On Cups, Happiness, and Joy

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[Portrait of the Apostle John, Laura Kranz]

My sister Chris’s favorite saying is, “If you can’t change something, change the way you think about it.”  She didn’t originate this saying but she definitely lives it.  

On the flip side, this lyric from a song I love by Ray LaMontagne:

Never learned to count my blessings/

I choose instead to dwell in my disasters.  

How can I appreciate both of those when they say opposite things?  

Two days ago I wrote about a beautiful day I had.  I don’t have many beautiful days.  I have many beautiful moments in the midst of my messy, grace-filled, tortured days.  I suffer insomnia most nights.  I nearly always feel like I’m falling short or failing, in the midst of which I love people and try to speak life to them.  I’ve learned not to live according to those feelings–I don’t spend my days in the fetal position–but that whole “ignore them and they’ll go away” strategy has yet to work for any extended period of time.  Prayer restores my perspective.  It helps me remember that those are mostly lies and, even if they are true, God covers my shortcomings

This next may cross the line of telling you too much about my inner workings–“What?  Mike thinks there’s a line?”–but one reason I love playing ultimate is that after a good game, I get a few hours relief from all that noise in my head.  That post-game high just quiets things down for a while.  Winning the tournament a few weeks ago?  Feeling so good gave me three days of relative quiet!  I asked Kim, “Do people experience this all the time?”  Dang!  No wonder some people can get so much done!  

Now let’s be clear on three things

1)I don’t have it as bad as many other people do, 

2)Too often I contribute to my own struggle,* and

3)God redeems this in my life by using it to give me compassion and empathy for others.  

A friend who was in recovery from alcoholism once told me, “You get it like someone who is in recovery.  I don’t know anybody else not in recovery who understands what people go through like you do.”  I still count that among the best affirmations I’ve ever received.  

On Sunday, my cup ran over.  I could say that it ran over because everything went right, which in Big Picture terms was certainly true.  More, it spilled over because I got to see God’s goodness to me in such profound ways and in so many faces.  

Are all my days that full of God’s goodness?  Could I see it on Sunday because it was writ large in my son’s baptism, in my friend’s son’s miraculous recovery, of which his baptism was the consummation and fulfillment?  


Cup half full, cup half empty.  That talk relates to whether we focus on positives or negatives, whether we feel hopeful or hopeless about what is and what might be.  But all of this addresses what happens.  

Hap is the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness, and it just means luck or chance, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur, good fortune or happiness. German gives us the word Gluck, which to this day means both happiness and chance.

Happiness, literally, was what happened to us, and that was ultimately out of our hands.**

There are other views of happiness, of course, but this one remains a foundational perspective for most of us.  

“How’s it going?”

“Good.  It’s been a good day,” usually meaning, “Things have gone well today.”  

I have some of this mindset, as well, but I try to resist its pull.  The wisdom of my sister’s saying is that if things are bad in a happenstance sense, I’m not stuck being miserable. Not every bad thing or difficult situation can be reframed and thus improved.  A lot can.  

I approach it differently, though.  Henri Nouwen, my all-time favorite spiritual writer (I think), gave me the framework for how I view good and bad events in my life.  

“Joy is essential to spiritual life. Whatever we may think or say about God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit. Jesus reveals to us God’s love so that his joy may become ours and that our joy may become complete. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.

“Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but in the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together…Still, nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.”

 

*See LaMontagne quote above.  I don’t like it because it’s a great idea that I recommend; I like it because it speaks a truth about my, and many others’, existence.  Real art does that.  

**From Yes! Magazine, “A History of Happiness.”  

An Acceptable Fast Manuscript

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[Manuscript of sermon preached on Isaiah 58 at ICF, 11/19/17]

What is the Kingdom of God?

Before you answer that, and it’s a real question, I asked this question to a group of young adults and they all looked blankly at me. One finally raised his hand and tentatively said, “Heaven?” That bummed me out. Severely. If we’re teaching so little about the Gospel of Jesus Christ that they don’t know about God’s Kingdom, we’ve really missed the boat.

Okay, no pressure. What is the Kingdom of God?

One more thing: Heaven is part of the answer. It just isn’t the whole answer.

???

Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That was his stated purpose. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1 verse 14: “now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, [the Gospel], and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Matthew 1:17 beginning of Jesus’ ministry: from that time Jesus began to proclaim, repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are the same thing, interchangeable terms. Matthew 1:23: Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. Luke 4, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has healed a bunch of people and done crazy stuff, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, cast out demons. The next morning, Jesus goes out to pray before the sun comes up. And the folks who’d had a really good day with Jesus the day before went looking for him and when they found him, they said, “That was amazing! Let’s invite some more people here and you can do more of these miracles.” But what did Jesus say? “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities, also; for I was sent for this purpose.” For I was sent for this purpose. Why did the Father send Jesus? The first reason Jesus gives is to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. That’s. Why. Jesus. Came.

So Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and in Luke 4:18-19, we get a glimpse of what that means: Jesus stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah ws given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the bling, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then he sat down, everyone watching him, and said, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom. The good news is the good news of the Kingdom. When we’ve told people that the Gospel is “Jesus died for your sins so that you can be forgiven and go to heaven,” we’ve missed the whole what-is-life-here-for part. That’s a big deal. The Gospel is not only “God wants to make you clean from your sin so that you can be with Him in Heaven.” I would go so far as to say that God’s forgiving your sins is just a crucial step to get you started with the Gospel. God definitely wants you with Him in Heaven. He wants you to be part of His Kingdom, here, now.

After John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, the coming of God’s Kingdom, was arrested, Jesus began his ministry. And John is in prison. He still has disciples, he’s still trying to live the calling God has given him as faithfully as he can. And he’s hearing these funky things that Jesus is doing. He’s in prison; he can’t see for himself, he can’t go ask for himself. But he’s confused, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?” Get the gravity of this: John the Baptist went out into the wilderness to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, who was Jesus. He said things like “I’m not worthy of untying his sandals” and “I baptize you with water but one is coming who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.” John baptized Jesus! And now he asks, through his disciples, “Are you really the one? Or did I misunderstand and we should wait for someone else?” This is John’s purpose, John’s calling before he’s born, while he’s still in utero, remember? And how does Jesus answer?

Luke 7:24 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sigh, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Yes, I’m the one, yes, these are the signs of the Kingdom of God, yes you got it right, and blessed is anyone who receives the Kingdom of God, not with offense but with joy.

Jesus did miracles. He healed and restored. Now tell me what all these people had in common in Jesus’ time: the lame, lepers, the deaf, the dead (uh, what?), the poor. What do they have in common?

They have need, and they are outcasts from society. They are the unclean. They are the rejects, the disadvantaged, the persecuted, the oppressed. They are the poor.

Isaiah 58

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

We’re near the end of our series in Isaiah and I consider this passage pivotal. I wanted to begin with the Gospels so we could see clearly how this prophetic passage foretells Jesus’ declaration of the Kingdom of God. It also rejects, I would say categorically, a self-centered religion that allows people to pray and go through their rituals while living unjustly.

Get this: Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.

These are sins. This is rebellion. Ready?

For day after day they seek me out;
they
seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and
seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Fasting is, arguably, the most intimate thing we can do with God. We are praying, we are seeking God, and we are foregoing food, so that we can focus exclusively on God. Fasting is not “Okay, God, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t eat for a day and you do what I ask.” Fasting is “I am utterly dependent on you, and I am throwing myself before you.” In the Old Testament, you see five categories of fasting: (1) fasting as a sign of grief or mourning, (2) as a sign of repentance and seeking forgiveness for sin, (3) as an aid in prayer, (4) as an experience of the presence of God that results in the endorsement of his messenger, and (5) as an act of ceremonial public worship. We first see fasting in Exodus 34 when Moses fasts before the Lord.

The way God describes fasting is like, “Okay, you want to seek me, here is a direct route. Here, take this megaphone, not because I can hear you better, but because you will feel more like you’re getting through to me.” When we are desperate, truly desperate, we fast. That’s not a bad thing. God says to. It’s a good way to express grief or repentance. It’s also a spiritual discipline that many people incorporate into their regular rhythm of life. There was a stretch in which I would fast one day a week, and doing so really impacted me. It helped me focus more on God, it brought me into a place of clearer dependence, it actually helped me be more peaceful, which I thought was a surprising fruit of that discipline. I’ve been returning to fasting lately.

But like prayer, we can fast wrong. Can you think of an example of people praying wrong in Scripture? Good. Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray int the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Turly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

 

The people of Israel are asking, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?” God answers.

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.

You are doing the “right” acts of worship, but you are not worshiping! Your hearts are not toward God! You say you’re humbling yourself and going before God, but you’re quarreling and fighting! You’re exploiting your workers! You’re oppressing instead of siding with the oppressed! You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it
only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

What kinds of questions are these called? Rhetorical questions. No, no this is not the kind of fast God has chosen.

You should humble yourself. You should bow your head before God. You should lie in sackcloth and ashes. You should forego food and call out to God.

That sounds pretty good, right? That’s fasting, isn’t it?

The key word here is “only.” Is it only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing your head? For prostrating yourself before God?

Absolutely not. And why not? Because the Gospel is not just me and Jesus, getting me “clean,” going through the right rituals, showing God my piety. That’s not the Kingdom of God.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Do you understand why I began with the Kingdom of God and with John the Baptist’s questions? This is the Kingdom of God. This is not some discarded Old Testament instruction that some old prophet told the people of Israel that doesn’t apply to our lives. This is the heart of the Gospel. Why? Because this is God’s heart.

I didn’t plan it this way, but this is my third consecutive sermon on biblical justice. I don’t know how you’d preach Isaiah 58 without talking about justice—it would be like fasting while fighting with wicked fists. Now I said that fasting is foregoing food for a time of focused prayer and seeking God with your heart. And I do believe that’s a decent short definition of the spiritual discipline of fasting. But our inward spiritual disciplines must coordinate with our outward ethical lives. The Israelites here were bowing and humbling themselves, but rejecting God in their hearts by continuing with their immoral practices.

But hear what God says is an acceptable fast, the fasting God has chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Poverty doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Poverty is a cycle that is both a result of people’s choices and of systemic injustice—which, when you come down to it, is also people’s choices, but powerful people’s choices, usually rich people’s choices, choices of people with something to gain by oppressing others. If you believe that people are poor only because they make self-destructive choices, you have not understand the depth of sin in this fallen world nor the teaching of Jesus about wealth. Hear me, yes, people’s choices play into their condition, but the state of poverty in the world first comes as a result of massive injustice, exploitation, oppression, and greed. When we get out our magnifying glass and look at one household and see that they are making foolish choices with their meager resources, we are choosing to be blind to the bigger picture, to the spiritual battle happening before our eyes.

When I tell you that Jesus is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, that doesn’t mean merely that he is compassionate and feels bad for hurting people. That means in the spiritual warfare between those who evilly oppress and defy God and those who suffer oppression, Jesus chooses sides. That means he chooses sides for us, too. That means we follow the King by living out his Kingdom in all the ways these passages describe: loosing the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.

That, God says, is an fast he will accept. That is fasting from our power, fasting from our desire to be favored with the wealthy and the powerful and the successful when it means we have to turn a blind eye to injustice, when we have to pretend we don’t notice how things got so imbalanced in the first place—and continue to stay imbalanced.

In case I’m upsetting you here—and I’m okay if God is upsetting you, he does that—having wealth does not in itself make you sinful and greedy and oppressive. How you use your wealth is how God judges whether you are greedy and making the chains of oppression or just and breaking the chains of oppression. We have wealth and power, all of us, and God calls us to use it to make His Kingdom more present here, today. I’m not a legalist, I don’t believe we have to tithe our herbs and spices or that God expects us to eat only bread and water; God is extravagant and lavishes us with abundance. And. And we are called to share, and to use our power for righteousness and justice. Period.

I hope, I actually pray, that you will understand this is not my hobby horse or my soap box. This is God’s heart for his people. God seeks to set the oppressed free, to liberate those suffering poverty, and God seeks to transform us into his image by making us his partners in this purpose. That’s another way to describe God’s Kingdom: our partnership with God to love hurting and broken people and seek justice, through which we will become more like Jesus.

Do you see how different this is than the personal, private, just-me-and-Jesus approach to the Gospel? Because I don’t believe that is the Gospel. If I think the Gospel is only about me and Jesus, then my fast is not acceptable to God. Can you read this passage any differently? [I’m going to go a step further: we can make an idolatry of our ] Because this is acceptable fasting, this is the heart of seeking God:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

This is a dangerous road. What if we understand the people suffering hunger and illiteracy and depression are our own flesh and blood? What if they are our family? What if they belong to us and we belong to them? How will that change our choices? Our priorities?

God speaks through the prophet to make clear how fasting this way will change us:


8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

I had someone suggest, with a very good heart, that we could preach more on the Glory of God in Isaiah. Okay. This is the glory of God. To share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—who is the poor wanderer?

Yeah, that’s Jesus. That also might be the immigrant, but it’s definitely Jesus. He says so. And God, our glorious, almighty God, cares for all people, and will say especially those suffering—not because he loves them better, but because they have more need. God’s glory is many things, a sermon series in itself, but one thing I know shows God’s glory is the horrible enemy, the Samaritan, kneeling down beside the bleeding, bludgeoned Jew to carry him to the inn and save his life. That is God’s glory, that action glorifies the Almighty God of Heaven and Earth. These matter to God. When TJ’s One World Health opens a clinic and people who were suffering get the medical care and medicine they need, God is glorified. That reveals God’s glory! Can you read this passage any differently? ‘

then, then, your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Two more things and I’m done.

Why will God respond to us when we do these things but call us in rebellion and sin when we do the opposite?

9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The answer is: Because this is who God is. I said this before: Grace is for freeing us to seek God with all our hearts and minds and to live God’s calling, to be free for obeying Jesus’ words and having our joy made complete in him.

God loves us first. God doesn’t wait for us to be acceptable to love us, God loves us and his love changes us and makes us acceptable. But—and this is crucial to our understanding of Grace—when we sin and rebel and oppress and abuse, God doesn’t say, “Welp, I gave you grace, so I guess you’re good.” God says, “You’re killing yourself and you’re abusing my beloved and you must stop!” Grace doesn’t mean God’s turns a blind eye to our obedience, ever! That’s the point of Isaiah telling them their fast is unacceptable—they are exploiting their workers, they are doing as they please instead of as God pleases, they are opposing God’s Kingdom instead of seeking it. Grace means God will forgive you no matter what, and nothing you can do will make God love you more nor can you do anything to make God love you any less. Grace also means that God will keep calling you to repentance. If we’re not living for God’s Kingdom, we’re wasting our lives. It isn’t that God is manipulative and will only bless us when we finally do the stuff he prefers; the true blessings God desires to give us come through seeking God with our whole hearts, we are made in God’s image and He himself is our blessing, is our home, is our treasure. “Christ is enough for me?” Yeah, and also Christ is everything. Everything that matters.

That’s one. Acceptable fasting and grace go hand in hand. They are inseparable. God’s grace leads us to acceptable fasting. We can get there no other way. We only seek God’s Kingdom through God’s grace.

Two: God makes and gifts each of us uniquely. There are, literally, seven billion ways to seek God’s Kingdom, to fight for justice, to care for the oppressed, to love the least. God gives some of us gifts of healing. Then go heal. God gives some of us gifts of preaching. Then go preach. If you love kids, love kids—they need it, so bad. If you can disciple young people, disciple them—they need it, so bad. If you hate injustice, then fight it. If you feel compassion for depressed people, learn to counsel, learn to listen. An acceptable fast to the Lord our Glorious God, to Jesus Christ our Savior, happens when we seek God with our hearts and our gifts and join Him in the work to which he calls us. Yours doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. How can you spend yourself in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed? How can you help loose the chains and set the oppressed free? How can you share God’s love with people who don’t know they are loved and forgiven?

What part has Jesus given you in His Kingdom? Live that and 11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Amen.

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What is the Kingdom of God?

Before you answer that, and it’s a real question, I asked this question to a group of young adults and they all looked blankly at me. One finally raised his hand and tentatively said, “Heaven?” That bummed me out. Severely. If we’re teaching so little about the Gospel of Jesus Christ that they don’t know about God’s Kingdom, we’ve really missed the boat.

Okay, no pressure. What is the Kingdom of God?

One more thing: Heaven is part of the answer. It just isn’t the whole answer.

???

Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That was his stated purpose. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1 verse 14: “now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, [the Gospel], and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Matthew 1:17 beginning of Jesus’ ministry: from that time Jesus began to proclaim, repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are the same thing, interchangeable terms. Matthew 1:23: Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. Luke 4, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has healed a bunch of people and done crazy stuff, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, cast out demons. The next morning, Jesus goes out to pray before the sun comes up. And the folks who’d had a really good day with Jesus the day before went looking for him and when they found him, they said, “That was amazing! Let’s invite some more people here and you can do more of these miracles.” But what did Jesus say? “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities, also; for I was sent for this purpose.” For I was sent for this purpose. Why did the Father send Jesus? The first reason Jesus gives is to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. That’s. Why. Jesus. Came.

So Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and in Luke 4:18-19, we get a glimpse of what that means: Jesus stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah ws given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the bling, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then he sat down, everyone watching him, and said, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom. The good news is the good news of the Kingdom. When we’ve told people that the Gospel is “Jesus died for your sins so that you can be forgiven and go to heaven,” we’ve missed the whole what-is-life-here-for part. That’s a big deal. The Gospel is not only “God wants to make you clean from your sin so that you can be with Him in Heaven.” I would go so far as to say that God’s forgiving your sins is just a crucial step to get you started with the Gospel. God definitely wants you with Him in Heaven. He wants you to be part of His Kingdom, here, now.

After John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, the coming of God’s Kingdom, was arrested, Jesus began his ministry. And John is in prison. He still has disciples, he’s still trying to live the calling God has given him as faithfully as he can. And he’s hearing these funky things that Jesus is doing. He’s in prison; he can’t see for himself, he can’t go ask for himself. But he’s confused, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?” Get the gravity of this: John the Baptist went out into the wilderness to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, who was Jesus. He said things like “I’m not worthy of untying his sandals” and “I baptize you with water but one is coming who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.” John baptized Jesus! And now he asks, through his disciples, “Are you really the one? Or did I misunderstand and we should wait for someone else?” This is John’s purpose, John’s calling before he’s born, while he’s still in utero, remember? And how does Jesus answer?

Luke 7:24 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sigh, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Yes, I’m the one, yes, these are the signs of the Kingdom of God, yes you got it right, and blessed is anyone who receives the Kingdom of God, not with offense but with joy.

Jesus did miracles. He healed and restored. Now tell me what all these people had in common in Jesus’ time: the lame, lepers, the deaf, the dead (uh, what?), the poor. What do they have in common?

They have need, and they are outcasts from society. They are the unclean. They are the rejects, the disadvantaged, the persecuted, the oppressed. They are the poor.

Isaiah 58

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

We’re near the end of our series in Isaiah and I consider this passage pivotal. I wanted to begin with the Gospels so we could see clearly how this prophetic passage foretells Jesus’ declaration of the Kingdom of God. It also rejects, I would say categorically, a self-centered religion that allows people to pray and go through their rituals while living unjustly.

Get this: Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.

These are sins. This is rebellion. Ready?

For day after day they seek me out;
they
seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and
seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Fasting is, arguably, the most intimate thing we can do with God. We are praying, we are seeking God, and we are foregoing food, so that we can focus exclusively on God. Fasting is not “Okay, God, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t eat for a day and you do what I ask.” Fasting is “I am utterly dependent on you, and I am throwing myself before you.” In the Old Testament, you see five categories of fasting: (1) fasting as a sign of grief or mourning, (2) as a sign of repentance and seeking forgiveness for sin, (3) as an aid in prayer, (4) as an experience of the presence of God that results in the endorsement of his messenger, and (5) as an act of ceremonial public worship. We first see fasting in Exodus 34 when Moses fasts before the Lord.

The way God describes fasting is like, “Okay, you want to seek me, here is a direct route. Here, take this megaphone, not because I can hear you better, but because you will feel more like you’re getting through to me.” When we are desperate, truly desperate, we fast. That’s not a bad thing. God says to. It’s a good way to express grief or repentance. It’s also a spiritual discipline that many people incorporate into their regular rhythm of life. There was a stretch in which I would fast one day a week, and doing so really impacted me. It helped me focus more on God, it brought me into a place of clearer dependence, it actually helped me be more peaceful, which I thought was a surprising fruit of that discipline. I’ve been returning to fasting lately.

But like prayer, we can fast wrong. Can you think of an example of people praying wrong in Scripture? Good. Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray int the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Turly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

 

The people of Israel are asking, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?” God answers.

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.

You are doing the “right” acts of worship, but you are not worshiping! Your hearts are not toward God! You say you’re humbling yourself and going before God, but you’re quarreling and fighting! You’re exploiting your workers! You’re oppressing instead of siding with the oppressed! You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it
only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

What kinds of questions are these called? Rhetorical questions. No, no this is not the kind of fast God has chosen.

You should humble yourself. You should bow your head before God. You should lie in sackcloth and ashes. You should forego food and call out to God.

That sounds pretty good, right? That’s fasting, isn’t it?

The key word here is “only.” Is it only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing your head? For prostrating yourself before God?

Absolutely not. And why not? Because the Gospel is not just me and Jesus, getting me “clean,” going through the right rituals, showing God my piety. That’s not the Kingdom of God.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Do you understand why I began with the Kingdom of God and with John the Baptist’s questions? This is the Kingdom of God. This is not some discarded Old Testament instruction that some old prophet told the people of Israel that doesn’t apply to our lives. This is the heart of the Gospel. Why? Because this is God’s heart.

I didn’t plan it this way, but this is my third consecutive sermon on biblical justice. I don’t know how you’d preach Isaiah 58 without talking about justice—it would be like fasting while fighting with wicked fists. Now I said that fasting is foregoing food for a time of focused prayer and seeking God with your heart. And I do believe that’s a decent short definition of the spiritual discipline of fasting. But our inward spiritual disciplines must coordinate with our outward ethical lives. The Israelites here were bowing and humbling themselves, but rejecting God in their hearts by continuing with their immoral practices.

But hear what God says is an acceptable fast, the fasting God has chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Poverty doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Poverty is a cycle that is both a result of people’s choices and of systemic injustice—which, when you come down to it, is also people’s choices, but powerful people’s choices, usually rich people’s choices, choices of people with something to gain by oppressing others. If you believe that people are poor only because they make self-destructive choices, you have not understand the depth of sin in this fallen world nor the teaching of Jesus about wealth. Hear me, yes, people’s choices play into their condition, but the state of poverty in the world first comes as a result of massive injustice, exploitation, oppression, and greed. When we get out our magnifying glass and look at one household and see that they are making foolish choices with their meager resources, we are choosing to be blind to the bigger picture, to the spiritual battle happening before our eyes.

When I tell you that Jesus is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, that doesn’t mean merely that he is compassionate and feels bad for hurting people. That means in the spiritual warfare between those who evilly oppress and defy God and those who suffer oppression, Jesus chooses sides. That means he chooses sides for us, too. That means we follow the King by living out his Kingdom in all the ways these passages describe: loosing the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.

That, God says, is an fast he will accept. That is fasting from our power, fasting from our desire to be favored with the wealthy and the powerful and the successful when it means we have to turn a blind eye to injustice, when we have to pretend we don’t notice how things got so imbalanced in the first place—and continue to stay imbalanced.

In case I’m upsetting you here—and I’m okay if God is upsetting you, he does that—having wealth does not in itself make you sinful and greedy and oppressive. How you use your wealth is how God judges whether you are greedy and making the chains of oppression or just and breaking the chains of oppression. We have wealth and power, all of us, and God calls us to use it to make His Kingdom more present here, today. I’m not a legalist, I don’t believe we have to tithe our herbs and spices or that God expects us to eat only bread and water; God is extravagant and lavishes us with abundance. And. And we are called to share, and to use our power for righteousness and justice. Period.

I hope, I actually pray, that you will understand this is not my hobby horse or my soap box. This is God’s heart for his people. God seeks to set the oppressed free, to liberate those suffering poverty, and God seeks to transform us into his image by making us his partners in this purpose. That’s another way to describe God’s Kingdom: our partnership with God to love hurting and broken people and seek justice, through which we will become more like Jesus.

Do you see how different this is than the personal, private, just-me-and-Jesus approach to the Gospel? Because I don’t believe that is the Gospel. If I think the Gospel is only about me and Jesus, then my fast is not acceptable to God. Can you read this passage any differently? [I’m going to go a step further: we can make an idolatry of our ] Because this is acceptable fasting, this is the heart of seeking God:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

This is a dangerous road. What if we understand the people suffering hunger and illiteracy and depression are our own flesh and blood? What if they are our family? What if they belong to us and we belong to them? How will that change our choices? Our priorities?

God speaks through the prophet to make clear how fasting this way will change us:


8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

I had someone suggest, with a very good heart, that we could preach more on the Glory of God in Isaiah. Okay. This is the glory of God. To share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—who is the poor wanderer?

Yeah, that’s Jesus. That also might be the immigrant, but it’s definitely Jesus. He says so. And God, our glorious, almighty God, cares for all people, and will say especially those suffering—not because he loves them better, but because they have more need. God’s glory is many things, a sermon series in itself, but one thing I know shows God’s glory is the horrible enemy, the Samaritan, kneeling down beside the bleeding, bludgeoned Jew to carry him to the inn and save his life. That is God’s glory, that action glorifies the Almighty God of Heaven and Earth. These matter to God. When TJ’s One World Health opens a clinic and people who were suffering get the medical care and medicine they need, God is glorified. That reveals God’s glory! Can you read this passage any differently? ‘

then, then, your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Two more things and I’m done.

Why will God respond to us when we do these things but call us in rebellion and sin when we do the opposite?

9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The answer is: Because this is who God is. I said this before: Grace is for freeing us to seek God with all our hearts and minds and to live God’s calling, to be free for obeying Jesus’ words and having our joy made complete in him.

God loves us first. God doesn’t wait for us to be acceptable to love us, God loves us and his love changes us and makes us acceptable. But—and this is crucial to our understanding of Grace—when we sin and rebel and oppress and abuse, God doesn’t say, “Welp, I gave you grace, so I guess you’re good.” God says, “You’re killing yourself and you’re abusing my beloved and you must stop!” Grace doesn’t mean God’s turns a blind eye to our obedience, ever! That’s the point of Isaiah telling them their fast is unacceptable—they are exploiting their workers, they are doing as they please instead of as God pleases, they are opposing God’s Kingdom instead of seeking it. Grace means God will forgive you no matter what, and nothing you can do will make God love you more nor can you do anything to make God love you any less. Grace also means that God will keep calling you to repentance. If we’re not living for God’s Kingdom, we’re wasting our lives. It isn’t that God is manipulative and will only bless us when we finally do the stuff he prefers; the true blessings God desires to give us come through seeking God with our whole hearts, we are made in God’s image and He himself is our blessing, is our home, is our treasure. “Christ is enough for me?” Yeah, and also Christ is everything. Everything that matters.

That’s one. Acceptable fasting and grace go hand in hand. They are inseparable. God’s grace leads us to acceptable fasting. We can get there no other way. We only seek God’s Kingdom through God’s grace.

Two: God makes and gifts each of us uniquely. There are, literally, seven billion ways to seek God’s Kingdom, to fight for justice, to care for the oppressed, to love the least. God gives some of us gifts of healing. Then go heal. God gives some of us gifts of preaching. Then go preach. If you love kids, love kids—they need it, so bad. If you can disciple young people, disciple them—they need it, so bad. If you hate injustice, then fight it. If you feel compassion for depressed people, learn to counsel, learn to listen. An acceptable fast to the Lord our Glorious God, to Jesus Christ our Savior, happens when we seek God with our hearts and our gifts and join Him in the work to which he calls us. Yours doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. How can you spend yourself in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed? How can you help loose the chains and set the oppressed free? How can you share God’s love with people who don’t know they are loved and forgiven?

What part has Jesus given you in His Kingdom? Live that and 11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Amen.

My Cup Runs Over

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 107

 

Today has been a great day.  I don’t know how many great days I have.  Not as many as the struggling days. I embrace the struggle and try to share it openly, even when it sucks, even when I might throw some people with the depth of my inner turmoil, because I know there are others who need to know they’re not alone in that fight.  

But today, I’m going to tell you about my great day!  

Corin got baptized today.  That was, undoubtedly, the highlight of a great day.  We’d been talking about it for a while and he had expressed interest, but we were giving him space to make up his mind.  As I was sitting in church, waiting for my time to preach (meaning sitting there with my stomach going crazy and trying to focus on God and breathe deeply), Kim pointed out the door and said, “Go talk to Corin” in her serious Mom voice.  

Okay. Corin’s in trouble.  In trouble for what?  No clue.  

So I’m out in the corridor with Corin and I have to ask, “What did you do?” because I’m responsible to take care of this.  

“Dad, I’ve decided I want to get baptized today.”  

Ohhhhh!  I almost start laughing out loud, which if you’ve heard me laugh, you know isn’t the best idea within 100 feet of a worship service in progress (or is that yards?).  

Shift gears.  Move nerves to backburner.  Laugh with son quietly over misunderstanding.  Get serious and talk about baptism.  

He gets it.  He really has made up his mind.  We talked a little about what baptism means, about how going under water symbolizes not just being cleansed, but dying with Jesus and then being raised to life with him.  We talked about why we need that.  He got it.  

Some part of my brain thought “how did we get here already?”  But I’m thrilled that he means it, that he’s ready.  For all our kids I’ve trusted that they would know when it’s time and I’ve never wanted to push them.  What we want to do and what we do as parents are sometimes different.  For this one, I’ve really tried to be careful; making someone get baptized makes no sense.  

So I got to tell a couple of the other elders quickly and then I preached.  I’ve posted quite a few sermons here but I don’t think I’ve ever described the experience of preaching.  That needs to be its own post.  I preached on Isaiah 58, the Kingdom of God and breaking chains.  I preached hard today, perhaps the hardest I’ve ever preached.  By that I mean I may have expressed what I understand to be the truth more forcefully than ever before.  That’s a little weird and I felt strange afterward, but encouraged, as well.  God always sides with the oppressed and calls us to take their side, too.  Impoverished people’s bad choices are not the sole, nor even the main, cause of poverty.  I said some other stuff, too.

The people whom I knew would like it told me they liked it and the people who didn’t like it didn’t tell me.  

Then we rushed home to get clothes to get wet in, because I didn’t dress for preaching and baptism.  

The baptism was beautiful on so many levels.  Nine kids and Corin’s teacher got baptized today!  Each one is a story in itself, of course.  I got to stand in the water with my friend Dave while he baptized his son who miraculously survived a horrific head injury earlier this year.  

And we baptized Corin.  When asked if he believed in God, Corin declared, “Absolutely!”  When asked if he knew that he needed forgiveness for his sins and if he had repented of his sins, he carefully parsed the questions, answered, “Yes…and sort of.”  Everyone laughed, of course.  But you know, I’m going to argue that, though not the classic answer, my son gave the theologically and pastorally astute answer.  Have I repented of all my sins?  Not do I desire to or would I like my heart to be in a place where I have, but have I?  

Sort of.  

So we laughed and then we dunked him and prayed and rejoiced.  

We finished up the baptisms and the kids all swan dived (swan dove?) back in the pool and started splashing around.  Then a twenty-seven-year-old, a friend of one of our elders, decided to get baptized, too, right there and then.  He’d been thinking and praying about it and said, “Okay, it’s time.”  Like I say, I think people know when it’s time.  He did.  So we did!  

Afterward, we headed home, I snuck in a nap*, then zoomed off to play ultimate.  I love ultimate.  I got to play with some Nicaraguans I love and love to have as teammates, notably Zeke and Andy.  I’ve talked about Zeke before.  Andy is a 15-year-old rockstar ultimate player who should get a full ride scholarship to play college ultimate…when such things exist.  We had a mighty comeback victory in which I made a pretty decent layout (diving) catch for an old guy.  Then we got trounced but still had fun and made some good plays.  No kidding, I love ultimate.  Oh, and Aria and I got to play together.  I love playing ultimate with my kids!

We zipped home, cleaned up, and hurried back to our annual International Christian Fellowship Thanksgiving Celebration,always held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, always one of our two biggest events of the year.  I emceed, which is not my gift.  I’m a better preacher than an emcee.  But it went great.  Hundreds of people, gringo and Nicaraguan (mostly gringo but a good number of Nicaraguans), feasted together on traditional Thanksgiving food, sang of God’s faithfulness, shared around the table about what we’re thankful for, and a few gave testimonies, including a poem of gratitude to a loving husband and a journey-in-progress of a young woman whose sister is recovering from cancer.  

It was a beautiful day.  Corin and I prayed together at his bedtime and already his prayers are more mature.  We pray together almost every night.  I’d never heard him pray like this before.  He’s thinking beyond himself, bigger picture.  

I thought my cup was full and seeping over the sides.  Then a dear friend I’ve mentored for years wrote me and overflowed completely.  Mentoring is a painful joy and a joyful pain.  You invest your life in someone and become invested in their progress.  You remember the bigger picture but you also suffer the ups and downs.  Yes, like parenting, but different, too.  

Here is joy:  “I forgave people who hurt me, I reconciled, I made deeper relationships with others who will encourage me to seek God with my whole heart.   And oh, yeah! God used me in this crazy way to bless a guy I just met whose estranged father recently died but turns out I knew the father through work and could tell the guy about his father things he would never have heard otherwise!”  

I officially declared him a Jedi.  That cool.  That nerdy cool. 

I love mentoring.  The best part, the very best part is when you get to step back and say to a guy who used to be a lost, confused kid, “Okay, adult to adult, father to father, friend to friend, you are there. You are living this life to the fullest, God is bursting through you, and I’m just grateful to have seen it all up close.”  That was this weekend.  That was tonight.  

In the midst of this, I cannot fail to say, Kim once again demonstrated what an incredible wife and partner she is, what a servant and mighty woman of valor, and I’m reminded how lucky/blessed/freaking fortunate I am to have her in my life.  

Tomorrow, my self-doubts will come crashing back in, I’ll dig in, pray hard, and return to the daily battle.  There will be small moments of grace and some ugly reality I’ll need God to overcome.  That’s fine.  That’s life on this side.  But today?

 Today was beautiful.  

 

*Did I mention I slept very poorly the night before?  It’s kind of my normal now, but there are more and less convenient days for my insomnia.  

An Acceptable Fast

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Sermon I preached on Isaiah 58.  

This one is a bit longer and I don’t hold back.  Be warned. 

God seeks to set the oppressed free, to liberate those suffering poverty, and God seeks to transform us into his image by making us his partners in this purpose. That’s another way to describe God’s Kingdom: our partnership with God to love hurting and broken people and seek justice, through which we will become more like Jesus.”

Starts at 0:15, midway through a joke.  Oh, well, I kind of messed up the joke, anyway. 

MIGRACIÓN Y EXTRANJERÍA

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 103

Picture your most challenging day at the DMV, the day you were most tempted to express profanity in public.  

Now picture the hottest classroom in which you’ve ever sat, wondering why this school can’t have air conditioning.

Add that the people sitting behind the glass get to decide whether you stay in the country or not.  

Welcome to Migración.  

Yesterday, my children had an appointment to renew their cedulas.  Cedulas are the Nicaraguan version of U.S. Green Cards, the identification card that means you have legal residency in the country.  

Many of us in the U.S. have experienced a moment at the Department of Motorized Vehicles that felt like a Catch-22.  Or we’ve just sat for what felt like an insane amount of time for the simplest request.  Gringos are not good at waiting.  We’re not trained for it and we’ve been inculcated with sayings like “Time is money,” so that sitting and doing nothing for extended periods of time for no evident reason hurts us. Irritates us.  May even infuriate us.  

If you can’t endure sitting and waiting for no obvious reason, I’m going to recommend not moving to Nicaragua.  Sometimes, that is just life here.  

La  Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería is such a place and yesterday was such a time.  In fact, every visit I’ve ever had to Migración, as we fondly refer to it, has been such a time.  

Now let me say here that I am an advantaged gringo.  Our school, Nicaragua Christian Academy, International, walks us through the process of getting our cedulas, keeping them renewed, etc.  NCAI employs one person, Jairo, whose job is largely to keep the working gringos legal and squared up here, and God bless him.  I’ve talked with friends who were visiting  Migración without the benefit of such expertise who looked like they might blow all their fuses.  The section for nationals always looks even busier.  

One of the biggest challenges with remaining a legal resident here is that the rules keep changing.  Maybe they’re always changing.  Last year, we were unable to obtain appointments to renew our cedulas–including that we had several appointments scheduled which were then cancelled–and I had to travel to Costa Rica twice with an expired cedula.  I was warned that an official at the frontera might confiscate it.  Would that make getting it renewed even more difficult? It was expired anyway, I was told, and I’m already in the system, but no one knows for sure and I would be walking around without any form of legal ID to be in the country.* Though I got raised eyebrows and warnings, especially at the airport, no one took my cedula.  

The kiddos’ appointment yesterday was to get theirs renewed from when they expired last January.  Understand, this is with our friend Jairo, who knows the system, doing everything in his power to get them renewed. For about six months, none of the teachers had been able to get renewals and we were starting to worry that the government had decided to stop granting them. We’ve seen other signs that the government is getting stricter with foreign workers. Again, the rules change, usually unwritten, and then you try to adapt.  

That’s all big picture.  Small picture, we came in, took our seats, and waited.  The girls do pretty well with their books–one even took a nap–but it’s a long stretch for my 10-year-old.  There are vendors inside, ice cream and “American Doughnuts,” among others, and then rows of little food tables and stands outside.  We have a “you get one thing” rule for Migración days and we try to bring snacks and plenty of water.  Did I mention it’s hot?**  

Mostly, it’s just enduring the wait–time may be money, but if you lost your flexibility and humor, you’ll also lose your mind.  After about three hours, I went out for a walk.  Though being inside  Migración feels different than any office I’ve experienced in the States (the bathrooms are notably rougher), the walk outside really drove home that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  Imagine very busy sidewalks, bustling with people going in both directions and dozens of food stands selling fruit, baby formula–I mean towers of formula cans–pop, snacks both packaged and being fried, signs for fotocopias scattered throughout, and then at least half a dozen little stands looking no different than the others except they had signs advertising “Abogados y Notarios.”  I bought six buñuelos (fried yuca balls), but I could also have stopped and gotten a consultation with a lawyer.  

Of course, this felt discordant to me, because we have different images of lawyers in the U.S. (“different” doesn’t always mean “better”), but it also speaks volumes about the situation: Nicaraguans trying to find their way through the red tape labyrinth.  

We succeeded yesterday.  It took about four hours of waiting (we left school about 12:30 and got home a little before 6) but the bar is very low for a successful visit–if we leave with our ID’s, we win!–and we’ve waited longer than that without success.  The action of the appointment was this: we waited two hours, the kids got their pictures taken, we waited two more hours, we received and signed for the new cards.  And truly, we’re grateful to be received here, to follow God’s calling in a place that has no obligation to host us but has allowed us to call this home.  

Oh, and they each had a doughnut.  I just had the buñuelos.

 

Buñuelos

 

PS I hope the tone has come across that, though this is a challenge of patience, as long as we’re allowed to stay and continue our work in Nicaragua, it isn’t a serious problem.  In contrast, the crises over legal, long-term residents in the US being deported are very serious problems.

 

 

*Yeah, I could carry my passport, but it doesn’t give me the rights a cedula does.  Frequently, when making any transaction–banking, purchasing, getting insurance–the first question is “may I see your cedula?”  

**To be fair, I don’t think it’s as hot as the police building where I had to pay my ticket.  That was more uncomfortable, but this has more at stake.  

Winning, or Something More Important

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 95

This past weekend, I played on the Managua team in Nicaragua’s inagural two-day ultimate tournament (organized by Breaking Borders) and we won.

One of my teammates asked,”Will we see this in a blog post?” Well, I have noticed not all my multitude of readers share my  interest in ultimate and writing about another tournament victory would be rather self-indulgent.

Yes, absolutely I’m going to write about this tournament.

I’m not going to tell you about winning.  Okay, maybe a tiny bit at the end.  I’m going to tell you a few things that were more important.  Yes, you may quote me on that.

At our games, we had a Nicaraguan guy, Israel, keeping score.  He’d never seen ultimate before, much less played.  In theory, keeping score is easy: one team catches the disc in the end zone, the opposing team walks to the other end, you know it’s a score.  Mark one on your sheet next to the correct team.  In practice, he had the score wrong within four points because he didn’t understand that a catch had been out of bounds and thus not a goal.

So I decided, social and friendly person that I am, to talk with him and keep checking on the score.  No, not because I was concerned he would mess up and give us fewer than our correct number of points.  Of course not!  How could you even think that of me?

Here’s the cool part:  as life goes, when I got home Israel had sent a Facebook friend request, which I accepted.  We started chatting.  Then he asked, “Are you Christians?”

I always feel a tinge of nerves when I’m asked that.  What did he see?  What stereotype did I fulfill or contradict?

“I am.  I think all our team is.”  

Hold my breath.  Wait for his response.

And Israel wrote, “Your behavior in the game and the respectable way of dealing with his [sic] rivals told me a lot.”

Yeah.

Christians (or self-proclaimed “Christians”*) are known for some horrible things currently.  Before our team started the tournament, we prayed: “God, help us to glorify you, do our best, and not get injured.”  

We looked to Israel like Christians from how we behaved and treated the other teams?  Could I hope for more than that?

I’m not always on my best behavior playing ultimate because I’m intense and competitive and I really like to win and sometimes I lose focus on what’s most important.**  But I believe you can be both competitive and godly at the same time.  I do.  I even believe I can be.

I think hearing this about our team matters more to me than that we won the tournament.  And I’m really, really glad we won the tournament.


However, at the end of our conversation he asked, “¿alguien le ha dicho que usted se parece a Tom Cruise?”  So that shoots his credibility.  But it was a really nice thought.


Disco Magnets, Campeones 2017!

Next thing I’ll tell you: I loved our team.  We don’t practice together as a team.  They are, however, most of the people who play at our weekly pick-up games against one another.  We never get to play all together at those.  This exact group will probably never play together again (one member is moving back to the States in December).***

But see, that thing my new friend said?  I felt it all weekend.  No one yelled at anyone else on the team.  Yes, strategy corrections and discussion of choices, but I did not hear one negative word addressed at a teammate all weekend.  Not one.  We played 7 games of ultimate together, including an extremely close final in which we were far behind, and we built each other up the whole time.

I received this correction on Sunday:

“You need to play more.”

At age 49, when I’m in my head with self-doubt, that’s amazing to hear and powerfully encouraging.

Not everyone on our team has the same level of ability or experience. These people who in their own imperfect way seek to make the world a better place got to spend one full weekend together playing the best ultimate we could.  Everyone contributed.  People knew their roles.  No one’s ego got in the way.  I’ve played ultimate for 30 years and that last statement, by itself, astounds me.  We got along in Nicaragua blast furnace heat, we laughed and high-fived and gave each other crap (as friends should in sports) and those relationships matter more to me than winning.  A lot more.  And I really like winning.

Our team with the Costa Rica team, Osos Perizosos, after the finals

 

I’ll tell you one more thing.

This may not sound humble when I say it publicly; if you need to balance it with when I write about how screwed up I am, I’ve provided ample material.

There’s a Nicaraguan ultimate team here, Los Tornados de Chiquilistagua. They are not my team.  We may play informal pick-up together but in team tournaments we play against them.  They are our opponents but I care deeply about these guys.

Me and Zeke being interviewed at the tourney

Sunday evening, I was talking with their coach, Zeke, who is a dear friend of mine (and one of the hardest people I ever have to guard).  His players are teens and young men and women growing in their maturity and, some of them, in their relationships with God.  Others aren’t.  They are not middle-class Americans but mostly working poor Nicaraguans, some coming from very troubled homes, and I love these kids, though some are arrogant and mouthy and typical teenage boys in other ways.  But absolutely lovable, too, and walking through some serious challenges.  Zeke invests his life deeply in theirs and though he plays because he loves ultimate, even more, this is his ministry.

Los Tornados

I would love to coach them but that is not my role.  I don’t know their lives like Zeke does, I don’t understand their culture from the inside as he does, and they try not to laugh at my Spanish (and often succeed).  He is their coach and their pastor.  I’m the gringo who loves ultimate and tries to encourage them.  They are the future of ultimate in Nicaragua, which may not seem like a big deal to you but that is a vehicle for helping them break the cycle of poverty and addiction–and then reaching more kids to do the same–and I hope that seems like a very big deal to you.

Cesar, Zeke’s co-leader and a ferocious defender

My role, as I’ve understood it, is to be the foil, the guy whose team sets the bar a little higher so that they grow more and work harder and don’t decide they’re already the best around.  Eventually, they will get better than us; I’m fighting tooth and nail (figuratively) to put that off as long as I can.

Then, as we were debriefing the tournament, my friend told me,

“My team loves you.  And love to play with you… You are not just a great example for them as an ultimate player, but as a Christian person too.  They say this many times during practice.”

And there it is.  That’s why I play ultimate.  Yes, I play for my own sanity and health and because it’s fun.  Yes, I like to win–has that come up yet?–but when Zeke told me that, and putting that together with how loud and strong their team cheered for us in the finals, I got it.  I have more of a role than to challenge the young guys to step up and beat me at King of the Hill.

They are seeing Jesus in me.

Yes, that is more important than winning.

Or, perhaps, that is winning.

 

 

*God knows which, not me.

**And sometimes I’m venting negative emotions in the least damaging way I know how, which my children and pets appreciate.

***NO, it isn’t me.

Used Cars

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 86

Our car has spent a lot of time in the shop recently.  I mean a lot.  We had it in for six weeks (cracked head), drove it for four days, then sent it back again (starter went out).  Now the clutch seems to be going.  Consequently, I’m thinking about used cars today.  

Q:  Is it cheaper to buy a used car in Nicaragua, the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, or in the United States, a vastly wealthy country?

A:  In the U.S.  By far.

I don’t know a lot about cars.  People who know me well might see this title and think, “Really?  You know nothing about cars.”  That is not literally true.  For being 49 and having driven for 33 years now, it is true I’m impressively immune to automotive knowledge, as if I’m teflon and that stuff just does not stick to me.  But I’ve had to learn more living in Nicaragua, including a smattering of spanish vocab for car parts–frenos, llantas, bujias, and clootch (I may not have spelled that one right).  And I’m not writing about fine points of maintaining cars, but the experience of buying and owning used cars here.  

When I started coming to Nicaragua on short-term trips, I had the brilliant idea that we could raise money and instead of renting a car or a bus, we could buy an old, used car and give it to a pastor here who works out in the campo.  I knew a motorcycle ministry whose members drove bikes from Oregon to Nicaragua and donated those bikes, then flew back.  This seemed similar.  I figured a thousand dollars or so could get us a decent car.

The missionaries here laughed at me.  I mean, kindly, but it was definitely “Ha.  That’s not remotely close to enough.”

I’ve driven some less-than-pristine cars in the States.  I am probably above average in the category of “cars received as gifts or purchased for $5.”  In the U.S., you can buy something ugly but drivable for $1000-1500.  It may have issues, but it will keep you on the road for a year or two, sometimes five or more.  If you are immune to ugliness and know a bit about tinkering, you can likely pull that off for $500. That’s always been my experience and I don’t think it’s changed.  Tell me if you think I’m wrong.

In Nicaragua, this part of the used car market seems not to exist.  You can pay $3K-4K for a non-running car that will require several thousand more–or mechanic abilities and an inside connection on parts–to become a running car again.  I am still  astonished at what cars can be kept running here.  There are regulations for road-worthiness and emission levels, but everyone here knows that paying the right person will get you those stickers to put on your windshield and que sorpresa, you passed your emissions test, regardless of the black cloud billowing out behind your vehicle.

A functioning, higher-mileage car starts at $5000.  For a truck or SUV, more like $6000 to $7000.  That’s entry-level price.  Paying that much does not guarantee you have a reliable vehicle.  Two different close friends recently bought cars that within the first two months needed major repairs.  It’s very difficult to know in what condition you are purchasing any given vehicle.  Carfax? Ha.  In Nicaragua, you’re doing well if you can get the title of the car you just bought in your own name…because the person selling it to you may not have it in their name.


Some variables for buying used cars in Nicaragua:

Roads beat the crud out of cars here.  The infrastructure is improving and one clear sign we see are nicer main roads.  Nonetheless, if you drive anywhere other than those main roads, your car gets hammered.  Unless you live in a very poor area of the US or go four-wheeling and seek this for sport, you probably remember that one time you hit a pothole so hard it jarred your teeth and hurt your car.  It stands out because it happened once or twice.  That happened here yesterday and will happen again tomorrow or next week, even though we’re trying to be cautious.  And we know we’re trying to be cautious, which we cannot guarantee for the owners of that car you may buy next.

 If you have limited funds to fix your car, you get it done any way you can.  Many mechanics here understand that position and immediately assume that you want things done as cheaply as possible.  You might even think you want that–until you realize how cheap “possible” can be.  Therefore, when buying a used car, you can assume that if repairs happened, they happened with used (or even questionable) parts, cut corners, and “Okay, that’s good enough.”  Likewise, did the vehicle receive routine maintenance?  Anyone’s guess.  

Accidents happen and cars get pasted back together to get back on the road.  We bought our minivan in great shape at a great price and with low kilometers.  We thought we’d gotten an amazing deal.  But later we realized it had almost certainly endured a severe wreck before we got it.  Our first clue?  When we had troubles with door locks and windows, a mechanic took the door apart and discovered that it had been repaired…with drywall screws.  Now that’s my level of knowing there’s a problem.

Of course, after that many other tell-tale signs appeared.  But eventually I got hit and now it’s impossible to know from which accident any given problem started.  

A few thoughts on all this:

Being poor isn’t cheap.  You imagine it is, because people in poverty have so little money that they must be spending the least possible on everything.  But often it does not work that way.  I described this with buying food.  If you are poor and could somehow afford a car in the first place–and most can’t–you will constantly be spending money to keep it on the road.  We aren’t poor but have limited funds and lately seem to spend most of our “disposable” income on fixing our car.  My friend Juan Ramon explained to me long ago that our car is “mi familia segunda” (my second family).  Many missionaries begin by buying a used car, have a terrible experience, and decide to buy a much nicer, newer (or brand new) vehicle to avoid those headaches.  

I think the US has so many more cars in its market, with so many people upgrading or buying new, that the used car market becomes plentiful.  That never happens here.  The demand for decent, or tolerable, or seemingly acceptable cars stays higher than the supply.   As long as demands stays this high, prices will never go down.  Oh, and there is a 100% tax on privately imported cars.

Of course, all this is playing in my head right now because our minivan lately reminds me of a bucket with holes in it and we keep pouring more in…  The threshold for “it’s not worth fixing” is higher because we’d do well to get a replacement for $10K, and once you’ve already sunk money into fixing it…this song sounds the same in any country.  

On the opposite end, most repairs here cost a small fraction of what they would cost in the U.S.  Unless you drive an unusual or exotic car here–a Honda Odyssey or Accord, a Subaru Legacy or Outback–parts are cheaper and labor charges compare with most other work here, i.e. paid so low most in the U.S. would laugh at the suggestion.  I feel very fortunate and blessed that we have found trustworthy and competent mechanics, including some great friends.  I think this process might drive me insane if I were also constantly wondering whether or not we were getting ripped off.  

I was going to add this as post-script, but today I think I need to conclude with it:  our clutch needed only an adjustment, for which they charged us nothing.  

Who (actually) Let the Dogs Out

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 82

We have dogs.  We have three dogs who serve the crucial function of protecting our house.  We live in an impoverished barrio where a lot of theft happens.  I get that.  People don’t have enough food, people don’t have what they need, so it’s tempting to figure out how to steal things.*  That comes with this territory.  

I get it, but we also have to guard against it (having compassion doesn’t mean it’s good for people to be able to steal from us).  Therefore, we live in a house that has a gate and walls around it.  Therefore, we have three dogs.  

Zoe and Mumford, looking like guard dogs.

Many Nicaraguans are scared of dogs and for good reason. I’ve had many conversations with poorer Nicaraguans who can show me a scar where a dog bit them.  Kim was out jogging once and watched a wealthier Nicaraguan let his dog run out the gate, attack a ragged-looking guy walking on the street, and only when she approached did he call his dog back in.  

 

Mumford helping raise puppy Sunny.

Two of our dogs came from friends here and one was a puppy whose mother was a street dog rescued by missionaries.  Mumford is a Belgian Shepherd, Zoe is a Rottweiler mix, and Sonny is a mutt who looks just like all the other short-haired yellow mutts on the street.  Mumford has an  enormous head; when he opens his jaws all the way, he looks like he could put your head in his mouth.  Zoe has a huge chest (plus she’s a little fat) and a deep, threatening bark.

 And Sonny?  Well, Sonny is the one who would actually bite you if you snuck in and ask questions later.  The other two would wag their tails and lick you, or maybe run out the gate if you opened it.  We joke that we have three guard dogs: two are for show and while the little skinny one would protect the house.  

This morning, we had one of those getting-the-family-to-school mornings.  But this one wasn’t caused by our kids arguing or dragging their feet or falling back asleep.** This morning, Mumford made a run for it.  Twice.

I’d mostly finished making breakfast and was trying to get the dogs fed.  Kim opened the gate to pull the car out…and Mumford saw that the back door was open, so he ran in, and the front door was open, so he ran out–through the open gate, into the street.

Now I have to explain two things quickly:  Kim loves Mumford and we have a new road.  

Mumford and Kim, also providing perspective on just how big his head is.

Kim has adamantly insisted that we are taking our 120 pound giant-headed dog back to the U.S. if and when we ever return.  The kids complain that she loves him more than she loves them.  She denies it.  They produce evidence.  I’m not weighing in on that argument (I saw her give birth to them, so I know her commitment level), but two of the dogs live outside and the third comes and goes through the house as he pleases when she’s home.  He gets to eat separately from the other two because he’s a slow eater.  He’s pampered.  

I’ve chronicled our experience of living on a rutted dirt “road” and then finally, finally having a beautiful new road laid before our eyes.  It still feels like a luxury.  The downside is that people now drive fast by our house when before they had to pick their way through the hazards.   Our son had a near-miss on his bike the other day which I may write about eventually, when it stops making me sweat cold to remember it.  Or I may not.  

Sonny says, “Let them try it. Then we’ll see who’s the real guard dog.”

So whereas before we could let the dogs out and have them run up and down the road a bit–thus getting them exercise and reminding would-be thieves that we have huge, intimidating and not entirely-controlled dogs–now we can’t risk that for the danger of their getting hit.  


People think it’s “a pack” of dogs; the proper term is actually “a confusion of dogs.”

Then there was this morning.  Mumford goes charging out into the street.  Kim doesn’t exactly panic, but it makes her very nervous.  I’m trying to feed the other two less-spoiled dogs.  I go chasing out after him.  For once, he obeys relatively quickly (his training, such as it is, doesn’t usually extend to when he’s out roaming the streets) and comes back.  We’re at the two-minute mark for leaving for school.  I put Mumford in the back, discover that my last piece of French toast is still cooking, then also realize I’ve fed Zoe but not Sonny yet–and Zoe is a bully who will gulp her own food down and go for the others’ in a split-second.  I learn these things because I’d chased Mumford into the street with our dogfood dispenser in one hand and a spatula in the other.  

So I go back out to feed Sonny. I set down the container from the French toast mixture to keep Mumford distracted.  But while I close the back gate (the one between the carport and our outdoor sitting area/kitchen) behind me, I don’t reattach the carabiner that holds the latch closed.  Mumford shoves the latch aside with his massive snout and goes charging by me out into the street, again.  

At this point, our friends the Ndoros, with whom we carpool–we drive in the morning, they drive in the afternoon–are arriving.  They look a little nervous that I’m rushing past them, shouting “Mumford!”, but they’ve seen our crazy before and they get in the car.  I again convince Mumford to come back inside before he’s run over and try to herd him to the back again–but he disappears. I’m convinced he pulled the freeze tag trick of running one way around the car, having me follow him, then going all the way around and out again.  But no.  He’s not back out.  

Then Kim says, “Mike?  He’s in the car.”  

Yep, he’s sitting in the front seat, until I try to retrieve him, at which point he climbs into the back seat, over the kids.  Not our kids.  Because if you’re going to have your huge, muddy dog (did I mention it’s been raining for the past 18 hours? Did I mention he ran out twice?) climb over young people dressed in their clean school uniforms, best to have that be your friends’ kids, for maximum embarrassment.  

It is now T+several minutes past departure time.  Mumford finally agrees to leave the car more or less willingly, apparently somewhat nervous at my (ahem) urging–did I mention I’m still carrying the spatula?–and I can’t even look to see how those kids are doing or what their uniforms look like now.  Our children close the doors, Kim pulls out, and Mumford trots happily to sniff at his food which he still won’t eat yet. 

I’m about to rescue the last piece of French toast when I hear Kim yell, “Mike?  The car won’t shift.”  She’s pulled out, but now it won’t go into gear.  Oh, that car.  A friend had just bailed me out last night by taking the gear shift apart and fixing the problem  when it wouldn’t shift (a clip had fallen off–does not give me confidence about the sturdiness of construction) and this after being in the shop 6 weeks for a broken head gasket and then back with us for four whole days before the starter went out.  

But then it did shift and she got to school okay and the car is also a post for another day.  

The French toast burned solid black.  I fed it to Zoe.  

Zoe, always willing to help with burnt food.

*Before you get on your high horse about hard work and bootstraps and providing for yourself, come see what finding work looks like in a country where there’s 50-70% unemployment.  Then we’ll have that conversation. 

**Hypothetically speaking, of course.  These things never happen at our house.  

The Team on high alert, ready for anything.

On Aging, Confidence, and Sporting Still

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“Do… or do not. There is no try.”  –Yoda

Disclaimer:  For those of you who don’t share my love of or interest in sports, no apologies for this but you don’t have to indulge me, either.  Sports take up about 3% of my blog posts, which is a wee bit less than my real life percentage spent on sports, between coaching, playing with Corin, playing myself, and spectating (happily, that is a distant fourth, as I think it should be).  We will soon return to other topics in life.


Aging is tough in sports terms.  I’ve been holding off saying that until I qualify, but I’m one year from fifty and almost never guard or go against anyone of my own age in my sports of choice.  I don’t mind.  I enjoy/need to be the underdog and this is one sure way, in my own head, that I always am.  I guard guys in ultimate who can run circles around me and I hold my own.  But it gets tougher, by tiny increments.  

I’m not a great basketball player.  I am a scrappy, relentless basketball player, an above average passer, and I just really enjoy the game.  I’m a pretty good shot, but I rarely shoot well in games.  It’s not a mystery.  I’m too in my head.  I’m thinking about whether or not I’m going to make the shot, which is a great way not to make shots.  To make the shot, one should a)think “I’m going to make the shot,” or, even better, b)not think.  Just do.  

That sounds so simple.  It is simple, but difficult.  If you shoot in a game and the first shot or two swish, you feel like, “Okay, I’m hitting tonight,”  and it becomes easier to keep shooting.  If you miss or airball a shot or two, it’s harder.  This is ridiculous, because of course the act of shooting the ball through the hoop remains the same…except it doesn’t.   When you think you can, it’s easier; when you suspect you can’t, it’s harder.  When you know you can’t, it becomes nearly impossible.  Even though it’s the same physical act!  Ridiculous.  

To put this in perspective:  Driving a car, you do some very fine, very precise maneuvering.  You buzz between cars with 12 inches on either side without slowing or flinching.  You don’t think about it, even though it requires precision and screwing up would be extremely costly.  

Walking on a curb is easy.  Walking on a ledge of the same width 100 feet above the ground is, for most people, very difficult and scary.  Same physical act.  Thinking about failing makes the act harder.  Thinking hard about “If I fail, I’ll die” is an extreme version of thinking about failing.  It’s focusing on failing.  

There is a fantastic series of books I read many years ago, by Timothy Galloway: The Inner Game of Tennis; The Inner Game of Golf; and Inner Skiing.  Inner Tennis dramatically improved my game.  If you’ve ever wondered “how intense/competitive/obsessive is Mike?” and you didn’t ask Kim, I do not and will not play golf; I read Inner Golf to improve my disc golf game.  It worked.  I once held, briefly, a course record for amateurs.  I won money in the weekly dg tournament for that round, for which I have ever since joked that I was a professional athlete, albeit briefly.

 Inner Skiing did me no good at all; I still suck.  Go figure.  

The biggest take away from these books is simply that your body knows how to do stuff and your brain, by trying to help, just gets in the way.  If you can learn to shut your brain up, you will perform better.  

Again, this is the simplest of instructions yet can be crazy hard to follow.  Some people’s brains shut up better than others’.  Some people can just decide to focus and carry that out.  Other people will find this impossible even to conceive of*:  “Telling myself ‘don’t worry’ does not cease my worrying!”

In ultimate, by far my best sport, as in, the sport at which I ammost proficient, I can throw very well.  I can hit a moving target 75 yards away.  I’m often amazed that I can simply do this, with no second thoughts, and moreover that my freedom from second thoughts comes so easily.  In contrast, though I love tennis, I can drive myself berserk because I think too much and too loudly, even knowing what I should do.  

Here’s the difference:  I don’t practice tennis enough to have the confidence I need in order not to think.  While not thinking–or not overthinking, if you prefer–improves my game, I seem able to do this (or not do this) only in direct proportion to my confidence to succeed.**

It’s kind of poor-get-poorer, rich-get-richer:  If I think I can’t, then I think too much about whether or not I can, which makes it even more likely that I can’t.  If I think I can, it’s easy enough not to think about whether or not I can, and therefore my rate of success (my canning?) increases.  

If you play sports and you’re out of your twenties, you probably  know what comes next.  You can’t do what you used to do.  You can still play hard.  You might be even better at certain aspects of your sport.  The average age of a Tour de France stage winner is 28, suggesting that nineteen-year-olds don’t have the advantage.  The average age of Mr. Olympia winners is 33 years old.  

But I don’t cycle or body build.  I play ultimate and basketball.  And the latest challenge, I’ve noticed, is keeping my confidence.  This also functions as a cycle:  If I know I can, then I can, and I don’t start overthinking.  When I start wondering, “Am I too old?  Can I not anymore?” then the downward spiral starts spiraling downward.  

Playing sports can be a “create your own reality” show.  There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance.  There’s another fine line between competitive and belligerent.  What you think you are capable of doing often–though not entirely–dictates what you can, in fact, do.  I mean, within reason. I’m excluding delusions of grandeur and mental illness here.  Deciding you can, especially if your sport is directly you against someone else, requires both confidence and competitiveness.  

The reality of aging is that my physical abilities are diminishing, (ever so slowly, thank God), and the more I pay attention to that, the less I can create my own success-at-sports reality.  However, completely ignoring my age leads to frequent injury and results in spending more time rehabbing than playing.  Not fun.  

So far, this means I have to train and condition more carefully, less aggressively, more gradually.  I don’t play with the same heedless abandon that I once did–I can’t–but I still feel like I can play all out, and that’s satisfying.  Conditioning and whole-heartedness contribute to confidence.  I’ve recently lost nearly all the weight I annually make a point of gaining when I’m visiting the U.S. (“States Weight”) and less of me makes it easier to move fast.   I can because I feel faster and because I am faster–believing I can do it helps me do it, and seeing that I can do it helps me believe.  You’d think that would be simple physics, but even this is mental as well as physical.  

I’ve enjoyed playing basketball recently, but I’ve also felt frustrated.  Right now, my pre-season for basketball coaching, I’m playing once a week.  I’ve been shooting terribly.  My shot feels fine, nothing off in my mechanics that I can detect, but I’ve been missing most of my shots.  I’m a pretty good shot, though not always a good shot in games, which can be an important aspect of playing basketball (unless you specialize in “H-O-R-S-E.”)  

But lately it’s been ghastly.  Now, at 49, that means I’m wondering if I still can, as opposed to just noting that I’m off at the moment.  I remember Michael Jordan playing in the 2002 NBA All-Star game, missing a wide-open dunk.  In his interview afterward, he said, “You want to do something spectacular, but then you don’t know what you can do, you don’t want to hurt yourself, a lot of things go through your mind, the next thing you know, you’ve missed a dunk.”  I’m not comparing myself with Jordan here, at all, I’m saying even Michael Jordan reached the point where awareness of his age and limitations (“you don’t want to hurt yourself”) impacted his play.***

Then tonight, I was on.  Made most of my three-pointers and other jumpers, hit two game-winners (game point can add another layer to if-we’re-thinking-or-not-thinking), and swished almost everything I hit.  

Where did that come from?  I missed my first shot.  This usually bodes poorly for the evening’s festivities.  But thereafter I “found” my shot and by the end, I had a wide-open three, which can somehow be the toughest shot because it’s the easiest to overthink (“Ohmygosh, I-have-to-make-this-because-nobody’s-on-me-and-it’ll-look-bad-if-I-” CLANK!), and I just relaxed, stepped in and swished that, too.

Was I just lucky tonight?  No.  I wasn’t throwing up ridiculous or crazy shots, only the jumpers and lay-ups I can make (my drives were still off, alas), the ones I usually hit in warm-ups.  And I made them.  

So two conclusions I can draw here, you who have read to the end, faithful sports fans, fellow weekend warriors, and doting sister:  

1)It’s even more in my head than I thought it was, i.e. no matter how I shoot next week, that won’t primarily be a measure  of how well I can shoot or how well I can shoot at this age but how well I think I can shoot and then allow my body to do what I’m capable of doing without more thinking;

2)If I can remember #1, I will enjoy myself more and, regardless of performance or outcome, have an easier time being grateful for the continuing ability to play.  That is, I need not waste energy or kill my own endorphin high with “Am I too old for this?  Do I just suck?” etc.  

Since sanity and emotional health remain the biggest reasons I play, those conclusions help a ton.

Or they should…

 

*”Inconceivable!”

**There is a much deeper issue for me concerning how my ability to do most things rises and falls based on what others think I can or can’t do.  But I’m not talkin’ about that here.  I’m just talkin’ about some sports.

***He also scored 43 points in an NBA game the next year, at age forty, against New Jersey, who would make the NBA finals that year.  So, you know, it’s Jordan.