If the News Is Too Much…

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I’m tired and my back really hurts. Something about discs, and not the fun kind, the kind I like to chase. I can’t do much chasing right now.

The world news is awful. Overwhelmingly, horrifically bad.

Meanwhile, I haven’t written on my blog for weeks or months, because I’m trying to finish a book on grief and the death of a child. I have very little bandwidth for anything else. That was before my back went out.

But today I’m writing because I have thoughts that I need to share and as always, I hope that they help a little.

The government in Afghanistan is crumbling. The Taliban is taking over, again. That’s a nightmare for so many people.

Blaming someone, anyone, does not help anyone at all. I’m not defending by saying that–Trump made a deal with the Taliban, Biden ordered a hurried evacuation, we can argue fault ad nauseum. I’m making a statement of fact. The Afghani infants, school children, women, and soldiers are not helped in any way whatsoever by our debate over who screwed up.

Haiti just had another catastrophic earthquake. 7.2. I feel sick to my stomach looking at those pictures. I want to look away. I feel horrible about that.

I just read that one in five ICU’s in the United States are at 95% capacity right now. Ask someone who works in an ICU what that means. My friend, who has kept me informed on the COVID-19 crisis first-hand, just transferred out of the ICU after fifteen years. She reached her threshold. I’m glad she made this decision. Many healthcare workers are making similar choices. It’s unbelievable that we’re in a nationwide health crisis and still debating whether we’re in a nationwide health crisis! That, in itself, is exhausting. I can’t even fathom how our EMTs, nurses, doctors, and other hospital workers bear that while providing care to the people who are dying every day.

So here’s what I’ve got. I read this quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s great. If you don’t like her…find someone you like. Keep reading my stuff. But do hear this:

May be an image of text that says 'ljust do not think our psyches were developed to hold, fee and respond to everything coming at them right now; every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet, in real time every minute of every day. The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE.'

None of us really know how to live well in this global community that is hyper-connected yet paradoxically disconnected. I could spend the next twenty-four hours reading about heart-fracturing tragedies from all over the world…of people whom I don’t know, will never meet, and then I could continue on my way without doing a thing. I will not have made these people part of my village.

Is our world worse than at previous times in history? Arguably. But for certain we know more about how bad it is.

I’ll refer to the one area of experience I have in this: Many people felt bad when I told them about those who were suffering in Nicaragua. But the Nicaraguans were still suffering. The feeling bad, in itself, did nothing.

Let’s assume Pastora Nadia is right. Let’s assume you are upset about things I’ve mentioned and many more things I haven’t. Here’s what you do.

Something.

Do something. Do something right now. As soon as you can. Something. Give. Pray. Pray and give. Volunteer. Find an organization that is helping and help them.

Then–here’s the hard part–let go.

I want to be clear here: I assume that you already are doing good in the world–and immediately think to yourself, “Yeah, but not enough”–and the reason all this news hurts so much is people should do something. That’s the right response when we hear that people are suffering. Not to justify why “it isn’t my problem” or rationalize that they caused it themselves. When we see the man lying and bleeding in the ditch, crossing to the other side and passing by is not the loving response, whatever explanation we might provide for ourselves as we do so.

Herein lies the problem: Jesus told that parable about walking past someone thirty feet away. The priest and Levite could see the man bleed. Hear his groans. We see and hear people suffering all over the world. They aren’t thirty feet away. Our village is overwhelming.

A loving and volunteer-y friend just wrote me, “I know what’s happening there is horrible and my problems are so much smaller in comparison, but I just don’t have the emotional resources to handle everything right now, even what’s going on for me. But then I feel terrible for thinking that.”

So let me go over this again: feeling bad for other people’s suffering is good, human, and compassionate, but does not change their situation. Feeling guilty that you’re overwhelmed with your (real but smaller) problems when they have (life-threatening) bigger problems is sane and shows you grasp the disproportionate suffering others experience. But that guilt doesn’t help them. Or you.

If you’ve never seen poverty at that level, I’ll tell you it’s crazy to imagine that “it’s the same everywhere;” it isn’t. But adding guilt to your problems because others have worse problems doesn’t help them. It doesn’t. And in the end, if we care about their suffering, doing what we can to help is the point. Not what we wish we could. Not what we might, if we weren’t raising kids or pouring our hearts into others already. What we can now, as we are.* The rest is wasted effort, to put it couthly.

If you need to do something, do something. Something small, Anything.

Also, if you need to stop taking in too much bad news, do it. The question Kim and I asked each other this morning is: how much do we need to know to be “informed” and when is it wrong to shut it out?

Let me ask it in the reverse: are we obligated to know about everyone’s suffering? The lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” If everyone is my neighbor, am I required to know all the horrors every single one of them suffers? Am I somehow less loving if I decide I can’t handle knowing about the tragedy Afghanistan or Sudan or Mauritania or Canada or Australia…or the United States?

I think we’re measuring our answer to this question by the standard of “A loving person would care.” So let’s try it this way: there are many people suffering horribly in your local hospital. You don’t know all their stories. If you did, you would feel like vomiting. Annalise went to the ER a month ago. We were next to–separated by a curtain from–a man in severe distress who was belligerent, verbally abusive to his wife (threatening violence, among other things), and caused hospital security to come racing over multiple times in the hours we were five feet away with that nice fabric between us. I prayed for her a lot that day. I don’t know what he had, but he was in bad shape, and I prayed for him, too–for healing and repentance.

I heard this–overheard this, I wasn’t there for them–and therefore I responded in the best way I could. I wanted to talk to hospital personnel to make sure someone else had heard his threats against her. But then they released Annalise and she was more than ready to go, so we went and I said one more prayer.

Now imagine you’re responsible to go to your local hospital and visit each person and take on what they’re going through. Too much, right? It’s not overwhelming you right now because you don’t know. That’s the only reason.

“But Mike, it feels wrong just to ignore what’s happening in Afghanistan.” I’m not saying ignore it; I’m asking you to be honest with yourself about how you can help versus how feeling bad costs you but does nothing for them.

Another wonderful and compassionate friend, when asked what he does to deal with his anxiety regarding world problems, responded, “Doomscrolling,** mainly. But prayer and work help.” I told him that I, too, find doomscrolling very effective…for increasing anxiety. Seriously, this compulsive urge to keep reading more and more bad news when we’re already overwhelmed is not only counter-productive for ourselves, I’d argue it reduces our ability to respond and help in any practical ways. It impairs our ability to care for and love those in our sphere. Yes, I consider prayer a practical way to help. (No, i’m not looking to debate that. Did I mention my back pain?)

I’m fully aware that I’m stating the obvious. As my dad loved to say, “Mike, you have a firm grasp on the obvious.” But this isn’t one of those complex, how-can-we-wrap-our-heads-around-it concepts. Obviously, we’re ovewhelmed. It’s an “even-if-we-know-this, we-still-aren’t-making-healthy-changes” issue. I know that “throwing money at a problem” isn’t a complete solution, but even acknowledging that for a moment, giving twenty bucks does more than feeling anxious for two hours. Giving twenty bucks to an organization or person making a difference for those suffering makes more difference than feeling anxious for two hundred hours. Back to my dad again, “Do you get it or do you want me to keep going?”***

I think Pastora Nadia is 100% correct and I, for one, have not yet worked through the implications. We have blithe and accurate-within-limits statements like, “Think globally, act locally.” Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “love one another as I have loved you.” None of that love is embodied in doomscrolling. If you feel like it’s too much, it’s too much, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. Because knowing all of it and taking in every ounce of it does not make you a loving person. Loving others makes you a loving person. People need your love and you need to love them. To the degree that overexposure to tragic news impairs that, you are being unloving to yourself. And to them.

So if you need to turn it off, turn it off. Look away. Put your phone down. Pray for more capacity to love. Love the people God has given you to love.

If you need to respond, remember:

Actions (not a comprehensive list)

  • Vote
  • Write or call your elected representative
  • Get involved in your local school board election (relevant to my situation currently)
  • Pray
  • Give
  • Research about organizations already involved
  • Promote these organizations
  • Volunteer for these organizations
  • Volunteer for local organizations
  • Reach out directly to people who are struggling and need help
  • Spend time with your kids
  • Help someone else with their kids
  • PRAY
  • (fill in your own)

Not Actions (also not a comprehensive list)

  • Arguing on Facebook and Twitter
  • Criticizing people who can’t hear you about what they’ve done wrong
  • Reading more articles/watching more videos without acting on them
  • Worrying****
  • (fill in your own)

I don’t expect that I taught you anything new here, but if I’ve given you permission to lighten up on yourself and/or freed or encouraged you to act in any way, I’m pleased. We try to live faithfully in an impossible situation, in a world overwhelmed with need. We have to choose what our village is–and it may be the children in Afghanistan first and foremost–and love them.

When we choose, when we’ve done what we can do, we have to let go and trust God. I don’t mean, “Trust that God will fix everything else.” I mean trust God that we have given and loved and done what we can (not “all” or “the best,” you perfectionists) and that this feeble faithfulness to our village is enough.

Mostly, I’m preaching to myself like the extrovert I am, but I do pray it helps you, as well. Also, this is the first time in thirteen days I’ve been able to sit in my chair and type, so that’s worth celebrating.

Two concluding thoughts, from Nadia Bolz-Weber and Brene Brown

So I try and remember, 1. We are still living through a global pandemic and that means the baseline of anxiety and grief is higher than ever and shared by everyone. 2. The world is on fire literally and metaphorically. But 3. I only have so much water in my bucket to help with the fires. The more exposure I have to the fires I have NO WATER to fight, the more likely I am to get so burned, and inhale so much smoke that I cannot help anymore with the fires close enough to fight once my bucket is full again. 

“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.” Brene Brown

*Of course we might decide/feel called to shift our priorities to open up resources to pour into something different. It happens. We moved to Nicaragua. But not guilt for “I could (or should) make changes to do more.” That’s just the same loop.

**”Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. Many people are finding themselves reading continuously bad news about COVID-19 without the ability to stop or step back.” Merriam-Webster online.

***Yeah, he’d always keep going.

****I’m not suggesting that an anxiety disorder is “fixed” by just not worrying. I’m saying anxiety in any form is likely exacerbated by overconsumption of bad/troubling news with no action for outlet.

Idealism and Realism

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Are you an idealist or a realist? I’ve concluded I’m both. I know that doesn’t make sense, but when has that stopped me before? I’m going to try to argue that we can be both…and that maybe we need to be,

There’s who we hope to be and who we are. There’s what we’d like to do and what we actually do. There’s how we want to see the world, the world we live in–and the world we hope to see.

Let’s take the last one. By “how we want to see the world” I mean what we wish the world were like and choosing to see only (or mostly) what we desire to see, rather than what actually is. “Wishful thinking” is the nice term for it, but there are others. “The world we live in” is what objectively is and happens here. “The world we hope to see” means beginning with the world that is, as accurately as we can perceive it, and then starting in with what we can improve. Though “how we want to see the world” and “the world we hope to see” sound similar, in practice they are near opposites. If you prefer bluntness, call the first “denial” and the latter “activism”–or even “seeking the Kingdom of God.”

None of us have a 100% accurate view of the world we live in. We don’t know all that goes on, good or bad. We know a smidge of the things that happen and we know only what goes through our own heads, not what’s running through anyone else’s. In fact, we don’t even know why a lot of that stuff plays in our minds. Our understanding is limited. To put it mildly.

So let’s try to be honest, just for a moment: when we do something kind, we have complex, competing motives. You and I can’t even isolate all these motives. Some of them relate to how you, at age four, interacted with your mother–or didn’t. I think attempting to identify each impulse and motive would be both impossible and exhausting. But I want us to face the implications here: we’re a mystery, even to ourselves.

Have you caught yourself in the midst of an action and thought, “What am I doing? I don’t even want to do this!” I’m talking about the whole range of our decisions: how you react in a conversation, reaching for another donut, or agreeing to a social activity you have no desire to participate in with people whom you’d prefer to avoid.* Or have you ever stopped and really heard the voice in your own head berating you and asked, “Wait! I know that doesn’t help. Why am I saying this to myself?”

I know this is abstract for some of you–and you might not even know why you’re still reading this blog post–but here’s my point: I think we need to carry a balance of idealism and realism. If we begin by recognizing our limitations and all we don’t know, we have a better chance to find this balance.

The world sucks. It really does. It may not suck for you, and I hope it doesn’t, but for a lot of people, it’s brutal, cold, and unforgiving. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the six-year-old girl selling ice cream from the little push cart while her father is off getting drunk. Again. I’ve seen her twelve-year-old sister now pregnant, and their cycle of poverty, hers and her babies, almost absolutely guaranteed.

Is that your problem? If I told you her name and shared her picture, would it become your problem? Is she your neighbor, in the sense that Jesus spoke when he answered the lawyers question, “And who is my neighbor?”

I wish I had good answers for you. I have opinions. I want to live in a world in which all six-year-olds can play and learn and don’t have to spend days standing in the hot sun or carrying a bag of tortillas to sell door-to-door, then go home ot drunken fathers who take the money they’ve earned and drink it away the next day. If I can make that change, if I can impact toward that change, for one girl, I’ve helped the world become a little more what I hope to see. Another world is possible, as Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way have said.

To start to make that change, we have to open our eyes and admit that her life is much harder than ours. We have to accept that she matters, her life matters, that she is related to us in a signficant way, that it isn’t someone else’s problem to solve. We have to acknowledge that we possess resources that can help her. (If you felt your grip on your wallet tightening as you read that, I just want you to look at your motives and your situation and be honest with yourself.) We have to decide if using our resources to attempt to help her is worth it to us and then we have to choose how we use those resources to try to help. Do we go to where she is and interact with her directly? Do we find out who is working close to where she lives and give to their work? Do we figure out where she goes to school and look for a way to support that school? Do we support the recovery group in that area so that they have a better chance to reach out to the father?

Damn, it’s complicated. We also need to admit that we can try one or all of these means to help this girl and still her life may not change. Or, even more tragically, her damage by now may be such that, even if she receives significant help and the opportunity to live a different, more nurturing and secure life, she may make choices that put her–or her children–right back in similar circumstances.

If I have your head spinning a bit, I’m sincerely not sorry. This is our world. I get that this is why many people choose not to do anything–“How do I really know it will help?” You don’t. People are complex and problems have deep roots and trying to make a difference is always a risky venture. That is the way of the world and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

Being realistic and idealistic means accepting the risks and trying, anyway. That’s how I understand the balance.

“Faith is perception. It is how we see. If we see the world around us as nothing but darkness–a darkness we believe we cannot change–then darkness is what we get. But if we see darkness while we believe in light–a light we cannot yet see but know is there–then we get something new; we get possibility–the possibility of change. It all comes down to trust.” Steven Charleston, Ladder to the Light

Realism is knowing my limitations. Idealism–or call it “faith,” if you prefer–is believing that what small resources I have to offer can make a difference. Realism is understanding that I can’t fix everything and I can wipe myself out by trying. Idealism is understanding that there are good people in the world and I can join them in trying to make a differnce and together we can change the world. Perhaps not fix the world. But address the problems and impact real people’s lives for good, alleviate real suffering and offer better futures. Offer a way out of the cycle of abuse and poverty and more abuse for this girl.

Do you know what word we use for that work of hope? “Justice.”

It’s not just an optional act of charity in the world for me to do what I can to help that little girl. What she suffers is unjust–no six-year-old should suffer that way–and God’s justice, the God who loves her as father and mother and friend and savior–demands, not requests, that we make that stop.

Oh. “Demands?” Well, yeah. Or “commands,” if you prefer.

Realism balances with idealism to seek justice. You and I are called to seek justice for the widow, the orphan, the abused child, the rape victim (I trust you didn’t imagine the twelve-year-old girl I described above was making autonomous, consensual decisions), the neighbor suffering from racism, the abused wife whose husband is a church elder. Damn, life is complicated. Realism comes in when we accept that we can do some, not all, but we are called to do some, not optional, not extra credit, not if or when we’re feeling particularly generous.

Realism requires us to discern what we really can do, not what we wish we could–and that merely thinking nice thoughts isn’t actually making any difference. Both. Realism makes us face our limitations and our self-deception. Feeling badly every time we read a news article about trafficking or police abuse or abusive working conditions in sweatshops or meat-packing facilities is the right response but not yet an action that helps change these injustices. Idealism makes us see the better world that is possible, while realism makes us admit that just seeing it in our heads hasn’t moved us there yet!

Or, if you prefer, faith makes us see the better world that is possible. I’ve heard it both ways.

Two concluding thoughts. First, when we weigh on the scales how much difference our actions for justice may make, we must include in the equation that trying to do anything for the positive will change us. I consider this an intersection of idealism and realism. It’s also where we just need to accept Jesus’ grace for our goofy mixed motives. If I’m seeking justice for a little girl with a drunken father, am I just trying to feel like a good person? Well, I am trying to feel like a good person. I’m trying to be a godly person who acts as a neighbor, as commanded. My ego and God’s Spirit convicting me don’t always disentangle easily. But I know, I know, that acting with love in the world will make me more loving, and I’d rather seek to love my neighbors and ask God to help me with my ego than hold back loving in case I’m just doing it for pride. The little girl is hungry. The purity of my motives is not the most important thing.

By faith, I believe Jesus when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Loving others is costly and the more deeply I love, the more I put myself at risk of having my heart ripped, my love taken advantage of…and missing out on all that I could have kept for myself. That’s reality. “Self-protection” and “selfishness” often overlap. But keeping everything for myself, closing myself to others, and “Looking out for number one” is not a realistic way to the good life, no matter what the advertisers tell us. I want to risk loving others and seeking justice where I can and see what happens to me, trusting God that it may hurt but will make me fully alive. I can’t do everything; I need to do something.

Second, caring for others requires caring for ourselves. That’s a series of blog posts unto itself, but for now I want to name accepting our imperfections and limitations as a crucial way to care for ourselves. I don’t like my limitations. I actively dislike that I have great ideas for what I can do and shoddy follow-through on what I do. But here is a deep truth that somehow it took me some time to grasp: hating on myself for my flaws and weaknesses and even my sins does not make me more loving nor more capable of loving others.

We lived in Nicaragua for seven years. I didn’t bring about nearly as much change there as I had hoped or imagined I would or could. I’m a bit of a coward, but we lived in a barrio where some people told us it wasn’t safe for us to live (and others told us we’d quickly learn our lesson and move) and we had some impact there that we could not have had if we had chosen to live somewhere “safer.”

It’s complicated–did I mention life is complicated?–because some of the good we did was bringing our own needs and being available for our neigbhors to love and serve us. The dignity of mutual relationships, rather than people being in poverty solely being “the needy ones” and those with more financial resources exclusively “giving,” requires a higher level of neighboring. It’s riskier and more vulnerable. Accepting our imperfections, our need for support, our limitations, while still seeking the good of, and justice for, our neighbors, is being human.

One more way to think about this: realism is accepting ourselves and others the way we are, which necessitates grace. Idealism is believing the possibility of something better, which requires faith. Of course we can be both realists and idealists, because we are people who live by grace and faith.

*I’d like to meet the person who has never experienced this…but I also suspect that person would scare me, very much.

Grateful Beyond Words

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Today, on my morning prayer walk, I noticed that my right knee hurt a bit. It felt like I’d twisted it slightly, not so badly I could’t keep walking but enough that I noticed and reviewed yesterday’s activity. Oh, yeah. Corin and I were playing baseball in our backyard last evening.

Not full baseball, of course. I got him a wooden bat for his birthday and, to my glee, he loves it. He’d only used metal ones before. I wanted him to hear the crack of the bat. Last night, he wanted to bunt the ball with his new bat…in the living room. “Just pitch me one, Dad!”…while in easy bunting distance of roughly 700 breakable objects. With Kim sitting there watching.

Thus, this morning, as I was walking a bit tenderly and favoring that knee, I considered our activity the night before, which was basically a game of pepper: one of us pitching underhand from ten feet, the other either bunting or taking light swings. The pitcher had to react and spear grounders, line drives, and pop-ups. Lots of lunging, a few turn-and-run-three-steps-to-catch-it coming-over-your-head. It took some quick reflexes and lasted until my (very poor) night vision threatened to get me a ball in the nose. Corin loved it and was surprised how much effort it took. We were both panting and sweating when we came inside.

Yes, I did breathe in the moment and appreciate how fortunate I am.

But this morning, I had a different thought. No, not Grumpy Old Man with Sore Knee. When my mind clicked on our game, for some reason it also offered, “Fifty-two,” as in,”You’re fifty-two, Mike, and you’re doing well to jump into a game of pepper and still be able to walk the next morning.” But I often think about how old I am, because being active at fifty-two, at least for me, means not forgetting and also having to work harder to keep making that possible.

No, the different thought was, “How was Dad at 52?” I don’t know why that question came to me. It took me a minute–6AM, remember–to do the math and then figure out his…

Oh, yeah.

Fifty-two was the worst. Dad died in 1998, at age sixty-eight. Sixteen years earlier, then, he was fifty-two. Dad took early retirement at fifty-two or fifty-three, after the 1983-84 school year. He had taught for thirty years already. I know that was his final year of teaching because it was A)the year after I had him in school, B)the year he would come home from school, collapse into his chair still wearing his heavy coat and boots, and gasp for breath. He seemed to do that every day.

Dad had been athletic. He reached a higher level of competition than I ever have, running track at Northern Illinois University and competing at big invitational meets.* He was a strong runner and intensely competitive. I mean, competitive about everything. When I was younger, nine and ten, he would hit me ground balls for hours so I could practice at shortstop. I remember standing out in the sun, waiting for his coughing spell to pass so he could hit some more. He pitched me untold hours of batting practice. I’ve described those outings as his expression of love for me. He knew I was never going to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. He gave me that time–and God knows how much energy–when he felt so lousy.

<REAL TIME INTERRUPTION>

Corin just walked through the door after riding his bike home from school and suggested we go play baseball during his lunch break. I’ll conclude this here. I trust you see where I was going.

I’m glad, grateful beyond words, that I can still run around and play with my son. I’m an older dad. I’ve committed to staying healthy and active, but that isn’t always our choice. Dad first got sick at forty-three. I was six. He improved from that horrible year when he was fifty-two, but he still had that lung disease the rest of his (shortened) life. I thought about it when I turned forty-three. I know it doesn’t only happen to someone else.

So thank you, God, for today.

PS Fortunately, one of our dogs started wretching at 4AM, and I coulnd’t get back to sleep, so I had plenty of writing time by the time Corin came home at noon. Neither dog had thrown up. When we turned the light on to clean it up, they both looked at us like “Why did you do that?”

PPS When you ask your fourteen-year-old son for a picture of him with his bat, of course he’ll comply–and swing it at you. I was quite pleased to have captured the moment with the bat inches away.

*I think intercollegiate track is considered higher than making regionals for ultimate. But I’m open to counter-arguments.

God of Love

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I want you to be able to believe in a God who loves you. I am still learning to believe in this God.

I want to be free, and to help free you, from the contortions that come from hateful beliefs about a loving God.

I’m coming from an evangelical background. I’ve always felt a bit out of step with the evangelical community. But I held some of these specifically evangelical beliefs very firmly—preached them, in fact. When our baby son, Isaac, died after eight hours of life, the grief and shock shattered my faith. I’m writing my current book about my experience of losing and regaining relationship with God. I can’t say what my life would have been if Isaac had not died, as that was the watershed event of my life. Becoming a Jesus follower changed my life, but having our son die changed how I follow Jesus. If this statement makes you uncomfortable, I’m okay with that; it did more than make me uncomfortable.

Many Christians, especially a certain inclination of Christians, are always ready to dig in for a good theological debate. What we believe about God is important. But the urge to compel others to believe the right things, as we understand them, and to bring that about through force of words rather than simply offer love and relationship and leave the rest to God, now makes no sense to me. That’a a huge change in my life. For many years, I would have said, “Well, I am loving them by discussing this with them.” If the person or persons I was debating didn’t feel loved, that merely indicated that they were resisting the truth.

Do you see what a circle that is? I’m debating you and if you agree with me, God has shown you the truth; if you disagree, your heart is hardened against the truth. Obviously, implicitly we understand that I’m right in this debate, because I’m speaking God’s truth, after all.

Here are two major problems with this approach, which I really did believe, though I’m empathetic and relationally adept so it often came across less abrasive than this description…I think.

1) I might have been wrong.

That kind of takes the air out of the ball to start out, doesn’t it? The view that “I’ve read the Bible and therefore I know the truth and am infallible in my knowledge” is such a horror to me now. So I’ll just say I’m sorry for every time I came across like that. I was wrong about thinking I was always right.

2)Even if we are speaking God’s truth, if we do not love others in our communication, the problem is with our hearts, not theirs.

I’ve talked about this before. If we use the truth as a hammer, it’s not the other person’s problem for not enjoying being hit with a hammer; it’s ours for hitting them. I want to be clear, when I use “communication” here, I mean every aspect of the communication act. Not merely what words we say, but the message that comes along with them, that frames and flavors them. I can speak the exact same words to Kim and convey that I love her or that I disdain her and would like to start a fight. I think we all know this but tend to believe that we are innocent in our communication, when we’re anything but.

These two concerns have changed how I approach people. I used to look at people and wonder if they need to be saved and what I needed to do to be a part of that. Now I look at people and know they need to be loved and wonder how I might go about that. When I pray for them, I’m not asking God to help me fix them, or even asking to help God fix them; I’m asking to be part of how God is already loving them.

Now, lest I come across as simply having a new and improved version of how I know everything, I’m really shaky at loving certain people and, with a few, it’s more like trying not to do more harm than good. I needJesus to make my heart bigger. I’ve realized that as I’ve improved ever-so-slightly at establishing boundaries, I’ve also hardened my heart toward some in a way I find repulsive yet tempting. When you grow up without clear, healthy boundaries, it’s easy to swing from love-means-I’m-responsible-for-everything (your feelings, your responses, your pain) to screw-you-and-leave-me-alone. That’s a boundary, right? Well, it is, but not a healthy one.

That middle ground of healthy, semi-permeable individuation that I get to choose? Still working on that. My least loving moments seem to come when I feel angry and threatened in my identity. *Deep breath.* That is why some people get “I’m trying not to hurt you” as my best expression of love toward them, because something in me gets triggered by their words and actions (whether they have malicious intent or not—some do). God has nudged me a lot about enemy love in the past couple years. Dang, it’s hard! It’s much harder when we’re honest with ourselves about whom our enemies are.

I’m guessing some who read my title, “God of Love,” were expecting some deep theological points, not all this pastoral-relational stuff. But see, that’s my point. Hateful beliefs–and I’m talking about beliefs manifested in our actions, not what we might tell ourselves we believe–about God often begin with a view that the end (i.e. goal) of loving God could ever come about with anything other than loving means. In following Jesus, the ends do not justify the means. As Jesus followers, we are people of means and we trust God with the ends. I’m not looking to quibble over whether being brutally honest is more loving than fudging about how you think someone’s outfit looks. I’m addressing how we claim to believe in a God who is love, and then work out in our heads that “love one another” might mean scold, shame, name-call, belittle, demean, or dismiss. Most often, we do this when we perceive others to be contradicting or attacking “the truth.” But Jesus didn’t say, “Defend the truth, use nasty names when necessary.” Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)

I do not have love in my heart for every person. I believe in Jesus. I believe Jesus loves everyone. Jesus tells me to love others as he has loved me. The God of love teaches me to love others by first loving myself (“Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”) So when I first realized that Jesus loved me, I tried to go along with that and learn to love myself by the same means I knew so well: I attacked myself and called myself names and ridiculed myself to get myself to be more loving. Worked like a charm. Utterly failed. But I started to find grace even in that self-attack, because Jesus showed me patience and kindness, and didn’t say “Hey, not like that, Stupid!” Through God’s nudging, I went through a long period of calling myself “the beloved” (as John called himself in the Gospel, e.g. John 13:23, 20:2) which rang about as false as words can ring at first…but over time, and with long practice, started to seep into my hard little heart.

That went on until about sixteen minutes ago. Just kidding. It’s much more recent than that.

I want to be able to love everyone I encounter. Not an abstract “love for all humankind” that has no concrete manifestation with the reckless male driver or the woman in the grocery store who scowls at me for no apparent reason. I believe that’s who Jesus is in the world, the one walking through the world offering and living shalom everywhere he goes.* Probably without anything Velcroed to him, but I leave that up to personal interpretation.

I don’t have enough of that love, that grace-mercy-justice-in-balance mixture that leads us to being reconciled with God, our neighbor, and ourselves. But I’ve tasted it. I’ve seen it’s good. I have a constant struggle in my heart between this love and the desire for power.** By power in this context, I mean when I feel hurt by others I can hurt them back. This power means I can use other people as a means to my ends. It means I don’t have to think about how others feel and instead they have to cater to what I want. If certain people mean nothing to you, that’s often a choice of power over love.

I’m horrified by how some act hatefully in the name of Jesus. I understand why this leads many of us to distance ourselves from any association with God or church. I’m tempted to write a scathing attack on the haters. The angry part of me wants to believe I could make them stop, see themselves, and repent, if only I could express forcefully and eloquently enough what they are doing wrong. I hope you get the irony here. I want to do the thing I used to do, but this time I want to use it for good (as I now understand “good”)…and because my intentions would be good… In other words, “If I wore the Ring of Power, I’d make everything better…”

There’s a place for confrontation. But God has thumped me (the lingo here would be “convicted”) that I need to talk more about how Jesus has loved and changed me, and to come back to being a storyteller about grace. I once was a self-righteous, proud, arrogant, argumentative jerk-for-Jesus, but now I’m…less so. It’s a beautiful story. God is faithful.

The funky little community I’m part of is also working on “I” statements. So I am motivated more to talk about how God is changing me than how I wish God would change others. I once was lost. I now am found. And each day I am becoming more found. Because the God of love loves me and you.

*Some will quickly bring up that Jesus also spoke very strongly to some and also drove some sellers and moneychangers from the Temple. As I read the Gospels, Jesus reserved his strong, confrontational words for the religious leaders who led others away from God (Matthew 23), and similarly his act of aggression came against those who made “God’s house of prayer a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:12-17)

**I’m not suggesting this is the only way to understand power. “Power” can also be the ability to wield influence which can be used for the good of others. Of course, it corrupts, but that’s another discussion…

Monday Musings

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At 7:30, 10 minutes after she left for work, Kim called to say she’d gotten her car scheduled for an oil change at 10AM. Not ideally conducive for my morning writing sessions, especially after a big weekend celebrating her birthday and still hosting houseguests. Always takes me a bit to get my momentum back.

I drive over to East Wenatchee, and of course they have a few other scheduled maintenance things they’d like to do, so the 1/2 hour is going to be 1:20. Sigh. Fine, I’ll spend the time walking to make it beneficial. Who knows, I may even pray and/or have some inspiration.

I’ve walked about a mile from the car dealer/mechanic shop when the wind starts blowing pretty hard and I feel like something is gently tugging on my rear end. I look back and at first think my back pocket is inside out. But no. It’s one of Kim’s footie socks. Attached to my shorts by the Velcro on my back pocket. Yep, walking through the world with a sock Velcroed to my butt.

I wanted to tell myself it blends in, but it’s more a complementary color.

[My funky community appreciated this story. Grace involves transparency and vulnerability, and mental health awareness month needs to include a laugh or two, right? So I’m sharing it with you.]

Make a Better World

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A dear friend was recently diagnosed with Borderline Personality. For the first time in this person’s life, they are getting the support, counseling, and help they need. He shared:

When I first heard that [diagnosis] I was in shock and disbelief but I took the time to read about it and find out why I was the way I was. Over the 7 months I have been working multiple times a week with a therapy group and seeing my own counselor. It hasn’t been easy at all and I still have a daily fight with my demons but I can happily say I’m in the best spot that I have ever been in my adult life.

First, sharing this was a courageous act. Second, how can we not rejoice to hear that someone who has struggled is now in the best emotional health of their whole life?

Third, we can make this possible and so much easier for others to experience.

Mental Health Awareness Month was introduced in 1949. In the Fifties in the United States, people with mental illness were ostracized, to put it mildly. My dad, who grew up in that era, called therapists “head shrinkers.” This is unfortunate, to put it mildly, because Dad was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in the last six months of his life. I loved and love my dad, very much, but he was not easy to grow up with. Our lives–and more to the point, his life–could have been very different if he could have been as open to self-awareness as my friend above is. But Dad’s response to medication for his mental health was, “I don’t want them scrambling my brain.”

I’m not blaming my dad or post-humously criticizing him. He made choices and those choices had consequences, for all of us, especially for him. I can’t change those decisions he made. But the environment in which he learned how to regard mental health issues clearly impacted his life. I don’t play “what ifs” all that often (I do spend far too much energy playing “Why did you do/say that?”), but when I want to get sad, I imagine how Dad’s life might have gone differently, had he gotten diagnosed earlier in his life and responded with openness and confidence. Imagine “This could help me truly live and enjoy my life!” instead of “Don’t scramble my brain!” As I’ve shared before, after Dad died, they found thousands of dollars in medication that he had refused to take. Of course I’m sad about my father’s death, but this adds another dimension to my grief: he was a compassionate, loving man and he didn’t have to suffer the brain chemistry imbalance that made much of his life so difficult.

I deal with depression; I’ve made no secret of that. I have various reasons for speaking up about it: being raised by a father with undiagnosed mental illness, my belief that God’s grace necessarily involves transparency about our weaknesses, and my hope to free others from the stigma that makes living with this vastly more painful. My friend’s testimony above is one of the most compelling reasons. If my encouragement was any small part of my friend’s breakthrough, it was worth it to me a thousand times over.

People fear what they don’t understand. Not always, but all too often. We are also living in a time when many seem to lack basic empathy. That gives us, you and me, more of the weight to carry in helping to create a culture in which addressing mental illness is normal and assumed. Imagine hearing “Oh, my friend had a broken leg, but she was too embarrassed to tell anyone.” “Well, why don’t you just try harder to walk like other people?” “Stop focusing so much on the pain and swelling and think positive thoughts.” I yearn to live in a world in which this kind of response sounds as ludicrous for depression as it does for a broken leg.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you struggle with something debilitating, be it anxiety, depression, mood swings, or something you can’t yet put a name to–especially a thing you don’t understand that makes you feel bad about yourself–please, please step back and look at my friend and my dad. It’s a stark difference. If you have people around you who still ignore, belittle, or naysay what you face–I once had a friend say, “Good thing we were lucky enough to have normal parents,” and in my head I was like, “Yeah, wasn’t that lucky!”–seek out support from those who know better. Message me if you need to. Don’t just hope for it to get better. As another friend has pointed out, when things get really bad, he’s not going to be asking for help; we have to act before things go that far. Awareness means you do not have to go this alone.

We’ve come a long way in destigmatizing mental health struggles. I remember a moment in my twenties when one of my sisters and I were both in counseling and my dad said, “Well, at least one of our kids came out okay.” Meaning my other sister. Ouch. People in my generation got very mixed signals about caring for our mental health; we’re still passing those mixed signals on. But acceptance is much better than it once was. We have the opportunity to make a better world, now. Again, I’m not throwing stones at my dad’s grave, I’m urging you to speak up, especially you who have not faced these issues personally.* Offer support. Read and learn about what you don’t understand. If you hear yourself asking, “Why would you do that?” about a friend whose behaviors look very different from yours, remember that people with broken legs or torn ACL’s might run funny. The more encouraging and empowering we can be, the less our friends and family will feel pressured to hide these struggles from the world.

*This is probably obvious, but if you have dealt with your own depression, anxiety, et al, I trust you’re already speaking up.

Terrorizing Pedestrians

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Imagine you drive a lot. You have a long commute every work day, plus your life responsibilities require you to do even more driving during your “free hours.” For some of you, this won’t stretch your imagination.

You used to have a 45-minute commute, but you discovered that if you take surface streets instead of the expressway, ironically it goes much faster. Now you get there each day in about 28 minutes. That’s a windfall in sleep–and breakfast at home instead of in the car!

The only truly stressful part of all your driving is the pedestrians. They are ridiculous. Some days there aren’t any, and that is such an absolute relief! You arrive at work happier and more relaxed. But some days they’re out there in droves, seemingly in wait for when you appear up the street, strolling across without a care in the world. It’s crazy! Why are they so reckless?

Seriously, if it were just one you’d think someone had a death wish, but it’s so many! A very few will stay put on the sidewalk until you’ve completely cleared the block. Even some of those seem hostile. One guy–and you’re almost sure it’s the same guy, though you pass too quickly to be certain–flips you off every. single. time. he sees you. What the heck?

When you were growing up in a small town, people were smarter. Maybe they just had more common sense or a better upbringing. Your dad taught you very clearly, “Never try to cross the road until there are no cars present.” Is that so complicated? Don’t parents teach that any more? If not, what are they teaching?

A few times it’s been so frustrating, you’ve even considered going back to the expressway route. But then your co-worker who lives just two neighborhoods away complains, “It was frickin’ bumper to bumper today! One hour two minutes from my driveway to the parking lotI An hour of my life I can’t get back and a new personal worst!” So you don’t switch back. You just make a point of driving faster through those neighborhoods to get it over with. Some days you can even shave it to 25 minutes if you push it with California stops.

Then, one Saturday, your daughter, who just got her license last year, asks if she can go with you on a run to the grocery store. Of course you’re happy to have a little time with your teenager, who doesn’t always want to spend time with you now that she has a life and you are O-L-D.

“Do you want to drive, Hon?” you ask. Of course you’re a better driver, and you both know you are, but this is how you build their confidence.

“No, that’s okay. I get plenty of practice now. Thanks, though!” She jumps in the passenger seat and off you go.

You’ve gone only six blocks–it’s not far to your favorite grocery store, under two miles–when sure enough, a pedestrian decides to stroll in front of your car. Your daughter is sitting next to you, so you’re not going to lose your temper–even though you have every right to, especially considering your accumulated frustration.

Instead, you just honk, loud and steady, and slow down exactly enough so they can get across by hurrying just a bit. The pedestrian, a young man, glares at you and starts to say something. But you accelerate so your daughter won’t have to hear that language. Is one day of sanity asking too much?

You glance over to make sure she’s not stressed by what happened. She’s staring at you, mouth agape.

“Dad! What the hell?

You’ve rarely heard your daughter curse. She’s never cursed at you before. You’re not as close as you once were–or hope to be again–but teenage years, teenage rebellion. You remember being awful. Still, though–

“I’d appreciate if you didn’t use that language with me–“

“What! You could have killed that guy! What were you thinking? Why didn’t you stop!”

“Honey? You saw it. He was in the road. I slowed down for him. But you have to let him know he shouldn’t do that.”

DAD! He should do that. You have to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk! It’s the law!

You take a deep breath. Then another. Remember, you love this child. You love this child. Teenagers live to take moral stands, even when they’re dead wrong. They’ll die on any hill. You did.

“No, Hon. That’s dangerous and stupid. Not you, you’re not stupid. But crossing the street in front of a car is always stupid. I was taught that. I taught you that.”

“Daddy, I just took driver’s ed and passed my driving test. Recently. I’ll show it to you. When a pedestrian is in a crosswalk, you have to stop. No exceptions.”

She’s so sure she’s right. This is going to make her feel really foolish. You’re still a little irked, especially since you have to deal with this every day and she probably almost never does. But the more important thing is to make sure she’s driving correctly and safely. Better just to let it drop now. She won’t listen until she’s calmed down. You can explain it thoroughly to her when you get home.

*****

I did grow up in a small town and we waited for cars to pass because there weren’t many. To cross a “busy” street, we might have waited for one or two. In my memory, everyone crossed the street wherever they felt like it, including the two blocks of “downtown,” and I don’t remember thinking even once, “that car should stop for me.” The only exception was that we had crossing guards for elementary school. While I was growing up, we didn’t have a single stop light in town, so there was also no signal when to cross. I don’t remember my dad telling me about crossing, other than the classic “look both ways twice” lesson.

But I remember being shocked when I moved to Los Angeles (okay, Claremont, but greater LA area) and discovered that crosswalks and jaywalking and stopping for pedestrians were all taken very seriously. While spending time with a friend near the UCLA campus, I got the warning, “Do not jaywalk here: they watch for it so they can give tickets.” I’d visited cities before, of course, but hadn’t been on my own to figure it all out. When we were young marrieds living in Pasadena and Kim was teaching in East LA, the president of the LA Unified teachers union was struck by a car and died…because she’d tried to cross where there wasn’t a crosswalk. That level of serious.

I’m talking about more than crossing streets here. I’m guessing that’s clear.

Can people change their minds?

What happens when we’ve “learned it wrong” and therefore we’ve been “doing it wrong” all our lives? What happens when we’re confronted with being wrong? What about when we’re confronted but know we are right because that’s how we were taught? When the person confronting us can’t possibly know better than we do–I mean, they’re younger, right? Didn’t we teach them? Or they just don’t understand the way we do?

Pastors preached “the inferiority of the the African” in 1861. And also 1961. Many preached segregated worship and that interracial marriage was a sin in the first half of the 20th Century; some preached that well into the second half. Some still preach it now. A whole bunch of people were taught wrong; when they were confronted, how easy do you think it was for them to say, “Oh, I see! Sure. I’ve believed the opposite all my life, but now that someone younger is explaining it to me I get how wrong I was.”

Some people did see they were wrong. Repented. Changed their views, their behaviors, everything.

Some people who spat on Ruby Bridges are still alive. Would they do it again?

Could we change our minds?

Change is hard. Changing our minds is hard. Changing our beliefs is even harder. We constantly deal with confirmation and discomfirmation bias. That’s why the “backfire effect” is a human phemenon. “A backfire effect occurs when an evidence-based correction is presented to an individual and they report believing even more in the very misconception the correction is aiming to rectify.”* I liken the backfire effect to our susceptibility to advertising: most of us recognize that this happens to a lot of people, but only those people. Never us. Only ignorant or gullible people fall for advertising, right? Advertisers are happy for us to believe that.

Recognizing and acknowledging we’re wrong becomes even more difficult when we’re deeply invested in our views—especially when we have made these views part of our identity–and when we have our wrong view(s) reinforced by others. That’s why the echo chambers are so powerful at insulating us and so devastating for real dialogue and learning.

So I’m talking about this ficitonal case in which a confident, experienced adult driver has learned completely wrong regarding pedestrians and crosswalks. If the driver from my state goes home and looks up “Rules of the Road” and reads–

Summary of Washington State Crosswalk Law

Every intersection is a crosswalk, unless there are posted signs.

Drivers are required to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians at every crosswalk, marked or unmarked.

–does the driver change his or her mind? What if the person later has a conversation with friends and they all say “Oh, that’s such a bleep bleep weak law! Cars and trucks are how many times heavier and stronger than people? Why should we have to stop when we could just run them over? They should stay the bleep out of our way!” We imagine ourselves independent thinkers. But realizing that we would have to contradict what our community/friend group/family believes in order to change our minds is a powerful force in keeping us from reconsidering our views, even when confronted with “an evidence-based correction.” We probably think too highly of our independence. Put more strongly, we’re probably fooling ourselves that we make all autonomous,independent decisions about what we believe.

Of course, none of us are bearing down on pedestrians, honking wildly and gesturing for them to get out of the way or cursing them for having the nerve to cross in front of us.** But also, none of us have any wrong beliefs or views that need correction. Right?

Changing mine

So I’m going to get personal now, and I’m expecting to lose some readers/subscribers/followers with this, unless those people have already given up on me. But I’m okay with it, if that needs to happen, because the alternative is no longer okay with me. I was wrong about homosexuality. That’s a strange, impersonal way to say it. My belief about people who identify as homosexual was quite wrong, and I have changed that view accordingly. Guess what? Some people who used to consider me a friend and part of their community no longer do, in direct response to this change. I trust you know I’m neither kidding nor exaggerating. I’ve long considered writing a post on my changed view of the LGBTQ community, but it’s much too personal for me to want to come across as calling attention to myself about it. If you haven’t lived this the way I have, you probably shouldn’t critique. If you have, I’m open to hearing but I’ll let you know right now that I’ll pity you if you conclude that your own child is damned to hell. I hope that’s clear and direct enough.

I considered myself “accepting,” as in, “God still accepts you, even though you’re a sinner, just as God accepts me even with my sins.” Now that I’ve been able to hear it from the other side, I’ve learned how unloving this sounds. Now I understand, without reservation or hesitation, that God loves all of us, them and me, without hesitation or reservation. Affirming, I’ve learned, is very different than accepting. Jesus, in his infinite wisdom and excellent sense of humor, had plans for me to be several people’s safe person to whom they could come out–which meant I had to get my views sorted before that. I will write more on this at some point, but not yet.

The difference between “I will grudgingly brake and give you time to dive out of the way before I hit you” versus “you have the right to walk there and I have the obligation, both legal and moral, to stop for you” turns out to be significant.

It’s just an analogy, or a smidge of a metaphor, so please don’t get offended at the parts that don’t fit. But before, I would have said, “They shouldn’t be crossing for their own good!” Now I’m clear that they have every right, legal and otherwise, to cross there and it’s my problem if I don’t like it. Not theirs. Mine.

The process of change wasn’t easy for me. I didn’t just click to a different view. I had to do a lot of soul searching and praying. I had to wrestle with how I understood Scripture. I had to overcome my fear of rejection by those who disagree. But God is gracious and merciful, and got me working on the paradigm shift long before Rowan came out to me. I’m eternally grateful to Jesus for that. You don’t get a second try at how you first respond. I love my son to the moon and back. The love God gives me for Rowan as his father is the bottom line. That is theology: God is love, God loves me, and God both loves my child and creates me to love my child in the same way.***

It’s sobering to think I might have other pedestrian-right-of-way views that need changing as badly as this did. But I believe in grace. I fully believe that we should not hate ourselves for what we did not know or understand, yet when we know better, we must do better.

I’m going to say one more thing. I like people to like me. I mean I have a nearly-obsessive concern with what others think of me. Chasing this craving tempts me to sin. It tempts me to remain silent when I should speak. I’ve taken significant, concrete steps of repentance, including writing a book. So if your honest response–maybe one that you acknowledge only in the privacy of your own mind or can’t (yet) even fully admit to yourself–is that you can’t face what certain people would think of you if you changed a belief or “came out” with new views (so to speak), know that I hear you and empathize. A lot.

I told myself for years that I was going to speak up more boldy “at some point.” We call that “rationalization.” Or “denial,” take your pick. I had to get over it and speak up or live with my hypocrisy. I know, that’s a harsh word. I’m simply describing my own process. It didn’t feel like I was merely “keeping my opinions to myself” or “keeping the peace” (as I kept insisting to myself), but that I was being a hypocrite by supporting certain ideas and people…but not publicly.

Acknowledging that we’re wrong, heck, even admitting the real possibility that we’re wrong, takes courage. Fear in us resists evan asking the question, fear both of opening ourselves to criticism and of tipping a domino that could knock over others–God knows how many? I say that not profanely, but in humble faith. God does know how many. God knows the areas in our lives where we’re still terrorizing pedestrians. I hope our beliefs are not a house of cards that will collapse if the wrong one gets pulled out. But if we’re wrong and hurting others, I pray we’ll take the risk of looking at our lives, a process which is far more complex and scary than reading the rules of the road, to see if we’ve been mistaken all along.

* Lewandowsky, Ecker, Seifert, Schwarz, & Cook 2012. There is currently a debate how prevalent the backfire effect is.

**Okay, if you are doing this frequently, I’m going to say–without judging you–that you have anger issues. But we all have issues.

***Let me just repeat, I’m not interested in debating this when that debate is an abstract, theoretical, academic exercise for someone else and life or death for my child, or for anyone’s child. I hope that makes sense.

GO NOW

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It’s 55 degrees and raining in Wenatchee. Spring has been arriving daintily, touching her toe to the ground, pulling it back quickly, taking a few tentative steps in then jumping away again, ballerina-style. At least, that’s how I’m picturing it, because some years we go from grey snow, sleet, and 35 degrees on Sunday to 87 and dry on Monday…and heading into the high 90’s by this weekend. I appreciate that Wenatchee has four distinct seasons, but they don’t divide out evenly on the calendar–at least not as I experience them: if you divide twelve months by four, winter shouldn’t be three times longer than spring. Further, spring of 2020 was eclipsed by COVID-19 as we all tried to figure out what was going on, how bad it really was, and what we needed to do next.

The weather forecast for today was not promising. It sounded cold and wet, the kind of spring day when you find a good book, a hot cup of tea, and a window to watch how pretty spring is…without actually going out in it.

BUT.

But Kim and I have been running the dogs, Mumford and Nicki, for four miles every other day since November. Rain, shine, snow, sleet, utterly crappy weather, come what may, we’re out there. We’ve missed a few for nagging, non-age-related injuries (cough, cough) but very seldom have we backed down to the weather.

AND.

Not only does spring passes quickly here, but our wildflowers are fleeting. Our PNW wildflowers arrive in early spring and, for the most part, die off four to six weeks later. I mean, they explode out of the hills. It looks like God showers the mountain with yellow balsam root and then, a week or so later, showers purple lupine right on top. We’ll have scarlet paintbrush soon, but by then we’ll already start to lose our balsam root.

You see, we live in a semi-arid climate. When I moved here, I thought that meant halfway between arid and not-arid, i.e. temperate. Nope. It means in the far end of dry, the arid quadrant, it’s halfway between just a little arid and all-the-way arid, i.e. desert. Oh.*

Therefore, we get this breathtaking display of wildflowers on the hills and mountains surrounding our small city, but once they appear, we have a very brief window–maybe 6 weeks out of 52, if we’re lucky. Then the sun bakes them, what little rain we have stops for the summer, and it all goes brown. Weeks of nineties and 100’s. Semi-desert. It’s a dry heat. The hills are still beautiful, but more of an austere beauty.

THEREFORE.

Today, we took the dogs and went. They got muddy. We got rained on. And it was wonderful.

First, the wind was not blowing, so the 55 degrees felt like spring, not those final throes of winter (apologies and pity to our midwest friends who got snow within this past week). Second, the trails on Sage Hills, and really everywhere around Wenatchee, are very dusty, already, so the rain more dampened and settled the dust than turned it to mud. Kim and I laughed because we were arriving just as the rain got more serious, while everyone else we saw was on their way out–as if they had read the hourly forecast while we only noted the daily summary.

As we run uphill and the flowers spread out before us, Kim says, “This feels like running through a movie scene of heaven. Remember that one with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and…Robin Williams?”*

SO.

Yes, there were some small consequences. We had to block the dogs in the kitchen for an hour so they could dry out. My car will likely smell like wet dog fur (one of the lesser-selling candle scents) for a good while. I was ready for a hot shower by the time I got home and had some water.
I think that’s it.

Getting out today was magical. If you don’t live here and want to visit Wenatchee, you should come sometime in mid- to late-April. The window is small–but we’ve never seen anything quite like this anywhere else we’ve lived.

I’m a sort of once and future pastor, writer, mentor type, so I can’t help but see lessons and parables and deeper meaning everywhere I look..

Sometimes, we have all the time in the world to do something. Or at least all the time we need. Sometimes “putting it off” doesn’t cost you anything.

But sometimes, sometimes, the moment is now. This is it. You go and get a little wet and run through the most beautiful wildflowers you can even imagine. Kim said, “If people knew about this, they’d have to put in a paved trail, like Paradise on Mount Rainier.” My mother-in-law, on seeing the pictures, says “I think God’s favorite color combination is purple and yellow. You are surrounded by God’s glory!”

Or else you decide, “Naw, that rain doesn’t look inviting. The dogs will be a mess. There’s always another day.” We tried to remember when we had gotten up to Sage Hills last spring…and concluded we’d missed the whole wildflower extravaganza last year, again thanks to trying to navigate the bloody COVID-19 pandemic.

In theology, we talk about the kairos moment, the critical, opportune time, that one crucial moment. Is a jog in the mountains with your spouse and two dogs really a kairos moment? Or is this more carpe diem? Seize the day, as Robin William’s character exhorted us in Dead Poets’ Society, because tomorrow you may be worm food. For me, that holds even more gravitas since Robin Williams took his own life.***

I’m not offering any absolute interpretation and I’m certainly not weighing in to tell you which decision you should seize right now. We’re coming through a pandemic and, though we may feel (so) done with it, the virus is not done with us. I just read a friend’s update, describing her child trying to survive MIS-C. It’s a nightmare. In this past year, the wisest way to seize the day, at least in terms of exposure and public gatherings, has generally been to err on the side of caution. So I’m not undercutting that wisdom now.

I’m looking a little deeper. Life is starting to look short, from this perspective. One daughter is leaving for college soon. Our eldest is already “out there,” working as an EMT (our favorite first responder). Our youngest is a teenager. The days crawl but the years fly.

So gasping at and breathing in those wild flowers, I’m reminded that we have some choices that can’t be put off forever and still be choices. “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Sometimes the harder-looking way bears riches that the easier way would never yield…and if we take the easier way, we won’t even know what we missed. Kim and I had talked about the Saturday weather starting on Thursday when we heard the forecast, and we began with “Probably not, but we’ll see.” Sometimes, in whatever way you understand this, God says “Go now,” and there are a hundred reasons that seems like a bad idea. But then those hundred reasons look small next to the thousands of wildflowers…or ten thousand things we would have missed out on in our lives, had we never lived in Nicaragua.

Mostly, I want to remind you–and me–that grey, rainy days may offer wildflowers that the comfort of your chair never will. Literally and figuratively.

And if this isn’t strong enough, I’m reminded that my friend Fred Bull would be 42 today.

*Extra irony that people who don’t live in the Pacific Northwest think that “Washington State=Seattle.” Therefore, they believe we live in some soggy urban rainforest. We always explain, “No, that’s the other side of the Cascades. We have three hundred days of sunshine a year.” Yes, 300. As my kids would say, “true facts.”

**I then proceeded to recount the plot of What Dreams May Come (which is a touch grim) and she says, “Um, I guess so. I just remember the flowers.”

***And yes, the plot of What Dreams May Come involved his character’s wife committing suicide.

Love Is and Isn’t

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Jesus is beautiful. I don’t mean he’s a good-looking guy. I mean love is beautiful and God is love. Real love, the love that manifests in humility and generosity, kindness and grace, forgiveness and repentance, is the most beautiful thing in the world (a close second is a perfect layout catch for game point, but I digress).

 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:8

I love my kids. I love Rowan, who is now an EMT, and I support him however I can. He’s an adult with his own place and I don’t see him every day. I love him to the moon and back. Recently, someone stole a part off his car (because sometimes people suck) so he is currently borrowing mine. I get to love him that way.

I love Corin, who is thirteen and acts every bit of thirteen. In fact, I am now having flashbacks to thirteen and I just want to say: “Sorry, Mom.” But Corin enjoys my company, praise God, and we play baseball and disc golf, watch shows and play board games, and I’m teaching him to drive (because he. cannot. wait.). We talk about life and the world we live in. I spend time with Corin literally every day and often my love for Corin looks like spending time with him when I feel like I “should” be doing other things. Often, love for Corin looks like exercising more patience than I actually possess–I’m certain he will apologize to his mom at some distant point in the future–and speaking firmly but gently. Firmly. But gently. Grace. More grace. And then more patience.

I love this child, more than I can hope to put into words. Yes, he drives me crazy at times, but I don’t take his life for granted. Ever. I trust you understand what I mean by that.

Love for Corin and love for Rowan look very different at this point in their lives and stages. We express love differently depending on the person and situation. If I loaned Corin my car for an extended period of time and let him drive it wherever he wants, that would not be loving to him. Oh, he’d like it. But offering him the opportunity to hurt himself and others would be unloving.* Likewise, Rowan doesn’t want me showing up at his place every day, badgering him to watch The Simpsons or come throw a disc. He would not feel loved. He has good boundaries, so he would let me know pretty quickly, “Dad, not feeling loved here.”

We love differently depending on the context. However… In honor of Corin’s current enjoyment of The Simpsons, I’ll borrow my counterexample from Homer Simpson. Homer buys his wife, Marge, a bowling ball for her birthday.

Marge doesn’t bowl, but Homer does. Conveniently, this ball fits Homer’s hand perfectly.

Love can take an almost infinite variety of forms; what may feel like love to one person might feel horribly unloving to another. But some things can never be love, no matter how much we want to squint and contort our perspective.

Fear-mongering can never be love. Pushing others down to raise ourselves up can never be love. Rallying others to support your cause through shared hatred of the enemy can never be love. Racism, however we try to disguise, rationalize, or justify it, can never be love.

God is love and love is beautiful. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God,” John writes. I will take the next step: love leads us toward God. When we love, the act of love changes us. I mean, truly love others with our hearts, not pretend to love with our words while our hearts harden. We cannot love and grow further away from God. The very act of loving draws us to God.

Yes, you can love and push away from a church. You can act in love and, through that act, distance yourself from an individual or community who might claim the name of Jesus. But any act of love intrinsically draws us to God.

To me, this explains how some people who do not accept the name of Jesus can be dazzlingly beautiful in their love, while others who proudly proclaim Jesus at every opportunity might appear neither loving nor beautiful. Just as we are punished by our sins, not for our sins (intrinsic, not extrinsic), so too do we grow through acts of love, not for acts of love. God designed it to work this way and God designed us to work this way. In other words, love itself grows us; we do not receive growth as some prize for acting in love. Paul’s passage on love in I Corinthians draws this out:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

None of these “spiritual” actions–speaking/preaching, prophesying, having faith, giving–change our hearts or benefit us at all unless we act in love.** Again, “whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Looking spiritual or having influence over large numbers of people does not necessarily equate with acting in love. I connect this with Jesus’ warning that people can act and claim Jesus’ name: “‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’”(Mt. 7:22) Again, if I have prophetic powers, but do not love, I am nothing.

In fact, people who claim to be acting for God and don’t love are dangerous.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?  In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Recently, I’ve seen this quote bouncing through social media: “Stop walking around with a mouth full of Scripture and a heart full of hate.” Not sure who said it first, but thank you, Someone. It captures Paul’s warning, albeit focused more on the negative: Don’t be quoting Scripture at people as a weapon, don’t be mouthing God’s word when God’s love isn’t motivating you and changing your heart.

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.

This sounds simple and straightforward until we remember that we always have mixed motives. Always. Love is complicated because we’re always navigating our own conflicting desires and motivations.*** So I carry these in tension: Jesus says to beware of wolves in sheeps’ clothing and I can’t know others’ motives to be certain of what is in their hearts. I do have responsibility to watch for–and protect others from–people who claim Jesus but preach hate. I do have responsibility to discern when I see good fruit or bad fruit. Most of all, I am to watch and know my own heart.

That takes me back to my opening: God’s love is beautiful. When I love, I know God. The more I choose to love, the more I grow toward God.

And just so I don’t mentally turn myself into a pretzel asking “How do I know if this really is loving?”

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. I Corinthians 13:4-8

*Actually, he has the sense not to drive it, as he just explained to me that he would not do anything that could possibly delay obtaining his license.

**I’d say an act done not in love can still benefit others, but that’s not my point here.

***I always suspect there is a group of people out there who are much purer of heart than I, have more straightforward motives, and even understand their own motives! If so, I hope they pray for me. A lot. I also suspect my mother-in-law belongs to this group.

Jesus Loves Us and…

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Every once in a while, God taps me on the shoulder while I’m writing a blog post and says, “Not that. This.” It doesn’t happen often, but I’m encouraged when it does.

I started writing about my frustration with the church that claims Jesus. There is much I could say. But much of that is negative.

Instead, it’s this:

Jesus loves us and calls us to the truth. The truth hurts. The truth confronts us, and would free us, of our own hypocrisy. The truth will set you free, but first it will kick your butt.

Jesus loves us and calls us to love. When we seek to love others, we quickly discover the limits of how much we want to love. We learn how selfish we are. The truth hurts. Then we start to grasp our need for grace. Then we pray and decide if we want to love or stay selfish.

Jesus loves us and calls us to love others as we love ourselves. We quickly learn that we do not love ourselves the way that Jesus loves us. Often we love ourselves in a comfort-above-all, self-destructive, sometimes self-attacking way (a strange version of love, by anyone’s definition). We learn to love ourselves by speaking the truth to ourselves, by speaking as kindly to ourselves as we speak to others, by refusing to numb the pain and instead walking into the scary, painful places that can only be transformed when we face them. We are transformed into loving beings through learning to be both kinder and more truthful with ourselves. As we see how much we prefer comfort/denial over our own growth, we’re constantly confronted with how much we need grace. Then we begin to love others by offering the grace we’ve received for ourselves.

Jesus loves us and calls us to love these among us whom our culture values least. He loves them just as he loves us, but our world has deemed them unlovable, unworthy, expendable. These are our neighbors. Most often, they look and act differently than we do. Frequently, they have less than we do. Jesus loves us and challenges us to redefine our understanding of “neighbor.”

Jesus loves us and calls us to love our enemies. To love our enemies. None of us naturally loves our enemies. We come up with fanciful explanations and circuitous reasoning why that command doesn’t mean what it sounds like it does, or why killing or wounding our enemies is really some form of love. But Jesus is patient with us. He knows we are made of dust and God’s breath. He knows how bad we are at this. He also knows how we need to love our enemies, both for our enemies’ sake and for our own. So Jesus models loving his enemies and says, “Do as I have done.”

Jesus loves us and calls us to be shalom-bringers. Shalom means people in right relationship with God, with one another, and with ourselves. Sometimes we translate this as “reconciler,” “peacemaker,” or “justice seeker.” Shalom encompasses all these things. Jesus calls us to learn about injustice–to look deeper than the superficial, more comfortable explanations given by the powerful and comfortable. Jesus calls us to open our eyes to see, to open our ears to hear the cry of those suffering (as God does). Then Jesus calls us to break through our justifications and rationalizations, to own the part we have in causing–or allowing and benefitting from–injustice. We become shalom-bringers as we confront injustice in ourselves and in our culture. We become shalom-bringers as we grow to desire God’s true justice over either vengeance or superficial absence of tension. We become shalom-bringers as we learn to pursue justice with grace.

Jesus loves us and calls us to forgive. Forgive ourselves. Forgiving ourselves turns out to be wildly difficult for many of us. Refusing to forgive ourselves turns out to be a form of attempting to pay penance. But we are forgiven. Forgive others. Forgive not because we can explain it away or “they didn’t mean to” or they make it up to us, but forgive as God has forgiven us. Forgive while acknowledging the sin and hurt they’ve (or we’ve) committed. Forgive with grace that doesn’t demand a pound of flesh, grace that opens the possibility of redemption. Forgive even our enemies. Neither “It’s all good,” nor “I forgive you and you have no consequences for your actions,” but “I forgive you while fully acknowledging what you did, and I offer that to you whether or not you choose to receive it.”

Jesus loves us and calls us to repent. I don’t believe Jesus starts with “Here are all the things wrong with you.” much less, “You are an unlovable wretch and though I can’t bear the sight of you, somehow because I am God I will overcome my revulsion and forgive your sins, anyway.” I believe Jesus begins with “I love you and I like you and you’re beautiful and because these are true, I want you to stop damaging yourself and become fully alive.” Jesus loves us and is patient with us, more patient than we are with ourselves. Yet also, Jesus loves us and desires our good even when we would prefer our more comfortable or numbing self-destruction. Jesus is patient with us and confronts us with the truth; Jesus confronts us with the truth and then is patient with us. Kindness leads us to repentance.

Jesus loves us and calls us into community. He leads us not to isolate ourselves from relationships, but to find people with whom we can become fully alive. Jesus leads us to find other imperfect, loving, shalom-seeking, grace-needing and grace-offering people. Then Jesus commands us–not requests, commands us–to love others as he loves us. Truth-telling, forgiving, encouraging, helping one another to value and love (in action!) the least among us. That’s the love we offer others and that is the love we receive from others. We will love others imperfectly and will sometimes hurt those in our community; they will love us imperfectly and sometimes hurt us. Then Jesus calls us to forgive and reconcile…and the dance goes on.

Jesus loves us and calls us to share our resources, to give freely. He gives what he has–love, healing, water to wine, bread and fish–and he tells stories about giving. In none of these does Jesus ever mention whether the recipient deserves to receive. In fact, Jesus tells a parable about giving more than the recipients deserve–and how much that pisses off the “more deserving.” (Matthew 20:1-16) He tells perhaps his best-known parable, the Prodigal Son, when religous critics complain that he keeps company with people undeserving of his love (read: sinners, those valued least). Jesus calls us to share because he loves us and knows we will damage ourselves and others when we hoard; we help ourselves and others to become fully alive when we give.

Finally, Jesus loves us and calls us to share that we are loved. People need to know that their Creator loves and dotes on them. We need to know that we are made in God’s image and that cannot be stripped from us. People need to know that God offers us grace in every moment and with every breath. We need to know that this gorgeous, breath-taking world is our home to care for and God’s expression of love for us and all creation. People need to know there is forgiveness, that we are all made in God’s image and therefore we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. We need to know that love conquers death.

Today, tomorrow, every day, I believe this and make my choices–how to love, how to be a dad and husband, how to be a friend, how to write, how to vote, even how to play ultimate–not merely guided by these but rooted in them. “I am the vine and you are the branches, abide in me” rooted. Then I rely on Jesus’s grace when I screw up.

I know I haven’t offered anything novel here. I’m profoundly discouraged at the state and behavior of the church. Instead of responding directly to critiques I’m receiving that appear rooted in correcting what some perceive as my liberal politics with (what I perceive as) their conservative politics, I think God nudged me to describe my calling and our calling. You may think “This doesn’t describe what the church actually does at all.” I get that. It’s still how we follow Jesus.

I can’t fix the church. I can’t fix myself. I trust Jesus to love me and lead me to change. That’s what I know and what I can share.

Jesus loves us and is faithful.