The small things we do today are the foundation to who we will be in 6 months or 10 years, and should be taken very seriously. So, what neuropathways are we forming?
Interestingly, there is a baffling pattern I am finding more and more (in myself, as well as around me). We begin to erect these structures intentionally, to become something new and awesome. And we are, in fact, becoming just that. We eat more vegetables, we follow a workout program at the gym, we regularly read our Bibles, and we feel great, like superheroes who are breaking generational curses and are capable of ANYTHING at all. The best versions of ourselves, growing every day in every way. Then, something happens that hurts, circumstances change, the wheels get wobbly, the tides rise and water gets choppy…and we stop! Why?!!? Why would we stop the things that make us strong and courageous, build confidence and self-esteem, make us the good kind of proud of ourselves???
I eat more vegetables and less processed ‘food’ made in factories, feel great, sleep better, buy new pants (while keeping the old, because you never know, right? 😉 have more energy than I had since high school…then she breaks up with me and I reach for the donuts, ice cream and soda, which makes me feel even more like garbage, so I eat some more candy and chips and on and on and on.
I go to church because I decide it’s important – for any number of reasons – and IT IS!! I make new friends, connect on a deeper level, grow in relationship with God, discovering that the Bible isn’t at all the hateful book of a crazy religious cult but is instead a gorgeous letter of Love, Grace and Peace, begin to fall in love with Jesus…then my wife and I fall into a pattern where we are fighting more and I stay out Saturday night and sleep in later and don’t really feel like going where I might have to talk to someone who would ask me how I am (THE HORROR!!) and really should do the yard work and catch up on the latest season of Fleabag and the fights continue and I avoid the phone calls from those new friends and feel more and more desperate and like we are spinning our wheels and maybe our problems can’t be fixed and and and.
I have been writing a new book and when I make time, schedule time to write a lot, it comes easy and I feel inspired and fresh and engaged with my life, but when there are more basketball games and appointments, it’s often the first thing to go. Why is that?
When we, in ordinary times with clear heads, make commitments and create practices to evolve and grow in ways we desire, maybe we should not abandon them the second the terrain gets shaky. Maybe that’s actually the best time to hold them a little tighter. Maybe that’s the reason we have them in the first place. Small decisions made over and over lead to BIG wonderful changes.
Now. The truth is that sometimes it’s hard to notice, and that can be discouraging and lead to this abandonment. What about that? Well…I have an idea about that.
Last night was the Christmas (or Holiday, whatever. Obviously I don’t mean to offend you when I say Christmas – if you are, maybe you could get a hobby or a book to read or something to think about – I don’t get offended if you wish me Happy Hanukkah or Kwanzaa blessings. In fact it’s the opposite, I totally welcome your open kindness to welcome me into the warmth and beauty of your traditions) concert for the high school chorus and band. (My boy Samuel is in the band.) I have seen these students since Kindergarten and see them a few times a year in spaces like last night. It’s the most amazing thing, they are no longer children and are becoming young men and women, with striking talents and distinct personalities. A girl named Grace Coleman, who I have sort of known for years, sang the solo and knocked everyone down and into pieces with her UNBELIEVABLE voice. When did that happen? Maybe she doesn’t even know the extent of her (what I now know is) boundless, overwhelming talent, and do you know why she might not? Because she sees her, hears her, every day.
We grow in small baby steps. I used the words “seemingly insignificant” earlier on purpose, because these kids make seemingly insignificant decisions to practice and commit to their dreams and interests, but they’re not insignificant at all. They are monumental. They stack upon each other, brick by brick, until they perform and we are all in awe that the 4th grade concert we suffered through produced this. Grace sings and sings and sings and this instrument of hers just becomes normal for her – but it’s not normal. It’s extraordinary.
So, my idea is to have a great big concert/talent show for all of us. Haha, that’s not true. My idea is to notice. I think we’re so busy, distracted, that we ignore ourselves and our development, however small we might think that development is.
My mom has decided to quit or cut down on her smoking. She now smokes a quarter of what she used to – Hallelujah! She might wave that away as small, but it’s not small. It’s extraordinary.
Your bench press went up 5 pounds and it’s just 5 pounds. Just 5 pounds??? There’s no such thing as ‘just’ when you’re on the journey to who you want to be, who you’ve been created to be. Instead of 7 reps, you did 8!!! Your weight went from 206.2 to 205.8!!! You read your Bible twice this week!!! You took your wife out for a lunch date!! You said “Thank you” this morning to the God that gave you this lovely day, this magnificent gift that is your life!!
Maybe our lives aren’t that magnificent? Maybe not now, but maybe they could be. Maybe it just takes a bit of attention/intention and the time to notice how blessed we have been and how far we’ve come
Start something, stop something, move. And notice the baby steps. We really don’t need concerts, we just need more present’s, more now’s, to pay attention to the new creation we are becoming.
I wish you all the love and peace.
We had a basketball game Tuesday evening. Well, we didn’t, my son did – I tried to play basketball in the fall and have very little business playing basketball. And they won again! They were down big early, and fought back to finally take the lead with a minute left in the game – it was an epic comeback (as epic as junior varsity gets, but everything is relative) in a hostile environment (well, ELCO) that exposed the heart and resilience of the boys.
There are just a two observations I’d like to make about this game…
Last year, the team Samuel was on was just terrible. They won 1 game and were mauled all the rest. And this house had near-daily conversations about character and how we get up after we are knocked down. When they got behind early, a comeback was impossible. Instead, as shoulders began to slump, finger pointing and pouting would bury them and early deficits would grow into embarrassing final scores. What changed? Who knows? What I do know is that, way too often we make decisions based on wild guesses stained by the past. Since last year went this way, this year will, too.
I remember an argument my sister and I had on the boardwalk at Ocean City. Neither of us had actually done anything, we were both operating out of our expectations of what the other would do, or think, or say. I totally ruined an evening because of who my sister was 10 years earlier. She was a different person, but the boundaries I forced onto her wouldn’t allow me to see it. (Unless she wasn’t, of course. Maybe she hadn’t changed, but we would never know as long as I was seeing her through these restrictive lenses.)
I say, “she’s always going to be like this,” or “that’s just who he is,” or the worst phrase ever uttered, “it is what it is,” much too often. (I understand it can be wise to appropriately discern and not allow toxic people to continue to be toxic all over us, but if we were all honest, it’s usually not wisdom, just despair and hopelessness.)
Sometimes, it isn’t what it is. It’s a new day. I heard a terrific quote: “A person never reads the same book twice.” We change, teams change. Just because it happened yesterday doesn’t mean it will happen today.
Everyone who was ever crucified died and stayed that way…until One didn’t.
For the varsity game, the ELCO gymnasium was loud and charged with energy. The students in the specially designated section under the basket were obnoxious and boisterous, jeering our boys and cheering for theirs in rehearsed chants.
You might think I would spend this time shaking my head in disappointment, like a dad would, talking about class and respect. Nope.
I LOVED IT! I laughed when a girl in the front row offered a longer-haired player her scrunchie, admired their black shirts and wished we all had red ones of our own.
(In college, one of my favorite memories was a doubleheader at Messiah college where I was ruthlessly mocked for long hair of my own. They called me ‘She’ and asked over and over when LVC started allowing girls on the baseball team. I smiled, shook my head, threatened to steal their girlfriends and had two of the best games and one of the best days of my life. When the games ended, an LVC sweep, I took my hat off and bowed to them, showing them every strand on my sweaty head of hair, and they laughed with me and applauded louder than they had all day.)
These ELCO kids loved their team, maybe loved their school, and at least for that hour, loved each other. Sports are fun, a fact we mostly forget, turning the heated competition into THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD. It’s not. These kids are just like our kids, just like us, having a great time, an exhilarating escape from a world that usually only takes from them, only giving anxiety over endless stressors.
No one raised a fist, or a gun, just their hands and voices. The words were harmless, not containing any true slurs or hateful spirits. We were a community of humanity, all of us, no matter what color shirts we were wearing. It was a tiny gym in Lebanon county, loud and hot and super fun, and it was perfect.
Today we were honored to share in the dedication of Aziel Ortega. His parents are giving him up to God and honoring God with his life. At the end of the message Gisy Rivera sang a very special song, Slow Down by Nicole Nordeman. Ariel is her nephew and it was so special, we wanted to share it here.
I have no idea what I’m going to talk about on December 22nd or December 24th. Now, this is sort of a big problem because December 24th is Christmas Eve, our faith community extended will be at the church, everyone will look so sharp and happy, an overwhelming amount of hugs will be given, and when the first set of worship music ends, I’ll stand up, whether or not I discover what will come out of my mouth.
This is only mildly disturbing, rather than panic inducing, for a few reasons. One, because it’s December 6th and I have a little time. (It’s unusual to not have at least a tiny seed to tend, but there is time.) Two, because God is faithful and I have no doubt He will provide.
Three… Well, it’s Three I want to talk about this morning.
Yesterday morning (while I should’ve been working), I had breakfast (pumpkin pancakes and 4 slices of the best bacon ever) with a very good friend. We talked about things that matter a lot, things that matter a little and things that don’t matter at all. And, to make it even better, in addition to the gift of his time, He paid.
Last night (while I should’ve been working), the 4 people who live in my house crowded onto the sofa around Samuel’s school computer for hours. For some reason, his phone couldn’t/wouldn’t connect to the big tv or the computer which could’ve projected onto the big tv, forcing us to climb on and over each other to see the photos and hear the stories of his band trip to Disney World.
This morning (while I should’ve been working), I woke up too early and worked out, breathing deeply in gratitude for the physical gifts I have been given.
Later (while I should’ve been working), I spoke to 2 other very good friends on the telephone (answering the modern question of “who actually talks on the telephone anymore?” with a surprising, “I guess I do”) about the Dallas Cowboys heartbreaking loss to the Chicago Bears last night, community, workers compensation, spiritual warfare, and whole life transformation.
Tomorrow (while I should be working), I’ll be at a contemplative retreat at 9 and then drive to Hamburg for 2 basketball games at 11 and 12.
And right now I’m writing this to you instead of working, sweating, chopping wood trying to unearth the main thread for this Christmas message in 2-parts (that can, of course, stand alone.) And as you can surely guess, the questions begin, whispering “What will they think?” “What if it’s not good enough?” “What if you’re not prepared?” And moving to the accusations: “You have always been lazy,” “You’re not enough for these beautiful people,” “You’ll let them all down.” To finally, “What if He doesn’t give you anything this time?”
It’s this last one that exposes the charade. This last one is so clearly, obviously a lie, and leads me to question the rest. What will they think…not good enough…not prepared…lazy…not good enough… What’s interesting is that right now, I don’t care. They are either true (which some of them probably are) or they’re not (which some of them definitely are), but it is Christmas.
You see, Christmas is about a baby, a Savior, a man, God. It’s not about my work, my trying/earning/justifying, my being good enough. It’s about the Gift. It’s about all of the gifts – and there are many.
Like, for instance, 3 friends, bacon, cell phones, and my very favorite one: The holy accident that my boy’s phone wouldn’t connect and instead of sitting all over the room, we were smushed into one big lump of family and the kind of boundless love that makes everything so wonderful.
“What if He doesn’t give me anything???” Baby, He already has, more than I could have ever asked for or dreamed of, and if I miss that, then I’ve totally missed the point – of Christmas, of grace, of Jesus, of me, of you, of life – and it doesn’t matter what I say.
Last night, basketball season began with a scrimmage at Northeastern middle school in York county. I spent an awful lot of time in York when I was delivering medical equipment…and I really hated it. I have a colorful expression to describe the area that I wouldn’t use here, because we’re a family friendly space;)
The game was not awesome, the Northeastern boys whipped our Annville-Cleona middle schoolers without mercy or apology. They dominated every facet of the game and left us downcast and discouraged. Anyone who has every competed in anything (from monopoly to Fortnite to the Super Bowl) knows that you sometimes have to weather a vicious thrashing from time to time. It builds character, coaches say, and they’re usually right.
But where they were wrong is that the loss itself doesn’t build the character; sometimes the loss is just a loss and nothing more. Nothing is built. Instead, you use the loss to build the character.
My son Elisha is on the team and I don’t mind at all if he loses a game or 2 or all of them. In fact, I find myself getting excited to see what he’ll do now, how he’ll choose to react. Will he cower in fear for the next game? Will he become resigned to the notion that they will lose again and again? Or will he pick himself up and fight? Will be use this loss to “build character” and become something new, something strong, stable and unstoppable (win or lose)?
It’s also the thing I get excited for in my life and the lives of the people I know and love. How will we face and deal with that attack, setback, disaster, pain? Will we get up (and get up again and again and again) and with what kind of mindset?
Now, the truth is that team was much better than our team was, at least it was last night.
In basketball or life or faith, growth (what we could call “becoming all of what we were created to be”) doesn’t just happen. It we go half speed and give about half of what we have to give, we get eaten up and stand around wondering how in the world this happened. I’ll often say we need to “show up” to our lives, but what I mean is an awful lot more than simply riding a bus, putting on a uniform, and making it to the court. I mean show up, commit, risk, take a shot, work hard, give all we are and all we have to whatever it is we are doing.
Our boys knew they were beaten the day the schedule was released, and that’s exactly how it looked from the stands through the eyes of a man who knows next to nothing about the X’s and O’s of this beautiful game. I don’t know what plays were called in what type of offense, but I’ve done enough giving up to clearly recognize that.
So what if they lost last night? Or if they lose them all? These boys are hopefully becoming men and last night’s lesson on the basketball court will give them the bricks to build the sort of character we all need in our homes, lives, and society. Or not. It can also just be the first of many pointless losses. The team gets to decide.
There’s a cool book called Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk, that ends like this:
“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.
I can’t wait to see what they will build.