Discouragement

Standard

I shouldn’t write tonight but I have to write this tonight. I have to write this now.

If I were to be canonized when I die, which I consider a fair long shot at this moment, I’d like to become the patron saint of people battling discouragement.

I’m discouraged as hell tonight. It was a hard day, one of the most discouraging I’ve had in many moons.

I shouldn’t write tonight because it’s already late and I’ve already doomed myself to being short on sleep and dragging through tomorrow.

I have to write this now because I’ve been promising myself that I would write a post on discouragement from inside, so to speak. Also, writing (or any artistic activity) is an act of defiance in the face of discouragement. Discouragement says, “Why bother, it’s not going to make any difference.” Discouragement’s cousin, cynicism, dresses up as an intellectual to pretend that this choice to acquiesce and do nothing in the face of sorrow and injustice and cruelty and indifference is somehow wisdom.

Discouragement isn’t dressing up, though. It isn’t trying to fool anyone. Discouragement lacks the energy and the will to bother.

Discouragement reminds us that for every inspirational story of the guy who just kept trying and finally triumphed, of the woman who refused to quit and eventually overcame impossible odds, a bunch of people kept trying and still failed.

Discouragement calls hope “wishful thinking.” It says, “Sure, go ahead and pray. If that makes you feel better, why not? You know you’re kidding yourself though, right?”

I know you might be reading this and thinking, “Man, what a downer! I thought he was a man of faith.”

That’s my point. I am a man of faith, by which I mean I continue to believe and try to live by my believe that Jesus loves me–loves us–and won’t reject or abandon us. This is what I deal with as a man of faith and this is how we have to survive it.

If you’re reading this and think, “Oh, I know exactly how that feels,” you know there are days when nothing helps. I’m not talking about depression, exactly. That’s again a different relative, with the same family tree but different parents. By “discouragement” I mean that realization that you’ve tried and you’ve beaten your head against the wall and what you have besides a minor concussion is…

No, that’s it.

That’s how discouragement feels. And if you have some chirpy, cliched solution to this, you haven’t battled discouragement the way I’m describing. So if that’s you, and those well-meaning answers you read in (I’m now practicing self-control by not naming the author I’m thinking of) fix it for you, please go ahead and pray for me and don’t feel like you need to finish reading this.

Still here? Shit. I’m sorry. It’s no fun, is it?

There are so many ways to describe life, to frame what we’re going through here on this journey. I could aptly describe my existence here as a lifelong battle between discouragement and refusing to give in. Obviously, there are so many other aspects to my life, so much joy and beauty and all the people I have loved and encouraged and the times I’ve made people laugh and all that wonderful ultimate I’ve played. None of that goes away, none is rendered meaningless. It’s still true that I love Kim. God is still faithful.

But I’m also trying to tell you that God’s faithfulness and my love for Kim don’t erase this discouragement. Neither do wine and chocolate and a few really nice catches I made tonight (indoor ultimate season, thank God we were playing tonight) make it go away and they only numb it so much. One motivation for addiction is to numb it out all the way. I can’t recommend that. Addiction has a way of taking over and becoming a bigger problem than the one you were trying to make go away. But I get why people go down that road. The scary part is how tempting it is to walk on top of the fence and convince yourself you won’t fall over into addiction, you’ll just, you know, take the edge off a little. But I truly understand why anyone would not want to feel this.

So here’s why I’m writing: feeling this way is one of the most miserable things I know. It’s miserable enough to make one want to do anything to make it stop. If you’re feeling this way and still going, you’re a [very strong expletive for emphasis) warrior, and I know that. I don’t care if no one else knows it. I do. I know how some days breathing feels too demanding and things that need to happen just don’t because just being is exhausting all your resources. I know that a bunch of people don’t get that and they look down on you and you couldn’t ever explain it to them in a way that makes sense to them and part of you resents them for that and part of you feels bad and still wants to try.

You are a freaking hero.

You are a hero for not giving up. I don’t know if you’ll ever triumph, in the classic “then he got rich” or “she got famous” story. Without that ending, you are a hero to me.

I promised myself I would write when I felt like this so that I could say to you: I know. I really do know. I’m with you. God is with you, and I don’t say that to pretend it makes everything magically all better, but because it’s true and I’m convinced it makes all the difference, the difference between life and death.

Today I spent a long time holding my daughter’s hand in the dentist office while she went through a painful (but necessary) procedure. Today I helped my wife arrange and decorate her kinder classroom for her “Polar Express Pancake Party” tomorrow. Tonight I played disc and made jokes and ran hard. I did all that stuff while feeling like I was dying inside, not pretending I wasn’t but refusing to succumb to those feelings, those voices, the temptation to give up.

Yes, I’m discouraged. No, I’m not quitting.

When I die, I hope I join the communion of saints, the “great host of witnesses,” and I hope Jesus gives me special dispensation to come and whisper in people’s ear, “you freaking rock; God heard your prayer about how discouraged you are and sent me to remind you that, even though no one else gets how hard you’re fighting right now, Jesus gets it and is fighting with you, holding onto you as you fight it, right now.”

It’s 3:15 and I’m not the patron saint of anything. Tomorrow I’ll feel some embarrassment for having been this blunt and open. That’s okay. If you can hear me, saying this is worth it.

You are a warrior.

Maybe Christmas Means…

Standard

It’s eight days until Christmas.

I hope that doesn’t shoot cold electric jolts down your spine due to a relentless, despotic ticking clock and more to do than time left to do it.

Even more, I hope that doesn’t cause you to think “Okay, just over a week, and then another week after that. Will I survive this time?”

I’m in my second Holiday Season back in the States. Last year, it all felt shocking and garish and ridiculous and loud. I loved Christmas in Nicaragua, even thought without cold weather and snow I had a harder time clicking into the Holiday mindset. I loved the slower pace. I loved how easy and natural it was to scale down our gift giving, especially with our children. They didn’t complain. They understood our situation and limits and responded more gratefully for receiving less than when we’d lived here.

And now we’re back, and the frenzy that is US consumer Christmas is upon us again and, I’m sad to realize, feels normal again. We’re still not the family that has a Christmas party to attend for each day of December. Our lack of popularity, though hard on the underdeveloped dimension of my personality that resents not being invited to parties I don’t want to attend, is overall a great relief. This year especially, when Kim is preparing for National Boards and is stretched beyond the reasonable demands of 24-hour days, I’m glad we’re not trying to pack in more than we can manage, much less enjoy.

Instead, we are slowly working our way through our favorite Christmas specials. Tonight we watched The Grinch, the original animated version (the only one we ever watch). Our offsprings’ responses to The Grinch have changed, from cheering at the end that this “he turns nice!” to stating quite early in his grumblings, “relatable.” We had a humorous discussion about how you might need medical attention if your “heart grew two sizes that day.” But watching the favorites again roots me in the nostalgia, all the way back to watching The Grinch with my late father when I was young enough to feel nervous at his evil plotting (and canine mistreatment) and even more unsettled at the question, “Would I sing and celebrate on Christmas morning if I discovered I got no presents?”

Our daughter Annalise just arrived back from Nicaragua. We were together again as a whole family last night–to celebrate my awesome brother-in-law’s birthday–for the first time in half a year. Being together feels like a bigger and more meaningful gift than anything you could wrap for me.

In my last post, I wrote about Small Wonders, opportunities for kindness and generosity that we have in this season. I’m not going for a Hallmark special here, but I believe you can make more real Christmas spirit through watching for these and seizing the opportunity than through a whirlwind of Christmas parties or a pile or purchases. Being together is also Christmas cheer and finding presents that express love to our loved ones does celebrate the season.

But it’s good to take a moment to step back and acknowledge: the form we have inherited/allowed/partcipated in shaping for Christmas is not God’s command for how we do this and may not even be God’s preference. We’ve done this ourselves. That being the case–and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find solid biblical precedent for all the trappings of a traditional US Christmas*–I think it’s spiritually healthy to question if we are living this season in a way that draws us closer to God, that helps us to offer grace and live joy, or if we are living it in a way that could best be described as “too much of a good thing.”

So I’m just going to ask: how could you know Jesus better in this holiday, in this Advent season? How could you bless someone not on your christmas gift exchange list nor your party invite list? How could you lift up the lowly or fill the hungry with good things?

I’m not telling you how to do this. I’m certainly not trying to add to your guilt or your overload in this homestretch. If you’ve struggled through, especially if you’ve been depressed or discouraged, I can relate and have written about my own experience being there. I hope it helps.

I hope, I really do pray, that you can slow down enough to ask the question. Is this what I want Christmas to mean for myself and for my family? Is this how I want to live Christmas?

*The “wise men” gave the baby named Jesus gifts. The angels sang. There was also a prophecy or song or spontaneous outpouring about “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)

A Season of Small Wonders

Standard

There are small wonders happening all around us. Sometimes we’re involved. Sometimes we witness them. Most of the time I suspect they go by without our noticing.

In Grocery Outlet tonight, I passed a hispanic woman in, perhaps, her early sixties.

Permiso,” I said as I stepped past. I am acutely aware that A)My Spanish is weak, and B)a gringo trying to bust out his three words of Spanish can look silly and even come across as condescending. Nevertheless, I choose to speak Spanish when I think there’s a decent chance it is the other person’s first or primary language. The vast majority of Nicaraguans graciously and enthusiastically encouraged me when I spoke Spanish there, but I don’t think most Mexicans or Hondurans or Guatemalans struggling with English receive the same treatment from gringos here. Therefore, I try to convey that I want to communicate and will not criticize any attempt at speaking English (i.e. can you really do worse than my accent?).

I scooted past and began perusing hair care products.

Then the woman said, “Disculpe,” as in “Sorry to interrupt you,” and asked me, in Spanish, if I could reach a bottle from the top shelf. Now I should mention that she was short enough not to be able to reach these bottles even if she had a good vertical leap and I always think of myself as short and am thrilled when I get to be the tall person and utilize all five feet and eight inches God gave me. I reached up–not even on tip-toes–and grabbed a shampoo bottle for her, and then she asked for a second one. She thanked me effusively. We smiled at each other.

It’s a tiny interaction, a minuscule kindness I was able to offer, and it happened almost certainly because I addressed her in Spanish. I don’t know that, of course, but I do know how awful it felt in Nicaragua, even (or especially) after seven years, when I lacked the language to say what I needed. And remember, nearly everyone treated me well when I revealed I spoke imperfect Spanish. So I’ll put it this way: If I were her, I would not have asked for help, in Spanish, from a random white man who might not understand a word and might snarl at me for not speaking English.

As always at Grocery Outlet, I imagined a one-bag trip and ended up with an overflowing three-bag trip. I had brought two with me (because I don’t completely fool myself) and still had to run to the car for the third. Just before I ran outside, a heard a man in the next checkout line ask, “Can I pay for that for you?”

My head swung like someone had offered me chocolate. There was an older, grey-bearded man, explaining again what he was offering. Interestingly, the man he offered it to said “No, thank you.” But I thought it was a really cool gesture. Then I ran outside to get the aforementioned grocery bag. When I got back, the checker was just scanning my last items. And the grey-bearded man was paying for several bags of groceries of a woman in the next lane. She was thrilled. She hugged him.

I turned to the clerk in my lane and said, “Wow!”

“Yeah,” she said, “they’ve been offering that to a bunch of people.”

Sure enough, as I watched, the man moved to the line on the opposite side of me and asked to cover three small items for a guy who looked to me like he might not have the money even for those. He might have been homeless. The grey-bearded man and the woman with him–I’m going to take a wild leap and say his wife–both hugged the man. I heard both say, “God bless you.” Finally, the couple headed back into the aisles, apparently to hunt down other potential recipients. They seemed to be looking for people specifically who needed the help.

The cashier said to me, “They do that. They own a small business and just like to give back where they can.”

I left Grocery Outlet and walked out into the windy night, pushing a cart filled with my three-bag visit. I had on short-sleeves and a fleece vest and my arms quickly got cold and then painfully cold. I didn’t stop smiling the whole drive home.

There is too much to protest and oppose, too much bad news, and I am sick of feeling discouraged, sick of praying for it to get better and watching it get worse.

Maybe that makes small wonders appear bigger. Or maybe I just needed the reminder that small things matter.

What is the Kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?

Oh, that’s right.

PS I’m pretty excited that my book of Advent reflections, God Enters In, is now available in paperback and as a e-book. Some of you have heard that a dozen times, but there may be someone out there yet to hear the news. Merry Christmas!


“God Enters In” now available

Standard

Last year I wrote an Advent reflection series. Several wonderful people told me I should turn it into a book–they’re wonderful independent of that they like my writing, by the way–so I took good advice. I know, will wonders never cease? I polished them up and edited them and added a bit and voila! an Advent devotional book.

So you can now get God Enters In on Kindle, including with the free Kindle reader app, so you can read it on basically any screen. For those of you who have never tried that, the link just to the right of the book cover on the same page, where it says “Read with Our free app.” You can get there by clicking here, then clicking on the link when it pops up.


Speaking of the book cover: my brilliant, artistic nieces Aislyn and Annika designed the cover for me! Feel free to leave a comment telling them how great it is.

I’m working on getting both this and Something Like Faith out in paperback. Update! It’s available in paperback now, too! I’m a bit challenged in this area, so if anyone is handier at the whole digital revolution, I would accept help gratefully and pay you in chocolate or free books.

Of course, you can also still read the Advent reflections here on my blog. I haven’t taken them down, in case anyone can’t afford the book right now or just prefers the blog version.

Thanks for all the encouragement and support for my writing. I hope you have a blessed and healthy Advent season. I always remember this is not the easiest time for everyone and, some years, has been the most difficult for me. I do believe God is with us.

“A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.”

Standard

― Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House

My wife Kim teaches kindergarten. Some children begin kindergarten already so at risk, so behind, with such severe behavioral problems that their chances to succeed are minuscule. Kim has one right now.

We live in an insane society in which people have agreed that certain behaviors qualify as sane and, so long as you follow those behaviors, you will escape scrutiny.

The terrifying part of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which likely doesn’t occur to you when you hear the story as a child, is: what if you can’t get the people to admit what you see so clearly?

How long can you keep saying, “But…he doesn’t have any clothes on” while everyone else goes on praising his finery and telling you you’re wrong, you’re blind…

You’re crazy.

How long are you sure you’re right? How long can you stand there being shouted down? What if you see the Emperor on television, day after day, stark naked, and every single day the newscasters tell you “He’s dressed to the nines, astounding what good fashion sense he has, bold and daring yet not overbearing or garish, just…so tasteful.”

But he’s not. Wearing. A damn. Thing.

I’ve lived this before. I’ve been criticized because I wasn’t fitting someone else’s crazy and could not, for the life of me, see how it made sense, how it could possibly make sense. I had my whole life of experience that this was gonzo and joining in wouldn’t make it any less crazy but would certainly make me more crazy.

But even when you know, it’s hard to stick to your guns.

Here’s another complicating factor: to learn, we have to acknowledge that we could be wrong. If you can’t be wrong, you can never learn anything new. If you can’t be wrong, then you better already know everything and be right about everything.

But he still doesn’t have anything on.

I want to be open-minded and humble and educable. But all the open-mindedness in the world isn’t covering his nether regions.

Wisdom and experience, which are cousins, tell me there are certain beliefs I need to carry humbly and hold loosely, while others are more objectively true. Rain is wet. Open-mindedness to counter arguments might appear more diplomatic, but you don’t really mean it because, come on, water is wet.

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” George Orwell, 1984

But what if they tell you it isn’t? What if they tell you it isn’t and mean it?

Here, then, is our situation, our conundrum, and no, none of this is hypothetical, not one syllable:

What if you know what you see with your own eyes but others insist you don’t see it, including some you once trusted? What if they tell you that you have some condition, some mental problem that causes you to overreact and start to see things that aren’t there (or not see things that are)?

What if they tell you he’s fully clothed and the rain you’re standing in isn’t drenching you?

What did any of this have to do with that child in my wife’s class?

That child I’m describing isn’t hypothetical, either. Kim has a student in exactly that situation and is struggling mightily to find some way to help. That’s real.

I want us to invest our time and energy and resources to help children who should not be doomed at five, rather than diverting these into trying to convince people that the guy strutting around with no clothes on is, in fact, starkers.

Call me crazy.

Kindess is More

Standard

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

One job of preachers is to call out when we’re nodding and smiling but not actually applying things to our lives.

Honestly, I think a lot of us read this and think, “Yeah, they should be more kind.”

Grammatically, of course, this does not address “them.” The subject of the sentence is “you understood” (thank you, Mr. Knox). So it would read, “In a world where you can be anything, [you] be kind.”

It’s talking to us. It’s reminding us. It’s exhorting us.

What does it want us to do?

First, let’s distinguish between “nice” and “kind.” I’m not a big fan of “nice.” “Nice” generally strikes me as superficial. It’s difficult to be superficially kind. I don’t know if kind works at a superficial level. Nice tends to be about how we want others to perceive us, whereas kind requires a commitment to care about the other person. Grace is kind but we don’t tend to associate it with being nice. When I speak harshly to someone and, instead of snapping back in turn, they ask, “Are you okay?”–which I’m not–I would not label that as “nice.” They show me grace by being kind, by caring about how I am and why I am behaving this way, rather than retaliating.

Kind is paying enough attention to see what someone might need from us, even if they don’t ask. Kindness is doing good to people to whom no one else pays attention, to people who might even make us look bad if we associate with them. Nice doesn’t do that. Nice might say “hi” to the person holding the sign asking for help, but nice doesn’t stop and enter a conversation, make eye contact, ask for a name and remember it. Kind does that.

In a world where you can be anything, be someone who stops to talk with a person holding a sign asking for help.

“But Mike–“

Yes, I know. So many objections. Some of them reasonable and well-argued. But that’s what I’m telling you, kindness doesn’t make those arguments. Kindness doesn’t dig a trench to fight over why I shouldn’t help someone. Kindness sees with different eyes.

We can’t be kind in the abstract or from a distance to people with whom we have no connection. If I feel bad that Syrian refugees are suffering, that doesn’t make me kind. I might imagine that it does. I might take that as part of my picture that I hold up for myself and say, “Oh, Mike, look how kind you are! You feel bad for people.” (Or “badly,” if I want to imagine myself both grammatical and kind.)

Again, I’m not looking to quibble on this. It’s a good thing to feel bad(ly) when we see others suffer, and sure as heck better than feeling indifference or superiority or that insidious “somehow they’re getting what they deserve and I, here not suffering, am also getting what I deserve.” Yeah, that one is grotesque. I’m not naysaying a soft heart. I’m just discussing how being kind is reflected, always, in action, in choice, in volition. By their fruit, you will know them. By our fruit will we know ourselves, if we’re honest and in this for more than appearance. I hope we are.

In a world where you can be anything, be someone who looks for opportunity to affirm others, who looks for strengths to call out, not weaknesses to exploit or mock. Look for good in people that they can’t see and call their attention to it. Again, kindness thinks about the other, not just myself. In a world where you can be anything, encourage, affirm, appreciate, empower. Don’t flatter, compliment. Don’t be creepy about it. Don’t get offended if they don’t take it the way you want them to. Kindness understands that in this moment it’s about them. If you affirm something about which they feel sensitive, a sore spot or an area in which they’ve been criticized or feel insecure, they may not know how to take it. They may try to fend off the affirmation, or argue, or dismiss it.

“Well screw you, I was trying to be nice!”

Guess what. Kindness doesn’t say that. Nice does. Because nice wants to look nice and be recognized for it. Kind knows that some of the most impactful affirmations get some of the worst initial responses. Kind understands that wounded people don’t always trust motives, don’t always believe a compliment or take it at face value. Sometimes they can’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve said something I hoped would encourage and the other person turned it around to be a put down* (and, in fairness, I’m kind of a master at this, myself). Sometimes that means clarifying; other times, we just need to let the seeds grow and look for more opportunities. When you tell someone who feels stupid that they are smart, you set off some serious dissonance. This is good, because that ugly thought needs to go, but now there’s an internal battle going as the negative voices attack the intruder, the kind word. And maybe you.

“But Mike,” someone objects,” this is complicated. I just wanted to…”

Be nice. I know. That’s what nice says. I’ve said it. Absorbing someone’s lashing out for trying to love them is one of the kindest things you can do. It’s not rewarding, certainly not initially.

It is, however, loving. Kindness asks more of us.

One more. In a world where you can be anything, be the person who takes the side of the bullied. Standing up to and confronting bullies might be a different word and blog post that goes beyond “kind.”** Refusing to bully is kind, especially when you feel pressured to join in. So is looking for those who get bullied or abused and letting them know you see them, you hear them, you validate their hurt.

This especially matters when the bully denies wrongdoing or the world seems committed to affirming the bully, which, to an injured person, sounds a whole lot like “What happened to you doesn’t really matter. What really matters is them!” This takes many forms. We’re seeing a lot of evangelical leaders caught in/confessing abuse recently. I shudder to think how many more haven’t been stopped. I seek to be about grace, but do you wonder what it sounds like to a person who has been abused when the discussion focuses solely on “How soon can we get this [abusive] person back into ministry?” What does this sole focus on help for the abuser say to those still getting abused?

Kind sees that. Kind hears those words as a person trying to survive and recover would hear them. Kind reaches out, speaks up, embraces and offers ears to hear, space to scream, validation. Nice might say, “Well, all sin is the same and we all sin” (a theological twisting of Scripture, by the way), but kind says, “That was evil and you have every right to feel this rage; God doesn’t expect you to stuff it down or repent of your emotions from being abused.” Kind understands that healing is messy. Nice doesn’t want mess. Kind enters in and wears a raincoat and waders, if necessary. Kind is in.

In a world–okay, sorry, I have to do this–in a world in which you can be anything: cool or indifferent, self-centered or self-serving, superficial or self-righteous or nice,

Be Kind.

And may God change us, all of us, as we try.

* This is a separate category from “You thought that was an affirmation when you told the stranger/co-worker/waitress ‘Hey, Baby, nice hips’ and she glared at you.” If you don’t have that one figured out yet, we should talk privately; you may have some ground to cover before “kind.”

**This is a powerful form of love, of course.

I’m not giving up my idealism

Standard

I spent a lot of time cleaning the kitchen this past weekend. I scrubbed, mopped, wiped down, and put away for at least three hours on Saturday alone. I don’t like cleaning, I’m not particularly good at it (yes, neat freaks, in this context I grant you that this is the same as saying “I’m lazy about it”), and my eyes don’t tend to see the same messes my wife’s do. But this time, the more I cleaned, the more I recognized things needing to be cleaned, so I kept going.

The kitchen was dirty again Sunday night. I mean, we had our weekly family dinner, eight guests in addition to the four of us, so twelve times soup and corn bread plus a three-year-old in the mix and that critical mass of enough people that no one really thinks its their job…until it’s 11:40 PM and I still need to clean the kitchen. Again.

So I did.

The kitchen will never stay clean. I can’t fix that. But even I know you still have to keep cleaning the kitchen. Is that idealism? No one seems to think so–until you have this same conversation about other things that can’t be fixed but still need to be changed.

I won’t surrender my idealism. I will share it with you. But you can’t take away my hope that things can be better nor my commitment that we can improve. No.

Just because politicians have been lying and stealing doesn’t mean that politicians must lie and steal. I refuse to believe that. I refuse. Politics have become horrible–or maybe have been horrible and are getting worse–but I am believing in, praying for, and working toward better.

How about pollution? This week someone told me how ridiculous she thinks the idea of banning straws is. Such a tiny step, banning the smallest thing when our pollution problem is so severe. She concluded that she knows it’s all a big problem but she doesn’t have any solution.

I understand, and feel the same frustration and futility, but I will not stop there. I don’t know how to clean up this world that we’ve trashed, but we did trash it; we are responsible to clean it up and live in it more responsibly. I refuse to shrug my shoulders and utter an expletive (‘cuz you know I would never) and decide it’s hopeless. No.

If giving up plastic straws helps us to grasp that we have a problem and starts us down the road to cutting down on our use of plastic, especially single-use, then it’s a good step. It will take us in the right direction. Yes, it’s only 4 percent of our plastic that enters the ocean, 2,000 tons of the nine million tons. We are, collectively, dumping nine million tons of plastic into our oceans each year. That should make us scream in horror and change our habits. Cutting back by two thousand tons won’t fix this, but doing nothing won’t fix this, and making fun of the idea while doing nothing sure as expletive won’t fix this. This concept is obvious when we talk in terms of the kitchen. But pollution is like the massive dinner party that makes a huge mess but whose responsibility is it to clean up, anyway? Unless it’s killing you. Or your children.

Or our planet.

On Sunday, an older woman (that term is changing, now that I’ve hit fifty-one) approached me to tell me that her husband, who has been struggling severely with depression, is doing better. He seems to be coming out of it, has found energy to be active again, and can smile now. She wondered if I would be willing to talk with him sometime?

I told her “Of course, I’d be very happy to. I absolutely get it, since I struggle with depression, too.” I had assumed she was asking because I can relate. She did a double-take. Then she said, “You do? I would never have guessed that. You always seem so positive.”

I don’t always feel positive. A good percentage of the time, I’m discouraged by many people’s suffering, some people’s cruelty, and my own negative, self-critical thoughts. But I believe God is good and faithful. I believe Grace is somehow greater than all this evil swirling around us and battling inside us. I try to be as honest as I can–as honest as I believe is helpful–about my own struggles. It’s good to hear that people see me as positive. I want to be honest about my struggles and give people hope in the world. Yeah, this world is a crazy, ridiculous, tortured, miserable mess, but it’s also our God-saturated, achingly beautiful, hauntingly sacred home, and for each time I feel tempted to check out, I am also called back by something much deeper, and convicted to defend fiercely the ones I love. God’s work in me is to expand that category of whom I’m willing to love.

If I wax poetic here, you’ll have to excuse me. It is, after all, a post on idealism. I refuse to surrender mine. I’ll share it. I’ll give it away freely. I’ll call it out in others and wear myself out trying to fan the tiniest, weakest spark of it that I detect–in you–into flame.

Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but wisdom is a deep, running, crystal-clear stream. Wisdom may knock the breath from our lungs but it leaves us more alive and grateful to be alive. Cynicism is small and shriveled and self-protecting, a dirty puddle, or perhaps a brittle shell in which to hide and pretend to be untouchable. If love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, cynicism doubts all things, questions all things, disputes all things.

“All is not lost. 
Reject hopelessness concerning humanity.
Hope is resistance.” –Bernice King

We are seeing the worst of humanity and yet I do not believe the worst about humanity. I do not believe God hates us, or finds us vile and unlovable but then Jesus changes God’s mind. I believe God loves us passionately, desperately, relentlessly, and God’s love makes us lovable, God’s image makes us beautiful–and we are born in God’s image.

I’m not hopeless about humanity. If a five-year-old girl can survive her father’s murder and grow to become a voice of love and reconciliation, I’m not hopeless. God redeems Yes, there are people given over to hatred. Yes, we resist them. We resist them with hope. We resist them with an immovable belief that this cloud of hatred will pass. When I say “immovable,” I don’t mean we never doubt; I mean we never quit, we never despair. God’s love will have the last word. It is tempting, every day I am tempted to return hatred for hatred. I am angry at so much of what is happening and it is but a small, sideways step from anger to hatred, at least for me.

But I am loved. God saved my life by loving me and love sets me free, not hate.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “Perfect” here may translate better as “compassionate.” Either way, Jesus calls us to this idealistic, impossible life…then enters into this life with us and starts changing us into people who love instead of hating and fearing, who love others and ourselves as he does.

The kitchen will never be perfectly clean. Banning straws will never solve pollution. Loving our enemies will never make them our friends.

Of course not, of course not…and it just might.

Stopping cleaning the kitchen because we can’t get it perfectly clean and make it stay that way sounds ludicrous. Also, bad for marriage. Giving up on solving pollution because it’s too big and small measures don’t help–but who wants to agree to big measures?–is the same as saying, “I don’t care about the next generations.” I do.

Loving our enemies is every bit as idealistic and unrealistic…and is also the core of Jesus’ Gospel. Why don’t we call this “idealism?” Because we have faith God can work through love to make the impossible happen. If that’s not idealism, I don’t know what is. All my idealism is rooted in faith. It’s simply believing, by faith, that things can be better in spite of how bad they are now and have been before. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

This week, my friend Tim told me a story about his friend Jaideep. Jaideep directs a New Song school in India. There was a problem with one of the students, so he and his father went to pay the family a visit–and the student’s father and uncles pulled Jaideep and his father from their car and beat them. Of course, the children stopped going to school

Jaideep later returned to the family’s house. The father met him at the door.

“Where are the police?”

“I didn’t bring the police.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Your children need to be in our school. You need to let them come back.”

The children are back in New Song school. Jaideep loved his enemies.

I’m going to try–cleaning, fighting pollution, and loving my enemies–and I hope you are, too, because the alternative will lead us on a path away from hope and love. I won’t go there. Don’t you, either.

I hope I get to hang out with that older man coming out of his depression. I hope I can see beauty where others do not and then help them to see it, too. I hope by standing up against injustice, we change things for the better–including the injustice inside of us and the injustice of our making.

I’m going to hope for all this. I’m going to believe in the world Jesus calls us to see, through faith.

Join me.


You Can Do This: Finding Hope in Dark Political Times

Standard

Today I’m writing to you. You might be a Jesus follower. You might be spiritual and seeking light in this darkness. You might feel alienated or rejected or even orphaned from your community. Trust me, I know a lot of people who feel as you do. I talk to them every day. I talk with us every day.

I’ve got two things to tell you, and I’m going to sound irrationally hopeful and confident. I’m here on my couch with our dog Nicki sleeping on my arm. Maybe a sleeping dog with the lightest of snores–okay, not the lightest–makes one feel like everything could turn out alright after all. And I do mean all.

Jesus remains faithful. I can’t explain why people who pray to the same God as we pray can see things, facts, faith, diametrically opposite to how we see them. I’ve tried and tried to understand and I concluded–maybe five minutes ago–that it’s not my job to understand. I can’t persuade them. I need to keep speaking the truth that God shows me. I need to show grace and kindness in disagreement. I’m learning to do those.

You can do this. That’s the first thing. You can be light in this darkness. You’ve done it; you can do it; you’ll keep doing it. I’m not debating in this one whether we’re in darkness. Part of what makes us feel crazy every day is that somehow we have to debate this fact. That’s exhausting. Today’s was “human scum,” but it’s a new one every day. Every day an outrage and every day spin and justification. Every. Freaking. Day. But we know what’s right and this is wrong. Not that we know everything, not that we’re perfect or have infallible judgment. But this is clearly wrong and we have to speak and act against it. We have to and we are.

The worst time in my life came after my father died and three weeks later our infant son, Isaac, died. Darkness closed in on me. They died in late June and early July and I remember smiling in December, maybe even laughing a little, and thinking how strange it felt, how odd on my face and in my throat. Three years I walked in darkness after their deaths and I didn’t know if I’d come out the other side. But I did. Each day that I survived and found reasons to hope and smile, hell, found reason to breathe, I was moving closer to coming back out into the light. It wasn’t all at once. But I did wake up one morning to discover that my sense of God’s presence had returned. Theologically, I don’t think God showed up again after checking out for three years. But experientially, it was a lot like that.

We are moving through this darkness. Today we are closer to being out than were yesterday. I don’t claim to know what coming out of this will look like. But I believe this is how we survive and how persevering feels. Some days it feels that the only news is bad to worse and then worse again and we’ve all lost the ability to be shocked anymore (which feels awful, by the way). Other days, the dog snoozes on my arm and the polls suggest people might be coming to their senses and I remember more clearly that Jesus has walked with us all through every bad ruler and dark time and while this is new and appalling for us, it isn’t new to him.

That’s the first thing: You can do this and we are doing this.

Second, how we walk through this darkness matters. We can fight our way through it and do the right things and come out angry and hardened and even hateful. We could fight for the right things and become something other than what we’re called to be, what we hope to be. We can fight the darkness and let the darkness in. We have to choose not to this. As I’ve said before and will keep insisting on, in following Jesus the ends never justify the means.

We need one another to keep speaking hope and love and truth and empathy and compassion. No one is beyond redemption. Love transforms. Truth will set us free. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Love our freaking enemies. If you’ve been part of a church and right now those in your church tell you that everything happening is wonderful and God’s plan and the pastor tells you to pray for God’s protection for this unfairly persecuted President, look for the people who can speak truth and life to you. By the same token, if you have a faithful, supportive community right now, whether your gang of friends or your part of Christ’s body, watch for those who feel cut off and isolated, rejected and adrift.

That’s the second thing: How we walk through the darkness matters as much as that we walk through the darkness. We need one another to walk through this with Jesus, in love. We need one another’s encouragement and succor (don’t get to use that word enough!) and refuge. We need to pool our hope and our strength. We need to lean on one another’s faith on the days when ours gets shaky. Today mine is strong; tomorrow might be a different story. I’ll check in with you.

I’m writing this because friends keep telling me how I’m encouraging them in the midst of this darkness. Of course I’m glad to hear that. I get, more clearly all the time, how much it matters right now. As I said, it’s not my job to understand* people who approve of what’s going on; it is my job–maybe even my calling right now–to help give voice and validation to all of us who obey Jesus by resisting.

*It remains my job to love them (perhaps you), of course.

Uncircle the Wagons God’s love, part 4

Standard

[David Heyward, The NakedPastor]

There are many dirty little secrets within Christianity. Some would say the whole things is dirty little secrets, start to finish, and nothing else. That view comes down to “does God exist or not?” If God does not, then yes, it’s all dirty secrets and manipulation and facade. I understand that if you believe no God exists, the church becomes a nightmare of self-deception and a greenhouse for abuse.

But why does that perspective matter, if God is real? Aren’t those the people trying to destroy our culture by rejecting all the values God teaches us? Isn’t part of our motive for keeping our dirty laundry hidden the fear that these secular atheists will just use it as more ammunition to attack us and pass laws to restrict our freedom to follow Jesus?

I’ve just described where the battle lines have been drawn in the U.S. Those are generalized groups, but trust me, both are well represented: people who think Christianity is a fraud that harms our culture and people who think that those attacking the church are our enemy who hope to criminalize being Christian.

God’s love says “no.”

“No” to these battle lines. “No” to this battle.

People who hate Christianity are not God’s enemies.

Let me say that again louder: People who hate Christianity are not God’s enemies.

This is an old mistake, but we keep getting fooled by it. “Master, shall we call down lightning from heaven on them?” Why no, let’s not do that.
God doesn’t hate the people who hate God. God is real, God is love, and God loves enemies.

I mean, us.

Read Romans 5 again. We were God’s enemies. We got to be Jesus’ followers because Jesus refused to hate his enemies; Jesus refused to have enemies.

We aren’t fighting some culture war. No, let me put that differently: We aren’t following Jesus faithfully by fighting some culture war.

I know a few things about Jesus and this is one: Jesus did not send us to fight a war against the people who don’t believe in Him.

We put ourselves in a different category of “enemies” than these enemies. We acknowledge that we were enemies but somehow think we’re supposed to treat these enemies differently than we were treated because they’re more enemy-ish. “Yes, I was God’s enemy, yes I was a sinner, yes I believe Romans 5, but this is different…”

No, it’s not. It’s really not.

God loves enemies. You can’t be God’s enemies because God won’t let you be. That’s what God’s love means.

And if you are reading this thinking, “Dang, Mike, you had it with that whole manipulation facade thing,” I respect your right to believe that and not to believe in God. Unfortunately, we who follow Jesus have given you ample reason to think that we’re conning everyone. I believe in Jesus because I have experienced God’s love for me and, I’m convinced, I would be dead or a nightmare of a human being, had I not. I hope you can respect my belief.

The more we Jesus followers buy into this “Circle the wagons! Man the walls! Defend the Alamo!” perspective, the more we will twist the Gospel into something God never intended. A person rejecting–or refusing to do business with–those who believe differently does not resemble Jesus in this action. In fact, that’s the antithesis of the Jesus I know. Jesus doesn’t reject people who believe differently or live differently. God’s love transforms us by first breaking down the walls between us and Jesus, then showing us how we need to love ourselves, then starting with us the hard work of loving others as we love ourselves. Those are the two most important commandments, the ones into which everything else is rolled up. Which others? Well, Jesus, who is my neighbor?

Oh, Dang. Them? All of them?

Now, I am pissed off at people who do not, who will not see how following Jesus has become sickeningly mixed with U.S. cultural values that have nothing to do with what Jesus taught or lived. I’ve made no secret of that. But those people (or you people) cannot be my enemies, or else I have parted company with Jesus. I can’t let that happen and Jesus won’t stand by and let that happen in me. For me to hate them and make them my enemies, I have to keep rejecting and silencing the voice in my head and heart that calls me to love them. I literally have to distance myself from Jesus to do that (metaphysically not possible but experientially it can be done, and therein lies the great mystery of an omnipresent yet ineffable God).

I recently received this comment on (that hellscape known as) Twitter, in response to God’s Love, part 3.

“Thanks for your candor and Christlike compassion directed at gently rebuking an erring church. I’m at a loss for a way to engage with the people of God who have been hijacked into loving a church so much that people become dispensable.”

These words won’t leave my mind. I devoutly yearn to have Christlike compassion. I hope and pray I “resemble this remark,” as my father loved to say. My thoughts don’t feel gentle much of the time. But it turns out we don’t have to voice all of our thoughts (I know, right?) and when we’re telling people about God’s love, it helps not to beat them with a pipe. Think of it as a consistency thing. The delivery of the message should corroborate the message.

So here it is: God loves people and makes people a church. There is no church other than people, and the word “church” doesn’t mean building, it means people who follow Jesus. If you can’t go to church because you love Jesus and find going into that building and hearing what they say about Jesus contradicts with your experience…we are called to love them. If you feel attacked by people who seem to hate the Jesus you know and want to undercut everything decent and moral in our society…we are called to love them. If you have someone telling you that Trump is God’s man in the White House and who won’t stop asking, “Do you believe that God is sovereign and therefore ordained Trump to be President?”…we are called to love them.

God’s love for enemies means our enemies. Because it first meant us. Now we know God’s love for us and therefore we cannot decide that anyone falls outside God’s circle. God’s love seeks to embrace everyone.

If we understand “love,” we understand this doesn’t mean we suddenly agree, or pretend to agree, about fundamental differences. BUT–and I truly pray you will hear this–we have to care more about loving people with Jesus’ love than we care about fighting for our (culturally-compromised version of) Christianity. We can’t “love a church so much that people become dispensable,” because people are the only church and that is not God’s love. Uncircle the wagons. Open the fort doors and come outside. Jesus came to break down the dividing wall of hostility between us, not build it higher.

Following Jesus means loving others as God has loved us.

If we aren’t, then we aren’t following Jesus. That doesn’t mean God stops loving us; it means we have chosen our own direction, away from where Jesus wants to lead us.

Does Our Church Heal or Harm? God’s Love, Part 3

Standard

Yesterday was my birthday. Today feels like a day to say some things I’ve been holding back.

My friend Tim and I talked yesterday about how many people are hurt and wounded and damaged and traumatized by the church that follows Jesus Christ.

I can’t tell you how sick this makes me. I haven’t words to express that sufficiently.

But I’m certainly going to try.

I’m supposed to be bipolar, alcoholic, or both. Those were my genetic predisposition. I have anger issues and unforgiveness. Then there’s the depression. My cards were stacked heavily against my doing well. I’m smart but emotionally oriented in the world (ENFP) and so wildly skilled at sabotaging myself I should teach classes, or perhaps become a consultant. If only there were money in that.

But yesterday, as has become tradition (if something 15 years can properly be called “tradition”), I got outpouring of greetings and affirmation that come with a birthday on social media. I laughingly wonder if I could have a normal person’s self-esteem, if only I received that level of attention and encouragement every day. Probably not. I’d still hear criticisms louder than affirmations. <eye roll> But for today, I’m feeling clear on who I am and what I’ve done in the world, and for whom.

I should be a profoundly broken, damage-inflicting human being. Those were the odds for me, if Vegas had picked me up as a bet. Instead, I bring light and healing into the world. I called two of “my” young adults yesterday. They were happy to hear from me. They’re doing great. In my small way, I helped them to be doing great.

Know how I got here? Jesus healed me.

What wholeness and light and life I have and bring, Jesus gave me and gives me.

That’s how this works. Broken, small, wounded, hateful, hardened people meet Jesus and grow. Heal. Change. Jesus restores and redeems and transforms.

So what, in the holy and healing name of Jesus Christ, can we be doing wounding people in church?

My standard answer to this has always been “Well, the church is the gathered sinners, so of course we do bad things when we’re gathered together.” I know that’s true and accurate, but I’m sick of that answer. And I’m sickened by the results. I’m sickened by #ChurchToo–not by the courageous women and men speaking up, but by the horrific acts that made us need this movement–and I’m sick to death of Christians looking away from abusers when they find them “profitable.” Profitable due to their political power, financial giving, or their charisma. That’s called “making a deal with the devil.” It’s buying into Satan’s temptations in the desert, letting the end justify the means, which never, ever applies to following Jesus. “Where your heart is, there also your treasure is.”

Every day, every freaking day, churches cover up for pastors who sexually abuse parishioners. Each day, abuse victims are told by pastors and elders that they caused their own violation. They “tempted” the abuser, they dressed provocatively or in some other way caused their own harm.

I’m not Southern Baptist. I’m not Roman Catholic. I’m not pretending this happens only in their churches. And sexual abuse is only one form of the abuse that churches commit and cover up.

If 200 of you read this, then 50 of you know a woman being abused in some relationship right now. Just in case you thought we were talking about “those people.” Abusers more frequently target females. But we need to remember that males and transgender people also get abused in churches.

I’m going to give you my thoughts on how we address this as Jesus followers. If what I say offends you, I’m fine with hearing your counterpoint, but I ask this of you: care more about stopping abuse and fighting for the abused than about arguing with me. Other people who read this may be able to help someone with this information, so your attempt to rebuke or shut me down had better be pretty amazing, both to help abused people and shut me up.

God is not angry at people. God is not angry at people. God is not outraged at sin and feeling a need to punish and hurt sinners. Not the God I know. Not the Jesus who healed me. Do you get that? Angry God Theology contributes to abuse culture. God did not lash out at Jesus to punish him for the sins of humanity, as if they are separate entities. God, in Jesus Christ, took our sins upon God’s self. God is Trinity, so God both sent Jesus and came as Jesus, not one or the other.

Does God punish sin? Sin punishes us. We are not punished for our sins but by our sins. Does God hate sin? Yes, God hates seeing us being hurt, the same way you hate seeing your child hurt. NO, check that, more than you hate seeing your child hurt, as much more as God’s love is greater than our love.

God designed us and forbids sin because, in our design, sin damages us. God doesn’t have to punish us for hating; hating damages us, hardens our hearts, shrinks us, diminishes us, steals our joy. The punishment for sin is in the design. There’s no “getting away with it.” I can’t get away with resting my hand on a hot stove, no matter how sneaky I am nor how well I can justify my actions. The hot surface will burn my hand. Sin hurts us. Always.

Implication: we need to know what sin is and what sin is not and we need to stop talking as if God is angry at sinners, especially at those sinners, meaning the ones whose sins we don’t struggle with, the ones that the church often treats as especially unwelcome.

Abused women are shamed and threatened and manipulated to stay in their abusive relationships by being told that they deserve it, that this is what love looks like, that if they would behave better it wouldn’t happen to them. Holy Lord God, forgive us for talking the same way to women about their relationship with you!

God doesn’t love you by punishing you. Yes, I know, Hebrews 12, “God disciplines those he loves.” God disciplines us by not covering us from all consequences of our sins (stop and consider, for a moment, how many of your prayers for yourself were for God to prevent the consequences of your own sin). “Endure hardship as discipline.” Here again, God is not doling out a caning with his favorite beating stick. Understanding that we suffer and struggle and that God is with us in this and teaching us through it–including what part we may have played in inflicting the damage, which is maybe none and maybe more than we want to admit–that is enduring hardship as discipline.

Discipline is inherent to being a disciple, but Jesus doesn’t beat his disciples. Jesus leads us away from self-inflicted harm. We do also suffer for the Gospel, for following Jesus, but that harm comes from those who hate and strike out against the love offered to them, or for giving up comforts and taking risks to reach those who don’t yet know God loves them. Jesus never beats his disciples and God does not beat Jesus. God-in-Jesus-Christ took on the torture inflicted by hateful, racist men acting on the orders of hateful, proud, blind religious leaders. Jesus asked for forgiveness even for them.

To be clear, I have not changed the subject. I’m still talking about how the church must stop harming instead of healing We need a healthy theology rooted in God’s love for hurting, damaged people, not in “God’s rage at those who offend him.”

Beth Moore, an extremely popular and respected leader in the Southern Baptist church, recently and courageously called attention to one contributing factor–and symptom–of abuse within her church/denomination:

“Women who are being abused by the system itself, or within it by people that are in places of power, don’t even have a female to turn to,” she contended. “They don’t even know where to go.”

She explained that she means specifically “visible areas of leadership.”

Women should be in leadership at every level of the church. Women should be in leadership precisely commensurate with the gifts, abilities, and calling they have to lead. Period.

I don’t care if your theology doesn’t agree with that–No, I take that back. If your theology does not agree with advocating for women to lead, then go back to your church and figure out how to show women which women to whom they can turn when they are abused. I say “when” because it’s happening now in all our churches.

For those of us who believe women should lead, advocate for women in leadership. Affirm women’s callings. That’s a concrete way to combat abuse. When women who are called and qualified step into visible positions of leadership, other women who are abused will have a better chance to “know where to go.”

Now I’m going to tell you that I’ve experienced a woman who wanted to blame the victim of a sexual abuse situation and protect the violator. And yes, there are those who make false accusations of abuse. To deny an epidemic because of these statistical anomalies (two percent according to RAINN, whereas sixty percent of sexual assault goes unreported) goes beyond irrational into something far scarier and more evil. Therefore,

BELIEVE VICTIMS.

Three out of five victims of sexual assault do not report the violence because they are shamed, traumatized, and don’t think they will be believed. Historically, they’re right. For our churches to become safe places, places of healing and not places that inflict and cover up abuse, we have to believe those who found the courage to speak up. We have to convey beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are neither responsible nor guilty for being violated. If you have to choose between standing with the victim and staying in the church, I guarantee Jesus is walking with the one who got abused. And just to be clear, I communicate every day with people who have suffered such abuses and have been thrown out of church for being abused and trying to report it. Don’t imagine for a moment any of this is hypothetical.

I know this is a hard message. I know it’s tempting to close our eyes or turn our heads, especially if the abuse has not impacted us personally, directly. But it has. We are the Body of Jesus. That temptation is a big part of how we got here in the first place. Any message on the love of God rings hollow and mocking to women and men being abused by people who get to claim they speak for God.

This is how we communicate God’s love: we make the church a place that heals, not harms.

I would love to hear from you, either publicly or privately, if you have a personal response to this. If you’ve survived abuse, inside or outside of the church, I’m so grateful you’re still with us and I admire your untold courage. You are mighty just to be here.