Rachael Denhollander, Costly Grace, and the possibilty of Redemption – Part 1

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I haven’t written a blog post in January.  There are a number of reasons: numerous commitments, sick wife and son, waning motivation, prioritizing writing time, discouragement.

But I read a quote and feel compelled to respond.  Simply put, it epitomizes “Grace is Greater.”  I have to write about it.

“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.”

Rachael Denhollander spoke these words, in a courtroom, to the man accused and found guilty of molesting her, repeatedly, when she was fifteen.  The accused, Larry Nassar, had more than 150 women testify against him.  They spoke their minds.  They spoke their hearts. As Denhollander expressed it:

I do want to thank you, first, Judge Aquilina, for giving all of us the chance to reclaim our voices. Our voices were taken from us for so long, and I’m grateful beyond what I can express that you have given us the chance to restore them.
 
Nassar was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years for decades of sexual abuse against one hundred fifty-six girls.  He also was found guilty and sentenced to 60 years for federal child pornography charges. He will die in prison.
 
The depth of Nassar’s atrocities, his sheer, depraved sinfulness (I’m guessing even secular folks may be comfortable with that description in this case) is difficult to fathom.  You and I might argue that he is beyond forgiveness.
 
But Rachael Denhollander has forgiven him.
 
I take her at her word.  She offers the man whom I would be sorely tempted to describe as a monster and an abomination her forgiveness and exhorts him–prays for him to receive, to experience, true repentance and then true forgiveness from God.
 
I have spent years (and years) forgiving some people in my life whose sins against me, by my own measure, are a trifle compared to what Ms. Denhollander suffered.  I try to grasp her process of saying with sincerity that she forgives her abuser and I fail.
 
But I believe her.
 
And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
 
Reflect on these words for a moment.  Then consider to what “that” refers in her sentence:
 
“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet.
 
The crushing guilt is what makes the Gospel of Christ so sweet.  The Gospel of Christ “extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found.”  To the extent that Larry Nassar is a monster, precisely to that extent God offers him grace.  Ms. Denhollander forgives/has forgiven Nassar and so will God, if Nassar truly repents.
 
Does that offend you?  Because I am offended.  I believe in grace and know that God’s grace has saved my life and yet I’m offended.  But it’s good for me to be offended. It displays for me my own hypocrisy, and yet proves my blog’s thesis statement: to whatever degree we grasp God’s grace, it is greater. than. that.
 
The power of the Gospel is that there is no one living who is beyond God’s grace.  No one.  God will forgive anyone who repents for anything, for everything they have done.  Me, Larry Nassar, you.  All of us.
 
Understand that no one is excusing Larry Nassar’s crimes, least of all Rachael Denhollander.  Her courage, determination, and persistance put him in prison, not single-handedly but as the single biggest contributor to bringing about justice for his abusive violence.  To excuse means to wave off, to look the other way or ignore, to accept an excuse as covering the sin.  Hardly.  Sin has consequences, and sins that harm others have greater consequences.   A sentence of two hundred years in prison is the opposite of “excusing.”
 
Grace looks directly at the crime, the sin, the atrocity.  It recognizes the crushing, appropriate guilt.  Then, while allowing consequences, it offers forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption.  None of this has anything to do with deserving or earning forgiveness: grace means precisely that you do not and cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is giving something good when something bad is is deserved, giving love and forgiveness and love when condemnation and death are deserved.
 
Grace is more powerful than revenge.  Forgiveness frees the victim. It frees the victim from being a victim anymore, sets the abused one free from the power of the sin*, and, astoundingly, opens up the possibility of redemption for the sinner, for the violator, in a way that revenge never can.  We have historical examples.  Saul of Tarsus.  He hunted down followers of “The Way,” the radical heretic Jesus, and dragged them from their homes in chains, seeking their death sentence.  “Breathing violence and threats.”  Then Jesus redeemed his life.
 .
Confrontation, repentance, forgiveness, transformation.  Grace.
Paul understood the crushing guilt.  When he describes himself as the worst of all sinners (“the chief of sinners”), I don’t think he’s speaking lightly or being falsely self-deprecating.  I think he’s remembering accosting mothers and fathers in their homes, remembering the eyes of their children watching him make their parents disappear, turning their children into orphans, for the crime of responding to a teacher who taught love and forgiveness.
 
But that was ancient history and we elevate “The Apostle Paul” to saint status, forgetting who he was, what he was.
 
Today, Rachael Denhollander offers Larry Nassar forgiveness.  She points the way to his redemption, because God can redeem even his life.
 
#MeToo and #ChurchToo call out sinners for their sins, abusers for their crimes.  The women and men who have suffered abuse deserve a voice, they deserve to see justice for their abusers.  Then they must decide if they can forgive.  I’m not standing in their shoes.  I’m not claiming that I would.
 
I’m saying that Rachael Denhollander did.  She reminds me, I hope she reminds us all, of the breathtaking, shocking power of grace.  She’s my new hero.  Plus Jesus is my hero, for giving her the love and the strength to do this.  I’m pretty sure she’s fond of him, too.
 
 
 
*I don’t say this lightly and forgiveness for in some situations may be a lifelong process.

Cynicism Versus Hope

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A few quick thoughts on this, the third day of the New Year.  Pretty soon the shininess will wear off and it will be just the year.  

 

“All politicians are liars.”

“The government will always be corrupt.”   

“Everybody is just looking out for number one.”

I made a comment in a recent Facebook post that I consider cynicism to be cowardly.  I’m going to back up that statement.  

Cynicism likes to posture as cool.  Cynicism tells us that everything sucks and life is bitter and cruel but knowing this and being able to look it in the eye without blinking makes you superior.  You aren’t one of those saps who gets sucked in by all that Disney unicorns rainbows bull.  Some might call you jaded, but you just get it and refuse to sugarcoat anything.  

It follows from this philosophy that anyone trying to spread hope or believe things could improve is gullible, foolish, or trying to sell something.  Proper response to such lightweights or con artists includes suspicion, derision, and scathing sarcasm.  

Personally, I think the whole thing reeks of cowardice.  

If I don’t think there’s any hope in the world, I don’t have to try to make things better.  I don’t have to risk myself to help others. I don’t have to risk disappointment. I can turn away when I see refugees dying, when their children starve to death in those pathetic boats before they can reach shore.  I don’t have to let that rip my heart because it’s all pointless and everyone dies and what does it matter, anyway?  

Chicken feces.  

Being jaded does not make you cool.  Being jaded means you have given in to evil in the world and lack the courage to face it.  You might not be evil but you’re passive in the face of evil, and I’m not sure there’s any difference.*  Mocking others for remaining hopeful, being willing to risk themselves for a cause, choosing to believe in something, tells me you want to convince yourself that your dark view of reality is true.  If you make others’ hope look stupid, that proves you’re more worldly-wise and intelligent. Hope is for little children…along with the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and leprechauns.  

Every New Year, I exhort people to make the world a better place.  It’s time again.  I notice that as I get older, the fight to remain hopeful gets harder.  I’ve seen more.  I’ve watched things get worse.  I’ve seen more people die young of cancer, more people kill themselves with drugs and alcohol, more people who were once idealistic hunker down and get comfortable and complacent.  

So I’m saying it straight on this year:  Cynicism is cowardly and I won’t give in.  

I believe people can be redeemed.  

I believe God changes people’s hearts.

I believe forgiveness changes lives.  

I believe you are more than the worse thing you’ve ever done. 

I believe that even though things look very dark right now, we’re going to turn this tide.  

I’m going to continue investing my heart and my life in young people and walking with them through failure and tragedy and chaos because God is faithful and they still believe they can make a difference.  So do I.  

Yes, it’s “safer” to sneer and scorn and refuse to hope.  Yes, you can protect your heart from getting broken if you keep it to yourself.  Yes, there’s a lot of evidence that politicians lie and the government will remain corrupt and the rich will get richer and people will be selfish and hurt you.  

But that kind of safe is a lie, a temptation.  

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

–C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

 

Hope is dangerous, too. I’m going to hope, anyway, not because I’m a fool, not because hoping is the grown-up version of refusing to accept there’s no Santa, but because hope is a revolutionary act.  Hope is courageous.  Hope changes us and others.  When we choose to be cynical, we reinforce that the evil we see cannot be changed.  When we choose to hope, we become part of that change.

Hope doesn’t mean denying the bad in the world, but looking straight at it and throwing yourself into making things better.  The world is such a bad place, it’s worth risking failure to try.  If we don’t have hope, we can’t have faith; acting on hope means our faith is active, not mere words or facade.  

This is my hope:  God’s love overcomes hatred and evil…in my heart.  

I have much forgiving to do this year.  That’s one of the things I’ll be working on and praying about, a lot.  

My hope starts in me and works outward.  Is God really going to change people who seem, empirically, committed to greed and selfishness and actual evil?  

God can.  God has.

God can change hearts.  God can break chains of systemic poverty and generational abuse.  God can free people of addiction.  

God can change you and me.  God can change the world through us.

I hope you believe that.  

 

*”He who passively accepts evil is as much involved with it as he who helps to perpetrate it.  He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really coooperating with it.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.  

The Difference a Day Makes

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Here we go.  Another calendar page is about to flip and the year is about to change.  

Tomorrow is December 31 and then the next day becomes January 1.  

Is it any different, going from December 31 to January 1, than going from any other day to the next?  Excluding the obvious, superficial things: fireworks here, lots of parties, some people drinknig to excess, does it make any difference that midnight turns into a New Year?  

I think it does.  

I’ve previously made an argument for New Year’s resolutions.  I understand they make for good jokes and cynical memes.  I also think it’s a lot easier to joke and be cynical than it is to change.  

But let’s say you don’t care for New Year’s resolutions.  That’s fine.  Change doesn’t have to come through resolutions (and, statistcally speaking, rarely does).  

Change happens a day at a time and an hour at a time, a minute at a time and a choice at a time.  

Change happens when you believe you can be different.  

Change happens when you can’t live with being the same anymore.  

Change happens when we hit the bottom.  The real bottom.  

Change happens when it finally hurts enough that we have to change.  

Change happens when you can look down the road, see the consequences coming, and decide you will do anything, whatever it takes, to avoid that.  

Change happens when you ask God to do whatever it takes to change you.  That’s a scary prayer.  

But realistically, the calendar will flip and most things won’t change.  

Change doesn’t happen when it hurts so we figure out how to numb the pain.  

Change doesn’t happen when we rationalize how other people are the same or worse.  

Change doesn’t happen when we keep investing time and energy and emotion and spirit into coping with–or covering up–the symptoms.  

Change doesn’t happen when we come up with a spiritual justification for how we’re damaging ourselves.  

Change doesn’t happen when we keep lying to ourselves.  

Change doesn’t happen when we avoid anyone who would tell us the truth and stick with those who will speak more comforting, enabling words.  

Change doesn’t happen when we make certain things in our lives off-limits to God.  We probably don’t say it that way, we just don’t let those things come up.  

Borrowing this off of Twitter, of all places:

 I think all Christians grow most in their faith when they recognize the ways in which Jesus doesn’t look or sound anything like them.*

As I talk about change here, I’m assuming that we know how we need to change, or at least where we need to start.  I like this quote because it is the opposite of the culture and politics wars I’ve been reading (and occasionally fighting).  Most of those go: “You’re bad and God thinks your bad because you do this but God says or thinks this.”  Implied here is “…just like I do.”  You’ll rarely see this argument formed, “God thinks you need to change because you think or do this…just like I do…and I also need to change.”  

The calendar is about to flip or maybe just flipped.  

Do you want to change?  

That thing you’ve been allowing and ignoring and explaining away.  

What difference does one day make?  

One day you make the real decision.  One day you stick with that decision.  One day you get yourself back up when you fall down and, rather than deciding it’s hopeless or pointless because you’ve already screwed up (the devil’s favorite lie, in my opinion), you take the progress you’ve made and build on that.  You keep going.  

I’m really thinking broadly, from better eating and exercise to taking real time to pray to recovering from alcoholism or pornography addiction.  

In whatever way, you need to make the change, because no one else is changing you.  God will work in you and answer your prayers, but waiting for someone else to change you is another form of denial.  And, of course, I’m preaching to myself here as much as to anyone else.

I’m going to end on an uplifting heavy note, if you can believe that.  

I have people in my life who give me partial credit for helping them still to be alive now.  Some of them read this blog.  I love you very much.  I’m inexpressibly glad you’re still here.  

The difference a day makes is that you chose to live for another day.  And then another.  And that made all the difference.  

This is always the answer: One day makes all the difference.  

 

*@RevDaniel

Tightrope Walking

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This will be one that makes no sense to some but a ton of sense to others.  Please sort yourselves accordingly.

 

I included the above drawing in my Stream of Consciousness post but realized I have more I need to say about it.  One way I could describe my life is as a constant struggle between trying to look reasonably together and trying to be honest about the struggles I live every day.  Generally, I lean to the side of being transparent about my issues, because I firmly believe 1)God is glorified when working through our weaknesses, 2)other people with similar or related difficulties might be encouraged to hear they are not alone and there is hope.  It is, in the end, all a battle for hope.

But the decision between transparency and keeping up appearances is not simple.  One issue is Too Much Information.  That’s a pitfall some of us would do well to avoid.  Not everyone can handle knowing what we carry, and while a part of me wants to say, “Well then, screw ’em,” that may not be my most godly impulse.  I suspect.  I could be wrong.*  Whether “can’t handle it” means knowing would cause them harm (my children don’t need to know everything) or knowing would cause them to lose respect and make our relationship not work, this question requires discernment on my part.**

That’s on their end.

My end, that’s another question.

People will say, “Don’t keep your problems to yourself!  Share them!  Give others a chance to help!” There will be exclamation points behind each of these exhortations, and they sound great.  I know I’ve said them myself, likely with hand gestures for added emphasis.

Now go back up and read that Story People above.

If you’re walking on a tightrope, that’s, you know, tricky.  You might be good at it by now, but even when it’s your normal, it can still be precarious.  Or it might be your normal but it feels life-threatening. Every. Single. Time.  No net. Stupid, tiny little wire.  Why do I have to be up here?

Advice from the ground from non-tight rope walkers often is, at best, distracting.  At best.

I half-joke about being the most dysfunctional functional person I know.  By that I mean I deal with the most internal garbage while still managing to function, mas o menos, and do some good in the world.  I’m not, of course.  Some people deal with inner challenges that, by comparison, make mine look miniscule.  For our analogy, their rope is 700 meters higher, the wind is a gale, and the rope is waxed.  I’m not competing; that’s just the truth.  I have people I love desperately who have been hospitalized, repeatedly, because staying on that rope is such a bitch.

Now if you say, “I can’t imagine being hospitalized for mental health issues,” then let me play that back for you:

You. Cannot imagine. Being hospitalized for mental health issues.

I’m not shaming or scolding you.  I’m glad for you.  Perhaps a touch jealous, but that’s my issue.

No, I’m discussing why it’s hard to have people shout advice from the ground.  Sometimes it’s well-meant, with a good heart.  Sometimes it’s judgmental and holier-than-thou.  That, by the way, is in the ear of the beholder more than in the original intent.  I’m sorry if that doesn’t seem fair, but the issue here is impact.  If you helpfully shout and cause someone to glance down and lose their balance…well…there was a kid’s song we often quote:

“Some kind of help is the kind of help/That helping’s all about;

Some kind of help is the kind of help/We all can do without.”

 

Here’s a quick, first-person-from-the-tightrope perspective.  I’m going to try to split the difference between being open and not saying more than I should.

Sometimes the things I do to keep me sane and balanced backfire.  Sometimes the (figurative, not literal) medicine turns on me.  That’s always a bummer.

Do I tell people?  Do I say, “Hey, this is supposed to be helping me but it’s hurting me instead and I’m having really negative, self-destructive thoughts right now in the midst of what should be this really good thing?”

I don’t.

I don’t want to add their well-intentioned “help” to what is already a pretty damned difficult situation for me.  In that moment, I’m doing my bloody best to stay on the frigging, suddenly-greased tightrope, and I can’t add anything to that challenge.

So then I just seem grumpy.  Not very social.  Oh, well.


I hope that wasn’t too vague to be useful, but here are my applications:

  1. If you’re on the tightrope, choose as wisely as you can whom you tell.  Yes, the principle still applies that staying silent about our struggle is not life-giving, but help that hurts is the last thing we need.  I have a lot of people whom I wish could understand, because I’d like them to help…but they can’t, and they don’t.  Bummer.  But the times when I’ve gone against that instinct and tried, the bummer was much bigger.  Huge.

2. You know that saying, “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.  Be kind.  Always.”  This.  It means this.  “But if they’re fighting a battle, they should tell me!”  No.  They should tell you if it helps them.  It’s their battle.  Love means you want to do whatever you can to help, including not be told and show all the kindness you can, anyway.

3. Here’s the tough part.  No one thinks they are the person giving the “helpful comments from the ground.”  But a bunch of somebodies are.  So do the math.

Someone in my life, when upset, does not want to hear kind words of encouragement.  Those make this person furious.  It happens the thing I’m really good at is…you guessed it.  Words of encouragement.  Outstanding, if I say so myself.  So even this principle of “Be Kind. Always” is subordinate to loving people in whatever way helps them stay up on the rope.

Trying my best to be kind and encouraging was making this person’s balancing act worse.  Harder.  So what to do?

Insist that this is the right way to help because I’m good at it?  Keep at it because it should help?

Shut the [expletive] up and simply indicate I’m there for support but silently.  Yes.  That one.

Love this.  One of the things this says is, do you want to help me in the way that helps me or the way that helps you?  Do you want me to add to the challenge of staying on this rope by juggling your feelings and good intentions, too?

Here’s a crazy thought:  If you don’t get why someone behaves in that way, pray first (if you do that) and ask for compassion and empathy.  Ask for the ability to help in a way that helps.  Then–and only then***–inquire if there is a way you can help or support.  Asking if you can support comes across very differently than chiming in with advice.


Two more things, figuring that if you’ve read this far it might be helping and the people who didn’t, that’s kind of irrelevant.  

You may have the gut response, especially as a believer in God, that this whole tightrope analogy fails because, in Jesus, people don’t have to stay up on the tightrope.  This may all sound a little defeatist.  I believe in God’s power, in prayer, and in healing.  I also suspect someone struggling with mental health or serious emotional issues will find this attitude exactly what they want to avoid.  When people just know they can help, they easily become deaf to what is actually being communicated.  I’m not going to resolve that for you, I merely ask you to take it as a serious precaution.  People have been helped to death before, and by those with the best of intentions.

 

Finally, if you’re walking the tightrope, I’m sorry.  Not in a pitying way, but Me, too, and I wish we didn’t have to.  I appreciate your courage. I appreciate your hidden smirk when people throw up that oh-so-helpful advice from the ground, which means, if I’m translating smirk correctly “You’d be impressed if you had any idea how damned hard this is!”  I appreciate that you’re choosing to hang in there another day and, miraculously, keeping a sense of humor about it.  

I appreciate you.  

You’re doing a great job.  Yes, you are.  You’re still here?  You’re doing a great job.  

And you’re braver than we know.  Of that, I’m certain.  

 

 

*No, I’m probably right.

**I even ask this question when writing my blog…except at 4AM, when all judgment goes out the window.

***If you don’t pray, I guess I would suggest being mindful of the person and trying to distinguish between what would make you feel good in helping them versus what could be good for them (might be the same, might not).  Heck, if you do pray I’d still suggest this.

I Don’t Want to Be What’s Wrong

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When asked by a reporter “What’s wrong with the world,” Chesterton offered this famous reply:

Dear Sirs:

I am.

Sincerely yours,

G.K. Chesterton

In the most concise sense, this is the beginning of the Gospel, this is the 1st step of the 12 steps, this is the truth of our condition.  I am what’s broken and I can’t fix that.

My first question is: do we agree?  I suspect the interviewer wanted Chesterton to go off about fascism or communism or the gross excesses of the rich or the laziness of the poor, but Chesterton took a much more fundamental and personal approach to the question.

I commented in a post on marriage that most Christians will readily acknowledge that we are sinners, but have a much harder time hearing, “you are wrong.”  On one level, that’s just poor logic, because if you are a sinner, you are also, by definition, wrong.  But I think it also points to a deeper issue.

We want to see the world get better.  I’m so incredibly sick of reading and hearing more and more bad news.  I have seen some horrible things reported, but just yesterday I read that George Zimmerman was auctioning off the gun with which he murdered Trayvon Martin.  I was just glancing at headlines, my 8-year-old son started talking to me, and suddenly this caught my eye–and I had to close my eyes tight and breathe.  It made me nauseous.

Trayvon Martin’s death is not about disrespecting our police force–George Zimmerman is not, and never was, a police officer.  It’s not about respecting the law–when Zimmerman called 911, the operator told him not to approach.  Had Zimmerman respected law enforcement and obeyed, there is every reason to believe Trayvon Martin would be alive today.  And Trayvon Martin’s death is not about “a good guy with a gun,” at least not from the perspective that George Zimmerman has subsequently been charged with aggravated assault with a weapon, domestic violence and battery.  In fact, he’s been charged several times for various crimes, including another charge of domestic violence, since he was found not guilty of second-degree murder.

So this is the man seeking to make money not by the sale of a gun, but by the notoriety of his having used this gun to kill a 17-year-old black young man.  The selling point is that he used it to take a life, he claims in self-defense.  Zimmerman had his Kel-Tec PF-9, Martin had a pack of Skittles, yet we’re to believe that Martin attacked Zimmerman.  And now, having been found not guilty, Zimmerman seeks to profit from this, writing in his description of his item for auction:

“I am honored and humbled to announce the sale of an American Firearm Icon.”  “The firearm for sale is the firearm that was used to defend my life and end the brutal attack from Trayvon Martin on 2/26/2012 … Many have expressed interest in owning and displaying the firearm including The Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. This is a piece of American History,” Zimmerman wrote, a claim that was later refuted by the museum.*

My son saw me blanch and asked, “What’s wrong, Daddy?”

The world we live in is a horrible hell hole?  People are sick and twisted and I can’t fix that for you?  I’m discouraged that trying to make the world a better place seems hopeless in the face of this?

“I’m okay, Buddy.  I just read some bad news.”

I guess that was true, in the sense that after vomiting for twelve hours straight, I might say, “I’m okay, Buddy, I just ate some bad mayo.”

So I’m posing this question: Do we agree with Chesterton?  Do we believe that we are what is wrong with the world, or do we point to others as the actual problem?

Here’s where I think we get burned.  I don’t know what is wrong with George Zimmerman–I could give you some theories, but I don’t know the man–and yet it’s very easy to blame him, and the court in Florida that acquitted him, and the Stand Your Ground law, and the pervasive racism still thriving in the United States.  They are the problem.

I wouldn’t be wrong.  Neither would Chesterton have been wrong to detail the problems plaguing his world in 1910.  They were many.  It’s fairly easy to find people worse than us, especially if we are making even a decent effort to help others and make the world better.

Do you hear the “but” coming?

But…this is the problem with the world:  it’s too inconvenient for us to make it better.  Changing things would cost us our comfort.  Never mind global warming for a moment, I know people want to debate over the science involved, so let’s just take pollution.

In 1997 a study by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies found that life expectancy for people living in poor communities in the United States was markedly lower than life expectancy for people living in wealthier communities, sometimes by as much as fifteen years. While many factors contribute to this alarming discrepancy, it has become clearer since the 1980s that poor communities, which are also predominantly non-white, bear the brunt of adverse pollution affects.**

 

Cars and trucks with internal combustion engines pollute the air.  Air pollution hurts people.  I mean, air pollution causes cancer, childhood asthma, it poisons water supplies.  It’s nasty.  How would we improve air quality?  By supporting legislation that requires lower emission vehicles, or by driving cars with lower emissions, or by buying local instead of from large chain stores that ship good across the world and add massive pollution to the atmosphere, or by buying an electric car or a hybrid.  All of the above?

But air pollution isn’t bothering us that much.  Always, people living in poverty will suffer the effects of pollution at a far higher rate than those in the middle and upper classes.  Why?  Because the homes and apartments in lower income areas suffer more pollution, there is little political clout to prevent businesses from polluting there, and the areas that are already badly polluted have lower property values and rental rates–so that’s where poor people end up living.  It isn’t hurting you and me.  (Well, I’m living in a poor barrio, so it may be hurting me.  It wasn’t when I lived in the States.)

Now, just in case this sounds like a political argument to you, I would like to make this simple point: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The crucial requirement of this teaching, this commandment, is that we exercise first empathy and then compassion.  If you cannot–or will not–put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you can’t obey Jesus on this point…and most consider it a pretty point.

Do you live near a landfill or waste transfer station?  Is there lead paint in your building or school or does lead contaminate your water supply?  Are oil companies fracking in or near your neighborhood or seeking permission to?  Is your air quality where you live poor enough to shorten your lifespan?

If your answers to these questions are “no,” then that is good and fortunate for you.  I think our next set of questions, as followers of Jesus, must be, “How would I want someone else to behave toward me if they were?”  What if it were your kids getting poisoned?  What if your husband or wife had asthma and suffered daily from toxins in the air?

As I read the Gospels, there is little Scriptural warrant for “that’s not my problem.”  Jesus said to treat others the way you want to be treated.  If my children went to a school that elevated their likelihood of getting sick and dying, I would want your help.

If this conversation still sounds political, then I must suggest that we have become so politicized and polarized in our thinking that our factions have started to outshout the Gospel in our ears.  Children suffering or dying should not be first a political issue; it’s a Jesus issue, as in, how does Jesus want me to respond to the cries of his children?

If you are “pro-life” and oppose abortion because you see that as murder of children but do not oppose pollution when that, too, is murder and abuse of children, most frequently impoverished children, then I don’t understand what “pro-life” means.  The issue for a Christian does not become more complex because a multi-national with billions a year in proceeds is causing the pollution, nor because the children in question do not share my ethnicity or pigmentation.  The command to do unto others is not subject to whether you or I think that a poor nine-year-old’s father has acted irresponsibly or her mother receives food stamps.  It’s this:  1)If my child were suffering, I would want you to act, 2)that child is suffering, 3)I will do as I would want done to me.

So I come back now to inconvenience, comfort, and the what’s wrong with the world.  I see so many easy targets.  But most of them simply allow me to blameshift and create clouds of smokescreen.  I am what is wrong with the world when I can look at a child who is not mine and ignore his or her suffering.  I am  what’s wrong with the world when I can know about a child’s suffering and realize that I am contributing to the cause, yet make no change because I like my comforts.  I am what’s wrong with the world when that child is not my problem, because I have stopped taking Jesus seriously regarding what he says about children–he really likes ’em–and what he says about loving other people–he wants us to do it like he did.

My blog is called “Grace Is Greater.”  How is grace greater in this?  First, I think God’s choice to have mercy on us when we have conspired to place our lifestyle above others’ lives is a grace beyond fathoming.  It’s certainly not that we in our selfishness deserve for God to extend that mercy.  Grace.

Second, I think God gently calls us to change.  Compassion, for most of us, works better close up than from a distance.  When it’s personal, we are more likely to respond. So God brings people into our lives to open our eyes and help us to see them as he does.  I really believe that.  Look around.  How is God showing you through the people you know that you could be more just, more “do unto others” in your lifestyle?

Third, I see grace in so many people who call us, lovingly and prophetically, to repent.  Yes, there are some angry folks out there screaming at us about what we’ve done wrong (and it’s possible we really have done things wrong and they are just reasonably pissed off) and that can be very difficult to take seriously.  But I am constantly amazed at how many humble, compassionate, truly beautiful individuals I see speaking truth to power without condemning or demeaning or dehumanizing.  If all you hear is screaming, then you might be watching only news outlets trying to sell airtime who prefer the most hysterical version of the message…or you might be choosing sources who want to make any of these arguments out to be patently stupid and nonsensical and “the reason America is no longer great.”

Prophets still walk and talk among us.  They aren’t getting much play on Fox.  You’re unlikely to catch them on CNN.  Few of them are household names (except Bono; a lot of folks have heard of him).

I’m not a prophet, but I am trying to be a faithful follower of Jesus.  I don’t want to complain about Christians or the church or what we’ve become.  I want to look at myself honestly and ask God:

 

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

Finally, I see grace underlying our small efforts, our tiny steps to be more faithful to Jesus.  God is patient with us.  When we make any movement in the right direction, God’s Spirit encourages us and leads us deeper in.  What are small things we can do to repent of our priorities, to live out “doing unto others,” to becoming advocates for God’s justice for the children who live so differently than ours?

There are horrible people in the world committing atrocities.  I don’t think I can stop them.  I can’t make the world better by making our problems all about them.

 

It’s an amazing thing to think that ours is the first generation in history that really can end extreme poverty, the kind that means a child dies for lack of food in its belly. That should be seen as the most incredible, historic opportunity but instead it’s become a millstone around our necks. We let our own pathetic excuses about how it’s “difficult” justify our own inaction. Be honest. We have the science, the technology, and the wealth. What we don’t have is the will, and that’s not a reason that history will accept.***

 

 

Is it a reason God will accept?  I believe in Grace and I believe in Justice.

I pray we can seek both, and not have to find out.

 

 

 

 

*http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/george-zimmerman-auction-gun-killed-trayvon-martin-article-1.2634153

**http://www.pollutionissues.com/Pl-Re/Poverty.html

*** Bono, interview to the World Association of Newspapers for World Press Freedom Day (3 May 2004).

Merry Stream-of-Consciousness

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Sometimes I get so busy living life, I don’t have time to write about it.  

Five of the last seven blog posts I started are still in the “draft” folder.  We’ve had graduations and birthdays and THE CENTRAL AMERICAN GAMES and a near-collision with a motorcycle and an actual collision with a truck (no one injured, but my poor car!)* and, oh yeah, the newest Star Wars movie!  

In the midst of all this, I’m spending lots of time with my kids and wife who are on vacation as we soak up this (relatively) cool weather in Managua–it’s raining tonight, the 22nd of December, well into dry season.  It’s actually hit the 60’s! Crazy.

So I might have to post retroactively several entries in the Nicargua Diary because great stuff has happened and I want to celebrate it.  

But on this Winter Solstice, I’m going to free associate.  Stream of consciousness.  Merry Christmas.  

Managua Nativity scenes on la avenida Bolivar

The best part of celebrating our 7th year of Christmas in Nicaragua is that we left behind Materialism Christmas.  We’ve successfully lowered expectations of what we should get for Christmas, without weeping and gnashing of teeth.  All of us. No gnashing.  

The second best part of celebrating Christmas in Nicaragua is that the season feels more sane.  Less frantic and rushed.  We’re just moving at a slower pace, for which I’m very grateful.


My wife, whom I have mentioned once or twice is mighty, will be going to Estelli for the week after New Years for an immersion Spanish class experience.  She speaks great Spanish but keeps trying to get better. Esteli is north of Matagalpa, which is 3 hours north of here. 



A young girl from our barrio, a dear friend of ours, is going to college next year!  An intensive English-acquisition program, 8 hours a day for a school year, which is not her end goal but is a great first step.  How many kids do you think go to college from our barrio?*  

At thirty-three and through great perseverance, Juan Ramon,possibly my best friend here, earned his high school diploma.*  Now that was a celebration!  


The Nicaragua Women’s Volleyball Team, down 2 sets to 0 to Costa Rica in the Central American Games gold medal match, gave perhaps the greatest comeback effort I’ve ever witnessed first-hand at a sporting event.  After being demolished in the first set 10-25 and going down a second set, they won sets 3 and 4 over a team that was much bigger and clearly stronger, and led 9-6 (or 10-7?) before losing 12-15.  We cheered our voices and hearts out.  It was crazy like a rock concert.  

The glory of this was feeling the crowd uniting to cheer for their team, their fellow Nicaraguans.  Nicaraguans, especially poor Nicaraguans, do not, culturally, have a positive self-image.  As a friend pointed out, this self-identity change slowly.  The Central American Games, and within those even this match, felt to us like a small but significant step in the right direction.  This isn’t even mentioning the tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.  We celebrated the first time Nicaragua hosted the Central American Games and Nicaragua’s coming in second in total medals behind only Guatemala.  

Bonus:  Nicaragua won the gold medal in baseball!  


The new Star Wars came out!  

The new Star Wars came out!  

THE NEW STAR WARS CAME OUT! 

THE NEW STAR WARS CAME OUT!

Yeah, there are lots of flaws.  When I started writing my blog post on it, I was critiquing a lot of what they did.  It’s not my favorite Star Wars movie.  I don’t think it’s the best one.  

But it’s Star Wars!  

If you weren’t a kid when the original came out, it may be hard to grasp how much we bonded with this movie, how big it was in our lives…and how big it remains.  I’m happy our children have embraced this joy.  My kiddos and I had been counting down the days for months.  I consider this a parenting success!


Every day is a battle for hope.  Every. Day.  

 

Brian Andreas, an artist we love

I was talking today with a great friend about how good it feels to make a difference, even a small one.  Going in the right direction toward making a difference is a big deal.  

We agreed on this shocking conclusion: the world is so bad, trying to make a difference, trying to help in any way is worth it, even if you fail.  

If your life is not a battle for hope, if you are comfortable and things are going well and it’s easy: rejoice!  Give thanks!  Be grateful!

Then step up.  

Pray, then step up.  

 

 

*This is an excellent article on child poverty, child labor and education in Nicaragua.  Some excerpts:

“Compulsory education is one of the most effective ways of combating child labour, according to the ILO. In Nicaragua, children are only obliged to attend school until 12.

Only 72% of children finished primary school in 2009, the latest year for which data is available.

This low figure hides even bigger inequalities as only 65% of children from the poorest 20% of families completed primary school compared to 98% from the richest homes.

On the poor Atlantic coastal regions where Bluefields is situated, just 58% completed six years of primary education.

The Ortega government has prioritised spending on primary and tertiary education, so secondary school figures are unsurprisingly much worse: 46% finished the first tier (9th grade/year 10), and only 19% completed 11th grade (year 12). In the poorest families, only 6% of children finished secondary school.”

This final number is what we’re looking at.  

God is bigger. And closer.

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[Pinnate Venation, PC Laura Kranz]

God is bigger than that.  

As I’m looking back at 2017, breathing in the evergreen scent from our tree that helps me know it’s Advent now, and pondering how I hope to see God move in 2018, this is my best summary:  God is biggger.  This is what I’ve been missing in my struggles and this is what I need to remember moving forward.   

I’ve never in my life been more miserable about the political landscape in the US than I’ve felt this year.  

God is bigger than that.  

I am grieved, scared, tortured at choices some people I love have been making.  I’ve been losing hope.  

God is bigger than that.  

I’m questioning whether what I do matters, whether my life is bearing enough fruit, whether I will ever get anywhere with this writing gig.  

God is bigger than that.  

Ironically, we’re in Advent and thus celebrating God’s being tiny, the smallest God has ever been.  God-in-Mary’s-Womb small.  Somehow still God Omnipotent, God Omniscient, and God Omnipresent, yet for a moment the size a baby is in utero when first conceived.  That’s tiny.  That’s dust-speck small.  

It’s funny how God’s having been smaller reinforces for me how God is bigger

God was tiny so that he could enter into human history and do what Creator God Omnipotent could not do.  This isn’t that trick question “Can God make a rock so big God cannot lift it?”  God could now look us in the eye with a human eye. God could tell us he loves us with a human voice. God could touch the sick woman, the leprous man, the demon-possessed, the hungry, and the outcast with human hands. 

The God who was invisible to human eyes became visible. God didn’t become more real when Jesus was born but God became more with us, with us in a different manner than was possible before. God was pretty darned “with us” already and then in Jesus God became more so.  Walking around and talking with us is more with us.  Refugee baby in Egypt is more with us.  Handing bread and wine to his friends to be shared as his own physical body and blood that is broken for them, for us, that is more with us.  

 “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

It’s funny how God’s having been smaller reinforces for me how God is bigger.  Because I know God’s character through Jesus, I know that God is both powerful and compassionate.  Because I know Jesus took human abuse, did not retaliate, and then rose from the dead, I know God forgives my evil and can heal what is twisted in my heart.

When I respond to my problems with “God is bigger,” of course I mean more than size.* I mean, “God is greater than that problem, God has both the power and the willingness to overcome what feels impossible to me.  God is faithful to do what Jesus said he would, both in my world and in me.”  

The crucial point, I think, is this:

Remembering God is bigger will not instantly solve my problems.  

Remembering God is bigger–and closer–than I’ve been thinking will change my perspective.  It will rearrange my thoughts.  I need my thoughts rearranged.  I need God’s being bigger to change me.  


Remembering God is bigger won’t change politics.  But it will keep me from despairing when evil-hearted men and women do evil things, especially in the name of God, especially when evil seems to be winning the day.  

Remembering God is bigger won’t change politics.  But it will keep me from despairing when evil-hearted men and women do evil things, especially in the name of God, especially when evil seems to be winning the day.  Psalm 37 is a good reminder.  It concludes: 

The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
    he is their refuge in the time of trouble.
   The Lord helps them and rescues them;
    he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,
    because they take refuge in him.

Politicians may do horrible damage, but not beyond God’s ability to save.  I’m not saying we don’t worry about the bad things they’re doing.  We still resist evil. That’s the biblical command. I’m saying I don’t get so overwhelmed by the bad things they’re doing that I forget God is still redeeming, bringing good out of evil, healing and restoring right through the midst of these horrible things.

Because that’s who God is: Jesus is our Redeemer.

 He redeems.  


Concerning the beloved people in my life, I see their self-destructive choices and I writhe in agony–and that’s not a bad thing.  I mean, it’s not fun. I’m not enjoying it.  But my heart is where it should be, with them, loving them not indifferently (oxy-moron if ever there was one) but empathetically.  Remembering God is bigger and closer restores the broader view.  God loves them more than I do.  If I’m right about their choices, God grieves even more than I do.  If I’m wrong…not the first time.  Either way, God has them.  

That God “has them” is very hard to see.  It looks, to my weak human eyes, as if God is doing nothing.  But I can’t know that.  I can’t see all of what is happening, I certainly can’t tell what is going on in their hearts and minds.  Faith in Jesus means, now, that I have to pray for more faith and remember that Jesus has come near and stayed near.  I have to pray more, period, and respond to my anguish by letting it drive me to prayer, not to deeper discouragement.  

God is bigger and God’s love is greater.  This rings a bell from somewhere.  


I just spent a long afternoon with a younger missionary yesterday.  We had a great conversation.  He told me that he’s struggling with knowing his purpose here and trying to figure out if what he’s doing is enough. He’d just had a conversation with four or five other missionary guys who, he told me, all had the same question.  

Ministry in Nicaragua (and probably anyplace like this) always leaves one feeling insufficient in the face of how much needs to change.  

But looking at the suffering here and asking questions about whether my work matters or if it’s enough or “can possibly make any difference?” is all wrong-headed.  

It’s wrong because measuring against the big picture that I can see means I’m looking completely in the wrong direction.  

God has a crazy habit of using tiny, insignificant-seeming solutions for massive problems

God has a crazy habit of using tiny, insignificant-seeming solutions for massive problems:

Jesus tells a parable about mixing yeast in with flour–tiny amount of yeast, lots of flour, all of it gets leavened. 

Jesus tells a parable about a mustard seed–tiny seed, grows up into this huge shrub-tree thing. Birds make homes.

Jesus himself is a parable that something tiny can become God’s means of transformation.  

God has designed the Kingdom of heaven to work this way.  I need to ask God, “Am I being faithful to what you’ve given me today?”  That’s my only question.  Okay, that’s my only question that will lead me to in the right direction.  If it’s “no,” then I need to change.  If it’s “yes,” then how the “big picture” (from my microscopic perspective) looks is not my concern.

 A baby of a poor family set in a feed trough was not going to change the world.  A man wrongfully accused and dying from torture under a violent empire was not going to change the world.  

I hate clichés.  I try to break down clichés** and find ways to express how my life believing in God connects with your life, whether or not you understand God, or faith, as I do. Some clichés just need to go, while others need a defribillator.  

God is bigger.  Of course God is bigger.  I “know” that, I’m accustomed to that, and my over-familiarity with it contributes to how I’ve lost my focus. I cannot let this become a cliché in my life.

The thing we know so well that we stop living it may be a distinct category of unbelief.

The thing we know so well that we stop living it may be a distinct category of unbelief.  

As I look back and ahead, I’m preaching to myself–and maybe reminding you–that I don’t need to know God is bigger.  

I need to live God is bigger.  And closer.  

 

 

 

*God’s size is a little hard to comprehend, anyway.  

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?”  

And that’s just the stuff God’s made, not even God himself.  

 

**I think my goals in writing are approximately this:

Encourage people to believe God loves them and grace for them is greater than they comprehend,

Give people a picture of life here in Nicaragua, especially of life for those living in poverty,

Get rich and famous (still pending),

Describe spiritual reality, as I experience and grasp it, in language everyone can understand.

 

Encouraging a Preacher

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 124

My neighbor, Mileydi, asked me where in the Bible it talks about La Roca.  The rock.  

The Bible is a big book.  I’ve read it and I can search Google, but we’re still talking about a big question.  

My mind went immediately to Jesus’ parable of the bad workers in the vineyard because it concludes with Jesus’ saying to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees:

  “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is amazing in our eyes’?

I read this whole passage through for her–yes, in Spanish–and explained how Jesus is telling this parable about the very people to whom he’s telling it. 

But that wasn’t La Roca she was looking for.  So she talked a little more about what she remembered of the passage and it finally clicked–“Oh!  Building on La Roca!”  

So I read to her: 

 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?  I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

She was thrilled.  Bouncing up and down excited.  Yes, this was the passage!  She high-fived me several times.  I’m a big high-fiver.  We both agreed that nos encanta this passage–we love it!

Then she explained that she wanted to preach on it in a few days.  “Oh!” again!  

So we talked through the passage.  I told her that, to me, the most important word is cuando vino una inundación, “when a flood arose,” because people need to understand that the flood rises for everyone, whether sooner or later.  Not “if the flood rises,” but “when.”  We discussed the contrast between building on rock and building without a foundation.  Two houses might look identical from the outside, but the difference when they get hit by the storm will be absolute–one will still be standing, the other will be gone.  

Mileydi (left, with her girls) at our preschool.

We talked about how she’s experienced that since she chose to make her life about following Jesus in the last year plus.  She told me she was nervous but felt strongly that this was the passage God had put on her heart to preach.  

Mileydi reads, but not at a very high level.  We went through the words in the passage, and this was my moment, perhaps more than any help I’d offered interpreting the passage.  I’m not fluent in Spanish.  Mileydi’s first language is Spanish.  I’m reading to her and clobbering some of the pronunciations.  “Clobbering” as in mangling.  But she doesn’t sight read easily.  So together we’re getting the words that she of course knows but doesn’t always know when she sees them in print.  

We went over it twice together.  She told me she was nervous but would practice a lot before the time came.  


Mileydi preached last night.  I was sad that I could not walk the three houses up the street where their tiny church meets to hear her sermon.  

I couldn’t because last night was also Corin’s school Christmas concert, and every parent knows you have to go to the big school performances.  It’s funny, because it’s four minutes of your child performing in a three hour evening.  But even as we drove there, Corin asked why his sisters weren’t going with us.  I’ve missed a couple of these in my tenure of raising four kids.  Even though I tell myself it’s just a few minutes, I always regret it and feel an emptiness.  Now, especially, as we near the end of our youngest child’s elementary years and performances, I can’t miss one.  


This morning, I got to ask Mileydi how it went.  She didn’t say “fine.”  She recounted her sermon to me.  Not word-for-word, but more than the highlights.  

Have you ever had that moment when a friend is telling you something and it’s not the information but their joy and enthusiasm that knocks you over?  

Yeah.  

Mileydi described how she told her church, “This is what I know of building my house on rock.”  She talked about being part of church, about how she knows she can’t do it on her own, about really praying with her heart and not just her mouth.  

In the three years we’ve lived in this barrio, we’ve seen this transformation.  Kim has loved and mentored Mileydi as they’ve run the preschool together.  We’ve watched God redeem her marriage.  We’ve seen her grow in parenting.  We witnessed God physically heal her.  And we’ve seen God provide for their family each day.  

I’m a more experienced preacher.  I have a seminary degree. I’ve studied and preached on this passage I don’t know how many times while Mileydi didn’t know how to find it in the Bible. 

As good as I am (or like to believe I am) with words, I’d rather hear Mileydi’s sermon on Luke 6:46-49.  But God, showing me great love and sheer extravagance, let me be part of that sermon.  Then I got to rejoice with her.  

Mileydi said,  “I was really nervous before, but when I started to preach, I was fine.  I wasn’t nervous anymore.”  

I told her, “Me, too.  Every time.  Before we start it’s awful, we feel sick.  Then we stand up and God’s spirit is with us and we’re fine.”  

Mileydi at her baptism.

She thanked me, but it was both my pleasure and my calling.  When you’re a preacher, you help other preachers.

Mileydi is a preacher.  

A Good Hour

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 119

This morning I got up before I usually do, before the rest of my family did, and drove to the vela for my friend Jose Manuel’s grandmother.  I didn’t know her.  She died on Thursday and his family held her vela Thursday night, then celebrated Jose Manuel’s son’s graduation from colegio (high school), then returned to observe another night’s vela before proceeding for the funeral this morning at 8AM.

That means they had not one but two all-night memorial services for her, with a graduation celebration in between.

I’m a gringo.  Not that many people mistake me for Nica, and if anyone does, they get that misconception corrected the instant I open my mouth.  Even though it’s an all-night service, just before 6AM is not the time to arrive for a vela.*  But, I believe, I was given the gringo pass, i.e. I was doing something slightly culturally inappropriate, but I’m a gringo, so my Nicaraguan friends don’t say ,”Dude!  INappropriate!”

Instead, Jose Manuel greeted me enthusiastically.  I was offered me a cup of coffee and a seat.  I’m sure they’d sat up all night but no one else was sitting now, but Jose Manuel sat with me.  About half a dozen people were puttering around, stacking up the chairs they’d rented and piling them on a truck, damping down the dust with a hose, and generally looking busy.  I asked Jose Manuel if he’d slept.  Yes, he told me, he’d returned from the graduation about 9:40PM and slept from four to five AM  Maybe it was 3:30 to 5:30.  It wasn’t long.  This was his second full night up.

But here’s the thing:  he was glad to see me.  Not, “Okay, I can handle one more visitor,” much less, “You’re kidding me, but it’s a gringo so I have to put up with this.”

No, this mattered.  We don’t understand Nicaraguan culture in a lot of ways, but we grasp this:  showing up matters.  We’ve had enough conversations to know that our friends remember who came to a vela.  When being present is all you can give, it counts.

His grandmother raised Jose Manuel; in truth, she was his mother.  She died at 87 years old.   He is grieving.  I came and shared his grief for an hour.  We talked.  I told him about Isaac’s death, about our Miracle Girl, Annalise, and about losing my father.  He told me how having this woman raise him had shaped his life.

He shared a little about her life and some things about his growing up and their family.  We talked about death.  We talked about life.  We talked about what hope in God means, how God is faithful and you can see lives change, yet sometimes babies die and how do you explain that?  We talked about how often grief and joy come together, inseparable, side by side.  I told him how Aria’s birthday is the day after Isaac’s birthday, which means every year we remember our son who is gone and then turn around and celebrate our daughter who is here with us.

I’m not a morning person and last night, like so many nights, I slept poorly.  I promised myself I would get up and go to the vela and then spent hours awake during the night.  Nonetheless, I was awake again at 5:15 and decided it was worth it, anyway.

It was.  It was one of the better hours I’ve spent in a long time.  I don’t think I made a huge difference.  I don’t think I said anything profoundly comforting or insightful, even if you translated it into English.

But I was there.

 

 

*Kim went at 5 AM the morning before, after the first night’s vela, and I think got a similar pass.

Depression, Choices, Faith

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[I’ve written a longer, more comprehensive reflection on depression.  You may want to start there.]

Dealing with depression in my life is more or less constant. I don’t mean that I’m constantly depressed, but that there is almost never a time when I don’t need to worry or think about it at all. It’s always there, always lurking, always chipping away.  I have to keep vigilant.  I always have to maintain the healthy practices that keep me on top of the ball, rather than having the ball roll over me.  

 Sometimes that, in itself, gets exhausting.  Even my mental image of it, running on this huge ball to keep the ball from running over me, can tire me out.* Giving in to this discouragement poses one of my biggest dangers, letting the war of attrition wear me down and knock me off of my healthy rhythms. When I do, when that happens, I start making really poor choices. I’m seeking to feel momentary relief, whatever that takes, which almost always means numbing the pain. Most of the pain-numbers are not life-giving for me.  Most of them make it harder to pray, harder to feel at peace.  In other words, most of them increase the pain once the numbing wears off.  You can guess where that leads.

My alternative to seeking the numbing agents is trusting in the disciplines, trusting that continuing to do the things I’ve found life-giving and centering will give me life and keep me centered. But that isn’t easy.

 First, it’s not easy because it means standing in the pain and trusting that doing the healthy things will lift me back out.  Usually, that goes slowly.  Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better, even when I’m doing all the right things.

Second, it’s not easy because it doesn’t always work.  I’m sticking with my healthy eating, my efforts to get good sleep (as much as I can), my exercise and all my praying/reading Scripture/journaling spiritual stuff.  But the hole keeps getting bigger and I’m falling and nothing gives me traction, nothing holds me up and I’m just feeling it go, feeling the bottom drop out.  It’s hard to have faith in something that doesn’t always work.

I’m not referring to faith in God here.  I mean trusting that doing the helpful things will help.  I know that if I stop making healthy choices, the ball will plow over me.  I don’t know for sure that if I continue, keeping balance the very best I can, the bottom won’t drop out, anyway.**  

I know God is always with me, but as I’ve described before, I’m under no illusion that God always lifts me up and makes me feel all better when I ask. I believe God is always with me in my pain.  For reasons I can’t explain, and frankly have given up trying, sometimes when I pray I stay in the pit.  I don’t think that means I’m praying wrong or that I’m still guilty of some unrecognized sin which causes God to hold out on me.***  Others might disagree, but at this moment I believe that thinking God would heal me if only I would do things right takes the power from God and gives it to me.  That doesn’t actually happen, of course, but it’s an illusion some people prefer to an all-powerful, sometimes inscrutable God who doesn’t answer to us.

God is faithful.  God’s faithfulness doesn’t always look the way I would want, but God is God, not my preferences nor the settings on my tablet.  He doesn’t always do what I want, how I want, when I want, even when I think I have good arguments that he should.  When we believe that we don’t get healed because we lack faith (or think this of others), we set ourselves up to feel like we’re failing ourselves and God.  “I’m not doing my part well enough.”  This suggests God opposes us until we fix ourselves.  That trajectory of belief doesn’t end well.  Grace means God doesn’t wait for us to get it right.  Grace means we don’t earn healing.  But again, this can appeal to us because the truth might be a lot more complex and inexplicable.  

Ultimately, then, I have confidence in the things I know will help me to stay above water, but not absolute confidence.  I have faith that God will bring me through whatever waves wash over me.  But that’s easier to say when I’m standing on the beach than when the waves are crashing down on my head, when I’m slammed under the water so hard I can’t tell which way is up.  It matters more when I’m getting pulled under.  Theoretical faith is theoretical.  Faith counts more when I’m surviving by it than when I’m comfortable and don’t feel I particularly need it–but am certain I’d lean on it if I did.  “I would trust God if I were hungry” rings very differently than “I am hungry and I trust God.”  Likewise, “I know God would help me if I were depressed” means a lot less than “I’m depressed, God; help me.”

One of the few things that really jolts me out of the depression cycle is playing sports.  This will sound like a non-sequitur, but bear with me:   I was feeling myself sinking down, then went to play basketball and came back in a completely different place emotionally and was able to start writing this piece.  When I mentor young adults who face depression, I urge them to find “that thing,” the one that reliably helps them feel sane again.  It might be playing drums or reading a great novel or dancing or taking the dog for a hike.  “Cheap therapy,” we call this.  I believe God wires us to love certain things and getting to do them restores us.  If you feel too depressed to do “that thing,” it’s probably twice as important that you do.  

For me, playing ultimate or basketball doesn’t cure depression, but it 1)Gives me a break from feeling it or spinning in my brain while I’m running hard, 2)Helps me stay on top of the ball, including boosting me back up when I’m starting to slip.  I consider this both a gift God has given me and a good choice I can make.  

If you’re struggling with depression, or know someone who is, I truly, earnestly hope this helps.  It’s no magical cure–nothing that I’ve found is–but it’s how I look at the big picture.  It’s how I stay in balance.  I need to do what I need to do every day, sometimes every hour.  I use my cheap therapy when I can.  I trust God to be with me and help me, especially when I can’t find the strength or hope to do what I need to do.  I can make all the right choices and sometimes it isn’t enough yet God is here, with me, not waving a magic wand but never abandoning me.  

Write me if you want to talk.  

 

*Someone will ask, “Well, Mike, why don’t you choose a less exhausting mental image.”  Uh-huh.  The mental image comes from how the reality of living with this my whole life feels.  Being a writer, I just think of things in mental images and analogies.  Thinking of it as sitting at the beach with my toes in the sand wouldn’t change my internal reality, it would only add to my internal dissonance.  I know this is a footnote, but I’m going to say something serious here: telling yourself what you “should” do or be when you’re depressed doesn’t cure depression, it adds to it.  In my experience, anyway, trying to shout or shame or scold myself out of feeling what I feel or not being as functional as the much-higher-functioning person to whom I compare myself, you know what that does?  Right. Depresses the hell out of me.  So I try not to do that anymore.  

**Yes, I’m using several images here.  To be clear: what I can do to stay healthily functioning and out of depression I describe as keeping on top of the ball.  When I fall off the ball, that means I’ve stopped or faltered in what I can do to help myself.  I describe the depression itself with various images, falling, having the bottom drop out, etc.  I use different images because, while these are connected and have much interplay, sometimes the depression hits regardless of what I’ve done or have not done.  

***I’ve been a Jesus follower long enough to know exactly what holding onto my sin and refusing to repent feels like.