Stop the Politics of Hate: Step 2

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Wow. Today the President of the United States tweeted that congresswomen who orginally came from–let me get this–“countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt, and inept anywhere in the world” can “go back and fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how [the government is to be run].” To be clear, three of these four women were born in the United States.

Well, today is a perfect day for this post.

Step One was “Stop the Memes

Step two is “Don’t Demonize the Opposition.”

Now if you are a Trump supporter, and I know I don’t have so many of those reading my stuff but still, it’s fair for you to know that we who are not have read these tweets and feel sick to our stomachs. Those words sound racist to us. But I’m not here to argue with you or accuse you. I just want you to understand. I know you have plenty of things to point back.

If you are not a Trump supporter, today is not the day you want to hear “We need to see the opposition in a better light.” If we all thought that maybe there was some racism implied in Trump’s response to Charlottesville that there were “Many fine people on both sides,” today we’re damned sure. Today, we want to grab pitchforks and just storm the damned castle. Because enough of this!

This, of course, is exactly the moment when we need to hear “Love your enemies.”

I’m not going to spend any of this post defending the President or his racist tweets. I promise.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. I can think of easier things he said to do, such as…every other thing he said to do.

We’re in an emergency. No, I’ll say catastrophe. It’s desperate.

One of the worst aspects of our current situation is how much we hate people on the other side. Strangers. People we’ve never met and never will meet. People we only know through their words and opinions and memes and caps.

To demonize someone means to project evil attributes on them for the purpose of causing others to hate and fear them.

I know. It’s tempting to say, “We don’t have to project anything. They’re already doing that.”

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

In World War II, the Allies fought the Axis. The United States fought the Japanese.

Image result for anti-japanese propaganda WWII

That’s what we told our country we were fighting.*

Countries have used propaganda since before they fought with guns and bombs, probably before they made iron swords and spears. It’s how war works. It’s evil, but effective.

Jesus turns all this on its head. That’s why we sometimes call it his “upside-down Kingdom.” We’re not to kill our enemies. We’re not to hate our enemies. We’re not to demonize our enemies. Jesus commands us to love our enemies.

In U.S. politics, both Democrats and Republicans, both conservatives and liberals, have recognized that the most effective and lasting way to solidify their respective bases is to vilify the opposition. It is no longer even a question but a matter of certainty (“It is known”) that the opposing political party is the enemy, the greatest threat to our country.

When we’re convinced that’s true, we have a moral duty to oppose them. Hating them, Democrats or Republicans, is being patriotic. In fact, stopping them becomes the truest act of patriotism.

We talk about “Why won’t they work together?” in regard to our congress. I really believe this is why. Having started down this road, it would now cost a politician too much in constituent support to help someone across the aisle, no matter what good they might be doing. Rarely, rarely, you will see bipartisan support for a bill, and those are only the absolute safest, softball-pitch-down-the-middle, every-US citizen-will-want-this bills.

I’m not much of a hazy, nostalgic, ” Back in the Olde Days” kind of guy (okay, I am about baseball), but I do believe that, up until the 1960s, there was more collegiality, more of a grudging mutual respect among political adversaries and an acknowledgement that governing required some form of cooperation. I’m not saying U.S. politics haven’t always been dirty to a certain degree, and yes, we survived McCarthyism, so we had a full round of demonizing the opposition. But the full commitment to “I hate him because he’s one of them,” “I hate her because I hate all of them,” that we have nailed down tight in these last two generations. It’s gotten many politicians elected. And we are reaping the whirlwind.

I want to be clear here that speaking against hate does not imply calling evil actions “good” or “okay” or even “agree-to-disagree.” I’m not agreeing to disagree about racism. But I know it will destroy my soul if I keep letting myself seethe with anger and then watch that putrefy into hatred. I don’t want to win any political battles and lose my soul.

What do we do?

First, let’s be clear, this will feel like a drop in the bucket. I have no illusions that suddenly choosing to speak respectfully to people who call names and make blanket accusations will result in mass repentance and kum-ba-ya-ing. I mean that on both sides; I’ve seen ample nastiness in both directions with the aggressors feeling fully justified.

But if I’m looking at what Jesus says to do, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5) I know how to respond. Probably not with “Oh, bless your heart, I will praaay for you!” which is kind of its own version of Christian ridicule. When I’m attacked, or my “side” or “cause” (or article) is attacked, I won’t answer in kind. In fact, I most likely won’t answer at all, unless I’m convinced the other person wants to engage in real discussion. If I do respond, I want it to be in respectful terms and to stay focused on the issue.

I know this sounds cliched, but I’m going to try–and therefore say it–anyway: I will pray for that person. I haven’t been good at this, but I’m convicted that I need to make the effort. God knows who might be impacted.

When I was in college, another member of our Christian fellowship clearly did not like me and demonstrated that with his behavior. Young as I was, I was still taking everything Jesus said seriously and not rationalizing loopholes (note: that was sarcasm), so I started answering his hostility with kindness and praying for him. God changed someone: me. I didn’t feel as angry at him. What had been forced words of kindness out of my mouth came more naturally. I even started to…like him. Then one day, he switched. Completely flipped from being obnoxious to being friendly. What happened? I never found out. Did God move in his heart? Or had I come across as arrogant at first and then my efforts to love my enemy made me more bearable to my enemy? All I know is that we became friends after that.

So God does know who will be impacted but I also know one person who will be. It is so easy to read people’s screeds and dismiss or despise them. Or both. I think, no, I believe God can do something powerful in my heart if I will choose to pray and in that manner respond with love toward my enemy. This isn’t an argument about what they deserve. Jesus made no distinction about “deserving” or “undeserving enemies.” This is solely a question of whether I’m willing to obey Jesus and see what happens.

If I’m praying and responding with civility, I will not demonize. I can’t love my enemy and demonize him or her at the same time.

Second, and lastly, I’m learning to seek individual discussions rather than group ones. Even when I’m succeeding at having a mutually respectful dialogue, quite often someone else will jump in with an attack because troll’s gonna troll–I mean, beloved person created in the image of God’s gonna troll. I’m learning that this applies both to social media and public discussions in the real world. Too many people either feel a need to firebomb or believe that their “wisdom” (still often involving sound bites, name-calling, and sarcasm) will solve a disagreement. I don’t think I persuade many people through argument, if any, but I know I can convey respect and kindness if it’s one-on-one, and shut up when I reach my limit. With five or six guys or gals lobbing in hand grenades, all bets are off.

That’s what I got. We need to stop demonizing the opposition party–both sides, both directions–and stand for the truth while loving our enemies. I know politics is all about the end justifying the means but following Jesus never works that way.

Let me repeat that: In following Jesus, the end never justifies the means.

God loves those enemies of yours.

And here we are.

Help us, Jesus. We really need it.

*I use this because it’s such a blatant example. God, forgive us for making the Japanese out to be monsters.

Stop the Politics of Hate: Step 1

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I made a commitment not to post memes. I’ve slipped on that a few times. Today, I remember why I made it. I just saw one, posted by a FB friend ridiculing and mocking the intelligence of a politician who is almost certainly more intelligent than my friend. No deeper message, no politics with which he was disagreeing, not even a reference to anything the politician actually said or did. Just a completely fictional “this person said X, isn’t that stupid?”

The politics of hate. Making “jokes” that others jump in and laugh at, not because they’re funny but because it gives us a chance to vent our hostility and then hide behind the defense “C’mon, it’s just humor!”

So when the new kid walks into the locker room and someone makes a “funny” comment about his clothes or hair or mom and everyone laughs, they aren’t laughing because of this insightful witticism; they’re laughing as a means of ganging up against the new kid. The ones who don’t hate the new kid (for the crime of being new or of another race or poor or all three) feel pressured to laugh so they don’t stand out and get attacked, as well.


So here’s what I’m asking: don’t post political memes. If it’s so damned funny that you can’t resist, just send it as a message to someone who shares your views. If you have something of substance to say, say it. Absolutely. Share your thoughts, share an article, add your comments. Put it out there for people to agree or disagree. Back it up. Dialogue.


But honestly, when we post political memes that do nothing but mock and disparage, we’re only widening the massive divide. We’re only playing the politics of hate. No matter who gets elected, we all lose.

How I Respond to Children in Cages or Why We Want to Go on Mission Trips to Help Kids But Don’t Want Them Here

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(Members of our Nicaraguan Family)

A friend just asked a question which got me thinking down some heavy pathways. I’m going to try to get this down before it fades. I’ll need to connect some dots, so bear with me.

Living in Nicaragua made me less judgmental. That surprised me. I was extremely judgmental before I moved. I had a set of unrighteous behaviors and choices for which I judged those around me, friends and strangers alike. I knew I had a problem…but so did they have a problem! Look at all that unrighteous behavior!

My heart was ugly. Who knows, maybe I was right about their poor choices, but my anger and superiority were vile. Then I moved to Nicaragua. Then I became a missionary, a Jesus follower willing to leave his comfortable home and life to suffer for the Gospel and live in an impoverished nation without an air conditioner or a dryer. If pride is the root of being judgmental, you might predict I would become unbearable.

Instead, I crashed and burned. I slammed into culture shock, suffered heavy depression, failed in a whole slew of ways, and got way too near the edge for comfort. Instead of becoming more self-righteous, I came face to face with how we are, all of us, a bunch of train wrecks and disasters. No, some of us don’t realize it, but we all are. Grace is greater. Grace is greater than our train-wreckedness. Grace is greater than our unrighteous behaviors. Grace is even greater than our unbearable self-righteousness. Thank God.

I didn’t do nearly the good I had hoped to do, but I did some. I loved some people, far more feebly than I imagined I would. I didn’t change the world. I didn’t change the culture. But I learned this:

We want, desperately, to see ourselves as good. But doing good costs much more than most of us are willing to pay, and being good? Oh, seriously. So we work out a very narrow, very circumscribed standard for our own goodness. This likely has nothing to do with God’s view of us. We just need to be acceptable in our own sight.

Jumping tracks now, but not really: Short-term missions. Short-term missions are a perfect example of both an opportunity to know Jesus and an opportunity to feel good about our own goodness. We can sacrifice for two weeks. We can get dirty and suffer inconveniences and image ourselves to be laying down our lives for the Gospel. I know, it sounds like I’m mocking short-term missions. I led eight of them. I believed in them. Because I went on them, my family and I moved to Nicaragua for seven years. I think we did certain things very well on our short trips. We loved some people, we built relationships, we did some good. I regret nothing. I saw lives changed and I saw God do miracles.

And…

Here is the difference between visiting Nicaragua to “do” a mission trip and living in Nicaragua: you can’t keep up the image of yourself as good when you live there. It’s hard. It’s hot, nothing works the way you think it “should,” and there are tropical diseases. People drive crazily and risk not just their lives but yours and your children’s. Jesus is there, but not in the way you imagined. Jesus isn’t there leading you to become a hero. Jesus is there teaching you faith through a poor costurera who can’t do simple arithmetic but is more generous with her humble talents than you will ever be with yours.

Why do we want to go on mission trips to Honduras or El Salvador and help those poor children but we don’t want to let those same children fleeing for their lives come into our country?

Here’s my answer: letting them come in, live near us, become citizens, and share in our resources requires more than a narrow, circumscribed version of acting good. We feel great about ourselves when we send out Samaritan’s Purse boxes. We helped feed hungry kids! But what happens when the hungry kids come to us? What happens when they have no way to support themselves but their parents have chosen to flee here so that they don’t starve or get murdered? A box isn’t going to do it.

Tell me this: Why does that choice they’ve made to come offend us? Because we’re all so committed to following every law? Seeking asylum is legal in our country. We have a history of desperate people escaping to our country. My ancestors did. Did yours?

I’m a Jesus follower. I have no argument for someone who believes that we should not share our resources with children who would otherwise be raped or burned alive in their homes, because “Why should our tax dollars have to go to them?” When I say “I have no argument” I mean we have no values in common from which I can argue. I can argue basic humanity and minimum requirements of mercy, but so far those have fallen on deaf ears. If the ten cents or two dollars that would come out of your taxes are more important to you than a starving child’s life, and you truly believe this child deserves to sleep on a cement floor in worse conditions that we keep our convicted felons because “her parents broke the law,” then I have no hope of convincing you. We understand the world and our responsibilities in it differently.

Assuming you suffer when you see children suffer, I’m trying to speak to you as plainly as I know how: living next to children suffering all the time forces you to find a way to cope. You have to. I went home and ate dinner and fed my children dinner and I knew some children close by were going hungry. Yes, I tried to help–I lived there so I could help, I fundraised so I could help, we started a team and started a preschool to help–but they kept on suffering all around me. Do you know why? They’re poor. Poverty means suffering. We don’t have to see that, most of us, most of the time. I’m going crazy hearing these arguments of “Why should I care? How is that my problem? Why don’t they just obey our laws?” while I’m picturing my precious neighbor girls, Ansielli and Daniella (above), shivering and screaming for their mama in those cells. You and I know those arguments are abhorrent. But we also know, deep down, that we’re talking about a lot more now than going on a trip, doing some manual labor, and getting some photo ops with cute children. We’re talking about traumatized children whom our own government has abused–intentionally, knowingly–and no rationalization can make us the good guys. Evil has been committed, in our names, against the very ones of whom Jesus said, “To such as these the Kingdom of God belongs.”

I’m not self-righteous. I saw suffering, day after day, and could not solve it, could relieve it only in minuscule ways, and–ready for the honesty bomb?–often had to focus on other things instead of taking it on directly just to be able to continue living there. Very few other missionaries that we knew in Nicaragua lived in the barrios with those suffering poverty. We did. Missionary friends told me we had achieved the best balance they had seen of being with the people and still staying rooted in the supportive ex-pat community. We did the best we knew how. And we failed and failed and failed.

I understand why people get excited about a short-term trip but shudder at the thought of wading in with illegal immigrants. I promise, if you commit yourself to doing something about this cruelty and abuse, you’ll be forced to face your own limits. I mean both the limits of your power and the limits of your generosity and goodness. What do you want to give up to offer someone else a better life? Is your comfort worth the chance of alleviating someone’s suffering? It may cost you and not work. Up for that?

Now let me tell you what we didn’t fail at: giving our hearts and loving people. We didn’t raise our neighbors and Nicaraguan family out of poverty–we’re still fighting that battle–but we loved them. We made one another family. My recent visit there reminded me. I would not trade any of it, including my depression and insomnia, nor the brutally eye-opening encounter with my own selfish, undersized heart; I would not trade the seven years we gave ourselves in Nicaragua for anything. In many ways, I wish we still lived there.

I’m trying to figure out my part in this immigrant crisis. Of course, there are many crises all over the planet every day and more suffering than we can possibly learn about, much less change. People use that as an excuse to do nothing. Again, I think that’s defining our “goodness” in such tiny ways that we succeed in our own eyes, while turning a blind eye to the pain around us. It’s so much harder to try and fail than it is to decide it’s not your problem and succeed in your own eyes.

I think following Jesus means letting him lead us past our safe and narrow belief in our own goodness. I think we learn our need for grace when we try to love beyond our capacity. I am not saying we sacrifice ourselves. I am saying we look at children in cages and ask God, “What do I do?”

Rhonda, the Middle Sister Manuscript

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[Manuscript for the sermon I preached at International Christian Fellowship, Managua, Sunday, June 9, 2019.]

Good morning. It’s so good to be back with you again. This feels like home to me. Thanks to everyone who expressed excitement to have me back up here. My dad loved to say, “There’s no accounting for taste,” meaning people like what they like and you can’t really explain or make sense of it. I’m gonna say that goes both ways here. We probably deserve each other.

There are too many things I want to say this morning, having only one shot at it, seniors getting ready to head out into the wide world, many of you heading off in different directions very soon. It was harder than usual to set aside my own thoughts to try to hear what God has for you. Alwaysfor me the very first step in the process is to come before God, ask him to help me set aside my own agenda and ego, and to help me wantto say only what God wants me to say. When I try to fix my ego on my own, it’s a lot like getting super glue on your hands and then trying to get it off…with your hands. You just get more stuck and make more of a mess. Similar, I can get to “help me to say what you want” and end up like when the child is required to apologize. I’m sure we’ve all seen that. “I’m sorry.” Yeah, technically those words did come out of your mouth, but that’s not actually how being sorry works. Every time for me it’s a process of setting aside my own agenda for what you need to hear and praying that I will desire to say only what God wants me to say. It’s not a one-and-done thing, but when I start in that direction, it’s much easier to keep going. 

Rhonda is the middle sister. You never hear about her. She’s adopted. She had a horrible, really a horrific life before she was adopted. She was abused. She had been passed around and sold. People did horrible things to her and she believed that made her horrible, dirty, flawed. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how God sees it. When some hard-hearted men dragged a woman caught in adultery in front of Jesus—which they did not to effect justice for her but to trap Jesus, meaning they used her shame to try to hurt him, and by the way, doesn’t adultery require two people?—Jesus made it clear to her andto everyone present that he was not condemning her. She was caught sinning and Jesus, the only one who had a right to condemn her, did not condemn her. Did she apologize? Ask forgiveness? Not that we read. Check this out—Jesus told her he did not condemn her without her begging for forgiveness. What? That’s crazy. That would be like Jesus telling a condemned criminal that he would enter paradise just for asking, “Jesus, remember me? ” Oh, wait. That happens, too. 

So if Jesus doesn’t condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery and forgives a man clearly condemned for his crimes, why would God see a girl as dirty or shameful for what someone else did to her? So it is with Rhonda. She knows she is loved.She knows, beyond certainty, that she was rescued from vile darkness and brought home. Why? Because her father loves her. When her father looks at her, he doesn’t see a girl who had bad things done to her. He sees his daughter, beloved and clean and whole. Living the real life intended for her. 

Rhonda’s brothers have issues. One of them rejected the family entirely and ran away. The other is this self-righteous so-and-so who always talks about how hard he works and how little he’s appreciated. He likes to compare himself with his little brother. But for all his boastful “godliness,” he’s unkind. He talks disrespectfully to their dad and pays no attention to Rhonda. But her father took her aside and explained that we all have hard places in our hearts, and that her brother’s attitude toward her is a reflection of his heart, not a reflection of Rhonda. 

Rhonda can’t understand how her brothers can respond this way. Maybe it’s because they’ve always had a home and therefore can take it for granted. She’s spent the last years first trying to forget and block out what happened to her and then starting to let herself remember and grieve it. She’s spent more hours than she can count crying and screaming and getting angry. She has nightmares. But she’s safe now, she knows that, and the pain is less than it used to be. She doesn’t want to kill herself anymore. She doesn’t wish every day that she was someone else. Her father has said, “I love you, Daughter,” so many times that she’s not only believing it but starting to say to herself, “I love you, Rhonda.” If he can love her, knowing everything that happened, maybe she can love herself, too. That seemed impossible at one point, but this house is the kind of a place where impossible things happen. 

Speaking of that, the impossible happened. Her younger brother, whom she hadn’t seen for years, just came home. He was wrecked, absolutely wrecked. He looked so skinny she was afraid he was dying of cancer. But he just hadn’t eaten. He was in another city, starving to death. She cried and cried when she saw him, and she hugged him so hard she was afraid she would break him, frail and weak as he was. Then she cried some more. 

And it was sostrange for her. Her heart was broken for him, but he was okay now, safe, back home. Was she crying for sadness or joy? Both. Even stranger, she was crying her hardest, but for once not for her own pain, not for her herself. And that felt strangely good, like her heart had grown big enough to bear others’ pain, not merely survive her own. 

She and her younger brother could talk now, in a way that they never could before.She was fond of him before, but she knew he didn’t really care much about anything other than himself and whatever entertained him at the moment. But being gone, and all he went through, had changed him. He talked so quietly now. He used to be so loud and rude. Now he almost whispered. But when she first heard his loud laugh come back, that was the day she knew he would be okay. He doesn’t talk much about what happened to him. He simply refers to it as “when I was lost.” Once he even said, “When I was dead.”

She said, “I know exactly what you mean.” 

But the absolute strangest part was how her big brother reacted. She never really understood until the day her little brother came home. Her father threw the biggest party she’d ever seen, this crazy huge celebration, even bigger than the one he threw on the day her adoption became official. Her father had taken her aside and told her, “It’s because you knewyou were home. He doesn’t know yet. Not really. But he will.” Her father offered a toast and said, “We have to celebrate. This is resurrection. This may be the best day of our lives.” 

Rhonda thought about how her older brother would have reacted to hearing that, but of course he didn’t hear it, because he wasn’t there. He’d refused to come to the party at all. 

That’s when she finally got it. She’d had so much trouble her first years in the family feeling at home in their house, believing that she belonged there, that she could deserve such a life, the she could ever deserve to be loved. How many times had her father said, “I love you and this is all yours. You don’t have to earn it. You can’t, Silly. I’ve given it to you.” Now here was her older brother, activelytryingto make her younger brother feel he didn’t deserve to be home.Of course, she thought, hedidn’t know how hard it is to believe you’re loved after you’ve been lost. He couldn’t recognize that he was doing something spiteful and evil…because…because…oh, my gosh, he was lost, too. That went beyond strange. That was crazy. Did it really work that way? He grew up in this house. His father told him, “I love you” every single day. His father showedhim love every single day. But somehow love hadn’t gotten through, it hadn’t entered his heart. That made no sense 

But when she looked in his eyes, she could see it was true. Rhonda could see only anger there. Maybe even hatred. And, to her surprise, that helped her not to feel angry at her older brother anymore, because in that instant she realized, “I could be you, angry at what happened to me, full of hate and rage. I always thought we were so different but now I see we’re just the same. Or we could have been, if I’d let that hatred have me. You didn’t get abused, but you have convinced yourself that you did. You talk about working here, for our father, like that’s an abuse, like you were neglected. Or exploited. But it’s your herds, your crops,your home. But you aren’t at home here. You see yourself as a slave.” 


That was fiction, of course. Jesus’ story in Luke 15 was fiction, too, but it’s, y’know, Jesus, so we understand that Jesus is telling truth through his fiction. With all my heart I believe that the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is theliving God Almighty, whom Jesus knew as Abba, to whom we can cry, by whom we are loved, and with whom we are home, wherever we happen to live in this world. 

Before I go on, just to be clear, Jesus never mentioned Rhonda the middle daughter because she wasn’t causing problems. All parents know—and certainly all middle children know–that children who raise a ruckus are the ones who get the most attention. And the default is to notice the middle child less. Right? 

Seriously, Rhonda came to me last Sunday while listening to Phillip’s sermon, and when I tried to set her aside and write a different sermon, I ran into a dead end. I’ve preached long enough to know that when I tell God, “No, I need different inspiration,” it always goes just like that. Thus, I mentioned the preparation process at the beginning. I don’t often get the full idea for a sermon in a flash, and as many who have worked with me will attest, almost never a whole weekahead of time. But I didn’t want to offend people by adding to the Prodigal Son story, so I kind of balked. However, I know for sure someone here needed to hear this and it was important enough to God that I was not allowed an out, other than outright disobedience. So to be clear, I know this is not part of Scripture and I’m using creative interpretation here, both about God’s love for the orphan and the abused and about God’s love for his two sons, which maybe we can see even a little clearer from a different angle. I always pray that God alone will offend us and we will let that begin to change our hearts. If I’ve still offended you, don’t worry, I won’t do it next week. 

What do Rhonda and her brothers show us about God? 

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.Nothing. If we’ve been abused, God doesn’t see us as unclean. If we’ve made horrible choices and put ourselves outside of God’s family, we’re still never outside of God’s reach. Ever. It’s impossible. If we have hardened our hearts against the God who relentlessly loves us, if we’ve decided we got a crappy, sorry, skubuladeal and if God’s grace for others offends us, God comes out to us, humbles himself and actually pleadswith us to come home, to feel the compassion he gives us for those lost sheep, those bedraggled and starving little brothers, those asylum-seekers who pray for a home. 

Rhonda’s family reminds us that our failures and faults and sins don’t disqualify us. Ever. Because we didn’t “qualify” in the first place. We werelovedin the first place and that has always, only given us a part in God’s Kingdom. If this has been a crummy year and you’re no longer sure you’re qualified to be a missionary, or even a Christian, guess what? You never did qualify.We don’t “qualify.” We are loved. We are adopted. We aregivena place.  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoptionas children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The older brother is wrong; he couldn’t be more wrong. “All these years I’ve been working like a slave for you…” No, Son. You are home. The younger brother is wrong. “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” The younger brother wasn’t worthy because he behaved well. He’s worthy because the father’s love made him worthy and he can’tlose that because the father refuses to take it back. Do you hear this? Yes, the younger son sinned against the father—yes, you may have sinned and screwed up and even full-on failed, but that isn’t the argument. The father won’t even let his child finish his apology or explanation or whatever. The father shows the son, by his actions, that he is stillworthy, that he is stillloved. 

But the father—listen to this– BUT the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

One more thing that the Rhonda story teaches us, and this is where adding Rhonda really does bring something to light: this is the family of God. These are the people we are called to love and work with and beGod’s Kingdom with. So if you listen to this story and think, “Nope, I’m not any of them,” I can guarantee that you have these people in your life. God has sent you to welcome them home. 

Rhonda looks around and sees, “Wow, I’m pretty messed up, but so are these brothers of mine.” She knows that she was given a place in the family and a home through grace, and therefore she has grace to offer them. “Those who have been forgiven much, love much. Those who have been forgiven little, love little.” As we know we are loved, we become able tolove. It’s a process, rarely a straight line, and it involves God getting at the hard parts of our heart where we still hold out that we are unlovable. 

When we experience Jesus loving us not because we qualify, not because we are worthy, but in spite of our feelings that we never will qualify or be worthy, we carry that grace with us for others. 

You remember to whom Jesus was telling this story, right? The Pharisees. He told this story to them, about them, because they did not want to love “sinners” and they did not want himto love “sinners,” either. They believed, trulybelieved, that God was glorified by their rejection of the unclean and sinful. The elder brother believed he was in the right making his younger brother feel unwelcome in hishome. But the way Jesus tells the story, by rejecting hisyounger brother, who was dead and is alive again, the elder brother also insulted and rejected his father. Can you see how that makes this not optional? If we reject the people Jesus welcomes, we’ve rejected him at the same time.He’s begging us to come in, but Rhonda is right—if we refuse to welcome our younger brother home, we’ve told the father “Now you listen to me!” In other words, “You shut up, because I know and you don’t.” 

I met with a young man last week, I’m going to call him Matteo. Matteo lives not with his parents but with his extended family, and they have told him he is an idiot all his life. They use that word, in Spanish, over and over. He is not Christian enough for them, he does not meet their standards of how a person should behave and follow Jesus, and their way of correcting him is to grill him, browbeat him, and call him “idiot.” You might guess I have issues with this. Matteo and I have met for years, but of course this is the first time I’d seen him in a long time. Here’s the beautiful thing: Matteo is doing great!

Matteo is actually highly intelligent, I mean downright brilliant. Smarter than I am by a lot. He’s in university now. He’s working at a job making a lotof money, which is pretty incredible in itself for a young man in Nicaragua. Ever since we first started meeting and I learned of Matteo’s home situation, I have been telling him, “You are loved. You are smart. God is crazy about you.” And not to oversimplify, but in a nutshell the entire work of mentoring this young Nicaraguan was simply to help him understand and truly believe that what God says about him is different than what his family says about him. That God loves him somuch, as he is right now, and that the mistakes he makes are not disqualifiers for being a child in God’s home, but a normal part of growing and learning and walking with Jesus. 

Do you know who Matteo is in my story? He’s Rhonda. 

Because all three of these roles in the story, younger and elder brother and middle sister, can be any of us. Sometimes we are one of them for a period of time and then a different one for another time.

Matteo needed to know that he is welcome in his Father’s house, that he isworthy to be called a son because God makes him worthy and Matteo is loved with an eternal and infinite love. 

Just. Like. You. 

I Still Have No Answer and I Never Will

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Yesterday, I had lunch with two of my favorite people on the planet.

They are smart, funny, and happily married. They are tremendous parents. They have raised two children of their own and also raised her much younger brother as their own while her mother lived in Costa Rica for many years. Her mother lived in Costa Rica to earn more money for the family.

They live week to week, sometimes day to day.

God has put us in their lives, which also means we have the opportunity to help them. But the help we give them alleviates only a little of their stress. At times we’ve been able to make a real difference. Yet what I want is to change their situation, and that seems out of my reach.

I’m coming back to talk about this again, even though there is no answer, even though the topic makes some people uncomfortable. It makes me wildly uncomfortable, but I think my coldest days are the days I forget to notice or it doesn’t bother me so much.

Why are Juan Ramon and Amada poor and we are rich?

First, yes, we are rich. Not wealthy billionaires, but rich. Top ninety-something percent rich. You have to be insane if you don’t see that as rich. If I can lift more weight than all but the top ten–or five–percent of people in the world, I’m strong. If I’m better at ultimate than 95% of the population, then yes, world-wide, I’m good. (Hmm.) We own two cars that both run. We own a house. We never, ever wonder if we’re going to be able to feed our children today or tomorrow or next year. Our children have all that they need and much that they want.

It is so easy–and I would say encouraged by those who want us to spend our money–to pay attention to the people who have more. In fact, this saturates US culture such that we barely notice it. From direct advertising to constant news about celebrities, the wealthy, and the powerful, to all the coverage of professional sports (people making boodles of money playing games), we’re so soaked in reminders that Other. People. Have. More. Than. You!

It’s true. Some do. Not many. But some. That means what?

What does it do to our hearts to be soaked in reminders that we could–should–have more, and then to get these tiny glimpses of how badly some other people live? What does it do to our understanding of how things should be, for us and for others?

I’ve heard many theological explanations why some are poor and others rich. I’ve been told that it’s God’s decision and not mine to worry about, and I think that’s pretty freaking convenient when I’m the one who is rich. I’ve heard that it’s people’s own fault they are poor. I know this is true in certain cases, but for worldwide poverty, it’s a ludicrous argument. You and I would be living in poverty if we had been born in certain countries. Why weren’t we? Does God love us better? That’s an atrocious theology. It’s been used as the basis for imperialism worldwide. So no.

Then I hear explanations that they are “blessed differently,” that people living in poverty have benefits and experiences of God that we rich will never know. That may be true. People forced to have faith in and dependence on God for daily survival may experience God’s presence and daily providence more powerfully than I do. I will tell you that every Nicaraguan I have spoken with in depth during this visit has ended the description of how horrible the economy is, prices for essentials (e.g. tortillas, beans, cheese, cooking oil) have skyrocketed, businesses have gone under, and people have no money for non-essentials with the declarations “Dios es mi fuerza!” “Confiamos en Dios.”

I want to say very clearly, I believe God is with them, Jesus is their strength, and they have learned to trust in God in ways, and at a depth, I have not. But I see very few lining up to join them. We’re not so convinced that those blessings are better than our wealth. We’re okay that they got the blessing of trusting God and we got the blessing of more stuff.

Sorry, I find this very painful and sarcasm comes out more easily than saying it straight. Yesterday, Juan Ramon described the increased cost of living and the discrepancy between that and what most people here earn, those who are employed, which is now less than fifty percent. The gap sounds beyond impossible to leap. In this context, he said, “Somehow, we are surviving, thank God.” Juan Ramon has tremendously strong faith, much stronger than mine (as best I can measure these things). They are frugal people; they rarely buy anything they can’t afford. As Aria and I ate the lunch Amada made for us–our first comida autentica of our visit, which was marvelous–I hit the iceberg (okay, bad imagery for a Nicaragua metaphor, try again) I hit the wall. Again.

I. Don’t. Understand. I don’t understand why they are poor. I don’t understand why we have so much more than they do–“we” my family and “we” all of us who are rich–or why we get to make decisions about what we do and don’t share of our abundance. We’ve been able to share significantly with them, both from our own and from support we received as missionaries in our previous chapter of life. I feel good about what we’ve shared. I know it’s helped. We’re not having a discussion here about how charity can be disempowering, which is true in some circumstances, nor how giving might create dependency. We’re talking about beloved friends, people who helped make our time in Nicaragua possible, living in a downward spiral economy, trying to provide for their children. There’s nothing abstract in this for me. I just don’t get it.

This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to draw some insightful conclusion. I’ve written about this topic before, of course, and I still believe we have a responsibility to share. Absolutely. I say that as a Jesus follower. I believe all people have the responsibility to share with those in need (Juan Ramon and Amada share at a level that might put many of us to shame). Jesus followers have the clearest instructions I know of to give.

But the only real insight I can provide here is that I am not okay with this discrepancy and never will be. I love being in Nicaragua so much. I love the people here. I jokingly tell most of my Nicaraguan friends “Soy Nicaragüense!” “I am Nicaraguan!” We laugh, because my accent belies my claim. But they also know I’m telling them that I love their country and their people so much I identify myself with them, remedial Spanish, wrong skin tone, and different passport notwithstanding. When people debate our “border crisis,” I don’t see nameless brown-skinned people. I picture Juan Ramon and Amada fleeing the violence and hunger crashing over their home. I see their little Annalise, whom they named after our Miracle Girl, locked in a bare cell. No, I’m not suddenly getting political or switching subjects. The fruit of living in Nicaragua for me is that this will always be personal. Poverty is personal, including for those of us who are not poor. If you’ve read this and it still sounds like an abstract question, I’m failing in my communication.

Why are some people poor and other people rich? Why are Juan Ramon and Amada and most Nicaraguans living on $200 a month while we can spend $200 without having it affect us much?

I have no answer.

But I do have my next question.

Now what?

The Deal with Me and Losing

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Some of you could care less (or not care less) about this. I’ve written some other things that you may find more spiritually edifying.

As I was pondering writing about this, I realized now is the moment to dig into it: when I’m in the throes of a recent-yet-not-devastating defeat. I’ve written on depression when I’m depressed. It comes out very differently than when I’m discussing it dispassionately on one of my sunny days. Not that I’m planning on screaming and cursing here. I just know I’ll be able to express it most clearly when I’m feeling it strongly.

I’ve already done a whole series on competition from more of a pastoral/character-building perspective. I truly believe that stuff. This is slightly different, hopefully complementary. This doesn’t cancel any of that out, but this is an attempt at full-scale honesty. Please do not answer my honesty with cliches.

First, and most importantly, I will not “go gentle into that good night.” I am a fifty-year-old ultimate player who plays against much younger and more athletic players and I hold my own. Sometimes better than that. It takes a ton more work and effort than it did when I was younger. The desire to excel, and to win, motivates me to keep the conditioning, flexibility, and focus required to keep playing.

A friend around my age asked recently, “How do you keep that fire up all the time?” I quoted Bruce Banner in the first Avengers movie: “My secret is…I’m always angry.” I’m not always angry, but I am raging “against the dying of the light.” That’s why the fire is always burning. I’m sure there are those who can keep playing hard as they get older and not care about winning or losing at all. Wanting to win helps keep me playing and playing helps keep me sane.

I am the underdog.* A tremendous friend pointed out to me once that I always see myself in that role playing sports, whether or not it’s accurate to the situation. It means that I always feel I have to prove myself. I’m grateful for his insight. It’s helped me understand what drives me.

I know some of this comes from not having been as successful in sports as I hoped to be growing up. In some sense, I’ve never gotten over failing to be a starter on the basketball team in high school. I don’t mean in the Napoleon Dynamite Uncle Rico sense.** I mean in the “I still have to prove myself as an athlete in what I’m doing now” sense.

I can step back and see that’s silly. High school is so many lifetimes ago for me now. Today I told my high school teammates that the only reason I can respect them is that I’ve forgotten what an idiot I was in high school. But it’s one of those deep, multi-layered, tied-up-with-my-identity things, wanting to earn the respect of the people against whom I’m competing. I’d have to quit all competitive sports entirely to make that “go away”…and then it would pop up in other, less helpful areas of my life. Better to vent it on the ultimate field, having fun with others who also need to vent.

I’m massively less competitive than I used to be. I used to have to win at anything I played and would get truly angry (mostly at myself) if I didn’t. I don’t miss that and I’m glad I’ve outgrown that. I would say Jesus changed that in my life, largely through the good influence of Kim. This might make you laugh, but even so, I worry a little that I am mellowing. What if the fire goes out?

To give an example of how I’ve found more balance, I can now actually decide between a competition which I consider important to try to win and one which does not matter. I know. Wow, right? If you aren’t competitive, that might sound…a little late in developing for me. Whereas if you are, that might make you question whether I still qualify as “competitive.”

I’ve said, as both a captain and as a coach, “We’re here to have fun…and winning is more fun.” For me, it is, certainly in ultimate. Playing together as a team, working together to overcome the challenge presented by the other team, and experiencing that success collectively is more satisfying. Having said that, I would rather lose well than win badly, i.e. I’d rather lose having played our hardest and experience that self-respect than cut corners or bend rules to win and experience that self-queasiness. In my view, winning fairly is the only winning that counts.

Losing, it follows, is less fun. Not “no fun.” Nearly all the time, I prefer to play even if I lose than not to play at all. These days, I’m increasingly grateful that I still can play, period. I have also had losses that felt so crushing to me, that took me so long to let go, I might have preferred, in hindsight, not to have played. My wife would call that “taking this too seriously.” (I can hear her say this in my head as I’m typing.) I’m not saying she’s wrong. As advertised, this is the deal with me.

In a given game of any sport, you could have played better (perfect game in bowling might be the exception, perfect game in baseball would be pretty darned satisfying but, ironically, might still leave room to improve). Growing as an athlete means learning from these mistakes–there are some strange parallels with life here–and seeking to correct and overcome them next time. You can do that whether you win or lose. However, for me that self-critique after a loss has sometimes crossed the line into something more closely resembling self-flagellation. Unfortunately, my defense against that has sometimes been anger. Here again, I’m getting better. It’s a slow process.

Winning, in contrast, gives me some emotional boost that I can best describe as a high. It does this almost always, and the closer and more hard fought the game, the bigger that boost. The best highs are the true underdog-overcoming-big-odds victories. After those, satisfaction moves closer to something resembling euphoria. As someone who deals with depression on an ongoing basis, these little bursts of euphoria are treasures. I’ve wondered before if some people feel this good normally, in daily life. I don’t. I consciously try to live in the moment, love people and give them my attention, and be present in my life. I love and follow Jesus. But only in these euphoric states, or other mountain-top experiences, do I get a full break from the heaviness that I live with.

That’s me. It isn’t always easy. Exercise feels good and my body (almost) always thanks me for working out hard, whether hiking with the dogs, doing power yoga, or running up and down the ultimate field. But what I’m describing isn’t an automatic by-product of exercise for me. I can hike in a beautiful place and, sometimes, still be stuck in my head. Losing is good exercise, but hardly ecstatic.

No, having others let me win is not the same as winning; it’s actually worse than losing well because it feels disrespectful. That answers the unasked question, “Aren’t you afraid by sharing this people might start letting you win?” Plus, most of the people I play with are competitive like me. That’s also part of what makes the competition fun. We agree to try our hardest and see how it comes out.

Last point: having said all that, the outcome of my games is secondary to the relationships I build. I am wired relationally, anyway, but Kim really brought that lesson home for me. The people are more important. I play to encourage and build up others, to love them in the context of sports. I’m good at this and people feel it, at least those who can receive what I have to give (I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. Who is?). Therefore, after a loss like today’s, I can declare, publicly, “Losing sucks” and still love the time I got to play ultimate with my teammates in Nicaragua (whom I’ve missed terribly) and be happy for and proud of the Nicaraguan team who defeated us, many of whom I’ve worked with closely and seen improve dramatically.

I’m a blessed man still to be doing this at fifty.

So that’s the deal.

*I also love Underdog, the cartoon character, but that’s a different conversation.

**Uncle Rico: “How much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains?… Yeah… Coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we would’ve been state champions. No doubt. No doubt in my mind.”

Pay Attention (while you can)

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I get to visit Nicaragua in a few days, for the first time since we moved back to the States last summer. I’m excited and nervous. I cannot wait to see people who have become family to me. I left in the midst of stress and turmoil last year, so I feel a little residual anxiety. But I think the bigger reason I’m nervous is that I’m still lacking closure. I don’t know if I’ll experience it this time; I don’t even have a clear picture of what “getting closure” might be for me. But this morning, my pastor-friend-person told me he thought I need it and is praying I will find some. He’s wise enough to listen to, so I’m listening.

I’m not going to spend the rest of this post talking about that. I think I’ve already provided as much vagueness and uncertainty as one post needs (or I can stand). But that is my state of mind, thinking about seeing the people I love, where I invested seven years of my life, in a life that feels too removed from the one I live here.

I’m reflecting on living presently. Again. The same wise pastor-person pointed out today that we learn to live from event to event, which is very different than living consciously each minute. Discussing that with my also-very-wise sister-in-law, she pointed out that we are trained, in our culture, to see life that way. We schedule events. We think about the last event and the next coming event. We plan and prepare for those happenings. We don’t plan to live daily life well, or aware, in the same way at all.

I think we have profound wisdom that we nod to and then disregard in this area. When people die, especially when they die young, we are reminded how precious each moment is. When we talk with our loved ones who are dying, often we get a clear sense how much they treasure what time they have left and yearn for just a little more. Those of us who grieve parents or children who have died get slammed with reminders of how precious one more conversation, one more day, one more hour would be.

Those are hints. Those are good strong hints. Then we get back to calendars and dates and looking ahead. We read Erma Bombeck’s famous “If I had my life to live over…” and think “Yeah! Time to change!” and then we don’t.

There’s nothing wrong with having things to look forward to. I’m not arguing against that. I’m not suggesting you cancel your vacation or postpone that trip again. That may be the yang to the yin I’m describing here, that we need special times, away times, renewing and restoring times to help us live the “ordinary times” well. A relative once told me that it doesn’t matter what job you get because you’re going to hate it anyway; therefore, the only things that matter are getting paid well and having weekends and vacation time. That’s what I’m arguing against, in whatever form we practice it.

Here’s the crazy thing: whether you treasure each moment or wish your moments away, whether you suck the marrow out of life or piss your life away half-drunk and feeling sorry for yourself, your years are going to pass. They’re passing. You’re going to be Erma Bombeck looking back. You’re going to be my friend Fred feeling God draw closer as his physical life slips away. There is no option for “if I do.” The only option we get is “how.”

I know. That’s heavy stuff. In general terms, the younger you are, the less likely you will be to take this seriously, so if you consider yourself “young” and you’re still reading, it’s a miracle! Time and the River have a way of convincing us that there may be something to this whole mortality rumor.

Today I was thinking about my age. I hiked four or five miles with one of our dogs, on a rainy, beautiful afternoon when we had the trail nearly to ourselves. I still feel young–save the sarcasm, hear me out–in my maturity in some areas, younger than I should be, but I feel a lot wiser than I was. I just understand a lot more, including how important it is not to die on meaningless hills, or even kind-of-important hills. I also imagine my body is younger than it is, and am repeatedly shocked when it won’t quite respond the way I think it still can. Shocked, I tell you.

Do what you will with this. Here’s my recommendation: pick out something this week, time with your kids or spouse or significant other or friend or awesome pet or with your own bad self, and make a choice to consciously appreciate it. Pay real attention in that time. If your mind starts skipping ahead, pull it back to now. Just try it. Look at them during that time. Really look. Look to see.

My son Corin, who somehow just turned twelve, was sick and I got more time with him this week than usual. It was great. I appreciate him more at the beginning of this week than I did at the beginning of last.

O, Jesus, make that true for all the people I love.

Of course, I hope to savor my time with those in Nicaragua I see so rarely.

Then I hope to come back and do the same with people here.

If you haven’t read this before, I think it’s worth your two or three minutes to hear what Erma Bombeck would teach us, while we can still apply it.

Someone asked me the other day if I had my life to live over would I change anything.

My answer was no, but then I thought about it and changed my mind.

If I had my life to live over again I would have waxed less and listened more.

Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy and complaining about the shadow over my feet, I’d have cherished every minute of it and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was to be my only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.

I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.

I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.

I would have eaten popcorn in the “good” living room and worried less about the dirt when you lit the fireplace.

I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth.

I would have burnt the pink candle that was sculptured like a rose before it melted while being stored.

I would have sat cross-legged on the lawn with my children and never worried about grass stains.

I would have cried and laughed less while watching television … and more while watching real life.

I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband which I took for granted.

I would have eaten less cottage cheese and more ice cream.

I would have gone to bed when I was sick, instead of pretending the Earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren’t there for a day.

I would never have bought ANYTHING just because it was practical/wouldn’t show soil/ guaranteed to last a lifetime.

When my child kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, “Later. Now, go get washed up for dinner.”

There would have been more I love yous … more I’m sorrys … more I’m listenings … but mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute of it … look at it and really see it … try it on … live it … exhaust it … and never give that minute back until there was nothing left of it.”

― Erma Bombeck, Eat Less Cottage Cheese and More Ice Cream: Thoughts on Life from Erma Bombeck



Game of Thrones–Power

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I will now begin/continue a perhaps slightly self-induglent series on Game of Thrones.

I think GOT was not merely “pretty good TV” but the height of this art form. I have long agreed with critics who argue that television is, too often, a vapid, wasted art form which plays to the lowest, basest, meanest impulses and primarily feeds our inclination toward living vicariously rather than living presently. I know, what can TV offer other than escapism and vicarious living? It can teach us about ourselves.

Game of Thrones is spectacular. It is powerfully written, skillfully acted, and well-directed. The cinematography is gorgeous, heart-wrenching, breath-taking. The series is a wonder. It is a feat. And it is great art.

Like all great art, it shines light on the human condition. I believe in art for art’s sake, because beauty matters. Art need not teach a specific lesson. One could argue that beauty matters most, more than anything else, and that we need beauty now more than we ever have before, when baseness and hatred and vulgarity seek to rule the day.* God is beautiful, God is the creator of all that is beautiful, and all beauty reflects God to the world.

Game of Thrones is beautiful, but by this I mean both it is lovely and it has a terrible beauty, the beauty of sharks and deserts and fire. The beauty that destroys. It reveals what people are at their core. People are beautiful; people are dreadful.

Cruelty is a theme in Game of Thrones. It runs as a constant throughout the narrative. A few of the characters nearly personify cruelty, notably Cersei. (I think Joffrey and Ramsay are not simply cruel but sadists, which I consider a separate theme, though they are both extreme versions of the corruption of power). Others feel the draw of cruelty, its whisper and caress, its sinister overture and promise. Game of Thrones is beautiful and also ugly, horrifyingly ugly, but always for a purpose. It depicts the twisting of beauty. Much like Tolkien’s Ring works to twist and corrupt power under the guise of bestowing godlike authority–“All shall love me and despair!” Galadriel exalts, and in that very moment rejects the ring as she catches a glimpse of who, of what it would make her–so too the desire for the Iron Throne, and in fact for all power over others, comes with the potential for warping us into horrors.

Power comes with that potential, mind you. In GOT, power always comes with some high, often unseen cost, but power is not inescapably an evil in itself. I consider this one of the most accurate, and most haunting, depictions within GOT: if you pursue power, power will pursue you. You will not come away unscathed. Even so, in many situations to refuse or run from power will also lead to great harm, because others, whose motives are far darker, will gleefully seize and wield it if you will not.

John Snow, the bastard child of Ned Stark (we all thought, for most of the show) gives us the clearest case of this conflict. John spends most of every episode looking perplexed, dismayed, brooding. In Season Seven, Tyrion even comments on it:

Tyrion Lannister (to Jon): I came down here to brood over my failure to predict the Greyjoy attack. You’re making it difficult. You look a lot better brooding than I do. You make me feel like I’m failing at brooding over failing.

Jon, of all the hundreds of characters, seems best to understand both the cost and the necessity of power. How many times does he utter some version of “I don’t want it”? Because Westeros exists in a continuous state of violent upheaval, most manifestations of power we see are violent, whether the direct ability to kill others–Arya, The Hound, the Mountain, Jaime (until he loses his hand and to a certain degree still after that), Bronn, Brienne, Oberyn Sands, Jorah, Euron, oh, and Drogon–or the influence over a ruler–Tyrion, Varys, Little Finger–or the ruling power itself–Cersei, Daenerys, Jon Snow, Sansa, Olenna Tyrell, and Joffrey. Rulers in GOT invariably wield their power to take as well as to protect life. I can’t think of a single example of a ruler who is not shown thus.

In a powerful exchange between Daenerys and Jon, she states, “We all enjoy what we’re good at.”
“I don’t,” Jon replies. He doesn’t specify, but he may mean leading, fighting, killing, wielding power. As his strength and confidence emerge, people want to follow Jon and Jon is a natural and skillful leader–who wishes he weren’t. Of all the leaders throughout the series, save perhaps Ned Stark (and not counting Bran, because come on), Jon alone does not desire power. He doesn’t aspire either to take over or to climb higher. Those around him see this and it inspires their trust. Jon is as close to a servant leader as Game of Thrones gets…and I would say that is very close, indeed.

If caution or humility in the face of power–resisting the grip of power–is one end of the spectrum, then wanton destruction and cruelty fall at the other end. In one scene, Cersei berates Jaime because he persuaded her to allow Olenna a merciful death…and though Olenna is already dead, Cersei yearns to have caused her greater agony. In another scene, which I will not describe here, Cersei gets to carry out the full brunt of her revenge on the woman who poisoned Cersei’s daughter. This is the horror of power with neither conscience nor restraint. For Cersei, power exists for the purpose of wielding it against her enemies…or anyone who would oppose her…or those unfortunate enough to get in the way. In this sense, Cersei and Jon are opposites: for Cersei there is no hesitation to use power and her only question is “How can I use this most effectively to achieve what I want?”

In a few different scenes, Jaime tries to convince Cersei to reconsider, to take a different course, to back down or show restraint. What we see is a leader consumed. She literally blows up all her enemies, which leads her to lose the only thing she claimed to be fighting for, her son, her last surviving child. When Jaime urges her not to fight a war she cannot win, one he tells her will destroy both King’s Landing and The Red Keep, she sneers at him. This is the man she loves, the only one who, we hear repeatedly, might be able to reason with her. But what we see is that Cersei no longer has the capacity to refrain from using power. In this, she becomes, strangely and hauntingly, like the Night King himself: bent on one objective, giving no thought to any alternatives.

Power exacts a price. It does from Arya, who pursues it not as an end in itself, certainly not for the purpose of leading others, but as a tool. It does from Sansa, who pays horribly for the power she courts and gains. It does from so many leaders throughout the series who pay with their lives for seeking a bit more. We haven’t even considered the Red Woman and the price she pays for her power. No one gains power and maintains clean hands.

And that, for all of us who are not Jesus, is the world we live in, as well.

Next up: forms of redemption in Game of Thrones.

*The current President boasted about the size of his penis during the Republican presidential candidate debate. It’s gone downhill from there. Let me know if you need me to provide examples.

Game of Thrones and the Choices that Form Us

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I just finished watching the Game of Thrones series finale. I’m sure a bunch of you did, too. Probably another group of you have never watched a single episode and it’s near-miraculous that you’re reading this now. I’ve been reflecting on life a little recently (new for me, I know), and I’m going to see if I can tie those reflections in with some thoughts on the series.

Today I met with a friend, Annie, who is starting the journey to become a pastor. We talked about her upcoming first funeral, for which she is preparing a eulogy. My first funeral was for my father. Talking with Annie reminded me how much pastoral ministry is pouring oneself into small things for people, believing that your efforts can make a difference. Little choices, every day.

The genius of Game of Thrones, if you watched it, was seeing characters grow and change, or be challenged and refuse to change, or–the show’s signature move–be in the midst of growing and changing and then BAM! Dead.

Theon Greyjoy. Consider his character arc over the course of GOT, from his introduction in Winterfell. Think of when Yara came to rescue him. Or how he fought his way back from being shattered into Reek when he chose to rescue Sansa and help her escape.

Arya’s character almost defies tracking. You can see the glimpses of who she will be and yet you can’t imagine how far she will travel or how fully she will transform and embody that fighter. When she leaves the House of Black and White, when she rejects Gendry’s proposal, when she sails west of Westeros, she leaves behind lesser versions of herself to seek something more. Yet it’s almost the seeking itself that gives her meaning. In one sense, she is the greatest hero of the Seven Kingdoms, but she finds no place to stay and be, no home, no rest anywhere. She had her list and we might have thought her list forced her to keep moving, but I think the forces moving her became deeper than that and the list was after all just a manifestation of who she had become. When The Hound convinced her not to pursue Cersei any longer, it was one of the great moments of the show; he demanded that she see the end result of the road she was taking–him–and she chose another path. One episode from the end and she still changed.

Cersei, in contrast, had opportunity after opportunity to change and refused. She could have let herself become someone other than ruthless and utterly monomaniacal. In that sense, Daenerys spoke the truth: it was Cersei who forced what happened to King’s Landing (while in another sense, Daenerys had her moment of choice as to who she would become with devastating consequences for nearly everyone…including herself).

I could easily go on with character comparisons: Ramsay Bolton would not change; Jaime Lannister definitely did change, substantially, and then in the end…; Bran, oh Bran, we’re not even sure what you are by the end, but whatever that might be, you’re the mystic King. That’s quite a transformation.

Okay, here comes my personal reflection: I think we make big plans and imagine that life runs linearly, but much of the time we are deluding ourselves and the course of life runs according to our small decisions when we choose, or refuse, to change. When we have these long-term, overarching plans and goals for our lives, we subsume all of our other decisions to follow those bottom lines. Well, so did Cersei. I know, that’s about the nastiest example one could find. But think about this: her claim was “My family comes first.”

We have small opportunities for kindness or courage every day but we disregard them because we have our eyes on some imagined bigger picture. I’m not suggesting we ditch all plans for career and child-rearing and retirement. I am telling you two things:

First, who we are is more important than how those big plans go. There’s a false view that if you make the big choices well, the little ones will take care of themselves. That is brought to you by the folks who told you the end justifies the means and, possibly, the ones who tried to sell you on trickle-down economics. In narrative theology, who we are is the composite picture of all those small, daily, hour-by-hour choices. Making the small choices well transforms us into becoming the people who make the big choices well. Learning grace when we fail and sin, learning compassion when we recognize our failures and sins in others, transforms us, not presto change-o! but steadily. Jesus makes us more like him through our good and bad choices, when we respond in humility and learn.

Second, quoting C.S. Lewis:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight: but it’s hard to remember it all the time.

I love this: “what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s imagination.” Why? Because that isn’t the life you’re living nor ever will live. The life you’re living, and I’m living, those are made up of unplanned interruptions, from locking my keys in the car to having my son say, “Hey, Dad, let’s play HORSE.” I was just talking with a friend today about how we’re both increasingly aware that we’ve been imagining that we will do things “eventually” or “when things come together.” So we imagine those are the things we will do and we imagine circumstances will change so that we will be able to do them. None of that is actually true today, but somehow we imagine that’s who we really are and today is just a temporary delay in getting there.

Who you are today is who you are and if you know that needs to change, in about three minutes you’ll get an opportunity to start. Your first choice will be whether you recognize that small choice as that opportunity or disregard it because you’re waiting for something else, something bigger, something “real”…that likely will never come.

Over eight seasons of Game of Thrones, we saw characters faced with both small and enormous decisions. Often the smaller ones set them on the path where they would face the monumental ones. The show is big and dramatic and exciting and has dragons, so we find its action satisfying, but it’s also a mirror that we can choose to look in if we’re willing. Cowardly people can become brave (Samwell) and heartless people can develop compassion (Jaime? or Jorah?), while wise people can become fools and then, perhaps, grow wiser (Tyrion), and if you won’t step back and see where you’ve made mistakes…if you convince yourself that you see good and bad clearer than anyone else and you alone are fit for that judgment…you know how that comes out.

My conversation with Annie about death and what we say in remembrance reminded me that we get these choices for a finite time. We don’t know how many seasons or episodes, but in the moment it feels like we’ll always have more…and then in that moment, it’s done and we have no more choices. From that perspective, how will I respond to choices I get today?