Manuscript “Living Empathy”

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[Photo of me and Pastor Tim, one of my best friends and the one who keeps letting me preach at New Song.]

NOTE: I stayed on manuscript significantly less than usual with this sermon, so if you’re one of the three people who both reads and listens to this, you’ll notice a lot of discrepancy. I’m honestly not sure which is better this time.

This is the third sermon I wrote this week. I don’t mean I did three different drafts of this sermon or that I made major adjustments three times. I mean I wrote a sermon and decided, no, this isn’t it, so I wrote another, and thought, okay, that will work, then prayed some more and started over again. This felt a little like going back in time. When I was first regularly preaching, over twenty years ago now, about 1997, I would write a sermon early in the week, then panic on Friday that it wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t what God had in mind, and frantic, I would start all over, often writing it late into Saturday night. Sunday morning, God showed up, I preached, people responded, God worked through it. It was stressful. Years later, Kim said, very gently, “I wasn’t sure I could last if you were always going to do it like that.” 

Well, over time my process has changed a lot. My faith grew. My confidence in God grew. I learned how to trust God in the process and not get panicked by the voices telling me “this isn’t good enough!” I went from praying “Help me to say what you want to say” to “Help to to wantto say only what you want me to say.” Do you see the difference? Believe me, I did. One of the hardest things about preaching is the backlash you experience afterward, when Satan (the Devil) attacks with all the things you should have said, all the ways you failed. A lot of preachers don’t take Monday as their day off, even though that’s when they most need rest, because it’s too brutal to spend the day after trying to fight off those voices. But again, over time my faith grew, and I think the process John the Baptist described actually took place in me: I decreased and Jesus increased. I could discern between God’s voice and my Accuser’s and I didn’t fall for the lies as much. The biggest lie I stopped believing was that it all depended on my effort. In truth, we do our part, however well we can (or can’t), we try to be faithful, and then we trust God to do all the rest. Of course, that’s true of all of life following Jesus, not just preaching, right? If you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh, awesome, the preacher’s going to talk about preaching the whole time! I don’t preach!” I’ve come to believe that most everything about preaching applies to how we live our lives in front of others. St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” So all of us who follow Jesus preach, only a few of us are silly enough to stand up in front of people and use so many words. 

My favorite lesson about God’s work in my preaching actually came at New Song, and I wish I knew who it was who said it. After I preached here one Sunday, someone came up to me and said, “Oh, thank you so much! God really spoke to me when you said this.” Then she said something to me that I know full well I did not say in the sermon. It was profound. It just wasn’t mine. I use a manuscript when I preach and sometimes I go off the manuscript, but I knew I hadn’t said that. And I learned exactly how to respond when people affirm my preaching: “Thank you and praise God.” What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

That brings us back to third sermon of the week. The first was a Part Two to waiting on God, but when I went back and looked at Celeste’s sermon, I realized she’d covered it so well I wasn’t adding anything. I have my own stories—I’ve never been pregnant—but it wasn’t Part Two, it was more like 1.2 (One Point 2). So that wasn’t it. Then I decided to preach on Empathy. But the passage I chose is very personal to me and I was trying to preach it without saying that. The multiple sermons had a certain nostalgia for me, but I didn’t lose my faith or, as Paul challenges the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” I am foolish in a lot of ways, but not that one. I was more starting with the flesh, my own effort, the second round and now, I pray, we’re ending with the Spirit. 

Matthew 7:7-12 7 “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 12 In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Here’s the thing about this passage: verses seven through eleven don’t obviously fit with verse twelve. Jesus talks about prayer, about asking God and how good God is in giving, then suddenly switches to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” How we treat others seems like a different topic than “ask, search, knock.” Many of the folks who later added chapters and verse numbers—Jesus didn’t speak those and the first manuscripts didn’t have them—decided to give it its own name, heading, and paragraph. What’s our name for this command? That’s “The Golden Rule.” Which is a funny name for arguably Jesus’ most fundamental command, when you think about what Jesus also says about money and wealth and possessions, right?

Here’smything about this passage: I didn’t believe it. When I first started preaching, I made a commitment to myself never to preach anything I don’t believe, and you think that’s obvious until you start preaching regularly while simultaneously living a messy, sinful, up and down life. Believe me, I’ve heard people preaching things I know they didn’t really believe themselves. 

When our son Isaac died, this passage became my reference point for my ruptured relationship with God. It was sort of my anti-touchstone.  “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Except I asked God to heal our son, to save his life and not let him die, and God didn’t. I asked God for what I could only see as a good thing and God gave me the worst thing. 

That was a long time ago now. In fact, I’m writing a book about the experience, which I’ve been thinking about doing for many years, but only now feel I can. The death of your child isn’t a wound that heals, it’s the loss of a limb. It doesn’t grow back; you learn to cope without it. 

So I’ve used this passage before in teachings for my example of how I wrestled with God, the way Celeste was describing last week. It’s a challenging passage for anyone following Jesus because Jesus makes these statements unconditional. Do you meananythingI ask will be given to me? Whatever I search for I will find? Every door will be opened to me? C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful essay on this entitled, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem without an Answer.” Guess where he goes with that! Jesus gives two seemingly conflicting models of prayer: We pray “your Kingdom come, your will be done,” and this: “ask and it will be given to you.” I love C.S. Lewis and it’s the only place I’ve read where he concludes, “I have no answer!” We can pretend Jesus implies “Ask, and anything that is my will will be given to you.” That’s not what he says. As Lewis states, “…there is just a faint suggestion of mockery, of goods that look a little larger in the advertisement than they turn out to be. Not that we complain about any defect in the goods: it is the faintest suspicion of excess in the advertising that is disquieting. But at present I have got no further.” The end.

Does God mean ask for anything? The disconcerting fact remains that Jesus says exactly that. The disconcerting fact remains that the thing I asked for with my whole heart, that I’ve never before or since prayed for with as much of my heart as I begged God for this, God did not give. 

Now I want you to hold on to that uncertainty and tension. We’re going to look at verse twelve. 

“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” 

First, tell me what Jesus means when he say “for this is the law and the prophets.” Good. Somehow, this one commandment summarizes everything the Jewish Scriptures teach us. If those are your sacred texts that you’ve spent your life learning and seeking to obey, that could either be really offensive, to so minimize and simplify so much of God’s Word, or…maybe that’s the most profound statement you’ll ever hear.

It sounds simple, right? Just do to others as you would have them do to you. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Now think about this for a moment. What do you need to know to be able to obey this? Let’s unpack it.

What’s first? First, you have to pay attention to know what’s going on for others. Otherwise, how can we know what we should do toward them? We don’t get to ignore them and go about our business. Following Jesus can never be “I just need to keep myself clean and avoid sin and Jesus and me are good.” We have to know other people’s situations. We have to give them our attention. One of my pastors always said that love is spelled T-I-M-E.

What is second? Once you know what’s happening for the other person, the question becomes, “How will I do for them as I would have them do for me?” What question is implicit in that?

I think we must ask, “If I were in their situation, how would I want to be treated?” Does that make sense? It’s not simply, “How should I treat them?” Jesus says, “Treat them how you want to be treated, if…what?” If you were in their shoes. If you were in their situation how would you want them to treat you? Really, if your situations were reversed, how would you want them to act toward you.

Jesus says “If those were your problems, how would you want someone to help you? Now go do that.” That’s why the sermon is titled “Empathy.” Here’s a dictionary definition: “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” We can’t do to others as we would have them do to us unless we first have empathy for them. Do you see why? We have to understand or feel another’s experience first, in order to know how we would want to be treated if we were them. 

I’m going to go out on a limb right now and say that we must have empathy to follow Jesus. 

I trust we already get how important this commandment is, but here’s a crucial connection: Matthew 22: One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” You see where I got the “arguably most fundamental commandment” idea. If the law and the prophets hang on this and “Do unto others” isthe law and the prophets, we’re talking about basically the same thing, aren’t we? How you treat others isthe law and the prophets and loving your neighbor as yourself hangs on how you treat others. Yeah, that makes sense. 

I know we’ve talked about this before here, but quick review. Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” But there aren’t only two commandments in Matthew 22:37-40, at least not for us: Love God and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself means 1)Love God, 2)Love Yourself, 3)Love Your Neighbor. If I try to love God but hate myself, my neighbor is bumming, right? So we’re learning to love God, we’re learning to love ourselves, and we’re learning to love our neighbor and Jesus says, “There. You have a summary of everything God has tried to convey to you. Do that.” 

Loving our neighbor as ourself actually applies directly to “do unto others.” “Do to others as you would have them do to you” implies that what you would have them do to youis actually a good thing. If I say, “I’ll do to others as I want them to do to me” but then I’m abusive to myself and lack all healthy boundaries and tell myself lies all the time, I can also get a skewed picture of how I want others to treat me. I need to be healthy enough and know God’s love for me to love my neighbor as myself—and truly love myself as Jesus loves me. If I’m going to do to others as I would have them do to me, I’m going to need to act lovingly toward myself. The assumption Jesus makes is “as you would have them do to you” is a positive thing. The measure for how I behave toward others needs to be “I want to be treated well, so I will treat you well.” 

Let’s draw this out for a second. Do to others as you have have them do to you. In the situation I find Kelsey, I should act toward her as I would have her act toward me if I were in Kelsey’s situation. I’m not asking, “What do I think is justicefor Kelsey?” I have to understand what Kelsey is experiencing, I have to place myself in Kelsey’s position, and then say “Okay, how would I want to be treated in her shoes?” Because the funny thing is, I can be quick to decide what justice would be for someone else, but I’m a lot less likely to call for justice on myself. For myself, I want grace. I really want grace. I know how bad I am and justice would not be pretty. I want grace. That means I’m asking, “What grace would I want Kelsey to show me?” That’s the grace I’m going to show Kelsey. 

Are you tracking with me? 

Jesus has asked—no, commanded—us to do something potentially really big but whether big or small, very other-focused. I have to 1)pay attention to the other person, 2)put myself in the other person’s position, 3) ask “how would I want someone to act toward me in this position?” Then 4)I have to switch back and dothat. I have to live empathyto do to others as I would have them do to me. 

The Sermon on the Mount is—ready for this?–a sermon. It’s a message, one long, cohesive, mind-blowing, gorgeous, heart-rending sermon. None of try to imitate it as a sermon because we don’t speak as one with authority, meaning we just speak Jesus’ words, we don’t speak as Jesus. We proclaim the Word, we aren’t, ourselves, The Living Word of God, as John 1 describes Jesus. 

The message of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 through 7, is, according to Matthew 4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaimingthe good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Two verses later, Chapter 5 verse 1, we’re in it. This is the good news of the Kingdom of God. This is citizenship in the Kingdom of God. All this crazy stuff is how the Kingdom of God works and how we live and partner as members of God’s Kingdom. 

Citizens of God’s Kingdom, you and I, take Jesus at his word. I don’t mean we have perfect faith. I mean when Jesus says “ask,” we ask. We don’t always get what we ask for—I certainly don’t always get what I ask for. Do you? We don’t always get what we ask for. But we ask anyway. And through asking, we learn how to have faith in God. Through searching and knocking, we learn how to find and how God opens doors. I said to hold on to that tension about verses 7 through 11. I’m not solving it for us. I’m not solving for us the tension that Jesus commands us to ask—it’s an imperative, not a suggestion—and states “it will be given.” I don’t believe this is a problem to be solved, as if it were an equation and we just have to find x, either some implicit conditional that shows Jesus didn’t mean it or some faith requirement that explains away that it’s our fault God doesn’t answer. I think it’s supposed to be a tension.I haven’t always believed this. 

It’s much easier to claim we have answers than to accept we live with tensions. But to follow Jesus we always have these dynamic tensions, these “both…and’s” that we must hold together, not cancelling out one with the other, because to us it is a paradox. 

We read the Sermon on the Mount as an act of faith. We can’t always see the Kingdom of God coming. Some days it just looks like the world is going to hell. I mean that really literally. But we choose to live as members of this Kingdom. We ask and seek and knock and, as Celeste described last week, we wait on God actively, sometimes really loudly and determinedly.We don’t just take “no” answer for an answer because we believe Jesus-who-is-God when he says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

The very next words are 12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Ask by faith. Believe God is good and gives us good things when we ask and wrestle through it when we experience the opposite. Sometimes that wrestling will be the hardest thing you do in your life. Then, in the same breath, by the same act of faith (that God gives us), do to others as you would have them do to you. We won’t do this perfectly, but we will absolutely try to do this and fail and find out how hard it is and pray harder for God to help us. Depending on grace is living with tension. We can’t solve that we’re imperfect sinners. We try and we fail and we trust God to act.

We’ll catch ourselves getting angry at people and wanting to do unto them what we decide they deserve instead of what we would have them do unto us.We’ll completely fail to have empathy, heck, we’ll completely forget that we were going to tryto have empathy. We’ll raise our voices or say mean things and half an hour or half a day later realize, “Wait, that isn’t what I would have had done unto me!” We’ll get a little frustrated with ourselves. 

But God will remain faithful to us. God will say, Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. Really, I’m giving you good things. And—here’s the bombshell—I’m trying to give you good things by commanding you to do to others as you would have them do to you.Because the best thing Jesus can offer us is Himself, the best thing Jesus can do for us is to teach and empower us to become more like God, full of compassion and empathy and agapelove, unconditional love, the real thing. So Jesus reminds us that this is the law and the prophets, this is all of what God taught the people of Israel through the law and the prophets, all rolled up into one. This is not just a big deal, this is thedeal. 

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

What others, one or more, for you today? What others does Jesus mean, for you? 

Living Empathy

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[Photo of Beca, who embodies empathy.]

Message at New Song Community Church 1-19-20 on Matthew 7:12

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

This is about as messy a sermon as I’ve preached in a very long time. But since it’s me, I mostly mean that in a good way.

https://www.newsongcc.org/category/sermons/?fbclid=IwAR3Whd1cwfHY8xLHC_z1rXYqRedZ63M8dkMPHcVBG6aMo_NYv6J4GHKawtw

Let’s draw this out for a second. “Do to others as you have have them do to you.” In the situation I find Joe, I should act toward him as I would have him act toward me if I were in Joe’s situation. I’m not asking, “What do I think is justicefor Joe?” The Bible speaks a ton about justice, but that isn’t Jesus’ direction here. I have to understand what Joe is experiencing, to place myself in Joe’s position, and then say “Okay, how would I want to be treated in his shoes?” Because the funny thing is, I can be quick to decide what justice would be for someone else, but I’m a lot less likely to call for justice on myself. For myself, I want grace. I really want grace. I know how bad I am and justice would not be pretty. I want grace. That means I’m asking, “What grace would I want Joe to show me?” That’s the grace I’m going to show Joe. 

Favorite Authors: Nick Hornby

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Who is your favorite author? Why?

I haven’t read enough recently. I love reading. I need to read. But reading requires more than just escape. There is escape reading, of course. But that’s not what I need, any more than I need a straight diet of escape eating (read: junk food).

So a goal this year, a resolution, is that I read more and read better (I also have a goal to eat better, though not more). Along with this goal, I want to write more about literature in my blog.

I just finished reading my first book of the year, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, a Christmas present from my son Rowan, which is about neither housekeeping nor dirt. Nick Hornby wrote it, or actually wrote the columns which he then collected to make this book. So to be clear, I’m writing about a book about books, so you’re reading about reading about reading…I think.

I love Nick Hornby’s work. I didn’t know most of the books he wrote about in this collection, but I learned a lot and now I want to read four or five of them. I read Nick Hornby because he makes me laugh and somewhere between his sarcasm and self-deprecation, he sneaks in these brilliant insights about life.

One thing about great art: it made you love people more, forgive them their petty transgressions. It worked in the way that religion was supposed to, if you thought about it.

Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked

Here’s a funny thing: I thoroughly enjoyed reading Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, but I don’t know that I would recommend it. But it’s wonderful. Hornby published it in 2006 and it’s about books he was reading each month. Mostly it’s about that. Usually. He’s British, but he wrote the “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column for The Believer (published by McSweeny’s), so it’s aimed at US audience (in 2006), and this is a follow-up book to The Polysyllabic Spree, an earlier collection of columns. In fact, there are two more subsequent collections, as well. Clearly, I’m not the only one who finds Hornby entertaining.

My hesitation to recommend this book is that I didn’t like it for its content as much as I liked it for how Hornby writes. If I recommended it to you, you easily might read it and think, “Okay, I’m not really interested in reading any of those books and he went off on tangents half the time and what was he even talking about?” And I would want to say, “Right, isn’t it hilarious?” But maybe that isn’t, to you.

I, though, cannot wait to read The Polysyllabic Spree,* and then Shakespeare Wrote for Money and More Baths Less Talking. If you haven’t read any Nick Hornby, I’d start with About a Boy or Juliet, Naked. I’d start with About a Boy if you are under forty and Juliet, Naked if you are over forty. You might already have seen film adaptations of About a Boy, High Fidelity, or Fever Pitch–either the US or British version. The book Fever Pitch--an autobiographical reflection on the author’s fandom of and fanaticism for the football club Arsenal–is by far the best thing I’ve ever read on being a sports fan. The British version of the movie stars Colin Firth and is wonderful, and the U.S. version…do you like the Red Sox? Or Drew Barrymore? Jimmy Fallon? It’s a bit weak tea, a reflection of a reflection. But if you’re a fan of one of those three, you might enjoy it.

To complete my Nick Hornby recommendations, his 31 Songs (also published as Songbook in the US) is an autobiographical exploration of music which I found delightful. If you enjoy reading any of the above, I’d also suggest Funny Girl, How To Be Good, A Long Way Down, and Slam, probably in that order. I’m trying to tell you I’ve never read a bad Nick Hornby book and I’m down to reading the column compilations, but I do have an order of favorites. Oh, and if you prefer short stories, Speaking with the Angel is a collection he edited which is also great, though he wrote only one of the stories.

Do you have any books you plan to read this year? I’m comparing reading lists with a friend and we’re going to pick a few to read together. I’m going to try to review or discuss or just go off on the books I read. If you have any recommendations, I’d like to hear them.

*In case you were wondering, yes, you are correct, the title is playing off The Polyphonic Spree. If you weren’t wondering that, you probably haven’t heard of them.

My Year in Review

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Not January through December and very much the selected and abridged version, here is some of what happened this year.

My daughter Aria had her meniscus transplant today, ending a three-plus year odyssey from injury to correct diagnosis and through two surgeries. The recovery and physical therapy will take some time. But this is a big step and we’re finally nearing the finish line.

I wrote an article on immigrant children that went viral. Having my writing go viral was a strange experience and I have now drifted back into my relative obscurity as a writer. It was a nice moment. It was also an uncomfortable moment. It feels bizarre to have strangers attack you. Obviously that’s one of the joys of social media, because we used to reserve that experience for celebrities and umpires. But the weirdest thing about the experience was that I had posted the article on my blog and gotten slightly more than usual attention–then Relevant printed it (without informing me) and it went from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. The conversation I have with myself, literally every day: that article didn’t suddenly become good when they published it; I wrote a good article that they published. I have other, equally good articles. Relevant has the name and circulation to get attention, but people shared the article everywhere. Strangers read my piece and we became friends. [Late Edit: Relevant named this their most popular longform feature of the year! Cool! Obviously we won’t be seeing any “shortform” features from me.]

I thought that would be the mythical “turning point” for me, but it wasn’t. I’m still pursuing that turning point as a writer.

Much less far-reaching but more personally gratifying, I got both my Advent Reflections, God Enters In, and my first novel, Something Like Faith, into paperback. Seeing books I authored in physical form in the real world made me feel like a writer, perhaps for the first time.

I thought I would go back into pastoring (official, titled, as employment) and then I didn’t. Now I’m not sure I ever will again. God knows and I’m praying about it. So that was interesting.

Annalise returned from Nicaragua. She lived in Managua and worked with special needs students for an addition year and a half after we moved back. I was very proud of her for her work there and I’m happy to have her here. I feel a little relieved, it’s true, but only in that dad way that you want to be able to control things more than you can…or should.

We celebrated our 26th anniversary. Our 25th anniversary celebration was a trip to Ireland, which was spectacular…and also was the week violence broke out in Nicaragua while we were in Ireland. This year, we went out for Indian food. It was lovely and less eventful. Twenty-six years is a big deal. I met Kim when I was nineteen. You could argue we’ve been together since that day. But I got married at twenty-four, so I’ve certainly been married to Kim more than have my life. Now that was a good decision.

I’m not doing a Christmas card of a blog post here. But this year was a huge one for Rowan, and for us as his parents. I learned a lot. I’m sure I lost a few friendships. I can live with that. I’m proud of him. I’m still learning. I love him like crazy.

I officiated Pam and Tad’s wedding this year. That was glorious. Truthfully, that was a highlight of my life, not just my year.

I made it through another year. Two Thousand Nineteen was a tough one for me–in some stretches one of my hardest–and I shared more than I ever have before about my own daily survival. I’m proud of that. If you had to fight to stay alive, I’m proud of you for still being here, too.*

If I had to point to one thing that I did this year, I would choose speaking up against the bad things I see happening, especially our separation policy for immigrants seeking asylum. Speaking up cost me more than a few friendships. I didn’t shut up when people criticized me. I stood my ground and in some cases shouted louder. Those kids I wrote about, many of them are still in cages. We’re still committing atrocities against human beings fleeing death and seeking our help. I’m sickened that we haven’t stopped this practice. And that’s just one issue.

I know there are those who wish I would just stick to writing spiritual stuff and leave the politics alone. I feel compelled to speak up in obedience to Jesus. For me, the political stuff is spiritual stuff, because Jesus commanded us to welcome strangers, feed hungry people, and stand with the persecuted and oppressed. I won’t be quiet about this. I believe we choose whether we follow Jesus or make something else our idol over these issues.

I hope and pray to be more full of God’s grace and to express more grace in 2020. I’m learning how to speak against the evil I see and do so in the spirit of grace. Jesus, help us to follow you. Give us your words. Help us to recognize you in every face and to stand with you and embrace you when are treated as the least.

*I got tremendous support for opening up about my daily challenges. Thanks for that. Keep telling our brothers and sisters who don’t feel respected what heroes and bad asses they really are.

My New Year’s Resolutions

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[Christmas present from my beloved Rowan, by one of my favorite authors, my first book of the new year…unless I finish it before then.]

I’m sharing my New Year’s Resolutions here. No apologies. If you want to scoff, feel free, but I’ve addresses resolutions in that post and yesterday’s.

I’m going to read more in 2020. I’ve always loved books and reading, as long as I can remember and, according to my mother, as long as I’ve been able to hold books.

But honestly, I’ve read less this past year. I started out with reading goals and did read a number of books, but I tailed off badly in the second half of the year. Or maybe it was the second quarter. I don’t think it was the second week.

I stopped reading books because I was busy saving the world on social media. That, of course, was not happening in real life, but in my mind, I was bravely entering the fray each day and holding up the cause.

Now I sound sarcastic here–mainly because I’m being sarcastic here–but I’m saying something serious. I spent too much time on social media last year. I’m going to cut way back and spend that time reading, instead. [Acute existential moment: Wait a second! Isn’t this blog a “social medium?” Are you saying you’re quitting something on the very something you say you’re quitting? Are you spelling out “I’m not eating junk food anymore!” in M&M’s? Maybe. But no, that’s not what I mean. Writing on my blog is one of the more productive things I do. I hope that what I write qualifies as “real reading” for readers. It does count as “real writing” for me.]

Specifically, I spend too much time in that nether-region of social media, not “planning” to spend time there, just “checking,” and then getting sucked in by some outrage or other. I like connecting with people and I like being informed. But the forms in which those take place on social media, and especially the distracted, glance-at-everything-but-don’t-read-anything scroll, is bad for my brain and my productivity. It eats my time. That’s a passive way to say, “I piss my time away on Facebook and Twitter.” I’m resolving to stop doing that in 2020.

I still see some positives in my participation in these communities. I receive responses that show me my speaking up makes a difference. I like offering encouragement. So I’m not quitting altogether. But I’m not ruling out that possibility, either. I know others who have and each one tells me life is better now. Hmm. I’m going to see how I do. I hope to spend much less time and focus better on the positives I can offer in the time I do spend.

The next resolution perhaps should rank top on the list but I think changing the above routine will help significantly to make this possible: I’m going to spend more time talking with God.

I know this trips all the alarms: What do you want for Christmas? Peace on earth. What is your New Year’s Resolution? To pray more and read my Bible and stop doing all bad stuff. I know those are good beauty pageant answers. But looking back at my 2019, I did not pray as much as I have other years. Worse, I did not pray consistently, meaning I was not making time with God a high enough priority (cuz, you know, busy scrolling through Facebook…). I hope this year to integrate my writing into my being-with-God, to be more present and mindful as I write.

I have a few others. I’m going to do more yoga. Since I moved back to the States, my yoga practice has fallen off badly. –Wow, it’s funny how I wan to phrase all of these in passive voice! Maybe I should resolve that I will use active voice and name my shortcomings as mine and not “the universe led me to stop doing as much yoga.” So we’ll try that again: Since I moved back to the States, I have gotten lazy and have stopped doing yoga consistently. That was a bad idea on about forty different levels: I pray less, I let stress build up more, I hold onto anger, I lose my flexibility, I get injured more, I don’t sleep as well, to name a few. (Good “I’ statements for all of those.) Therefore, this year, I will return to doing yoga consistently.

Here’s a funny thing: I think every year for the past nineteen or so, “writing more” has been one of my resolutions, usually my top one. I am going to write more in 2020. But it’s nice to look back and see I wrote a lot. As I said in yesterday’s post, I need to celebrate where I can.

Are you making New Year’s Resolutions? If you are, I encourage you to share them, here or with someone else. Saying things out loud and stating them publicly, even to one other person, makes you more likely to keep them. Words have power.

Today is the first day of the rest of the year

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It’s three days until the new year and that kind of matters and it kind of doesn’t matter at all. By that I mean three days from now this year is coming to an end. And by that I also mean in four days it will be just another day. Likewise, today is another day.

Here’s the thing: it’s kind of all in our minds, the end of the year. But that doesn’t make it meaningless. Shakespeare wrote, “for there is nothing either good or badbut thinking makes it so.”* I probably wouldn’t go that far. Some things are objectively good or bad, however we think about them. But other things we shape by how we think of them. I’m not going for “power of positive thinking” here. But I do believe we have choices as to how we think about transitions. Beginnings can help. Endings can give closure.

Part of my perspective, of course, is that whatever helps you get through the day without damaging yourself or others is a good thing. That’s a bit of a low bar…unless you’re trying to survive the day. Then that “low bar” becomes one of those movie shots where you’re looking straight up the sheer rock face, like the Cliffs of Insanity, and wondering how in the hell you’re going to climb that. Then that “low bar”–and by the way, berating yourself that it should be a low bar when it feels impossible doesn’t make it any easier but does make you feel worse–is all you can manage. Then that low bar is cause for celebration.

So is it the end of a horrible year? Is it the conclusion of feeling alienated from church, from most other Christians, from people whom you thought believed as you do but have made choices that contradict everything you value? Is it the end of the world as we know it, and you feel fine? Is it the end of the beginning (of the outbreak of love)?**

Are there things to celebrate? Did Jesus show you grace this year? Do you know grace a little better? Can you offer a little more grace than you could before? Do you believe more or less than you did a year ago that God loves you?

Sometimes those questions encourage us and we can see real, if not always quantifiable, growth. Sometimes those questions just drive the nails in harder. This is what I mean by “it’s all in our minds” and “we get to decide.” If you can look back at the year and rejoice in what God has done or how you’ve changed, do it. Have a party. But if this moment in time only reminds you how much the year cost you and how many new scars you added, you aren’t obligated to dredge it all up. I don’t mean drink it away or hide from it; I mean acknowledge it, learn from it, but look forward. If surviving the year is the one thing to celebrate, make that the party.

Because a new year is starting and you can leave this one behind. I hope that strikes you as good news. I hope you have both reasons to celebrate and goals to anticipate (sorry, sometimes the clunky near-rhyme says it best). I’ve shared before that I like New Year’s Resolutions in my own goofy way. They help me. Many people mock resolutions and race to see how quickly they can break ’em. I’ve already made clear what I think of cynicism. It’s harder and takes more courage to hope. I’ll stick with hope. I’m making resolutions. But call them “goals,” if you prefer.

The truth is, of course, that you can set a new goal on December 29 and it will have the same power as one you set on January 1. The change won’t happen because of the date; the change will happen when we break old habits and develop new ones. Doing so requires practicing different responses to our triggers.*** Breaking habits is difficult because the routines become hardwired as patterns in our neurons. When you “automatically” turn at an intersection but this time it means you’re going the wrong way, that happens because your brain took the cue “We’re crossing the bridge” and triggered the routine “we turn here when we cross the bridge so we can go there.” Those routines get established pretty strongly, but they aren’t impossible to rewire.

I’m simplifying here, but we have to overwrite the routine that follows the cue. When we lived up in the mountains, often I would drive in and out of town multiple times a day, which meant that when I got on a certain road (the south end of Wenatchee Avenue) that triggered the “going home” routine. But I don’t “automatically” go that direction anymore. Sometimes my brain fires up, “Hey, remember when we used to live out there and drive that way all the time?” But that routine is now completely overwritten by different repeated behavior.**** The New Year is a good time to change destructive habits and start recovering from addictions. Likewise, today is a good time.

I hope you can find encouragement in this. I mention this in the context of approaching our New Year because sometimes it’s easier to believe we can change when we see a fresh start. I have some habits I need to change in 2020. Our family will observe our second annual “No Sugar January,” following our annual “I can’t believe how badly I ate December!” I’m celebrating how much I wrote in 2019 and how I established good writing habits. I need to develop some productive marketing habits and improve at using my time more effectively. I need to spend less time on social media and more time connecting with people again.

May God help us to remember the beauty we saw in 2019. May the redemption we experienced grow while the discouragement and sorrow fade. Jesus hear my prayer, may we see your truth and hope more clearly in 2020. May we become people of grace this year.

*Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2: “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or badbut thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it. And to me, Denmark is a prison.” No telling whether Shakespeare personally subscribed to this view of subjective value.

**REM for the first reference, Midnight Oil for the second.

*** All of us get triggered all the time. “Triggered” simply means we detect a cue that causes a neuron to fire. The smell of coffee, one of your children screaming at another of your children, the alarm, the book on your nightstand. Saying someone is “triggered” is just the pop psychology recognition of a stronger response, which again, we all have all the time.

**** Addiction works fundamentally the same way, but often involves physiological (and/or psychological) dependency on the addiction behavior. It wasn’t hard to break the habit of turning up toward Stemilt Creek, because my body didn’t get cravings and cold sweats when I didn’t make that drive…just some sadness. When we’ve developed an addiction, we must do more rewiring to break it, and often that involves avoiding the cues and building new routines that help prevent us from experiencing the addiction triggers. Simply put, when we’re recovering alcoholics we don’t hang out all day in the bar. Undergirding all of this must be prayer and self-honesty.

A Light Shines in the Darkness

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I read my sister Suzy’s words late last night and knew I had to share them as widely as I can. I got up this morning for church and instead wrote this for two hours.

My friend Suzy McCall is a missionary in Honduras. She directs The Lamb Institute. I usually refer to her as “my sister Suzy” because I love her and we consider each other family in Jesus. When I talk about “following Jesus” I picture her. A single woman, she has adopted and raised a number of Honduran children greater than you would believe. She’s lived in Honduras for twenty-five years. Her daughter Sallie died this year and they named this ministry, Sallie’s Corner, after her. NOW I’m asking you, please, read her words. This tears a hole in me that I no longer live in Nicaragua.

I post a lot of cheerful photos of our children and ministry in general, but I am sure most of you know that life is very hard and dangerous in Honduras, and what we are doing seems so small sometimes. Last night a young, hardworking neighbor was murdered in the neighborhood where we have ministry work. He had a business, and apparently one of the extortion groups has arrived. This is how they announce their arrival. 😔So what am I doing today? Moving everything out of Sallie’s Corner. We cannot risk the lives of our young people, and we will not pay “war tax.” We have a lot invested in that vision, but it isn’t worth a life. We will do what we have done before: thank Jesus that we can change our plans before tragedy strikes us, and make a new plan. Please pray for the grieving family. There are so many here!! And the rest live in constant fear. Honduras is under siege. May Jesus help us to be Light and Life as we share tears again with our neighbors, yet continue to hope in His eternal promises. Come, Lord Jesus.

I’ve often said that I have some specific purposes for my blog: to encourage people to know Jesus better, to speak truth where I can, to help others understand grace and walk through our struggle together, to share my writing.

Today I’m sharing this truth: most of us don’t dream of and can barely fathom how difficult life is for people suffering poverty in oppressive, fractured countries where violence dominates over law and order. I’ve spent significant time trying to explain why the immigrants who come to the US from countries in Central America, from Honduras and Guatemala, feel like my neighbors. I lived with–and was embraced by–Nicaraguan neighbors in the same conditions. We need to see what they are leaving, why they would give up all their possessions and their neighborhoods and their familiar lives to risk being killed or raped or kidnapped, traveling thousands of miles with nothing, to seek a mere chance at a life away from this brutality and constant fear.

Thousands upon thousands flee these horrors to come here and my sister Suzy left here to make Honduras her home, to adopt orphans and love children in Jesus’ name. I was a missionary for seven years and missionaries hate to be called heroes because we are too damned* aware of our flaws and sins and shortcomings. We also hate it because it puts us on a different level; it gives others permission to categorize us separately and therefore not take us seriously. “Well, you do that but I could never do that.” My sister Suzy never planned to have any children. But she decided to follow Jesus and this is where God led her and leads her. She is amazing to me but she would be the first to tell you she isn’t a hero**; she’s a Jesus follower.

I’ve been praying for Suzy throughout this year, as she has suffered the death of her daughter Sallie and survived each day’s grief. When our son Isaac died, I thrashed and writhed and screamed at God and grieved for three years. I went into a dark tunnel and wasn’t certain I’d ever emerge. Somehow Suzy is continuing her ministry in Honduras while carrying this pain.

Sallie’s Corner is a ministry Suzy and the LAMB institute began as a step of redemption from this grief and pain.  This is Suzy’s description of it:

As her living memorial, we have rented a house near our ministry office where we will open a LAMB program for training our young people who are interested in business: beauty salon, diner/coffee shop, and copy center. Sallie wasn’t interested in business, but she loved to hang out with people and laugh and talk. We will do that, too, and share our hope in Jesus. We’ll call this place “Sallie’s Corner.”

You need all that context to understand what it means that Suzy has to move everything out of Sally’s Corner and surrender at least that version of this memorial to her late daughter. She has to relinquish it in the face of the violence that keeps spreading, to do what she can to prevent more tragedy while continuing to work for redemption and healing in Honduras. They’ll find a new location for Sallie’s Corner (I pray) and start again.

Sallie and Suzy

I am sitting here trying to summarize all this and I’m pulled back into my own grief. But I want to leave you with these things: Jesus requires that we have empathy and suffer with those who suffer. “And who is my neighbor?” Sallie’s life ended too soon. She should still be alive, singing and laughing. The neighbor murdered yesterday should still be working hard and living in his neighborhood. The babies and toddlers and preschoolers at our border, seeking life and freedom from violence, should be able to stay home in their barrios, growing up, going to school, enjoying their lives. We are suffering a world of violence and sin, greed and evil, where some murder others while many others look away. Into this world Jesus enters, not as abstract hope but in Suzy, who chooses to live her entire adult life in the midst of this maelstrom, this chaos, this darkness. Suzy is not God, she’s not a hero, she’s a woman with strong opinions and a big laugh who believes in Jesus. Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness. Suzy is Jesus’ daughter who lives by this light. Jesus calls all of us to bring light into this darkness, to be light in this darkness. Jesus lives in us so that light can shine through.

I don’t know how God would have you respond to this, but I know I have to tell everyone I can. I encourage you to consider supporting The Lamb Institute. I miss living in Nicaragua, I miss our family there, I miss Juan Ramon and Bismarck and Amada and Zeke and Mileydi and so many others. I miss Los Tornados. God has me here now. God has Suzy in Honduras. God has you where you are.

There is too much darkness and we have the light.

Shine.

*Suzy thinks I cuss too much in my writing, by the way.

**Okay, she’s my hero, but that’s different. That makes me take her more seriously, not less, and want to be like her.

A Book Enters the World

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Today, I finally can announce that Something Like Faith is in paperback, available now, and existing in physical form in the real world.

I’ve had an exceptionally discouraging week. The timing of this book coming out helps. Now the novel is available in paperback and ebook along with both formats of God Enters In. That starts to look like I’ve accomplished something.

Therefore, I hope you can allow whatever self-indulgence in my writing a post about writing a book. It’s actually going to be about a broader issue or two. But it is also a writing post.

I’ve described some of my journey in becoming a writer. I still have to grit my teeth and make myself say those words directly, “I. Am. A writer.” Apologies, disclaimers, self-deprecating comments spring to my lips (or fingertips). I’m not yet making a living as a writer, which is certainly not the only measure but is a weighty and pragmatic measure, nonetheless.

Doing a little archeological research, I found drafts of a short story titled “A Faith That Endures” going back to March of (ready for this?) 2001. But’s it’s probably older than that. So I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I’ve been working on this freaking novel for twenty years. I realized the spacing of the ebook manuscript was off, meaning I had to go through and fix it “by hand,” line by line (plus hunt down the typos), which sounds like no big deal until you realize it’s a 300-page, 131,000 word novel.

I’m now going to tell you something vulnerable: typically, when you go back and read something old you’ve written from long ago, you will feel acute embarrassment, a cringe factor of 8.5 or above. I had to read through Something Like Faith again and, um, I cried. Reading my own manuscript. That might be narcissism. But I don’t think the book is crap that I imagined was good a long time ago, before I learned to write. Neither do I believe it’s a world-shaking novel (that one’s still in front of me). I’m not sure if it hits me so hard because I’m in a different place in life in relation to some of these things I’ve written about–dad, home, shame, boundaries, reconciliation–or if I’m just so deeply invested in the characters.

This is the wonder of fiction: Paxton, Guin, Jeff, Emily, and Phil exist because I thought of them and wrote them. But they’re real to me, friends with flaws and strengths, senses of humor and dysfunctions. When I want you to read this book I wrote, I want to introduce my friends to my other friends. And yes, that may be a little too imaginative with my invisible, made-up buddies, but isn’t that how this art form works, knowing characters intimately and becoming personally invested in them? Don’t we give them life by living through them?

Art also works this way: I might be racist. I might hold grudges. I might both love my father and wish he were someone else, something else. I might fall in love with the most perfect person in all God’s creation…and then find out I’m very wrong and have to decide this time whether I am “in love”–and even what I believe love to be. I can wrestle with all of that reading a single chapter and maybe, just maybe, when I close the book I know myself a little better. I might be furious with all these racists around me and then realize, through that character I’m reading about, through that story I’m now living vicariously, that I’m who I can’t stand.

I wrote this novel that assuredly, consciously is not about me–it says so, right in the preface–and yet…

It is.

But it’s also about you. Even if you don’t identify fully with a single character,* it’s the same as what I hope to achieve with my blog, that reading along you will both care what’s happening and think, “Oh hey, that’s me!”

“Anyway, everyone’s tangled up with conflicting intentions. That’s not just me, right?” (chapter 6, page 64)

I don’t plot or outline. I wrote 300 pages by imagining these characters and watching to see what they would do next. That might strike you as quite a feat or, if you are an outline-style writer, as a ridiculous thing to have done for a really long time. John Iriving (A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules) outlines exhaustively and says I’m an amateur for not doing so, which, well…yeah. But I have to write how I write. Don’t worry, Stephen King states, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” One great thing about writing, you can always find some master who has sold a quadrillion books who will think the same as you do about the writing process. That’s not because you’re right; you can find one because there are wildly diverse approaches to writing and what works for one person…works for that person.

For me, writing is like watching a movie and then describing what I’ve seen. So I’ll get in arguments in my head, “No, that’s not really what he did,” or “She didn’t sound like that.” Often the sense of frustration comes from being able to see it clearly and vividly but not describe it nearly as well. To me, making an outline would be like skipping through scenes to catch certain words, beginnings and endings, but the action wouldn’t make sense. But having said that, sometimes I get stuck in a scene and can’t for the life of me see what’s happening next, so I have to work on something else–like a nice, friendly blog post. Later I’ll come back and try again.

Editing, for me, is a completely different experience. I think that will need to be its own post. Editing is the hard part. But it uses the brain in a completely different way than writing the story.

I have to tell you a couple more things. First, I needed a lot of help to get even this far, and I got that help from some amazing people. I am blessed with an incredible wife and true friends. Everyone who encouraged me in this process made a huge difference to me, and I mean beyond simply having a novel now available for reading. Adrien and Paul must be named by name because they read drafts upon drafts and believed in me and helped keep up my morale. “Keeping up morale” is a different phrasing of “not giving in to discouragement.”

Second, this is a modest accomplishment that I’m celebrating and I know that. It’s a long way from going to my head. God hasn’t gone out of the way humble me in some time. But since the whole process is alternately terrifying and discouraging, you can be dang sure we’re gonna raise a glass when there’s something to toast.

Finally, I’m going to need to improve my website (including this blog) dramatically because, not to put this too gently, I suck at marketing. I like writing. So far I haven’t enjoyed marketing. But I won’t get to write unless I can market my writing, as well. So I must do that now. I will need some help in this process. I will certainly need your prayers.

I don’t know if writing is part of my calling, but I believe it is, I’m pursuing it as if it is, and am trying to see if God confirms it or sends me in a different direction. I’m profoundly grateful that you read these words and travel this (crazy, windy, potholed, foggy) road with me. If we know Jesus better and learn who we are more, it’s the right road, wherever it takes us.


*The books I find truly unreadable are the ones in which I can find no one with whom I can identify. The hardest books to read are the ones in which I see the darkness in a character and do identify.

Discouragement

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I shouldn’t write tonight but I have to write this tonight. I have to write this now.

If I were to be canonized when I die, which I consider a fair long shot at this moment, I’d like to become the patron saint of people battling discouragement.

I’m discouraged as hell tonight. It was a hard day, one of the most discouraging I’ve had in many moons.

I shouldn’t write tonight because it’s already late and I’ve already doomed myself to being short on sleep and dragging through tomorrow.

I have to write this now because I’ve been promising myself that I would write a post on discouragement from inside, so to speak. Also, writing (or any artistic activity) is an act of defiance in the face of discouragement. Discouragement says, “Why bother, it’s not going to make any difference.” Discouragement’s cousin, cynicism, dresses up as an intellectual to pretend that this choice to acquiesce and do nothing in the face of sorrow and injustice and cruelty and indifference is somehow wisdom.

Discouragement isn’t dressing up, though. It isn’t trying to fool anyone. Discouragement lacks the energy and the will to bother.

Discouragement reminds us that for every inspirational story of the guy who just kept trying and finally triumphed, of the woman who refused to quit and eventually overcame impossible odds, a bunch of people kept trying and still failed.

Discouragement calls hope “wishful thinking.” It says, “Sure, go ahead and pray. If that makes you feel better, why not? You know you’re kidding yourself though, right?”

I know you might be reading this and thinking, “Man, what a downer! I thought he was a man of faith.”

That’s my point. I am a man of faith, by which I mean I continue to believe and try to live by my believe that Jesus loves me–loves us–and won’t reject or abandon us. This is what I deal with as a man of faith and this is how we have to survive it.

If you’re reading this and think, “Oh, I know exactly how that feels,” you know there are days when nothing helps. I’m not talking about depression, exactly. That’s again a different relative, with the same family tree but different parents. By “discouragement” I mean that realization that you’ve tried and you’ve beaten your head against the wall and what you have besides a minor concussion is…

No, that’s it.

That’s how discouragement feels. And if you have some chirpy, cliched solution to this, you haven’t battled discouragement the way I’m describing. So if that’s you, and those well-meaning answers you read in (I’m now practicing self-control by not naming the author I’m thinking of) fix it for you, please go ahead and pray for me and don’t feel like you need to finish reading this.

Still here? Shit. I’m sorry. It’s no fun, is it?

There are so many ways to describe life, to frame what we’re going through here on this journey. I could aptly describe my existence here as a lifelong battle between discouragement and refusing to give in. Obviously, there are so many other aspects to my life, so much joy and beauty and all the people I have loved and encouraged and the times I’ve made people laugh and all that wonderful ultimate I’ve played. None of that goes away, none is rendered meaningless. It’s still true that I love Kim. God is still faithful.

But I’m also trying to tell you that God’s faithfulness and my love for Kim don’t erase this discouragement. Neither do wine and chocolate and a few really nice catches I made tonight (indoor ultimate season, thank God we were playing tonight) make it go away and they only numb it so much. One motivation for addiction is to numb it out all the way. I can’t recommend that. Addiction has a way of taking over and becoming a bigger problem than the one you were trying to make go away. But I get why people go down that road. The scary part is how tempting it is to walk on top of the fence and convince yourself you won’t fall over into addiction, you’ll just, you know, take the edge off a little. But I truly understand why anyone would not want to feel this.

So here’s why I’m writing: feeling this way is one of the most miserable things I know. It’s miserable enough to make one want to do anything to make it stop. If you’re feeling this way and still going, you’re a [very strong expletive for emphasis) warrior, and I know that. I don’t care if no one else knows it. I do. I know how some days breathing feels too demanding and things that need to happen just don’t because just being is exhausting all your resources. I know that a bunch of people don’t get that and they look down on you and you couldn’t ever explain it to them in a way that makes sense to them and part of you resents them for that and part of you feels bad and still wants to try.

You are a freaking hero.

You are a hero for not giving up. I don’t know if you’ll ever triumph, in the classic “then he got rich” or “she got famous” story. Without that ending, you are a hero to me.

I promised myself I would write when I felt like this so that I could say to you: I know. I really do know. I’m with you. God is with you, and I don’t say that to pretend it makes everything magically all better, but because it’s true and I’m convinced it makes all the difference, the difference between life and death.

Today I spent a long time holding my daughter’s hand in the dentist office while she went through a painful (but necessary) procedure. Today I helped my wife arrange and decorate her kinder classroom for her “Polar Express Pancake Party” tomorrow. Tonight I played disc and made jokes and ran hard. I did all that stuff while feeling like I was dying inside, not pretending I wasn’t but refusing to succumb to those feelings, those voices, the temptation to give up.

Yes, I’m discouraged. No, I’m not quitting.

When I die, I hope I join the communion of saints, the “great host of witnesses,” and I hope Jesus gives me special dispensation to come and whisper in people’s ear, “you freaking rock; God heard your prayer about how discouraged you are and sent me to remind you that, even though no one else gets how hard you’re fighting right now, Jesus gets it and is fighting with you, holding onto you as you fight it, right now.”

It’s 3:15 and I’m not the patron saint of anything. Tomorrow I’ll feel some embarrassment for having been this blunt and open. That’s okay. If you can hear me, saying this is worth it.

You are a warrior.

Maybe Christmas Means…

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It’s eight days until Christmas.

I hope that doesn’t shoot cold electric jolts down your spine due to a relentless, despotic ticking clock and more to do than time left to do it.

Even more, I hope that doesn’t cause you to think “Okay, just over a week, and then another week after that. Will I survive this time?”

I’m in my second Holiday Season back in the States. Last year, it all felt shocking and garish and ridiculous and loud. I loved Christmas in Nicaragua, even thought without cold weather and snow I had a harder time clicking into the Holiday mindset. I loved the slower pace. I loved how easy and natural it was to scale down our gift giving, especially with our children. They didn’t complain. They understood our situation and limits and responded more gratefully for receiving less than when we’d lived here.

And now we’re back, and the frenzy that is US consumer Christmas is upon us again and, I’m sad to realize, feels normal again. We’re still not the family that has a Christmas party to attend for each day of December. Our lack of popularity, though hard on the underdeveloped dimension of my personality that resents not being invited to parties I don’t want to attend, is overall a great relief. This year especially, when Kim is preparing for National Boards and is stretched beyond the reasonable demands of 24-hour days, I’m glad we’re not trying to pack in more than we can manage, much less enjoy.

Instead, we are slowly working our way through our favorite Christmas specials. Tonight we watched The Grinch, the original animated version (the only one we ever watch). Our offsprings’ responses to The Grinch have changed, from cheering at the end that this “he turns nice!” to stating quite early in his grumblings, “relatable.” We had a humorous discussion about how you might need medical attention if your “heart grew two sizes that day.” But watching the favorites again roots me in the nostalgia, all the way back to watching The Grinch with my late father when I was young enough to feel nervous at his evil plotting (and canine mistreatment) and even more unsettled at the question, “Would I sing and celebrate on Christmas morning if I discovered I got no presents?”

Our daughter Annalise just arrived back from Nicaragua. We were together again as a whole family last night–to celebrate my awesome brother-in-law’s birthday–for the first time in half a year. Being together feels like a bigger and more meaningful gift than anything you could wrap for me.

In my last post, I wrote about Small Wonders, opportunities for kindness and generosity that we have in this season. I’m not going for a Hallmark special here, but I believe you can make more real Christmas spirit through watching for these and seizing the opportunity than through a whirlwind of Christmas parties or a pile or purchases. Being together is also Christmas cheer and finding presents that express love to our loved ones does celebrate the season.

But it’s good to take a moment to step back and acknowledge: the form we have inherited/allowed/partcipated in shaping for Christmas is not God’s command for how we do this and may not even be God’s preference. We’ve done this ourselves. That being the case–and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find solid biblical precedent for all the trappings of a traditional US Christmas*–I think it’s spiritually healthy to question if we are living this season in a way that draws us closer to God, that helps us to offer grace and live joy, or if we are living it in a way that could best be described as “too much of a good thing.”

So I’m just going to ask: how could you know Jesus better in this holiday, in this Advent season? How could you bless someone not on your christmas gift exchange list nor your party invite list? How could you lift up the lowly or fill the hungry with good things?

I’m not telling you how to do this. I’m certainly not trying to add to your guilt or your overload in this homestretch. If you’ve struggled through, especially if you’ve been depressed or discouraged, I can relate and have written about my own experience being there. I hope it helps.

I hope, I really do pray, that you can slow down enough to ask the question. Is this what I want Christmas to mean for myself and for my family? Is this how I want to live Christmas?

*The “wise men” gave the baby named Jesus gifts. The angels sang. There was also a prophecy or song or spontaneous outpouring about “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)