Beautiful Things

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This is going to be a shorter one.  

Beautiful things that happened today:  

I woke up.

A student I’ve just started mentoring trusted me by opening up and sharing freely, even though I haven’t earned that trust yet. 

Our soccer team played really hard and showed themselves what they are capable of doing.  

A taxi driver was kind to me.  He scared me when he picked me up:  Once I get in and we start driving, I always begin the conversation with “¿Cómo está usted?” and his first response was to shake his head, put his hand to his throat, and then give the international sign for drinking.  But he did not act drunk (I’ve had that experience at least twice) and we had a friendly conversation.  He overcharged me, but I was in a hurry (see above) and decided not to care today.   

My wife let me sleep an extra half an hour this morning by not waking me and making breakfast when it was my turn.  

My son showed me proudly how well he did on his math worksheet. 

My children laughed at my joke.  

 

Now I’m tired and I’m hoarse and up too late again (after falling asleep while getting my son to bed) and a man was killed by police in Tulsa on Friday and my dear college friend’s mom died last week and my friend’s wife died yesterday and I just read an article about internet addiction.  http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html  *

I’m really grateful to use the internet because it allows me to stay connected with my friends and family who live in other countries.  Last week I reconnected with a friend from my hometown who is struggling and wanted to talk because he’d seen what I write.  Several days ago, another beloved college friend started supporting us and said, “Consider this my appreciation of your writing gifts as well.”  Some people listen to my sermons who wouldn’t get to otherwise.  I always hope to encourage people and this is another means to do so.  One of my lifelong friends–the kind who stick long after living in proximity, and we’re still close many chapters later–just encouraged me that my preaching helps him.  He’s been encouraging me for almost twenty years now.  

 

In case you missed the cohesion, here comes my point:  Life is short, and when it’s over and people are gone you can’t believe they’re just gone, but they really are.  You won’t see them again on this side.  

Time is precious and I don’t always spend mine well.  I know the internet is both a gift and a danger to me personally.  I’m thinking carefully about how to use it well, to offer my gifts, love others, and stay connected without getting consumed or missing my life.  Too many times lately my son has said, “Dad?  Dad?” because I’m looking at the screen while he’s talking to me.   

One of the biggest dangers, to me, is getting consumed with the horror and ugliness and tragedy.  I want to be informed.  I want to speak up.  I want to seek justice and, honestly, see my blind side where I’m not doing so.  Reading and learning and understanding are important.  

But I have to find the balance between knowing what’s going on and compulsively checking.  I’m learning to keep out of political arguments that will bear no fruit and leave us even more polarized.  My resolution to pray first instead of responding to political posts has gone well.  I’m still making mistakes.  I’m still figuring out the good of using this forum for discussion and the limits it has.  I’m still trying to discipline myself not to read the comments!  

I appreciate that you read what I write.  I put a lot of time into it and I want never to waste your time.  I want to be a voice for hope and grace.  I do not want to add to the noise.**  

I want to live my life in the real world, loving my wife and my children, mentoring the young adults who trust me, preaching and coaching and making really good jokes.  I want to use the internet to love a few more people, to improve the reach of my love and mentoring, to listen to some music and get a few laughs.  

Life is too short and precious and beautiful a gift to lose it to any addiction, including this one.  

 

What beautiful things happened to you today?

 

 

 

*”Am I exaggerating? A small but detailed 2015 study of young adults found that participants were using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate time. Most of these interactions were for less than 30 seconds, but they add up. Just as revealing: The users weren’t fully aware of how addicted they were. They thought they picked up their phones half as much as they actually did. But whether they were aware of it or not, a new technology had seized control of around one-third of these young adults’ waking hours.”

**Thank you, Switchfoot.

With Just Water in a Cup

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You know those comedies where the person thinks, “I’m not getting enough attention!” and then decides to play hard to get?  As in, “You’re not noticing me, but maybe if I were less available, you’d stop taking me for granted and get interested.”  I’m sure that has nothing to do with why I haven’t written a blog post for a long time.  Nothing whatsoever.

But I am back:  back to coaching and mentoring, back to another school year, back to Nicaragua after a couple of crazy weeks in the US (including a lost passport, but it’s definitely too soon to tell that story), back with my family after what felt like a long time away.  I don’t know how military and business folks do it.

Today I’m reminded that the things we say and do matter.  All of them.  Even though I haven’t written anything in this blog for too long, yesterday a young adult quoted to me something I wrote in a post and told me it changed significantly how he was thinking about his life.

Love, in its simplest form, is our choices.

It’s very easy to get immersed in our own challenges and struggles.  Some of them are legit.  Some of them are drama.  It’s hard to tell the difference from the inside.

It’s easy to get discouraged.  It’s easy to look around and see how bad the big things are going and conclude that the little things don’t matter.

Every little thing we do for others matters.  No act of kindness is ever wasted.  Even if the person receiving the kindness ignores it or retaliates.  Every smallest kindness matters because each one is a revolutionary act against a world of hopelessness and selfishness.  To quote my hero, “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

In a more contemporary language translation:

“Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”

Why is the cup of water given “in Christ’s name?”  Consider this:  one of the ten commandments is “Do not to take God’s name in vain.”  That doesn’t mean don’t cuss.  It means don’t make promises and try to back up your credibility by invoking God.  “I swear by God I will pay you back if you loan me money.”  And then the person runs off with the money and makes it look like God is part of the swindle.  It means lying and using God to back your lie.  God is NOT PART OF THE SWINDLE and does not look kindly on people who make the world think that’s what he’s about.

The cup of water, on the other hand, is what God is about in the world.  People who are thirsty matter to God.  All of them.  The ones who can’t get their own water and need a hand or even could get their own water but you beat them to it (notice Jesus doesn’t distinguish), those are the folks we can love.  With just water in a cup, we can show that this is what God is about in the world, and God notices.  Count on it.

With just water in a cup, we can show that this is what God is about in the world, and God notices.  

I’m really weary of Jesus’ followers conveying that we are about division and argument and feeling superior because we believe right-er stuff than everyone else.  Jesus never, ever said that.  He doesn’t command us to outdo others by the purity and rightness of our beliefs.  He commands us to share and give thirsty people water.  He commands us to love people in his name.

Little acts matter.  They might matter the most.  Helping people to see that a God exists who loves them is about it.  I can’t think of anything more important.  Urging people to join the revolution by speaking kind words, by spreading laughter, by smiling at strangers, by refusing to get pulled into debates that won’t change anything and praying for blessing, instead, these are the radical acts that can change lives–others’, and our own.

In case you’re new here, I’m not speaking as Pollyanna or Cheer Bear (I need some more current happy characters!  Suggestions?), I’m speaking as one who deals with depression and lives in a developing country next to a slum.  I get that the world sucks, at least to most outward appearances.

But changing the world won’t happen through resigning ourselves to that view.  Doing nothing, or just looking out for myself and my own, will only reinforce the status quo.  And I’m not buying this status quo.  Maybe that’s stubbornness.  Maybe it’s faith.  Maybe it’s one of my own lifelines to resist depression.  Maybe it’s my gift to offer to the world.  One of my ultimate player teammates once told me that I’m the adrenal gland of the team.

That leads me to one further step before I hit “publish.”  We can all do the small acts right in front of us, every day.  Love is our choices.  We also each have specific gifts and strengths and talents and abilities.  My young adult friend probably pays attention to what I write because we are friends and I’ve shown him kindness and respect (and kicked his butt a few times–I’m also his coach).  Those opened the door so that, when I used my gift of writing,* he could receive it.

Our little acts count in themselves, and they also matter because sometimes they give us opportunities to impact people with our unique abilities. Most of my gifts are relational, so I’m usually thinking in terms of building trust so that folks can receive what I have to offer.

You may have a completely different set of talents.  We need them all.  How are you changing the world with those talents?  How are you changing someone’s world with those talents?   The Revolution Jesus creates is made of small things done in love and everyone pitching in with what they’ve got to help create the ripple effect that does bring change.  What have you got?  How are you pitching in?

A radical thought is that God gave you those abilities so that you can help change the world.  An even more radical thought is that your true satisfaction in life, your joy, comes when you use them to help others.

Cups of water and your gifts.  Kind words and the stuff you love to do and do well.

¡Viva la Revolución!

 

 

 

*Yeah, it’s a furious inner conflict to type that; you probably get that if you’re a writer or artist of any kind.

 

 

Coming Back

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Sermon I did this past Sunday (8-14-16) at International Christian Fellowship.  Some thoughts on how to get back on the path when you’ve gotten off, for one reason or another.

Deciding what to preach is always more of an art than a science, trying to listen to God (however that works) and get my own ego out of the way (with much help from God).  This was one in which I really felt like I had to say this stuff.

 

…And Back Again

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We’re back in Nicaragua for our sixth year.  It’s strange we’ve been living here so long. It’s strange that Nicaragua feels so much like home.  It’s strange that I get back and the men on the street who drink all day welcome me back and tell me how I’ve been away too long.

It’s strange that none of this feels strange to me anymore.

Readjustments:  the left handle of the sink gives the same results as the right, drink water from the sinks sparingly (if at all), throw toilet paper in the trash, not the toilet.  We don’t have air conditioning, and after nearly two months away, my body adjusted to cooler temperatures.  I grouched at my son today, largely because I was hot and sticky and uncomfortable.  Time to regain my tolerance for heat and humidity.

The cliché says, “Home is where the heart is,” but I’m seeing that differently now.

We’ve lived in a foreign country (i.e. not the country of our birth) for five years, which is a short time compared with some of the folks I know who work here.  When I imagine the lives of refugees who flee their countries to save their lives and their children, what we’ve done here doesn’t seem so big.  But almost always after I’ve described to a church congregation our work here, someone will come up to me and say, “I could never do that.”

My initial, silent response is, “Yeah, you could.”  I imagine there are folks for whom this would feel impossible–for example, folks who are so committed to their comforts that “sacrifices” like living without air conditioning sound like torture. But I also firmly believe that people can adjust pretty quickly, and God makes us capable of doing things we thought we couldn’t.  He actually kind of specializes at that. I don’t debate with them, of course.  I just try  to convey that it isn’t really extraordinary of heroic, it’s merely different.  It’s strange to them because it’s not their normal.  It was strange to me, too.  But now, not so much.

For this weekend, right now as I’m writing this, I was invited to play in the very old people’s division of Nationals, as in, the ultimate (frisbee*) national tournament.  If you’re new to this blog, I passionately (sometimes irrationally) love ultimate.  I’ve never played in Nationals.  This was a life goal, which at 47 I thought had passed me.  Then I was invited…and couldn’t go.

I’m not writing this for you to feel sorry for  Okay, check that. Yeah, I’ll take the sympathy.  It hurts.

I couldn’t play because in the aftermath of my accident, I was found at fault (I pulled out and didn’t see him coming in time, and have no memory of it to say otherwise) and he was “suggesting” that we might need to pay $10,000 or more to fix his vehicle.  By the time we got this negotiated down to something that would not derail us financially (thank God),  it was too late.  There were other reasons: serious logistical challenges, putting my family out, missing the first day of school, et al.  It was going to strain our finances severely even if we didn’t have the other guy’s huge  SUV repair bill (in addition to our own huge minivan repair bill and the repair Mike bill).

This is a cost of our living in Nicaragua.  It matters to me a lot more than living without air conditioning or hot water, or changing where I put the toilet paper.

And yet, though I’m bummed, truly, I’m also glad to be home.  Much more than I thought, I was happy to see my friends today and not fixated on what I didn’t get to do.  You could (tentatively) call that maturity, and I suppose that might be true to some degree.  Then again, you might know me and know better.  I think that I’ve come to feel this place is really home and, after two months of living in other people’s homes, I was ready to be back.

If you’ve never done what we do, it’s probably a little difficult to imagine this transition-back-and-forth part.  You might liken it to going on vacation, but it really isn’t like that, for me.  Some missionaries have very different cycles.  Some are here for two years or three years and then back in the States for six months or a year.  I wouldn’t like that, for our children.  Some missionaries rarely go back at all.  I’m not signing up for that, either, again especially for our kiddos and their relationships with our extended family.  One of the highest costs we pay (yes ,even higher than foregoing an ultimate tournament) is having them be with their grandparents and cousins once a year, or maybe twice if they come to visit us.

It isn’t a vacation because, instead of going somewhere to relax and take in the sights, it’s my one time to reconnect with some of the most important people in our lives, communicate with the people and churches that support us about how we are and how our work here is going, and make certain that our support is in place for the coming year.  For some people, that’s the hardest part about this life.  Being a bit of a hyper-extrovert, I enjoy that time, but it’s also exhausting and I usually come out of it feeling like I’ve failed to see enough people and to connect as deeply as I’d like.  It’s a lot to keep relationships going when seeing people face-to-face once a year.  There simply is never enough time.  And that’s the nature of our lives, straddling two worlds.

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Evidence that I share “my” man cave with the local Cubs fan (who also happens to be the homeowner).

The people in our lives are extraordinarily generous.  It’s no small thing letting our traveling circus come crash for two weeks or a month.  Exhausting and expensive and noisy and hungry–and then there’s Kim and the kids in addition.  😉  Kim’s dad and step-mom created an “apartment” over their garage expressly so our girls would have somewhere with privacy when we come stay.  My elder sister and my brother-in-law built me a “mancave” in their basement for my visits.  Granted, he uses it the rest of the year, but truly, they did it for my sake.  In some ways, being there with them and enjoying that space is the closest I get to a true time to relax.

I always gain weight when I’m in the States, no matter how hard I try to exercise.  Every visit is special, we’re always feasting, and we get to eat lots of food we miss the rest of the year.  Not all of it is fattening–I must have approached turning a tint of blue this year, I ate so many blueberries in Wenatchee after my in-laws discovered a u-pick organic blueberry patch for $3/lb.  We eat apples and all the stone fruit we can, because that’s our chance for the year.  But I’m also off my usual routine, both for what I eat and how I exercise.  Seven weeks is a long time to do that.  Again, though, our family we stay with truly extends themselves to stock food we like.  We experience God’s love through hummus and granola, cherries and ice cream.

Life goes on while we’re gone.  People transition, kids grow up, that whole pursuit of the American Dream takes place.  I have lots of conversations with God and myself about whether I’m missing the boat.  Is this faith or foolishness?  What is the difference, exactly?

Then I’m preaching at a baptist church I’m and afterwar a guy I’ve never met before tells me how excited he is for the work we’re doing here and the preschool Kim’s starting in our barrio and how he feels like God is leading him, nudging him, to help out.  And he writes a check for $4,000.

And I remember a few things.  This is God’s work he’s called us to.  Maybe we are foolish, but I don’t think that’s the bottom line.  The bottom line is that God loves the kids who live in this slum and wants to change the trajectory of their lives.  When the average age of a girl entering prostitution in Nicaragua is nine, the years before nine are how crucial?  And kids who grow up in homes without a single book, without anyone literate in the house, consider how they start school in kindergarten, recognizing no numbers or letters, never having been read to (contrasted with our kids, who owned dozens of books before they could hold, much less read, them).

That’s not all we do here.  We do a lot, when I add it all up.  I preach and I’m an elder and sometimes counselor and I coach and teach and, primarily, I spend a lot of time mentoring young adults.  Kim is a teaching coach, helped start the little school in our barrio, and now will begin a preschool, partnering with our neighbor who has preschool aged kids and herself completed only first grade.  And, most importantly, we’re parenting our traveling circus.

I hope you get that I’m no more bragging about this than I am whining about the challenges we face (except the ultimate tourney; definitely whining about that).  I’m talking about home.  We’re where we belong, doing the work we’re supposed to be doing.  I teach my high school seniors that the quick and dirty definition of your calling is the point at which your passion intersects with the world’s needs.  We’re far from doing this perfectly, and it’s taken me a number of years to embrace this as home (read: stop hating it).

But it makes sense to me.  It’s strange how normal it’s become, strange how it’s not strange anymore. I could have died in my accident (pretty sure the outcome would have been grim, had I not been wearing my seatbelt), but that didn’t make me want not to come back.  Neither did the dirt “road” in front of our house, even though it’s looking particularly daunting in it’s current state (you may have done off-roading that looks tamer than this).  We recently had an emergency in our church community here, and I was the first person they sought out.  I wasn’t here to help.  I didn’t feel guilty for being at my sister’s, spending focused time with one of our daughters, but I felt sad, not being home to care for my friend.

Could you do this?  I suspect you could.  Not exactly the way we do it–possibly much better, using the different gifts and abilities you have.  After five years, I’ve concluded the real test here–possibly the only hurdle that counts–is “will you give your heart to the place you’re at?”

Home is where you invest your heart.  To say, “Home is where the heart is” sounds passive: wherever your heart happens to be, that’s home.  But the question I’ve come to ask, or maybe God has asked me, is “Will you give your heart where you are?”

Then again, that’s a question we can all ask.

 

 

*”Frisbee” is a name brand of a plastic disc that serious ultimate players don’t use for ultimate, but the game is known as “ultimate frisbee” to people who don’t play.  Just one of those cases in which the name brand has become associated with the general object, like “Kleenex” or “Xerox” or “Coke.”  We use Discraft Ultrastars and some use Innova Pulsars.

Tad

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Me with Tad celebrating his birthday

My friend Tad turned twenty-nine today.  It astounds us, Tad’s friends, that Tad is still alive to celebrate twenty-nine years.  Tad is one of my favorite redemption stories.

I’m not going to tell Tad’s story in detail, because I don’t have his permission (though if I asked, I’m certain he’d say, “Sure! What the *bleep*!”).  I’m not going to tell you about riding a longboard fifty miles an hour without a helmet or crashing a motorcycle in the middle of Western Nowhere (or did it break down that time?).  I hope he writes his own story someday.  He’s a gifted writer, and you’ve never heard a story like his.  I promise.

I am going to tell a couple of the things I love most about my friend Tad.  For context, I started mentoring Tad about 10 years ago, plus or minus.  Tad was abused as a child, Tad was kicked out of his home as a teenager, and our time together in earnest began on a phone call:  “Hey, I need to come live at your place soon.  The place where I’m staying, they’re throwing pots and pans at each other.”

Not sure if you’ve been in a pots and pans fight.  I grew up with some serious complications in my home, but I never have.

The ministry I was doing at that time involved having a group of young adults come live on the fifteen acres we had bought and were turning into a retreat center.  This first group was helping us develop the property and “trying out” the program.  Thus, we dubbed them the guinea pigs.  So Tad really was coming to live with us, just not for a month or so still.  But we made it work, because it’s awkward enough staying at someone’s house without witnessing a pots and pans fight.*

If you think I’m describing serious things too jokingly, you should hear Tad tell his stories.  The first thing I love about Tad is his sense of humor.  I have never, ever known anyone who is better at laughing at himself, at life, and at the junk life throws at him than Tad.  Tonight he described riding his long board, trying to cut through some sidewalk construction (when they have a section of sidewalk enclosed with metal bars and plywood, that sort of thing) but though one end was open, the other end had one of the bars at his face level.  He slammed into it with his face.  And he described this event with “Yeah, my black eye just went down.  Even as I was getting hit, I stopped my board with my foot, and saved it from going into traffic!  I said, ‘Oh, Man!  Come on!’  But my first thought was really, ‘Those are some good cheekbones I’ve got!'”

Me with Tad celebrating his birthday

By “rights,” if you heard half–no, one quarter of the things that have happened to Tad, you’d say, “There’s a guy with good reason to be bitter.”  But he’s not.  He’s the opposite.  He’s mirthful.  I don’t know if I’d describe more than a handful of people in my life with that word, but Tad is.  He finds the laughter.  He makes fun of himself.  He is, by the way, the12196087_10153698899026322_3188363402865772954_nreigning World Champion Oyster Shucker.  Nope, not kidding.  Mind you, Tad can’t stand oysters.  Wouldn’t eat one if you paid him.  Okay, maybe on a dare.  The whole thing is hilarious, especially to Tad–though he did win a lot of money and that huge trophy (well, he gets to keep it for the year).

This might sound like Tad takes nothing seriously; I would say Tad laughs at nearly everything but still takes some things seriously (though himself, not so much).  Tad is a Christian. He is no one’s stereotype of a Christian.  He defies those stereotypes. He has a cross tattooed on one arm and a Romans reference on the other, yet his girlfriend (also an awesome human being) at first thought he was being ironic.  But Tad is a servant.  Tad looks after the least.  Tad is the one many people call when they’re in trouble–and I mean, people who would never call a church, or, frankly, someone like me–for help.  He rescues lost people, because he’s been a lost person and he knows both sides.

All that, a heart strikingly similar in some respects to how I understand Jesus’ heart, and yet no one would pick Tad out of a crowd, or out at a party, as a Jesus follower.  He doesn’t look like one.  He doesn’t sound like one.  But what I really mean by that is he doesn’t look or sound like standard expectations for one.  That’s ironic, don’t you think, when Jesus himself didn’t look or act or sound like the standard expectations for…himself.  For the messiah.  Drunkard?  Glutton?  Friend of people who would never call a religious person for help.

You might have guessed, this is another of the things I love most about my friend Tad.  He’s following Jesus as Tad.  He’s messed up in a bunch of ways–he’d be the first to admit it.  He’s made any…interesting choices.  He takes very poor care of himself (Tad, if you’re reading this: GET SOME SLEEP!**) and moderation is not his strong suit.  But he gets grace.  He gets it for himself and the people around him and even for the people who judge him.  He lives out being Jesus-like in a sphere of people who don’t hear much about Jesus, who don’t read Jesus books or listen to Jesus radio or go to those places where certain folks (ahem) talk about Jesus come a Sunday morning.  And he can do that precisely because he defies all those stereotypes.

I’ve discipled Tad a long time, taught him about the Bible, shared my wisdom, bailed him out a few times (not literally…that I remember) and held out hope for him–and held onto him–when it looked like he was going over the cliff.  In return, he’s shown me Jesus.  Jesus in Tad.  Mirthful Jesus.

I love the guy.

 

*Of course, if you can catch a pan, you can catch a ball.

**I know that sounds ironic, coming from me, but trust me, I’m like a male lion compared to Tad.

Ellie Wiesel, Black Lives Matter, and Police

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Of the people whom I have met in person, the one whom I respect perhaps more than any other died last week.  Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, a prolific writer, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.  He was 15 years old when the Nazis sent him to Auschwitz, and later Buchenwald.  The Allies liberated Buchenwald in 1945.  If you don’t know who he was, or if you do and want to hear some of his thoughts and memories, listen to this interview.  If you haven’t read Night, I believe you should.

TERRY GROSS: Why have you made it your life work to bear witness?

ELIE WIESEL: What else could one do, having gone through certain events? I believe a human being – if he or she wants to remain human, then he or she must do something with what we have seen, endured, witnessed.

We are faced with horrors.  I don’t think the world has gotten worse in the last week–we may be myopic if we suspect it has– but the United States has just witnessed horrible, public tragedies, violence committed by police officers against black men, violence committed against police officers by a black man. I’ve already shared some of my views about our racism.  Choosing sides as if one is right and the other is wrong strikes me as inhuman and certainly contradicts following Jesus in any way I could comprehend.  

Trevor Noah, the current host of The Daily Show, said this:

“You know, the hardest part of having a conversation surrounding police shootings in America, it always feels like in America, it’s like if you take a stand for something, you automatically are against something else,” Noah said during his broadcast, which was taped before the events in Dallas.

 

“But with police shootings, it shouldn’t have to work that way. For instance, if you’re pro-Black Lives Matter, you’re assumed to be anti-police, and if you’re pro-police, then you surely hate black people. When in reality, you can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we should all be.”

I also recommend the entire monologue from which this quote comes.  

Like many of you, I’m trying to make sense of these deaths and I’m trying to figure out how to respond.  Like many of you, I’m grieving, I’m angry, and I’m numb, all at once.  

I experience white privilege.  I know some people hate that term. I think it’s accurate.  The very fact that I have choices in how I respond–or don’t respond–points to my privileged position.  I can ignore all of this if I choose, and it will not affect me directly.  

That beings so, do I have any right to say anything in response to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s killings?  

Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson were killed in Dallas last week.  
Vinson Ramos, Melissa Ventura, Anthony Nuñez, Pedro Villanueva and Raul Saavedra-Vargas were shot and killed by police last week.  
Then today–today–Joseph Zangaro and Ron Kienzle, bailiffs in Jackson, Michigan were fatally shot by a prisoner.  
Is there no end?  
Bullied children matter.  The kids who get beat up, picked on, humiliated, abused, ganged up on, those kids matter.  I know bullying continues and we have not successfully defended all the victims of bullying–all three of my daughters experienced some form of bullying in school–but strong movements are springing up in many places and in many forms to advocate for these children, to stand with them, to empower them to speak up, and to address the violence against them.  
Nowhere have I heard anyone respond, “But all children matter!”  Of course all children matter.  Calling for us to focus on, and stand up for, bullied children neither denies nor diminishes the value of other children.  There is no inherent reduction of non-bullied children’s value when we take a stand to stop bullying.   
Black lives matter.  We have to be pro-cop and pro-black.  It’s what “we all should be.”  
When policemen and women get murdered, we speak up.  We shout.  We pursue changes to make them safer, to defend them.  We ask, “What will help?  What can we do?”
Black lives matter.  When black men and women get murdered, we speak up.  We shout.  We pursue changes to make them safer, to defend them.  We ask, “What will help?  What can we do?”  
I have a right to say this.  I have a responsibility to say this.  So do you.  
I respect Elie Wiesel because he refused to be consumed by hatred.  Every member of his family except his two older sisters were murdered in the Holocaust.  (Stop and imagine that: every one of your relatives but two are killed.)  He had every reason, as we understand such things, to hate those who committed these horrible acts of violence.  Instead, he chose to bear witness.  He did it, he said, in order to remain human.  
I know there are people associated with Black Lives Matter who state that they hate cops.  There are also racist police who hate black people.  The police department in Ferguson, Missouri, was found by the Department of Justice to have a consistent record of violating civil rights and worse.  I understand many of us don’t want to hear this, but it’s true.  Denying it, brushing it off, or covering it up will not help us in our current crisis.  Neither will declaring all police evil and hateful and racist.  
When we talk about being patriotic, my best understanding is that we speak the truth for–and to–our country and hold our country to its highest values.  “My country, right or wrong” is not patriotism; it is willfully blind obeisance.  So to be patriotic in the U.S. is always to pursue the ideal, “and justice for all.”  
By the same measure, looking away, or claiming that if blacks just obeyed the law there would be no problem, or supporting all actions of all police indiscriminately, is not right.  It’s not justice.  It’s not patriotic.  It’s not even truly support for our police departments, in the long run.  
I am a pastor.  Whether I am coaching, mentoring, teaching, preaching, or writing, I am pastoring.  Pastoring is my orientation, my giftedness, my calling.  Tragically, a number of pastors do horrible things.  In our sphere, these things most often involve money, sex, or power.  A pastor who embezzles, who commits sexual abuse, who twists his or her influence to manipulate and subjugate and demean, this is a sinner like the rest of us but also someone who must be stopped from hurting others.  Arguably the most grievous sin the United States church has committed is choosing to deny such abuses, sometimes by silencing the abused, or by moving the abuser to a different congregation, or even quietly removing the abuser without acknowledging the wrongs committed. Even this last, while the best of bad choices, leaves people horribly damaged and causes ongoing harm to vulnerable people.  
It’s a nightmare for a church when a leader abuses power, but the only redemptive action is to confront the abuser and stop the abuse.  Churches that choose this path offer the possibility of healing for everyone involved–including the one who committed the abuse–and through admission of guilt and wrongdoing can begin to rebuild broken trust and restore relationships.  I know there are crucial differences between church leadership and police work, but I do believe this principle must remain constant for both: if one of us abuses our power, we on the inside have the primary responsibility first to prevent abuse, but failing that, to identify and stop that abuse.  As the church, we extend grace, but if we ever “defend one of our own” by excusing or covering up their abuse, we have violated our sacred trust and damaged the God’s Kingdom.  Jesus has scary words for people who cause spiritual damage to others, especially those in positions of authority.  
All of us must bear witness to the truth in our spheres.  All of us must speak up and refuse to be silenced.  We are all responsible to hold one another accountable.  
Our black brothers and sisters are grieving and outraged.  I pray  that they can find their way through to forgiveness and love and bearing witness.  I have no right to judge how African-Americans in the U.S. respond to these tragedies because I have not experienced racism as they have.  My family members are not being killed.  I cannot pretend to understand.  As a follower of Jesus, I believe in a non-violent response.  But again, I am not the victim of this violence.  I think one of worst responses to these tragedies is to tell others how they should grieve or protest.  If you had tried to do that to me after my son had died…  
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Chris Magnus, police chief of Richmond, CA, supporting Black Lives Matter. Read more about how his department has helped lower violence in their community.

I have never been a police officer.  Frankly, I doubt I would have the courage or the ability to remain calm and make right decisions under such pressure and threat.  As I’ve said here before, a life-long friend of mine is a policeman and I have the utmost respect for him and for the work he and his colleagues do.  His life matters to me, and the fact that it might be threatened sheerly for his efforts to protect his community is an outrage that I must speak against.  I know not everyone feels protected by the U.S. police.  I live in a country where police protection is often dubious, at best.  I do believe it is our police departments’ responsibility to address abuses of power among their own members.  Having said that, I am extremely grateful for the work U.S. police do keeping the peace, particularly because many of them put themselves at severe risk to do so.  
I know this:  hatred sows more hatred and begets violence.  Every one of us can do something to change the current atmosphere, this storm of rage and violence and killing.  I know many of us feel helpless in the face of it all, and it’s easy either to despair or grow cynical.  It’s also easy to lash out, in either direction.  
Pray.  I don’t care if you don’t believe in prayer (did I say that out loud?), take the chance to ask someone to help.  Honestly, can it hurt?  If you just can’t, I understand, but if you are a Christian, this is the time.  Fast and pray.  
If you are not directly involved, get to know someone better who is.  Yes, that may come across as patronizing or awkward.  Someone might reject you.  OR, you might develop a deeper friendship and understand a little better from a perspective other than your own (and all the folks who agree with you).  Similarly, think about whom you already know who might have more personal insights into Black Lives Matter or violence against police than you do.  
If you’re reading this and you do have a more personal, direct understanding, if you are black, if you are a police officer, if you’re less white privileged than I am, teach us.  Share your perspective.  No, not everyone will listen.  Some people are shitheads not yet enlightened and awake.  But try.  Please.  Help us.  Help us to understand.  Help us to help, and not just talk with our heads up our…  Some people will listen.  
Speak up as a citizen.  Tell your elected officials that you want to see change.  Ideally, you would do this after you’ve learned more and have an educated grasp of what change would help most.  
Here’s the big one, and please, I beg of you, take this seriously:  love more.  Love yourself more.  Love yourself honestly and look at your dark side.  A few days ago, I broke my rule and read a bunch of Facebook comments on some political posts.  Within five minutes, I was convinced that most people are rude, hateful, arrogant and narrow-minded to the point of being blind.  That’s not actually true, thank God.  But a bunch of people feel free to call strangers horrible names because they disagree politically, as if that will help.  But of course, they aren’t really trying to help, they are simply venting their spleen.  Sowing hatred and enmity. Most of us aren’t writing those things–we aren’t, right?–but we’ve all probably got some of those thoughts and beliefs concealed in our hearts (except my mother-in-law, I suspect).  Bring them into the light.  Expose them and love yourself enough to rid yourself of that.  
Then love others more.  I don’t believe Jesus was naive, I don’t think this is naive.  Jesus lived in a violent, divisive, racist atmosphere.  He didn’t say those things about loving one another and loving our enemies on the set of a 50’s sitcom.  Make choices to express love and kindness and forgiveness and grace.  To strangers.  To friends.  To family.  To enemies.  Overcome hatred with love.  
It’s going badly.  The status quo is scary and getting scarier.  This is not the time for us to bolt our doors and say, “It’s not my fault,” or “I’ve done my part.”   An angry, violent, seemingly self-loathing man killed forty-nine human beings in an night club in Orlando.  It was an act of terrorism–he’d pledged allegiance to ISIS–and a hate crime.  That was less than a month ago.  But it’s not in the headlines anymore, because we have more recent tragedies and violence and death.  
I believe God is bigger than all this.  I also believe that God’s means of changing the world–always–is through people loving one another.  That’s his thing.  
Tonight on my Facebook feed I saw this.  Opposing protesters crossing lines, hugging, praying together.  At the time of this writing, it had 42,000,000 views.  Why?  WE ALL WANT TO SEE THIS!  We all want to figure out what to do!  No, those moments of grace didn’t solve the problem, but I believe, I believe they are part of the solution.  
We’ve got to love one another.  I don’t know how, exactly, and I’m still failing at this with some people in my life, but today we’ve got to try. As John’s first letter says, “…let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Coming back to Elie Wiesel, my friend Morgan and I heard him together when he spoke to a small gathering of us before addressing an auditorium full that night.  Morgan wrote me, ‘I remember him saying that he thought a good measure of a person was ability to experience gratitude.”  
Wiesel also wrote, 
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
I’m guessing that none of the the readers of my blog are big-time haters.  But are we indifferent to others’ suffering when it does not touch us directly?  Do we feel grief and misery for a day or a week and then return to our lives?  Do we experience gratitude for these lives and desire to allow others to live such lives, too?  
Are we, each of us, bearing witness through whatever means we can, in whatever way God makes possible?  
Because we have to change this.  Lord have mercy, we must try.  
Here is a great and challenge blog post by my friend Laura, exhorting us to do something practical: speak up.  
Here is a deeper look at saying “All Lives Matter” versus “Black Lives Matter.”  
And here is where you can learn more about Elie Wiesel.

Weird to Be Here

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It’s weird being back in the United States.  We’ve been in the process of making Nicaragua home for the past five years.  It’s working.  When the time to depart crept up on me this year, I was excited to see friends and family, but didn’t actually want to leave Managua.  That’s a far cry from our first couple years there, when I was hanging on by my fingernails, counting down the last three weeks before I could bail.  During one of those summers, I came home fully committed not to go back.  I just couldn’t.  I told God, “No way.”  But He slowly changed my heart throughout the summer, and when it was time to go, I got to sprint through an airport and watch a gate agent call the plane back to return for a handful of us.  From “I won’t go” to “Don’t leave me here!”

Now I’m “home,” which has never felt less like home.  Of course we love seeing our friends and family.  But it’s different here in the United States of America.  It’s weird to drive without being honked at.  It’s weird to be crossing the local bridge, slow down to switch lanes–and have the driver in the next lane slow down even more so I can get over.  It’s weird to have so many choices in every grocery, drug, and convenience store, in every aisle, for every product.  Somebody came up with new stuff while we were gone.  New ice cream flavors, new and improved drinks, heck, I got to try four kinds of cherries I’d never heard of before.

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Across the road from our house

We live in a place where people are desperately poor.  When you’re used to keeping an eye on everything so it doesn’t get stolen–and failing, as a lot still disappears–it’s weird to see people set their belongings down, knowing those items will still be there when they return.  I went with my daughter to see a comedian in the Performing Arts Center and someone there saved a seat with a purse: no one around and a purse sitting on a chair, unwatched, unguarded.  That’s a bizarre sight to us now.

Saying “hi” to people on the sidewalk or in a store here gets a range of responses from greetings to shrugs to scowls to looking the other way.  I’m used to saying “adios” or “buenos” to a whole lot of people when I walk in Managua.  I get a 90%+ response rate there.  That doesn’t work as well here…unless I’m hiking.  When we hike, we all say “hi.”  Hikers will greet one another with a smile.  Hikers on the trail are like Nicaraguans on the street.

People are busier, time is counted more carefully, and there’s less stopping to talk here in the U.S.. In Nicaragua, even if you are working, if someone you know comes by, you will take time to have a conversation.  Not a 30-second “Howareya?gottago,” but a real interaction.  Not in every store, but in pharmacies, auto shops, certainly any small, non-chain business.  You just don’t do that here with people who are working.  You might chat with your friend while she’s at work, but probably for less than two minutes.  Five max.

Money is just crazy here.  It’s hard to grasp how much of it there is floating around.  I know I can’t convince anyone, but it feels worth it to try, so here goes:  If you live in the U.S., you are rich.*  You might feel poor because of the wealth that surrounds you and all the voices clamoring for what you have, but trust me, you’re wealthy.  There is so much to spend money on and so many people freely spending it.  I can’t quite figure out how to feel about it, honestly.  We live ten to eleven months of our year next to people who consider $5 a lot of money.  We hire one neighbor to do a little work, around an hour a day, which is a mutually beneficial situation.  Symbiotic, even.  She would like to have us wait and pay her at the end of the month, so she could get a larger sum that she can save up…but every week, something has happened and she needs the money now. And I’m certain they earn more than $2 per day, which means they make more than the average Nicaraguans.  When you live on so little, there is no margin.

It’s hard, therefore, when I’m hearing about how the economy is doing so poorly here.  Not that people’s crises aren’t real; of course they are.  But after five years in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, our measures have changed so much. Even though on one level coming back here and spending $20 or $30 at the Farmer’s Market feels normal, it can also feel like vertigo when we try to adjust.  That’s exactly what I mean by “weird”:  it’s both a “normal” behavior for me and causing severe dissonance.  Simultaneously.

I think the single hardest thing for me about living in Nicaragua, and the thing which makes it both a relief and difficult to visit the U.S., is that things work here.  You might not think they do.  And again, I know this isn’t a reflection of everyone’s life here.  But roads are smooth, people obey traffic laws, when you pay a bill it’s paid, if you get a ticket you just mail in your fine, and people wait their turn in line.  You might be able to site an example when this wasn’t true and it probably pissed you off–but that’s because it was an exception!  When that guy jumped the line and pushed his way straight to the counter, everyone else probably glared and grumbled about it.  But I live in a culture where waiting passively behind others until your turn comes up is frequently not how it’s done.  If you walk into a place of business, there might be a line to the counter, but there also might be a crush of people six wide and sixteen deep, and you jockey and elbow until you get a turn–or you never get to the front.

I know that sounds rude.  It feels rude to me.  But waiting in line politely is a luxury practiced by people who know they’ve got enough.  If your life is a constant struggle with scarce resources and you’ve experienced going to bed hungry or sending your children to bed hungry, pushing for what you need may make more sense than letting others step in front of you.

 

4555337764_cd26ac9e86_zYet there is a flip side to this, too. Nicaraguans can wait for hours in lines when U.S. folks would be making a fuss within minutes.  I know that sounds contradictory, but it’s true.  The day the Sandinistas were giving away food baskets near our barrio, hundreds were standing in line in the sun and humidity (did I mention it’s warm there?) for three to four hours.  To get rice and beans and sugar and oil.  You probably don’t need rice and beans and sugar and oil that much.  Neither do I.  I was raised in a culture in which waiting for a long time was bad.  Yes, we take our turns, but standing and waiting for longer than fifteen minutes for anything less than a cool concert or a great rollercoaster felt like an affront.  And I’ve never gone to bed hungry, except by choice.

Why are some line situations survival of the fittest while others are endured patiently?  I don’t know.  I may not yet understand Nicaraguan culture well enough to see.

One summer when we were back vi7a264e67-8d57-45bb-98a3-c1c20a5058b9siting, we went to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago with my sisters.  The kids and I visited the primate habitat.  It’s huge and has lots of steps so you can see the apes and orangutans and gorillas from different perspectives.  We were zipping up and down those steps, excited to see the animals, when we noticed that people around us were having trouble.  The folks walking in front of us were sweating profusely, soaking their shirts.  My daughter and I made an uncharitable comment about their fitness level.  Then we noticed that several other people were also panting, dripping sweat, stopping to recover.

Finally it occurred to us:  it’s humid in here!  We literally hadn’t noticed.  We were acclimated to the tropics, and this exhibit was designed to simulate the tropics.  Our bodies didn’t react because it felt normal to us.

All the weirdness I’m describing isn’t weird, of course.  But that primate exhibit wasn’t particularly humid, either…to a gorilla.  Or us.

That primate exhibit wasn’t particularly humid, either…to a gorilla.  Or us.

It truly does depend on what your normal is.  In that sense, “weird” means simply “what’s not normal (anymore) to me.”

Having said that, I’m not one who subscribes wholesale to cultural relativism, either.  It’s not “all good,” just because “it’s the culture.”  Female circumcision is a crime and a butchery wherever it’s practiced.  They do some horrible things in Nicaragua and we do some horrible things in the U.S.  It may be easier to see when you’re looking from the outside, though it feels more offensive to call it out.  Maybe that’s why I’m feeling so weird this time around: I don’t know if I’m an outsider looking in or an insider looking out.  Am I the faithful opposition offering a just critique, or a mouthy visitor, an ugly American turning his judgment on his own country (kind of an impressive accomplishment, that).  I feel in between.

A good friend warned me, about a year after we’d moved to Nicaragua, that I had joined the class of people who no longer feel fully at home in any one place, but have their hearts divided and can move between cultures.  Yes, we can move back and forth between cultures, successfully if not seamlessly.  I sincerely hope we’re making a positive difference.

But not, I’m learning, without a cost.

 

 

* I know that people suffer poverty in the U.S. as well, but it’s on a different scale.  If you earn $8,000-$10,000 in a year in the U.S., you are poor.  But many people live on $1-$2 dollars a day–as many as 75% by some estimates–and that looks like something else entirely.

Love Your Neighbor AS YOURSELF, Part 1: How We Speak to Ourselves

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“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus names these the two greatest (most crucial, central, important) commandments.  And he said the latter is like the former.  They are similar.  They are related.  Loving our neighbor is like loving God.  

But how are we to love our neighbors?  

Jesus covered this.  We love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  In the same way.  

So, breaking this down, Jesus really gives three commandments here.  Love God, love yourself, love your neighbor.  

The way we love ourselves is to guide how we love our neighbors.  That means if we hope to obey this commandment, we have to figure out how to love ourselves.  

Jesus proposed a radical idea here .  He did that a lot.  One might immediately respond: who does this?  Who loves the person next door the same way, to the same degree, with the same commitment, that you and I love ourselves?  A huge portion of what we do, we do for ourselves.  So that commitment I have to myself, that same commitment I am to show to my neighbor.  Perhaps not with the same breadth, but to the same degree and with the same intensity.   That’s how I read Jesus’ words.  

Stop for a moment and consider how much of your life goes into thinking about yourself, planning for your own well-being, acting on behalf of you.  That’s how we are to love our neighbors, too.  I think another honest response to this might be “That’s not realistic!”

Jesus wasn’t realistic.  I mean, Jesus did not look at the human reality around him and try to match or line up with it.  Jesus spun this vision of a Kingdom that offers to turn the world upside down.  

Love your neighbor isn’t “Live and let live.”  Again being honest (dangerous habit), for many of us–including within the Christian community–live and let live would be a step up from how we behave much of the time.  Jesus commanded something wildly stronger and more costly than that.*  Merely going our own way and not judging, gossiping about, criticizing or impinging upon our neighbors falls sadly short of Jesus’ command.  Again, if we lived up to this standard, collectively, we would make the world a vastly better place that it currently is.  I’m convinced of that.   It wouldn’t solve our problems but it would severely reduce the hatred and the friction that lead to conflict and, too often, violence. 

However, Jesus doesn’t command, “Just leave well enough alone,” or “Let a bee be a bee and let it be.”  He doesn’t even mention, “Let a sleeping dog lie.”  

Jesus wants us to love ourselves.  It’s the crucial step in his “get the neighbors loved” plan.  When we learn to love ourselves, we’ve got what it takes to love our neighbors.  I also suspect we won’t learn to love ourselves until we learn to love God–but also that as we learn to love ourselves, we learn to love God, so these are interconnected and spiral upwards (we hope) together.  I must understand and apply God’s grace for me to love myself.  I have to get it that I’m loved, and lovable, not when I behave myself or live up to the standard (whichever I’m buying into today) but now, always, because God actually is love.  He loves me with this radical love that makes the Kingdom of God real by transforming me–me!–into someone with the capacity to love others.  

So even though we are self-focused much of the time, loving ourselves for many of us actually proves difficult.  Another honest answer to “love your neighbor as yourself,” for many of us, is “bummer for you, neighbor.”  

Okay, that’s a long intro, and I’m not done yet.  I don’t know what questions you ask yourselves when you tell people stuff, but I often ask, “Who am I to say this?  Am I qualified?”  For this topic, I know people who seem to like themselves a whole lot more than I like me.  Liking is not the same as loving, but it gives me pause nonetheless.  The flip side is, I’ve lived with depression and, in the words of songwriter extraordinaire Bill Mallonee, “I’ve been trying to negotiate peace/with my own existence” for a long time now–and it’s working.  I don’t find loving myself particularly easy, but I am, and I think I’m even getting better at it,..slowly.  

So my credentials here are, “This doesn’t come naturally, oh, far from it, but I’ve learned these things that help me.”  

 

How do you love yourself?  

I can see three main dimensions to loving ourselves:  how we speak to ourselves, how we behave toward ourselves, and how we view ourselves.  Put another way: self-talk, self-treatment and self-image.  

I took the route through Jesus and his Kingdom to get here because I don’t believe that whatever makes us feel good is self-love.  I don’t believe that always avoiding people who bother us or whom we find difficult is self-love.  I don’t believe that spending all we have on ourselves and our family in the name of self-love is self-love.  Too much is never enough; enough is enough, and too much is bad for us.  How much is enough?  Good question!  We’ll ponder that in “How We Behave Toward Ourselves.”  

Making ourselves feel superior to others is not self-love.  Living in denial is not self-love.  Refusing to surrender defenses that no longer help us survive but now hinder our spiritual and emotional growth is not self-love.  

That list could probably go on for a while…

 

HOW WE SPEAK TO OURSELVES

Jesus taught me, about 10 years ago now, “Never say anything about yourself that Jesus doesn’t say about you.”  Yeah, I’m telling you that Jesus said that to me.  It’s not written in Scripture explicitly, but it’s a reasonable extrapolation of 1)Psalm 139, 2)the concept that Jesus is Lord (over who we are as well as what we do) which confirms with teachings like, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” 3)the various passages that show Jesus knows the hearts of people and what’s inside us better than we know ourselves (makes sense, being Creator and all), 4)and that his view of us is the one that counts, which all the teaching about his having final judgment over us clearly implies.

I call this life-changing.  It saved me from losing arguments with myself over how bad I am, how much I screw up, how hopeless I am in my screw-ups and badness, etc.  

Implied in this directive, we have to know what Jesus says about us in order to say only what he says and reject everything else.  That means studying, meditating on, and internalizing his words.  That means spending time with him and letting him speak those words to us.  That means surrounding ourselves with the community of people who will speak God’s words to us.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

But God has put his Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men.  When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others.  God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man.  Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.  He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.  He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ.  The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.

Getting into some specifics:

Jesus will say I sin but will never say I’m a loser, or hopeless, or irredeemable.  

Jesus will tell me what I do wrong only as a means of leading me to do right.  He will never make me feel condemned and hopeless.  That’s the other guy.  The difference between “godly guilt” (or conviction) “that leads to repentance” and “worldly guilt that leads to death” is the former always, always offers a way to act on it to go in a better direction (repentance means “to turn around and go the other way”); the latter leaves you to rot in self-accusation and self-loathing.  

Jesus won’t call me all the names I call myself.  He doesn’t go into rages at me.  He has compassion for me when I feel awful about myself.  He isn’t piling it on; he’s refusing to cast that stone at me, and he’s the only one qualified to hurl it.  

This next is hard, not because it’s really any different than the preceding but because all of us who have experienced it know the power it wields.  The negative, destructive things someone told you about yourself, Jesus never says them.  The false prophecies and condemnations spoken over you–“You’ll always be like this,” “You are the worst –,” “You are hopeless,” “You’re a failure,” “You’re pathetic,” “You’ll never amount to anything,” “You’re worthless”–are wrong, because Jesus doesn’t say them.  Jesus calls you his beloved.  Most damaging, the messages that you now tell yourself because you bought that person’s oft-repeated lies when you were too vulnerable to fend them off, THOSE ARE NOT WHAT JESUS SAYS ABOUT YOU.  Therefore, don’t say them.  

This is very easy to type and very difficult to live.  Sometimes these messages have sunk so deep into our being we are barely aware we speak them in our minds.  “That’s just who we are.”

NO< IT’S REALLY NOT.  Not if Jesus doesn’t say so.  Which, thank God, he doesn’t.  

I believe these are habits of thought.  Like any habit, they take time and discipline to break.  Good habits take time and consistency to form.  Studies show that bad habits are easier for us to break when we simultaneously establish other, better habits with which to replace them.  

So when that voice in my head says, “You suck!” I’ll do better if, instead of saying, “Shut up!” or “No I don’t!” or trying to ignore it, I say (aloud or in my head, depending on the company I’m keeping at that moment) “Actually, Jesus says he loves me and enjoys my company.  A lot.”  When I’m suffering the accusation that, because I have again failed in the area in which I most often fail, this proves I, myself, am a failure, I remind myself that Jesus’ measures of success and failure are the only ones that count, and his view goes something like, “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or wear, because your heavenly father knows you need them; instead, strive for his kingdom and these things will be given to you, as well.”  

When I can’t, then I tell someone who will tell me the Truth, capital T.  I need someone who knows me well enough to speak Truth in a way I can hear it (“For God’s sake, you dummy, when will you learn that God loves you” isn’t all that effective, for me) and someone whom I trust enough that a)I will tell them, and b)I will give their words credence.  I have to trust that they really know what Jesus says about me versus what I am saying about myself when my head or heart is in the dark and can’t see light.  I have a sister, along with several friends, who love me in this way.  

Needless to say, I don’t follow this perfectly every time.  I’m still getting there.  But I see progress.  I come back out of the darkness more quickly.  This has helped–not solved, but helped–my overall struggles with depression.  My trust in Jesus has grown.  

Loving myself this way is how I love other people when I’m doing a good job of loving them.  Especially when I’m mentoring or discipling, I’m focusing on speaking God’s truth to them, confronting the lies they believe about themselves, replacing those with Jesus’ love and grace.  

The funny part is (and if you’re prone to guilt, maybe don’t read this paragraph) if we aren’t believing what Jesus says about us, if what we’re saying contradicts what he’s saying, we’re calling him a liar.  We’re claiming to know better.  So if the above seems too touchy-feely or pop psychology for you, put it in these terms: We disobey the Lord of the Universe when we insist that we know ourselves better than he does and refuse to believe what he tells us.  Being “tougher on ourselves” does not make us better disciples, if by “tougher” we mean self-criticism outside of simple confession of sin and repentance; it often puts us in the position of trying to pay God back with our self-punishment.  I think our pride is wrapped up in that approach.  Believing and saying only what Jesus says about us is submission to his reign as King.  He gets the final say; we don’t.  That’s what obedience means, whether for how we spend our money or our time or how we speak to ourselves.  

I think the most important commandments are the ones we most need to obey, both to glorify God and for our own wholeness and joy.  Of course, it may also be true that all other commandments follow directly from these.  Therefore, growing in loving ourselves in a godly way is not extra or sentimental or a nice idea.  Loving ourselves and becoming people who can love our neighbors as ourselves is central to our role in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus thinks it’s a really big deal.  

Here again, what he says goes.  

 

 

 

*I’d love to tell you this was his most radical commandment, but he also said, “Love your enemy.”  We’ll save that for another time.   

Something Like Faith, Chapter 11

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Something changed between Guin and me during that trip.  Before, I’d felt like I was walking on Faberge eggshells (I broke one of Gretchen’s—don’t ask), preventing anyone from pinching me so that I wouldn’t find the whole thing was REM  neurons firing.  Now we stroll arm-in-arm like an old couple, laughing at our classmates when they fawn over or snipe at us.  We’re trying to decide if we want to go to prom in two weeks.  Guin says why not spend the night dancing together?  I tell her being at a high school dance would feel juvenile when our next big event will be a wedding. 

Honestly, part of me would love to go—how vindicated would I feel to have her all dolled up and stunning for me?  “Hey, that the loser who almost blew the playoff game?”  “Yeah, and she’s marrying him!”  But this is probably not my most mature motive, and the other truth is that I don’t want to spend a dime on prom, nor do I want Guin paying.  So I’m playing the “we’re too mature” card, because it sucks playing the “I’m still broke and trying to figure out how we’re coming up with thousands (and thousands) of dollars for college” card.  The latter is more mature, but I’m not ready to say it out loud.  She probably knows, but she’s not forcing it.    

Prom means graduation is close.  I’ve pulled off my classes, assuming I can eke out my math and chem finals.  Even counting uncertainties about the fall, I’ve never felt more secure…which scares the snot out of me.  The other shoe has always fallen in my life, eventually if not sooner.  I’m trying to get out of that mindset.  But I don’t know whether I’m safe to try.  “Secure” is a relative term for me.    

Guinevere won’t be valedictorian.  She decided having a negligible chance didn’t matter enough to take two extra classes she didn’t need or want.   Her parents probably blame me, but they’re polite.  Always.  I think they’re in the transition between hoping I’m a passing phase and grasping the implications if I’m not.  The other day, Gretchen asked if I’d heard back from all my colleges.   

“Oh, that’s right.  I’m sorry.  You already were accepted, weren’t you?  Are you still waiting to hear on scholarships?”   

“Yeah, I am.  From UCLA.”   

“Well, good luck with that.”  Then she thought a moment and added, more to herself than to me, “Good luck to all of us, I guess.”   

Jeff has not been hanging around much.  I can tell myself I’m busy and always behind and we don’t have a chance right now.  But when was I not busy?  It never kept us from getting together before, even if we only talked when he drove me around.  He had to pour a ton of money and effort into making his car pristine again, since a fender got munched and the cost of bodywork is insane.  But that’s not it, either. 

 

Guinevere and I tried to talk with him about Emily.  It didn’t work.  Okay, let’s say “disaster.”  I should have gone alone.  I couldn’t get it through my head that he would be feeling like a third wheel when he’s been my one unwavering support with her.  I suspect—though I haven’t told Guin—that Jeff wanted with Emily what the two of us have.  He wanted Emily to be his Guin.  It makes sense:  he’s the one who plans to stick around, work on cars, get his own shop and settle down.  He’s a much more qualified candidate for “find-a-wife-and-build-a-picket-fence.”  He’s friendly with Darla but no longer flirts.  She even asked me what happened.  What could I say?  I suggested he was on his period and when she laughed, I bailed. 

Forgive me if I summarize, but I don’t want to relive all the details.   

Us: Jeff, we think Emily isn’t the right girl for you.  

Jeff:  What the hell do you know about it?   

Us: It just seems to us– 

Jeff: Wait, Guin’s never even met her.   

 Us: Well, yeah, she has, we went out there– 

Jeff: You did what?  Why?  About me?  

Us: No.  Nothing to do with you? 

Jeff:  What?  That makes no sense.  Why? 

 

And then I tried to explain about Amethyst.  I could have said, before Guin knew, that I simply hadn’t told anyone.  Trinket did make me swear, after all.  But here I was telling him I had a secret I’d never told anyone, including my best friend—except that I had told Guinevere and also this girl…who we think isn’t good enough for him.  He just clammed up after that.  Nodded a lot.  Telling him Emily knew something about Trink just sounded too ridiculous when he’d already stopped listening.  I need to apologize, but more than just “I’m sorry for not telling you.”  I have to try to explain the whole thing, especially what happened out there with Emily.  So far, Jeff won’t allow a chance for that conversation.  So I’m stuck.   

Now I’m trying to be truthful about all of this—turns out it’s not easy.  Telling the truth is a lot more complicated than just saying what I think happens.  Obviously, but I mention this because the time with Emily really screwed up my picture both of “truth” and of…God, I guess, or whatever word you want to use.  I don’t pretend to have a handle on God, even whether “He” exists, much less how He thinks or if He acts, and least of all His opinion of me.  But before this, I was doing okay leaving it all vague, because nothing had really forced me to decide.  I thought the Silence, capital “S,” kind of argued for the whole business being in people’s heads.  Folks can pretend there’s a Universal Being if they want and it makes them feel better, so some people do and forget they were pretending.  I’ve made requests and comments for years, starting before Trinket left; it would take a lot to forget.  

But two things seem obvious from our trip.  First, Emily knew something she had no business knowing, and even if she has multiple personalities (one of Guin’s theories), mental illness doesn’t explain knowing my sister’s pet name.  She didn’t even get “Amethyst,” which I might be able to explain somehow, like she stumbled on a family record (and come on, that’s far-fetched).  “Trinket.”  That’s not Silence.  Maybe the one word I couldn’t ignore, and she said it. 

Second, and even more disturbing, I had a…strong inclination, an urge, to go to the Reservation by myself.  Even though it made more sense to take Guin, I didn’t want to.  If Guin is right—and I have no way to prove this either direction—I would have had more than a message about Trinket to be sorting out now.  Meaning (I hate saying this, but refusing to admit it doesn’t make it less true) I could have screwed up my whole life right there, and done so consciously.  On purpose.  Maybe pretending that’s not what I was after, but something about Emily…when I called Guinevere that morning and heard her voice, what I wanted one second before became the worst idea I’d ever had.  Then add how that would have played with Jeff.  Even if I had made the right choice when I got there, it still could have come out an irreparable disaster because we’re talking about Emily.  She could have said or done anything, then or afterward.  But I didn’t go alone.   

Sure, I could just call it a bad idea I had but decided, for once, not to act on it.  Maybe that’s what happened.   

But maybe not.   

See how truth starts to slide around merely from my choosing how to describe things? 

 *

Three days before prom, we still haven’t decided.  We kind of have, though, because I needed to rent a tux last week and Guin hasn’t bought a dress.  Gretchen offered to take her shopping and Guin said she wasn’t sure she wanted to spend $500 that way.  Hard to argue with your daughter being mature.   

“Sure, Sweetie.  That makes a lot of sense.  We’ll use it for college expenses.  Maybe that will pay for your books first semester.”      

More cold sweat.  I try to freeze my expression, but fail.  Gretchen glances from me to Guin, then shakes her head just enough so I can see it.  Or did she try to hold back, too?   

“I need to make a few calls.  Will you be joining us for dinner this evening?”  One sign of their adjustment: my standing invitation to meals.   

“No, thank you very much, but I have to work this evening.” 

“You work a lot, don’t you, Paxton?”  Is she complimenting me or commenting on me?   

“Mom means to say that’s one of the things we admire about you, Paxton.  Don’t you, Mother?”    

I miss my days of beating sliced bread, but I think Guin feels more comfortable with the state of things now, even though she jumps to my defense all the time.  Maybe because she jumps to my defense all the time.   

Gretchen purses her lips.  Not the look that generated fantasy rumors about her.  

“Yes, Guinevere, of course.  I’m not sure what else I could have meant.”   

“I am.” 

They watch each other.  I dislike having them argue, though compared with fights at my house it’s  dueling with feather dusters:  someone’s eye could get poked out, but not likely.   

 “I’ll definitely take a rain check, though,” I interject into the silence. 

“Of course,” Gretchen agrees, and walks out before they can resume.  A cease fire after thirty seconds.  See?   

“She loves me,” I tell Guin when I’m sure her mother is out of range.    

“No, but I do.  And she will.”   

I can’t help grinning like an idiot, any more than I could help wincing at $500 for books.   

“I love you, too, Guinevere.”   

“Let’s get married.”  We say this all the time.  It’s sinking in.   

“Let’s get married and be dirt poor.”   

“If that’s what you want,” she says.   

“Guin, are you bummed about prom?”   

“Nah.  Maybe just a little.  I like showing you off.”   

“You mean you like seeing people do double takes?” 

“You can call it what you want.  Don’t blame me that I’m ahead of the game.  They’ll see.”   

I hope so.   

“I’m sorry we can’t afford to go to prom, Guin.”  

“Honey, if we wanted to go, we could go.  We could spend my parents’ money—yes, we could, if we chose—or we could just dress up in whatever we’ve already got.  Nothing legally requires us to get a tux or a dress, or go in a limo.  I’d think one thing you might have learned this year is that we can do things any way we want.  Do you really care what people think?”  

She’s actually beautiful when she’s making sense.  It’s just a by-product that she also makes me look stupid.  And I know she’s right.  It shouldn’t make me angry.    

Yeah, I care what people think.   

My question is Why? 

The week before most school dances, Phil triples my task list because sections of the school have to be ready for “townies,” as he calls them.  Board members, chaperones, parents dropping off and picking up their kids, lots of opportunities to see how well the school is kept.  Or isn’t.  So we clean and shine and fix and replace, and then the kids come in and party and destroy and Sunday we find a complete disaster that we again have to clean and shine and fix and replace.  I never would have understood why certain custodians (not Phil, mind you) come to hate the students they work for—or against, Phil would say.  “They’ll attack at the stairwells, the bathrooms and under the bleachers, where they think they can’t be seen.”  We never get to prevent attacks, merely prepare for and recover from them.  Phil declared me part of “us” instead of “them,” which isn’t strictly true, so I try to deserve my pronoun.   

Prom, though, does nothing to increase our workload; prom happens far from school property.  Custodians at a fancy restaurant/lounge/banquet hall thirty miles away get to wage this doomed campaign.   

I have to speculate that geography figures large in Phil’s attitude toward prom.  He talks as if he actually kind of likes it.  There may be history there, but I’m not asking; when Phil volunteers information about his past, that’s his choice.  I’ve never felt encouraged to pry.   

“So what plans do you and your lady friend have for Saturday night?” Phil asks from where he’s crouched down, trying to fix a door hinge that someone managed to kick hard enough to break.  Looks more like they took a small battering ram to it.   

“We haven’t really made any yet.  You want me to hold this up or go start on the mopping?”    

“Better stay, I can’t get enough leverage from here if you’re not holding it.  Unless you want to get your nose down in the grease and have me prop it up?”   

“I could do that.”    

He always offers me the dirtier end of the chore, but once I agree rarely takes me up on it.  I can’t complain too loudly about my job—at least not while here—because Phil works about ten times harder than I do.   

“No, I mean the dance.  What are you two doing?” he clarifies.   

“I don’t think we’re going.”  

Phil sets down his screwdriver and pliers.  Then he stretches his massive turtle neck around the bottom of the door so he can peer up at me.   

“You’re not taking Guinevere.  To her senior prom?”  

One advantage—if you can call it that—of having my parents:  they never start these conversations with me, simply because they don’t pay that kind of attention to my world.  They have no idea prom is this weekend, they wouldn’t ask me about it unless I first told them I were going, and then they would question anything I might need from them (“Why can’t one of your expletive friends drive you?”).  So I’m caught a little off guard.   

“No, we decided not to go.” 

“’You, plural’ decided not to go, or ‘you, Paxton,’ decided not to take her?”   

“We decided together.”   

Phil stands up, which is no small task from that position.  He takes two steps toward me—about two more than I would prefer—which means he’s looking down at me, his huge chest and belly within a few inches of my face and chest, and I can smell his breath.  I’d rather not.   

“And she said she was completely fine with not going and would prefer to sit home with you and her parents and miss this dance?”   

“That’s not a verbatim quote.”   

“She agreed not to go because you are a cheapskate and she didn’t want to make you feel bad.”  

“No!” I say, as forcefully as I can in these circumstances.   I’m talking to his chin.   

“No?  Did she say she wanted to go?”   

Now, I could lie to Phil.  It’s not like he’s going to corner Guinevere tomorrow and fact check my story.  Besides, she would tell him that we had decided not to go.    

“She said she only wanted to go a little bit.  It wasn’t a big deal to her.”   

“You’re an idiot.  Is that a big deal to her?”   

Phil doesn’t wait for the answer I don’t have. 

“Paxton, you don’t get to come back later for the things you skipped.  You’re getting married young, which will fast-forward you into the adult world, whether you understand it or not, whether it turns out you like it or not.  You’re making your decision and that’s the consequence.  Period.  I’m not saying you won’t be happy, but you won’t be kids anymore.  You have a few chances left to be just a couple of teenagers in love before you start keeping house and paying bills and making decisions that will affect the rest of your lives.  It’s not bright to make her skip the one she’s going to remember—including if she doesn’t go—and her daughters will ask her about.”  Phil never lacks confidence in his views, but…  

“Phil, it’s a high school dance.  We have the rest of our lives to dance together.”  

“You think so, but that’s not how it works.  And maybe you two will be the exception and go dancing every weekend for fifty years.  She’ll still look back and—oh, hell, you know what you’re doing.  Go mop; I’ve got this.”  He turns from me, shaking his head, and lowers himself back onto the floor. 

“You sure you can–” 

“Go,” he says, flat and stony.  It would take an absolute fool to argue with Phil once he uses this tone.  

I walk toward the broom closet.   

I’m almost there when my legs stop moving.  The door knob and I stare at each other.   

Then I walk back. 

“Phil, I’m not a cheapskate, I’m broke.  Beyond broke.  We’re trying to figure out how to pay for college and I’m never going to have that much money, no matter how hard I work, and my parents sure aren’t going to help, and her parents—taking their help is like admitting they’re right that we shouldn’t get married, which I know you think, too.  So this is me, working my butt off, trying to handle all this… and no, prom doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to me when it’s just the same idiots we’ve been dealing with for four years, dressed up and drunk, pissing away thousands of dollars with dates they won’t even talk to next year—or next morning.  Books cost $500 a semester.  Prom costs a year’s worth of books—assuming I had that money in the first place, which I don’t!”    

Phil hasn’t moved.  He doesn’t answer.  He’s working.  

So I walk away, again.   

Then I walk back.   

“Sorry I yelled, Phil.”   

“Kid, you did nothing to be sorry for.  I’m not your Yoda or anybody else’s.  Go do the mopping.”   

While cleaning the bathroom floor, I try to imagine what real parents would say in a situation like this.   

I suck at that game.   

 

At nine o’clock, Phil’s gone.  He always tells me when he’s leaving and reviews what needs to get done and how soon.  So I walk through the halls for five minutes, checking the teachers’ lounge, classrooms, offices.  Finally, I shout his name and listen to the echo die.   

Gone. 

He got me this job, he’s the only one helping me have any chance to afford my life, and I tell him to stick his advice.  So what if it makes no sense to me?  I should have just said, “I hadn’t thought about that.  Thanks.”  Biting the hand, though, that’s good strategy, too.  Idiot.   

It’s about two AM when I finish everything Phil gave me to do.  I shouldn’t stay so late with school “tomorrow,” but I figured 1)more hours, 2)improve the odds of finding Dad asleep, and 3)no way I’m falling asleep before exhaustion takes over; might as well be productive.   

I’m grabbing my backpack and change of clothes from my “corner” of Phil’s office (a miniature, water-stained table jammed against the middle of one wall) when I see a long envelope with “Paxton” in Phil’s block letters.   

Phil fired me. 

Makes sense, except Phil would never fire someone with a letter.  He’d call that “cowardice.” 

It’s too thick for a letter.  

Twenties.  Phil gave me…three hundred dollars in twenties. 

School money?  A bonus?  I get paid in checks from the school district.  No note, just cash.  Doesn’t matter, though:  I can’t take it.  Phil has done more than anybody else for me and I won’t get ahead to repay him unless he reaches 120.   

Do I hand it back to him, or just leave it in his desk?   

Well, he didn’t do this face-to-face, so I can write a note thanking him but telling him he’s done enough.  I’m reaching for a post-it on his desk when I see the paper, folded in half, with huge Phil letters in black permanent marker.  I can still smell the marker fumes that kids pretend to get high on.   

“PAXTON—READ THIS” 

Paxton, 

You’re reading this because you decided you can’t take the money.  Thanks.  I respect you for that.   

I don’t feel sorry for you.  You’re probably the most extraordinary young man I’ve ever known, and that you don’t see it keeps you bearable to work with.  Your arguments make sense and are more sound than mine…except you’re still wrong because you have limited perspective.  But you are right about this:  you shouldn’t spend the money you’re saving for college on prom.  Call it an early wedding present, or an effort to put my money where my big mouth is.  Or call it what most kids get at one time or another from their folks.  Just don’t call it a loan, because I won’t take a cent of it back.   

Now take the damn money.  I mean it.   

I run humming “Safety Dance.”  The whole way home.  

 I should be wasted today, going on four hours sleep, but I’m hyper, greeting people in the hallway, knees bouncing the whole hour of calculus, strategizing the right time to tell Guin.  I’m tempted to slip her a note without any explanation. 

Lunch is our first moment alone.  We walk laps around the school grounds and eat sandwiches she made.  It provides us a loop tour of couples tucked in secluded spots copping feels, some guys playing “touch” football, and a group of smokers palming some manner of smokes out by the road.  Shocking how the rules against PDA, fighting and drug use get bent from 11:30 am to 12:15 pm.   

Two more months of school.   

I wait until she’s chewing tuna.   

“Hey, I’ve got a stupid idea.”  

“Mmrmph?” she asks. 

“No, no way,” I return.  She laughs, then swallows fast.   

“I said, ‘want to have sex with me?’”  She laughs louder. 

“I stand by my answer,” I say.  “Besides, this space is in use.”  I gesture with my head, not looking at the rustling bushes we’ve just passed.   

“Touche’.  And liar.”   

I’m the liar?”   

“Okay, advantage Paxton.  What’s your stupid idea?” 

“Wanna go to prom?  With me, I mean.” 

She grips the top of her brown paper bag and swings it at me.  Her apple smacks my right tricep.   

“Ouch!  Is that a ‘no?’”   

“Paxton, you don’t want to go.  You don’t get credit for being ‘willing’ after waiting until it’s impossible.”   

“We could just go in what we have.  That’s not such a bad idea.”   

 “You’re almost past being funny.  Now it’s deuce.  No, advantage me.” 

“Why?  How’d you score?”  

“You double-faulted.  Twice.  You know you have to buy tickets for the dinner.  They stopped selling them this morning.”   

I reach into my back pocket and slowly withdraw two long, glossy white rectangles with cupids and hearts on them.   

I’m waiting for her to hug me.  Even shriek (out of character as that would be).   

She just tilts her head. 

 “Paxton, those cost fifty dollars each.  Why did you do that?  You told me–”   

I cut her off.  “I’ll explain, but first you better call this point, don’t you think?” 

“What?” 

“’Game, Set, Match?’”   

She shrugs me off.  “Why did you spend this much money?”   

“Because a smarter friend convinced me it was a good idea.  He marshaled some powerful arguments.” 

She just walks.  No reaction.  I try to wait her out by watching robins scrounging for bag lunch crumbs.   

Screw it.   

“Do you really not want to go now?” I ask.   

She stops. 

“I always wanted to go,” she says, hitting me harder with her eyes than she did with the bag.  “I’ve never been to a dance with someone who really mattered to me before.”  

“I have, but you were always dancing with someone else.”   

At first, I just thought these quips.  Then, I would say them and cringe.  Now, I almost look forward to chipping one in.  She usually agrees or even ducks her head, as if she’s embarrassed, as if I’m not lucky merely to be with her.  This time she ignores it. 

“Paxton, why are you asking me to prom?” she asks.    

“The smart friend.  He’s buying.”   

“What?  Jeff?” 

“Be serious.  He’s not speaking to me.”    

“I don’t want to play guessing games.  You’re confusing me.  Did I guilt you into this?”  She’s accusing me and herself at the same time.  Even though I don’t care what they think, I’m glad we’re out of gossip monger range.  I start walking again to make certain.   

“Guinevere, I don’t know why, exactly, but Phil gave me a lot of money.  He strongly suggested I use it to escort you to this dance.  Do you have other plans for Saturday night?”   

She was a step behind me, but now she takes my hand and pulls me back even with her.   

“I’m available that night.  I’m a little confused about why Phil—no, that’s not true.  It makes sense to me.”  She says, suddenly with more certainty than I have.   

“So we’re going?” 

“Yes, Paxton.  I will go to prom with you.  Weren’t you nervous about asking me to such a big event?”  

Watch this. 

“Guinevere, I love you.” 

“I love you, too, Paxton.”   

See?  That’s crazy.   

“I didn’t really get how important this was to you. You could say Phil helped clue me in.”   

“I didn’t think it was.  But I’m glad we’re going.  I don’t want to buy a dress, though.  I’ve got another one I’m going to buy, and this would feel silly by comparison.  I’ll just wear my nicest formal dress.  It’s black.  You can wear whatever you want.  A shirt and tie are fine, if you don’t have a suit.  Anything that goes with black.”  Guin waves, and I look up to see Therese holding hands with her new sophomore boyfriend.  Ken (or Kent?) plays flute, I think.  But she’s too into him to want to do more than wave, so we travel on uninterrupted.   

“Can I wear a white tux?”   

“Sure.  You wear white, I’ll wear black, we’ll call it our wedding photo negative.  Paxton, I’m serious: I don’t care if you wear white tie and tails or white t-shirt and jeans.”  

“If I called you on that bluff…” 

“Then you’d find out.  But don’t feel a need to.  Take my word for it.”  

By the afternoon, I feel a little overwhelmed.  It doesn’t matter how I look or how we get there, but I’ve got to wear something and we’ve got to drive something.  Yes, we could take one of the Kintons’ cars, but the idea kind of makes me ill.  I don’t exactly have a wardrobe full of prom-ready clothes, and I can’t think of anyone we’d want to double with, let alone anyone who would want to go with the engaged couple, other than for bragging rights.  It’s a hundred bucks to rent a tux and two hundred, minimum, to rent a limo, but when I call from the payphone, Formal Wear Palace says they’re down to their last few styles and “lesser-demand sizes,” and the guy at Ron’s Taxi and Limo—I’m guessing Ron—laughs at me.   

As I’m leaving with Guin, spinning this in my mind while trying not to look stressed, Nill grabs me.   
 
“Hey, you have the history notes from today?  I had a doctor’s appointment.”   

“Sure.”  I dig into my backpack for my history notebook.  “Can you read my writing?”   

 “No, but I’ve got context.  I read the chapters.”   

“Dude, you’re just trying to boost my ego, slumming to borrow my–”  Ding.  “Jared, could you do me a favor?  Are you going to prom?”   

Guin subtly elbows my ribs.   

“Hon, he’s a guy.  It’s not like I’m asking one of your friends whether she managed to scavenge an invite.  If Nill wanted to go, he could ask someone–”   

“Whoa, now,” Nill interrupts, “I don’t want to be the cause of division here, and I am going.  I not only asked ‘someone,’ she said ‘yes.’”   

I’ve got a shot ready, but Guin speaks first. 

“Awesome, Jared.  Who is it?”   

“Carrie Andrews,” Jared says.  “We’re actually kind of going out.  Not that I would expect you two to know that.”   

Carrie is gorgeous in a glasses, long hair in a bun, braces way, meaning you can see how in five years, when she gets straight teeth, contacts and her hair down, she’ll come back to our reunion and guys will rack themselves for having missed her, then dig out their yearbooks to prove they weren’t stupid and blind.  I’ve actually heard both Jeff and some guys on the team discuss “investment dating,” though to my knowledge none of them has tried it.  But she would be a perfect candidate. 

Jared’s not that kind of guy, which is exactly why this could work for him.  I’m tempted to laugh, but that would not go over well, and I certainly will not be explaining investment theories.  I smile and nod.   

“Oh, she’s sweet!  That’s great, Jared.  Congratulations!”  

“Yeah, killer, Nill!  And here I thought you were committed to monkdom.”   

Jared laughs politely, which tells me he really likes her.   

“Did you say you wanted to ask me a favor, Paxton?”   

“Actually, yeah.  Do you have a black suit, Nill?  We’re pretty close to the same size, right?” 

“I think so,” Nill says.  “You aren’t renting a tux?”  We’re trying to size each other up without looking too carefully.  Guin giggles at us.   

“Boys, you’re virtually the same size.  Paxton might be one coat size bigger.  I don’t know about your waists.”   

“No,” I tell Nill, “I’ve got about twenty-four hours here.  Guin refused to go with me until today.”   

She smiles and lets it stand.  I love that about her. 

“Oh, okay,” Jared answers, clearly baffled, “Yep, I have a black suit you could borrow.”   

“Good, that’s one,” I say.  Then I look at Guin, shooting for telepathy.  She doesn’t pause a blink. 

“Oh, definitely!  If it works.”   

“Jared, I’m wondering if we could go with you two.”   

Now we’ve struck him dumb.  He looks at me, then at Guin, then at me, hoping one of us will reveal the joke.   

“We think it would be great to double with you,” Guin clarifies.   

“But…Carrie and I have been going out for three weeks, and you two are…”  We’ve pitted Jared’s natural niceness against his sense of the absurd.   

“You don’t think we’d be a fun date?” I ask.  Guin elbows me flagrantly this time.  

“No, it’s fine, Jared.  You’re right, that could be awkward.  We don’t want to make it any harder on you.”  Coming from anyone else, that’s a slam, but Guinevere didn’t intend it as one and Jared didn’t take it that way.  I’m the only one.  

“Yeah, it was a stupid idea.  The suit would be cool, though,” I say, ready to let it drop.  But I can see Nill’s niceness kick in hard.  Apparently, it’s competitive. 

“Well, I mean, it could work okay.  I should talk with Carrie about it, but I can’t see why she’d mind.  We’d just ride there and back, that’s not a big deal.  Jeff isn’t…?”  Nill hints. 

“Nope.” 

“So I’ll call Carrie and then—should I call you at home, Paxton?”   

I’m going to talk with Guin a few minutes while the school clears out, then see how many hours I can squeeze in, since I’m not not working tomorrow night.  But if Carrie says “no,” he’s not going to want to tell Guinevere.  But he won’t reach me at my house and I don’t want him leaving a message with either of my parents.  Crap.  Sometimes it would be really convenient to have a home.   

“How about if I call you a bit later.  Like seven?  Think you’ll have talked to her by then?”   

“Oh, yeah, I’ll call her as soon as I get back from the library.”   
 
“Nill, it’s Friday.  It’s the Friday before prom.  And we’re seniors.”   
 “Yup,” he agrees.  “But we’re going out tonight, too.  I’m getting my work done first.”   

Guin looks at Nill, her eyes wide.   

“Whoosh.  Impressive, even by my standards.”  She flutters her hand over her heart.   

“Enough trying to steal my woman.  Go outgeek us and I’ll talk to you at seven.  And hey?  Thanks.  I appreciate your help.  Oh, did you rent a limo?” 

Nill shakes his head, “Carrie thinks that’s silly.  We’re just going in my car.”   

“Cool.  Have fun reading those notes.”   

“I can get them back to you tomorrow.  Or tonight,” Nill calls over his shoulder. 

“Begone!”  

“Is he always…” Guinevere asks as we walk to her mom’s car. 

“Oh, good gosh, yes.  And more.”   

“So, do you think you and Carrie…?”   

Guin breaks and runs for the Accord.  But I am faster, if nothing else.  I catch her around the waist and yank her off the blacktop.  She’s laughing too hard to fight back.   

“Man, I’m dense!  You’ve had this master plan the whole time.  No wonder you wanted to go to prom so bad!” 

I dump her back on her feet and she spins around and kisses me.   

Crazy.