gratitude

Senior Night

Tonight is Senior Night for the basketball team. There are 3 games left, and this is the last home game. Maybe there will be playoffs, but I don’t have anywhere close to the intellectual capacity to figure that out – the districts, sections, and classes have never made any sense to me. I imagine someone will tell me if we have more games.

This team is much much better than previous years. There was a toxic class to pass through the school and their influence will take time to dissipate, so this year was the first in rebuilding an entire culture and, playoffs or not, has been an almost total success. “Learning to win” is a tired sports cliche and the reason it’s tired is because it’s so often true. These boys are beginning to learn to win. Tonight, that isn’t an issue, they will probably not have to worry about winning. But the great thing about sports is that you never know. In the 1988 World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers beat an unbeatable Oakland A’s team in 5 games. It was impossible, yet it happened. So maybe…but the result hardly matters.

Tonight is the first senior night for my oldest son (there will be another one for baseball in the spring.) We’ll walk him out to the middle of the court and smile and barely keep it together. Or we won’t and the Angel and I will cry like babies. Either way, we will be there, fully present, with each other and with all of the emotions surging in our hearts and souls.

I’m remembering the night I learned he was no longer an idea. The Angel took a test on the phone with me, of course I couldn’t wait to get home, and she gave me the news. I was on 422 coming through Lebanon and pulled over in front of the community college and wept, equal parts terror and elation. Well, not exactly equal parts. We had prayed for him and now he actually existed, it was more celebration and gratitude. But there was certainly terror, swirled in like the cream cheese filling in a pumpkin roll. What kind of daddy would I be? Was I ready? What kind of boy would he be? And the hundred million more questions that flood in once the doors have been opened.

If you’ve met him, you know how amazing he is. If you haven’t, I’m sorry, you really should.

We often refer to a 2 hands theology, and a 2 hands life. Nothing is usually just 1 thing, it’s a combination, more like a hurricane, of different, sometimes wildly conflicting, emotions. Tonight, I’ll be proud of my boy, happy for the boy he’s been, the guy he is, and the man he’s becoming and grateful that I got to watch him so closely and know him so well. I’ll also be heartbroken, crushed that he’ll not nap on my chest again, and frustrated that each day couldn’t have been forever. What a 2 hand anything requires is honesty. We show up as we are, feel what we feel, no hiding, no images. We don’t miss a thing. We don’t wake up and say “God was in this place and I was unaware.” We show up.

I think back to all of the moments that brought us here. I didn’t want to go to Lebanon Valley College, but somehow I found myself there, a business major in 2 classes with the Angel, who had a boyfriend for nearly all 4 years. She happened to drop him right on time. I happened to be in the computer lab one evening, and she happened to be there, too. I happened to talk to her, even though she was ridiculously far out of my league. I happened to be on a plan that took more than 4 years – the last semester, which I shouldn’t have had, was when we met and went on our first date. We happened to go on that date, happened to get married, and happened to make this person who will have his senior night tonight.

I say “happened to” and “make” with the same posture. It all seems so orchestrated, almost as if there was a wonderfully loving God making paths, moving feet and softening so many hearts, which of course, He was. We didn’t make Samuel alone, couldn’t have ever made Samuel without the Creator of the Universe making him first.

So now, I want to tell you my answer, with 18 years of hindsight, to the question if I was a good daddy. Maybe. What I do know is that I was intentional. Everything I did (even the mistakes I made) I did on purpose. When he sits down with a therapist to complain about me, what he’ll say is that I hugged, kissed, and told him I loved him too much and too often. And I can live with that.

There are other places where I’ve written to him (beginning with that positive test on his first night), much more detail I could, and will, dive into, but those are only for him and I. Here, tonight is senior night and I will do the 2 things I have done every day of his life; I will be there, authentically, embarrassingly me, present and engaged, and more than that, more than anything else, I will love him.

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.

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.

Dialogue

I just received a new book as a Christmas gift from a very good friend who buys me books I always love. Not this Christmas. This was a gift from last Christmas, but we couldn’t find the time to get entire families together to exchange presents and, more importantly, presence.

I’m embarrassed to say we couldn’t find the time, but all I can say now is that I won’t say it again.

The book is called Daily Prayer, and there’s a passage I want to share with you: “Most of us are in dialogue when we read a book. I know I am. That’s the point, I think; to listen to the writer, to listen to yourself and to listen to the space between where things said by neither are nonetheless said. The things we take away are the things that we were already looking for. What you seek is seeking you, said Rumi, and while this is a frightening concept, it can be a consoling one if we listen to the desires that will feed us, not destroy us. Rumi asks us to trust that wisdom waits, and might be found in unlikely corners.”

We talk a lot about these conversations with the Bible. We find what we find, sometimes it’s in the text and sometimes it’s not. But it is absolutely vital that we acknowledge this dialogue and listen to what is being said to us in this personal space. Every now and again, someone hears a talk of mine and comments on what they heard and it’s impact on them here, now, and I wonder where they heard that because it sure wasn’t in my message. It hardly matters, it’s awesome either way.

[An unrelated observation: “the desires that feed us, not destroy us” – can you think of any 1 piece of advice more important than learning to tell the difference between the 2?]

This passage is in the How To Use This Book chapter, then on the page called 30 (for the day of the month): “May we listen to our hearts when they burn with life knowing that You are speaking with us. Because You are with us along the way in the faces of many strangers.” That is what’s called a Benediction, which is a sending off with a blessing, and often it’s just words. But today, as I read it and talk back and listen, I’m thinking of the times when I don’t listen to my heart, don’t know it is God who is speaking. In my distraction, leaving those words unnoticed, I take this beautifully sacred divine moment and treat it like it was no more than hollow noise. And I’m thinking of the stranger’s faces that I ignore, walking past the very face of Jesus. Maybe there aren’t ordinary moments, just spectacular holy moments that we miss.

I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe there is ordinary time, but as that time is truly lived, fully present, it becomes holy. And spectacular.

I’m having dinner with close friends tonight and it’s “just” dinner on a Wednesday evening in November. No event, no real reason to get together, nothing special. Hold on, “nothing special?” We are brothers and sisters sharing a meal, what could be more special? That’s the event. That’s the reason. Lives lived together. If only that would be the ordinary.

I will remember this passage, will notice my heart burn, at dinner. Then, afterwards, at a high school basketball scrimmage. Then, at 1am, as the Angel and my boy Samuel arrive home from a school trip to DisneyWorld. I’ll hug and kiss them both (and then I’ll do it again.) The more I think about it, how could I miss anything? This morning I sat with a brother and listened to his soul cry out. Tomorrow I’ll go to the gym, eat a salad and tapioca pudding, and work in the weight room before the 4 of us (together again!!!) sit down to dinner. Can any of this really be called ordinary?

Or maybe it all is ordinary, unexceptional, until we turn our eyes and hearts and jump in with our whole selves. We participate in this Story happening all around us, and in the engagement (in the dialogue) it becomes…actually, it crackles and hums with meaning, significance, with life. The Spirit sings and in the listening, we finally hear it.

It’s a pretty good book so far.

Giving Thanks

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. It has become everybody’s favorite holiday because the day includes all of the best parts of Christmas without the commerciality and gift drama. In my case, my immediate family gathers in New Jersey at my sister’s home and we eat too much and laugh the perfect amount.

Sadly, we were missing my aunt and cousins, which feels a little like going outside without a coat – incomplete and a little chillier. They weren’t there because my cousin’s boyfriend had recently lost his father, this was the first Thanksgiving without him, and they all chose to stay in and celebrate (and mourn) with his mother. This was the right decision, of course, but I can’t help missing them.

That’s the thing about holidays, right? They can serve as a sort of magnifying glass, bringing the sadness we can carry all year into focus. We picked up my mom early, and I purposefully drove the neighborhood streets my dad used to drive – the streets that are ancillary, totally unnecessary, only adding time and distance to the trip. I did that because there is an empty chair at Thanksgiving forever. He loved to eat as much as I do, though he was much messier leaving corn, crumbs, and anything else in his mustache. (I have no hard evidence for this, but I believe he had that mustache because Magnum P.I. had the greatest mustache and my mom, like everyone else, loved the way Magnum P.I. looked.) I miss him and I feel his absence on holidays the most.

This isn’t a terrible thing, by the way. It only feels like it is for the first few years, then that searing pain become an ache, which dulls over time, never fully disappearing.

So, I love my sister’s dog, Ty. He loves me, too. You might think you’ve met the best dog, but you’re wrong. He is. He’s a pit bull mix that looks a lot like the living gargoyles in the first Ghostbusters movie. He’s a gentle giant, who could shred bad guys but who probably wouldn’t. The odds are very high that he wouldn’t, but not zero, which only makes him more and more awesome. Every time I get there, I hug the humans, then settle in with my dog and pet him for as long as we do.

He is aging, he’s a big old guy now, and when we left, I stayed after everyone went outside and kissed him on his nose and told him through tears how much I love him and how thankful I was that he was there, just in case. One of these holidays, he won’t be there.

Ty isn’t my dad, or my cousin’s boyfriend’s mom, or the many empty chairs in our homes and lives, but let me tell you why I said earlier that it ‘wasn’t a terrible thing,’ which I intentionally understated. Not only isn’t it terrible, but it is one of the absolute greatest gifts we can ever receive.

You don’t remember everyone, people pass away every minute of every day. We remember, we mourn for, and our hearts break out loud for those who made space (and who we made space for) to live in our lives. We shed those tears, our stomach’s hurt, our chest tightens, because they mattered to us in ways very few do. Their impact was heavy and left/leaves us forever different, forever transformed. My dad’s passing broke me and when I healed, broken pieces still visible just not sharp anymore, I was very very different. Most of the parts of me you like best were forged in that season, where, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Jesus was in the fire with me, holding me, comforting me, whispering in my ear that this suffering was a gift, too. I didn’t exactly believe him then, but I sure do now.

When Ty isn’t on his bed for a future Thanksgiving, I’ll miss him, and as I do, I’ll thank the God of Everything that I do. I will have loved this dog, this beautiful blessing, and what could be better than to have loved? Nothing, that’s what.

And this is why I hug so well, why I tell you how much you matter so much (and sometimes so uncomfortably), why I hold hands too long, why I cry often, why I ask so many questions, listen, overshare and allow my emotions to rest on the outside of my skin. Because I am finally awake, and being alive and awake means that I am grateful for all of it.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Church on Thursday Night

Last night I took my son Samuel to see his first live music show. 2 artists (American Authors and the unfortunately named Phillip Phillips) in the Midtown Arts Center in our state capital. Adding to the excitement of the adventure, there wasn’t any parking and the building was barely marked and so easily missed that we weren’t entirely sure we had arrived even as we were walking inside.

So, we go in and sit and wait for the doors to the concert area to open, watching people and talking like friends. It is a beautiful under-acknowledged gift to actually like your children. Of course, we love them, we sort of have to. Also of course, there are times they drive us craazy. But to like them? That is an unguaranteed, unexpected, overwhelming blessing that is not to be overlooked.

American Authors opened – they were the reason we went, he feels like he discovered them and loves them like they’re pretty much his secret – and were terrific. He even got his picture taken with them that I’ll show you when I see you. But they played this one song, Deep Water, that is providing the thread that stitched us all, the entire night, this entire season of our lives, together, and is sliding seamlessly into the narrative of our communities (at the Bridge, work, school, towns & cities.)

Before I give you the lyrics, there’s a story in the book of Kings where the prophet Elijah is fleeing an evil king and queen and ends up hiding in a cave. He thinks he’s alone, but it’s there that he is ministered to by God. He is definitely not alone. Elijah is scared and complains that he’s being chased, and why is he being chased, what is going on, why why why, and that he’s the only one left. God answers the way God usually answers, without answering any of Elijah’s questions, BUT what He does is tell Elijah that there are more just like him and where to find them. God knows what we so easily forget; we don’t actually need answers (we only think we do), we just need someone to hold our hand. We just need someone to walk alongside. We just need someone to listen, to care, and to love (and who will love us in return.)

Now, Deep Water – the singer-songwriter referenced some heavy struggles (the deep water of the title) and his gratitude for the people who willingly waded into that water, sometimes to rescue, other times just to tread the same water in which he was treading.

“Please, tell me I won’t wash away. When it pulls me under, Will you make me stronger? Will you be my breath through the deep, deep water? Take me farther, give me one day longer Will you be my breath through the deep, deep water? When I’m sinking like a stone, At least I know I’m not alone.”

It’s not a superficial pretending that there isn’t water, or that the water isn’t deep, or that he wasn’t sinking like a stone. There was, it was, and he was. It’s not the need to fix that overflows from our fearful uncomfortability of this deep water. It’s only presence, sensitive to the times where we can “tell [him he] won’t wash away,” “make [him] stronger,” to “be [his] breath,” or to simply be in the water when he’s “sinking like a stone.”

This is our call.

I looked through watery eyes at my son who is, and will be again, in deep water. Just like the rest of us in that room and in every room. I pray that he has a tribe who will hold him up and be his breath, and that he can become the kind of person who will be theirs.

The most beautiful thing about a concert is that we are all there, we are all now, inextricably connected by the purity of our shared love. Life can be hard and we can think we are very, very different, but in the dark, on a Thursday night, affirming the creative spark that has been generously given by our Creator, we were all human, nothing more and nothing less.

Then, Phil Phil performed his biggest hit, Home, with these lyrics: “Hold on to me as we go, As we roll down this unfamiliar road. And although this wave (wave) is stringing us along, Just know you’re not alone ‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home. Settle down, it’ll all be clear. Don’t pay no mind to the demons, They fill you with fear. The trouble, it might drag you down. If you get lost, you can always be found. Just know you’re not alone ‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home.”

Well, this is just great, now I’m writing through watery eyes as I think about him again, about those who I have held onto as we go, who have been my breath, who found me when I was lost, as I think about you. I know I’m not alone, you have all made this place my home.

The thing that gives me the most hope is the pyramid scheme. If we can do this for each other, and we have, and we will continue, eventually we can all know we’re not alone and that we are all extravagantly loved. Then, anything is possible.

Waking Up

I touched on something Sunday in a Biblical/theological context, but I’m thinking more and more that it has wide reaching, wildly impactful applications if we only take it out into the streets and grocery stores and schools.

Speaking of schools, the first day for our local school district was yesterday. Last week, we circled the middle & high school while a group of us prayed over/for the students, staff, administration, and parents. I struggled with a big nagging question: what is my responsibility in all of this? First, what do I mean by “all of this?” The school district is no different from the rest of culture (and, to draw some parallels, the Corinthian church) in that they (we) are angry, frustrated, and all of the other adjectives that erupt from the root condition: divided. How do I (we) bring unity to a deeply fractured community? How do I help to heal, to replace insecurity with belonging, replace inadequacy with kindness and love? This is probably something we’ll explore here in the next few weeks, months, & years.

BUT today…

Familiarity with something breeds a certain unfamiliarity, neglect, and apathy. We take for granted the most extraordinary ideas and concepts. The BIG illustration Sunday was that “the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead” is inside each of us. How can that not change everything about the way we see everything? Easy, because we’ve heard it so many times, it’s become simply a collection of letters in an old book instead of the same power that raised Jesus Christ is inside of us. John 3:16, the Church, Communion, and on and on. There is no shortage of examples in the Scriptures.

Now think of our lives through these lenses. Of course there are a million conveniences that are modern miracles (including the mind-blowing one we are communicating on/through right now), but consider spouses, children, and friends, too.

If we begin to see all as gifts, do you think that could seismically shift the way we hold them?

I think we usually choose to view our days, possessions, and people through a paradigm of entitlement, through the twisted picture of what “I” deserve.

Maybe a change in perspective could eliminate the negativity, and the army of should’s. We can get anything we want from any area of the world at our grocery store, we can mostly afford the things we need, we can drive there at any time of the day or night, and be out quickly and easily. Instead, we complain that the prices are increasing, the cart wheels squeal, the others inside are too slow, it should be easier/cheaper/more convenient for me. Our desire for more obscures the very real wonder of what is.

My wife is gorgeous, capable, independent, funny, brilliant, and caring. (If you know her, you know I could continue this list, but I do have to stop at some point.) She’s well out of my league, but we’ve been together for over 20 years so I can focus on how she eats pretzels or on the music she listens to. I can drift from gratitude into the tragic distraction of how she should be doing the smallest, most trivial thing. Obviously, she should always be doing the thing the way I want her to, right?

If you look at any social media, you’ll see an avalanche of this exact mindset. The school should be doing (anything) like this. My neighbor should be parking, cutting his grass, voting the way I want. My kids should ______. The President/government/authorities should whatever. And this leads to a perpetual discontent.

I started this little diatribe with “Familiarity with something breeds a certain unfamiliarity, neglect, and apathy. We take for granted the most extraordinary.” I think what I’m really saying is that maybe that’s not the best thing for us, and maybe it’s costing us more than we can imagine. Jacob wakes up and says, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I was unaware.” I don’t want to be unaware anymore. If I could only open my eyes to the world around me, I bet I would see colors and textures and beauty that would leave me speechless. Maybe the only spiritual journey is one of waking up; to Jesus, faith, the Bible, ourselves, each other, love, peace, and the items on the grocery store shelves.

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.

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.

Mile Markers

My sister lives in New Jersey, so to get to her from here, I drive the Pennsylvania Turnpike. There are these green reflective signs, every tenth of a mile that illuminate your progress. 289.8, 289.9, 290.0, and on and on. Sometimes it feels like each sign is separated by forever, others fly by so fast I miss them entirely, 289.9 to 301 in a blink. The point is, they’re helpful to show us where we are along the journey to wherever we’re headed. Like the arrow on the mall directory (when there were still malls) that said “You Are Here.”

Sometimes in our lives, we get those same kind of markers. We were there, and now we’re here. Maybe that’s not the greatest news, right? I don’t wear the same size pants that I wore in high school, and when I bought the bigger size, I had to face the new marker. But maybe it’s great, too. What I’m thinking about (and lamenting) is how often we get so distracted by the pieces that we don’t ever take a moment to step back and see the whole picture. We don’t know how we got here because we don’t really even know where here is.

Last week, the baseball season began for the team I coach. Our first game was against our cross town rivals and we lost on a walk-off in the bottom of the last inning. It was a heartbreaker and I won’t bore you with details because you might not care at all about youth sports, but let me just tell you I made a terrible decision on the last play of the game. If you make a terrible decision in the first inning that costs a run, it’s still a run, but the one in the last inning (ESPECIALLY the last play!!!!) feels worse, like you lost the game. I gathered the boys and told them the mistake I made and why it was such a bad mistake, apologized, then reminded the boys that the sun will come up in the morning and it’ll be a new day. They all made mistakes, too, and needed to know mistakes happen and do not define them. A 16u loss is not the sum total of my life and it won’t be theirs either.

Having said that, I sat on that bench long after everyone else left thinking about that 1 mistake. Maybe the sun wouldn’t come up the next day for me, right? When I was young, playing baseball through college, a loss would leave my soul in ruins for days. A loss in a championship game where I made the error on the last play (which I had) for months. I can still see the ball rolling under my glove in nightmares. I would snap at friends and family, cry in my room, and feed the monster that was always berating me, telling me I was not now and would never be good enough. This sharp steel tether to my performance cost me so much of my life. I didn’t want that for my boys on that team, wanted them to give everything they had for each other, to the game, empty themselves on the field, and sleep like babies, knowing they had given all. Mostly because I want them – and you and me – to give all to everything in their lives; their God, marriages, children, jobs, careers, relationships, everything they decide has value.

But like so much else, it is for them. Not me. I let them down. I failed. Which as we all know leads down a short severe path to I am not enough, I am a failure.

I sat on that bench, watching the sun go down. But here’s the thing; that familiar path never came. I was heartbroken, I made a mistake (and I hope I don’t make it again), we lost, and I expected the emotional wreckage to wash over me like it had for so many years. It didn’t.

Yep. I made a mistake. Losing stinks, especially to that team. And now what?

It’s not every day we see such clear mile markers that show us where we are, so when they come, we have to pay attention. We may not be where we’re going yet, but we’re not where we were and that is a big deal that needs to be noticed and appreciated. That night, after seeing the marker of who and where I am, how far I have come from that sad broken boy I was, I stood up, fully present and fully grateful. Then I went straight home, kissed the Angel and slept peacefully.