Uncertainty

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If you have not been following the situation in Nicaragua, it’s too complex for me to explain here.  I don’t even know if I can summarize accurately, but we’re experiencing severe civil unrest as the division between those who support the President and those who demand his immediate removal deepens and grows more violent.  If you want to know more, you can read these articles or contact me.

We’ve lived here, in this “developing country,” for seven years and experienced some inconveniences and a few genuine problems (the kind that might make you self-consciously dub yours “first-world problems”).  We’ve also experienced a massive adjustment and adaptation–as well we should have.  We love living here.  To be more precise, we love the people here, and we have grown to love this beautiful, troubled country.  

We’ve never before experienced anything like what is happening now.  

My daughter just said, “I’m sick of all the uncertainty.  I just want to know what’s going to happen.”  

We’re all inclined to think about things in terms of how they impact us.  This is human nature.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing unless it’s to an extreme; perhaps the process of maturity is growing to think about situations, and life in general, in terms of how it impacts others and not just ourselves.  I’m talking about myself here, not my daugther.  

The impact on us:  our school has been cancelled for the better part of three weeks now.  Shortened days or no school at all starting two days after we went to Ireland, so the twentieth of April.  I think we’ve had 3 full school days in three weeks.  Last Friday, we tried to cancel school because the busses would have to cross through demonstrations and some could not make it to school at all.  The ones that made it through were told, just as they arrived, to turn around and take the students home again. 

These aren’t easy decisions for our administration to make.  There is much at stake.  Obviously, the safety of our kids is the highest concern.  Information we obtain on what is happening around Managua is always uncertain.  We know certain locations simply are not safe now.  But others can flare up instantly.  We hear about planned protests and counter-protests.  We use the best discernment we can in a morass of uncertainty. 

Our basketball teams, boys and girls, just went to Costa Rica for the yearly sports festival to which we’re invited.  We departed Wednesday, after a very long and complicated decision-making process about whether we should go at all.  The pressing question was: will the kids be safe, especially on their return?

An example of a blocked road here.

Then last night (Saturday), we got word that there were massive protests scheduled for today and, moreover, that tomorow (Monday) would likely get much worse with the scheduled dialogue between the government and protesting parties.  Nobody knows for sure what will happen when such news goes out.  But decisions have to be made.  Our administration decided we needed to skip each team’s last game and return as early as possible Sunday (yep, today.  Good math.) to be cautious.  To be wise.  To be better safe than sorry. 

Nothing happened on the way home.  We left five hours earlier than originally planned–we would have left at 11:30AM (at the earliest), and this after our games had already been switched to the first scheduled for the day–and made record time getting back.  We saw two small groups of people, within a few kilometers of the school, standking on the side of the road, waving flags.  That was all.  

However, we’d gotten reports that one of the towns we needed to pass through might be blocked.  The bus company from which we rented the bus, which has direct knowledge of all its routes, took the extraordinary precaution of having us switch busses, mid-route. I know, it sounds like something you’d do if you were trying to elude your pursuers (“We’ll stop and switch getaway cars in that deserted garage…”), but we did it in case we had to take backroads or go through large blockades and needed more mobility.  In other words, the bus company anticipated we might have a much harder, more precarious drive and took steps to prepare.  

Uncertainty.  

To be clear, I’m not complaining that we came back early–though as coach, sure, I was disappointed–I’m giving this example to convey what we’re experiencing right now in this country we love.  My daughter is in her senior year and everything about the end of this school year is uncertain.  We are preparing to move back to the States after our school year ends, but in addition to making plans and prioitizing good closure, we’re trying to navigate each day’s developments and variables and be wise and cautious While. Not. Overreacting. 

No one knows what will happen here next.  Will violence increase? Will there be any compromise reached when the dialogue, reportedly scheduled for tomorrow, takes place between the government and the protesters?  Will the protests lose momentum as people suffering poverty reach their limits–when you live without margin, this can happen quickly–and have no choice but to return to “normal” life?  

Several friends have told me that what is happening now resembles what happened in 1979 and 1980.  This startles me the most.  We know our history.  

We pray to learn from history.

We pray for peace and justice.

We don’t know what will happen next.  

The Art of Following

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I have some big thoughts building.  They haven’t quite coalesced yet, but they will soon.  Stay tuned.

Tomorrow, we ride a bus to Costa Rica for our high school teams’ basketball tournament.  Everything I’m doing right now feels like it’s my last time.  We’re in Transition.

But this one had an added complication:  Nicaragua unrest continues and we had to decide whether we should cancel the trip due to all the protests and the threats (and sometimes acts) of violence.

Our school’s board, administration, and athletic director prayed about it and weighed all the pros and cons and concluded we should go ahead with our trip.  But it drives home that we’re in a very tense time here and need prayer.  I’m glad we’re going; this trip is the culmination of our basketball season and we’ll get to spend concentrated time with our players for these next five days.  God does great and surprising things on trips like this.

But in the bigger picture, Kim and I are preparing to leave a country that feels like it has a very short, smoldering fuse.  We’re not leaving because of the current tensions and I feel inordinately offended when people ask, “Is that why you’re leaving?”  “NO!”

I’m offended because this is such a crucial, volatile, and shatterable time for our adoptive country (though more accurate to say that the country adopted us).  I’m offended because I don’t want our neighbors, or any Nicaraguans, to believe we would bail when things start to look tense.  I’m offended because it’s hard to leave and even harder when so much seems at stake for this country we’ve grown to love.

Kim started talking with me about how we might need to move back at the beginning of last school year.  She was right, as she so often is, but I’m struggling with the decision nonetheless.  Perhaps the biggest issue for me is trusting God: with this timing, with the transition, with letting go of things here.

Then you add what Nicaragua is going through right this moment–tomorrow could be a crucial point in this developing conflict–and I understand the timing even less.

Pastor Bismarck, in his signature pose.

Following God is an art form, not a science.  Hearing from God is more like learning music than learning math.  I recently spent some time with Pastor Bismarck, one of my closest friends here, and he encouraged me, as he always does.  He reminded me of some crucial things–even quoted to me from a sermon I preached four years ago!–and helped me get my focus back where it needs to be.

The circumstances don’t make a lot of sense to me.  But they don’t have to.  We pray and we listen and we walk where we believe Jesus tells us to walk.  Sometimes it’s hard to hear anything, maybe because my own thoughts are so loud in my head.  I was just talking today with a young man who expressed that it’s so hard to trust God with the things we care about most.

But as Bismarck reminded me, we see only a small part of the whole picture that God sees.  God can see this whole, enormous painting, and how each thing we do adds a dot, like pointilism.  The painting belongs to God, not us.  God is the artist.  God is Creator, not just once but always.

Therefore, the fact that sometimes even big decisions won’t fully make sense to me should come as no surprise.  I can’t see what God’s painting.  I can’t see how the little dots of my calling add to the whole.  I love this country and I don’t want to move away, especially when they are on the verge of either a great step forward or a very different step.  But I’m not saving this country; I never was.  I’m walking with Jesus.  Trying to follow, trying to hear.

I’m loving the people I’m with, as long as I’m with them.

The rest of this week, that’ll be basketball players.

 

After that, God knows.

 

 

From Ireland to Here

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There’s a legend in my family that  a certain sister once said, “I’m not Irish, but my mom is.”  Apocryphal or not, it’s become an oft-repeated quote, part of our joyful litany that will, sooner or later, be quoted when we gather together after long absences.

I am Irish.   Loudly and proudly I have claimed my Irish roots since I was a teenager. I write in “Irish” where forms ask if I’m “white.”  I read Irish history.  One of the moments I loved most on our recent trip was having time after our tour of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to ask the tour guide lots of questions about Ireland’s history as well as current politics and culture.  She filled in some holes for me (according to her, Sinn Fein is now completely separate from the IRA, which is disbanded, not just wink, wink “disbanded,” but actually gone).  I learned that Ireland is now receiving a signficant number of immigrants, which Kim and I also experienced during our travels.  This is wonderful news for Ireland.  It means Ireland has become a country to which people move rather than from which people flee.  In recent years, Ireland has suffered a recession, but literally everyone I asked told me, cautiously, that they now see signs of recovery.  

Walking through Dublin is walking through a thriving, crowded, active city.  It’s not accurate to say “a pub on every corner,” as that would underestimate the pub count by about two-thirds. Though it sounds like I’m exaggerating, it’s difficult to hyperbolize the relationship between drinking, drinking establishments, and the Irish.  When they chose the harp as their official National symbol, Ireland had to get permission from the Guinness family–yes, that family, and, I learned, a tremendously generous and civic-minded family.  The Guinesses agreed…if the goverment would be so kind as to flip the harp over.  I kid you not.

I won’t pretend to give some exhaustive, definitive treatise from my seven whole days in Ireland.  We learned some troubling facts while visiting.  The rates of mental illnes, depression, and the incidence of suicide are very high in Ireland.*  It rains a lot and people suffer seasonal affective disorder. We heard that 40% of Irish schoolchildren are overweight.  I’m doing more research, trying to understand better.  

Anecdotally, Irish are friendly and helpful to visitors, more so than Americans are to their tourists.  Irish give directions as freely as Nicaraguans, but much more accurately.* Several times when we were lost we would look around distressed and someone would come up and help us without being asked.  Trying to find our way to Trinity College, we merely glanced up from our brochure map and instantly we got help from both sides:  a college woman and an older gentleman coming in on our left and right.

We saw an art exhibition on the Great Famine entitled Coming Home: Art and The Great Hunger.  I felt very fortunate that we visited during its showing.  I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland, but not solely for sightseeing; I’ve also desired to understand my own history, why our family left.  I learned.  

Over a million Irish starved to death in the Famine.  One million people at a time when the entire population of Ireland was eight million.  Half a million more died from related diseases.Image result

Another million tried to reach the U.S. and Canada. Our ancestors lived in County Armagh and County Tyrone and in 1860 sailed from Belfast–we think. This is from my cousin Cricket Hackman, who has studied our family geneology:  

 Henry Donnelly and Jane “Jennie’ Mullen” Donnelly had one child when they boarded the ship to America.  Their first child, a son they named Anderson, died prior to sailing (we don’t know if he was stillborn, or died sometime afterward).  They also lost a daughter (unnamed) just prior to sailing.  The 3rd child, a girl (unnamed) was born and died at sea, on their way to America in 1861.  I have her cause of death listed as small pox.   As it turns out, I know that they ended up sailing to Quebec, Canada, instead of New York, because their ship had small pox on it, and at that time, New York Harbor was not accepting small pox ships…they were turned away and landed in Quebec instead.  This was in the early 1860s, prior to Ellis Island being open.  They eventually did make their way to New York.  Their 4th child, also a girl (unnamed) was born either in Canada or New York, and died in New York between 1863-1864, also of small pox.  From there on to Illinois, because they knew some people who lived in Bowen.

In 1864 they had made their way to Adams County, Illinois…and their first child to live to adulthood was born:  Thomas Henry Donley.  I believe that Anderson was Henry’s mother’s maiden name.  They were determined to pass this name on to one of their children…and named three boys Anderson before one lived (our great-grandfather).

They began as farmhands, then sharecroppers, then were slowly able to buy their own tiny patches of farmland.  By the time I came along, six generations later, my grandfather and uncles owned and ran their own farms.

Those are bare facts.  I can’t comprehend them.  I understand that they happened, but not how.

We suspect their first child, the first Anderson, died from hunger or hunger-related diseases.  Their next three children, those ancestors of ours, didn’t die of starvation but they died from the famine, from the conditions they suffered as immigrants trying to flee to somewhere they could survive.  

We lived through the death of our son, Isaac.  I physically can’t imagine watching five children die.  I can’t grasp giving a third baby the same name, after two you named Anderson have already died.  

The Potato Famine didn’t occur simply because the crops failed.  As with every sweeping, enormous tragedy, a combination of factors contributed.

In Nicaragua, one of the Sandinistas’ strategies when they gained power was to take land away from one person or family and give it to another.  Again, such a matter-of-fact thing to say but what would it mean to experiencde that?  The knock on the door, the explanation that this land, this family home, is no longer yours.  You can take whatever you can carry.  Now.

England did the same thing to Ireland.  The campaign was called “The Plantation of Ulster.”  Irish families that had farmed their land for a thousand years were removed by violence and Scottish farmers were given the land.

When I taught government class, we talked extensively about the distinction between an action being illegal and immoral.  This is it.

Over time, many of the Ulster farm owners became wealthy enough to move to England as absentee landlords.  The Irish were “allowed” to farm their land–land that had belonged to the Irish originally–and the profits largely went to those living in a different country who had been given the land by force in the first place.

Then the famine struck.

One more thing to know: the Irish were almost wholly dependent on this food source.  When the potato blight spread and the crops were destroyed, there was no crop to switch to, no contingency plan, certainly no safety net.  These were the working poor, farmhands on someone else’s land who were allowed to keep a small portion of what they grew to feed themselves.  Then, suddenly, there was no food and the landowners evicted them.

Perhaps all you need to know about the Great Hunger in Ireland is this:  during those years when a million Irish were starving to death, England was still exporting food from Ireland to England.

The famous exchange in A Christmas Carol between Ebeneezer Scrooge and the gentlemen seeking alms for the poor comes to mind:

“”At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons…”

“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“Both very busy, sir…”

“Those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Dickens wasn’t exaggerating.  Charles Edward Trevalayn, the British Secretary of the Treasury, believed the Irish were lazy and didn’t deserve help.  He believed the famine was “a mechanism for removing surplus population.”  

Document evidence shows the Ulster landlords and the British government hoped for exactly this.  They wanted the Irish “tenants” off their land. Where they went to die was less of a concern.

Margaret Lyster Chamberlain

Yet if the Irish refused to move, in some instances the most effective strategy the British found was to provide passage to America.  That sounds generous, even kind, until you hear about the conditions of the ships.  When you find that the percentage of “passengers” aboard those ships who died was comparable to the fatalities on slave ships.  They died by the thousands.  

The…method was for the landlord to simply pay to send pauper families overseas to British North America. Landlords would first make phony promises of money, food and clothing, then pack the half-naked people in overcrowded British sailing ships, poorly built and often unseaworthy, that became known as coffin ships.**

“Famine Ship,” John Behan

Then, when they arrived in New York, thousands more were quarantined because of the diseases they were suffering–diseases they may have contracted on the ship, in such ghastly and inhumane conditions–and left to die from typhoid and tuberculosis and pneumonia.

Rowan Gillespie, “Statistic I & Statistic II”

But, miraculously, some survived.

That’s how I got here.

That’s how Mom came to be born of an Irish family of farmers living in the U.S.  Immigrant ancestors of mine who were sent
to die stubbornly refused and, though they suffered the loss of all of their children, began a new family.  How is that possible?

One more thing I learned at the exhibit that I had never heard before:  when a people have suffered severe famine, it impacts them, not only emotionally and socially but genetically.  Research suggests they pass on something to their children, some imprint of having survived a great hunger. Specifically, links point to increased prevalence of mental illness.  And obesity.  

Is that why I need to know?

The novel I hope to write, have wanted to write since first I heard this story of our ancestors, still feels beyond my reach.  I don’t know enough.  I still don’t understand.

But I’m closer now.

Family of Henry Donnelly, circa 1884. Anderson is the young man in the back row at the far left.

*Yes, I just made a big generalization about Nicaraguans.  Trust me on this one:  Very generous with directions, lack of accuracy notwithstanding.  Our lack of street signs does not help.  

** http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/famine/coffin.htm

Foreshadowing

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I don’t know if I’ll ever grow up to be a writer, because it feels increasingly unlikely that I’ll fulfill that first clause.

I had a tough night last night, which was especially discouraging considering that most of my day went really well.  

But the tough night, in a way, was the product of the good day.  That’s the situation I’m in right now.  

Yesterday I:

Preached, napped, went to a goodbye party, played ultimate, had a long talk with a friend after ultimate, had dinner with my family.

I tried to write last night and couldn’t bring myself to do it.  So instead I spent hours reading the news on social media which, shockingly, didn’t cheer me up.  About every 15 minutes I’d try again, but by late,* when my body finally gave up and succumbed to sleep, I still had managed only a few words.  

I don’t know how the sermon went, because it’s funny-not-funny impossible for me ever to know for sure how a sermon went.  I preached differently than I usually do, trying to go the way I thought God was leading.  Did I do that?  I dunno. Most of my preaching friends relate that this is one of the hazards and why we might feel some envy for those whose jobs have clear, physical, objective measures of success.  I got almost no comments afterward, positive or negative, but I had long conversations with both Evilyn and Sasha, the widow and daughter of Gerry, which felt much more important than hearing “good job.”  

But that’s not what made the night hard.  It might have been slightly ironic, since I encouraged people to trust God in the midst of the crisis here, and then needed to trust God a little more with the outcome of my sermon.  Honestly, though, I’ve been doing this a long time and my internal backlash was relatively mild.  Sometimes you think you did a good job and the response (that you can discern) does not reflect that and it leaves you second-guessing.  Or, if you really trust God, it doesn’t.**

The nap went well.  

The goodbye party was a blast for me, albeit tinged with a little sadness.  Our friends are leaving because they feel they have to, not because they want to, and that’s tough to see.  But I got to say “goodbye” well and there were a bunch of people I really enjoy and I’m an extrovert and I’d had a good nap, so that’s a great time!  

Except, I must confess, it also had foreshadowing with all the accompanying unsettling soundtrack playing in the back of my head.  That’s probably where things began to hit me.  

But we hurried back so Kim could go to a quinceañera and I made it to Sunday ultimate in time to play a few points in the first game and all of the second game.  And though I started slow–I’m old, and everyone else was fully warmed up–I had a pretty good day.  I was one of two token gringos, which on one level is sad–it used to be a much more mixed game–but it gives me lots of opportunity to focus on encouraging/mentoring the young Nica players, and I love that.  I love that almost as much as catching a deep throw for a score.  Joking.  My time with the Nicaraguan players is one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced in my 30 years of playing ultimate.  

And herein lies the rub.

I spent a long time after our game talking with my friend Cesar.  I love Cesar like a brother.  He’s one of my favorite teammates, he always goes hard, he’s a fantastic defender, but more importantly, he has strong, godly character that I can always see when he plays.  

Cesar and I talked politics. We discussed the precarious situation in Nicaragua between the protesters, those who see themselves as Sandinistas but who reject the current President, and the administration.  I learned a lot.  

We talked about ultimate and his Nicaraguan teammates.  Then Cesar looked me in the eye, put his arm around my shoulder, and for several minutes expressed, in detail, how much he feels I have meant to him and to his team, his younger teammates, impacting them as an example and role model.  I told him that was the fruit of God’s Spirit in me.  In my ideal world, I would have a transcript of what he said that I could pull out and look at every time I doubt that God is working through me or that my life has helped anyone.***  

I left on a high.  Hard to beat that.  Scored a few times on guys I should never be able to beat, exchanged about three hundred high fives, and won both games, plus had someone I really respect tell me that I was the one who had included and encouraged and helped him when he was starting out.  He literally wouldn’t let me go until he conveyed that their team feels that I’ve been a big help to them.  

Dinner was nice.  My family had a “Quaker meeting,” something which my  children grudgingly endure, in which we check in and share what we’re grateful for, anxious about, etc.  

By any reasonable measure, that was a great day.  

Do you feel the “but” coming?  

Me, too.

Cue return of foreshadowing music leitmotif.  

Several people at the party, including the friend whom we were telling “goodbye,” said “You’re going to have one of these soon.”

There are boxes everywhere as we get ready for a multi-family rummage sale this Saturday.  

This threatens severe damage to my denial.  

Last year I wrote about grieving our beloved friends who were leaving.  (I was going to say “grieving our dear departed friends,” but that made them sound a lot more dead than they are.)  Now I’m the one preparing to leave and I’m grieving more.  

In my life, I will confess, I’ve preferred being the one leaving to the one being left, because I’ve got this wonderfully excitable personality, mixed with a dash of over-optimism, so I can easily focus on how great the next thing will be.  

This time, no.  

Here is the good part: clearly our time in Nicaragua hasn’t been a total disaster or else I would not feel like this.  

But it lies heavy on my heart that I’m leaving these relationships.  I’ve yet to be able to focus on the positives of what we’re going to next, cuz of the denial and all, and because what hit me last night is, I will not kid you, intimidating.  I feel a heavy depression lingering at the perimeter, wondering if it might be invited in anytime soon.  If you’ve suffered depression, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about here.  

There’s a whole post to be written on “Finishing Well” or “Healthy Closure.” But since I’m here, I think the best next step I can take in that direction is expressing my sadness and grief that we’re leaving a country that, for several years, I thought might kill me, but which now wrenches my heart to consider letting go.  

 

 

*This is my children’s preferred method of telling time.

Dad: “How late were you up last night?”

Son or Daughter:  “Late.”

**There is a much longer discussion here about preaching and learning to deal with after-preaching, including how much of it is emotional and how much spiritual attack or backlash, and the pros and cons of weighing people’s responses versus staying exclusively focused on God, but I’ll save that for another time.  

***Of course, he said it all in Spanish, so it also might have been, “Your forehand throw really isn’t very good and you could use work on your form and how much you snap your wrist.”  

**** If you’ve seen the movie “Let the Right One In…Swedish: Låt den rätte komma in, that’s what I’m picturing  here.

“God Is” Manuscript

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[Manuscript of sermon “God Is’]

 

God is

It’s been a very strange couple of weeks for us. We went on a trip to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary. Two days later, the protests began. Some of the seniors in my Bible class accused me of timing our trip to get away during the trouble. I absolutely did that. We took this trip on our anniversary, remember. Twenty-five years ago, when Kim and I were deciding on the date of our wedding, we looked into the future and saw that this would be the time to get away. In fact, I was remembering that some friends of ours, Eric and Karen, asked if they could have our originally planned wedding date, April 3, and we swapped them for April 17. So when I mention up here that I’ve had people suggest I have the gift of prophecy, clearly this is what I mean. I foresaw that we would want to say “yes” to them and change our date for when we’d live in Nicaragua and this would happen. It’s actually pretty impressive, when you think about it.

It was odd being out of the country on this trip and trying to track with all that was going on. I know many of you experienced difficulty keeping informed on what was happening. Hearing all this news and reading updates and trying to figure out if we needed to make decisions, well, that definitely added another dimension to our trip.

Because of that, I feel a little out-of-step preaching this week. The 20th Century theologian Karl Barth said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” So as I was praying about what to say, this is what came to me. I hope you can apply everything you hear to our current situation.

God is.

God is real. God existed before we did. “IN the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

I had a fun talk with our host in Dublin. During the conversation, he said he thinks people have a right to their religious beliefs: “If they want to have an imaginary friend, that’s fine.” From my perspective, that’s kind of funny, but it’s also extremely sad. And it’s foolish.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Proverbs 9:10

God is real, God existed before we did, and knowledge of God is insight.

The fear of the Lord, proper awe of God Almighty, is where our wisdom begins. There are many voices, some of them are loud, some of them are urgent. Wisdom begins with God.

God is Good. Psalm 134:6 “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”

God is good and we experience God’s goodness:

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.”

God is a refuge.

A refuge is a place we go to be safe when we are in danger, a place of peace, and place of Shalom.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

God himself is our refuge. If you think God is an imaginary friend, that isn’t going to work very well. But God is real, and this means that anywhere we are, no matter our circumstance, no matter what we’re experiencing, we can take refuge in God.

There is so much in this one.

God is our refuge. God is our strength. God is present. God is a very present help in trouble.

And Therefore, because of all those things, we will not fear. That doesn’t mean “shame on you if you fear,” but “God is bigger and more powerful than the things that frighten us, God is with us and he is our help.” So even if the earth should change, even if the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, even if—fill in your own blank here—God is right here, right now, with us, and He is our strength.

God is strong in our weakness. It isn’t a fifty-fifty thing, a matching grant where if you can pony up X amount of strength, God will match that. God is strong in our weakness. When we are weak, we are strong because God’s strength is in us. That sounds paradoxical, like how can those possibly work together. It’s experiential. It will never make sense in theory. In practice, it works. Have you experienced that?

God is just.

God is merciful.

God is forgiving.

All three of those are true. I don’t always understand God’s justice, but I believe in God’s justice.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

I’m not focusing on what we’re supposed to do that much in this sermon. I’m starting with God because everything starts with “God is” and only after we learn who and what God is do we move to what we do, and who we become, in response.

But who is God, that this is what is he tells us is good and what he requires of us?

For I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
and make an everlasting covenant with them.”

I could get focused on God’s justice, of course. You’ve heard that from me more than once. God’s justice matters so much to me because there is so much wrong with the world, and only if God is truly just can we have hope that all this will come out right in the end.

But Jesus asks this question: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

That’s a rhetorical question.

7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

God will bring about justice for his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night.

He will see that they get justice, and quickly!

I don’t know what “quickly” is. But I believe God that he will bring justice. I want justice. Mind you, I want a whole ton of grace for myself and I’m quicker to seek justice for others. That’s one of the biggest reasons I try to be all about grace, because I recognize my heart’s tendency to desire justice for others but grace for myself. But do to others as you would have them do to you I think also means seeking the same grace for others that I claim for myself.

I can’t figure out where the line is between grace and justice. But God can. Because God is just. And God is gracious. And the injustices we see, God’s children crying out to him day and night, we know god will answer. He will see that they get justice. So we pray. There may be other things we must do, but we know for sure that we pray for God’s justice.

I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth.”

Now that question, I’m afraid, is not a rhetorical “of course he will.” But here is what I know of God. God is faithful.

II Tim. 2:13 “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.”

That’s what grace means. Jesus wants us to have faith. Jesus asks, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith? He tells us that even if we have a mustard seed’s worth of faith, a tiny little dot, that will mean we can move mountains. Yet here is the message: If we are faithless, if we blow it, if we completely lack faith, he remains faithful to us. God is always faithful. He will not leave us or abandon us or give up on us. Ever. Even if our faith tanks. For he cannot deny himself. God’s very nature is to be faithful to us. That’s wild.

Well, how do I know God won’t get weary of me and sick of forgiving me for the same sins over and over?” He remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself. God will not, wildly God cannot, go against his own nature. He will be faithful to us.

Now I want to step back and acknowledge: some horrible things have happened and more may happen. I’m not making light of any of it. I’m saying our trust must remain in God, in God’s nature, in God’s character, in God’s faithfulness.

What else is God?

Jesus said, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. What is the truth in our present situation? Jesus is the truth, always. If you want to know the truth, seek Jesus first. Then research what is going on.

God is our rock. God is our fortress. God is a strong tower in times of trouble.

Jesus said to his disciples, and so he says to us, his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The disciples thought it was the end of the world. They thought it was the end of their world. They had good reason. They had seen Jesus die. They had seen him tortured to death. The ones who had the courage to stay close had watched him, apparently weak and helpless, mocked, spat upon. They saw him breathe his last.

But while on the cross, Jesus forgave his murderers. While on the cross, Jesus offered life to a thief being crucified. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Again, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” but he doesn’t just expect us to conquer fear on our own. He gives us his peace. Not the world’s peace. Not a false or empty or temporary peace. True peace. Therefore do not let your hearts be troubles and do not let them be afraid.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Death has no power. Life is in Jesus Christ. If resurrection is true, if eternal life with God is real, and I believe it is, then as devastating as death is to us, death has no hold on us. Death has no final say.

I want to be really clear here: I am not speaking cliches, I am not saying nice-sounding empty phrases to give you false hope. Jesus defeats death. Every one of us here has some experience with death. Some of us have faced death. Every one of us here will die. We’re not trying to rush it, but it’s inevitable. By my understanding, over sixty people have died related to the protests. That is a tragedy. We must grieve and mourn and cry to God for justice day and not. But that is not the final word. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Paul writes:

 

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.20

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.23But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. Whose enemy? God’s enemy. Death is God’s enemy, because death tries to destroy what God has created, death tries to steal what God has given. Jesus overcame death, he defeated death through his resurrection. In the end, God will destroy death. All the suffering, all the grief, my mourning over our son, the anguish over these murders, God overcomes all of this. Christ has been raised from the dead. There is hope. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. God has destroyed death.

Do you know what God destroys death with? Love. God’s love destroys death. God refuses to let our sin, our self-destruction, our hatred of him, separate us from him. God loves this world so much, God loves these students so much, God loves these protesters so much, God loves the police and the military so much, God loves us so much, that he gives himself in our place.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

God proves his love for us. God demonstrates and reveals and manifests his love for us. Do you know why? God is love. God himself is love. God isn’t merely loving, but God, in his very nature, is love.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Jesus didn’t only come into the world to die for us, Jesus came into the world so that we might live through him. This is the love that destroys death. We don’t wait until heaven to have life in God, we live in and through him now.

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” I John 5

This is what we remember and remind one another when riots start. This is what we hold to when we see injustice, when we suffer tragedy. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope. We have hope. Our God is the God of hope. I’m not saying this makes it all better or takes away all the pain. I’m saying this is the bedrock, this is the foundation that we stand on, because we have built our homes, we’ve built our lives, on rock, not on sand. That’s what Jesus promises.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,

For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

God Is

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Nicaragua, as you may or may not know, has been in turmoil and upheaval.  Marches and demonstrations continue.  We are praying for peace AND justice.

As I was praying about what to preach, the impression I got from God was to focus on who God is and what that means for us in crisis.  

 

Audio starts at :42 (the buzzing stops) and you missIt’s been a very strange couple of weeks for us. We went on a trip to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary. Two days later, the protests began. Some of the seniors in my Bible class…”

Thirty Thoughts from Ireland

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I was going to write a travelogue for each day of our trip to Ireland.  But I realized that would have taken away too much time from actually living the trip.  I may still do that, depending on how well I remember all the details.  But for now, I’ll just do another Thirty list.

 

*We waited our entire adult lives to see Ireland and it’s been better than we imagined.

*Yes, the grass is as green and soft and spongy as it looks in photos.

*The night we arrived, we walked around deciding where to eat in a cold rain.  Ireland really knows how to do cold rain.

*Our first two full days here were both sunny all day long.  The locals told us that was the first they have seen the sun in a month.

*We hiked 13 miles to see the entire Cliffs of Moher range.  If we’d been forced to return home due to emergency after that, I’d have been satisfied with our trip to Ireland.

*Though Kim had to look away, I laid down flat on a very flat rock shelf and looked straight down from one of the cliffs…and it felt like floating and falling and flying all at once.  Euphoria.  (Then she got a picture of it.)

*They’re not exaggerating about how much the Irish love their libations.

*We were impressed, even amazed, at how easy and timely Ireland’s bus system is. Yesterday a friendly local explained how unreliable and tardy the buses always run.  Perspective is everything.

*Ireland has an abundance of street and road signs! You can always figure out where your going! (Except sometimes they get cute and write the street names in Gaelic when you’ve been given them in English.  Then you can’t.)

*In two separate pubs in Dingle, we got to listen to brilliant live music–guitar, accordion, and harmony singer–and watch a man with “The Fastest Feet in the World” dance, traditional Irish style.

*Many Irish people really do speak Gaelic.  Virtually every sign, from road signs to castle descriptions, is in English and Gaelic.  Except the ones that are just in Gaelic.

*On perhaps a related theme, most everyone has recognized us immediately as tourists.  This in spite of my deep Irish roots.

*There are 4.8 million people in Ireland.  In the U.S., 34.1 million claim Irish ancestry.  Doing the math, there never would have been that many of us if we hadn’t left.

*The food has been great!  Much better than we anticipated. The seafood rocks.  When you can see the ocean… Neither of us has ordered corn beef and cabbage, though Kim did try fish and chips.

*Rental car companies are still a pain in the ass, even when you’re having the trip of your dreams.  Hard as I’ve tried not to be, it was my moment to be an ugly American.

*Driving on the left side of the road for the first time in my life required the same overriding my reactions and reflexes that…ready for this?…bungie jumping did.  “Yes, this is stupid and dangerous.  Do it anyway.”

*Ireland vastly prefers roundabouts to stoplights, at least everywhere we’ve been outside of Dublin.

*I’ve mostly adjusted to driving on the left side, though roundabouts and complicated intersections still require reciting to myself, aloud, “Stay left.  Stay left.”

*We are thrifty people (some would call us “cheap,” but we spend our lives with people who can’t afford what we can, so we’re constantly aware of the value of the money we’re spending).  For us, the cost of dining out has produced sticker shock.  We’re trying to figure out if this is A)Europe, B)being in more touristy areas, or C)we don’t actually grasp how much people pay when they go out to eat.

*Castles are cool! We spent several hours in Kilkenny Castle today.  Trying to grasp how much work, pre-cranes or -any-heavy-machinery, went into building such a massive structure.  We both love learning the history but it raises a million questions
about all the people whose stories aren’t told.  Winners and the rich write history, but they don’t haul those stones to the top to build those towers.

*We spent time in The Black Abbey, St. Canice’s church, and St. Mary’s church. All date back to at least the 1200’s originally and all of which have worship services today.  They felt like holy spaces.

*Besides staring straight down a several-hundred foot cliff, arguably my favorite part of this trip has been talking with friendly Irish folks.  We encountered two friendly farmers when we were…taking the scenic route…and they helped us re-encounter our intended route, beginning with the words, “This road isn’t on that map.”

*The two abovementioned farmers were the best, though difficult to understand (our ears are attuned to other accents).  Today’s cafe owner who tried to get us a castle tour two hours after they’d close–oh, “they” turned out to be his parents–and then told us all about starting his cafe, his time living in NYC, and giving Halloween castle tours, ran a close second.

*Temps have run from mid-50’s during the days to 40’s in the nights. But we live in the tropics.  In light of that, we’re surprised that we’re still this tough (i.e. not even wimpier).  Tonight we took a several-mile walk by the beautiful Barrow River,* returning just as the sun started setting.

*We’ve met many immigrants with fascinating stories, e.g. the guy born in Turkey, raised in China, now running a coffee shop in Dublin.  All the immigrants we met like living in Ireland, though they don’t all love the weather.  Our St. Patrick’s cathedral tour guide commented on how pleasantly surprised and encouraged she is at how well the Irish have received their immigrants.

*We’ve successfully experienced natural beauty in Doolin, traditional culture in Dingle, and Irish history in Kilkenny, plus all those great convos and a lot of Ireland’s countryside.  We  could have easily soaked up a week in any of these places, but for a short trip, we’ve done pretty well.

*We loved our days in Dublin. We were both sad to have to leave the gorgeous countryside behind–and then got swept away by the city: gardens, cathedrals, castles, palaces, museums, and more pubs!

 

*Dublin highlights: Trinity Cathedral’s architecture, Kim says “All the architecture!”, the excavated section of Dublin Castle from the 8th Century and built by Vikings, Dublin Castle gardens, Jonathan Swift’s memorial and epitaph (he wrote his own), seafood chowder, the top-rated independent bookstore in Dublin, finding out our host is in a Guns n’ Roses tribute band–yep, seriously–exploring the city, and more pubs!

*Irish people are often joyful and boisterous, but Irish history is rife with tragedy.  I wanted to learn more of both.  We saw an exhibition at Dublin Castle called “Art and the Great Hunger,” with depictions of the Great Famine from the 1850’s until now.  Haunting.

“Gorta” by Lillian Davidson

*Finally, our timing.  Nicaragua has been in turmoil while we’ve been gone.  We were here two days before it started.  It has calmed down again now, thank God.  Trying to keep track of what’s happening–not easy even when there, much less from this distanace–pray, and find the balance between proper concern and continuing to enjoy our time when there is literally nothing else we can do from here except pray.

Happy Ending

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I don’t know if there are ever any true “endings,” until you die.  And from my experience of my dad’s, and even more so my son’s, deaths, for those still here these are not endings, either.  Much of my life has been impacted and shaped by their deaths.

Thus, I’ve come to believe sports appeal to us, in part, because they offer finite size and clear, non-negotiable parameters.  Games end.  Seasons end.  You “put them in the books.”  You might look back on them wistfully and imagine if only you could do them over again, but done is done.  Whistle blows, third out is called, horn goes off, bell clangs, and we have completion.  This, along with the temporary experience of focusing solely on the game and putting all of life’s troubles aside for an hour or three, give us a healthy break.  Completion feels really good.

This weekend, some of my favorite guys won a basketball game.  We won the two-day Kaiser University Seahawks Games high school tournament and brought home the trophy.  I love to win, so I enjoyed that.  But winning was not the best part.

In the final game, we got behind immediately.  We got way behind.  We got almost there’s-no-way-we’re-catching-up-now behind.  Of course, we all know that when you don’t believe you can win, you can’t.  Coaching means helping your team believe they can win when they suspect they can’t.  But you can’t believe for them, any more than you can hustle for them or make wise decisions for them.  You encourage them to believe, you motivate them to hustle, you instruct them on wise decisions.  Then they run out there and play and, as any coach at any level knows, how they play depends on them.  They can make great passes or stupid ones.  They can dive for the ball or watch it roll past their feet.  They can decide that a team is unbeatable, or that they can’t make a shot, or that the person going against them is impossible to defend.

I’m acutely aware that I’m not a great coach in a lot of ways. I could write a long post on that.  You may lodge your requests at the end.  But my players have taught me a lot.  

I’ve learned in coaching you can focus effectively on only a few things.  If you try to overinstruct, you leave your players confused and everyone frustrated.  “But I told them!”  I’m a coach of simple things.  We do a few drills many times.  We practice fundamentals hard.  We prioritize effort.  We can’t always make the ball go in the hoop but we can always work hard to get the rebound or get on the floor after a loose ball.  In fact, our pregame shout is, “Every loose ball is…OURS!”  And often they are.

We focus on character. You can focus effectively on only a few things and that includes the non-tangible, deeper lessons of basketball.  If you don’t prioritize talking about character, or who your players are as well as how they play, that easily gets lost in the louder demands of playing better.  When the ball goes out of bounds in a scrimmage, our guys will acknowledge “I touched it last.  Out on me.”  That’s not always how basketball works, but that’s how we work.

Today we pulled off a mighty comeback.  We were behind 17-6 after the first quarter, but I think we might have been down 17-2 before that.  If that sounds like a reasonable distance to close, you may be thinking of the Golden State Warriors.  We had won the game before 32-20.  We’d spotted the other team more than half the points we’d scored our last entire game, and allowed them almost as many points in that quarter as we gave up the whole previous game.  Rough start.

Our highest scorer could not play today.  Our second highest scorer, and co-captain, Barry, got his fourth foul in the first half.  He was as upset as I’ve ever seen him, frustrated with the calls and with himself.  I shouldn’t have kept him in after his third foul, but we had already reached the desperation point of needing to stop the landslide and regain ground.

To understand this story, you will need to know this: the refereeing we experience is often the biggest challenge to our character.  It certainly is my biggest challenge, nearly every game.  Coaches often complain about refs, so I’ll just tell you that the aforemention captain, possibly the nicest guy on our team, got a technical foul in the first game for patting an opponent on the shoulder.  I’m not talking about a shove that we called a “pat.”  Barry had fouled the guy and then gave him a couple soft pats, right on the shoulder where you pat people, to say, “Hey, sorry Man.”  Technical foul, they got a free throw and the ball back.  In the same game, two of our players got shoved hard–one knocked to the ground–after the play was over and the whistle had blown.  No call.  We not infrequently get three or four times more fouls called on us than the other team.  I watch our guys called for barely brushing their players and then their players whack our guys in the arms or give an elbow to the head:  no call.

Today was such a day.  Our other captain, Will, reached levels of emotional distress–okay, really upset and pissed at what felt like injustice–that he chose to sit out for the end of the game because he knew he’d lost it.  Will had played a tremendous game up to that point with at least five crucial–and dramatic–blocked shots.  He did not quit, but he reached his threshold and could no longer hold himself together, so he came out.  Yes, we needed him in the game to try to win but not as much as we needed him to live and model the right character.  Thank God, I didn’t have a split-second of saying (or even thinking) “Get back in there!”  Will is a mature young adult who knows his limits, who usually plays harder than anyone else.  He’d never hit this wall before, which should give you some idea of how the game went.  He took himself out because he couldn’t be who he needed to be on the court in those minutes, and who he is on the court ultimately is more important than how he plays on the court.

Our other captain, as I said, had four fouls very early and sat out the third quarter.  But during the third quarter, without him or our leading scorer, we made our charge.  We had closed it to 23-18 at halftime.  We put on a full-court press and dug in and found more grrr.  We got a handfull of steals (including several by Will), caused multiple turnovers, and made some great shots, including one of our reserves hitting three three-pointers.  We didn’t get lucky with every bounce going our way and we certainly didn’t start getting the calls our way.  But we worked harder.  We found a way.  I believe playing harder, digging deeper, finding you’re capable of more than you know, is a crucial aspect of how sports can develop character.  We showed tremendous character that way.

At the start of the fourth quarter, I tried to send captain Barry back in.  He said, “Coach, they’re getting it done.  Let’s let them keep going.”  You have to understand both this young man’s desire to play basketball and his respectful attitude to appreciate what happened in this moment.  He always responds to me, “Yes, Coach,” or “Yes, Sir.”  I don’t require that.  But he does it.  He also always asks for one more game, hates to be taken out, and generally wants to spend every moment he can playing ball.  He’s that guy.

So when he said, “Naw, Coach, they’re doing it,” I respected his suggestion and left the other guys in.  Barry then proceeded to holler himself hoarse, shouting for his teammates.

When I finally put him back in with four minutes left in the game, he took over.  He ran the offense, hit four of four free throws including the clutch two that put the game out of reach–or should have–and led the team.

Now I have to describe the end of the game where I saw our team’s character most clearly.

With six seconds left, we had a three-point lead–I thought–and our opponents took a long shot and missed.  We got the rebound.  Ball to Barry. They fouled Barry.  Three seconds.  Barry hit both free throws.  Game over?

The opposing coach, with whom we have a spotty history (last year he charged on the court to start a fight with Barry–nope, not kidding), went over to the scoring table and began a rant.  A long, colorful rant.  According to him, the scorer, who was a very young guy, by the way, had messed up their team fouls.  Thus, we should’t be in the bonus.  Remember, Barry had already made both free throws.  Their coach is arguing after the fact.  But he would not stop.  The refs threatened to give him a technical but let him keep going.  Then, and again I just have to ask you to believe me, they may have taken away the free throws and given the other team the ball.  This was not clear.  I mean, I asked and they did not tell me.

So picture this: we thought we were up by 5, three seconds to go.  Now they are inbounding the ball after a timeout on our end of the court, meaning within range of throwing up a shot, down by…two.  Did I mention about the officiating?

Okay, if you know basketball, you probably have realized that this is severely askew.  If the free throws didn’t count, they still fouled our player, meaning it’s still our ball with one or three seconds left (again, unclear) and all we have to do is pass it in and touch it and the game will be over.  If they get the ball, that has to mean the free throws counted.

But on the stat sheet I have in front of me right now, with stats tallied by my daughters but reflecting the official scorers final score, we won this game by two.  Not three.  Not five.  I don’t know how we lost the extra point–they subtracted both free throws and a bonus point?–but they were inbounding the ball with a chance to win the game that we understood we had already put out of reach.  

Now you have the picture.  But our guys didn’t react to this.  They didn’t freak out.  I sat down and our team stood and waited on the court while their coach blustered and berated a kid and screamed at the refs about how the whole thing was unfair and rigged (I might have agreed, but I think he meant it a different way).  In that moment, I saw what our players had done.

We made the comeback.  Their team threw elbows at our heads and we kept our character.  We got calls against us and we did not lose our cool.  We played harder and focused more and dove for loose balls.  Their player got a technical for slamming the ball onto the court (it bounced really high) after a call went against him; we talked with the refs about the calls, politely and calmly, during stopped time between plays.  None of the concerns we raised seemed to get any traction, but that’s what we could do, and we did it, and then our guys just ran harder.  Our tallest guys, who hated running at the beginning of the season, were outrunning the other team.

It was a glorious win.  Both of our captains manifested the spirit and character that earned them the position of captain.  One of our seniors, Gabe, who didn’t play last year and was still very green at the beginning of this season, played the best I’d ever seen him play.  This was Kaiser’s high school sports festival, so there were trophy presentations and a bit of pomp and circumstance.  Theparents of our players, and our girls’ team, gathered around and congratulated our players.

 

Yes, I like winning, and we got exactly the result I’d hoped for.  But so much more than that, I think it might have been my favorite coaching moment so far.

*Our guys didn’t give up or get discouraged when we fell behind.

*They didn’t let the bad calls get to us, even though some of them were flagrant and upsetting.

*Rather than quitting, letting up, or losing our tempers, we simply bore down and played harder.

*In the moment when the choice was between compromising his character and doing whatever it took to win, one captain asked to be taken out.

*In the moment when the other captain could have decided, “Okay, it’s up to me now,” he showed his belief in his teammates and asked not to be put back in yet.

In the way that coaches second-guess themselves, I wonder if, had I put him in at the start of the fourth quarter, would Barry have fouled out and not been available when we needed him in the clutch?  Remember, one ref had definitely zoomed in on him and was very quick to call him for anything.  

Even with all this, I did not manage to get all our players in the game.  That may be the hardest part of coaching for me.  Of course, most coaches will tell you there are times (and levels) to play everyone and times (and levels) where you can’t.  It still eats at me.  I experienced not getting playing time on my high school team after I had worked hard to become a good player starting in…fourth grade?  I know that feeling–at least how I felt–and I hate causing our guys to experience it.  There are games when I can get everyone significant floor time, others where I take a risk and a guy steps up or doesn’t, and then games where it feels like we’re fighting tooth and nail for every point and I can’t break up our momentum or lose the advantage that a certain player gives us.

Today, maybe because it was such a sweet victory, I felt especially bad that I didn’t play all our players.  I can’t tell you in this moment whether I made the right choice or not (and I’m guessing you fall on one side of that question or the other depending on your relationship with sports).  We either won by 2 or 4 or 5* and didn’t seem to have any extra margin or breathing room.  That doesn’t mean we would have lost if I’d put them in.  I don’t know how they would have stepped up.  Today, I didn’t risk finding out.  I pray those players can take that with grace, use it for motivation, and let it develop their character–but I really don’t say that lightly, since it took me years.  And God’s work in my life.  And years…

 

We pray before games and after practice.  I’m not always as consistent with this as I’d like to be, but I’m also someone who tries hard not to go through the motions.  Today, for the first time I can remember, I prayed in the huddle between quarters.  I asked for extra help from God keeping our patience, not losing our cool, and not responding in kind and escalating the rough play we were experiencing.

As we were in the parking lot about to leave, the organizer of the whole sports festival happened to walk by.  He stopped to tell me how much he appreciated the way our kids played.  He said he knew we came from a Christian school and he could see it in how we behaved in that final game when things got so heated.  I’d already seen this in our guys, but it was wonderful to hear that their character shone through to strangers, as well.

Lord God, may we always keep our character of reflecting your image in the world as our highest priority.  Amen.

 

 

*How often do you get to say that?

The Crying Prophet

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It’s first light, just coming over the horizon, but you’ve been up for an hour already. That’s early, even for you. Your brothers must have had a surprise, jumping on your mat to wake you and finding nothing except mat to land on. You’re on your second trip back from the well now, so your hardest chore is almost over. It’s a little risky, hauling water in the dark, especially now, when the city is going so crazy with Passover coming, but it’s obvious you don’t have anything of value, unless some lazy thug decides the water in your bucket is worth beating you up. But now home is within sight.

Today is the day. People have been talking about it all over your neighborhood. It’s actually funny to hear them talk about him because there’s always a better story. It sounds just like fisherman or hunters who keep outdoing one another.

“No, I heard he told the Pharisees they were children of hell.”

“Yeah, but my cousin said he heard directly that he walked on water. On top of the water!”

“Your cousin didn’t see that, though.”

“No, but he heard it from the guys who follow him everywhere.”

“So? We heard he cast a demon!”

“One? My aunt who lives in Galilee, where he spends all his time, said he cast out a whole legion of demons!”

“That’s just crazy. Nobody has a legion of demons.”

“Yeah, but that’s not crazier than Lazarus. You know what they’re saying about Lazarus, right? That’s a respectable family. They’re not gonna make something like that up. There were like a hundred people there. Who would make that up? I think that might be true…”

Then, every time, the talk turns to what he might do to the Romans. It’s always funny to hear adults whispering just like kids. That’s when you have to turn invisible to get to hear. Nobody does that better than you. How many hundreds of times has your mother told you never to speak to an adult except when the adult speaks first? You just took that as a strategy. Stand still, or sit silently, look away from the speaker, act like your attention is elsewhere, never ever make eye contact, and it’s like they can’t even see you. You’ve even heard some neighbors hint that you aren’t all that bright. Nobody cares if the slow child is hanging around, playing in the dust. Poor slow child. If they only knew how many secrets you’ve heard.

Today, you’re also telling a little bit of a not-quite-truth. Of course, it could be the truth.

“I got my chores done early. Can I spend the day with Daniel?”

Daniel might be there. If he was smart, he would be. But it’s not that likely, because Daniel is a little too cautious. But he’ll be out chasing around, playing hide with the others, so it won’t be obvious to anyone that you’re not with him.

Yeah, it’s a little crazy. But your mother is just happy the chores are done. Your dad won’t be back until late. He won’t even know you were gone. And one fewer child around to fight and get in the way? Mother’s fine to see you go.

The leaving part is easy. The arriving might be something different.

Everyone in town and every stray dog knows he’s coming today. The rumors about him disagree and conflict sometimes, but somehow there’s a one-hundred percent certainty he will arrive in Jerusalem today. They’re even sure which road he’s coming by. It’s as if runners are going ahead, announcing his coming, but that’s not something to say aloud. That’s what they do for victorious generals and, of course, the Roman Emperor, may the Almighty One remove him from that accursed throne.

But that’s why it’s irresistible. How many false Messiahs have come through Jerusalem? How many claiming they are “The One?” How many strong men have gotten killed in doomed uprisings? Too many.

But what if…? What if this really is the one? Today might be the day! There’s something different about this one, if any of the stories have any truth to them. He doesn’t claim to be Messiah loudly and proudly like they all did, but he’s done ten times more to make people think he is. He calls himself “Son of Man.” What does that mean? The old men debated that passage from the Prophet Daniel. How could this man, this son of a laborer, claim to be what Daniel describes? That’s impossible.

Unless…

So no one really knows who he is, not really. Maybe his closest followers do, but nobody here. The whispers have gotten louder and more excited; there might be ten thousand people in the streets when you get there, even going as early as you possibly can.

As you get closer–and it is a long walk, even for you–you can hear the crowd well before you see them. It’s loud, like a buzzing, like what they say locust sound like when they come in clouds, just like you’ve always imagined happened in Egypt. How many people can this be?

Too many. Change of plans. There’s no way you’re going to get even a glimpse of him unless he’s riding into the city on an elephant, like they say that one general did against Rome. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Then everyone would know his intentions for certain!

You’re doubling back on your path now, because the further outside the city you can intersect with his path, the better chance you’ll have to see him. Then what? Maybe try to walk along with the crowd? Not for the first time, you consider this could get dangerous. What if it turns into a riot? What if—just what if—the Romans have heard, since everyone knows, it’s the worst-kept secret ever—and they bring their centurions? That seems unlikely, but there are rumors…

Still, that’s exactly why you can’t miss it. What if…never to be said aloud, just in your own thoughts, and the Almighty’s ear…the centurions do show up, and he…he…someone who can overpower demons and tell a storm to stop, could he…could he wipe them out?

Any risk is worth the tiniest chance to see that happen to these evil dog occupiers. Right? After all they’ve done?

When you reach the road going this way, further from the center of the city, there’s still a crowd, but not as big yet. Oh, but they’re excited. It’s like one of those high holy days when everyone starts in early: people shouting to make themselves heard over everyone else’s shouting. It’s funny to watch grown-ups behave like this.

A bunch of them are waving branches around that they must have just cut down from the palm trees near the road. The smell is really strong and green. Is green a smell? They’re waving those branches around, fanning themselves, and it’s almost like sea waves. Crazy.

You keep pushing up the road, and there’s the Eastern Jerusalem gate where the Mount of Olives comes down into the city. You’ve come too far to hesitate or second-guess, but if your parents ever heard you had gone outside one of the city gates by yourself… Better not to think about it. You say a quick prayer that you won’t have the dumb luck of being seen by someone you know.

You pass through the gate, which is wide and if there are guards anywhere you can’t see them through all these people. He’s got to be close now. Everyone’s waving those branches and some are tossing them out on the road. But there’s something else on the road. What is that? You’re hiking up this hill and everyone here has committed to holding their space, so you have to squeeze in between people, but you’re really good at that, almost as good as you are at becoming invisible. You take extra care not to step on anyone and keep weaving in between families and shouting men and other kids jumping up and down, trying to see, even though there isn’t anything to see yet.

As you weave, you pass really close to the road. Those are people’s coats! Cloaks and shirts and all kinds of clothing, folks are just tossing them into the road. Crazy! You see a nice one that might be your size but it’s probably a really bad idea to grab it.

The shouting suddenly crescendos. People are going crazy now. You chose well. If you stop right here, you’ll be able to see him for sure. Especially if he’s on an elephant, or, more likely, a stallion or maybe an ox. But something in you, some weird urge, refuses. You push on, now bumping into people, but everyone is bumping and colliding. It’s that kind of crowd now. You’re not a pickpocket and you better not be mistaken for one now or you’ll get beaten or killed.

There he is! He’s on a…wait—he’s on a tiny horse. No he’s not; he’s on a colt. Maybe a yearling? Hang on—that’s a donkey colt! It’s too sturdy in the legs to be a horse colt, but it’s really young.

People are whooping and shouting and you’re laughing and you literally can’t hear yourself it’s so loud, but that is not an elephant! Why would he choose that? And he’s not…he’s not handsome. His eyes are…

“Hosanna!” everyone shouts around you. More cloaks thrown into the road. More branches. “Hosanna to the son of David!” “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Stop, stop!” someone yells behind you. You look back and almost jump into the street. It’s a Pharisee, a whole group of Pharisees, with their special cloaks which they have not thrown and they are not waving palm branches. In the midst of everyone screaming and crying out to the Most High, what are they saying?

A stout one who bellows like a shofar overpowers everyone around him: “Teacher, make them stop! Order your disciples to stop! This is heresy! What they say is an abomination!”

The colt is walking so slowly but the man stops it. He looks right at this Pharisee. What words could describe this man’s eyes? The crowd isn’t quiet but it’s maybe half as loud, with people pausing between shouts to see how the man will answer. Everyone says he doesn’t get along with the Pharisees; some even claim they want him silenced, or worse. But now you aren’t hearing stories, now you are seeing—and hearing—for yourself! No one will believe this. But that’s okay; you could never risk telling anyone, anyway, because if this got back to your parents…

“I could tell them to be silent. I could. But I tell you, if these were silent,” and he gestures with his arms at all of you standing close by, “the stones themselves would shout out.”

He didn’t say it loudly but everyone explodes with screams and hollers and “Hosannas,” what feels like ten times louder than before. Except you. You turn to look at the Pharisees and they are huddling together, no longer looking at the man, talking amongst themselves.

You aren’t yelling because you’ve determined you’re going to get as close as you possibly can now. There’s no way you’ll be able to follow along through the crowd, even though he’s going slower than slow, because their stacked up too dense and wild and that won’t work to sneak through, even for you. The only other choice is to go out into the road with him and his followers. You don’t belong there and they’ll throw you out the second they notice you, so that’s crazy and stupid…and here you go.

It’s not hard getting out there. Nobody’s pushing against you, once you take that step, but with all this wild crowd on the sides, there are only a few big clumps of people out in the road. You’re not going to blend in with any of these huge guys with beards and–

He stopped. He just stopped in the middle of it all and got down from his donkey colt. You freeze dead still. You’re about four people away from him, big burley men, but that close. If anyone looks at you now, you’re done. Maybe this is the time he does something powerful? But since the moment you saw that donkey colt, the military attack has seemed unlikely. Who attacks on a little colt? You’re just a kid and even you know that.

The man turns his head and for a split-second, you think he’s going to look right at you. But he’s looking down the hill. You suddenly realize there’s a tremendous view from here. You can see most of the city. You might be able to find your house if you looked long enough.

You’re not making any sudden moves, because this is how you’ve learned not to be noticed. But when you shift your eyes you can see the man’s face and when you shift them back, you can see the whole city.

He’s looking out at the city, then around at the group of men and women with him, then back out. He puts his hand on the nearest man’s shoulder.

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

And he cries. His voice choked while he said that and now he’s standing there, crying. In the middle of this frenzied parade, you see tears dripping off his face. His followers are staring at him. You’re staring at him. Of the things you’ve seen today, this would be the hardest to explain, the hardest for people to believe; yet for some reason, this is what you most want to tell. Who is this man?

Then he looks at you. Not maybe. He’s looking right at you. His followers are staring at you.

Panic rises in your chest. He steps over to you.

And then he puts his arms around you and hugs you. His arms feel strong enough to snap you, or to lift the entire world, but his hug is gentle…and then he lets go and climbs back on the colt and he and everyone else move on. One of his disciples, a really ugly one, nods at you as he goes, like he knows what you know, what you now know.

But you stand there, alone, on palm branches and cloaks, as their shouting moves off into the distance.

Is that the Messiah? What kind of Messiah is he?

What’s going to happen next?

You start back for home.

Primal Scream

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There are times when I sit down to write and I just want to utter this guttural scream, like

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRGGGGHHH!

Somewere between Charlie Brown flying through the air after missing the football again (I know, utterly dating myself) and this guy.

I look back on my day, in my calm, I’m-not-breaking-dishware-nor-writing-emails-I’ll-deeply-regret-later reflective mode, and start noting all the things that contributed–and built up to–that scream.

Some days, many or most of the contributors are self-inflicted.  Those are fun days.  It takes special grace to let yourself off the hook when you’re directly responsible for all the blood-spurting bullet holes in your own foot.  Of the Jesus followers I know, most are better at extending grace to others than receiving it for themselves.  On those self-injuring days, there’s an argument in my head that boils down to: “But it’s true.  I did screw up.  I deserve to feel miserable.”  This logic would suggest that grace somehow depends on having a reasonable alibi: If I’m feeling bad but can explain why I shouldn’t, then I can receive grace.

But this is, in fact, the opposite of how grace functions.  I don’t need grace if I have mitigating factors for why I screwed up.  The argument “but I have it coming” does not render grace null and void.  The prodigal son’s speech, “Look, I deserve all this, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, I should be demoted from beloved son to ordinary servant,” does not win the day.  He doesn’t even make it to the end before his father rudely interrupts him with an embrace and a robe, a ring and a party.

So if you step back and run that parallel, when you are castigating yourself and arguing for why you don’t deserve grace, God isn’t listening through the end of your speech.  He’s already getting the sandals for your bloody, bare feet, when it was entirely your fault they got bloodied.  Yes, you did this to yourself, so you must know that “I told you so” speech God has prepared for you?

God doesn’t.

Grace means that the almighty God of the universe has chosen forgetfulness.  Grace means God acknowledges that you screwed up, sinned, betrayed him, let yourself down, probably did some damage to other people, and now God is going to bless you instead of punishing you for that.  Sure, you can punish yourself. Free will means you can keep whipping yourself over those failures and refuse to take the robe God is offering to cover your wounded, emaciated body.  But you don’t have to.

However, grace requires acknowledging that you need it.  You can’t keep your prideful self-image and receive grace.  You can have one of those.  Choose wisely.

 

Today, however, was a different kind of wounding day.  (Yes, that was a long tangent, albeit a passionate one. I hope it was a helpful one.)  Few of them today were self-inflicted.  The scream at the beginning was pain that my soul absorbed today.  Sorry if that sounds overdramatic. It was a rough day.

I love young adults.  God has given me something, some combination of empathy and an 18-year-old’s sense of humor and compassion and a constitutional inability to grow up that, when combined with the trust many of them extend to me, blends into this alchemy of relationship.

 I also stopped playing God about…I’d like to say 30 years ago, but we’ll say 10-15 years ago, to play it safe. It’s been a process.

Therefore, when I hear an agonizing story from a young adult, I’m less likely to go into savior mode and more inclined to pray and listen to God for ways I can help.  Sometimes I get a nudge, or I intuit how to respond.  Sometimes I can’t do anything more than listen, which I’ve come to believe is love, in and of itself.

Sometimes, though, I want to yell at God.  I know that’s not very pastorly-sounding when I’m being all calm and composed and not breaking anything, but seriously.  I told my wife tonight that my biggest question I have for God might be why some people experience God’s presence while others never do.  I’m on the outside, only seeing it from my point of view and not through their eyes, so I don’t know if God is constantly seeking them, sending thousands of signs and they are choosing to ignore all of it.  That may be.  I’m big on the whole free will thing.

If, however, as this person described, they ask and ask and never experience the presence of God, never see anything that they can recognize as communication, and have no sense of God’s reality—GAAAAAAAH!!!!!  I. DON’T. GET. THAT!

Sorry.  *Breathe.*  *Breathe.*

I don’t get that.

I really don’t.

There is an approach to following God that says, “Never question God, because God always knows and you don’t, God always does what’s right while you don’t have a clue.  Trust God, give thanks for literally everything, and keep your doubts to yourself.”

That isn’t my approach.

I think hearing what I heard today tapped into deeper, built up pain over hearing similar stories from too many people who are dear to me, who are still lost/struggling/wandering far from God/deeply in pain.

I think we’re supposed to agonize over people who suffer.  I think Jesus did.  

I think we’re supposed to agonize over people who suffer.  I think Jesus did.  Most of the time, I’m too guarded and self-protective to let it hit me as hard as it should.  I’m afraid it will capsize my little boat.  I don’t have any advice on this, though I’m told sorrowing over others will expand our hearts.  

 

That was the worst of it today, but by no means all of it.  I took a score of other emotional hits, some related to our current situation, some to other people I love.  Then, as a grand finale, my “therapy” for the evening backfired.  

Which brings me here, on my couch (literally), writing this as therapy.  So thanks for reading and helping.  Thanks for letting me scream a little in a non-destructive way.  

If you pray: Pray for my friend, whose family has been through a nightmare and who has basically given up on God.

 Pray that I would have a bigger heart.

And maybe pray that I can see how God is present with people who feel so abandoned.