For This

I’ve been reading these novels by Fredrik Backman that are incredibly moving, heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time in the same measure. You know the things that are so beautiful you know you could never in a bazillion years create something so lovely AND make you want to try? These novels are like that.

Anyway, in the one I started today (Britt-Marie Was Here), the title character says, “I want someone to know I’m here.” Those words and that emotion dismantle me because I know how many Britt-Marie’s there are in my town, on my street, alone and invisible. Alone, in crowded rooms and offices as well as empty houses. Invisible, moving in total anonymity, never knowing or being known. I know that sometimes I’m Britt-Marie. That we’re all Britt-Marie, sometimes.

We all need to be seen, known. We all need to be accepted, to belong. We all need to be loved. And how many of us go to bed with that need unmet?

This season is usually among the most depressed, presumably because the cold gray short days spent alone against the backdrop of other families gathered around a warm fire. What if I don’t have a family? What if the family I do have is broken? What if there’s 1 less around that fire? What if I don’t have a home, much less a fire? It’s no wonder the depression we barely keep at bay all year gets amplified in November & December.

We’re a culture that largely walks with our heads down, on our way to the next thing, saying “How are you?” as a greeting, but not at all interested in the answer. Even without a global pandemic and quarantine, we had been increasingly disconnected for years. This leaves us like those copper pans where nothing sticks. And we call it survival, but it’s not. Instead, it’s killing us. We’re invisible and we were never meant to be invisible.

We are meant to be together, sharing the moments of our lives. We are meant to ask how you are and to wait for the honest answer. We are meant to cry together, to celebrate together, to care for each other, to be our brother’s keeper.

There are too many Britt-Marie’s, and this is a fact that is simply unacceptable. My dream is that we are all seen, accepted. That we all belong. That we are all loved. That the reality of Christmas, of the love of Jesus, become a reality in practice, that it’s not just a story of fairy-tale hope we tell in churches on Christmas Eve.

I want someone to know the Britt-Marie’s are here. And I want us to be the ones that know.

At my old church, the pastor, Barb, used to implore us to action by calling us “Church” as if it were our name. It is our name, and it’s long past time for us to act. The Child came and His name is “God With Us.” He calls us to put hands and feet and hearts to His love, to put flesh to His ‘With.’

Christmas is desperately needed this year, on the 25th and every day thereafter. Christmas can be a way of life, “with” can be our purpose. We are here, all of us. Jesus came and “moved into the neighborhood” (The Message translation) so that we would know, without a doubt, exactly how much we matter. This Child, this Savior, changed our lives, transformed us with His boundless love. And for what? For this, Church; to be the ones who know.

Less The Rock and More Lobot

Last week, I posted “So, Let Me Tell You About Yesterday,” on both of my blog sites. I write on the Bridge page and I write on a page called Love With A Capital L. Both are about spirituality because everything is. What’s different is that on the Love page, I don’t always mention God by name, like the book of Esther, but it’s always about Him. This ‘Yesterday’ post ended up in both spaces, and it received an extraordinary response on both.

I am a man who thinks (or probably more accurately, over-thinks) and I wondered, why? Why do some things strike chords and others swing and miss? Why this one? Why not that one?

Who knows? Maybe I don’t care, maybe I shouldn’t. If too much time is given to thinking about response, we’ll subconsciously (or not) begin to bend and shape ourselves into whatever position we think they’ll like best.

This can happen easily in any creative expression.

The bigger tragedy is how easily this can happen in our greatest creative expressions; our lives.

We look for approval, for the most “likes,” resembling actors on a stage. It’s interesting, the things that mean the most to me are those that are the most authentic, but when the artist attempts to mean the most to me, the very thing that was so appealing is compromised, disappears, and immediately stops meaning the most to me. It’s like the theory that observation affects behavior, so any study of “natural” behavior is impossible (unless it’s secret and invisible and probably unethical).

You know I’m going into the idea that we have an “audience of One,” right? That’s not terrible because that One is the only One who knows who we actually are, so moving towards that vision of us is, essentially, moving towards the version of us that is the most pure and true, the most authentic.

The filters I use that make me look like a cat or like I’m always supercool, pensive and mysterious aren’t me. I have rough skin and deep creases around my eyes from years and years of smiling. The sweater I wore on Sunday makes me look much better than I actually do. I get angry and am awfully mean to me from time to time, thankfully much less than I used to. I shave my head because it’s thin and moving backwards, less the Rock and more Lobot from Star Wars. I like to think my jokes are all pretty terrific and could edit a short YouTube video that makes me compare favorably to Dave Chappelle, but in real life, well… you know, probably he’s not even that funny all the time. (On second thought, he probably is.)

The idea here is not to point out all the ways we’re messy, or to advertise my faults. It’s not even to stop using filters. It is to love, and be loved, anyway. It is to see those rough edges. It is to dance with who and where we are right now, even as we acknowledge that we are, as my friend says, “perfectly in process,” moving (sometimes slowly) towards who we’ve been created to be. One of the coolest aspects I learned about the Scriptures were their absolute commitment to honesty. Not everyone is shiny, nobody is perfect. (Well, One is.) They yell and scream and shake their fists at God. They often make terrible decisions and aren’t always the heroes of the story. But it’s real. And Beautiful. Just like us.

So, Let Me Tell You About Yesterday

So, let me tell you about yesterday.

The Angel & I took the boys to school and left immediately, driving north to Scranton (home of Dunder Mifflin Paper) for the funeral service of a friend’s father. He (James Chickson) was a terrific dad, husband, and man – exactly like my friend. At the Bridge, we would call men like him bull elephants, and the world doesn’t have enough of those, so we gathered to mourn. It was a catholic service and as a general rule, I find catholic services a little sterile and impersonal (just me, just my opinion, but I am very messy, overly sensitive, mushy and untraditional, so I would), which this one was…UNTIL my friend stood to give the eulogy. He was beautiful. He was all of the things we love about him, and probably all of the things we loved about his dad. It was awesome and exhausting, just what a funeral service should be.

Then we came home, picked my boys up from school and had some ice cream because ice cream is perfect for a broken heart.

Then at the dinner table (dinner after dessert is also perfect for broken hearts…well, any hearts, really), we discovered that there were new PA COVID restrictions that would, among other things, “pause” school sports. It was then that my boys expressed their emotions in what is sometimes the only appropriate way, with tears of sadness and rage.

Now, I know school sports are comparatively minor in relation to the widespread wreckage COVID has wrought, but it is absolutely real to them. And to me. Because we all have those comparatively minor’s, right?

Once the tears stopped and we were able to re-focus and gain a smidgen of perspective, then I began the phone calls to the core group of the Bridge to discuss what we would do, if anything, to address the new restrictions. Again, a small church in Annville is comparatively minor in the grand scheme, but it is my family and it is definitely doesn’t feel comparatively minor.

We are losing loved ones, businesses, homes. We have been disconnected and isolated, and that leaves us raw and exposed, sensitive to very fine points. I remember months after the flood took our house, I had an appointment where I would need dress socks. I rarely wear dress socks and now that I needed them, I realized, I didn’t have dress socks. The pair I had was lost in the flood. I was working, driving on a major highway towards State College, when I realized this insignificant detail (big deal, stop anywhere and pick up a new pair) and had to pull my truck off the road when my sobbing made driving impossible. Everything was overflowing, all of the months of “What are we going to do????” and utter powerlessness to answer had crested, and dress socks pierced the thin shell that barely kept it all on the inside.

High school seniors have lost proms and graduations, weddings have been moved, suspended, our lives have been radically upended, and we know that a missed dinner & dance for upperclassmen is nothing in relation to 200,000+ dead in this country alone, countless more worldwide. But that doesn’t make a canceled school dance hurt less. There isn’t a finite amount of love and care in our souls, we can deeply feel all the things in this human experience. There isn’t a cause/effect relationship where ignoring our pain leads to an increase in empathy. I would suggest if there is a relationship, it’s an inverse connection, where turning the blind eye to suffering (in any and all forms, even our own) leads to a practiced desensitization to suffering (in any and all forms).

I bring all of this up because what I notice is that we often say the words, “but other people have it much worse than me/us,” as a way of minimizing or trivializing our own pain & suffering. At funerals, we say the person is in a much better place or that God has a plan (which are both true) and pretend that we are fine, that are hearts aren’t shattered. In the Scriptures, God asks us for 1 thing above all. He asks us to bring who we are, everything we are, honestly and without pretense, to Him. He says that He doesn’t want our sacrifices, He wants our hearts. He weeps over the death of a man He intends to resurrect to validate the suffering of his community.

The Bible says, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death… and it’s that through that makes all the difference. We can’t walk around, or avoid, or fake that it’s not the shadow of death. We can’t get through anything without going through. My beautiful buddy’s eulogy had very evident pain and loss, and it also had a lived-in gratitude that his dad was his dad, and I’m pretty sure the 2nd doesn’t come without the first.

So, I guess what I’m saying is this: Sometimes you need ice cream to ease the ache of a broken heart, or screaming rage for a 3-week break from basketball, or an offering of bitter tears over dress socks. There are no comparatively minor’s with God. There is only us, and that’s enough.

119

Psalm 119 (which is a really really loooong Psalm) says:

Turn my eyes from worthless things and give me life through Your Word (v. 37)

I pondered the direction of my life, and I turned to follow Your statutes (v. 59)

Your Word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path (v. 106)

As pressure and stress bear down on me, I find joy in Your commands (v. 143)

Those who love Your law have great peace (v. 165)

We’ve been talking an awful lot about commands on Sunday mornings, which can easily be understood as a gospel of works. This sort of gospel is not “good news” at all because it’s based on us getting it right, on us doing all the things, checking all the boxes, earning and climbing higher and higher. How high? Who knows? Just higher. 1 John 5 continues in this vein, so what do we do with that? It sounds like a “have-to” situation.

It’s not a “have-to.” John refers to it as a “proof” of faith, an outward representation of an inner reality. If we get a nice new coat on Christmas morning, we’ll wear it. The wearing is the proof that we have it. I can say all day that I have the best new coat ever, worth more than all the money in the world, but how will you know if I never wear it? Why wouldn’t I wear it? That would be odd.

I bought a new sweater 2 weeks ago and it’s thick and soft, what my mom would call cozy warm. I haven’t worn it yet because it hasn’t been cold enough in those 2 weeks, but I can’t wait to put it on and show it to you. It seems strange to have this awesome sweater and ask, “Do I have to wear it? How often? Around who? What if I don’t?” I am looking for any excuse to wear my new sweater. I’ve been checking the weather every night.

This coat or sweater is our gift, it’s free, and whether we wear it or not, it’s ours. BUT it gets cold. John and Psalm 119 (maybe, probably written by Ezra, the priest) make it sound like following these commands is pretty integral to the kind of cozy warm life we’d like to have. I like peace. I sometimes feel pressure and stress bearing down on me. We all do, it’s 2020. It would be cool to have joy in 2020 instead of upset stomachs and headaches.

This Psalm stood out me because I’ve been pondering my life quite a bit lately. This isn’t very unusual, I am a ponderer, and when I do, I look for practices that line up with the values that carry more weight with me. For instance, I go to the gym most days. If not carefully monitored, ‘most days’ easily turns into ‘every day’ and my body and spirit suffer. One of my core values is to be a healthy man (physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually), and no rest days compromises that. So I turn and add some structure to help me pursue that particular value.

These commands are our coats and sweaters, our rest days. They are the tangible bricks that build the walls of our lives. We put on Love. We put on honesty and Sabbath and not wanting our neighbors donkeys (which is another way of saying, we are grateful for what we have). These things aren’t the point, Jesus is, but 2020 has been very cold and we’ve been so distracted by that cold, we’ve been missing that BIG point. Maybe remembering our coats and our rest days, maybe some Psalm 119-ing, would be just the thing we need to focus again.

Enough

“If only this is done, it is enough.” The story, according to the “church father” Jerome, is that the apostle John, as a very old man (the only disciple who lived long enough to be considered old) ended church meetings with the same phrase: “Little children, let us love one another.” Everybody got tired of that and asked him why he said the same thing all the time and he answered, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if only this is done, it is enough.”

Now. We could (and probably will another time) talk about how John was so old and meeting together was so important that he had to be carried into church…and I sometimes don’t feel like going. We could also talk about how he was the only one not to die a gruesome death. Or that the people with him got tired of hearing the exact same words every meeting, even if it was from John, “the one Jesus loved.” You can almost hear the grumbling, “I don’t care who he is, he could at least mix it up a little, keep it fresh.”

But what we will talk about is that one small-ish word, enough.

I loved this quote when I found it and it was perfect in the message Sunday morning, but sometimes even as I’m talking, it hits in a new way, surprising me, like when my boys jump on my back when I’m not looking and knock all the wind out of me. Enough, is that even a thing?

So, I look around, holding back tears, thinking about how my shoulders slump from all of the responsibilities, demands, opportunities, questions, judgments of every day. I think about wanting to please everybody, always doing more, being more. 10% more, usually. The need to be perfect. I think about our lives as artwork, how we offer this creation of us to the world and wait for the verdict. What should I do? What should I say? Who should I be? Have we accomplished, achieved enough? Are my clothes, my shoes, my children, my words, good enough? We call our fear stress and it is brought on exclusively by this question – will I be enough?

It pounds in our heads and twists our stomachs as the voices in our own heads convince us the answer is no. As I’m standing there, this is going through my head and I want to just stop and address this thing in me.

But what I see is that it’s not in me, is it? I mean, it is, but it’s not just in me.

It’s weaved all through the passages of the Scriptures, appears throughout so much great art and history books. I guess it’s the human condition. Or the human disease. Religion hasn’t helped, saddling us with hoop after hoop of what we need to do (or not do), heavy baggage we carry. But John here says there’s just one thing, to love each other, and that’s enough.

Released from those sharp chains of insecurity and inadequacy, we just love each other, without condition, without judgment or verdict, without regard to if we are worthy or enough. Maybe then the question might not seem as important anymore, and maybe that’s the point.

This is what’s going through my head. I’ve given my life to communicating the message that you are loved, accepted, valued, worthy, enough. It might be time to include ‘me’ in that ‘you.’

It’s sort of strange to share these thoughts and emotions on social media, but it has been my experience that enough is such a foreign concept. And keeping quiet and pretending it doesn’t exist hasn’t helped anyone ever. Most of our energies are funneled into answering that big question and, afterwards, proving that answer. I’m pretty sure what John means is that those energies could be better used in other places, loving other people, loving ourselves. And that will be enough.