Failing, and Gaining from, Lent

Standard

Lent is almost over. I’ve fasted from being on social media for Lent. If I were to grade myself for how well I’ve stuck to my fast, I’d give me a “D.”

However.

The biggest reason I chose this fast is because I’ve been so angry about all that is going on in our country. All that this administration is doing, on a daily basis. I read the news and I am outraged, over and over, every single day. I was seeing the negative effects to my physical and mental health. My blood pressure went up. My depression intensified.

Last night, Kim and I went to dinner. We don’t do this often. But yesterday we celebrated 26 years of marriage. Last year we went to Ireland. This year we went to Indian food. It was delicious, including my shockingly expensive mango mohito (sic).

During our conversation, which was mostly about our children–we were laughing afterwards: “If you didn’t want to be talking about your kids for anniversary twenty-six, then you shouldn’t have had kids!”–we discussed my choice to step back from the constant news stream and the neverending, bellicose debate over these events.

I told Kim I feel less angry. Immediately, she said, “Yes, I’ve noticed. It’s really obvious. You seem a lot better. I can see it.”

I have prayed a little more during Lent, but not a lot. Prayer hasn’t gone particularly well for me in the last…since I moved back to the States. I’m guessing if you either have a consistent and bullet-proof prayer life or don’t pray at all, that sentence might not make a lot of sense to you. If you’ve been married 26 years and you know the ups and downs of a relationship over the long haul, it probably needs no explanation whatsoever.

I still pray. If I say I’ll pray for you, I’m praying for you. I still pray for me. But I don’t feel much connection and that is something I can neither manufacture nor fix.

I had hoped this Lent would help me feel close to God again. It hasn’t.

So I would call it a success at helping me regain a little balance and sanity. But as a time of reconnecting with God, I can’t discern much having changed. For this, I wonder if being more consistent at cutting out all social media would have helped more. Maybe.

Because of this lingering question, I don’t think, come Easter Sunday or that classic fast-breaking Monday after, I will call it good and go right back to what I was doing before Ash Wednesday. I’m thinking now that this fast has been a good start to ramping down my social media time and I need to keep going. I don’t imagine doing so will solve all my problems–I’ll probably still be late and have illegible handwriting–but it’s not a bad rule of thumb, when moving in the right direction, to keep going.

The main things I need to do more are pray and write. Spending less time on social media can only free up time. No guarantee I’ll use that time well, but who knows? I might.

There is a whole conversation about how I can best be a responsible citizen, here and now, and what role being on social media might have in that. There is another, related discussion about my awareness that I’ve had a positive impact on many people through my presence on Facebook–I know because they’ve told me. I value that highly. I’m searching for that elusive (or illusive) golden mean.

Meanwhile, Easter is coming. I like the seasons. I love spring. I like the church seasons. I love that grace abounds and Resurrection does not depend on how we feel or even on how hopeful things appear in the world, but on love’s power to overcome death and hate and the evil in my heart.

Lent is also our time to remember we are sinners, saved by grace.

I get a much higher grade for that.

Winter into Spring

Standard

On Sunday, I walked out of our house to go to church. I took one breath. And I knew:

Spring.

Regardless of what the Weather Channel tells me, regardless of anyone else’s forecast, even more authoritative–if you can imagine this–than the groundhog, by that single breath I knew.

I lived in Nicaragua for seven years. We had different seasons and played a different waiting game. We watched dry season get hotter and drier and dustier and then, when you thought it was unbearable, get more humid, and more humid again, but still without a drop of rain. It started in February. By May, we prayed hard for rain.

I had forgotten waiting through winter for spring. Not the idea of it, but the feeling. We had a *&(#-ton of snow in February and severely cold temps. Kim and I drove into a blizzard because we were on a schedule that allowed no Plan B and we still almost stopped because, well, dying was not a good Plan A. Short, cold days and bitterly cold nights. Watching the sun drop behind the mountains at 3:15 PM. You know it has to end but no one can tell you when.

“Well,” the chipper man on the radio told me, “looks like more snow in the forecast, with up to eight inches accumulating by this weekend.”

I’m not a skier. My niece broke her foot sledding this winter, which kind of put a damper on that activity for us. The Sunday before last, my 11-year-old son asked me to go play one-on-one basketball with him. He’d had enough of being cooped up. So we did. We started in 34 degrees and ended in 29. The ball that promised it would not go flat kept its word admirably. We ran hard enough not to freeze. It was cold.

Now we have flowers coming up through the snow around our house. We are watching the snow mountain that the plows piled up in our cul-de-sac lose its war of attrition.

Winter has been gorgeous. From an aesthetic standpoint, watching the mountains go white, covered in new snow over and over, has been stunning. One day when we took the dogs on a hike, we reached an altitude where the snow had crystallized. It shined like a hillside of diamonds in the sun and, when you scooped a handful in your glove, it shattered, not powder, not flakes, but truly crystals. You could hear the snow breaking as it fell from your hand. On a walk home one night, the flakes were so big that when I caught them in my mouth–completely owning how ridiculous I looked, out on the sidewalk, mouth gaping, picking out flakes to track and capture–a single flake filled my mouth. I know that sounds like I’m exaggerating. When I missed, they soaked my nose or a side of my face. I have no video proof, but they were the biggest flakes I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve lived in both Illinois and Colorado.

I can both appreciate winter’s beauty and long for spring. I find nothing contradictory, nothing mutually exclusive in these responses.

In fact, I feel the same about Lent and Easter. Lent means taking time to see my own brokenness. To focus on repentance. To face the distance I have let my heart move away from God and even let myself consider the causes. It’s more pleasant to focus exclusively on God’s beauty and love for me than on my sin and self-rejection. But looking only at the happy stuff doesn’t make the ugly stuff go away, it merely gives it more space to grow.

My analogy here is not that winter is a time of darkness, though I personally could certainly use more sunlight than Wenatchee winter provides. I’m saying that, if I allow myself, I can see this time of self-reflection and facing truth has beauty, too. It’s easier to see the beauty of Easter. Flowers offer more obvious beauty than snow. It’s easier (and tempting) to jump straight to the good news without spending time meditating on and offering up the bad.

But I don’t simply mean Easter is more beautiful because I’ve gone deeper into Lent. It’s true that “Hallelujah” has a truer ring to it when I have repented as fully as I can. I mean I can see some moments of beauty in the ashes themselves. I’ve been in a dark place spiritually for a while now. I know that and it’s not something I can fix quickly or even at all, on my own. Knowing it doesn’t solve it. But finding hope in darkness holds a different beauty than happy celebration. Trusting God in the darkness means knowing God here, now, in this darkness. That is a moment of winter beauty, not spring.

I’m glad spring is coming. I’m trusting that the darkness I’m in will not last forever, either. I’m trusting I will learn and grow from it, as I always have from these deep tunnels in my life. Trusting is not the same as knowing. There’s a lot more hope involved. There’s also a lot more doubt.

God is walking through this season with me. I don’t think winter will become my favorite season; I don’t think this will become my favorite season in life.

But these glimpses of beauty are undeniable. I appreciate them, even as I long for more light.

Stop Hiding

Standard

Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. Luke 12:2-3

God has gifted me strangely. I have the gift of transparency.

I am wildly screwed up and sinful…

and I talk about it.

In tandem with that, people trust me with their stories, their secrets. I believe God gave me the gift of having people open up to me.

I know that’s an odd gift. I’ve had strangers tell me their life stories in parking lots so often that my kids now expect it. A man working in the Lincoln Museum as an actor, doing a dramatization, somehow stopped in the middle of his presentation and started describing his family and employment situation to me. I joke about having some code written on my forehead that tells people I’m safe. I can’t see it in the mirror. I’m the boy who listened.

Humor aside, I consider this an honor and a sacred privilege. At times, I feel overwhelmed by it. I don’t always appreciate it in the moment. But I know we all need to be heard and encouraged. I’m grateful that I can give these to people, including strangers.

Self-deception kills us. So does keeping our darkness hidden. Having these gifts compels me to tell you, “Do not hide your darkness.”

When I talk with people about this, sometimes they look at me like I’m crazy. Of coursewe keep our darkness hidden. Yes, we disguise or cover up our weaknesses. That’s a given.

Two days ago, I heard from a friend that their high school principal had an affair with their social studies teacher. These two wrecked both their marriages, scarred their children, sent horrible shockwaves through the school, they both lost their jobs, the husband of the teacher, a pastor, lost hisjob (they told him he needed to work on his marriage), and of course it damaged the church he was pastoring. I heard about this because my friend’s four boys go to that school. Both the principal and teacher had become significant influences in these guys’ lives. They are four of literally hundreds of people hurt in the fallout. 

We pretend that we have it together while we trainwreck our lives.

God still loves them. Us. God still calls us to repentance. God still offers grace at every moment. But if we’re blind to our own darkness, we see no need to repent. If we insist on denial or deception, we cut off the path to repentance.

I’m not saying something new here, but I’m going to say it with the voice God gave me, because I think many desperately need to hear it. I’m praying that some can.

I’ve never cheated on my wife, though I’d be the last to say I haven’t experienced temptation. Could that happen to me? Of course it could. Could that happen to you? Adjusting the question to the equivalent self-inflicted wound in your own circumstances (e.g. you may not be married or in a position of leadership), could you make that mistake?

How do you respond when you hear what they did? I know it’s become a common story. But do you think “How could they?” or “There, but for the grace of God, go I?” Do you judge them and categorize them, two more Christians who aren’t doing this as well as we are?

It becomes increasingly clear to me as I get older that we want to hide our weaknesses and struggles not only from others, but from ourselves. We have this strange love-hate relationship with hearing about others’ sins and failures. Don’t believe me? Why are the celebrity gossip magazines and shows so popular? When leaders among Jesus followers crash and burn, do we share that news—and seek to hear that news—because we want to pray for them? I know what’s what we saywe want, but does intercession truly motivate us, or is it something else? 

As for the love-hate, I believe it’s this: we are reassured when others fall, because we have an uncomfortable suspicion that we, too, carry brokenness in us and their self-destruction gives us opportunity to say, “Okay, not that bad, anyway.” Yet we hate, and I do mean despise, the evil or darkness in others that mirrors what we have in us, much of which we hide from ourselves. When I truly can’t stand someone, I have learned to ask, “Okay, what do I loathe in myself that I’m seeing in you?” I don’t actually ask them out loud, it’s more a conversation between God and me. Jesus almost always shows me. Funny how I can’t always get direct answers to my prayers, but when I ask “Why does this jerk bug me?” God will notbe silent. It’s almost like Jesus was waiting for me to ask that question…or even…prompting me. 

Hmm.

I’m going to keep this short and direct. I’ll ask you one question for Lent.

Some of us fast from certain things, “give them up for Lent,” be it chocolate or alcohol, chewing gum or gossip. I like this discipline because focusing on being closer to God in a specific way helps me and because there is power in joining much of the Body of Christ in this act of repentance (even if we’re giving up something objectively good, we’re doing so acknowledging that we have let our love/desire for it pull us away from God).

If, for Lent, God asked you to give up hiding, what would come into the light? 

I Give Up

Standard

“I give up!”

I heard my dad say those words so many times. You cannot imagine what impact that has on a young child. I know I heard it when I was maybe six or eight, but maybe four. I think Dad’s lung disease first got bad when I was six years old, so he was forty-three.

His “I give up” speech almost always included: how miserable he felt with his illness, how hard he had tried to make things go better, and how hopeless it all felt now. Often someone’s unfairness to him or downright abuse of him came in.

I tell you now, the absolute scariest thing for me about getting older is this: I understand better and better how my dad felt.

I don’t know that for sure, of course. But what once seemed so extreme and unreasonable, I can now relate to. I do not say this as a good thing.

And no, for the actual love of God, do not jump in with “See? Parents all get wiser as we get older.” I’ve addressed this in another post. My dad was wise in many ways and generous and caring beyond most men of his generation, but he was also bi-polar and severely unhealthy, physically and emotionally. His rantings and refusal to forgive haven’t suddenly transformed into wisdom.

But I miss him more than I used to. I know this is partly because, twenty years after his death, his unpleasantness no longer remains fresh in my mind while I do still remember clearly that he loved me. Praise God. In fact, as I fail and fail with my own children, I’m encouraged that what has stuck with me about Dad is how he truly did love me, as best he could within the limits of his own brokenness. I take some hope from that.

Coming back to the impact on me, as a child I would hear, in vivid detail, his despair. He was angry and discouraged and sick and beaten down, and all this makes sense to me now. He chose to tell that to a small boy. This still does not and, I hope, never will.

But hearing it changed me. I felt responsible. I felt guilty. I felt I had done something wrong, or was failing to do something right. I don’t think I could express any of these things at that time–in fact, had I been able to, likely someone in my life might have said, “Mike, that’s not reasonable or realistic. You don’t have to and aren’t supposed to. In truth, you can’t.” But no one said that. I don’t think anyone said, “Stop telling your six-year-old that you give up.” Or, if anyone did, Dad did not heed them.

I’m not going to sift through all the “this happened to me but I’m not a victim but I need to treat myself with understanding” nuances. That’s another post. The fact that, twenty years after his death and fifty years into my life I’m still dealing with it tells you what you need to know.

I wish that I could say “I feel really bad for how my dad suffered in his later years and I have no idea what that must have been like for him.”

But I feel like giving up. I feel angry too frequently. I’m not shouting this at full volume at my son Corin while he sits on a beanbag trying to watch TV (for one thing, we don’t own a beanbag). I’m also not chronically ill with a disease that makes every breath difficult and robs me of my energy and physical activity and much of my purpose. It’s sobering, and more than a little humbling, to say I don’t know if I would handle it any better if I had to go through the same thing Dad did.

I’ve lived a very different life than he did. I started following Jesus at nineteen and he found peace with God only near the end of his life, after he had lost much of his independence and mobility. I’ve worked hard to forgive others and not hold bitterness–and a good thing, too, because I suck at it and need all the work and all the grace I can get. I do think growing up with a man who could or would not forgive others–including me, at times–made it both harder to learn forgiveness and clearer what a high price I’d pay if I did not. I’m sure that’s why forgiveness is a central theme in my first novel–I’m trying to teach myself.

I want to give up because I have not fixed anything. The world is just as awful as when I got here, and, I would argue, getting worse. That’s the summary. There’s a longer, itemized list. Most days I feel like a failure and I mean loudly I. Feel. Like. A. Failure.

I think he did, too. We’ve had different goals. He felt sorry for himself for being so sick and he struggled to find purpose and meaning after retirement. He’d gotten screwed and now he had to gasp for air and people had abused him at every turn and no one appreciated what he’d done.

But then, for some years, it got better. He relaxed. He found ways to have fun. He and mom went on vacations. He golfed, for heaven’s sake. His breathing problems improved significantly. He laughed more and shouted less.

I am discouraged because people whom I thought shared my values have rejected them and argue that I’ve done something wrong. If it sounds like I’m not taking responsibility, well…that’s what’s happened. I’m taking responsibility to forgive and having a hellishly hard time doing it. I feel like giving up. I don’t know what giving up entails, but it calls to me.

So here we are. Tuesday. Hours before Ash Wednesday. Hours before Lent.

I think it’s time to give up. I’m ad-libbing this, so bear with me.

I’m not going to tell you I’m giving up changing the world. I cannot

. I’d be lying and I’m not trying to wrap this in a neat little false bow for either of us. Perhaps when I reach a healthier spirituality, when I become a contemplative, I will. Or perhaps I’ll simply have more peace about failing.

I’m very tempted to give up on some people. I’ve been offered this as the way of peace. I’m not sure I won’t end up doing this, but I’m not there yet.

Okay, I just took 45 minutes to ponder and meditate. Not usually what I do in the middle of writing one of these.

Giving up feeling like giving up is not an option. It doesn’t work that way. The only option is whether to keep going or not.

But doing things the same way over and over while expecting different results, we all know that as one version of madness.

I’m giving up these negative lines of thought. By that I mean I’m going to choose this Lent not to indulge in giving free reign to these negative thoughts, beliefs, voices, attitudes, responses running amuck in my brain. But by lines of thought, I also mean how those negatives get rolling there in the first place. I’m not sure of all the implications, but at the least this means I’m taking a Lenten fast from social media, getting worked up about politics, and unnecessarily entering conflictive situations (“unnecessarily” being the operative word there).

I announced on Facebook I was taking a break and then realized I would do better to make it a fast that started with Lent…but decided not to announce that, as well. I’m pretty compulsive, so this won’t be easy. When I feel anxious that I don’t know what’s going on in politics, I will either read news directly or, better, spend that time and ease that anxiety by praying.

Thanks for reading this. Sincerely, I do mean thank you. Comment if you want. Pray for me if you pray. I feel I’m at an important impasse. I’m trying to figure out how to go forward from here with God. God-willing, this will free both my time and energy to write more. Conversely, it may force me to address the causes of these negative voices–I’m not imagining just deciding “don’t think negatives” will make them all hush up–and lead to some deep soul-searching.

But it is Lent. Soul-searching fits.