On the Fragility of Life

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I’ve never forgotten a moment at my father’s visiting hours. I’m standing in front of Dad‘s casket, greeting people and shaking hands, receiving condolences and pleasantries from people, some of whom couldn’t stand my father. It’s a small town; I know. But one of his actual friends shook my hand and said, “You know, I don’t know the last time I saw your dad.” He didn’t sound regretful, just matter of fact, like he was sharing the weather forecast. And I wanted to throttle him. Much more than the polite people who weren’t all that sad to see Dad go, I felt anger at this man, because, frankly, What the Hell?

Yes, I know. That doesn’t mix well with “God has grace for us.” I never said I was Jesus…and I got over playing God in my early twenties. I’m not still angry at that man. But I remember it because he described a choice that could not be undone. In my eyes, he described a severe failure at being a friend and didn’t seem in the least concerned about it.*

In retrospect, this is what I think was going on for me: I felt grief and conflicted regret for having been an imperfect son, for having failed my dad in some ways and not loved him as I wish I could have. But that guy? “Huh. Guess I haven’t seen him in forever, and now he’s gone.” Shrug. I wanted him to feel remorse, as a real friend who didn’t bother to visit his dying friend–my father–in who-knows-how-long?

I hate cliches. I really hate them. When I read a book and the author indulges in cliches, either directly or thematically, I want to vomit. Often, I will put the book down and never pick it up again.

Life is fragile. It’s short and precious and we don’t value it enough until we lose it or face losing it.

Those have become cliches. They’re true. They’re also so commonly heard that they ring like the alarm we’ve heard so often we now tune it out. An alarm that we can ignore is, clearly, useless. If you now need to vomit or set down my blog and never pick it up again, I’ll understand (I mean, I’ll be sad and hurt, but I’ll understand).

Tuesday, I learned a young man, the son of someone beloved to me, died. He was sixteen.

My chest hurts. I took a walk at 11:30 PM in a heavy snow to pray and breathe. I don’t understand. I don’t know if understanding would help, but I want to understand, maybe just to find another way to hold this.

I want to carry some of the pain for my friend. I prayed to be able to do that. I don’t know if that works. When Isaac died, I thought the pain would kill me. Some moments, I hoped it would. I don’t know if some people carried some of my pain for me, but I suspect they did. I suspect that the grief would have been unbearable for me and God allowed others to endure some portion of it for me. I can’t prove this, obviously. I can give you Scripture that hints at this, maybe–“Bear one another’s burdens”–but I’m talking about something in the spiritual realm, something supernatural. Yes, we’re going to share meals with them. That’s measurable and necessary. As I told Kim last night, “When Isaac died, receiving meals didn’t fix anything, but we did eat them.” But I was asking God for more than “Let my friend know that I feel bad, too.”

I’m not a great candidate to carry pain for others in the way I’m describing. I run at near max capacity, pretty much always, whether because I take on too much or don’t have that large of a tank in the first place. Maybe both.

When I asked God that last night, I didn’t do so flippantly or casually. It felt like a moment of “counting the cost,” evaluating what I was getting into before I committed. Maybe, maybe it was even God nudging me to be careful–or certain–what I asked for. Again, I’m describing things I believe, not things I can prove.

Time moves in one direction. I can’t even go back to five minutes ago and rethink the text message I sent. I think one of the scariest parts of being human is not being able to undo anything. No Control Z. Can I “make up” for things I’ve done or failed to do? Maybe. I can repent. I can turn around and go in the opposite direction. I can resolve today to love someone I have neglected or hated. I can’t un-hate or un-neglect them yesterday. “No man [sic] ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” –Heraclitus

I do believe in grace. I think grace is the only thing that makes Reality, capital “R,” bearable. If there were no forgiveness and no hope of redemption for our sins, our mistakes, our fuck ups, I don’t see how I could face yesterday, much less tomorrow.

Jesus’ love for us is Grace, always. I believe in a love that doesn’t keep score, doesn’t need to be earned, and cannot be earned. I believe that if I screw up or volitionally sin and hurt you today, God can forgive me and bring healing and redemption in your life for what I’ve done. You might not forgive me. But I can still hope–have faith–that God will do good, even out of the evil I have done.* That’s one form of redemption.

We aren’t perfect. In fact, we’re wildly imperfect, generous and kind one moment, selfish and defensive the next. We can’t fix how inconsistent we’ve been but we can drive ourselves mad in the present, replaying what we’ve done wrong. Life is hard and sometimes unbearable. These are the only conditions in which we get to love people. We don’t get to wait until we’re perfect or even better at it; we don’t get to wait until life stops being so damned difficult, because if we do, we’ll miss it altogether.

My friend Tom–#SeipelStrong!–is dying, on hospice and in horrible, literally breath-taking pain. He lives far away, so I’m watching him die on updates he posts. I got to become a Cleveland Browns fan with him for a few weeks to show solidarity, to love my friend in a silly yet real way. I’m praying for his healing, but also praying for his peace. Another friend, Kari, describes her cancer as “riding a rollercoaster–and not the fun kind.” She’s one of my heroes in this life, not because she’s flawless but because she’s hilarious and profane and wise and she keeps taking in kids and making them part of her family. I don’t want her to die, but she might. Today, I’m praying for my beloved friend of so many years whose son is suddenly gone. I don’t know how he recovers from his child’s death.

All three of these are incredible people, some of the best people I know–and I know a lot of people. I can’t fix this for any of them. I can tell them I love them–I LOVE you three, so much!–and pray and suffer with them, which feels so insignificant next to what they are suffering.

Death only sounds like a cliche when it isn’t happening to someone you love. Love somebody today. With attention. With time. Make a choice. You have today. You don’t have yesterday–I don’t get another chance to love my dad better. You can’t be perfect, but you can be present. You may carry a little of their pain. That may be all you can do.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2)

*Remember, I was grieving my father’s unexpected death, so it’s entirely possible I was not reading this man’s emotions accurately. Stranger things have happened.

How Do We Go Forward, Part 2: The Hard News

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“‘We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.’ –James Baldwin. I’ll need to address this in the next post. Even if it’s not my oppression, disagreement over oppressing people cannot end with an Elmo shrug.”

That’s where I left us in Part 1 and then decided I needed to take Advent to recharge. Welcome to January.

Okay, let’s wade in.

Oversimplifying harms us. We are not simple beings. We almost never have simple or pure motives. We’re complex and conflicted and we constantly wage internal battles over what we should do, what we will do, and what is right to do.

People who don’t think they are conflicted and inconsistent worry me most, because it likely indicates they live in deep denial and self-deception. Or, equally concerning, they live with little or no self-awareness or self-reflection. They act and react, unconsidered, and rarely or never stop to ask “why?” or whether they should.

But truthfully, hard as it is for me to accept, I can’t do much for or about them. To be clear, I’m not writing them off. I can love them. I pray for them. But those who live with absolute certainty–or zero self-awareness–will likely never be persuaded by self-doubt-y, self-deprecating, loudly conflicted me.*

Meanwhile, I’m waging this battle against oversimplification. I write blog posts instead of FB posts and, when possible, books instead of blog posts. I try hard to resist posting memes because they merely reinforce our self-righteous anger and rightness, rather than substantiate our positions or explore our assumptions and inconsistencies.

“Mike, who wants to explore our inconsistencies when we can totally own the other side?”

Well, see, I do. I don’t even love that we have to be on sides, much less crave getting to “own” theirs. “Owning their side” tends to run a little counter to showing the love and grace of Jesus. I’m just as frustrated as everyone else, trust me. I’m not immune to the vitriol, I’m simply trying to walk with Jesus and choose to not let it own me.

The incessant, utter certainty of this national leader has driven me mad the past four years. That “confidence” may reassure some, but it drives me insane.

“Really?” I want to ask, “you never doubt yourself? You never question if you’re right? You always know with absolute certainty and you’re the best at everything?” This goes deeper than a distaste for boastfulness. Someone who can’t see when they’re wrong…do I need to explain why that’s dangerous?

I wrote a book of reflections. Reflection 11 is “Kindness is More” which tells us not to argue…then Reflection 12 is “The Argument for Arguing.” You know why? Because I was wrong. No, more accurately, I had not considered the question comprehensively enough and there was more to say “on the other hand.” Friends dialoguing with me helped me to figure that out by asking, “Well, what about…?” And they had good points! I’m grateful for being challenged and educated. It’s a better book because I was questioned–and could then question myself. Thank God.

You already know how I view the almost-former President. I make no apologies for that as I have, fairly exhaustively, provided my reasoning, rooted in my obedience to Jesus, my beliefs, and my values, and I keep praying for him. But now, now we’re at a new intersection, a next stage in how we relate to one another. Yes, I am intensely relieved that we have elected a new President and Vice-President. I’m cautiously hopeful. Here things get complex again. Biden was not my choice for President. He was between 12th and 17th for me. I am crying over the pictures of little girls of color who say, “Look, Mommy, our Vice-President looks like you!” or “Mommy, Kamala Harris looks like me!” But I neither claim nor imagine that these two are our ideal leaders. As Derek Webb sang, “We’ll never have a Savior on Capitol Hill.” They are flawed human beings–though neither a full-blown narcissist, thank God–who will make many decisions counter to what I believe and support. And yes, I will speak up. Count on it.

The real issue I’m addressing here, though, is how we go forward together. I’m serious when I say I hope and pray to be a peacemaker. But I’m talking about real peace, shalom, which describes reconciliation both between us and God and with one another; shalom seeks justice as the path to peace. Shalom is not a superficial pretense at getting along. It would be an empty and hollow peace, a false peace, to say, “Well, we disagreed but we’re going to pretend that never happened and just go forward from here.” At the same time, “I told you so!” and “See how you like it, you expletive!” won’t take us forward and certainly won’t move us toward reconciliation.

I don’t have answers here, but I have thoughts. As usual.

I don’t have any derangement syndrome. I’ve never cared that the superficial or personal specifics of the man don’t suit me. I care and have always cared that twenty-six different women have accused him of sexual assault. I cannot imagine any (legal) job in the world I could hold from which I would not be fired, were I accused of sexual assault by twenty-six different people. And rightfully so. Can you? I’ve never understood this “we’re all sinners” defense. Yes, we are all sinners, and I am not a serial sexual assaulter. Neither are you. No, it was not proven in court, because he used his money to bully his accusers and fend them off so not a single one has been able to take him to trial…so far. Statistically speaking, when you consider that 1)between one and three percent of sexual assault accusations are false and 2)the small percentage who do accuse versus how many are victims of assault, and 3)how few accusers see their assailants even go to trial, much less receive convictions, what is the likelihood that twenty-six women accused him falsely? Then add the evidence that he boasts of sexual assault, defends himself by saying a woman is not attractive enough for him to have assaulted (you get the implication here, right?), and lies. If you have chosen to believe him over all his accusers, then you have chosen. Period.

Why do I bring this up now, of all times? I’m not trying to convince you and I’m certainly not trying to win an argument about it now.** I tried that before he won in 2016. I’m saying these issues are too serious to be dismissed lightly, and that is one of how many? I trust you understand how this relates to Baldwin’s quote. When we talk about going forward, we must first acknowledge this: if you have survived sexual assault and someone tells you “Oh, I don’t really believe his accusers and that isn’t a big issue to me,” how are you going to “agree to disagree?” I want to see peace and reconciliation; I don’t think it will come easily or quickly.

“With malice toward none and charity toward all,” Abraham Lincoln said in one of our country’s most famous orations.

Do you see how complicated it is? I hope so. I don’t want to carry malice toward those with whom I disagree; I want to show charity toward all with whom I disagree. I was called a “snowflake,” I’m not sure how many times. I don’t desire to come up with a comparable name-grenade to lob at those who continue to insist–still, at this moment, after a violent insurrection!–that the election was not legitimate. I’m not saying, “I refuse to be kind because they were unkind to me.” I’m resisting the real temptation of living by the anti-Golden Rule: “Do unto others as they’ve done unto you.”

AndAnd.

We disagree on some fundamental, foundational things. These aren’t misunderstandings or mere differences of opinion. They aren’t minor policy debates. Downplaying them for the sake of unity is not unity. We’re not disagreeing on our favorite color of car. It’s a classic abuser move to attack and attack and then, when he (typically) decides he’s had enough, demand that you be nice and not hold a grudge or else you are unforgiving. Ask any victim of abuse who has survived and escaped. They all know that pattern, too well.

Forgiveness takes time and healing and reconciliation requires those plus rebuilding of trust. But we’re not even close to that yet, because as far as I can hear–and believe me, I’m listening very carefully–virtually no one is apologizing to anyone. We’re not reconciling; we’re at an impasse with tensions still rising. Except we’re not at an impasse, as a country; we are going forward because Joe Biden and Kamala Harris legally won the election and that is how democracy works in our country. People screaming and yelling that they (and thus we) cheated—without any substantial evidence to prove these accusations, with court after court dismissing or ruling against these claims—may choose that route. I can’t stop them. But you can see that this will not lead us toward reconciliation.

If you believe in your heart that our entire electoral system is shot through with corruption, that conservative and liberal judges and thousands of election officials nationwide are in on the scam, that all these claims of cheating are accurate, and this is the evidence of our democracy crumbling, I can’t blame you for trying to stand up against this perceived injustice. But, to be blunt, I do blame you for ignoring the plain, overwhelming evidence before you and choosing instead to believe rumors, conspiracy theories, and lies.***

I believe this is democracy functioning. I believe the about-to-be-former President did nearly everything he could to break down our checks and balances and circumvent the designed restraints on his power. He believed–if we take him at his word–that the constitution had a clause that said he could do “whatever he wants.”****

I desire to reconcile. I’m not citing these things for any petty, I-told-you-so purposes. I’m saying our problems are bigger than a good whisk broom and a stout rug can handle. My point is, if you read these and feel your hands balling into fists, for whichever “side,” you know we have a long way to go.

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Baldwin’s quote pushes hard against the latent, implicit racism that we’ve crashed into these past four years. Or twelve. Or all the years of our lives. Or all the years our country has existed. We’re looking at systemic racism, especially that which is built into our culture and our legal establishment, and which is so much easier to ignore than confront. Well, easier for some of us. 

I have to make two things clear now: First, my personal right to exist is not denied. Somehow, through the creeping of the years, all the diaper changes and sleepless nights, the major decisions and thrown-together meals, I’ve arrived at middle-aged white guy. Hadn’t really planned that, but then again, didn’t really have a good alternative. I’m currently reading Ta-Nahesi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. In addition to the typical “I’m totally inspired to write/I’m not good enough to write” response that a great book always sets off, I’m thunderously smacked that he and I share one country but experience it as two different worlds. No, this isn’t my first moment of becoming aware that a Black man experiences the United States. differently than I do…which impresses me about his book. I knew this and I still didn’t get what he’s telling me. Now I get it a little more. A great book should do that, too.

Thus, first point: I’m trying to understand how other people’s humanity and right to exist are being denied, how others, who live in different skin than I do, are experiencing oppression right now. Therefore, I don’t get to decide unilaterally whether “we can disagree and still love each other.” Do you see? In fact, making those unilateral decisions might be the besetting sin for the liberal white male “ally.” This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. railed against, those who claimed to “be on his side” but opposed his efforts to pursue change. I have my own pride issues, but I hope to learn from others’ arrogant mistakes. 

Second point, and closely related to the first: If you’re not the one directly experiencing these things, you also don’t get to decide that it isn’t happening. 

If I supported the same President that the KKK endorsed, sure, I could say that what I like about him is different than what they like. I can argue that these circles do not overlap. But it’s a bridge much farther to argue that their circle either is irrelevant—“I don’t care if overt racists support this man because what he stands for is more important to me than anything they might like about him”–or inaccurate, “I know who he really is and they don’t know as much about racism as I do, so I know they are mistaken in their support of him.” I tend to think of self-acknowledged racists as experts on practicing racism. 

This has been shortened to “voting for him does not automatically make you racist but it does mean you saw the racism and decided that was not a deal-breaker for you.” Back to oversimplification, there are different reasons why it might not be a deal breaker, e.g. “the racists don’t know what they’re talking about” or “his appointing judges outweighs whatever racism might be there.” But for someone on the receiving end of this racism, those distinctions don’t count for much. For people who report a severe increase in racist incidents over the past four years, supporting this administration does equal denial of their humanity. 

I know many will say I’m just ripping scabs off when the wound is healing. But deciding the injury is healthy and represents a cleansed wound and not a festering sore is precisely the evaluation people who aren’t oppressed love to make—but shouldn’t. 

In “How Do We Go Forward,” I suggested extending grace and seeking reconciliation, rather than waiting for apologies and repentance that likely aren’t coming. I affirmed that God loves our enemies as much as God loves us. I still believe those things are right for Jesus followers, for all peacemakers. Absolutely. 

And. And.

We need common ground to go forward. I can forgive you even if you never repent. I can’t reconcile with you unless we can come to some fundamental agreements. If you punch me in the mouth, then ask forgiveness, I will do my best to forgive you. I might want to understand better why you made that choice. I might want some reassurance, in action and not mere words, that you won’t be making that choice again in the future. I don’t need you to be able to justify it in order to forgive you nor to reconcile with you–I can accept you made a poor choice, because I make them all the time–but I do need to know you recognize it as a wrongdoing to my mouth. 

If, however, I punch you in the mouth and then insist that you deserved it, we will have a harder time reconciling. You might conclude that you did have it coming. Possible. Otherwise, if I am adamant that I didn’t make a mistake, a judgment error, or an overreaction, then we may be stuck. 

But I think we’re facing a different situation: I feel punched in the mouth and you express you have no idea what I’m talking about. Not only did you not punch me in the mouth, you didn’t do anything wrong at all. You were trying to make things better. I’m the one who caused problems. You just did what everyone does, business as usual, and my overreaction is my problem. Nothing I do can make you see the blood drooling down my chin. When I hold up the bloody tissue, you point out that lots of people bleed for lots of reasons. 

That’s the level of our disagreement. No, I don’t think it was just another election, nor politics as usual, and not “we’re all entitled to our opinion.” Not when your opinion—and thus our disagreement–is rooted in other people’s oppression.

“As far as trump-inclined people go, I take their allegiance to trump as an attack on people that I care about and on vulnerable people in general, a failure to meet a standard of basic decency, and a betrayal of basic civic/social responsibilities. I’ve seen people struggle with the idea that someone they know is really ‘a nice person’ and worthy of a personal investment if that person treats them in a friendly way, even if that person has ugly political/social positions otherwise. I can’t say I’ve never been in a place to work through that question, but I don’t struggle with it anymore. If someone is coming after your kid, I’m not going to be standing there saying, ‘Well, I know, but he’s always been nice to me.’ Huh-uh.” This is a quote from a friend during a discussion of how we do or don’t continue in relationships when we have such fundamental differences.

I know. I know conservatives can frame this in the diametric opposite. If followers of both political parties believe that the other party is the enemy, the greatest danger to our country, we’re sunk. We can’t reconcile. But we don’t have an equal, you-can-see-this-either-way situation and I’m not going to pretend we do for the sake of (false) peace. I don’t think that’s where peace through reconciliation lies for us. We must address that some of these opinions are rooted in other people’s oppression and the denial of their humanity.

I don’t know where we can find peace together in our current state. As a peacemaker, that is an extremely painful admission to make. Of course I believe that we find shalom in Jesus. But that epitomizes our conflict: from the first moment I tried to speak up against this administration, this movement, I did so based on Jesus’ words. Yet both sides claim absolute loyalty to Jesus in their position and claim they can defend their position to oppose or support President Trump based on Jesus’ teaching and life.*****

I want to believe in reconciliation as well as forgiveness. I want to see healing and coming back together. I want to experience shalom with my enemies. I don’t know how this happens from where we are now. 

I know hearts and minds must change. I pray for this. I’m sure there are ways in which I’m wrong and hard-hearted and I need God to change me. I pray for this. Feel free to pray for me, too. 

But I’m not going to tell you that we’re fine and we just need to forgive and forget. Of course we need to forgive. But telling the oppressed that they must forgive when we ourselves are not oppressed is ugly pastoring and, when joined with denying or minimizing their oppression, is both ugly and sinful. 

If you’ve made it this far in what I suspect is my longest blog post, I’m grateful. I do have hope that God can work in our situation. I’m not trying to pour gasoline on our fire. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned about “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Demanding “we have to stop disagreeing and get along now because of grace” is not the grace of Jesus Christ. Grace is that God loves me and will forgive me for anything when I ask for forgiveness. Grace is not “I didn’t do anything wrong but forgive me now and stop saying I did.” Grace is free–I don’t have to earn or deserve it–and unlimited. Grace is greater. But grace is not, and never will be, “I’m not a sinner but just shut up and give me grace, anyway.” I am a sinner, and what I’ve done requires not just confession but repentance. Actual change. God has saved me from my self-destruction. That’s what I preach. By that amazing grace, God has saved a wretch not just like me, but me.

So this is the hard news of Part 2: we need to go forward, but I believe the road will be difficult and require much more of us than “let’s just set aside our differences.” I hope in Part 3 to share stories and suggestions on how we take these steps toward reconciliation. If you have personal experience or wisdom from this road, by all means, share it!

*Small example: Having people explain to me why my book is wrong–the whole book, apparently–because they disagree with the title. Or the cover art. I spent months on a book, they glance at the title and then commence. It’s the strangest thing, but I’d almost swear there’s a saying related to this…

**Not because it doesn’t matter enough to try to persuade, but because those who believe his accusers and those who disbelieve them are fully committed in these positions. Here we are.

***Yes, I know, there are youtube videos that “prove” widespread voter fraud. Grasp this: the people in power who want to prove voter fraud have ample resources, including access to these shocking videos and the testimony of those who made them. They have attempted to prove these in court, including before judges appointed by this administration. They have utterly failed.

****Yes, he said exactly that. “Then I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” If you begin with the assumption that he believes he was supposed to be able to do whatever he wanted, no wonder he got frustrated whenever he experienced opposition…or anything other than absolute compliance.

*****Incidentally (but not coincidentally), that’s when I start feeling like I’m taking crazy pills. 

Choosing Love Right Now

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[A gift I received from an 8-year-old, my highlight from this difficult week]

I just read the following in a post I wrote from what feels like twenty years ago, but was actually August 27, 2018, shortly after we’d moved back from Nicaragua:

Finally, I’m scared about what’s going on in this country. Do people hate one another more than they ever have before or is it just louder? How do I respond faithfully to what I see in love, as a Jesus follower, not returning hate for hate, but with courage and boldness and grace? I’m seeking community because I know I can’t do this on my own.

I have only a few things to say today and I’ll keep them brief.

First, if you claim to follow Jesus and you have abandoned love, you have also turned away from Jesus. Jesus still loves you, but you’re not walking in the way he leads. Fear-mongering is not love. Repeating falsehoods and lies is not love. Demonizing the opposition is not love. These are all means that those who seek power and control have adopted throughout history; they have appeared in the church all too often. But they are not Jesus’ way.

Second, I would ask you to pray. Not “Lord of Hosts, smite my enemy!” prayers, but “God, heal us. Open my eyes. Show me how I can help.” I still believe that God is bigger than what divides us. Do you?

Third, both sides aren’t right, or equally valid in their positions. The election wasn’t stolen; we, the United States, held an election and legally elected a new President. You might hate that. But it wasn’t stolen or fraudulent or rigged. Those attempting to prove fraud lost sixty-two out of sixty-three court cases. They have no substantive evidence. Many claimed to have “evidence” but, when required to speak under oath, with legal consequences if they lied, they did not, in fact, have evidence. Instead, they keep making false claims to sow doubt about the election, but not claims they can prove in a court of law. Republican-appointed judges, including some recently appointmented by this administration and including the Supreme Court, presided over many of these cases. It wasn’t a massive, nation-wide conspiracy. “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.” That’s from a JOINT STATEMENT FROM ELECTIONS INFRASTRUCTURE GOVERNMENT COORDINATING COUNCIL & THE ELECTION INFRASTRUCTURE SECTOR COORDINATING EXECUTIVE COMMITTEES.* I know many hate this and can disbelieve all of this. But that’s conspiracy theory.

Finally, whichever side of point three you fall, it has never been more important that we seek to love one another. I have no magic plan for bringing instant peace, but I have these suggestions:
Make your real relationships with real people in your life more important than your social media interactions with them. That may mean unfollowing, unfriending, or even blocking certain people–I mean real friends whom you value and hope to keep as friends. As another wise friend pointed out, our friendships may recover if we stop injuring each other.

Stop raising your voice to people with whom you disagree. I don’t mean stop speaking the truth or stop standing up for the persecuted and oppressed. There is an argument for arguing. I mean, stop seeking out people with whom you can argue. If you catch yourself “accidentally” falling into an argument (we all know how to rationalize), take a breath and walk away. Say what you need to say to keep your integrity and leave it there. I’ve read all of Jesus’ words and I promise you he never commands us to get the last word. If you’re that angry or frustrated, jump back to step two. Pray for them. It will do more, for both of you.

This is such a crucial time for community. We need mutual support and encouragement and a safe place to scream in frustration. If we are to be peacemakers–Lord, hear our prayer–we need one another’s strength and hope to pool together. We also need people of the truth who will keep calling us back to the light when all we can see is darkness. If you find yourself surrounded by people who reinforce hatred and fear instead of love and hope, I urge you to get out. Talk to me. I know some people…

http://www.lunarbaboon.com

I don’t know how we reconcile from here. I really don’t. I’ve started four different posts and am still trying to wrap my head around it. I’m not hopeless, but I am stymied. Yes, we offer grace, but reconciliation requires truth and reaching a common understanding. I’m going to write more in this coming week on our many challenges to reconciliation.

All I know for sure is that this will be a long journey…and God is faithful.

*Could that sound any more like a government statement?

Change Is Coming

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We’re coming up on New Year’s. I’m sure I have a New yYear’s post in me, as I always give weight to endings and beginnings and even resolutions. I know many will take glee in dissecting just how bad 2020 was. I’ll leave that to them.

I’m thinking about change. I was struck recently that my life ten years ago–which is now right at the edge of when we were preparing to depart for Nicaragua–is so wildly different than it is today. We lived in the mountains, we led short-term mission trips to Nicaragua, and my desire in life was…an excavator.

Seriously. I would look at used excavators for sale. They would catch my eye when we were out, especially if one had a “for sale” sign. I wanted a big piece of heavy machinery more than almost anything in the world. Well, not more than ending world hunger or for everyone to have access to safe drinking water, but more than any other physical, obtainable object. I should clarify that the wish for an excavator was an ongoing desire throughout our time in the mountains because we bought a property that was, in various ways, still rustic and needed…excavating. Several times.

We never got an excavator–they aren’t cheap nor even moderately-priced–but God did provide them, at the right times, with incredibly generous friends and family members to help operate them. Oh, yeah. I don’t know how. I operated a very small Kubota a couple times, with another friend’s patient instruction. I’m not a natural. But this was a time in my life where we had to learn new things all the time just to live where we lived. We went from having a property that had power from a propane generator and a (not quite) composting toilet to having city power and a flush toilet. You can’t imagine our celebration over that latter. But these didn’t just happen, they involved a six-foot, 1/2 mile trench in our 1/2 mile driveway, and digging a septic field roughly the size of a football field.

Yep. Excavators.

My point here is not merely to reminisce over my mountain man days. I loved them and they were incredibly difficult…though very differently difficult than the challenges of adapting to a new culture in Nicaragua. When we moved back from Nicaragua in 2018, Kim was adamant that it was time to sell the property. She was right. Reverse culture shock, especially in that time period, made life rough enough without trying to live on that property again, which was, in itself, more than a full-time job. But I loved living in the mountains, being able to walk out the door, turn right, and instantly be hiking. I loved hearing the creek every day instead of cars engines. I know most people think I’m hyper-extroverted, but I loved the solitude. And yes, it’s easy to wax nostalgic and keep my rosy-hued glasses on, when in reality some things about living up there were anything but rosy.

No, my point here is change. My point is that living in the mountains and desiring an excavator with all my heart was my reality…until it wasn’t. When we lived there, I slowly acquired every layer and version of warm clothing I could. Then we moved to Nicaragua. The snow gaiters didn’t seem so relevant. We left the balaclavas behind. Over our time there, I slowly acquired…wicking shirts. Because all we did was sweat. Not literally, we did some other stuff while sweating, but no matter what else we were doing, we were also sweating.

The people in my life ten years ago are not all the same people in my life now. I have a hard time fathoming that I had never met most of our Nicaraguan friends ten years ago. The people we shared life with there were not real to us yet when I prayed by a creek in the mountains and dreamed of excavating.

I think this hits home so hard because 2020 has felt so long, it’s own chapter in life, not just “another year,” and that makes our mountain days seem like several chapters back. Like when Paxton is watching Guin comfort Emily and remembering before Jeff had even met Emily.* I’ve somehow managed, by God’s grace and the strange and ridiculous gifts that God’s given me, to make new, real friends in 2020. Unless they’re reading this blog, they don’t even know I had a mountain man phase…even though that was my entire, consuming reality during those years.

There are constants, of course. Kim and I have been in love for thirty-two years, married for twenty-seven. I’m sticking with her through this crazy chapter and the next, whatever that might be. Rowan went through these chapters with us–mountains, Nicaragua–until it was time for him to go write some of his own, separate from us. He’s an EMT(!) now, with his own place, writing and living his own chapters. As all of you with adult children know, they are both the constant and the change. Foremost, God remains constant in my ridiculous life, bestowing this grace on me even as my understanding of whom God is continues to change and grow.

So I offer you this as we count down these final days of a year many of us have expressed an eager desire to put in the rearview mirror. I don’t like wishing time away. That mindset runs counter to living mindfully and trying to be present in our own lives.

Change is coming. I know it’s coming because it always comes. I can only speak of my life because I don’t know how quickly or slowly yours changes. I don’t dream of excavators anymore. I didn’t ask for one for Christmas. We don’t need one for our cul-de-sac life. I have to go further to hike but no longer worry that our car will slide off our driveway and get stuck in a snowbank. Now I need both cold and warm weather clothes. I miss Nicaragua, but we’re not moving back there any time soon, if ever.

In other words, change has come and more is coming. I’m a person who can easily feel stuck, who finds certain molehills very mountain-like and can quickly despair that I could ever get over that.

Except I have gotten over many challenges that were much greater. I haven’t always liked the changes I’ve experienced, but I’m still here experiencing them, and that says a lot.

I think we can kick against change or embrace it; either way, it will still come. Thanos may or may not be inevitable, but change is inexorable.** Therefore, I think our best response to change coming is

1)Accept that it will come,

2)appreciate what we love while we still can, and

3)breathe…and don’t let today’s challenge take you under, because we are getting through this, by God’s grace.

For many of us, the impossible challenge of today will be the excavator dream of tomorrow, i.e. this “impossibility” will feel so long past we’ll chuckle that it mattered so much, and we’ll be able to recount God’s faithfulness for what we did need.

I know that’s not true about everything we face. But in a year in which we’ve seen so much death–I have a friend’s ashes stored in my office and I’m waiting for warmer weather–it’s good sometimes to stop and remember that the only things that are truly “life and death”…are life and death.

*What, that comparison didn’t work for you? I have a novel I could recommend.

**Personally, I think Thanos meant “inexorable,” and perhaps he would’ve won if only he’d gotten his diction more precise. That might have swung the tide in his favor. So I’m glad he didn’t.

Christmas Eve, 2020 (a bit late)

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This is my third run at writing this post. You’ll notice it’s not Christmas Eve now. It’s Boxing Day night.

I want to offer a word of hope. It’s been a hard year to stay hopeful.

We all prefer when things come easily, but hope becomes more important in direct correlation to how hard hope comes for us. When we call it “hope” but we’re pretty sure everything will go our way, that hope doesn’t need reinforcing. That hope doesn’t save our lives. It likely isn’t the biblical concept of hope, either.

I feel like I’ve lost hope in many things this year. Worse, I’ve lost hope in many people. I’m praying God will change these things in my heart–God is big and pretty good at that stuff, so I have not despaired nor counted these as irretrievable losses.

But for now I am here and I’d be lying to you if I told you that I’m starting this coming year as hopeful, personally, as I started last year.*

Yet good things have happened in my 2020. Against the odds, I have made new friends. A few of them I have seen face to face while many more I have yet to meet in person. But the connections are real and for this I am grateful.

In contrast, I will tell you honestly I want to give up on some people and I’m holding out hope for them solely because God commands me to. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Yet I myself have been loved by people who refuse to stop hoping for me. Friends who would not quit on me or stop praying when I said “don’t bother.” Not many, but a few. Enough.

I’m not going to get emotional here (okay, maybe I will; you’re not going to know unless I tell you) but those few people who help me to hope, who carry some of the hope for me when I can’t, who keep me remembering that the world, as expletived up as it is, makes even less sense without me, I have never appreciated those people more than I do right now. I tell them that, freely and frequently. If 2020 has taken a horrible toll on my hope, it has also severely reduced my taking many things–and especially people–for granted.

When life goes smoothly, we don’t have to hope very hard and we can take most of what we have for granted, without pause or second thought. When we’re forced to think about how precious, fleeting, and uncertain our lives are, we take that long, hard look at who–and what–sustains us and gives us reason to stay alive.

God is faithful. I know that intellectually but often it doesn’t feel true. I want things to go better and I want to measure God’s faithfulness based on God’s making certain that I get reasonably close to my preferred outcomes. But then I have to stop and ask, “Do I have what I need?”

Not ‘Is life as I expect or going the way I have worked to make it go?’

but

“Has God provided as promised and is God still with me?”

When I take things for granted, I get really pissy, especially when I don’t get them. Even when I have much of what I want, I can still get grumpy over small things. I get irritable with God for not providing my preferences. I momentarily forget that what I need and what I want aren’t concentric circles.

I want people to behave differently. I want people to stop being such jerks.** I don’t get to demand that nor act wronged and offended when I don’t get it. Instead, I’m reminded that these are people God loves, people God wants me to love with a love that hopes and endures. Loving them does mean saying “Wrong is right,” or “Jerkiness is cool,” but love hopes all things–including for people who strike me as willfully blind to have their eyes opened and see. The distance between feeling righteously affronted that people won’t behave as I want and holding out hope for their transformation is, literally, the distance between thinking it’s all about me and being focused on another.

God, lead me to pray for people in hope. Give me hope for them, even in my prayers. Forgive me for having taken so much for granted. Thank you for those who have persevered in their love and hope for me. Thank you for friends.

*I’m differentiating between my hopefulness that I have as an individual for people and relationships and my perspective on our broader national situation and politics. That’s a different post.

**I am doing my best to be diplomatic here.

Joy to My (temporarily constricted) World

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Sunsets. I really love sunsets. And when the sunlight hits the snow on the mountains, just as the sun is going down, so that one patch is highlighted when the rest of my world has already surrendered its daylight for the day.

When my son asks for a Christmas present, a strategy game that takes two hours to play,* and I’m the only one he plays these games with.

“That’s a long game, Buddy,” I tell him.

“That’s fine. We’ll play it a lot,” he says.

Two hours hanging with my son, no electronics? I’ll take that gamble.

Kim tells me about a student she has who is really behind, struggling to read, and we’re discussing what’s possible, the interventions that have already been tried, how he could still graduate and do well. Kim’s heart is heavy because this child is now at high risk. She’s been teaching for how many years and she still cares about all these kids and wants them to thrive.

I get this message: “Hey, I don’t know you, but my friend X told me you would be the one to talk to. We’ve just gone through [usually a child’s death] and have no one to talk to. Nobody understands.”

My son, who generally finds my writing and pastoring and counseling more of an annoyance than anything else, tells me “That’s pretty cool, that you’re the one they ask.”**

Dropping my daughter Aria off at my son Rowan’s house and seeing how long they hug.

Telling Annalise a joke and having her shout “Dad! That’s awful!” but she still keeps laughing. [Full disclosure: usually she doesn’t keep laughing and sometimes she doesn’t laugh at all.]

Having long phone conversations with friends while I’m out walking, enjoying reconnecting instead of feeling sorry for myself that I can’t spend time with friends in person.

Opening an envelope and gasping because a friend just sent me that baseball card!

Having Juan Ramon or Zeke or Alfredo check in and hearing that, in spite of everything, they’re doing okay. Praying for them and carrying them in my heart. Imagining the time when I get to visit them again.

Starting to get back into my yoga practice after letting it slide for far, far too long.

Watching the Mandalorian with most of my family and then debating a plot point, bringing in all relevant historical precedents. Reveling in our nerddom fandom.

Sending that envelope and knowing a friend will gasp when they open it because it’s that baseball card.

Pentatonix and Trans-Siberian Orchestra and John Denver with the Muppets and all the other Christmas music that has entered our canon.

Discovering new songs that enter the Christmas canon.

Hiking hard enough that I’m gasping for breath and remembering how good it feels to play ultimate. Hiking.

Reading friends’ reports that they or their loved ones have recovered from COVID-19 and seem to be doing well again. Being able to breathe for them again. Praising God for answered prayers.

Reconnecting with dear friends with whom I’ve fallen out of touch and realizing this is happening because things are shut down, so we’re taking the time.

Having my nieces, who live two houses away, come over to show me their artwork. Exclaiming at their art work because it actually is astounding.

Grasping how much I’ve taken for granted and, rather than feeling guilty, looking forward to enjoying those simple pleasures again.

Getting feedback that my books are helping someone. People who have read my books giving or recommending them to others.

Reading books that I can’t put down and wishing, when I finish them, that they were longer. Most recently: The Soul of Baseball: a Road Trip Through Buck O’Neill’s America.

Sitting down to read and having our “lap dog” (who isn’t) climbing up to enjoy my book with me.

Taking a minute to realize how much God has blessed me with amazing, loyal, real friends. Remembering what grace this is.

Soaking in Advent and counting down until Christmas.

*Terraforming Mars. Shhhh.

** Then he calls me a “fleeb” and goes back to his room.

Giving and Receiving

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People share with me. A lot.

People also share with me. A lot.

People show me incredible generosity (“share” definition one). More than I deserve. I am continuously blown away.

People open their lives to me and invite my input (“share” definition two). So much that I can only attribute it to God’s work in me. I am continuously blown away.

I’m thinking about this as we journey toward Christmas. It has been an excruciating or devastating year for many and a rougher-than-average year for many others, directly or vicariously. Advent is about God’s coming to be with us, God’s choice to come be with us.. Advent is about God being unwilling to stay away, to leave us to our self-destructive ways. Emmanuel: God with us.

If ever there were a year we need to be reminded God is with us, it might be this one. I mean that for the U.S. specifically.

Advent and Christmas are about giving and receiving.

God gives us the presence of Jesus, of God incarnate.

God also receives. Jesus is helpless and squally, no matter how many songs tell you this little Lord made no crying. Bull. God ALMIGHTY chose neediness and dependence, and had to receive food and water, breast milk and burping. This is Christianity, a belief about bodily incarnation and the blessedness of being human. A God who will receive.

At Christmas we give and we receive. Like Jesus. Like God.

We aren’t always good at this. Sometimes we’re not grateful recipients and sometimes we’re obstinate recipients.

Sometimes we worry more about how we look giving our gifts than how people feel loved by the gifts we give. Of course you have no idea what I’m talking about. Of course you’ve never given a make-up or equalizing gift. <Wink, wink.>

I love giving. Love it. My dad instilled this in me. He was generous. I could benefit from more fiscal common sense, but mostly I wish I had more to give.

Mostly, what I have to give is listening, empathy, compassion, and dearly-earned-from-screwing-up wisdom. Well, that and baseball cards.

I like receiving, too. I’m still a kid in so many ways, several of them even good. I get excited at surprises. I get that bouncy, fluttery feeling this time of year because who knows? In fifty-two years, I’ve learned to enjoy having my hopes up without getting disappointed. Most people probably land that balance in their twenties, but I’ll take this over indifference or callousness.

To say this clearly: giving and receiving are both godly attributes, both activities God chose to embrace.

This is one of those posts in which I thought I was going in one direction but realize–God opens my eyes?–where I need to go mid-stream.

I hope you enjoy Christmas this year. I pray you feel God drawing close to you through Advent. I’m certain God wants that for you.

Here are my encouragements:

°Give freely. As much as possible, check your giving for strings. Nothing ruins our joy in giving as much as expectations or conditions. We play so many games with ourselves and we’re so adept at self-deception. When I feel disappointed about something I’ve given, it almost always shows me that I wanted some unnamed return in the exchange. God gives us love because God is love and we need love. God loves people who really don’t deserve love–not naming names–and continues to give even when we don’t acknowledge the gifts. The joy in giving comes in the act itself. When I’m looking for payback, I miss that.

°Receive freely. I’ve often heard “it’s more blessed to give than receive” as a justification for not receiving.

No.

Context.

Paul states, in Acts 20 while (lengthily) saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” So Paul is exhorting giving to, and supporting, those in need–he’s reminding these leaders that he worked hard with his own hands and exhorting them to care for others’ needs.

But. It does not follow that if it more blessed to give than to receive it is therefore not blessed to receive, as well. If it did, than those receiving from this exact giving would not be blessed and the game would be to move from being the receiver to the giver as fast as at all possible.

Unfortunately, some seem to take it this way. I’ve shared this story before, but when we lived in Nicaragua, friends who, by our measure, had so little would give to us extravagantly, especially food. That was an incredibly humbling experience. But it would have been straight up wrong, maybe evil, to have refused. Certainly it would have been a horrible offense in Nicaraguan culture. I can’t enjoy the blessing of giving and then refuse to let others enjoy that blessing because I “know what they need.” That’s both prideful and unloving.

°Go out of your way to give to others who cannot repay you, anonymously when possible. I don’t know when Jesus said “It is more blessed to give than receive,” because we don’t the quote in the Gospels but only through Paul’s preaching in Acts 20. But I believe it, and in context, this is how I take it: we must help the weak and it is more blessed to give than receive. Okay. That guards our hearts against giving in order to get paid back, and doing so anonymously guards against getting paid back in “Look what I did!” pride points (by the way, the one who dies with the most of these at the end does not win).

Sometimes we can’t do this anonymously, and that’s okay, too; we never know how God might work through us. God also gives to those who cannot repay. Us, I mean. This is a good year to be extra generous, when we can. If we can’t, no guilt. God knows.

°Coming full circle, give people ears that hear and receive others’ leaning upon you. In the U.S., people are carrying more pain and sorrow this year than any other in my memory. We tend to think of giving and receiving at Christmas as that specific, discrete act of delivering a gift. I was reminded this morning, not in the most pleasant way, that often the giving we can offer is hearing people well and empathizing. The receiving we can offer–and this is a serious one–is carrying some of their pain, even for a step or two.

Listening to someone well doesn’t solve that they may be unable to visit family or must choose isolation on Christmas. But it just may make today slightly better for them when life is really hard. Carrying a little of their sorrow won’t remove the causes; it may help them feel less alone. It may. I’d say it’s worth the risk.

We talk about “the gift of love,” but we really mean that in Advent, Jesus came to us and we are not alone. In a time when “being together” is so very limited, being reminded we’re not alone can be a powerful gift.

I pray you have a blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas!

Now

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I had intended to write about the vast and growing chasm between us–you know who “us” is–and whether some differences are irreconcilable.

But I’ve decided I’m not going to in December.

I need to enjoy Advent. I want to celebrate that Jesus has drawn near a+nd is near. I want to soak up my 13-year-old son’s Christmas spirit and join him in whatever joyful pursuits he devises. Yes, we have decorated the tree with ornaments and lights and painted cookies with colored icing; we’ve also set up mini-golf holes in our living room and used long, plastic candy canes for putters. He is currently the undisputed leader of loving this season in our household. The world is still full of darkness; I have not forgotten. I’m spreading light where I can. But I’m also rejuvenating a bit right now. God knows I need it. In fact, God may have mentioned it to me.

So this will be an old-fashioned blog post, one of those “I’ll bet you’re interested in everything I’m thinking and feeling right now” blog posts from back before the dot com crash, when everyone had a blog (and well before I started mine). Don’t worry, it will still have some point by the end. I hope.


I’m thinking about my writing a lot, of course. I haven’t written much recently because I’ve spent my time and energy trying to sell my books, for which we use the more acceptable term “marketing.” There’s also “hock,” “shill,” and “push.” I don’t love this part. Can you tell?

“Marketing” strikes me as a dirty word–and this from a guy who isn’t so shy about using strong language. I need to get over my hang up. In my heart of hearts, I just want to write great books and have people realize they’re great and buy them. Is that so much to ask?

Turns out yes, it is. I still don’t know what I’m doing and I’m fumbling along. But I’m going to tell you something and in telling you this I’m hoping you have read enough of my blog, books, or social media to know how to take it: I’ve been reading my Advent book, God Enters In, during Advent and I really like it.

Loving yourself as a writer is an interesting process. You face a massive cringe factor that, I believe, is inescapable. I suspect the same applies to any artist. You can’t become a good writer, much less a great one, until you’ve grown through the stage of being the writer that will make Future You cringe. At best, you’ll look at that work fondly, as such a sincere and brave try by Past You. Good job, little Writer. You gave it your all.

It may well be that in 20 years I will look at my Advent book and shudder. But right now, I like it and some of it kind of surprises me, because I wrote it in a twenty-five day blur.* I mean, surprises me like “Wow, I said that? That’s pretty good!”

Here’s the thing: I’m not making it as a writer yet. Yet, he said by faith. But I am proud of the work I’ve done. I wanted to write books that help people and I’m getting consistent feedback that these books are helping people!

“I cannot express myself as well as you can–but please know that your work and writing mean a lot more to me than I can express!”

and

“I am saying SPECIFICALLY you have captured something timeless and spiritual that transcends the boundaries of the single faith you are in, but is said with the authentic voice OF your faith.”

Now just in case you’re suddenly worried, “What if Mike gets a swelled head from such high praise?” that latter person also went on,

I should also say that you are a grown-ass man who is an accomplished writer (among other things). Of course you need to peddle your book so others will buy it, but in my estimation you have no NEED for affirmation. You are fully vested and not needing mine. You are a Success. Of course, as an actual human being we crave it and ‘need’ it in a different way. Having earned it, I’m happy to share my thoughts.”

I sincerely hope you have people like this in your life, too.

In a perfect world, that success would automatically mean I’m making a living at it. I’m not. I need to get a lot better at that part, and fast. But I am reaching and encouraging some of the people I’d hoped to encourage. I cannot tell you how satisfying that is.

I see this writing gig starting to take some embryonic shape as my ministry.** I have people who don’t ever do church who now refer to me as their pastor. So if you’re the praying type, please pray that I can keep doing these parts while increasing the earning money part. I know this is awkward–we’re not supposed to talk about such things. But again, if you’ve been to my blog, when did that ever stop me? So I’ll indulge in one more exclamation and then move on.

I am so profoundly, gut-level grateful to all of you who root for me and encourage me, pray for me, share my books, and help me believe in and live this calling. Major bonus points to you who have bought copies for others. Writing is an entrenched, daily battle for morale, at least for me. You have meant the world to me in 2020, you are a gift from God, and I could not have done this without you!


I’ve had a paradigm shift in 2020 (or so) and I haven’t quite found the words to express it yet. This has been a hellishly hard year for so many. I keep thinking about how many people have lost family and friends by now, how many have died alone, and how many have survived but haven’t–and may never–recover fully. If you aren’t carrying any of our collective grief from this year, I worry about you.

Our family has had it vastly much better than so many. My complaints are miniscule. I mean, sure, mental health, okay, that’s a big one. It hasn’t been a fun year to be someone who struggles with depression. –Yeah, I do mean as opposed to all those other years when mental health struggles are just a blast. Correct.– This has been a tougher year than whatever average might be because several of the things that help keep me sane are off the table until we can all breathe on one another again with relative safety.

BUT, we are still home and safe, we have running water and electricity, we have food and none of us have gotten COVID-19. I count us more fortunate than a large percentage of the United States, certainly than a larger percentage of Nicaragua, and I am grateful for all we have. I grieve what others have lost. It’s so big, I had to put two different reflections on grief in this last book. I grieve many people’s seeming inability to feel compassion unless they’ve suffered the exact same thing themselves–and sometimes not even then.

I feel this strange contradiction, or maybe paradox, of being less hopeful about humanity yet more hopeful for individual people.

I’ve been taught for a long time that “the good is the enemy of the best.” I’m sure I’ve turned around and taught that more than once.

I’m thinking lately the ideal is the enemy of the actual. My ideal goal of loving someone or of writing the perfect book or being a flawless father can, in practice, stop me from loving or writing or dadding. And often does. As I’ve mentioned, this slowed my writing by…decades. I think we wait until we’ve got it all “right”…and we never do. So I’m learning, day by day, that I’d rather do my feeble okay-est today than wait until I can do my absolutely ideal most perfect…never.

Many years ago, a mentor (RIP, Fr. Brian) told me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” It took me so long to grasp what that could possibly mean. I’ve been so inordinately concerned with what others think of me that I could not imagine being willing to do something I could only do badly. Of course, then God brought us to Nicaragua where I spoke Spanish badly for seven years and I started to figure it out.

“I’ll do this when I am better at…” is a tip off. Only today can I do anything–there is no doing either yesterday or tomorrow–and if I don’t do it today, it’s even less likely I’ll do it tomorrow. I’m increasingly convinced that following Jesus means I’m at peace with not my best, because I don’t know when I ever do “my best.” If ever. I’m sure I had a best game of ultimate once. If I want to play now (pandemic aside) it won’t be my best, and I have to decide if I can enjoy that or stop playing. I am constantly aware that I’m not a perfect father to my teenager(s) and yet I’m also acutely aware that time passes quickly–the days crawl but the years fly–and I have only this time to be the father I can be…or far too much time later to regret what I didn’t do.**

This is the time. I know, it’s also a terrible time, a time we can’t get enough of memes about how absurdly, ludicrously, unbelievably awful this year has been. Murder hornets and zombie minks and all those ambitious goals we had for 2020 that became not only impossible but (bitterly) laughable. And all that other stuff…

A character in C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce states, “There is no other day. All days are present now. This moment contains all moments.”

Lewis was describing the moment of decision, of following God or following one’s self-destructive impulses.

Of course we always tell ourselves “Seize the day! You may not have tomorrow,” and then proceed to ignore our own best advice. And yes, I’m saying we have uncertain and limited time, “So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart”
(Psalm 90:12), but I’m not saying only that. Absolutely, none of us know the time given us and we need to live what we have. But in addition, God is with me in the now, not in the before nor the later. That’s it. That’s my paradigm shift.

I used to feel badly about myself because I didn’t speak up enough about the things that matter. I was too…well, not quiet, of course, but too muted, too unwilling to speak up for others, too willing to demur and give noncommittal “hmm…” responses. I told myself “Someday I’ll be more assertive.” But the shift came when I finally grasped that “someday” means “never.” I can do a poor, lame job of calling out racist remarks today or I can imagine that someday I’ll be bold and decisive…and keep on saying “hmm.”

God is with us in the now. Jesus has come and God is in us. Don’t wait. Yes, plan, yes prepare, yes train. But don’t put it off. The ideal is the enemy of the actual. Thank you, Past Me, for having the courage to do it poorly. Thank you, horrible year, for driving this lesson home for me.

Thank you, Friends, for having grace for me as I do my okay-est, today. Now.

*I should probably write a book about every 50 days: 25 days of non-stop writing, 25 days to recover and edit. That would be the perfect fit for my temperament. It doesn’t work that way. Or maybe it does…

**A pastor friend wrote literally as I gave this post its final read through to ask, “I’d like to use a section of Day 11 from God Entgers In. To read and give credit. ‘Come all ye faithful. And suicidal. And…’ That part.” Very affirming. Plus, I didn’t even know pastors ever asked permission to steal use stuff in sermons.

**Yes, perfectionists, God offers grace for both the mistakes and the inaction. I’m talking about preventing the regret portion while I still have a choice.

Gratitude, 2020 Version

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IF you read the title and thought something sarcastic or cynical, I get it.

I’ve seen hundreds of truly funny “If 2020 were a…” memes. I laugh. But I don’t share them. It’s enough work for me to remain hopeful.

This is the hardest year in my lifetime for the nation collectively to rejoice and give thanks. I wasn’t alive during the Great Depression (someone please convince my son Corin), but my dad was born the year it began. It impacted his life; therefore, it impacted my life. Dad hated throwing away things, I think largely because he grew up poor and without any extras. I hate throwing things away, too.* I heard his Depression tales.

So take this in for a second: Dad was born in 1929. That period of our history still impacts me today. That’s the kind of year we’re looking at in 2020. I’m not writing on gratitude to suggest, “Come on, it isn’t that bad!” I suspect we’ll be recovering from this year for generations. Today we’re at 260,000 deaths, with 2,216 losing their lives to this pandemic yesterday. I’m out of energy to convince people this is happening and my friend Paul has already addressed conspiracy theories. I’m not going to start a list of things for which I’m grateful until I first acknowledge how so many have suffered. I have a friend, younger than I am, who survived but may never walk again. We’re still praying for his recovery.

By this same token, I have very little cause to complain. I think I’ve given that response more this year than any other year of my life:

“How are you, Mike?”

“Well, compared with what other people are going through, I have it really good.”

Healthy self-care means we don’t deny or negate our own struggles because other people have it worse–I still have to monitor and nurture my mental health, probably more carefully now than usual (whatever “usual” was). God still cares about what we’re going through, even when others are going through worse. I firmly believe God never says “You think you have it bad!”–nor “I’ll give you something to cry about,” by the way. But I’m acutely aware of the suffering around me and it’s appropriate to keep my own difficulties in perspective. If we can’t have compassion on others unless/until we’re suffering the same thing, we’re in serious trouble.

I consider that more context than disclaimer. I am grateful, and though it sometimes takes a little longer to remember why–or to set aside my irritation so that I can remember–I need to meditate on these things. I need to share them. I need to hear the things for which you are grateful.

Our eldest, Rowan, completed EMT training and now works as a First Responder! We are wildly, button-bustingly proud of him. What a time to find a job and move out on his own! He’s doing it. He’s doing a great job, he’s exhausted from it, and I feel like a grown-up parent! The day I helped him move his bed into his place, I knew we’d entered a new chapter.

Now, of course, we’re praying for his protection because his job means he is exposed frequently, necessarily, and we will have a short visit on Thanksgiving but he is choosing not to eat with us. To protect us.

Did I mention proud?

I’ve made new friends this year. That looked unlikely and defied some odds. Mostly I have my book to thank for that, as well as social media. I’m continually conflicted about social media, its pitfalls and benefits, its dangers and how much it helps me…I think. But the connections I’ve made, with people like Irene and Adam, have made my life better. Some are local and some very long-distance. Some I hope to partner with in local ministry and justice work, others are peer-type fellow writers (okay, I’m still talking about Irene and Adam). At some point I decided I wanted to expand my circle/network, and you know what? There are some really cool people out there! I’m truly grateful for them and for the powerful work they’re doing.

This isn’t a post to talk about the nightmare of our national politics. I’ve lost some friends over this crisis and other relationships have been strained or damaged. I’m guessing you have, too. Thus, I’m all the more grateful for the friends who have persevered with me. Thanks to those who have endured my radical socialist ravings pursuit of pure justice and truth our disagreements. I know these aren’t superficial differences. I don’t really know how we rebuild and I’m not up for sweeping the problems under the rug. But I believe in God’s grace and in love that is stronger than death. So in spite of the massive chasm, I do remain hopeful.

Astoundingly, a few of these friendships have actually deepened during this time. One high school friend in particular has helped me find our deeper common bonds–being fathers, following Jesus, and our love of baseball and baseball cards. I won’t name names, but Daron knows who he is. I get a little teary just thinking about it, when I consider that we’re closer now in spite of the vast array of issues on which we differ. Again, to be clear, I’m not shutting up about my beliefs nor pulling back from advocating. I take gifts wherever God sends them.

Often being grateful requires picking out and focusing on the positives, rather than only seeing the negatives. Yep, Mom did teach me that. Here are three things I’ve seen from my writing:

People have let me know that reading my books has helped and encouraged them. Specifically, they’ve felt less alone and they’ve felt encouraged in their faith and in their spirit.

We’ve had some connection times with what I term “this funky community,” people (some spread out all over the country) who are seeking to answer these questions together “How do we resist and love? How do we seek justice while offering grace?” I’ve made new friends, been inspired, and I’ve gotten to introduce wonderful people I know to one another. I’m not a great organizer but I hope to enjoy more of these times.

A number of friends, maybe ten or more, have said, in various ways, “You know, I don’t really believe in Jesus, but the Jesus you talk about appeals to me” or “makes sense to me.”

Okay, one more. I’ve received tremendous encouragement and straight-up love from a squad of people, some of whom are my closest and most reliables, others who completely surprised me by jumping in to advocate for my books, buy them for friends and family, and generally boost my morale as a writer. You all are Rock Stars!! Thank you!

Recognizing and thanking God–and my peeps–for these things is a choice. I’m still aspiring as a writer and I can easily get discouraged that progress is slow and my head is sore from banging it into these walls. I can fixate on what isn’t–or isn’t yet–and miss what is, what God has done, how I am making progress and how I’m blessed.

That’s my bottom line for 2020: Yes, it is easy to miss the good things when we’re living through a crisis, or two, or ten. Yes, there is much about which I can justifiably complain. This year, more than other years, I must choose gratitude. But when I do, I can see it.

To repeat that, I didn’t see it and, as a result, choose gratitude. I am choosing to be grateful and, as a result, seeing my blessings, some of which I had completely overlooked.

Yes, I learned that from Mom, too.

*I’m not saying this is the only reason I’m thrifty…or a clutterbug. But it is a significant reason.

Can You Be a Writer? Part 2

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Okay, I have one person signed up for my writing class. If I get nine more, we’ll figure out class times and tuition and get this party started.

Meanwhile, I’ll do what I always do: offer for free what I hope people will pay me to do. I don’t know if that’s a marketing plan or an anti-marketing plan, but when we get to the class session on how to get rich doing this, I promise I’ll get you a guest lecturer.

I’ve read around 30 books on writing cover to cover and parts of another 20…to 70. Lots. Countless articles. (Not that I’m so great at counting, as I’m exhibiting here.) So I’m going to pass on a couple things that have stuck, things that I consider crucial or even life-and-death for the writer.

Write consistently, every day that you can.

Virtually every one of those books says, “Get a routine. Lock in that routine. Be consistent.”

And I said, “Pshaw! I’m not a man to be structured nor scheduled. Spontaneity! I’ll write when the Muse sings!”

Well, turns out there are two problems with my approach. First, it’s easier to get around to danged-near anything else than to sitting on your butt in the chair and really writing. You haven’t experienced the full fury of procrastination until you’ve tried writing only “when the mood strikes.” So the whole “when the Muse calls” thing breaks down because I don’t think she would stop by enough in the course of my entire lifetime to complete a single book. Maybe a short story. Sure, I had lots of thoughts about “Oh, I should write about x!” But as I said last class, Imagined Writing is both the opposite and the adversary to Actual Writing. Any “writing” that exists only in your head and is prefaced by words like “should,” “someday,” or “when I find time” is an illusion. It’s only useful insofar as it helps you sit and write; in my experience, it mostly does the opposite.

Second, brains get in habits of being creative (just like they get in any other habits) and for this, consistency helps. Trust me, the spontaneity-loving part of me tried to resist this, but it’s true. If you call on your brain to do the creative task at roughly the same time each day–or with whatever consistency you can make happen–it will improve at hitting that creative stride when called upon. If you make a date with the Muse and always keep the date, she’ll show up more often. I promise.

If you are trying to block out time within very narrow margins, this becomes even more important. If you want to make the most of the time you do have, writing in the same time block every time you write, as often as you can write, will improve your productivity. I’m sure some of you roll your eyes at this because you have small children; the idea of having that kind of control over your schedule sounds like a pot of gold under a rainbow. “Well, wouldn’t that be nice?” If that consistent block is impossible in your circumstances, look for some other consistencies in your routine that will trigger your brain, “Hey! It’s time to do the words!” Give your mind and your Muse every reason to show up.

Don’t discard your writing.

Try not to throw away anything that you’ve written. Computers make this easier. I have rarely gone back to an old, abandoned draft and jump-started it, but it has happened. When I’m writing a longer work, I usually have a file called “scraps” or “pieces,” so when I cut out something that I love but that doesn’t fit or that might work better later, I know where I’ve put it.

But those aren’t the main reason. Don’t throw things away means don’t self-censor. You may have written nonsense or rage or groggy, fading dream-memories, but deciding it’s crap and deleting it will only make you more self-critical and less free to try to write. Editing happens after composing. You have to tame your perfectionism to be a writer. You have to.

Every artist must face the cringe factor. The cringe factor is that you will look back at something you’ve done and think “Oh, my Aunt Bessie–what was I thinking?” That isn’t a bad thing. If your earlier work looks a little…less refined to you, that means you’re growing and developing as an artist. But as the term implies, though I can tell you it’s not a bad thing, you might still writhe on the floor. But seriously, seriously, no one gets to start out as a mature, accomplished artist. As with so much of life, the journey is everything. The only way we grow is to do the best we can at this moment, send our work out into the world, then learn from the experience and hope, by the grace of God, to do a little better next time.

Obviously, you can see the connection. If you let the cringe factor dissuade you, you’ll never produce anything. Don’t self-censor. Don’t let the cringe factor call the shots.

The relationship between composing and editing is complex and every writer has to decide how much to edit in the process of writing. But it’s a bit like saying “Don’t run with scissors.” Don’t. Can you walk with a knife? Yes. Can you fix spelling errors while composing? Yes. Can you decide this paragraph fits better before that other paragraph? Now we’re looking at the principle, which is “Don’t impale yourself.” I can’t tell you exactly how fast you can travel while carrying a sharpened metal object, but the principle remeains true. You must apply it to your own quirky specifics. If you let yourself edit too much while composing, you’ll stifle your own creativity. Only you can decide what is “too much.” And that may change over time.

Here’s Anne Lamott’s take:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

When I say “don’t self-censor,” I mean this. When you turn off the spout, you have no idea what you’re missing. Literally, you’ll never know. As I said last time, the only way to get to better writing is to write more and keep writing; self-censoring shuts that down. If you’re at all like me, some part of your brain will say, “Oh, that’s no good! What are you doing?” It’s the same part of my brain that can hear five heartfelt affirmations about my book and mentally delete them all when someone says, “Oh, I’m a little busy right now, I can’t read it.”

Seriously, five people who have read what I wrote and tell me how it helped them versus one person who hasn’t read a word? Which of those will I take as authoritative? Let’s agree, it’s a little nuts to let the one (with no direct knowledge) outweigh the five. Right? That part of my brain insists that “this novel isn’t working” or “people will think this is stupid” or “who are you to wrote a blog post about writing?” So when I say “don’t self-censor,” I mean don’t give that part of your brain authority to decide if the words you’ve written/are writing/are about to write deserve to exist. It’s the equivalent of deciding that the committed and debunked conspiracy theorist should be trusted as a reliable witness this time. Still nope.

Even if you aren’t as self-critical as I am–for me, self-criticism is the reason others’ criticism, or even perceived criticism, carries disproportionate weight–the creative part of your brain needs as much encouragement as it can get. Too many voices in our culture will shut down your creativity. Too many people just enjoy being critical or dismissive. Don’t ally with them.

Therefore, when I say “Don’t discard your writing,” I mean don’t toss it or delete it after you’ve written and don’t toss it or delete it before you’ve wrriten. Don’t self-censor. There will be time to edit later.

Last one for today:

You have to make it happen.

This is both the hardest and, perhaps, most crucial truth I know about writing.* Anne Lamott said “writing is not rapturous.” At the risk of disagreeing with one of my heroes, it can be. I’d say writing runs the whole gamut of emotions for me. Writing fiction is a little like acting, in that you take on the emotions and mental state of the person whom you’re depicting. You have to get in their head. I’ve had epiphanic moments when I can suddenly see the connections and it’s like the stars align in my little brain. I have times writing when I feel God’s presence very strongly, as strongly as when I’m in the mountains or preaching (my go-to contexts for God encounters). Other times, writing is depressing as hell, which doesn’t seem like a great idea for a person prone to depression.

But as I’ve said, I need to write.

I want to tell you why I’m telling you “make it happen” before I go hard at it. It won’t sound nice. It may not cheer you up or encourage you. But I hope it helps, anyway, in the way hearing hard truth can help, almost like the movie slap: “Thanks. I needed that.” I hope it makes the situation a little clearer helps you find your resolve.

If you don’t do the writing, the writing don’t get done.

“Well, duh, Mike.”

NO, but seriously. You have to find a way to make it happen. No one will do this for you. No one can do this for you. You have to surrender the fantasy that someone can. You can have supportive readers and even patrons. You can have space and time to work. You can have brilliant ideas. You have to do the writing. You alone.

For a long time, for way too long, I was looking for the person who could tell me “You’re good enough. You’ve got it.” But that’s not the job of an expert. That’s my job to decide. I have to discern if God has given me this gift and, if so, how to use it. I put more than one friend on the spot and made things awkward by more or less demanding that they answer. A professional writer or editor can read a piece of your work and assess what you’ve done. I’m not talking about feedback. You have to decide for yourself if you’re going to do this.

If it isn’t good and you want to make it better, you have to work harder and make it better. Write a million words, discard them, and you’re ready to start, as David Eddings says. A million words leads to the next million.

I hope you succeed. Truly. I’m not saying any of this to discourage you. I’m saying it because this is the only way.

Or, to be contextually relevant,

“This is the way.”

“Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.”

― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev (my favorite of his books!)

No one can answer that for you except you.

I don’t believe absolutely anyone can be a writer. But some people can, and I believe this is the dividing line. The people who become writers–and remember, “the only thing that makes a person a writer is writing“–find that part in themselves that is relentless. Obdurate. Unyielding. They discover their scream.

Because they have to.

Do NOT hear me saying that community is unimportant for a writer. Community is crucial for a writer…and for every Jesus follower..,.and heck, I’ll say for everyone. In some ways a writer needs community even more, because the act itself is so individual and requires isolation. I’m not giving the “pull yerself up by yer bootstraps cuz God helps those who help themselves” talk. You need supportive community to encourage you, affirm your gift, and help you get back up when you get kicked down (again). Sorry, this isn’t the rainbows and unicorns class on writing. I’m assuming you’re asking the questions seriously, so I’m answering truthfully. We haven’t even gotten to the “How to handle rejection” class yet! 😉

By all means, get all the affirmation you can. Gather the supportive, sympathetic, encouraging readers for that first, scary round of “Is this worth your time or is this crap?” Build up your nerve and invite the more blunt, direct people to give you feedback. Take the leap and let strangers who have nothing invested in your feelings read what you’ve written.

But remember, at the end of the day–and the beginning of the day–it comes down to the decision you make. Make it prayerfully, make it and know you’ll probably have to remake it again and again. It’s not an abstract decision. There’s nothing ethereal about it.

You decide if you can be a writer. You decide by writing.

PS I’m a little more than half serious about the class now. Let me know if you’re interested. 🙂

*The other is “pour your heart and soul into your writing.”