It’s snowing again and it is absolutely lovely. I haven’t always thought this way, that it was lovely. In my family, we would see the forecast for snow in the 10-day and fear would grip us tightly, first in our stomachs, then our necks. I thought it was a thief and a killer, waiting to take and take from us wherever it could. I don’t think that anymore.
Last weekend a friend of mine died of a drug overdose.
If you happened to see the sermon on Sunday and thought, “what a mess, that guy is coming undone,” you were right. Grief and confusion tend to do that. I’m not too sorry, either. This is also relatively new for me. I was raised to be nice, unoffensive, and pleasing, without edges or confrontation, like that horrible white Wonder bread that everybody kind of likes and nobody really likes at all. Or McDonald’s hamburgers. I thought that was how I would not be alone, if I was nice and soft and squishy. I don’t think that anymore, either.
My friend and I spent hours and hours together at the gym. He would mostly talk and I would listen, just be there, sitting Shiva to the suffering in his soul. He had a wife and 2 small boys.
I often stand up on Sundays and say, in the middle of all of this bad news (like the devastating stories in my town of people we know or the news of people we don’t), that we just need to keep loving each other. Love will be the thing that changes everything and, until then, makes every day bearable. And sometimes I feel like I’m wrong. Maybe nothing can change anything this side of Heaven. Maybe we’re just in a downward spiral of pain, and there’s nothing that can keep the wheels on anymore. It’s hard to stand in front of people if you think the things you’re saying are wrong. It’s even harder to stand in front of the mirror if the things you think you believe are wrong. There’s no peace there. No rest.
But here’s the thing that I realized. I wasn’t having a crisis of faith. I was not doubting Jesus. In fact, it ended up being quite the opposite. I was just sad. And in that depression, I realized that those things about loving each other…they’re true. And even better, even if they’re not, it’s what I’m doing. Maybe it is, or looks like, a downward spiral, but it is without question the thing that makes every day bearable and that in itself can change anything, can change everything. It is love that did change everything.
And then I read this today, in front of my window looking at this beautiful snow falling, in a book by Anne Lamott called Stitches:
“This is all that restoration requires most of the time, that one person not give up. For instance, when I was in school, there were a few teachers along the way who must have seen in me a hummingbird of charming achievement, all eyes, bird bones, frizzly hair and a desperation to please and impress. They knew that there was power and beauty deep inside me, but that I was afraid of this and I was in fragments. Men and women alike, old and new at teaching, were like aunties or grandparents in their firm patience with me, in their conviction of my worth. They had a divine curiosity about me – “Hey, who’s in there? Are you willing to talk straight and find who you actually are, if I keep you company? Do you want to make friends with your heart? Here – start with this poem.
This is who I want to be in the world. This is who I think we are supposed to be, people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness.”
I think so, too, Anne Lamott!!!
There are 2 phrases that I will carry with me until the last day.
“In their conviction of my worth.” We have all looked into someone’s eyes who held a conviction of our worth. Maybe we didn’t believe it. Maybe we couldn’t receive it. But even in the darkest spaces, it holds the hint of possibility that it might be true. That we are worthy, in our mess, whatever that mess is. Can you imagine?
And “Are you willing to talk straight and find who you actually are, if I keep you company?” In the sadness of a buddy dying of a drug overdose (and I am awfully sad), it’s easy to question if keeping each other company matters. It does. It really really does.
So. This is who I want to be in the world, too, a person who helps to call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness. The very bad news is that this carries with it a certain amount of risk that hopelessness can crowd out the Gospel from time to time. And even so, we keep calling.
I’ve been telling everyone who will listen how much I love the author Fredrik Backman. Last month I read and wrote about Beartown, a devastating novel about a community and a horrible thing that happens that threatens to tear it to shreds. Reading it was a rough experience. So you can imagine how surprised I was to be reading its sequel, Us Against You. The story continues to detail the fallout from this horrible thing in this community. We often think the horrible things are like band aids; we tear them off and then throw it in the garbage and we don’t have a band aid anymore. It’s really more like a tattoo; it might fade but that’s about the best case scenario. It will probably leave traces behind so we can always see where it was, how and when we got it and how much it hurt. We are different afterwards, changed.
This horrible thing leads to a vastly transformed landscape. Relationships deteriorate between spouses, parents & children, neighbors, teammates. Maybe the most damaged is the relationship they have with themselves and the people they thought they were.
I learned a lot about me through these 800 pages across 2 books, about who I am and who I want to be and how far apart those people still are, sometimes.
These characters are faced with decisions to respond, to stand…or not.
The choice to speak or not. To move forward or not. To build or destroy.
Some make great decisions that cause them such unbelievable pain and loss.
Some act in shameful ways and their careers advance, their teams win.
Sometimes relationships fall apart for no more complex reason than we don’t hold them together.
We don’t know how to come home, so we stand on the porch unable to turn the handle while those inside ache at our absence as if we were worlds apart instead of on the other side of the door.
The whole narrative could’ve changed, reconciliation was still possible, if only we could turn the knob. If only we could take 1 step, tell the truth, say something, stop. If only.
This horrible thing happened between 2 people and ravaged an entire town for generations. There are no victimless crimes. But it would also be a mistake to suppose that the horrible thing was the only ravager. The entire town, over generations, carelessly set the scene for this horrible thing between 2 people. Everything is connected. By the end, it was so hard to tell who were the victims and who were the perpetrators, but this writer didn’t seem to mind leaving it to me to figure that out. And (with the exception of 1 15 year-old girl) I couldn’t. What I discovered is that it’s a lot like real life, that the brainless simplicity of us/them is never adequate. Maybe its authenticity is what made it so uncomfortable.
This is a very difficult post to write, not because I can’t think of anything to say, but because there’s just too much. My head and heart are overflowing with ideas that I delete, false starts and a screen that is blurry through new tears.
Earlier, I typed “the whole narrative could’ve changed,” and I think that’s what is so heartbreaking to me. It takes work and attention, food and water, but often we don’t have those to give, for whatever reason. So the distance between us grows and we stop seeing, stop listening, stop saying.
The books were amazing. I’m sad but, like always, hopeful. This story in Beartown is our story and like that one, we can change it. We don’t have to stop listening, seeing, saying. We don’t have to stay on the porch, we can come in and fall in love again. One Sunday there was an empty tomb, a moment where everything changed forever, and there can be one today, too.
The good news is that it’s absolutely beautiful outside, a nice soft blanket of white covering our streets and towns.
The bad news…well, I guess there’s no really bad news. You can stay in bed, toasty warm and in your pajamas. But instead of meeting in person at the Bridge, we’ll only meet virtually today on 10:30am on Facebook Live. There will be no in person service today.
I’ll miss you. Stay safe and have an awesome day!
On the mini earlier today, we began to tie the clouds of our lives together. It’s like that scene in The Karate Kid. After Daniel-san has been painting fences & houses, sanding the floor, and waxing on and off for who knows how long (it’s about 15 or 20 minutes of the movie), he begins to pout. Well, he doesn’t just begin to pout here, he begins to pout about this here. He pouts often in the movie. Probably, Daniel Larusso is the most unlikeable hero we’ve ever seen. Anyway. Mr Miyagi miracles the soreness out of his shoulders and unleashes a barrage of punches and kicks that Daniel-san expertly blocks with his surprising new ability. Given connection, context and application, the isolated moves have become skill and talent and will eventually win him the All Valley Karate Tournament and Elizabeth Shue.
We’ve been talking about weight, values, showing up, effort, energy, time, choice, quality, quantity, intention – and when Jen spoke this weekend, saying “Garbage In Garbage Out,” (she was talking about input to our hearts, but later the words themselves met me in a space where I was receiving so much stimulation from all directions) everything coalesced into a nice fiery ball of awareness for me.
What we give (the quantity and, even more so, the quality) can directly inform what we get and how we experience our surroundings and circumstances. If I pour in the very best of me to my relationship with God, my marriage, community, children, career, fitness, friendships, on and on (wherever I choose to spend my time & energy) the chances go up exponentially that whatever it is will be positive and fulfilling. If I don’t, it won’t.
(Now of course, it’s not 100%. If we’ve learned anything at all, it’s that we are not the ones who are in control, right? This is not our story.)
I have a very good friend with whom I used to spend an awful lot of time, we were tight and deeply connected. Then we stopped attending the same church community, didn’t see each other as much, the tight, deep connection loosened and now, though we still care for each other, the friendship is largely superficial. You get what you put in.
If I stay up late Friday night, eat a bunch of junk food, and wake up late Saturday morning, when I log in to the retreat I am tired and uncomfortable, and where I usually find the retreats very meaningful, this time it happens and leaves me unaffected. Garbage in garbage out.
Now, the million dollar question is, how do I know where to choose to give my time & energy? How do I decide what to give?
This is where the hard work we’ve been doing on weight comes back to reward us. We’ve been praying, relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discover our values. We explore what we think is important to us and examine if it actually is. This revelation of our hearts is painstaking but vital, and now we know why. We give our time & energy to what weighs more, we give the best of us to the most valuable.
If we don’t know where to focus, we’ll just give more and more pieces of us to everything. We respond to all of the personal emails, forwards, ads, and spam in our inboxes, unable to tell the difference. We’ll feel drained and used and confused as to why our relationships suffer, why our work suffers, why we don’t feel inspired, why we’re tired all the time, distracted, bored.
If we do, and don’t act on it, we can become angry and/or resentful because we aren’t doing the things that give us life, that we are made to do, that mean something to us. We’ll feel drained and used, our relationships will suffer, our work will suffer, we’ll feel tired, uninspired, distracted, bored, but this time, we know why and that makes us disappointed in ourselves.
The idea is that we listen and follow the Spirit into the depths of our souls, start to find out who we are and for what we’ve been created and called, then step (however lightly at first) onto that path, show up and give everything we have, and see where it leads. I bet it leads somewhere awesome, miles from where we thought we would be.
There was a funeral last Friday for a lovely woman.
I’ll sometimes force my sons to attend funerals or memorial services with me, to which they usually respond, “I don’t want to,” because they’re teenagers and human. I usually ask, “why?” because I am their dad and horrible, to which they say, “I don’t like them.” Here, I lie and say, “nobody likes them.”
I tell them that lie because sometimes you have to do things you don’t like and it’s mostly better if everyone else is doing things they don’t like, too. Like eating vegetables or running.
The truth is that I love them. I know how that sounds, but it’s not to be confused with loving death, dying or anything weird like that. I’m not a psycho. They’re thin spaces, and I find thin spaces – where, according to Eric Weiner in The NY Times, the “distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine” – absolutely inspiring and beautiful.
When you stare out of the car window, flowers, grass, guardrails, and other cars blur into one undefined smudge. Nothing is clear. You can’t even tell where the flowers start and the Honda ends. This is like my life. I have a full schedule, see a lot of people, go a lot of places, drop off and pick up from practices, grocery stores, and on and on. Too often, I hurry, don’t stop to listen, don’t pay attention.
Last March when the world stopped turning, I dreamed of a new normal where we would find that we quite liked the slower pace. Instead, almost a year later, the new normal is just the old normal with more Zoom meetings and Amazon deliveries. It’s still a blurry smudge if we’re not careful.
Funerals operate like isolated March 2020’s. They stop us where we are, open our eyes, heaven and earth collapse, and we are invited to see these divine glimpses. Now, maybe we don’t accept the invitation. Maybe we stuff our emotions and check the boxes on what “has to be done,” work like crazy until we can finally get back to work (because who knows if the company will actually be standing if we’re not there to hold it together.) Maybe we numb and check out. Maybe we pretend we’re SuperSpiritual and read from the list of cliches while we convince ourselves that it’s somehow selfish to acknowledge the honesty of the loss and stifle anything that looks like tears and feels like grief.
But, baby, if we do accept the invitation… The clean lines of the Honda, blades of grass and bright colors of the flowers come into focus and we can actually see the beauty all around us that we’re too busy to notice any other time. We cry our eyes out when we need to and often find those tears surprisingly becoming laughter and smiles at the wonder of our tremendous gratitude.
[There is a pink elephant in this room. What if the tears are of sadness but also anger or rage or bitterness or resentment? Then, there is no laughter and gratitude is in short supply. This sort of situation is even more important that we accept the invitation into presence. There’s a character in the movie Magnolia who says, “we may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.” The longer we run from the fact that there are chains around our necks, the longer those chains stay around our necks, strangling us slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, just taking our lives a breath at a time. I know it’s horrible, but we face what comes, dump it on the ground, look at it, and then we maybe pick it up and do it all again next week, but at some point, we leave a little on the ground, we pick up a little less, until the tears feel less like acid and more like peace. It’s not quick and it’s not easy, but we have to believe it’s possible. If the tomb was empty once, nothing is impossible ever again.]
So, all of this mourning, grief, celebration, gratitude, looking at an empty place at the table or in the chair… well, it hurts like crazy when our hearts break. But we are awake. Our eyes are wide open to the blessings of today, and open to the blessings of yesterday, when they were here (It was awesome when they were here) and what a gift it was that, of all the people in the world, they were here with us and it was great.
My back is feeling much better. Several weeks ago, I forgot who I was and what I was about and worked out my ego instead of my body and ended up with a small injury that is slowly meandering it’s way back to health. Who knew that I wouldn’t recover immediately, like Wolverine, now that I’m not 18?
I guess everyone. Anyway. Sometimes our body gives us subtle warnings to get our attention and sometimes it gives red alert total shutdowns. This might not be a red alert shutdown, but it might as well be, because I have received the message clearly. I mentioned months ago on a Facebook mini that both of my shoulders were acting up and now I couldn’t sleep in the position in which I’ve slept for as long as I can remember. An old friend who is becoming a better friend than ever posted a comment, reminding me that she is in fact a physical therapist and could help. Her advice was to stop the traditional moves, start some injury-specific exercises and stretching. Also, she gently scolded me: “you aren’t earning a living walking on your hands or carrying things overhead so there is no need to destroy your shoulder over these exercises.” Of course, I listened (for the most part;) and my shoulders are better every day.
Why do I tell you this? Because our spiritual walk is very much like our physical walk.
At any time, we are doing any number of exercises that work out our egos and “destroy our shoulders.” Usually, these exercises are kept hidden, our pain remains secret and we pretend that we are sleeping fine and that putting a coat on isn’t excruciating. The uncomfortability is the first nudge; low grade anxiety, nagging stress, butterflies, interrupted sleep. This moves to pain; higher grades of everything, guilt, shame, sleep is only possible with pharmaceutical help. Then, there are lots of ways this would go from here. Either our pain will increase into the unbearable, driving us closer and closer to breakdown or we will harden, numb, check out, build thick walls and survive keeping warm under a thick blanket of independence, anger and selfishness.
All of these symptoms can be teachers and all of these steps can be gifts.
Now. Ideally, we don’t hide and we can listen openly to the “physical therapists” in our lives before we get hurt. This is why honesty is so vital. We aren’t alone, aren’t under the weight of secrets and pretense, are able to see some light through the hands and hearts of those who would show us the light exists, however dim it appears to us.
But this isn’t an ideal and instead, we often hide behind an image of capable independence, superhero-esque and bulletproof. Like the kids on my sons’ basketball teams that are arrogant and mean to cover up their towering inadequacies and insecurities, these images are sadly, obviously, charades. Children playing dress up. We exercise our egos instead of our bodies & souls. And we end up injured.
This week, I am struggling through a passage of Scripture that painfully illuminated a blind spot I have. It felt like a sledgehammer and knocked me down. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see where I missed or ignored the first and second nudges; a text, conversation, movie dialogue, and other experiences pointing me to this ramp that would lead me back to the narrow path. Whether I innocently missed them or willfully turned away from them is pretty unimportant now – mostly unimportant because I don’t know the answer – but what is important is that my vision is improving. I see how far I have wandered. And I see how to come back. I have no idea which is the bigger gift, but what’s clear is that the 2nd can’t happen without the 1st. Coming back is awesome but it’s impossible without the revelation that we’re lost. There can be no healing without the injury.
So, here I am today, kind of thankful for the pain.