love

Another Week In 2021

So, last week was another week in 2021, which is shaping up to be even more of a bear than 2020. I’m soon going to be able to stop that sentence immediately after “last week was another week,” and we’ll all know what that means.

As you know, I lost a buddy I knew last week to a drug overdose. He left behind a wife and 2 small children. He struggled with addiction since high school, maybe earlier, and his was one of those stories that they say will end in a jail cell or a coffin. 2 days before his overdose, he posted a long grateful note of thanks to God on Facebook. It was his 7 months clean anniversary.

It’s common to wonder in situations like this, why? Why was he so sick? What was so bad that he would spend his life in the familiar pattern of detox and relapse? Or the question I asked of my own dad once he passed that will surely haunt his family, why weren’t we enough? Where did these demons even come from?

I know some of those answers in my buddy’s case, if all that he had shared over the past 4 years had been true. This is not a certainty, of course. His service was for a person I never knew and barely recognized. If there weren’t pictures, I would have questioned if I stepped into the wrong church. But with this, for some reason I believe him. Like so many, the damage inflicted upon him by his family of origin (broken, dysfunctional in every way) was crushing, ultimately leading to his death. They all dutifully carried on what are called generational curses. Midnight Oil, in the terrific song “Forgotten Years,” sing, “Few of the sins of the father, are visited upon the son.” In this case, it was significantly more than “few.” It was an avalanche to dig out of, too much in fact, and he simply could not.

Now. I have to be very careful when I get overwhelmed with the weight of loss and sadness, it can be pretty oppressive and increase my already hyper-sensitive soul. And there, on my dresser, was a borrowed copy of the movie Joker. I had good advice from the Angel to, under no circumstances, watch it while in this state. Very good advice that I ignored.

This movie was, essentially, a re-imagining of my buddy’s life. Abuse, neglect, illness, loneliness, depression, on and on – the Joker turned his violence outward and my buddy directed his mostly at himself. But other than that difference, it was the downward spiral of self-loathing that looked for all the world completely inevitable.

Was it?

One of the arguments against both is that, at some point, we have the choice and responsibility to build something new, something better. Maybe that’s simplistic ‘bootstrap’ psychology from those who have never been in that sort of darkness. (I happen to know that darkness, so total that the hope that there could ever be light again has faded and been replaced with emptiness.) But maybe it’s not.

We have the ability to choose life. I know it sometimes doesn’t feel like that, it feels more like there are footsteps marked out for us from which we are unable to deviate. That our lives are scripts where improvisation or rewrites are impossible. That we are powerless to our fate. That it is what it is. That I am what I am.

If you’re familiar with me or my work, you’d think this is the point where I start painting pictures of love conquering all, detailing pyramid schemes of love, how love drives out that fear, how a small perspective shift and a bit of imagination and a hug will break those chains. Maybe this is that part, probably it’s like that part in the Bible where Jesus asks Peter, “Are you going to leave me, too?” And Peter says, “Where else am I going to go?” It’s not exactly a rousing declaration of victory, it’s a cold, broken “Hallelujah.” It’s the acknowledgment of Truth in the face of suffering and discouragement, that Sunday is coming even though we cannot see it, that tombs can be empty because once, one was.

I totally believe those things I say, by the way. I have to. Otherwise, I’d have to resign myself to the robotic hopeless futures of those 2 sweet boys, and that is something I can not do, something I will not do.

Joker is a fictional character, but his story is real for so many of us. It’s a pretty good film (even if it isn’t the feel-good hit of the summer), but it’s a really bad story and one that we have to believe can change. The 4 minute mile was impossible until it wasn’t. It just has to start with one (or an army of us) who keeps running into the impossibility.

Even So

It’s snowing again and it is absolutely lovely. I haven’t always thought this way, that it was lovely. In my family, we would see the forecast for snow in the 10-day and fear would grip us tightly, first in our stomachs, then our necks. I thought it was a thief and a killer, waiting to take and take from us wherever it could. I don’t think that anymore.

Last weekend a friend of mine died of a drug overdose.

If you happened to see the sermon on Sunday and thought, “what a mess, that guy is coming undone,” you were right. Grief and confusion tend to do that. I’m not too sorry, either. This is also relatively new for me. I was raised to be nice, unoffensive, and pleasing, without edges or confrontation, like that horrible white Wonder bread that everybody kind of likes and nobody really likes at all. Or McDonald’s hamburgers. I thought that was how I would not be alone, if I was nice and soft and squishy. I don’t think that anymore, either.

My friend and I spent hours and hours together at the gym. He would mostly talk and I would listen, just be there, sitting Shiva to the suffering in his soul. He had a wife and 2 small boys.

I often stand up on Sundays and say, in the middle of all of this bad news (like the devastating stories in my town of people we know or the news of people we don’t), that we just need to keep loving each other. Love will be the thing that changes everything and, until then, makes every day bearable. And sometimes I feel like I’m wrong. Maybe nothing can change anything this side of Heaven. Maybe we’re just in a downward spiral of pain, and there’s nothing that can keep the wheels on anymore. It’s hard to stand in front of people if you think the things you’re saying are wrong. It’s even harder to stand in front of the mirror if the things you think you believe are wrong. There’s no peace there. No rest.

But here’s the thing that I realized. I wasn’t having a crisis of faith. I was not doubting Jesus. In fact, it ended up being quite the opposite. I was just sad. And in that depression, I realized that those things about loving each other…they’re true. And even better, even if they’re not, it’s what I’m doing. Maybe it is, or looks like, a downward spiral, but it is without question the thing that makes every day bearable and that in itself can change anything, can change everything. It is love that did change everything.

And then I read this today, in front of my window looking at this beautiful snow falling, in a book by Anne Lamott called Stitches:

“This is all that restoration requires most of the time, that one person not give up. For instance, when I was in school, there were a few teachers along the way who must have seen in me a hummingbird of charming achievement, all eyes, bird bones, frizzly hair and a desperation to please and impress. They knew that there was power and beauty deep inside me, but that I was afraid of this and I was in fragments. Men and women alike, old and new at teaching, were like aunties or grandparents in their firm patience with me, in their conviction of my worth. They had a divine curiosity about me – “Hey, who’s in there? Are you willing to talk straight and find who you actually are, if I keep you company? Do you want to make friends with your heart? Here – start with this poem.

This is who I want to be in the world. This is who I think we are supposed to be, people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness.”

I think so, too, Anne Lamott!!!

There are 2 phrases that I will carry with me until the last day.

“In their conviction of my worth.” We have all looked into someone’s eyes who held a conviction of our worth. Maybe we didn’t believe it. Maybe we couldn’t receive it. But even in the darkest spaces, it holds the hint of possibility that it might be true. That we are worthy, in our mess, whatever that mess is. Can you imagine?

And “Are you willing to talk straight and find who you actually are, if I keep you company?” In the sadness of a buddy dying of a drug overdose (and I am awfully sad), it’s easy to question if keeping each other company matters. It does. It really really does.

So. This is who I want to be in the world, too, a person who helps to call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness. The very bad news is that this carries with it a certain amount of risk that hopelessness can crowd out the Gospel from time to time. And even so, we keep calling.

For This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less The Rock and More Lobot

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

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

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

This can happen easily in any creative expression.

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

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

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

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

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

Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crying Room

In Acts 2:14, Peter “stepped forward…and shouted to the crowd,” giving one of the most powerful sermons the world has ever seen, before or since. David Guzik writes, “This remarkable sermon had no preparation behind it – it was spontaneously given. Peter didn’t wake up that morning knowing he would preach to thousands, and that thousands would embrace Jesus in response. At the same time, we could say that this was a well-prepared sermon; it was prepared by Peter’s prior life with God and relationship with Jesus. It flowed spontaneously out of that life, and out of a mind that thought and believed deeply.”

We often make our spiritual life one of 5 (or 7) steps and boxes to check, or like there is a spiritual me and another, everything else, regular me. Spiritual me reads the Bible, goes to church, prays. Regular me goes to work, brushes my teeth, does pushups, watches The People’s Court. We refer to our work or play or relationships as somehow less spiritual because it’s not for a church, Christian ministry, or agenda. “Just” a nurse or driver or technician or accountant. We think if it isn’t specifically focused in a discipleship plan, it doesn’t count.

This has always driven me crazy. Christian ministry can be lovely and pure and tremendously pleasing to God. So can grocery stores, video games, parenting, and Catfish. God doesn’t make this distinction, I wonder why we do. We can dishonor God just as easily in church as we can at the gym, maybe even more so.

Like Peter, all of our lives – lived in relationship with Jesus – are preparation. Every Sunday, Gisy and I go into a small room called the “crying room.” It’s a space where parents can take their fussy, restless babies and still hear and see the service, but I have cried in there, and held others as they have, as well. It’s an all-purpose crying sanctuary. We go in there, hold hands and pray that God will use our words & songs (carefully studied and practiced) AS WELL AS our lives to reach others.

It’s foolish to guess that a message I give could ever be received in a vacuum. It’s why Paul’s letters to Timothy focus so much on behavior outside of the church for those that serve inside. The most eloquent talk from a dishonest mouth, heart, and life is conflicting and usually quickly dismissed, in the church or not. Emerson wisely observed, “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” He’s right, of course, and that’s frightening. But it also works in reverse.

What if who you are is beautiful? What if who you are at work is honest, trustworthy, and loyal? What if who you are is a faithful, devoted spouse? What if who you are is a passionate follower of Jesus? Then where you are those things doesn’t matter too much, does it? Then, everywhere you are could accurately be called church and everything you do could accurately be called ministry. Then, all of life would be preparation. Then, the sermons we give (with or without words) would “flow spontaneously out of that life, and out of a mind that thought and believed deeply.”

There’s no “just” anything, no “just” anywhere, no separation, no distinction (if there is, the walls, boxes and labels are the ones we’ve placed). There’s just 1 integrated life, lived with purpose, meaning, passion, pain, joy, routine, crying, singing, practice, peace, awareness and everything else. But mostly love. These lives overflowing with the love of Jesus will speak so loudly, even the most perfect words won’t be necessary.

The Slovenian Flute Maker

One of the books I’m reading is called Heroes and Jerks, written by Ed Daly. This massive doorstop of a book breaks down human history into segments and then, in each segment, lists the 10 Best and 10 Worst people of the time. Now, there might be a bunch I wouldn’t ordinarily like about such lists, but it’s educational and hilarious, so what I wouldn’t ordinarily like doesn’t matter in this instance.

I tell you about this book because I want to tell you about a Slovenian flute maker and me and times like these, in particular.

First, the Slovenian flute maker. He’s #5 in the best of the Early Ancient History category (spanning two million B.C.-501 B.C.). And he’s the #9 worst. In 43,000 B.C., he hollowed out a cave bear’s femur and fashioned the first musical instrument, so if you’ve ever loved a song, danced, or cry when Gisy sings on Sunday morning, you have this guy to thank. AND if you’ve ever heard a Britney Spears song (or that Extreme song, “More Than Words”) and hated it, you also have this guy to thank.

I’ll be 45 years old in almost 2 weeks and I’m only just beginning to embrace the fact that the best thing about me is also the worst thing about me. It’s the thing that makes you (and my wife and my kids and anybody else) love me and it is the very thing that drives you crazy and want to never see me again. Just for knowing, it drives me crazy, too. I used to want nothing more than to change it, to leave that part of me well behind. I don’t anymore.

2020 is hard. Yesterday my phone rang and on the other end was a friend I haven’t spoken to in quite some time. She was in distress over the tragic news in our town (and her job and the local schools and COVID and everything else that is making us all feel like the world is upside down and tearing at the seams). I am in distress over the same things, as well, so we mostly just talked about how hard it is to get out of bed some days. How it can feel like it’s all for nothing. And somehow in the middle of ALL of the emotions we were feeling, there were sprinkles of laughter and hope and genuine care.

Then there’s this boy who came into the weight room where I work yesterday. Usually, the early teen-aged boys are overcome by insecurity and inadequacy and are absolutely insufferable (!!!!!), but this boy came in quietly and asked me what to do. He is apparently often in trouble. But he is also the boy who brought a bag of pretzels to the school office to share with my wife last year.

I don’t really feel that much like writing today. But times like these are discouraging and depressing. But just like the Slovenian flute maker (and everything else), they are not simply 1 thing. They are full of tears, but they are full of beautiful old friends, too.

Last night I had a rehearsal for a wedding that I’ll officiate Saturday and as I looked at these kids, I knew what was coming for them, for their marriage: the fights, the fear, the illnesses, the funerals, the all night conversations, the shouting, the questions, the anger, the pain, suffering, heart aches. I also know what else is coming: the joy, the celebration, the wins, the healing, the reconciliation, the passion, the dinners, the cozy movies on the couch, the births, the answers, the kisses, hugs, the hands to hold. It’s all wrapped up in a swirly mixture of a full love and life. It hurts and it is THE GREATEST. It’s always more than 1 thing, (everything is always more than 1 thing), if we only can have the imagination and faith and courage to just keep going.

Misunderstanding

Last week, the wedding I was scheduled to do was cancelled (citing “Family Drama”) so I gave a surprise special message on Facebook. The material fell like the water in the shower, piercing my skin on Tuesday morning, and I was compelled to follow. It was a foot note on the 2nd test (Obedience) of the 1st chapter and a half of 1 John. I didn’t record the audio, so for a quick minute I considered writing it out here. I won’t, you’re only going to find it there, like an extra track on an album, but there is an observation I don’t want to get lost.

The message was about why obedience is important, considering the grace that wholly transformed the story. On the surface the two ideas sound conflicting – the Big Point was that they’re not. We do anything and everything in the context of faith and spirituality as a response to our love for Jesus and gratitude for the tremendous gift we have been given. There was a sentence I’m pretty sure I stole from a guy named Darryl Dash: “True love requires a response.”

That’s right, isn’t it?

Now, the cavalier nature that we toss around the word ‘love’ can make this confusing; loving my jeans or pizza doesn’t require any sort of response. I don’t have to be faithful to baseball or my car, don’t have to buy them a birthday present or show them I love them. But actual true love is different.

To love Jesus means certain things…(we’ve been talking about these certain things and will continue next time, but the question I want to repeat is:) doesn’t loving you? And here we are: Doesn’t loving you translate to respect, kindness, safety, attention, care, faithfulness, integrity, honesty, and one and on? The problem is, too often it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t here now for us everyday, it becomes harder to understand when we talk about responding to God’s love. If a response isn’t a natural expectation, it’s not a natural expectation – neither here nor there.

But the splinter in my mind (to quote the great philosopher Morpheus) is, “why doesn’t it?” Why do we settle when it comes to loving us? When did we learn to accept so little? Maybe it’s so difficult to give all of us to God is because we’ve believed the lie that love doesn’t require that level of sacrifice? (Maybe sacrifice is the wrong word…it’s more like a gift or offering, isn’t it? Because when you LOVE someone, it doesn’t feel like sacrifice at all.) When did faithfulness fade out of the norm? When did honesty become extraordinary? And when did disrespect, neglect and (horrifically) abuse become something we could excuse?

I now see the commands of the Bible not as little grabbing hands designed to steal our fun, but as a vehicle to affirm the dignity of being human, the honor of being children of God, reminders that we are worth far more than we had noticed and acknowledged as fact.

He is worth more, His love is worth more, we are worth more, and our love is worth more. Everything, all Truth, is inextricably linked. If our love hasn’t required a response, it absolutely should. Maybe our definitions need an overhaul, maybe it wasn’t love to begin with, and maybe in reclaiming the beautiful reality of love, we would be set free to respond to this gift of our lives with our lives and finally fly.