church

A Woman I Know

A woman I’ve recently met lost her husband last year. I didn’t know her then, I never met him. She began coming to a small group after her tragedy, as a broken-hearted widow trying to hold on to God, to other people, to meaning, to today, to life. She sometimes looked tired, sometimes like she had just finished weeping (which she probably had), yet she always shows up.

I stay quiet, muted in my Zoom box, watching and listening, fully present to her suffering. You know, in the book of Lamentations, the author wails “Look! See!”, simply seeking a witness to this searing pain. The crushing hurt of loss and abandonment has overtaken her, “Look at this affliction!” In Lamentations, the God she knows has “broken my teeth with gravel; He has trampled me in the dust.”

This woman I know understands Lamentations, I bet, only too well. She said last week, “I don’t trust God so much right now.” I don’t know how she felt about saying it. Sometimes, we can get so wrapped up in what we are “supposed to” say, “supposed to” do, who we “should” be, that we ignore who we are. And from behind that facade, we ignore who God is.

When I was in seminary, studying the Bible and writing research paper after research paper, more than any particular story or verse, I was surprised at what I was finding over and over. The overwhelming theme was God’s desire for honesty. Even as He was commanding rites and rituals, He was reminding us that the rites and rituals meant nothing at all without heart. If they were just sacrifices, just songs sung and hands raised in church, just plastered smiles and rote prayers, they were nothing more than hypocritical performance. The Scripture tells of a God who wants us, who we are, how we are, right here, right now, instead of our hollow dog and pony shows.

This woman I know sees the value in showing up in her weary brokenness. Which looks exactly like grace, His grace as well as her own. I think when she says, “I don’t trust God so much right now,” He probably smiles, because in her courageous authenticity, she is displaying that she does. She trusts Him enough to tell Him the truth, confident He won’t leave her, that He’ll keep His arms around her. And if she doesn’t feel it this second, she will.

And she has chosen to trust us. We have been this woman’s witnesses. We almost never get the answers we think we want, but we do get hands to hold. We get people to love us and hold us up when we just can’t do it ourselves anymore.

This is an online Bridge post, but it’s also a love letter to her (that she may never read). I want to thank her. I want to tell her how much she’s meant to me, how she’s inspired me, how she’s given me courage and strength by simply being a warrior everyday and letting me watch. I guess that’s why we were given The Church. Showing up and taking one more step is nothing to do alone, our gift is that we get to take those steps and live these lives as a community. And if we keep showing up, keep opening our eyes, hearts and hands to each other, we get to experience these moments of immeasurable beauty and love up close.

Into The Light

Sunday we discussed marriage, single-ness (if that is even a word…it doesn’t feel like it is), and sex. The Apostle Paul writes about these subjects often, they’re found in many other spaces in the Bible, yet every time a sermon in church is based around sex, it’s met with a certain level of surprise and/or uncomfortability. This unease increases even more when the topic becomes sex between married couples. I suppose I know why, but it’s points to an early breakdown that has led us all down many different, unhealthy paths having little to do with sex at all.

The cracks begin with a bizarre learned aversion to conversation, especially about the most important topics. This aversion leads to a pathetic lack of communication that gives rise to the lie that sex is dirty and obscene and should be kept out of view. Obviously, this secrecy (like all secrecy) is the doorway into any number of dark rooms that are steal our dignity and are dishonoring to our hearts, souls, bodies & spirits.

When we build entire structures around the notion that some things need to be hidden in the darkest places, guilt and shame grow like mushrooms. Shame isolates us, and we stay sick with imaginary diseases. Sex isn’t shameful, isn’t dirty or obscene. It can be, but just because something can be misused doesn’t mean the thing is defective.

I can’t say the first talk I gave on sex didn’t give me deep pangs of anxiety, but I can absolutely tell you that it doesn’t now (any more than anything else. I still get butterflies of excitement every single Sunday, and I hope they never stop.)

The more we talk openly & respectfully about anything, the less power it has over us, the less fear-inducing it is. The more we can drag into the light, the less mold can spread. The 30th difficult boundary conversation is much less threatening than the first, and as it loses power, we can much more treat ourselves and each other with kindness instead of control. That need for control is rooted in fear. And control and love simply cannot coexist, so the more we can remove that fear, the more love we can display, the more love we can freely give.

If I don’t need you to see everything my way, vote for my candidate, behave the way I want you to, I can then allow you to be you, listen, actually listen, and maybe exercise some empathy (in some cases long dormant) and find the common ground that is always there. Common ground and understanding are nearly impossible to discover from behind thick walls of fear.

If we can talk honestly about marital sex and it’s many gifts (intimacy, connection, affection, I could go on and on), then maybe it won’t be a monster in the corners of the church. The Church has long been afraid of human sexuality, maybe she should be more concerned with secrecy and isolation. But again, just because the Church & religion have been misused, doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Quite the opposite. They are perhaps more valuable, more important, now than ever. But we can’t ever get to reclaiming the actual divine picture of The Church if we’re too proud or too frightened to mention Her and/or address the ways She’s been defaced. Think about the violence done in the name of Jesus, and imagine the horror and hopelessness if we threw Him away because of the offenses done in His lovely Name.

So we’ll keep talking about the beautiful purity of sex and the way it’s been dragged through muddy alleys. We’ll keep screaming about the immeasurable joy of marriage and mourning the damage too often done in the context of a lesser view. We’ll keep having these discussions with hands open in love, reclaiming these life-giving words and concepts, and we’ll do this all together.

Great Things

Christmas Day is this Sunday. Everyone you see asks, “are you ready?” and the answer is nearly always, “I guess we’ll have to be.” If Christmas was in February, or June, we wouldn’t be ready then, either. There’s so much to do, so much to buy, so many extended family members we don’t see throughout the year to schedule, avalanches of year end duties we work a little later to complete.

We’re finished, but finished or not, every year, on the morning of Christmas Eve, I go out shopping by myself for 1 more thing for my boys. I sort of like the energy of the deadline. The message for Saturday evening is done, as well, but I continue to work on it in the same fashion, with that bass note of nervous energy in the background. It’s very exciting, and as far as my work, it’s reserved for 3 weeks during the year; Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday, and Father’s Day. Those 3 are the days that so clearly illustrate Who God is, who I am, and they remind me from where I’ve come, where I was when He rescued me and loved me back to life.

Yesterday, I prayed, thought, meditated, wrestled and wrote for hours for Saturday night, many of those words typed through tears on this iPad that has seen and been through so much with me.

Next week is New Years and that’s only slightly less charged for me. I love to look forward, dreaming of who I will become, who we will become, what we will experience, how we will grow, listening for the guidance of the Spirit in me.

But yesterday, as the emotions swirled and swelled, it was as I thought of who I was and who I am now. It was in pictures of those who walk with me. It was of the God Who was the same last year and will be the same this year and the next, the same 2,000 years ago and 2,000 years from now – faithful, loving and awesome.

Next week is for what will be, this week is for what is. It is a week, a season to, as written in 1 Sam 12:24, “…consider what great things He has done for you.”

So, my question in this relatively unusual post is: What great things has He done for you?

And as you probably already know, the real ask behind that question is: Are our eyes open to the great things He has done for us? Are we awake to the sacred in our midst? Are the blessings acknowledged as divine blessings or simply ‘things that happen?’

It is a week for reflecting on great things.

I know full well that this year has included more than it’s fair share (as every year does) of not-so-great things. There are newly empty chairs. Brand new fears and anxieties. Illnesses, wounds, scars. Suffering floating in floods of tears. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Unanswered questions and prayers. Sadness. Depression. Isolation. I know. We all know, more intimately than we’d expected or probably would admit.

I think the verse asks us to “consider” the great things because the not-so-great sometimes sit so closely to the surface. It takes intention and effort to consider the great things.

That’s the invite here. Take a moment out of the mad scramble of the days before Christmas morning to consider. Consider the people who held your hand while you wept, the people who asked how you were and listened, actually listened, when you told them. Consider the once empty chairs that aren’t empty anymore, filled with new family members.

Maybe the great things will be stuff or promotions or pay raises, but for me, as I consider, almost every one of the great things in my life are people. You are The Great Things. The ones who showed up and stayed. The ones who prayed for me and held me up when I couldn’t get up on my own, who celebrated with me when I could.

I now truly understand why God didn’t answer Elijah’s questions in that cave, but instead, told him that there were people nearby who would love him, even as he broke down.

We will worship The Baby That Changed Everything, we will praise Him with all we have. And we will do that together, because That Baby became a Man Who gave us The Church when He left. You are not ‘things that happen,’ you are divine gifts sent from a spectacularly loving God. And when I sit down to thank Him, I will thank Him for you.

Re-Feed

Let’s talk about 2 quick things before we get into the point of this post.

First, I follow a man named Aadam Ali (physiqonomics.com) online who talks about fitness and nutrition, and he uses a beautiful term to describe the increase in calories following time in a deficit (I don’t use the word diet anymore, it doesn’t have positive baggage in my head): Re-Feed. It’s great, right? When I eat a little too much (over the number my tracker tells me should be my intake), the Angel & I and now my boys call it a re-feed.

I’m going to use it in a slightly different context here.

The other is that I follow several other people virtually; some churches, pastors, artists, podcast hosts, comedians, experts in different things I care about (like Aadam Ali). It’s one of the best things about the internet. 3 weeks ago I emailed a podcast for the 2nd time, they read both on air, and now we’re best friends. A woman in Denver and I comment on each other’s posts on Instagram like we’re neighbors. This complex network connects us in ways we couldn’t have imagined only a few decades ago. It also gives us the sense that these screens and “friends” and connectivity are community, but that isn’t exactly true.

Following a church online is not the same thing as belonging to a local church. It can supplement, but it can not substitute. Having said that, those supplements are very important to living lives of faith, and can serve as spiritual re-feeds. We add devotionals, emails from mailing lists, sermons from around the world, instructional articles & videos, practices to our usual routine, and they give us fresh perspectives, inspiration, encouragement, and a voice different from the local every-week pastor (no matter how compelling that voice is;).

This is Thursday’s email from someone named Justin at WiRE (clever alternative spellings are not necessary, I guess, but they sure help – maybe from here on out, we’ll be “thaBridGe?!”):

“. . . build up the ancient ruins

. . . repair the ruined cities – Isaiah 61:4

Three relationships broke when man fell, so long ago: the relationship between man and God, the relationship between man and himself, and the relationship between man and other men (and women). Our jobs now, are to repair and rebuild those relationships, in our own unique ways, as much as we can during our lifetimes . . . and to encourage and assist others in doing likewise. Our King, Jesus Christ, gave us our instructions—love “God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and love “your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 27:37-29). His two-part directive covers all three relationships: love God more than anything else; love yourself sufficiently; and love other people at least as much as you love yourself. It’s all there.

So how do we begin? Well, we restore relationships with God when we soften our hearts, decide to trust him more than we trust ourselves, and bend ourselves toward obedience. We restore relationships with ourselves when we soften our hearts and decide to care for ourselves as God intends, finally dealing with self-condemnation or idolatry or addiction (to work, to food, to alcohol, to pornography, or anything else). And, we restore relationships with others when we soften our hearts, decide to look around for people who need us, and bend our lives toward loving and serving and forgiving them.

Okay, so what do we do?

Take a moment to survey your life. Which type of relationship is most broken? If none is obvious, take time for listening prayer. Ask your counselor, God the Holy Spirit, to guide you. Once you’ve focused-in on what’s most in need of rebuilding, what’s most in need of repair, you’ve got your own, individualized blueprint for “what’s next.” Begin working on it this week. Start with something practical.”

Right??? How are those 3 BIG relationships in our lives? What a great question, and a very important one. Most days I read this Justin’s message quickly, distracted by something or other, just moving through it as fast as I can so I can delete it. But on other days… Last Thursday I read this and it stopped me in my tracks, yanked me away from my distracted mind, and remained stuck in my head since. I’m reflecting on the answers to his question “So what do we do?” and creating my own blueprint.

However, this particular email, these 3 important relationships, or practical blueprints aren’t the point. The point is that we are learning how to build lives of faith, individually and corporately, to re-feed. Our local community provides the community, a shared place, and a common vision to walk together, and as we grow, the community grows. You can picture the early churches meeting for meals, sharing Gospel teaching, discussing theology and it’s practical application, reading letters from Paul and Apollos and social media cultural influencers, holding more and more hands in prayer each month. It’s an idea that probably has been hi-jacked by so many cultural factors, damage, misinformation and misinterpretation. Now it’s time to reclaim this beautiful tradition and create lives based in/on Jesus, the Gospel, and faith, plant and nurture communities, let every step be taken in love, for Him, each other, and ourselves. Revolutions like this don’t happen by accident, they happen through intention. We’ve been rescued, now what?

Sex

I think it’s hilarious to title this post “Sex,” and wonder what you’re thinking/expecting when it comes across your email or Facebook feed.

On Sunday, we discussed a passage in 1 Corinthians that referenced “sexual immorality,” and it was my assumption (not an entirely incorrect assumption, I don’t think) that, historically, most church leaders’ perspective was that all sexuality was sexual immorality, and therefore, not to be discussed on a Sunday morning – there were (gasp) CHILDREN there! – outside of a strict warning of the dirty inappropriateness of it all. But it’s absolutely not dirty or inappropriate, God created it, blessed it, called it holy.

[Of course it has been twisted and dragged through some great rivers of mud, but that doesn’t make it twisted and muddy any more than all music turns into brain dead misogyny simply because a band called Limp Bizkit existed in the ‘90’s.]

So, I knew what I was going to talk about, and then I saw 2 young(er) girls sitting in front of me, and faced a moment of hesitation. Is this the sort of thing that will offend? Their parents are some of my very favorite people, will I get nasty phone calls questioning my judgment? What had I prepared exactly, was it in any way blue? Would it warrant a higher age rating on Netflix? Would I deserve those phone calls, if they came?

As it turns out, I didn’t pull back and I didn’t apologize. Maybe that was the way to go, and maybe it wasn’t. (I haven’t yet gotten any angry messages.) But the way I figure, the church has to have a voice in reclaiming words and concepts that have been hi-jacked and lost. These girls have, no doubt, heard much much worse in school hallways and on TikTok. Sex has been inexplicably referred to as “casual” more often than I can count even though we all know it’s not. A church that sees physical intimacy as completely taboo is doing us a huge disservice and creating a vacuum that (like all vacuums) will be filled, in porn sites if not in sermons.

But ultimately, the reason I talk about sex as often and as openly as I do (and it’s actually not that often, it only seems that way), to the horror of my boys, is because the Bible talks about sex openly, honestly, and very often. It’s there, in most of the books, whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s really important that we don’t just ignore the parts that make us uncomfortable. We’ve done that for too long and that pretending has allowed the beauty and truth of the Scriptures to become either irrelevant or a hammer used to hit others to prove our own tightly held opinions.

I hope nobody was scarred, I didn’t talk one second about the biology of sex (which is more than I can say about Song of Songs, a book with lots and lots of biology). But the way I see it, if it begins a conversation on respect, selfless giving & receiving, commitment, holy intimacy, and fidelity, then we will begin the long process of taking our sexuality back and returning it to where it belongs, back where the rest of us belong as well: in the arms of a loving God.

D.B. Cooper Conventions & Monopoly Tournaments

I saw The Batman and the 3rd Fantastic Beasts films in the last few weeks and really loved them both. As a matter of fact, as far as Fantastic Beasts, it would be impossible to express just how much. Maybe I’ll try sometime. Maybe not. The Batman was awfully good, but I say that knowing full well that I am the target market, so it’s possible my opinion wouldn’t be the most objective. 

We will talk about 2 other films: Under the Boardwalk: A Monopoly Story, and D.B. Cooper, Where Are You?! Now, what could these 2 possibly have in common, right? Not surprisingly, they also share it with Bikram, Holy Hell, and the Rajneeshees of Wild, Wild Country. The more I think about it, they share it with The Batman and Fantastic Beasts, Thor, The Avengers, Stand By Me and Stranger Things, too. 

D.B. Cooper was the alias of a guy who hi-jacked an airplane in the 70’s, took $200,000, jumped out somewhere in Oregon, and was never found. The thing that makes it a cool story instead of a terrible story is that no one was harmed, outside of a minor inconvenience for the passengers. Some think he is still alive, may or may not be living in Florida, or that he fell to his death. None of that matters too much to me, it’s an interesting piece of pop culture, a mysterious American outlaw very much of a time.

Monopoly is a 100+ year-old board game that we’ve all played and that the Angel HATES. I was pretty neutral, but I like it very much since this documentary. 

There are D.B. Cooper conventions, where people from all over get together and geek out over conspiracy theories, police sketches, and an inch of decayed nylon found in a forest. There are also Monopoly championship tournaments, which are exactly what you think they are. Rooms full of tables where the best players battle over rent, mortgage values and property trades. These people are weirdos, in the very best sense of the word. I know they are, because I’m one of them. We all are. We may not participate in these particular events, but we all have our D.B. Cooper conventions. (If we don’t, we should by all means immediately get one!)

The last 15 minutes (or episode) of the cult docs we all adore the former members are interviewed, and there is always an unmistakable air of melancholy. They miss the time they were involved (before the true insanity of everything was exposed). Thor & Hulk need a team, Batman finds he can not, and should not, be the lone hero vigilante forever. It is the relationships between characters in Fantastic Beasts that remain, none of us really care about wands or spells or CGI creatures.

The biggest lie that most of us know is a lie but tell as truth, and that we all apparently agree to let slide, even though we know nobody actually believes is that we are islands. We don’t need, or want, other people. We are wholely independent. We prefer riding alone. 

Except we’ll do pretty much anything to find a community. We’ll drink Kool Aid, let a yogi behave like a complete maniac, play in Monopoly tournaments, or go to conventions for a 50 year old historical footnote. None of this is surprising in the least. I happen to believe we are created for each other, wired for relationship. 

In Christian circles, it can be quite tempting to sound super-spiritual and say some variation of “all I need is God.” It sounds awesome and we all ooh and ahh, but can you take a wild guess where that sort of doctrine isn’t? The Bible. In Genesis 1 & 2, before the Fall, everything is “good” except 1 thing: the man is alone. The man isn’t alone, he has God and they walk in the Garden in the cool of the evening, but God still says, “it is not good for the man to be alone,” so He makes a woman. Then in the New Testament, He makes the Church.

Maybe you don’t believe in God or Genesis or the Church, or maybe you do, but don’t think it happened exactly like it’s written. A thing doesn’t have to have happened for it to be True. This Genesis account is as true as anything has ever been, we are made to be together. And I know this, without a doubt, because D.B. Cooper conventions and Monopoly tournaments exist.

Sausage

There’s a saying I love about “seeing how the sausage is made.” We usually only consume the final product, without a thought as to how it gets to that point. We eat and love sausage, but most of us have no idea how that delicious meat gets to the shelves of our supermarket (and in the case of sausage, maybe that’s a good thing.) Hot dogs, McDonald’s ‘chicken’ McNuggets, any number of foods fall into this category, but this expression fits many more areas. You have a beautiful garden that we all admire and appreciate, but have no idea how many hours went into the planting and care to achieve such beauty. Slash is the guitarist for Guns N’ Roses and his solos are transcendent. His playing looks glamorous and natural, but we don’t see the 10,000+ hours of practice in his bedroom alone that makes it possible.

I’m not Slash, not particularly glamorous, and this isn’t a beautiful garden, but I wanted to give you a small peek behind the metaphorical curtain for the upcoming series at the Bridge.

I decided months ago that we would study the epistle to the Ephesians after the Sermon on the Mount concludes (which will be this week). I asked for suggestions, because if there was an interest, maybe we could adapt. I also mentioned we would jump into Ephesians or 1 Corinthians (and I don’t know why that came out of my mouth that morning 2 weeks ago, it was totally unplanned and I thought, “that’s interesting. I wonder what that’s about.”)

So I finished reading Job (the book I had been reading) and turned to Ephesians. Why I never got there, again, I can’t say. But I flipped to 1 Corinthians and went no further.

My Bible has introductions to each book, and in this particular one, it read: “The Christians in Corinth were struggling with their environment. Surrounded by corruption and every conceivable sin, they felt pressure to adapt…They were free in Christ, but what did this freedom mean?”

Then, in some specific notes on chapter 1: “[Corinth was] fiercely independent and as decadent as any city,” and “arguments and divisions arose [within the church.]”

Yet, the people were “called…made holy…given every spiritual gift.”

And now I know why.

Looking at the notes in my Bible and the ones I took, I can’t tell where they’re describing, Corinth or America. There, then, or here, now? They were called and given every spiritual gift, yet also fiercely independent, decadent, with all sorts of questions about what being “called” means and why it matters.

I wanted to talk about being God’s “masterpiece” and the armor of God. Ephesians has some of the most gorgeous language and profound Gospel teaching, it’s no wonder I would want to spend some time there (and maybe we will afterwards.) But we’re not talking about the Ephesians. We’re going to dive into the letter to the Corinthian (American) church and splash around in this deep water that, I’m now convinced, will be absolutely vital to our lives.

Israel

The youth retreat was last Tuesday. This day, the youth was a group of high school aged boys (Only boys. Not because boys are the only ones welcome, but because that’s just how it was. There is one lovely young woman, but she happened to be on vacation, so we had all boys. I am not complaining or lamenting this fact.) This group spent 12 hours together with 2 adult facilitators swimming in a lake, reading the book of Mark, and eating. Towards the end of the evening, I had the opportunity to ask if there was anything they wanted to talk about, fully expecting silence or, if anything at all, I figured something about girls.

For some reason, the evangelical political-spiritual movement in this country has decided the 2 most important issues facing the Church are not grace, love, compassion, poverty, kindness, non-violence, addiction, or anything else. Abortion and Homosexuality are the big 2, and judging by the overwhelming amount of time & energy given to those 2, there isn’t a 3rd. I tell you this because one of these thoughtful, courageous boys chose to take my invitation to ask about homosexuality, which became a wildly fascinating hour long discussion.

These young men were engaging with the Scriptures – much more than just these two current hot buttons. What is the role of the Bible in our lives and in the lives of the country and culture? What did the Bible say about a subject, specifically? Do we actually care? Does context/translation matter? Is there a seeming conflict elsewhere, and if so, which weighs more? And we can’t forget the most important question: Now what?

In the book of Genesis, Jacob (whose name means, “he grasps the heel,” which doesn’t mean much to us now, but it also means “he deceives,” which does. Jacob’s story in Genesis illustrates this second meaning.) finds himself in the wilderness, all alone, with a “man.” Jacob asks this ‘man’ for a blessing, which gives us the clear hint that this is not an ordinary man. They wrestle all night and in the morning (after an unbelievably significant question about his name), the ‘man’ finally blesses Jacob, but not before he injures his hip. Jacob’s name is changed here, and becomes “Israel,” which means “one who wrestles/struggles with God.”

We can struggle with God, too. Right? And sometimes that struggle leaves us with a permanent limp. The Jewish people saw this struggle as absolutely vital to a life of faith. We don’t as much, we mostly want assent, agreement, conformity. I easily find doubt, questioning, and wrestling all over the Bible. It’s much more difficult to find assent and certainty.

Athol Dickson says: “What if God placed the paradoxes within the Scriptures to cause me to struggle for the truth? What if it is the struggle He desires as much as the truth itself?”

Haven’t you ever thought that Jesus could have pretty easily cleared up a lot of our questions? Maybe instead of answering with more questions (inviting the one who asks into a conversation, a struggle), he could’ve just given us the straight answer, in plain words, with bullet points. And why does the Bible sometimes contradict itself? Couldn’t it have been far more instruction manual and far less poetry? More fact and less story?

I could have said, “this is the answer,” if I felt like being that guy, and shut that discussion down immediately. As they wandered around in the dark, throwing guesses and opinions against the wall, I could have said, “no,” or “that’s wrong,” if I happened to disagree, (or even “yes,” or “that’s right”) and they would have learned that this was no safe place, no place where their authentic searching engagement was valued, only their quiet acquiescence, their right-ness.

That’s what’s so inspiring and encouraging about this youth group conversation. They aren’t content to just take what they’ve been offered, they want to turn it over, around and upside down. They aren’t cool with being “the one who grasps the heel,” they’re willing to fight for the truth, and in the process, become “Israel.” And that fills me with more hope for our homes, communities and world than I can even begin to tell you.

Street Sweeping

2 weeks ago, my boys played in a basketball tournament called Sweep The Streets. This particular tournament was held on 6th street of the city next door to our tiny suburb.

We arrived early and didn’t have to look for signs or follow directions, the music blaring from loud speakers and the smell of hamburgers and sweat were plenty to guide us in. The 2 outside courts were packed with players from 7 local-ish high schools, lined with the lawn chairs of parents and coaches.

It was boiling hot in the sun, and there was very little shade. I set up my chair under the scorers table tent in silence, hoping to go unnoticed. The scorer at the table just happened to be the creator of the event and nothing would go unnoticed by him. But instead of chasing me out, leaving me burned crispy outside, he engaged me as if we were old friends. Together there for the day, we did become old friends. We both rooted for our surprisingly overachieving “scrappy” team, heartbroken as we lost 2 close contests; 1 in double overtime, 1 in the last seconds, both we were figured to be food for, whipped early, providing lots of playing time for the second- and third-strings.

It was an extraordinary day of basketball for a very young team who is forging a new identity as a tough, passionate brotherhood that will neither quit nor go quietly, if at all.

But it was the event that was truly striking to me, inspiring me by it’s existence. Of course, I had heard of street ball and famous city courts where legends play, but I also read the news and pass police officers at every school entrance in the smallest towns. We live in a world of locked doors and hopeless division, a basketball tournament for a crowd of boys could not have seemed a safe bet. I wonder how much resistance he faced, how many times he heard sentences beginning with “you can’t…” He must’ve heard legions of reasons why not, and how many measures he would have to take to keep everyone safe or, from the most pessimistic, alive.

And probably the naysayers would have been right. The sheer number of violent acts in Anytown, USA show us how little of a guarantee we actually have for security. So, get all of this testosterone together, competing on hot asphalt for a whole day, there was bound to be problems.

Not to mention, I had just emerged from a baseball season where the behavior was abysmal. Each night of games was an embarrassment full of coaches and players acting like escaped animals with no concept of perspective, class or sportsmanship. My expectations were low.

Everyone who came inside the fences shook my new friend’s hand, every one seemingly a cherished old friend. The affinity and respect for him was obvious. The games were well played, hard fought, and free of the cocky fearful inadequacy that colors so much of youth sports, the cheeseburgers were excellent, bathrooms clean, sunshine brilliant, and the company was much much better.

As I was reflecting on just how beautiful this entire situation, and the man who organized and made it run so smoothly, was, it occurred to me why I found it so new & inspiring and yet oddly familiar. We can think God exists only in our ornate buildings with fancy offering plates and smoke machines, from 10-12 on Sunday mornings, where we are reciting Bible verses and singing hymns. We can think church takes place in pews, under stained glass. But again and again, we are proved wrong. God is not, and will not be, confined to walls and ceilings. The Church, The Bride of Christ, isn’t a place at all, it is simply the people, you and me, our neighbors, the workers at the grocery store, the runners on the street, teachers in the schools, anywhere and everywhere. And the local church is on street corners just as well as it is in little white buildings with orange signs and cracked parking lots.

The boys were exercising the gifts they’ve been given, (all different, working like parts of a body), together, as it was meant to be in the Garden in Genesis 1 & 2. That’s why it felt so good, like home (like Home). It’s what we were created for, this community, all functioning in God’s grace, under God’s binding sun, in glorious shalom. We all knew it, we didn’t want it to ever end, even if maybe we didn’t know why. This was the Kingdom breaking through, speaking fresh words, testifying to the new creation right in the middle of this one. And all that’s left is for us to notice and humbly offer up our praise and gratitude.

A Season Of With

I’ve been reading the book of Hebrews lately, and really loving every moment. There is a distinct possibility there is more in my Bible in my own handwriting than from the author of this letter, whoever that is. It doesn’t start like a letter, but it ends like one – there’s even a celebration that Timothy is now out of prison and greeting from the Christians in Italy.

Hebrews has everything anybody would ever want from a book in this vast beautiful library of books we call the Holy Bible; doctrine, instruction, history, even very personal touches. What I could do is pluck a verse from anywhere and talk about it for a few paragraphs here, but the one I am choosing is in chapter 10, verses 24 and 25, with Christmas on my mind.

This has been a long year of variants and political warfare, loss, disconnect, and division. Last year, we hoped the mood would pass with the year, full of hope that the new 2021 calendar would be new, fresh, peaceful. Now we know the only thing that changed was the calendar.

So now what? You know that is my favorite question, said with wide eyes and anticipation. I don’t throw my hands up and sigh, “now what?” I lean in and feel the energy crack and hum. The answer can and will set our course. The posture we take can and will decide our future. Do we think 2022 is, again, just a digit of difference, or is it a whole new world? Can it, can we, be transformed? Is January 1 just an extension of December 31, 2022 just 2021 part 2, 2020 part 3, or can it actually be the beginning of an original story?

Hebrews 10:24-25: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”

Maybe instead of spending our time alone, thinking of ways to tear each other apart, we could give our time to coming together and brainstorming as many ideas as we can manage to encourage each other. And if we could fan the flames of culture and humanity with love & good works instead of paranoia & pain. Maybe our flags could have less demeaning slogans and more of, literally, anything else. And instead of standing on the sidewalks shouting at each other, we could take our conflicting views to the yellow line in the middle of the street and engage in actual conversations. (I did not say our opinions have to be in the center. We can hold opposing perspectives, but only with the acknowledgement that, though our ideas may be far apart, we are not.)

I can love you. I can, with the help of the Holy Spirit (the SAME Spirit that raised Jesus from the grave), learn to start to try to start to try to love my enemies. I can listen, reach out, feel, hope.

I have always thought that the only way this great divide could happen is to stop sitting next to each other, causing us to forget that it’s NOT us vs. them, that it IS just us. When we don’t sit next to each other, our 3rd, 4th, 5th, 100th dimensions fade away, leaving cardboard cutouts, caricatures drawn on the boardwalk.

And the only way it can end is when we “not neglect our meeting together.”

This season, a season of love and presence, a season of “with,” is one that is crying out for us to heal these wounds. To build bridges across these imaginary divides. To sit side by side in worship of this Savior who came to show us what it meant to be human and gave us the Church to live it out.