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The Spider-Verse

We watched Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse for the 10th or 20th time last night. It is an animated film. Technically speaking, that’s all it is. As my wife would say, it’s a cartoon. She’s wrong, though, it’s much more than that. It is an hour and 57 minutes that rearranges the notion of what is possible in film, story, technology. Historically, there have been movies that mark a clear before and after. An easy example was Pulp Fiction. Before its release, cinema followed certain accepted structures. After, those walls had been bulldozed and filmmakers, writers, actors were all free to run and chase their imaginations into spaces previously thought nonexistent.

This creative explosion happens in every area of humanity; athletics, architecture, music, education, even religion. I remember many instances that blew my rational mind, profoundly changing my tiny idea of what God could and would do in any circumstance. I’ve seen people transform seemingly in front of my eyes, organizations metamorphose into the butterflies we all needed but whose creators couldn’t have conceived.

These seismic shifts invite us to dream, to exorcise the despair that says what was will always be, that believes “it is what it is,” that lost the childlike hope of faith.

Then there are other moments that confirm that our wildest dreams of what is possible were not misplaced. Against all evidence to the contrary, our fantastical visions are validated and that gives us the strength to take one more step into the darkness. 

Yesterday was one of those for me. 2 young women, aged 19 and 20 (!!!), organized a protest to respond to this abhorrent racism that we all see and feel all around us right now. It’s a divisive topic and I can’t even begin to figure out why. Life is the most sacred gift we have, why would we not want to protect that for all of God’s children? Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. And it’s painfully obvious our silence hasn’t fixed anything, as if it ever could. Why would we not gather to express our collective pain?

Because it won’t work, or it’ll turn violent, or whatever. There are so many ‘because’s, so many ‘why not’s. When I asked my boys if they wanted to go, they were afraid of the riots on tv, the burned out stores and city street chaos. I guess it’s fear that mostly keeps any of us from challenging what has always been. We’re often scared to leave unfulfilling jobs, abusive relationships, unhealthy pattern because the unknown can be more terrifying than the now that is dismantling us. 

We went anyway, because we follow Jesus and that requires us to believe we’re all brothers and sisters , and that tomorrow can be different from today. That everything matters and we can…no, that we are called to bring, to make, peace. 

There were many colors and a sacred energy that what we were doing was vital to the healing of our world. It did not turn violent. Of course, there were reports of some regrettable behavior, which will happen when people get together, but no violence. There was kindness and kinship in our shared goal. Maybe it won’t work, but it certainly won’t work if we all stay home.

Now. Here’s what I have to tell you. We are not wrong. Our faith is justified, what we imagine possible, is. We can make a difference, we can change the world. It won’t be in our silence and it won’t be in violence. It will be in presence and love, and like yesterday afternoon, it will be amazing.

George Floyd & Hawk Nelson

Before we begin, I want to say something. Police officers murdered George Floyd. I’m sitting with this, broken-hearted, and would like to write something on it. It’s a revolting act of racism, and the frequency of things like this illustrate that it isn’t isolated. It isn’t the act of 1 or 3 officers in a certain situation. It isn’t a single town, a single police department. It’s a virus that has spread through all of us, in every town, in every country – a virus we’ve chosen to ignore for way too long. To loosely paraphrase Eugene Debs, while there is a knee on anyone’s neck, we all can’t breathe. No more.

Here’s an unrelated thing. (That’s a joke, nothing is unrelated.)

Jon Steingard, lead singer of Christian band Hawk Nelson, stated yesterday that he no longer believes in God. In a looooooong Instagram post he confessed his conversion (or de-version?). Maybe Instagram is the perfect place for that sort of thing. If it isn’t, then where is? Anyway. He detailed an upbringing spent in the church (dad was a pastor), his marriage to a nice Christian girl (her dad was a pastor, too), singing and songwriting for a band that may or may not be any good (they’re at least popular enough that his recent un-faithing made national news), into the circumstances that led him to ask the questions that would drive him away from God.

He asked BIG picture questions like if God is all loving and all powerful, why is there evil in the world? Can He not fix it, and if He doesn’t want to, WHY NOT? Then more specific about what is in the Bible: Why did God allow the horrible things to happen to Job? Why would He command Abraham to kill his son? Why did Jesus have to die? (As you know, there are verses, paragraphs, chapters that are very problematic.) Then, about the Bible itself: Is it “simply a book written by people as flawed and imperfect as I am?”

These are real questions. I know them well, I’ve asked them.

The thing is that the church has historically run from any and all forms of doubt, been terrified of questions, especially ones like these. But for some of us, they absolutely need to be asked. There is no other option. We need the space to walk in the wilderness with a God big enough to withstand the uncertainty. (Like most of my reservations with God, faith, The Church and the church – they were rarely with God Himself. I wanted a God Who was big enough, and He was already there, waiting for me to ask. And exactly as in the Bible, He was often the only One completely comfortable with all of the questions and doubts. I didn’t say I got answers, but He never said I would.)

And we need others humble enough to set aside their need for control and withstand it, too.

What happens over and over is that we all worship our comfort and understanding so much that anything that might shake it even the slightest bit is squashed. We pretend these questions don’t exist and violently shame anyone who might not assent to the facade until they do, or until they walk away.

It’s exactly the same with this kind of institutional racism, wishing it away, fingers crossed. Because to open our eyes to the death of George Floyd (and the system in which it exists) and see what is actually there…well, it’s unconscionable and requires action, demands revolution.

As far as any of the questions, most I still can’t answer. But I have to keep asking. We all have to keep asking. Maybe if we asked earlier, Hawk Nelson would still have its lead singer and George Floyd might still be alive.

The Barkley

You know I love to watch documentaries… I may need forgiveness in a minute, my neighbor just flooded the street with the sweet smell of burning tires and my headache is beginning and stomach turning and maybe the fumes will cause all kinds of nonsense. No, I don’t know why they do the things they do, I just know they do. I don’t have to know why. If you come by any night between 9-11pm, they’re outside revving various engines and you can ask them yourself.

Anyway, I love documentaries, right? I saw one Friday that was my very favorite. It’s called The Barkley Marathons and details a roughly 130 mile ultra marathon through the mountains of Tennessee. Most years, people don’t finish. Since its inception, 13 people have finished. It’s called a race, but that implies competition and the only competition is against the course and against the voices in your own head that tell you to stop, you can’t do it.

I have 3 quotes I wrote down to talk about with you.

The Barkley was created to “Give people the opportunity to really find out something about themselves.” What would I find out about myself in 130 miles that I wouldn’t otherwise? Everything. We do planks in this house and they always end with my face inches from Samuel’s, saying, “you can do this, your body can do this, it’s only your mind telling you you can’t, and that isn’t true, it’s lying to you. I KNOW you can.” And then he does, goes longer than he thought was possible for his screaming muscles, and he finds out that the limits he thought he had minutes ago aren’t actually his limits at all.

“You never know how much you can do until you try to do more.” I think we’re conditioned to seek comfort, so when that desire is threatened, we stop. It’s called our Comfort Zone, and it’s so much more dangerous than bears and mountain lions and my neighbors. Our soft cozy couches encourage complacency, and complacent isn’t where we were called to be. (Contentment is. They are different, and we should maybe talk about that some time.) We are called to grow and growth requires discomfort. Growth requires us to try something new, something we hadn’t done, something at which we might fail (gasp!).

What is that old cliche? The only way you can not fail is to never try anything new. The only way you can never miss the last shot is to never take it.

Growth requires us to risk. Because maybe we can. This Barkley Marathon is like everything else – nobody could do it until somebody did. It was impossible until it wasn’t. No one could run a sub-4 minute mile, but then when Bannister did, many others followed.

I don’t know if we’re afraid to fail or afraid to succeed (probably both), I just know we’re afraid.

So these people start the race and it’s hot or it rains. They have no idea where to go, there’s no map and the route changes every year. The creator, Lazarus, says, “So many things aren’t going to be the way you planned it,” and that sounds EXACTLY like this year, 2020. Well, it sounds like every year, to be honest.

And when we face these uncertainties, these disruptions, then what do we do? Do we hold tighter to our plans? Grasp even angrier for some form of control? Do we quit? Do we hide?

Or will we take another step?

I married a couple Saturday and, every wedding I officiate, I reflect on the tremendous risk they’re taking. Saying “I do” to another and saying “I do” to this ridiculous marathon is so similar. We don’t know where it’s going, and when it goes there, will I be enough, can I do it??? It’s the same as saying “I do” to Jesus and “I do” to our lives. Maybe we can’t do it today, maybe not tomorrow, but we have to ask, we have to try. It’s the greatest moment of a wedding, that space between my question and their answer. I saw the significance of the choice in their eyes, and I knew they understood what it meant to look straight up a mountain face they did not know for sure they could climb. And we all celebrated like crazy when they said they would find out

Panem & Pennsylvania, pt 2: Lists

Yesterday, I posted about the lines that end the final movie of the Hunger Games series,  Mockingjay, pt 2. Katniss Everdeen says, “Did you have a nightmare? I have nightmares too. Someday I’ll explain it to you. Why they came. Why they won’t ever go away. But I’ll tell you how I survive it. I make a list in my head. Of all the good things I’ve seen someone do. Every little thing I could remember. It’s like a game. I do it over and over. Gets a little tedious after all these years, but… There are much worse games to play.”

This is obviously a paraphrase of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:8), “Finally, brothers and sisters, 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 should’ve continued a paragraph longer, with what is called an “action step,” but I didn’t and now it’s much longer. According to the University of Kansas website, Community Tool Box, an action step is: “An action step refers to the specific efforts that are made to reach the goals your agency has set. Action steps are the exact details of your action plan. They should be concrete and comprehensive, and each action step should explain:

  • What will occur
  • How much, or to what extent, these actions will occur
  • Who will carry out these actions
  • When these actions will take place, and for how long
  • What resources (such as money and staff) are needed to carry out the proposed actions 

And if you’re familiar with my teaching, I’m not that awesome at specific, exact details. You see, we are all so different and what is valuable and life-changing for you might not be valuable and life-changing for me. It might not be helpful to say it is vital to your spiritual growth to dead lift simply because it is to me. Maybe you’ll get much more out of quietly sitting in a chair or a treehouse or walking on a mountain trail or baking pies. However, I have done it before, I am capable. But only if I’m absolutely convinced that it is a practice/perspective/mindset that is truly for all of us – then I call it ‘homework.’ So, I have homework for us, and to please the University of Kansas, we’ll address each point of the suggested action step.

What will occur: We make a list of what’s noble, pure, lovely, of all the good things we’ve seen people do, every little thing we can remember, whatever is excellent or praiseworthy. We could think them, say them out loud, or write them down…Actually let’s say them out loud or write them, give them a little space to breathe. You can email them to me, too. 

How much, or to what extent, these actions will occur: As much as we need it. When it gets hard or heavy, when we feel anxious, overwhelmed, depressed, etc. When we feel the first familiar rumblings of fear. At least every day.

Who will carry out these actions: Each of us.

When these actions will take place, and for how long: at least every day, forever.

What resources (such as money and staff) are needed to carry out the proposed actions: It’s FREE!!! No money, no staff. All you need is a willing heart and the Spirit of God to guide you while holding your hand. (If you need staff, ask someone, ask me. And if you need to spend your money, I’ll help you with that, too.)  

I think the real pandemic that isn’t addressed with a quarantine is fear and brokenness – these are the nightmares that take us apart in so many ways every day. The Bible over and over counsels us to remember. Nearly every time a command is given, it is preceded with “I am the LORD your GOD, who rescued you from Egypt.” These nightmares (whatever they are, specifically, for each of us) are now our Egypt’s. And if God rescued us then, He’ll rescue us now. We so often only see and feel the oppression of Egypt instead of the liberation of the LORD our God. He hasn’t left, is still very much here, if we only have eyes to see. But vision takes practice, so we think about the gifts He has given: what is noble, pure, lovely, the good things people do, the beauty we experience everyday…and we make a list. I wonder how much that could impact mornings and middle-of-the-night’s and the way we see our noisy neighbors and our shady politicians. I wonder how much that could impact our lives, and in that, how much that would impact our world.

Panem & Pennsylvania

The Hunger Games was a wildly successful trilogy of books that was adapted into 4 movies. They were so successful that a brand new prequel novel is/has been released this month – wildly successful things aren’t ever left alone to age gracefully, every cent must be ruthlessly squeezed from marks whose only crime is appreciation. They were so successful that I protested their popularity and avoided them at all costs. I imagine I would be avoiding them still if it wasn’t for the woman who lives in this house. You make all sorts of compromises when you get married, right? Watching movies you would never watch under any other circumstance is just one. (Letting your sweet bride hog all of the covers is another, but that isn’t really the point here.)

We are spending the quarantine watching lots of movies, and my lovely Angel has been wanting to see the entire Hunger Games series, so we spent 4 days with our heroine Katniss Everdeen. I won’t go into any reviews or explanations here, but I will potentially spoil the ending. 

(Incidentally, I did like it a lot, as it turns out. But I like everything. Except the band Coldplay, I don’t like Coldplay.)

So stop here if you care, if 5 years just wasn’t enough time to see it.

If you’re still here, it’s your problem now. Anyway, the last lines of the movie are spoken to her baby: “ Did you have a nightmare? I have nightmares too. Someday I’ll explain it to you. Why they came. Why they won’t ever go away. But I’ll tell you how I survive it. I make a list in my head. Of all the good things I’ve seen someone do. Every little thing I could remember. It’s like a game. I do it over and over. Gets a little tedious after all these years, but… There are much worse games to play.”

It’s an awesome moment, but why am I writing about it? There are many, many awesome moments every day. (Hugs, kisses, magic tricks, chocolate, pushups, walks, People’s Court, when my boys wake up, when my special lady comes home, great songs…so many awesome moments.) This one, though, was particularly relevant. We have nightmares. We’re caught in a global nightmare in addition to the nightmares we face every day. Broken relationships, broken hearts, broken bones, lost jobs, divorce, war, anger, bitterness, fear, inadequacy, illness, headaches, anxiety, fear, and on and on… and what we all want to know is how do we survive them? How do we move through them? How do we keep waking up and getting out of bed in the morning???

And Katniss has the same answer that the apostle Paul had 2 thousand years ago. He writes in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.” Now, Paul has been through much pain, suffering, an almost endless string of trials, and he says he knows how to be content “whatever the circumstances.” I think this is the why and how that Katniss has figured out.

I know we are all dealing with so much – whatever our specific nightmares are – and we are all desperately searching for a why and a how. And we have been looking to contemporaries for answers. Maybe our search is too limited. Too often, the Bible gets mistaken as outdated, ancient words for ancient people in ancient times that has no use for us here, now, today. But this Divine wisdom might be exactly what we’re looking for, if only we have eyes to see it wherever it shows up. Maybe it was the answer in Philippi & Jerusalem then, in Panem & Pennsylvania today.

Mourning.

In my message on Sunday morning, I was overcome with sadness and I want to tell you why.

A few minutes after 10am, I discovered that a man who was my neighbor had passed away from a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer. Immediately upon reading, I broke and could not contain the tears that flowed and the grief that racked my body.

To be honest, the pain was a little surprising. I loved him, but hadn’t seen him in many years, like more than 30. (I know not seeing someone for 30+ years makes me VERY old, but we’re not discussing my age. I still look 18 in just the right light from the right angle and distance, and while the running I did this morning makes me feel 144, I usually feel better than I did in college.) It just came so quickly, without time to think or process. I was just crying. Hard.

They were my neighbors when I was a young child, almost a mirror of my own family. The boy was my age, the girl was my sister’s age, their mom was my mom – and almost as awesome, which is high praise indeed – and their dad, my dad. Our dads didn’t hang out, they both liked their time in their own homes, but we all saw each other everyday.  

He passed last Thursday during the COVID-19 global shutdown, which means that there will be no service and that this wonderful family will mourn together alone. Without lines of people waiting to love them and without eloquent eulogies and without Psalm 23. I know God is there with them, we’re loving them from here, and Psalm 23 is always there about 1/3 into the Bible. But it feels totally wrong and I hate COVID-19 for it right about now.

It’s a common thing to ask “why?” in this situation, and maybe I will, maybe they are, but I just want to wrap my arms around each of them and tell them how much he mattered to me, even though for 30 years I didn’t recognize it. And tell them how thankful I am that he was in my life.

So, why did he matter to me? After the choked up Sunday sermon on Ruth was over, I mostly just sat in a prayer without words, and when Gisy asked me later, “Do you know why you’re surprised? If it’s that painful, there must have been something special about him,” I had an answer. There WAS something special about him. 

He was a man.

In a world where boys grow up into bigger boys, irresponsible, inconsistent, chasing something – who knows what??? Maybe past glory, addictions, pleasure, power, money, status. Maybe they chase to remember, maybe to forget. Maybe to feel or to numb. Who knows? What I know for a fact is that there is a disheartening lack of authentic masculinity. I was always looking to be inspired by the example and leadership of men.

Of course it’s an old-fashioned idea, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Incidentally, I was also looking to be inspired by the example and leadership of smart, strong, courageous women, but there were SO MANY more of those. I had 2 in my own home growing up. Men were much harder to come by, and as a boy, perhaps I couldn’t have named it, but I was looking for someone to show me how to do it; how to grow into one who loved Jesus, his wife and family well, who was consistently genuine, merciful, faithful, trustworthy, loyal, kind and strong, a peaceful warrior, open, safe, and passionate. How was I supposed to know?

He was a man, and there are too few of those in the world, and now that he’s gone, there are less. That was what I mourned, I think. I mourn for his wife and children and friends, that he is now gone and they are without him. But I really liked living in a world with him in it, there was something comforting to know he was here. I guess I mourn for all of us, that a beautiful man is gone and we are without him.

An Undeniable Truth

I just love documentary films. Right now, I am a few episodes into something called ‘Wild Wild Country.’

(On an article called “The 6 Best Documentaries About Cults To Watch On Netflix,” the subtitle was, “What to binge when you’ve finished ‘Wild Wild Country.’” And as I’ve never watched ‘Wild Wild Country,’ that was clearly the next choice. Now, is it weird that the artificial intelligence algorithm recommended an article about cults to me? I wonder what about my previous online history would suggest that cults would be my deal… Anyway, it’s not important to think about that too much; these algorithms are surprisingly on the nose. I would totally be interested in cult docs. So I’m a few episodes deep into ‘Wild Wild Country.’)

It’s about Bhagwan Rajneesh (who is called Osho, I don’t know why) and his gigantic group of followers. They began in India and moved to Oregon, outside of a tiny town called Antelope, and built a town called Rajneeshpuram. Eventually, it’s going to morph into something awful, but I’m not there yet. So far, it’s just setting the scene for that something awful.

I posted months ago about one called ‘Holy Hell’ that was absolutely fascinating. This is not that different. These cults are primarily about community. The members who are interviewed today, decades after the implosions, are still visibly moved, teary-eyed over their paradise lost.

People come in droves to find belonging and family, they give up everything for this pursuit. And they find it. They do. When these films/series begin, it’s easy to see the attraction. Now you ask “Why would they become a part of this????” But when you hear them reflect on their stories, you don’t ask anymore, you know why.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve learned our core virtues are independence and self-reliance. We worship the legend of the solitary hero. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Asking for help is a sign of weakness that isn’t easily transgressed. We suffer in silence, thank you, and please mind your own business about it.

We tell stories about how we were in a big mess, how we were hurting, how we were depressed, how we were at rock bottom – NEVER how we are hurting or at rock bottom – because these stories are actually ones of our incredible capability. It appears and sounds like vulnerability, but is actually the opposite.

We believe we don’t need anyone.

My son will tell you he likes this time, likes being at home, likes not being around people (except Angel and I and sometimes Samuel). He doesn’t, though. He’s increasingly restless, aimless and grouchy. He doesn’t know this is because he has been created for community, because being alone is “not good,” and the other 3 who live in this house are simply not enough for months and months. He calls it “out of sorts.” Yesterday, he was on a Zoom call with 3 of his buddies for a birthday, and it doesn’t take the smartest man in the world to see the “sorts” he’s out of, that he’s missing, is them.

I think he’s like most of us. We’ve believed we’re islands and that we can do it (whatever it is) ourselves and we fill our lives up with anything to distract us from the fact that we are wrong. These cults abuse and manipulate in so many ways, but they always leave us with one undeniable truth. Maybe their power and attraction lies in our stubborn denial of that truth, leaving us empty, wanting and open to the lure of the group.

And if I am grateful to COVID-19, it’s because this virus is showing us, in vivid color, what we have been missing.

Last Dance

I hope we are all watching the 10-part ESPN documentary on the Chicago Bulls, The Last Dance. If you’re not yet, you can (and should) start now. Maybe you should watch the Catfish movie first, but then, for sure, The Last Dance.

What always stands out to me about Michael Jordan (besides his transcendent talent) is not that he always, always gave all he had in games. Anyone can do that, when the seats are full and the electricity is in the air. (I say “Anyone” but I suppose I don’t really mean that in a world where stars sit every few games in the service of “load management.” You understand, though.) Games count in the standings, count for measuring statistics, count for endorsement deals. Michael Jordan played all the games at 11 (on a scale of 1-10), but by all accounts, he played all practices there, too. He lifted weights with the same passionate drive as Game 7 of the Finals. Practice? Not a game. Practice? (That’s an obscure reference to Allen Iverson, who also had a transcendent talent but chose to see practice as an optional obstacle that was to be avoided at all costs. Michael Jordan has 6 championships and Iverson has 0. Jordan is a legend, Iverson is a cautionary tale.)

We aren’t all the most talented NBA players, not the greatest basketball player in history, not global icons. But the principle is the same in Cleona, as a husband, father, friend, neighbor, pastor, dancer, workout-er.

“I get to choose every day how I show up.” (I wrote this down immediately after I heard it, but I didn’t write down who said it. I’m pretty sure it was Hank Fortener. If it wasn’t, I’m super sorry I can’t give appropriate credit.)

I never know who I’ll see, talk to, touch and where they are in their heart, soul, and mind. If they are depressed or desperate, if they are hopeless and searching for the smallest nugget of light in a world that may have, for them, become increasingly dark. I have been them, and many of you have made the choice to show up and connect in a way that forced me to question if it would actually be dark forever. Those who show up speak the fresh words of Jesus, of possibility.

If this were a Sunday service, I’d ask how we’re showing up? Are we showing up too busy to pause, too self-obsessed to look and listen? Are we MJ (this doesn’t mean in our talent or giftedness, but in our commitment to presence) to our spouses and children?

But it’s not a Sunday service, so I’ll just tell you that even though I recognize how important it is, that I don’t always show up in a positive way. I don’t always show up at all. But I’m changing. I get to choose – and that is the first step in anything, to acknowledge our role. It all matters, everything matters. Sunday morning and Tuesday late afternoon. Friday lunch and Monday at 10am. Everything matters. Every interaction, every conversation. Of course, we can have “load management” days, but they must be intentional. We have to acknowledge our role, our ability to choose – and more importantly, we must wake up to the impact our presence can provide.

We so often believe the lie that what we do is of little consequence, that we are a tiny drop of water in the ocean. But we can be the drop that affects the surrounding drops, and when enough drops are moved, those drops can become a tidal wave, capable of rearranging even the most immovable structures. But that outdated, unimaginative, oppressive furniture is only uprooted if we show up.