Writer Dreams and Stranger Things

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I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And by “always,” I mean after I stopped wanting to be a paleontologist (ages 4-8) and shortstop for the New York Yankees (ages 8-12), I have wanted to be a writer.  In contrast, I never wanted to be a pastor–though I did put it in our “Class Prophecy” in 8th grade, that I would become a wino pastor, imagining that both of those things were equally unlikely.  I’m long been curious if any of my classmates remember that.  

I first thought about writing when one of my teachers, John Knox, told me I was good at it.  Up until then, I loved to read and spent some of my happiest hours getting lost in novels, sometimes all nighters, but I hadn’t given much thought to anything beyond  getting an “A” on an essay.  Mr. Knox was sarcastic, even a touch cynical at times, and he conveyed through that language, which I already spoke fluently, that I had something.  I took an extra semester of grammar instead of American Literature because he told me if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to have my grammar locked in.  He was the first person to tell me that you need to know the rules before you start breaking the rules. John Knox changed the direction of my life by identifying a gift I had and helping me to believe in it.  

Mr. McAvoy taught the junior and senior English classes at our high school.  He was hilarious and insightful and ridiculous and honest.  He confirmed for me what John Knox saw, and pressed his conviction that I could become a writer.  Mike McAvoy died several years ago.  This will sound funny–or maybe it won’t–but in addition to grieving his death, I felt like I had failed him, because I wanted him to see that I had achieved what he believed I could.  He wrote me a letter at the end of my senior year in which he told me that I was the most gifted writer he’d ever had in class.*

“All beginnings are hard.”  Chaim Potok

I went to college all pumped up to become a famous novelist who would write profound, world-shifting books which would, incidentally, make me rich.  I majored in English Literature–then was too afraid to take a single creative writing course.  Not one in four years.  Even though I’d gone there partly because they had such a strong English department and offered creative writing as its own major.  

How does that make sense?  

If you’ve ever attempted to write something that someone else will read, you’ll likely have experienced what I’m about to describe, at least to some degree.  The inner conflict between “I have the urge to write so people will care about my words” and “NO! Don’t look at it!”  Writing school essays can feel like this, but since they are assigned, there’s a sense of “Well, you asked for it.”  But writing in the hope that what you say will matter to someone, that it will connect with another person’s life, that’s scary.  Intimidating.  And then there’s this:

WHAT IF I’M NO GOOD?

That’s what stopped me for a long time.  Years.  As a wonderful, damaged, cynical and grace-filled friend of mine taught me, “Nothing ventured, nothing lost.”  He was pointing out a truth most of us live by.  There are, by some estimates, 200 million people in the United States who believe that they could write a book.  Safe to say, there aren’t that many published authors, even if we count loosely those folks who have blogs, write for anything that appears as a publication in print, including Hallmark, and the people who can crank out killer office memos.

It’s much easier to imagine you might be great than to find out you aren’t.  It’s much safer to believe that you’ll be a writer “someday,” or to tell yourself you would become an author “if only…”, than to write and try to find readers who care anything about what you’ve written.

Writing is scary almost exactly to the degree that failure is scary.  I am not a successful writer by most reasonable definitions, which suggests that I have no grounds to be telling of these things–except that I am a writer who is still trying and thus, every day, risking failure.  Facing failure.  Dealing with failure.  And writing more words.  So perhaps I can say this as Everyman.  

Back to my chronology, I got a little side-tracked from my rich-and-famous dreams by this lifelong obsession with grace.  But I also had to overcome my fears in order to write.  It took me many years past college to find the courage to try.  I found out what I was terrified, and, for a long time, paralyzed to know–I’m not as great as I imagined.  Publishers and agents did not weep, fall to their knees, and rejoice to their God above that I had deigned to send my genius-disguised-as-prose to them.  Mostly, they sent form rejections, or just ignored my offerings entirely.  

That’s a special feeling.  To labor on a short story–not a novel, a short story, not a work that could by any stretch of the imagination earn any meaningful money, but to invest a year of spare hours on a few thousand words that you compose and refine and edit and sharpen and shorten and tighten and polish and send…into the void.  Into the silence.  Into the indifference of a publishing world that doesn’t notice your work, or your words, at all.

Do you cry then?  Go back to watching football?  Tell yourself they are oafs and ignoramuses who wouldn’t know a great short story if it was attached to a two-by-four and thunked against their skulls?

Here’s what I learned:  you do whatever it takes to get back to writing, to keep writing.  Every time I started a new story, article, novel, or scribble, I used to write at the top, “A writer writes.”  I pray all the time that God will use what I write, but if I don’t actually write anything, then I’m burying my coin in the ground.  Jesus told a parable about that.  Self-doubt probably accounts for a high percentage of that backyard “banking.”  

I spent several years building up momentum.  I had a short story praised and considered by the New Yorker.  Flattering.  In the end they rejected it but never gave me a single negative about it–the equivalent of getting an essay back with only positive comments but also a “C-.”  Huh?  I found an editor at a great literary journal who showed interest in my work, I submitted a story and finally got back the words, “I love this”…and then she resigned.  And the journal failed to honor their commitment to publish the story.  

And then ceased publication.  

I consider that time period Round One of my match against myself and the world to become a writer.  It took years to muster the courage to try, more years to write a bunch of lousy stuff, then to slowly develop my voice and learn to recognize what was lousy and what wasn’t, and then yet more years–actual years, measured in full calendars–to recover from those disappointments.  l didn’t acknowledge to myself that I was stopping, I just “got distracted.”  I “focused on other things.”  But coming back to our handy definition, I wasn’t writing.  A writer writes.  

Round Two started about four years later.  I was puttering around, scribbling a little here and there.  I had a short story I’d worked on and completed years before, but nothing is ever really  finished when you can open the file and start fine tuning again.  As I was tinkering with the ending, suddenly the horizon opened up.  In all the time I’ve spent writing, it was perhaps the best feeling I’ve ever had.  Up until that moment, I’d never made serious progress into a novel, not for lack of trying, but for lack of finding a sustaining idea.  As I’d learned to sort the lousy from the potentially-not-lousy, all of my fits and starts of novels revealed themselves as the former.  Now, the vista spread before me of where this story could go.  

I should mention now that when I write fiction, I’m not an outliner.  Heck, when I write a sermon I’m not an outliner; even then, I simply begin to compose and let the ideas expand.  When I’m writing fiction, I “get inside” the story and watch it unfold.  It’s almost like viewing a movie in my mind and then transcribing what I see.  Almost.  Editing is an utterly different experience, more like tightening all the bolts and trying to figure out where the rattle and squeak are still coming from, over and over.  But the first draft is simply flowing along with imagination and intuition.  It’s being the character and thus knowing what he or she would say.  

“I think the hardest part of writing is revising, and by that I mean the following:  a novelist has to create the piece of marble and then chip away to find the figure in it.”  

Chaim Potok

Completing my novel took about five years. Or so. I did not break any land speed records.  Of course, I was raising four children, pastoring/running a non-profit, and oh, yeah, moving to Nicaragua.  Distractions.  But all seriousness aside (as my father loved to say), the hardest part, after untold hours of writing and editing, cutting and revising and screaming, was forcing myself to ask people to read it.  Eventually I identified faithful, long-suffering reader friends, including one superstar who would read chapters as I felt brave enough to send them and give me great feedback.  

Round Three began October 9, 2015, when I finally committed, after years of talk, to starting my blog.  Again, not wildly successful, I haven’t gone viral nor even bacterial, but I’ve written, and that’s what a writer does.  I’ve been able to express some thoughts, challenge some ideas, spread some hope, and, I pray, express light and love where too much is dim and hateful.  I’m not going to get all self-congratulatory here (because that’s probably the one thing worse than the writer talking about writing), but I am grateful for everyone who has read and commented and especially those who have encouraged me.  A writer writes, but when enough people say, “Hey, you’re good!” or, “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like for me!” somehow that makes being a writer seem more real.  Validation matters.  I believe for nearly everyone who aspires to write, the battle is morale.  

As long as I’m doing shout outs, I had a group of young adults (younger than me, for sure!) who expressed enthusiasm as I started posting the chapters of my novel–which was, by far, the scariest part of doing my blog thus far.  I thought I might just put up a couple chapters as samples of my work.  But buoyed by their insistence–sometimes verging on demands/threats–to see what happens next, I continued through about half the book. We even had a few round-table discussions.  They gave me precious feedback, which I really needed to get over the proverbial hump and get my novel out into the world.  

So, today, writing this, begins Round Four.  As of now, Something Like Faith is available and I have all the expected queasy, second-guessing, maybe-I-should-edit-it-for-ten-more-years thoughts.  But I’m not going to do that.  I’m going to focus on the pastoral book that I’ve also promised, I don’t know how many times, will be coming out.  I’m actually fairly close on that, I simply need to put the pieces together.  And I’m going to eat a lot of ice cream…although it’s 7:20 AM.  

Thanks, Mike McAvoy.  Thanks, John Knox.  Thanks, Laura and Paul, for letting me abuse our friendship so much while I sought reassurance, and for your patient and thoughtful feedback.  Thanks, Julia, Peter, Natalie, and Chasen, for being young and adult and letting me see the story through your eyes.  And thanks for being so demanding–I needed that!  Thanks, Kim, for enduring with me so graciously.  

 

 

*Of course, it’s entirely possible that he said this to 52 other students, to encourage all of us.  But his are the words I’ve held on to, literally.  I still have the letter.  

Process

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At 12 it could have been six hours

but two good conversations and now it’s 2,

so four.

Another day of not enough sleep

Another night of “I’m awake now.”

Another try at typing words

to say something I can’t.

Yet.

Reading someone who says it

so much better that I (don’t) want to try.

That’s a writer!

People read them.

more.

And I’m a, I’m a, I’m a,

I’m a

Can a scream say it better

or a curse I can’t stop

repeating?

Do any measures count

how many times I haven’t…?

Given up.  Gone to bed and

fallen asleep. Broken the dishes.

Every one.

Surrendered to demons whose voice sounds

just like mine.

“None of this matters, it’s useless,

pathetic, you joke,

failure.

If you would just quit

the world would thank you.  Honestly.”

And every affirmation

disappears by 2:30

A.M.

Swallowed in the roar of

futility and silence.

What if I never…?

Is the trying enough?

A writer.

You’re joking me, right?

No. I don’t think I am.

My Non-Secrets of a Purposeful (and Painful) Life

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Image may contain: cloud, sky, road, outdoor and nature

Photo Credit: Sean Hudgins

I thought about calling this one, “My Secrets for a Happy Life.”  But then I thought, “Hmm, anyone who has actually read my blog might wonder if this really is a happy life.”

I value some things higher than happiness.  I consider having purpose in life more important than being happy.  I would rather impact people positively, influence people toward God’s Kingdom and lives of shalom and grace than pursue my happiness.

Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning,* wrote:

“It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy. But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'” Victor Frankl

Further, U.S. folks have a bad habit of mistaking comfort for happiness.  They aren’t the same thing.  In my opinion, comfort easily becomes an idol.  We’re willing to sacrifice quite a bit to protect our comfort.  That’s probably a post in itself, somewhere on the horizon.

If happiness is not, in itself, the end goal, but a result or by-product of other pursuits, and if I’m right that comfort does not equal happiness (two significant “ifs” that you have to answer for yourself), then here are some things that have helped me pursue a meaningful, purposeful, grace-oriented life. 

None of them are secrets, of course.  Nor are they original.  

But that doesn’t mean we follow them.  

 

1. People are most important.

This one just feels so obvious to me, but I know that’s partly due to my upbringing and partly to my personality, for neither of which can I take credit.

People are eternal.  I forget this all the time, but I really try to make it a central thought throughout my days.  Many times I’ve read the folk wisdom, shared generously on social media, that you should rid your lives of negative people, of the people who don’t understand you, don’t support you unconditionally, and, apparently, anyone who irritates you. 

That isn’t the Gospel.  The Gospel is that God loves people who are unbearably awful, vile, racist, sick, and annoying as hell.  Did I miss any of us? 

I know, we’re nice.  It’s everyone else who is bad.  Except again, that isn’t the Gospel.  I just read this quote and I absolutely love it:  

Christianity isn’t for The Little Engine that Can, It’s for The Train-Wreck that Can’t.  

Romans tells us that God loves us while we were still God’s enemies.  God’s enemies.  

If God is love and we were God’s enemies…  

If God is truth and we were God’s enemies…  

If God is grace and we were God’s enemies…

I’m guessing you get it.  

My point:  everyone sucks.  Grace means that God loves people who suck and grace means that we are the awful people God loves and, through that love, God makes us lovely.  Therefore, making choices of whom we find acceptable A)doesn’t line up with how God loves people, and B)puts our own (here it comes) comfort above choosing to love people.

Having said this, yes, there are toxic people who will kill you if you let them, emotionally if not physically. I’m not saying let abusers keep abusing you.  But I am saying that if the Jesus followers in my life had decided to shun me because I was annoying or draining–and make no mistake, I was!*–I might be horribly lost, or mentally ill, or dead now.  Nope, not being dramatic here.  I’m telling you what God’s grace has done in my life, shown to me by people who valued me, exactly as I was, because they believe(d) God values me.  

Who was the neighbor to this man?  I’m trying to go and do likewise.  Every day.  

2. Creativity is a radical act of hope.  

I’m curious if you saw this coming for #2.  I have a genius friend whose artwork tends to be pretty dark.  Okay, extremely dark.  It’s less extreme now, but there was a period when, to look at the paintings themselves, you could easily extrapolate that this person wanted to die.  Easily.  

We talked one day about these works of art.  My artist friend had received much criticism from some close friends and family members.  The attitude seemed to be “making such depressing art is depressing you.”

I saw it completely opposite to that.  Creating that art was looking that darkness dead in the eye and saying, “I see you.  I feel you.  You want to swallow me.  You can’t.  I name you.  Names have power and I name you, Death.  You can’t have me.”  

Now my genius friend is happily married–stupid happily married, it appears–prolific in creative endeavors and increasingly successful professionally.  

If you’re trying to write or draw, paint or sing, act or dance, take photos, make pottery, or express yourself creatively in any way, defined as broadly as you need, you are shaking your fist at the forces shrieking that life has no meaning.  You are made in the image of God-Who-Is-Artist, really what we mean when we say “Creator,” and you are reflecting that image to the world.  Creativity of any kind is a radical act of hope that what we do matters, has meaning, and adds beauty to the world.  As my eldest’s favorite poet states, 

we have to create.

 it is the only thing louder than destruction

Andrea Gibson

I wish more people read my blog, in the way that all artists of any stripe wish they were more…something.  But the main point, the real thing that matters, is that I keep writing.  Otherwise, I bury or squander the gift God gave me.  

And you?  

3. LAUGH.  AND BE WRONG.  

I dare you to be wrong today.  I triple-dog dare you.  

Let me put it another way:  You are wrong.  In some way.  I dare you to admit it.  

In how many arguments have you known you’re wrong, or had a pretty strong idea you were, but fought on, anyway?  

Blessed are the peacemakers.  Jesus said that.  He said nothing about the warmongers, the fight-pickers, or the belligerent argument-starters.  

How do we make peace?  By having bigger, deadlier weapons than the opposition?  Well, some people believe that works in international relations.  But does anyone believe that brings peace in interpersonal relationships?  

Actually, laying down our weapons brings peace.  Apologizing makes peace.  Admitting we are wrong, asking forgiveness, laughing at our own faults and mistakes instead of defending them, these make for peace.  

Blessed are the peacemakers.  You don’t have to be blessed.  You can hold the grudge, win the fight, play for keeps, mock and begrudge and insist on your rightness.  But you’ll never bring peace this way.  

The peacemakers know blessing, I suspect, because they are finding peace.  By choosing to pursue peace, the blessing is happening within them.  Blessed are the peacemakers. Not “will be.”  Are.  

I’m sure there are untold circumstances that make this advice impossible to take.  If you admitted you were wrong the other person would simply seize this as ammunition and fire it at you.  

That could be true.  But laughter is disarming.  And if you’ve said you’re wrong and laughed about it, what harm is it to you if the other person says you’re wrong?  Peacemaking might change us in ways we never imagined.  It might change the other person, too.

I haven’t always taken my own advice.  I don’t pretend that I have.  But I’m still married because I can apologize and laugh at myself.  I’m sure of that.  

4. The Princess Bride was right.  

“Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.”  

Love requires suffering.  That’s the Gospel, too.  They’re selling comfort, security, and things that won’t hurt.  

A song I’ve been listening to on repeat, by the Lumineers, says, 

It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all/

The opposite of love’s indifference

That’s all.  

 

*And am.  

Mom and Kim

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I’ve done a lot of not-so-wise things in my life.  I’ve messed up frequently.  People almost never argue with me when I make these statements.  

BUT–and this is a big one–I chose very wisely both my mom and my wife.  

I  know, some of you cantankerous types may want to take me to task, claiming that I did not autonomously choose to have the delightful mom I have.  You might even go so far as to suggest that God had more to do with that selection than I did.  

Well, technically (and theologically) you might be right.  However, I would point out that likely the most brilliant decision of my life, after following Jesus (and even before cheering for the Yankees), was to propose to Kim.*  Anyone who knows both Kim and Mom will immediately understand the logic:  1)Kim and Mom are remarkably similar, 2)I chose Kim, 3)therefore, it stands to reason I would have chosen Mom if we could choose our mothers.  Metaphysically, who can know for certain that we get no say in such decisions?  

I realize some of you, who are argumentative by nature, will suggest that perhaps the influence Mom had on me while she helped raise me actually swayed me toward finding a comparably amazing woman to marry.  Sigh.  I’m guessing you are the same people who read through all the Facebook comments in order to pick fights with folks’ innocent political views.  

Whatever the case might happen to be, whichever way the  cause and effect arrows point, I have a spectacular wife and a remarkable mom, so much so that I’ve already written tributes about each of them.  But right now, as I write this, we’re approaching the intersection between Mother’s Day and Kim’s birthday, which will seamlessly transition the celebrations of these women in my life.  Thus, I think it fitting to name a few of the similarities between them, if not to confirm my good judgment then at least to drive home what a truly blessed man I am by God’s grace.  

Kim and Mom are both teachers.  They have dedicated their professional lives to loving and helping kids.  I love hearing Mom’s former students, including my peers, still talking about the  positive influence she had on them.  Kim transitioned last year from teaching in a classroom for many years (at which she was ridiculously good) to coaching other teachers (guess what?  Great at that, too), while still volunteering to teach pre-school for kids in our barrio, partnering with two of our Nicaraguan mom neighbors.  

Both my wife and mother are great at making friends and lousy at making enemies.  People love them, often instantly, because they care and they smile and they laugh generously.  They both seem, at times, almost incapable of offending others, which I find uncanny.  Mom tried very hard to teach me to speak diplomatically, and Kim has a special place in my ribs her elbow seeks when I continue to fail at that lesson (gently, of course).  But honestly, I think they can both speak the truth to someone in a way that the other can receive it and be grateful, rather than defensive.**

They both practice hospitality so graciously and effortlessly that it appears easy when I know darned well it’s not.  It would be fascinating to know how many people they have welcomed into their homes, combined.  I’ve been watching this all my life and people feel welcomed, they feel well fed, and they feel loved.  More of this in the world would make the world a better place.  Period.  I try not to get in the way (and I eat a lot). 

They both love coffee.   They do.  I’m not making a profound point here.  They just do.  

Pat and Kim show deep compassion.  They have both taught me to be more compassionate.  I think the world severely–and to its great detriment and sorrow–lacks compassion.  I have watched each of them respond to others’ suffering with gentleness, kindness, and patience.  Mom still volunteers at a local hospital.  She says, “I just like to stay busy,” but her default for staying busy is to help others.***  I also remember specific conversations in which she helped me to see people who were driving my crazy with more grace and less judgment.  

I could write an entire post on Kim’s compassion.  She was an obvious choice for teaching coach because, in addition to being a brilliant teacher, she’s the one other teachers know they can come to when they need to shout or cry (if you’ve done this, don’t feel called out–believe me, there have been many more than just you).  From giving her heart to struggling moms on our street to teaching me to value people above competition, she simply sees everyone around her through this lens.  

My wife and my mom are both cheerful.  They aren’t always in good moods but, well, often they are.  Proverbs says “A cheerful heart is good medicine.”  I’m pretty certain this applies both to those around the cheerful-hearted one and to that one herself.  I could interpret this literally for these women themselves, because they are both remarkably hearty and rarely sick.  I think their smiles and positive attitudes do serve as balm and healing for others, as well.

 

While I seem a bit more adept at focusing on negatives, I have seen each of them simply shrug off bad things they can’t change.  “But it’s…!  But then they…!” I splutter.  They nod and show concern, but Kim and Mom have grasped the Serenity Prayer.****  I don’t think they wear rose-colored glasses (okay, maybe Mom a tiny bit) but neither of them sees the point of wallowing.  Though I find this galling–goodness knows I have tried to show them the point–mostly I’m grateful for the medicine they share.  They’ve healed my heart more times than I can tell you, probably more times than I even know.    

I could go on.  These are more examples than an exhaustive list.  I trust you get the idea.  I’m not saying they’re perfect, either.  Neither of them seems to care a bit about ultimate.  And no, I don’t really claim credit.  Grace is, after all, a gift.  

 

 

 

 

*You certainly may weigh in on Kim’s decision to say “yes,” because I have all power to delete comments from this blog.  

**This could qualify as Irish diplomacy, certainly for my very Irish mother.  

***Her husband, Jim, has the same default setting–his idea of fun is to get up around sunrise to build a wheelchair ramp for someone’s home; I believe he’s helped build around a hundred of them.  He’s kind of horrible at being an inactive retiree.  

****”God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed,and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”  Reinhold Neibuhr

Shame vs. Encouragement or What Does It Cost You to Be Kind?

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Today I went to the bank to pay our rent.  Our rent is low because we live in a poor barrio, which makes ends meet easier.  The bank recently moved from having on space in a strip mall to constructing a massive new building of its own.  The windows are huge and provide wonderful natural lighting and there were eleven–11!–tellers on duty so I stood in line for maybe three minutes.  That was marvelous, since I had three kids waiting for me.  

I visit the bank monthly for this.  We have a rumpled piece of paper on which we have written the name of our landlord, his account number, and the amount of our rent due.  Every time I hand the teller this piece of paper with my cedula (Nicaragua identification card).  Every time the teller verifies the figure as I hand him or her the money.  Every time the teller then asks a question I do not understand.  Every.  Single.  Time. 

I’ve asked for this question to be repeated multiple times.  I put my ear closer to the plexiglass.  Sometimes I just say, “Si.”  

I’ve lived in Nicaragua for nearly six years now.  I speak Spanish poorly, or passably or, if I’m with one of my closest Nicaraguan friends, quite sufficiently because they slow down and can understand my unique diction.  God bless those friends.  If Jamie hadn’t already claimed dibs on The Very Worst Missionary, I would claim that title, but she got the trademark and everything.  

So today, I’m back trying to pay the rent again, in this spacious new bank building, and the teller comes to the question.  And I don’t get it.  I ask her to repeat it.  She rephrases it.  I still can’t grasp what she’s trying to ask me.  She smiles at me–that’s a first, no one in the bank has smiled at me before, much less after the second request for a repeat–and asks, “How else can I phrase this?”  Then she rephrases it.  And I get it!  

And she smiles some more and, because now I understand what she’s asking, I’m able to ask an intelligent-sounding (to me) clarifying question which both helps me understand better what’s going on and shows that I do, in fact, speak some Spanish.  We laughed together and I thanked her for her patience and for the lesson, and she said “de nada” and I spoke blessing to her, which I always try to do when I end conversations here.  I may garble Español, but I invoke God’s blessing on people’s heads.  

But the point of this post is not how poor my Spanish is, entertaining though that may be; the point I’m making here is that a little kindness and grace is a game-changer.  Our transaction may have taken one or two minutes longer than if she had just scowled at me and done the classic repeat the exact same words, with palpable irritation, louder and s l o w e r.  Perhaps we naturally respond that way when someone doesn’t understand us; certainly it’s the stereotypical response of US travelers abroad, even when they are not speaking the language of the nation they are visiting and there is no reasonable expectation that the hosts will understand them.  

I’ve been scarred by people who respond intolerantly to words I can’t understand.  I get gut cramps thinking about entering a certain business here where I felt deeply shamed for not being able to answer a question I couldn’t hear above the music playing outside (many Nicaraguans really love their speakers and promotions usually involve six foot speakers playing at full volume) no matter how many times I tried.  I’ve also watched folks in my home city speak contemptuously to native Spanish-speakers who didn’t understand the first time.  It’s ugly wherever it happens.

A dear friend of mine suffered a horrible car accident and sustained brain trauma.  She slowly regained her ability to speak and, even more gradually, her memory and full mental capacity (she’s one of the smartest people I know).  As she was describing the process, she told me that she had to learn to be patient with herself because the part of the brain that facilitates language functions when a person is calm; when threatened or stressed, a different part of the brain jumps in to defend, but this part does not obtain language.  In other words. stress, anger, and fear all shut down language learning.  Huh.  Shouting at someone who can’t understand you doesn’t help them understand you.  As my father loved to say, “Who woulda thunk?”

I’ve been focusing on simple exchanges and language challenges so far.  Obviously, we can apply this much more broadly.  The moment today with the woman at the bank reminded me that kind words have power.  I came out of the bank feeling happy, actually smiling, and jumped in the car with my kiddos and told them how nicely the woman had treated me and what a difference that makes.  They got happy dad instead of discouraged, defensive dad (they may want to write thank you’s to the bank).  

I believe in small acts.  God is a God of small acts.  Jesus talked about sharing cups of cold water, he affirmed the giving of two pennies,* he called for faith simply for today.  God does big acts, too, but often our faithful response is simply the small and concrete action right in front of us.  

So literally, what does kindness cost us?  It requires patience instead of the immediate knee-jerk of snapping at what irritates us.  I don’t know how many people I’ve heard mock the bemoan the call center people they encounter.  I get it: we want good customer service and we want it now.  But I’ve seen the other side.  A good friend here wanted me to teach him English, as quickly as possible, so he could get hired by a call center. His much more fluent wife would come home in tears, every day, because of the verbal abuse she suffered from those “angry Americans” who weren’t concerned that they were talking to a human being, a mother of a small child, who was doing her best to help provide for her family.  The cost of kindness would be to see beyond their immediate frustration to the bigger picture: they’re talking to someone who makes $400 a month, which is about double the usual wage here,** lives in some level of poverty, and takes call after call from angry, aggressive people, many of whom complain at the slightest hint of an accent.  

I get that people react defensively to the word “privilege.”  But what would you call it when someone who can afford toys that cost more than another person’s yearly wages, who makes 10 (or 100) times more per month, cannot deign to be civil to the person working 50 or 70 hours per week when calling customer support about their Fitbit?

Again, this is one example among millions.  Do our interactions shame or encourage?  People are mean.  We’re sharing testimonies in my senior Bible class and that point comes through over and over: people have treated these young adults with cruelty and spite.  These are, relatively speaking, more privileged kids who attend a pretty good school.  Most of them have suffered significant trauma.  The girl who lives in our barrio whom I just helped with her English homework for tomorrow (can you differentiate between the simple past tense and the simple perfect past tense?) has an alcoholic father and lives in crescendoing chaos.  Small acts of grace and patience and love can shine through darkness.  We don’t know what others have been through; we do know God never lets any act of love go to waste.

Choosing to make the effort to show kindness to people around us requires thinking of others.  How will my words impact them?  How might I encourage them?  How can I show patience or grace in this interaction?  If I never say anything about myself that Jesus wouldn’t say, might I also never say anything about you that Jesus wouldn’t say?  

Of course, we all know we can say the “right words” and still convey un-love, still shame the other person.  The cost of kindness is putting away our daggers, even the ones we pretend we aren’t wielding.  

I’ve been pondering this quote for the past week:  

“[God] has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves.” Thomas Merton

If it is in loving others that we best love ourselves, then the cost of showing kindness, or of encouraging instead of shaming, is a bargain.  It may be the best deal we’ll ever find.  

My final thought:  U.S. politics feels crazy to me right now.  The President just fired the FBI Director who happened to be investigating this administrations dealings with Russia.  Big new plot twists hit us daily.  People are screaming at each other and the divide seems only to widen.  I believe these are crucial things going on in our world and our response to them matters.  A lot.  Those tremors don’t make our small interactions less important.  I would argue the opposite.  As events get crazier and screaming gets louder, our choices for kindness and grace, for encouraging not shaming, become even more crucial.  If grace is disappearing and Jesus followers feel justified in abusing one another, our tiny acts of kindness stand out more.  

Dios te bendiga, teller at the bank!  

 

*Mark 12:41-44.  Not pennies, technically, but two small copper coins.  Contextualizing, for us it would be pennies.  

**Do me a favor?  Take one moment to consider what that means, living on $400 or $200 a month.  How different would life be for you or me?

Dry Season –> Rainy Season

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Last night I got home from Costa Rica.  It’s raining.  Our street, which is packed dirt, has been soaking up the rain, getting saturated, preparing to become mud and ruts.  As we try to unload the car there are puddles everywhere.  The carport roof has leaked, again, and pieces of the ceiling are hanging down in strips.  Again.  Everything is soaked.  

And we have no water.  

Of course, we have water everywhere, just none running through the pipes.  I know it’s only a “coincidence” and there are other times people go without water here–some go without running water all the time–but every year when rainy season arrives, the water seems “coincidentally” to stop.  I suspect the downpours cause damage to some part of the city water system.  Our whole barrio is currently without water, as verified by our friend and neighbor this morning, who wanted to check if we had water (both to see how we are and to verify that it’s everyone).  

Dry season just ended a couple weeks ago.  It ended early this year and we rejoiced.  People literally danced in the first rain of the season.  When we prepared to move here, I had steeled myself for rainy season, which I thought would be the hard time of year.  Like so many other things about moving to Nicaragua, I had no idea what was coming.  

In Nicaragua, the rain falls from May until November.  October has the most inches of rain on average, and then the dry season begins sometime in November.  November, December and January are beautiful here: cooler, a nice breeze, an occasional sprinkle, and everything is green and beautiful because we’ve just had half a year of rain.  

But even that much rain eventually dries up.  The green starts to turn brown.  The dust starts to pile up.  The temperature rises, slowly, inexorably, and you don’t feel like the frog in the kettle because, by mid-March, you know darned well you’re boiling but you’ve got about two months of hotter weather to go.  You start choking on the dust when you walk along the dirt roads, where cars and buses kick up actual clouds that can envelope you.  

We happen to have an outdoor (covered) kitchen, which we love. It doesn’t get as hot as an indoor kitchen nor does it heat the rest of the house, which really isn’t a big need here.  However, during dry season, we can wipe off the counters at the start of a meal, resulting in blackened cloths, and then wipe them down at the end of that meal and they will again darken a rag with all the accumulated dust.  If you leave the floor or the counters for an entire day, by the next day you can see footprints (technically, cats’ pawprints on the counters).  

We don’t like dry season.  It’s too hot.  Oh, and sometime in February or early March, the humidity starts to return.  Yeah.  So it’s “dry,” in the sense that rain doesn’t fall.  But it’s no longer a “dry heat,” like we always brag about in Central Washington.  

Now, as with basically everything in our lives here, if we are uncomfortable, the people living near us in poverty are suffering.  If we are inconvenienced, they are experiencing actual hardship.  Our kitchen is outside and our house is, relative to Nicaragua construction, sealed.*  Dust still seeps in.  That means our neighbors, whose homes are built of scrap metal, scrap wood and whatever concrete they can afford, have almost as much dust inside as we have outside.  I’m not describing a cleaning inconvenience here.  Breathing that much dust, every day, is terrible on their lungs, especially for those who already have pre-existing lung conditions.  

We’ve learned to prefer rainy season.  Unlike what I pictured, the rain doesn’t fall all day and the skies aren’t grey for weeks at a time.  Usually the rain falls for an hour or two, and the skies then return to a gorgeous blue.  The rain freshens the air and beats back the heat.  When the rain does fall, it isn’t even cold.  As our dear friend who moved with us here first pointed out, walking when it’s not raining and walking when it is raining are approximately the same: you’re soaking wet either way, but rain water is nicer than sweat.  It’s just that your shoes will squish in the rain.  

We love watching the world become green again.  You can almost see the flowers and trees and grass start to grow again before your eyes, like stop action photography.  The joke is that if you plant a dry stick in the dirt, tomorrow you’ll have a growing tree.  Glance at that fence post photo again.  The post is sprouting!  Plants that we were sure had died revive in a day.  If only we all recovered so quickly.  

It’s still hot in rainy season, and if it goes longer than two days–no, really longer than one day without raining, it starts getting crazy hot and miserably humid.  But that doesn’t happen too often, unless we’re having a drought.  We had one late in rainy season last year; it was hardest on the farmers and on people who already struggle to afford rice and beans.  

But rainy season itself also brings hardships.  We have a lovely tile floor in our home (I’ve yet to enter a home in Nicaragua and find carpet), but many of our neighbors have dirt floors.  In the asentamientos, few people have tile and many people live on an incline, meaning that the water will run into their homes.  Neighbors pile up sand and debris and sand bags if they can afford them to fend off the flooding.  I’ve been driving in a rainstorm here and found my tires half submerged in a matter of minutes.  That was on a four-lane highway with decent drainage.  When the rain comes hard, the floods are almost instant.  Flooding dirt floors.  Mud everywhere.  And insects.  

Rainy season also brings back the mosquitoes.  They’re here all year long, of course, but they breed more heavily when it rains. We watched the news channels freak out last year over zika.  Zika is nasty,** don’t get me wrong, and dangerous for pregnancies.  But here is the world I see:  travel alerts and panic and many frantic discussions of whether or not people should travel to Nicaragua and other Central and South American countries because of the threat of zika.  Is it getting into the U.S.?  Are people at risk because someone might be carrying it from here to there?  Is there going to be an outbreak?  

Pregnant women live here.  They are exposed all the time.  I understand people fear an outbreak, but if so, how do we feel–how do we respond–for the people suffering an outbreak?  I’ve described the attempts to kill mosquitoes with smoke blowers that expel clouds of what smells like diesel smoke with perhaps some insecticide.  That can’t be healthy to have fill your house and cover everything inside.  Yet if you had a choice between breathing harmful fumes and risking severe damage or death for the baby you were carrying, which would you choose?  Zika can harm babies in utero, and that is terrifying for expecting mothers.

 Otherwise, it ranks well behind dengue and chikungunya in how much misery it causes.  I don’t mean to brag here, but I’ve tried them all (I think) and zika just doesn’t pack the same punch.  And if you’re asking yourself–or me, implicitly–“Then why would you live there?” my point, again, is that most Nicaraguans, certainly most living in poverty, don’t have that choice and never will.***

Of course, rainy season brings mud, and setting aside the threat of flooding, mud presents its own challenges, especially for driving.  We have roads that are perfectly passable during the dry season that become off-roading challenges or simply impassable after a month of rain.  Recently the road crews returned to grate and level the dirt road in front of our home, about two years after they last came and dug it up.  We were glad to see them.  But I’m also curious to see how long it stays flat and level.  Any bets?  

Mud is also messy (by definition?) and we have all the mud-caked clothing that a fourth-grade boy can provide, plus three of us who play ultimate, run up and down a soggy field, and come home soaked.  My forty-eight year old legs and back vastly prefer the soft field to the dry season’s concrete version, not to mention how much skin remains on our bodies when we dive or fall in wet grass versus on patches of hard, cracked dirt (and dust).  So in this, too, I’m happy to see rainy season return.  We just have to deal with muddy clothes and shoes and bodies. 

You know what’s great for that stuff?  Running water.  

Praying that it comes back soon, for us and, even more, for our neighbors.  

 

 

PS Today was the third day without water, as of when I started writing this…AND IT’S BACK!  Only God knows if it will last, but we’re washing clothes and taking showers while we can!

 

*We would freeze if it ever got cold and we needed to keep heat in.  It’s not sealed by standards of a cold weather climate, but how does that saying go?  “It will be cold here when…freezes over.”  (Not in any way equating this to Hell, I’m just saying it won’t ever get cold here.  You get it.)  

**If you read that CDC info site about Zika, my doctor friend says about those, “It’s interesting because all their suggestions for prevention are too expensive or not feasible for many Nicaraguans.”  This simply underscores the difference between health care and prevention for the well off (most of us) and those living in poverty.  She adds that there are creative resourceful solutions that the community has themselves, such as natural repellent.

***If you really want to know why we live here, the back issues of this blog will fill you in.  And if you weren’t asking that rhetorical question in your head in the first place, by all means, proceed to the next paragraph!  😉  

Keeping Hope Alive

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Someone you cross paths with today is considering suicide.  

These are the things we hear afterward:  

“If only I’d known.” 

“I had no idea.”

“They were so young! They had so much to live for!”

But it’s not after; there’s still hope today.  

They are alive right now and you have a chance to know.  They don’t think they have “so much to live for” but most likely they do think 1)the problems that overwhelm them today will only get worse, 2)no one really cares–or cares that much, 3)the people they will leave behind will be better off without them.  

So let’s start here:  depression is not laziness.  Depression is a real medical condition.  Depression changes brain chemistry and even structure and physiologically alters the body.  We don’t blame people for their own asthma or cancer or diabetes.  We do blame them for their own depression.  

If someone feels hopeless and indifferent, as if nothing could improve and it doesn’t matter, anyway, here’s an obvious sounding but frequently violated truth: they don’t need to be shamed or scolded.  They don’t need to be made fun of in that “I’m ridiculing you but under the guise of joking so you can’t really object” way that we pretend is innocent.  Rather, people need to know that feeling bad is enough; they don’t need to feel bad about feeling bad.  

Speaking hope does not mean making light of someone’s depression.  It means hearing what they are struggling with and speaking into that, if possible from a position of empathy and understanding.  When a person feels like no one cares, asking how they are and then hearing them out without judgment, without suggesting quick fixes, taking the necessary time to understand and ask real questions, these things can be the counter-evidence.  I don’t know how many times a conversation I’ve had has ended with, “I just needed someone to hear me.”  

There are many ways to pay attention.  If you notice someone expressing grim or self-destructive ideas, for example if their artwork is extremely dark* or they are making gruesome jokes, what are they saying?  They do not, for the actual love of God, need to be told to “cheer up”  or to “stop being so depressing.”  If a person has this going on inside and is communicating distress signals, that is a hopeful act–maybe someone will notice, maybe someone will pay attention.  Being corrected for doing so is being told, “I don’t want to see that or have to know that’s what’s going on inside of you.  I prefer a cheerier facade.”  

It’s not easy to talk about depression or wanting to die.  It’s shameful and sounds self-pitying and when one already feels unloved, telling another human being is horribly vulnerable.  Therefore, we are treading very lightly and with great finesse on this ground.  If someone opens up to us this way, that means they 1)are trying to remain hopeful and 2)trust us.  These are precious gifts.  They’re asking for a lifeline.  

Do you see someone who sleeps all the time or rarely sleeps?  Perhaps someone who has very inconsistent sleep patterns?  What does that say?  Again, some people simply love to sleep.   My wife jokes that she is neither a morning person nor a night person; she is a sleep person. But depressed people often sleep too much, not enough, or have a terrible time getting regular sleep.  

If you are spending time with teenagers, someone you know is self-harming.  I don’t care if they are all youth group kids, Boy Scouts, or in the Gifted and Talented program at their school.  Statistically, it’s happening; someone whom you imagine is doing fine is cutting.  You probably won’t know until it gets really bad or they choose to tell you.  But it is happening.  If your response is, “Well that’s stupid!  Why would anyone do that?” then they probably won’t be telling you and you might want to start this post over at the beginning.  But I’m telling you that cutting is both an attempt at a release of pain/fear/anxiety/self-hatred and an addiction that, like all addictions, expands and starts to take over.  

Are all people who cut themselves suicidal?  No, but self-harm moves in that direction.  The current flows that way, just like all alcoholics are not suicidal but by increased drinking, physical consequences, or choices made while inebriated, life will likely end sooner.  The difference here is that there is not much “social cutting,” either as an act in moderation or a benign behavior carried out in community.  

Isolation, especial sudden or out-of-character isolation, is another red flag.   Has someone you know recently pulled away from their social connections?  Sure, that could be merely relationship drama.  It could also be the intentional distancing that comes with the thought, “No one will care or even notice.” Ask about it.  Notice.  Care.  

When a person thinks, “They’ll be better off without me,” that is not a rational thought but it is a sincere belief at that moment. It reflects their state of mind and how their world looks right now.  Might it be tinged with self-pity?  Of course.  I pray to God we’re not helping only the “deserving suicidal,” who aren’t just trying to get us to feel sorry for them.  In my experience, someone who tells you that family or friends “will be better off” would like to be wrong, but they are feeling both unloved and meaningless.  

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

There are so many things we cannot change.  If a person lives in a chaotic environment, rarely are we able to step in and simply remove them from that chaos.  When I talk with people who express that they are depressed and/or suicidal, I always try to remind them of the serenity prayer and think through it’s implications for their life situation.  It’s hard to accept that miserable circumstances sometimes cannot be changed, but it’s worse to feel responsible for them when we aren’t.  If people scream at one another in my home every day,** I may not be able to stop them from screaming, but I can choose not to get pulled in.  I can learn to recognize how I contribute to the conflagration that leads to screaming.  I can identify the warning signs and remove myself or pray for God’s peace in the storm.  

 

Rarely is it objectively true that “nothing will ever get better” and “everything is only getting worse,” but suicidal thoughts and depression constrict our horizons.  A lack of hope is a lack of being able to see beyond my misery, right now.  Just being told bland cliches like, “Things will get better” does not help people see their hope, it shows them that we haven’t really grasped their situation or commiserated with their suffering.

 Being able to talk through specifics of what to them feels so hopeless and considering together possible paths to change–or simply more positive responses to painful circumstances–can shine some light.  But there is a world of difference between hearing someone well about their problems and strategizing together versus blithely “problem-solving” in a way that belittles a person’s struggle.  In the end, people do not commit suicide because of circumstances but because they can no longer see hope within their circumstances.  Ending the pain now becomes, to them, the most desirable solution.  

Therefore, walking alongside people who are suicidal is keeping hope alive with them.  Again, we can’t fix other people, solve their problems, or make them hopeful.***  We can offer hope.  We can care.  We can empathize with pain and discouragement.  We can speak the truth against self-hatred and self-destruction.  We can tell people God loves them and we can show people God’s love by listening and checking in and reminding them of truth, by being faithful and consistent.  We can pray.  We can encourage them to pray; I believe this can be the key to experiencing hope again–God is the hope they need-but it is an offer made with extended hands, not a scolding finger.  

You might be wondering if I’m writing this because 13 Reasons Why has gotten mainstream attention for its treatment of a suicide.  I’m not.  I’m writing this because I’ve had another person share with me.  I’m writing because God reminded me to pay better attention.  

I’m writing this because you are someone’s hope today.  

 

PS If you, yourself, are struggling with these things, write me.  And please read these, in case they help: 

Fighting for Hope: Depression

Fighting for Hope: Recovering from Addiction

Fighting for Hope: Fear, Naive Faith, and Trusting God Even When…

Fighting for Hope:  The Siren of Cynicism 

 

 

*Obviously, not all artwork that strikes us as depressing or macabre indicates a suicidal or depressed artist.  Art is art, after all.  If you see a sudden shift in this direction, however, that could be a sign.  

**Thank God, they don’t.  

***Someone who is depressed and/or suicidal may need professional help far beyond our capacity, but we can encourage them to pursue that help only if we first see and hear them ourselves.  

Lessons My Players Teach Me

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I like coaching.  I mean, some days I think it will kill me, but it’s a worthy way to go.

I coach because I grew up in a small town where the school was the most important thing in the town, the sports teams were the most important thing in the school and the star players were the most important people on the team.  That’s too much for a 17-year-old.  When a basketball player buys into that system, his or her value–or lack thereof–becomes tied to success or failure on the team.  Both sides of that are scary.

Some people handle that well and go on to live productive, meaningful lives.  Others peak at 17 and spend the rest of their lives embodying Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”  But honestly, it’s a skewed self-view.  Being a star on one of the sports teams became a life goal starting in about 4th grade.  So my son’s age, 9 years old.

Among the consequences of this set of circumstances is the massive power a teenager gives a coach.  If my value in life depends on succeeding on your team, I’m going to do whatever it takes and you become the most important person in my world.  I give you that power, voluntarily, because you hold the keys to the kingdom.

That didn’t go well for me; it took me years to recover.  Some moments I suspect I’m still trying to prove myself in response to that experience.  But after a number of years I learned to enjoy basketball again.  I coach because if kids are going to give that much power to an adult, I want to give them a positive experience; I want to prove worthy of that trust.  I also want to teach them that they have much more value than how well they can dribble, pass, and shoot a basketball, even as I do my best to teach them to do these things as well as they can. Competence and character, as my friend Erik keeps reminding me.

Therefore, I think I’m the guy doing the teaching, handing down the wisdom, passing on the life lessons.  I imagine it that way.  Then my players come along and teach me.  Which, if you think about it, is really cool and probably doesn’t surprise Jesus that much at all.

This year, Andy got screwed.  Royally screwed.  We play in a Copa (cup) tournament that has an age restriction for our older players.  Specifically, we can have one (1) 18-year-old on the court at a time, which was actually a concession because originally the Copa directors planned not to let any 18-year-olds play at all.  Many high schools here have one grade fewer than we have, so they don’t have many 18-year-olds.

Andy modeling textbook defensive posture.

We have three:  Alex and Josh, who are co-captains, and Andy.  Andy is a defensive whiz.  He’s got this amazing knuckleball
shot that doesn’t rotate AT ALL and yet somehow still goes in.  But Alex and Josh are our leaders, arguably our best players,* and they each get to play only half a game max (if I split playing time evenly).  That leaves Andy in a crummy position.  Somehow in today’s game (our 13th of the season) I called Andy to go in no less than twice while one of the other 18-year-old was already in.  So then I shouted at Andy:  “Stop being so old!”  But he didn’t fix that.

What he has done, from the moment he heard about this restriction, is accept it with grace and an unwaveringly positive attitude.  Andy has played for five years.  He probably wouldn’t be a starter this year–we have a lot of talent–but likely he would be 6th or 7th man.  Instead, he mainly gets to play when the outcome of the game is decided.

I have not heard him complain.  Not once.  When we had a situation in which the 13th man on our 12-man roster, a player who hadn’t been able to play all season (more restrictive rules) would only get to play if someone volunteered not to be eligible to play in a game at all, Andy was the first to volunteer.*

Now, besides the contrast between who Andy is at 18 and who I was–I won’t belabor this point, but let’s just say you’d take Andy unless you really enjoy angry, self-centered, dysfunctional teens (and some do)–I’ve been watching Andy and taking figurative notes.  This is what it means to have a servant attitude.  It’s not about me, it’s about building others up.  Give my all even though I’m not going to get the glory.  The cool part is, though Andy won’t be our MVP, he will become a solid, mature, godly man because he is already a solid, mature, godly young man in many ways.  He has responded to this test with grace, humor, and good cheer.  He’s kind of my hero at the moment.  Don’t tell him.  I don’t want to swell his head.

Gabriel shooting. Or perhaps contemplating the basketball. Hard to say.

Then there’s Gabriel.  Gabriel started playing basketball for the first time as a freshman.  He appeared never to have touched one before.  And then something magical happened.  He was tall and awkward and in his very first game got 19 rebounds.  I said “nineteen.”  He had remarkably good touch when he shot.  He played really hard and smiled while he played.  In one game, against our arch-rivals and down by two, he hit two free throws with time expired to send us into overtime.

Then Gabriel injured his knee playing US football in PE.  I mean, really screwed it up.  I won’t give you this whole saga, because I don’t want to steal that chapter of his autobiography, but he tore ligaments and was misdiagnosed and misdiagnosed again, tried to rehab it without surgery, had a surgery that didn’t fix it, another, and, if memory serves, another.  “Saga” really is the word.  He lost virtually his entire junior season to injury.  It would get better, he would play tentatively for a while, and then would re-injure it.  He once injured it simply jumping–it got hurt while he was up, not from making contact with anyone else nor from coming down.

Yes, I know, he might have just stopped playing basketball at this point, but he was really good and he loved it.  He could have been an amazing high school player if he hadn’t suffered this injury.

So, then, during his senior year, Gabriel started a basketball program for an orphanage here in Managua.  I want you to get this: instead of letting himself get embittered from losing this joyful activity in his life, he organized–and worked his butt off fundraising, recruiting, and planning for–a program to share it with 80 super-highly at risk kids.  These were/are not easy kids to work with, but Gabriel rallied a large corps of his friends to teach and coach them to play basketball and introduce them to the Kingdom values we have grasped that undergird playing sports.

Gabriel, the Elevate kids, and awesome volunteers.

I’ll say this for Gabriel: he made writing his college recommendations really easy.  Gabriel graduated from here last year and handed the program on to his friend Alex (yeah, co-captain Alex) who directed a very successful second year and there are already plans in place for it to continue next year.

I’m happy to report that Gabriel managed to have a decent senior season.  It was still touch and go, and he never really could go hard on that leg for long stretches, but we were all so grateful that he got to play as much as he did.  Sometimes it’s not winning or losing or how you play the game–sometimes it’s simply getting to play.  I’m also happy to report that, at long last, Gabriel this year underwent the full knee surgery he needed the whole time and has recovered very well.  That’s another cool story that I won’t steal from my friend.  (Well, I might in another blog post.  No promises, Gabriel.)

There are a bunch more, of course.  Two years ago, Captain Derek astounded me both his dedication to conditioning and preparing for the season and with how little homework he could do and remain eligible for every single game.  Kelsey, whom I’d adopt if his actual parents didn’t love him so dang much.  Jacob, whom I love dearly, reminded me that faithfulness is simply doing what you can, as well as you can.

And then there’s Alex.  Until you’ve seen Alex play basketball, I doubt you’ve really seen what it means to play with joyful abandon.  If you love sports, you should watch Alex play basketball.  He wouldn’t be the best player you’ve ever seen but he would be the player giving the most you’ve ever seen.  Is that hyperbole?  Come and find out.  We’ve only got two games left.

Alex making one of those drives.

Alex makes everyone else play harder because Alex plays harder than everyone else.  He raises the intensity of the game when he steps on the court.  He makes drives that look physically impossible and the ball still goes in the basket.  I have never counted how many times he hits the floor during a game, but I’m guessing double-digits.  Every game.  He dives for every loose ball.  He flings himself to block or intercept passes and lunges for steals.  He goes up for layups against ridiculously bigger players and gets knocked flying–then pops right back up, clapping his hands.

My philosophy of basketball, as I mentioned last time, is all-out effort all the time on both ends of the floor.  We play a full-court press defense most of the time.  We don’t wait for the other team to come score on us; we attack them.

Now here’s something I need you not to tell Alex, because Lord knows he thinks enough of himself already.  Our team talks about the fine line between confidence and arrogance.  We’re trying to keep him on the correct side of that line.

Alex has exceeded my expectations for all-out effort.  I think of myself, in every sport, as a guy who gets all he can out of what little he’s got.  I hustle.  Even at my advancing age and diminishing speed, I try always to play like this because that’s what my dad taught me: “Outquick ’em.”  And because I always see myself as the underdog.  And because in high school–oh, wait, I covered that.

But Alex takes it to another level.  I taught this philosophy when I started coaching and then Alex showed me what it actually looks like.  I love sports and I’m going to tell you, to me it’s beautiful.  But the best part is, Alex plays this way because he experiences joy through it.  Maybe not “fun” every second, but joy.  Satisfaction.  Deep down love for giving his utmost effort and doing everything he’s capable of doing on a basketball court.***

There’s more I could say  about Alex, but I don’t want to make his girlfriend jealous.

It’s not as if I’ve been coaching for decades.  I’m not even sure how long I’ll last.  But it’s worth it.  The kids have certainly taught me a lot so far.

Jacob, reminding me that the water in those Gatorade containers is REALLY cold.

 

 

*I have literally never heard our roster of players argue about this, nor even mention it, except as compliments for one another.  I do love these guys.

**Jono immediately volunteered and then said, “Andy, you’re a senior.  I’ll do it.”  I’m telling you.  Character.

***Except for practicing free throws for the past four or five years.  But we all need shortcomings or we become totally obnoxious, right?

Basketball Adventures

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In my posts about sports and competition, I’ve made some references to coaching but have yet to write specifically about it.  Our Nicaragua Christian Academy high basketball team is returning from our third yearly trip to play in Costa Rica. I’m their coach.

I hated my experience of high school basketball. I’m not using “hate” lightly. There is a much longer story here, some of which I’ve related elsewhere. But since coaching has become a significant part of my life, I want to describe a little of my experience.

After having such a bitter basketball experience myself, I’d always hoped I would get the chance to coach. I wanted to give some young men a better experience than I had. I want to be the coach that I needed back then, when I was a young, insecure/arrogant punk.

I’ll start here: the final game we played in Costa Rica we lost to the host team, 32-27. We played two games on Friday, two on Saturday, and then one more on Sunday afternoon. That’s a lot of basketball for high schoolers in 72 hours, and ours are in excellent condition. Losing is never fun—beneficial, possibly, character building, definitely (assuming we let it be), but not as enjoyable as winning. Winning is more fun.

The problem with this particular loss was with the other team: not that they scored more points than we did but that they were…ahem…unsportsmanlike. They cheated. Playing physical is one thing, but they broke rules whenever they could get away with it. They used profanity and vulgarity to try to get an advantage. In a word, they were…ahem…character deficient.

In contrast, we played a game against a school from Panama the morning before and lost by 19 points. Nineteen points in basketball is a slaughter. It was both a much better game and a much more enjoyable experience. In fact, I think it was our team’s best game of the year in terms of effort and performance (and we’re 9-3 this year). We earned the other team’s respect, even losing by so much, because of how hard we played and that we kept attacking every second of the game. Two of their players were much better than anyone on our team and, to my knowledge, better than anyone who has played for our school, ever.*

Losing a close game when we don’t play our best (largely due to exhaustion) against a bunch of…attitude-challenged young men tastes bitter. Actually, it tastes like bile.

But this is what I want to tell you about our guys: they did not respond in kind. They did not make rude suggestions about their opponents’ mothers. They didn’t grab jerseys when the refs weren’t looking. They just played harder. Our guys always play harder.

Wearing everyone’s bling during the game because they’re not allowed to.

I hate losing as a coach, largely because I don’t ever want to let our players down. Do coaches cause games to be lost? Sometimes. It’s rarely clear when it happens, but so many decisions could have been made differently. I for one do a ton of second-guessing after a loss (and after some wins). In a close against a team of…jerks, I can’t help but wonder if I should have subbed differently, altered strategy, recognized what we weren’t doing well sooner and called for more adjustments. I’m not a great strategy coach.

My strengths are relationship with the players, motivation, and conditioning. I know how to build a cohesive team that can run a full-court press hard for a whole game while fighting for every rebound and diving for every loose ball. I’m pretty good at helping our guys discover what they’re capable of, which is invariably more than they thought. I am decent at teaching and reinforcing the fundamentals so that our guys do them automatically in games.

Alex not swimming on the floor.

On one play, Alex went for a steal. He knocked the ball away, lunged to pick it up and lost his footing. The ball rolled slowly toward the end line and the other player scrambled to regain possession while Alex kept hurling himself forward, swimming on the floor to get to the ball first.

That is the character of our team. They throw in everything they’ve got and wring every ounce of ability and talent out of their (mostly) skinny frames. Before every game, we shout, “Every loose ball is—OURS!” Every coach has a main focus, spoken or unspoken. Ours is all-out effort, every minute, defense and offense, because while we can’t make ourselves more naturally talented, we can try harder. This team has gone beyond what I could have reasonably hoped; they embody giving it all.

It’s only a game. At the end of it, one team has put a sphere through a hoop more than the other and everyone walks away to continue their lives.

But this weekend, this 5-day weekend, we got on a bus together and traveled from Managua, Nicaragua to Liberia, Costa Rica, laughing and joking and telling stories. We shared meals together, played jokes on one another in
motel rooms, wrestled in the pool and, every now and then, stumbled into profound conversations. More mentoring and character-development happens on these trips than a month of Sundays, as the saying goes.

 

 

 

 

We also get to see some of the fruit of a long season (we started in January but had intermittent scrimmages starting in October). For example, we had not won a single game in our first two years at this Costa Rica event.  This year, we played four games hard, lost two against teams we would probably lose to five out of five times, won two by a lot, and when we finally played a game against a team with which we were somewhat evenly matched,** we ran out of gas and lost in a heartbreaker…to a bunch of, well…I can’t imagine their mothers and fathers would be proud if they knew how their offspring behaved. I hope not.

But I was incredibly proud, in the absolute best sense, that our young men never gave up, never turned on one another, never sunk to the level or tactics of their opponents, and after giving everything they had left and coming up short, accepted it and moved on. I didn’t even know how poorly the other team behaved until we were back at the motel, sitting around eating pizza and debriefing. One ref threatened to give Barry a technical foul–“Do that one more time and you’ll get a tech.” Barry had no clue what he’d done wrong. It turned out the ref thought Barry had told his opponent to perform sexual acts on him instead of vice-versa, as actually happened.

Spencer, hearing his own drummer.

In this sense, it’s not only a game. The fruit we see is not merely winning, fun as that may be.  Basketball, and all sports, are a means of worshipping God with our physical abilities. Sports both bring out who we really are and can develop our character, if we let them. Sitting around talking with them about what their team did, what we might have done differently (strategically, not profanely), and remembering our best plays, reminded me what great young men they are.

Spencer, Josh, Andy, and Will helped me feel better about our loss. I was still trying to figure out if I could have changed the outcome with greater coaching brilliance (as Alejandro pointed out, “We’ll never know now.”), but they got me laughing and explained what *cough*…charming opponents we’d faced and reminded me of what I really do already know—we have succeeded at the more important things. We’ll graduate four seniors—four of my favorites, but shhh! Don’t tell the others—and they are solid young men. The basketball team didn’t do that, but we contributed. I wouldn’t trade that for one more win in Costa Rica, nor for any number of wins.

Carlos, our great bus driver for this trip, as we loaded the bus for our return trip, told me how he appreciated all the enthusiasm and encouragement I have during our games. He wanted to know what the words “good job” mean, because he’d heard me shout them so often. Then he told me, referring to yesterday’s game, “You lost the battle, but not the war.”

Wisdom. That was a timely reminder, as we look ahead to our final 2 or 3 games of the season (we have a Copa to finish) and to next year with our younger guys.

But I think I would say that yes, we lost that game.

But no, after spending five full days with these young men, we are winning both the battle and the war.  

 

P.S.  I guess I have to add this:  I know a lot of basketball players “talk trash” and cheat and do whatever it takes to win, including at the highest levels.  I’m not naive.  But a lot of people do all kinds of horrible things; we’re not joining in.  The Kingdom of God works this way.  It’s like a mustard seed or a little leaven…

* I watched one of them walk out to the basket wearing slides (those open-toed sandals that slip on but aren’t flip-flops), take one step and dunk two-handed. None of our guys can even dunk, though some sure try hard.

**I strongly believe we would beat them at least 3 out of 5 if both teams were rested.

 

 

…But God–Manuscript

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[Manuscript for sermon “…But God” posted 4/17/17 (my anniversary!)]

It was a rough week in some ways, but it was also a glorious week for me. Two of the young adults I mentor shared powerful stories of God’s intervention in their lives when they were making self-destructive choices. One of them had an argument, stormed off, was like, “I’m done with you, forget you,” and the person was making plans to just cut off that relationship, leave that one and not look back, however much hurt that inflicted. But in the midst of this anger and storm, God said, “You should go back,” and the person did. Went back, asked forgiveness, reconciled, and came out of it not only with a clear understanding that God had spoken, but also said, “I think God’s always speaking to me. I just block it out sometimes.”

The other story was even more dramatic. This is someone I probably hadn’t seen for a year and a half. We used to get together and talk about how to follow Jesus. He had really turned away from God, just decided he could do it on his own and didn’t need God. Here’s what he said: “It looked like it was going really well, I had everything I’d wanted, money, job, friends, cool motorcycle, girlfriend, and I was still empty.” Then it all fell apart, he got in an accident, ending up owing a lot of money, and he felt like he’d ruined everything. Destroyed himself. He told me, “But God taught me that I’m nothing without him. And I am praying again and I’ve gone back to church. People there are accepting me, even though I did all that and rejected him. I want to get back on the worship team again. And today, some guys at work asked me what I believe because they could see that I’ve changed. They asked me if I’m religious. I said ‘No, it’s not religion, it’s Jesus.”

As I was looking at our passage, Ephesians 2:1-10, this jumped out me:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

It struck me, as I was letting this passage sink in, that this is always our story. This is THE STORY. But God. I was angry and breaking the relationship, But God said to go back. I was empty and had ruined everything, But God taught me I’m nothing without him. We were dead in our sins But God made us alive together with Christ. That is always the answer. Just that. “But God.”

The beginning three verses of our passage lay out our condition. We were dead. The wages of sin are death and we were dead in our sin. Straight up.

Just to give you a frame of reference, if this passage seems pretty dense and hard to follow, this is why: “In the original Greek, verses 1-7 form a single, one hundred twenty four word sentence whose subject does not appear until verse 4 with the main verbs following in verses 5-6.” Paul is writing this from prison, and I think he’s so caught up with the description of how amazing God’s salvation is, he just keeps adding more and more.

Paul gives the Ephesians, and us, a vivid description of being dead in our sins. You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

You once lived in the trespasses and sins—trespasses is “swerving aside and falling,” sin is literally “missing the mark,” different Greek words with similar connotations of going astray—and through these you were dead inside, even though you looked physically alive. That’s exactly what my friend described. You followed the course of this world, the values and worldview and beliefs of the world that rejects and opposes God’s Kingdom: Might makes right. Look out for number one. If it feels good, do it. Less for you means more for me. Stop crying or I’ll give you a reason to cry.

You followed the ruler of the power of the air. That’s a really interesting name for Satan. I know it’s not cool to believe in Satan, but I have concluded, after years of following Jesus, that “cool” and “truth” don’t always run the same course, and Satan would actually prefer that you not believe in him, thank you very much. The Ruler of the Power of the Air. Satan gets various descriptions throughout Scripture. In John, Jesus calls him “the Father of Lies” and says “there is no truth in him” and “he was a murderer from the beginning.” When Satan tries to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he offers all the kingdoms of the world, and says, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.” Well, that’s what he says, But Jesus says he’s the Father of Lies and there is no truth in him. So we can assume that anything that sounds like truth from the devil is in fact twisted so that it has partial truth that ends up in falsehood. That leads us astray. The Ruler of the Power of the Air is the Ruler of the Insubstantial, the Ruler of Appearance but not substance. He is the Ruler of Deception.

Paul describes this as “the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” Both of my friends would agree with that. They were letting the wrong One influence them. That’s hard news for the folks who believe that doing whatever they want is “freedom.” That doesn’t sound like freedom. That sounds like getting taken down the wrong road. That sounds like getting fooled. We describe that God is at work in us, whether we can see it or not. Paul says here Satan is at work in people who are disobeying God, and I’d have to add whether than can see it or not. Probably not. Two things I believe about sin: Sin is what damages us, and we are punished not for our sins but by our sins. There’s no “getting away with” sins, like trying to get away with cheating in sports as long as the referee doesn’t catch you, because the very act of sinning hurts us. I mean, that makes sense if the wages of sin is death. That’s what sin earns us: death. It kills us. That spirit, Satan, wants to destroy us.
Paul says All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. All of us. Like everyone else. That doesn’t leave much room for exceptions, does it? Obviously Paul includes himself here, which is fascinating. Remember, Paul was a Pharisee, he was Saul, who was hunting down Christians to have them killed, which he thought was obeying God.

Paul’s use of “flesh” in Ephesians, and in all his letters, describes the rebellious nature we have that is twisted, that can’t see the difference between good and bad, between what gives us life and what kills me. There’s something really twisted up in us that we desire what kills us. So when Paul says “the flesh,” it’s that twisted up part that we need God to transform.

That’s Paul’s description of “dead in our sins.” If you are someone who has “always been a Christian,” and you don’t relate to this description, because you don’t feel like you were ever following the course of the world or the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient, I would say two things.

First, if that is true, rejoice in God’s grace to you that you didn’t need to feel how horrible Hell is to decide you wanted no part of it. God, who is rich in mercy, spared you. Rejoice!

Second, when we study Luke 15, the parable of the Prodigal Son, by the end of the story it is the elder brother, the one who never left home, who never strayed and made obviously horrible, self-destructive decisions, who is still lost. Even though he’s been there with his father the whole time, he really doesn’t seem to know his father. He can’t see that he’s lost; he thinks the father and his returned-to-life younger brother are the bad guys. There are different ways to be follow our desires of flesh and senses. Spiritual pride can be one of the hardest to recognize.

Okay, Paul’s description: All of this was destroying us. We were children of wrath, killing ourselves with the very things we thought were giving us life, letting a spirit that is a murderer be at work in us.

But God.

But God changed all that. If I were giving a simple summary of this passage, I would say “We were destroying ourselves following the deceiver and murderer but God changed everything and made us alive with Christ.” Listen again:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

But God, who is rich in mercy—what an awesome description, “rich in mercy.” It’s not like he’s doling out tiny bits of mercy, like a miser who hates to part with anything, no, rich in mercy and out of the great love with which he loves us, even when we were absolutely dead by our own hands, God made us alive. God resurrected us. God made us alive together with Christ Jesus. By grace you have been saved. “Grace” means you deserve something bad but instead you are given something good. We deserve punishment but instead are given blessing. Actually, it’s kind of crazy. Or at the very least, it breaks the whole “You get what you earn, there’s no free lunch” system. You don’t get what you earn in this deal. We deserve death, but God gives us life.

By grace you have been saved. There’s no earning what God gives us. God made us alive with Christ, he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus—that is Past Tense; Paul says God has already done this. He did this so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. I thought “rich in mercy” was awesome, but “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” I have a sick and twisted heart, but God made me alive with Christ. You sinned, but God shows you the immeasurable riches of his grace. And always, always in Christ Jesus.

This is a fantastic passage to read when you’re wondering how God really feels about you. If you don’t think you’re doing a good enough job of following Jesus, let this soak in. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. God appeals to us with his love and kindness and we choose to believe that God really can love us at our very worst, that God forgives us when we ask—in other words, we respond with faith. But even having faith in God is grace. That’s amazing. God gives us the choice and the ability to respond to him—we are saved “through faith”—but that faith itself is by grace, God giving us something good when we’ve earned something bad. We aren’t saved by works, not the works of being perfect and without sin, nor the works of making up for anything bad we’ve done or fixing our mistakes. We aren’t even saved by the works of choosing to say “yes” to God’s salvation. That’s a gift, too. We are saved by grace. “So that no one may boast.” Spiritual pride is the nastiest kind of pride. Boasting of how we’ve made ourselves acceptable to God is missing the first three verses of this passage, it’s failing to grasp what our condition actually was when God saved us.

I was really messed up, but then I… I was a terrible sinner, but I..
Nope. Not “But I.” But God.

And Paul concludes with 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

One of my Bible students wrote this week, ‘“While God’s love does not depend on our actions, we can’t say that we have accepted God’s love if we don’t let it change us.” I think that may be the best concise description of grace and obedience I’ve seen. God created us in Christ Jesus for good works. If sin is what damages us, then doing good works, living for God’s Kingdom, gives us life. God designed us. He knows how we work. He knows what makes us whole and what destroys us. God’s love changes us. God’s outrageous, unbelievable, inconceivable riches of grace transforms us. Obeying God, making “good works” our way of life, is living according to our design.

Okay, remember all the big picture, expansive stuff in the introduction in Chapter 1? Paul is bringing the picture in now, still pretty broad but now we have the image of how God’s grace is moving us from our former condition of death to our current condition of alive in Christ.

This is Palm Sunday. We’re one week from Easter and traditionally the church celebrates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, which is this odd mix off joy and grief. The people are lined up on both sides of the road, shouting and cheering for Jesus, throwing their cloaks off in front of him, praising God for this prophet or messiah or something who is entering Jerusalem in triumph.

Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

But God is entering Jerusalem not on a war horse but on a donkey. But God’s Messiah is not a conquering warrior Messiah, he’s a poor, former refugee child, manual laborer who became a rabbi without formal training and he teaches about being a servant—“the son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” But God is lamenting for Jerusalem, not affirming her.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.

Jesus the Messiah comes to us, but not as conqueror, though He is conqueror. Jesus the King comes to us, but not in a royal robe with a scepter of power. Jesus who is God Almighty comes to us in weakness and vulnerability and humility, and this road leads not to a throne in a palace but to a cross on a hillside.

We were dead in our sins, but God gave his life for us.

We imagined a Messiah who conquered the enemy Romans through power, but God conquered the true Enemy, death, through self-sacrificial love and grace.

Therefore, for each and every argument that you or I might be unlovable, unacceptable, or just not good enough…

But God.