honesty

Emotions

I gave a talk at a youth group near Gettysburg last Saturday. The church is fairly conservative (although it could be said that, to me, maybe every church is fairly conservative) and there was a very good chance that I would not play well there. I shared the message for their Sunday service several years ago and have not yet been invited back. The looks on the congregants faces told me as much, so the fact that I was not yet invited back was far less surprising than that I was for their youth group.

I was because I have very good friends who either persuaded everyone else who (hopefully) had forgotten the past or hidden my visit from them altogether. I didn’t ask which one.

My very good friend asked me to come and speak about music and faith. I said yes, of course, then asked “um, what kind of music?” Because the kind of talk I would give on Christian music might not be what she had in mind. And actually, what music I consider to be Christian might not be everyone’s, and we should probably know what definition we’re using to avoid the kind of misunderstandings I enjoy. She said whatever I wanted, and I asked her to pretty please repeat that. And she did. So, I said yes again.

Now, I think it would be fun to explore those songs and ideas here, in a short series based on that talk, called “It’s a Cold and It’s a Broken Hallelujah.”

The songs are: “Emotions,” by Mariah Carey. (So you know and can follow along as intended, we played the videos – easily found in a Google search. For this one, however, I offered to simply play the song because there was “a significant cleavage issue.” And there is.) “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana. “Help Is On The Way,” by Rise Against. (This one is the only one that the video is absolutely necessary.) And “Hallelujah,” the cover version by Jeff Buckley.

“Emotions” was a gigantic hit record in 1991. It was all of the words that begin with P: polished, produced, perfect. What an unbelievable showcase for that extraordinary instrument of hers, right?!! She looks and sounds absolutely beautiful. The video is exactly like the song, glossy and refined, as if a team of marketers created it in a laboratory for maximum exposure and sales figures.

The problem is that it’s called “Emotions,” and I don’t feel any at all. Except that she’s awesome, I suppose.

Pretending is the other P word that comes to mind with something like this. It’s like an advertisement for LIFE, or at least the life other people are living, that I could be living if only I…whatever. It brings to mind – and the reason I play it in discussions of spirituality – gauzy pictures of Christians with perfect teeth and plastic smiles. This was the perspective I had of people of faith for the first half of my life. To me, they all looked like Joel Osteen book jackets, all smiles and manicured nails. My life wasn’t all smiles and manicured nails. In fact, no life I knew was all smiles. Sometimes, there were tears and dirt and darkness and hairs wildly out of place.

When you’re upset and the wheels are falling off, a Christian, with their cliches and cheery platitudes and “God’s plan,” is often the very last person you’d like to see. The carefully crafted images of rounded edges and masks they wear usually just amplify their uncomfortability and insecurity.

Everything is fine, and if it’s not, shhh, we’ll just hide that behind the closet door and hope it goes away.

Phony (another ‘P!!’) That is what “Emotions” means to me.

I understand that this is not the most positive way to start a conversation, but it gets better. It has to.

Yet Another Post About Youth Baseball

I am finished coaching baseball for the year, and I am equal parts disappointed and thrilled.

This weekend we will not be playing in the state tournament for 13 and 14 year old all-stars. Baseball is strange (and that is, of course, what makes it so great.) Samuel’s team played a best-of-3 series with a Harrisburg area all-star team and, in the first, Saturday morning, pounded them 14-2 in a 5 inning mercy rule game. The second, after 4 innings, we were ahead 5-0 and planning our trip and hotel accommodations. In the next 2 1/2 innings, we were handed a 9-5 loss. This forced us to come back for Sunday afternoon and the wrong end of a 17-6 whipping. What looked like an easy coasting to the next step turned to mush in our hands. Baseball, right?

Samuel, for his part, played very well, but baseball is a game where everything you hit can be solid and hard and you can come away empty. That’s just what he did, with great frustration. I keep reminding him that you can also hit everything softly off the end of the bat and find every hole and go 4-4. He didn’t care about my wisdom. Not even a little.

I thought the team was pretty good, pleasantly surprising me in other ways off the field. The kids were kind and encouraging, the best players were leaders and, at least for 2 days, displayed the sort of character that made me feel like the future was sunny and everything was possible (if not winning a 3 game series.) I told a few of the boys and wanted to call each of their parents. 

This was a stark contrast to our summer team (ages 13-16). I thought this team was pretty good, too, and also surprising off the field. This just wasn’t a good surprise. I expected the older kids, fresh from high school ball to encourage the younger, wide-eyed newbies, to show them what it meant to be ballplayers, where to go on a steal, who the cut-off man is, how to spot a pitcher’s tendencies, and most importantly, what a team looked like, felt like, and what winning required inside each of them. Sadly, the mood crashed the day they came, 2 weeks after practice had began for those not yet playing for the school. With one very notable exception, the boys were clique-ish and sarcastic, choosing to mock and tear down rather than build. Of course, they didn’t take coaching well, usually disrespectful, rarely listening and often saying “No” to instruction on the field (ON THE FIELD!!!!) – after all, they are early teenagers and we all understand that all we’ll ever learn we’ve already learned by our thirteenth birthday, right? They were nasty and mean to each other as well as the requisite muttering behind backs (even to their ‘buddies’ in their own clique.) They clearly didn’t like each other, and to me, the most heartbreaking part of that truth is what it tries to hide: they don’t like themselves. Their insecurity (not only theirs, theirs is just more obvious because of the outward nastiness) worn on their sleeves like a sponsors logo directed every word and move. 

It was an environment that caused my soul to ache every day. What could I do to affect some change? What could I do to speak fresh words into such negative self-regard? What could I do??? I tried many approaches, to varying degrees of failure. The questions still haunt, and the nagging new question: did I let these broken boys down? I guess I probably did. Sigh.

I also coached a team of younger boys (under 14) from 3 different areas. We were, by all accounts and measures, terrible. I believe they have far more ability than even they would guess that needs to be coaxed into the light, and we made strides. We were always able to find encouraging details to build on, even in the middle of mounting losses.

I will say this, though, about those boys. I loved every moment of our short time together. I told all of those boys that I liked them so much “they could come and live with me” (HA!) and I actually did contact most of the parents (I will end up contacting all of the parents) to appreciate their children. 

I guess the point is that hardly anything is ever just one thing. Sometimes you play well and lose, sometimes you lose and have a great time, sometimes the worst thing is the best, sometimes you’re depressed and thrilled, sometimes you’re full of gratitude and regret.

I spoke at a funeral yesterday (an experience that deserves its own space, which I will give another day, but…) and my funeral messages usually concern this duality, and I offer my own humble permission to feel everything. The Scriptures have an underlying honesty that God, at the very least, allows. Allows? I would say the truth is much closer to ‘demands’ or ‘requires.’

So. 

It’s now around a week later and I am still looking at this, still on this screen, yet to be made public, and I’m only this morning seeing the irony in my hesitance. You see, I’ve been waiting because of the paragraph on the older team. I lost a good friend once because similar feelings, observations, and words about kids (1 in particular) I had coached proved me, to her, harshly judgmental in my assessment. I understand her perspective, I probably did look like a man who had written off these kids and closed the book, rigidly deciding who they were and who they would be. If there was a misunderstanding, it was only in the finality of my opinion. I hold all of this loosely, only an observation, hopefully wishing to open my hands and pick up a new one. The 1 that cost me a friendship did indeed have some of the qualities I perceived. But that was then. One year later, he had grown and matured – as most people do – and I would no longer say those things. Not only would I not say them, I no longer think those things. He is different. And (hopefully) so am I. So are you. 

Every day, I drove to the teener practice crossing my fingers that this would be the day that a big red switch would be flipped and they would step into the next phase of their development. Each evening, I mourned that another day passed in the old patterns, and each morning, I saw them with new eyes. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next Tuesday.

The irony is that this post is about honesty – and here I am hesitating to communicate in an authentic fashion, wondering if I should… 

I should. We are in the business of offering all of who we are, even the ugly parts, and allowing them to move and change and transform into who we will be. Ignoring, or hiding, them leaves them unseen and unchanged. Swept out of sight, unacknowledged, we stay who we are, and that is the only unacceptable outcome. 

This post also concerns things not being just one thing. You’re not just a nurse or a lawyer or a pastor or a teacher or a wife, and neither am I and neither are they and neither is any moment of our lives. I held off on posting this because I didn’t want to be misunderstood again, but maybe I will be. And that’ll be ok. These kids are not one thing, now or ever, and they are certainly not today who they will be in 1 or 2 or 15 years. I don’t ever close any books. Nothing is final.

No, that’s not true. Some things are final. But we aren’t. We’re works in progress. 

Today is not just an extension of yesterday. It isn’t just what it is. 

Except this post. It is exactly what it is. And I’m posting it before it gets any longer.            

Far From Perfect

There are days, weeks, seasons of our lives where the walls are caving in, every phone call is at best: an emergency, at worst: the worst. There is no end to our prayers, no more tears to cry, our heart hurts even though it’s already in pieces, broken so thoroughly it feels as if it’ll never be put back together. You know these spaces, this darkness, this pain. And yet we pray, we still cry, still hurt. We keep moving, because tomorrow can’t be like this, right? And then, of course, it is. This is a season like that.

But we get up again. We don’t want to, but we do. We stand.

This is why it’s so important to examine and understand weight, priority, value – for times like this. Because it’s hard to see at night. Sometimes, it’s hard to breathe and we’re overcome with despair, and it’s precisely these times when we need to know what we are about, when there’s no time to think and the foundation is shaking. When the water is rising.

Everyone responds well when the sun is shining, everyone is gracious when they win.

Anyway. 

I love to watch court shows, like the People’s Court. The People’s Court is on where I live at 1 and 5, I record the 5 o’clock and watch it the next day while I eat my lunch around noon-ish. Today, I’m not watching it because I’m writing. This isn’t too unusual, but I’ll tell you something. I’m sad today. There’s a sweet boy I know undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor right now, I’ve had a run of bad news, relationships are falling apart – others and a few of my own, my legs hurt from a spin class 2 days ago, a good friend is trying to get home but is in the hospital while his insides bleed slowly, several people have passed away and I’m praying for peace for the beautiful friends who have lost. SO. All I want to do is lay on the couch and cry a little and watch Marilyn Milian. 

I’m not, though. Instead, I’m writing. Because that’s who I am. At least it’s who I’ve decided I want to be, who I have been created to be, long before the surgeries and phone calls and funerals and spin bikes. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time exhuming myself, getting rid of all of the walls and dirt and damaging words and thoughts and lies I’ve buried myself under, trying to discover me.       

I value honesty, mercy, and forgiveness. (I’m really working on the last 2 towards myself, but I’m working on them because they are so important to me.) 

I believe people are created in the image of God (even me, which may be the most difficult to accept, right?) I believe that waaaaay down, in the deepest parts of my soul. Then when people let me down (and we always do, eventually) and I’m tempted to think humanity is a hopeless lost cause, I remember what I know – what I learned in the daylight, when it was quiet and I could think clearly. 

But if I didn’t give the time and effort then, I would surely forget the million examples of beauty and love and be prisoner of the moment, of the offense, of the wound, and make decisions based solely on circumstance. Only on the now.

I’m finished for now. I’m going to lay down and cry a little and listen to some music. But there is this Rise Against song, that seems totally appropriate today. It’s called ‘Far From Perfect’ and this is the chorus:   

“We are far from perfect, but we’re perfect as we are.

We are bruised, we are broken

But we are [expletive deleted] works of art.”

Change the Details, Change Your Life!!!!

Before we get to the details that will change your life (that sounds like a spiritualish self-help promise on a book jacket – “Change the Details, Change Your Life!!!!” – in a whimsical font over a gauzy picture of me with a cheesy smile and big hair, doesn’t it?) Before we get there, we have to ask some hard questions, figure some things out and do some homework. You can’t paint the walls and choose fixtures before you pour the foundation. 

In the Bible, we see that there are some situations where we are faced with a choice where the options come into conflict with each other and are both mandated in the Scriptures. (Wait, WHAT?!!!?) 

There’s a story about a Good Samaritan. (It’s found in Luke 10:25-37, you can read it now, I’ll wait…) So, the first 2 religious men crossed the street to avoid him and walked right on by. The horror, right? Except for, in Numbers 19:11 “All those who touch a dead human body will be ceremonially unclean for seven days.” and Leviticus 5:2 “Or if a person touches anything unclean–whether the carcass of an unclean wild animal or livestock or crawling creature–even if he is unaware of it, he is unclean and guilty.” and Leviticus 21:1 The Lord said to Moses: “Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron—say to them, ‘For a dead person no priest is to defile himself among his people…” and Leviticus 21:11 “He must not go near any dead body or make himself unclean, even for his father or mother.” 

It’s a horrible thing they did, until we realize they did exactly what they were supposed to do! 

George Bradford Caird says, “it weighed more with them that he might be dead and defiling to the touch of those whose business was with holy things than that he might be alive and in need of care.” 

But, as far as “care” goes, also in Leviticus (19:18), it says “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and Deuteronomy 15:11 “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” and Proverbs 14:21 “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.” and Psalm 82:4 “Rescue the weak and the needy”

So, what would you do? Would you follow the law, the Bible? Which part? How do you choose? Which is weightier?

In Luke 14:1-5 “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way. Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?””

Well, of course we’d all pull our donkey out of the well. But in Exodus 20:8-10 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” 

Isn’t rescuing our donkeys “work?” Of course, it is. 

Now what? 

And add to that that we might choose differently, right? The honest truth is that things that are weightier to me might not be to you.

It seems that the Scriptures are an invitation into a certain way of life, where everything isn’t spelled out and it’s not all black and white. Maybe this is because what you may value, or need, at certain times in your life aren’t the things you will value at others. And maybe its because we’re not all at the same place on the journey. Maybe maybe maybe, so many maybe’s. But this big, beautiful book is like a doorway into questions and more questions and transformation, and letting go of our need to understand, to have everything under control, and to be right. 

There’s another story, about a kid who disowns his family, runs off and makes a giant mess of his life. Eventually, when he realizes how giant the mess is, he returns. The Father doesn’t wait for an explanation or even an “I’m sorry, dad,” He throws a party because He’s just so happy the son is home. Now, everyone is happy about this, except for one, the kid’s brother. And it ends with the Father inviting him in. But if he chooses to go in, he’ll have to leave all of his ‘rightness’ outside, and discover who his Father is, who his brother is, and what he’s been dying to know all along: who he is. What weighs more, the party or being right? 

And I’ll give you one guess to what the Bible does with this… nothing. The story ends before he decides, with the brother, with you and me, outside, the invitation hanging unanswered in the thick night air.

Paper Cuts & Fractures

Anne Lamott once said there were 3 types of prayer, ‘Thanks,’ ‘Help,’ and ‘Wow,’ and I think that’s pretty accurate, but it’s the ‘Help’ ones I’m thinking about today. Often, in the Scriptures, the writers are asking for guidance, for help through any number of situations or challenges or obstacles. Sometimes the help is to deliver them, to grant them peace, or a good night’s sleep, or to bash their enemies on rocks. Either way, the cool thing is that they always come to God with a beautiful humility, a sense of their place and of His place. They have a problem and He can fix it. He was big, strong, awesome enough to fix anything they could carry, and He was loving enough to want to. (Whether He did or did not is another matter, a question for another day.) But, perhaps more importantly, they believed that they were big enough, significant enough to Him that He would care about their problems, obstacles, their well-being enough to come to their rescue and provide what they needed. 

The interesting thing that has happened, as we get more religious and less childlike is that that innocent humility is gone, replaced with the modern idol of comparison.

Where we would immediately go straight to God and say/scream “HELP!!!” now we wonder if our problem is enough to warrant an audience with the Creator of the Universe. There are others with so many more pressing issues, catastrophes, global disasters, matters of life and death. We say, “well, it’s not as bad as ____, and we should just get over it.” This lie grows in our heads, whispers that our trouble is inconsequential, selfish, and we should be ashamed to even consider bothering Him with it.    

This is a bizarre kind of idolatry, where we are the focus instead of the character of God. 

As the humility goes, the honesty goes, too. And we hide our hearts under carefully crafted masks of what we think we should be. 

Could you even imagine speaking of revenge before God, saying,  “Happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks,” as the prophet Jeremiah did in Psalm 137? 

I’m not saying you should feel that way, but what if you do? 

Well, I would probably pretend not to, because it’s not very spiritual and what would everyone else think? I would probably paint a smile on your face and hide those feelings in a corner somewhere until they disappear – they will disappear, right? 

More masks, more idolatry, more destructive circles, more unhealthy behaviors, more resentment, more bitterness, more fake plastic people.

There are 2 words in the Bible that explode this whole warped system of ours. In John 11, a man named Lazarus dies and Jesus is late and if He “had been here,” Lazarus “would not have died.” The story has a very happy ending, but before Jesus does exactly what He came to do, what He knew He was going to do all along, verse 35 says, “Jesus wept.”

He didn’t say calm down, don’t cry, just wait, watch this. He didn’t try to cheer anyone up, didn’t minimize their pain (and consequently, His own). He didn’t tell anyone what they should be feeling or where to direct their heartbreak. He wept. He wasn’t concerned with comparison or comfortability. He was interested in the hearts of these 2 sisters, in their honest, authentic, wide-open hearts, without pretense or the self-imposed weight of “the should’s.”

The truth of the Bible (and of human experience) is that no one heals by covering brokenness with denial. It is only through dragging it into the light, weeping over it, laying it down and leaving it there, at His feet. Sure, our wound may not be as deep as someone else’s, our diagnosis not as severe, but comparison has never been His concern. His concern has always been our hearts, and He heals paper cuts as well as fractures, if we only trust Him enough to stop pretending and ask.