Baseball Magic

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Baseball season starts in five days. I’m writing a book on my love for baseball (as a breather from writing the book on grief). This is the second in a series of posts/excerpts between now and Opening Day.

Corin discovered baseball—and his love for the game—when we lived in a barrio in Managua. There weren’t nice parks in our area—Loma Linda near Anexio de Buenos Aires. That’s putting it mildly. We played catch, for many hours, on a corner “lot” that was overgrown with weeds, littered with dog landmines (let the reader understand) and broken glass, and probably scarier things under those weeds.

The entire lot was about sixty or seventy feet square, but Corin was just learning to throw and catch. I stood on one end, near the perimeter wall outside a neighbor’s house,* while Corin stood on the opposite end, which was right next to a street. Fortunately, it wasn’t a busy street.

You might ask, “Why did you have your 10-year-old standing nearest the street?” Between the broken glass, fire ants, thorny weeds, and the serpentina (razorwire) on the house end, I decided it was safer where the cars were (rarely) driving, especially because I had better control with my throws and could minimize how often he had to cross that street.

But before he could make that discovery, he first had to find the glove. Corin used a small, red leather glove, which we bought during our yearly visit to the U.S. When we bought it, he had no discernible interest in baseball. I’ve always struggled to find that line between encouraging our kids to try sports they might enjoy and pushing too hard. I’m certain I’ve made mistakes in both directions.

Corin and I were in a big Dick’s Sporting Goods store—these shopping trips in the U.S. always felt a little overwhelming to us when we were accustomed to very different stores—and I was having Corin try on gloves. At this moment in his life, he was far more interested in Pokemon cards.

So I first bought him a pack with a holo card and he got a great pull, about which he was tremendously excited—that excitement, at least, I could relate to—and I then persuaded him to look at baseball equipment with me. I might have made the former conditional on the latter—I would never put it past me—but I honestly don’t remember now. If you’re a parent who doesn’t use a good, honest bribe with your kids once in a while…I don’t understand you at all.

We were in the baseball aisle, which was about thirty feet long, and Corin wanted to try out the gloves by playing catch. With a baseball. In the store.

Do I need to mention we weren’t alone in the store? Do I need to explain that Corin wasn’t yet accurate with his throws? I’m fairly quick and do have fast hands, but I’m also short (5’8”) and, you know, even then not as young as I once was. Also, Corin had not yet mastered catching a baseball with a glove. Not close.

But magic happened. He tried a couple gloves and missed every throw. I mean every one bounced off the glove he had on. He wasn’t enjoying this. Then he put on this red one—it would not have been my first choice for him—and he caught every throw. Literally every throw. I don’t know how you explain that. Baseball miracle? It felt more comfortable on his hand? Increased confidence brought a better result? Answer to prayer that my kiddo would at least try baseball? Maybe several of the above?

We bought that glove. Last summer, Corin and I went to play baseball together forty or fifty times, usually at his suggestion. We attended about fifteen Wenatchee AppleSox games–shout out to Kelsey Bonilla, our then-housemate and fellow baseball fan–and watched a much larger number of MLB games on TV. It’s funny to wonder if Corin might not have discovered his love for baseball without that little red glove…just as I’ve often wondered if I would have gone a different direction and never fallen in love with this game, had dad not called my attention to that Reggie Jackson at-bat in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.

Baseball magic.

*In developing countries like Nicaragua, every home that can afford it has an exterior wall to keep out would-be thieves. So many people live in poverty that taking things to survive is commonplace. This doesn’t make it nice when it happens to you, but when you see people, especially friends and neighbors, living at subsistence levels and fighting to survive, you understand better why it happens.

Base Stealing

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Baseball season starts in seven days. I’m writing a book on my love for baseball (as a breather from writing the book on grief). This is the first in a series of posts/excerpts between now and Opening Day.

Also, I’m sharing my experience of baseball. Feel free to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m describing what it was like for me, not offering tips to would-be Major Leaguers. I’m sure I did a lot wrong. I wasn’t a prospect. But I loved playing.

“Swinging from the heels” was one of Dad’s favorite baseball terms. It means swinging as hard as you can, not simply attempting to make contact and put the ball in play, but “trying to kill the ball,” to “knock the cover off it” and hit it over the fence. Often swinging from the heels involves “pulling your head,” another Dad term, meaning your head turns with your rotating shoulders and torso when you swing and you lose focus on the ball. Dad didn’t use “swinging from the heels” as a compliment.

Dad’s son loved–and loves–baseball, but God did not build me to be a power hitter, especially when I was in high school. I was skinny then and my game was about making contact “Hit ’em where they ain’t,”* Dad also quoted to me, and I adopted that philosophy of hitting…then running like mad to first. I wasn’t a strong hitter but I was decent at getting on base. Measured by the statistical paradigm shift that changed baseball in the late-90s/early 2000s, as depicted in the book and movie Money Ball, I was a decently valuable player. My on-base percentage was stupidly out of proportion to my batting average, and thus coaches usually had me batting either ninth or lead-off, depending on which one they noticed more.

I was a decent bunter, though I would have liked to be better. That would have made me far more dangerous. When I got down a good bunt, I could usually beat it out. A strong bunt threat makes a pitcher’s job that much harder. It means that even for a weak hitter, the pitcher can’t just fire the ball by you down the middle, because those are easier pitches to bunt. The hardest pitches to bunt are high pitches just at the top of the strike zone (short batter, remember), pitches that curve or drop a lot, or ones that jam you inside and make the angle of contact much more difficult. And maybe come in on your fists so hard they break your finger. Some guys got offended when given the signal to bunt. I just wanted to get to first–it didn’t matter how.

I was short and I absolutely believed another of Dad’s aphorisms, “a walk is as good as a hit.” Not true for the player’s batting average, but certainly for the team’s overall chances to score runs and, in the long run, win. If you can get on base 40% of the time by always looking for walks or bat .300 by swinging away but then only get on base 30% of the time…you’re hurting your team by being more aggressive.**

Of course, having a .300 batting average looks a lot cooler than hitting .240 and walking a lot. Walks don’t look cool unless perhaps you’re a massive home run hitter and pitchers walk you out of fear of the damage you’ll do with your swing. I walked because “Damn, he has a small strike zone!” I did. I even crouched a bit in my batting stance, copying Pete Rose, to exacerbate that problem for the pitcher. I also crowded the plate a bit. I got hit by pitches more than my share. Guess what? Hit-by-pitch is as good as a hit…and maybe even better in terms of getting in the pitcher’s head. I’m fortunate that I never got injured being struck by a pitch–plus, the pitchers I faced weren’t throwing 100 MPH***–and because that’s true, I can honestly say I was happy to get hit.

You just put me on base.

Two steps…three steps… Right-handed pitcher looking over his shoulder, has to spin all the way around to throw to first, big disadvantage…

Once on base, life got way more fun for me. I mean, adrenaline-burst, excitement-sparked-by-fear type fun. I was quick more than flat-out fast. Coach W. once timed each of us running all the way around the bases and I was far from fastest. In fact, after I rounded first, I heard Daron W. shout, “Short legs!” But when I did get on, I could lead off with the best of them. Three, four, five quick steps, bouncing on the balls of my feet, grabbing the pitcher’s attention, preferably driving him nuts. The pitcher whirls and fires to first and I’m launching back toward the bag. I had no qualms about diving back to base four or five times. More throws over meant I was doing my job. A dirty uniform said I’d played for real. If you come home clean, what did you do?

I believe quick is more important than sheer speed for stealing bases. I consider this to be Baseball Truth, but like so much of baseball philosophy and strategy, it is arguable–and well argued. I have no idea what my stolen base percentage was–we were well before advanced stats, or even some of the more basic ones–but the coaches usually had me try to steal whenever I got on.

“Hey, Pitcher! Right here. No pitcher!”

Yeah, I’m talking to him. I do that whether I’m stealing or just leading off and feinting; otherwise it’s a tell, right? Trying to keep my voice the same, even when my heart comes pounding up my throat because I’m about to race him and the catcher–actually race the ball, which has to travel pitcher’s mound–>home–>second baseman’s glove–>me while I only have to run straight from here to there. If I can get just one more step…and maybe one more… The shorter my distance, the better chance I win this race.

I never just took a straight leadoff. I danced. I’m not a good dancer in outside-baseball life, but in this one context, oh yeah. Dance like everyone is watching. Bouncing up and down, moving back and forth means the pitcher can’t quite tell how much leadoff you have at any given moment, because it constantly changes. If he sees you moving, it’s that much more for his brain to calculate while still trying to throw strikes. The trick here is not to have your weight and momentum going toward first when the moment to break for second comes, whether on your teammate’s swing or your steal attempt. If it’s neither of those, you’re always heading back to first between pitches, so then you don’t want to be leaning toward second. A special danger for the dancer-baserunner is having the pitcher see you leaning the wrong way when he gets the return throw from the catcher and is not yet on the mound. That’s a much easier throw than spinning around from the stretch (the particular kind of windup a pitcher uses when holding a runner on, different than his full wind-up). So the moment you know the ball is not going to be in play, you get back to first and stand on that bag until the pitcher gets back on the mound. Check in with your first base coach. Maybe banter a bit with the first baseman.

Then start it all again.

Studying the pitcher helps to steal bases. How quickly does he deliver the pitch? Not only how hard he throws, but whether his movement from the stretch is gradual or rapid. Does he have a tell when he’s going to attempt a pick-off? Does he struggle with control more when he has a runner on? (Oh, we hope so!) Here again, the baserunner has a major advantage. The pitcher needs to keep throwing strikes and must split attention between the batter and the baserunner. The runner need only focus on the pitcher.

All pitchers have different wind-ups. All pitchers have a point in their wind-up at which they’ve committed to throwing the pitch. If the pitcher breaks off from that, whether to try a pickoff, because of lost balance, or just to fake, really for any reason at all, it’s called a “balk,” the umpire stops play, and the runners advance one base. If you as a baserunner can cause a balk, that’s the time to exult! Not so thrilling as stealing the base, but with a balk ,100% of the time you stroll to second base safely.

Guess what? A balk is just as good as a steal. No, not for stats, but for the team.

A “pitchout” is when the pitcher throws an intentional ball, a fastball well outside of the strike zone, so that the catcher can jump up beforehand to receive it and fire to second. Basically, it’s a trade off that the pitcher makes, exchanging giving up a ball to the batter’s count for a better chance to catch the runner stealing. A catcher who has to leap up from his crouch while catching a pitch–that the batter may swing at, and remember, they can’t let any part of them make contact with the bat or batter during the swing or it’s “catcher’s interference” and the batter gets first base automatically–and in the same motion throw to second, has a much harder challenge than the one who gets a head start and a clear path for the throw.

You know what’s really satisfying? Drawing a pitchout when you weren’t stealing.

That’s part of the cat-and-mouse, too. If the coach sends you on the first pitch every time, you’d better be bloody fast, because they’re going to pitch out every time and any team will trade a called ball for an out, especially the out that cuts down the scoring threat of the baserunner. Extra especially if it’s your third out and that ends the inning. But if you wait until deeper in your batter’s count, you’re giving your teammate more of an advantage, especially for a patient batter. If the count is 1-2 (one ball, two strikes) and you can draw a pitchout, you’ve taken away some of the pitcher’s leverage. A pitcher with a 1-2 lead is freer to throw whatever junk might draw a bad swing, or let loose with a fastball that’s difficult to hit but pretty close to the strike zone and thus also difficult to take (not swing at). But a pitcher who has a 2-2 count is only one pitch from a full count; on a full count, several advantages switch to the batter. Thus, a 2-2 pitch is much more costly for the pitcher to “waste” if the batter won’t bite on the pitcher’s tempting out-of-the-strike-zone lure.

So I’m on first, and the coach in the dugout signals to the first base coach, who signals me, some combination of pulling his ear, adjusting his hat, swiping his hand down his leg.

Go.

I have an extremely acute memory for certain things. Not grocery lists–if Kim mentions over three items, I write it down for me or it’s as good as forgotten. But I remember specific games, specific plays, even back to tee ball. The act of stealing bases, though, appears blurry when I try to retrieve it. I’m convinced that’s due to the burst of adrenaline and the fear of getting caught stealing. Standing up at the plate to hit is an exercise in nerves, as well, but one played out slowly, with breaks in between to step out of the batter’s box, take practice swings, rub dirt on your hands, get a better grip on the bat…then step back in. I was obnoxious about how much time I took between pitches, trying to keep a pitcher from getting a rhythm against me. I regret nothing.

Whereas stealing feels roughly like this:

Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaah!

In my mind’s eye, I see only colors flashing by. I’m focused on second base, forcing myself not to turn my head to see where the throw is, because that can cost the split-second between safe and out, between in there and caught. I hear shouting–infielders always shout when someone attempts to steal–but just barely, because I’m breathing so loudly.

Time sped up during a steal attempt. I prefered diving headfirst, Ricky Henderson style, over sliding.

Waitwait…Now!

Blur, noise, dive! Cloud of dust.

If I get a good jump and the catcher’s throw isn’t great, I’m stretched full-length in the dirt with my hand already on the base as the infielder tags me. He’s going to swat my hand with the glove, because he’s moving quickly and he hopes to knock my hand off the base. It’s expected; I do the same when I’m playing short or second. But my hand is staying put.

If the throw is better, if it’s close, I’m seeing the infielder lunging for the throw as I’m launching myself. Invariably, if the catcher missed the pitch and there is no throw, that infielder is going to pretend to tag me. You know, just to put that little extra fear in me. Again, fair game. If he’s smart and cool under pressure, he may fake the tag on a bad throw that goes into center field. Can’t let me know there might be a chance for third.

This is a theory that I’ve never been able to prove: when I tried to race for a hundred meter dash, I wasn’t particularly fast. Just running in a straight line, I kind of…sputtered. I’d take off fast but, even though I was trying to accelerate, I’d just plateau and guys would race past me. Not that I tried very often; I had neither the long legs nor the thick tree trunks of a sprinter. BUT, my theory is, I run much faster when racing for second or home (or sprinting after a disc). I’m not thinking “Man, I need to run faster.” I’m simply making it happen. Something about the adrenaline, the teamwork, something about focusing on succeeding rather than fearing getting beat.

Anytime I’m standing on second instead of first (assuming I was the only one on base), a double play becomes extremely unlikely, more of a fluke than a strategy. If I’m on second and the ball is hit past the infield, I’m running like hell and in 1/10 of a second looking up to see if the third base coach is raising his hands at me, palms up, the universal stop sign, stop here, gesturing at the ground and shouting “down!” or “slide!” or, I hope I hope I hope, swinging his arm like a mad windmill, shouting “GO! GO! GO!” and I’m veering slightly to my right to cut that base as sharp as I can and still have full speed for home.

Running for home, having no idea whether the throw is about to beat me or if the outfielder has fumbled the ball, maybe a split-second to glance at the plate to see what I’m about to hit. Fraction of a second to decide: run through, collide, or slide.

Running through means you win this round. You scored. Unless…the throw was early-but-off line and now the catcher is racing you to the plate. Another quarter-second decision.

I wasn’t a great collider. Short and skinny, remember? The time I remember best, the catcher, with about six inches and sixty pounds advantage, bent over, hit me with his glove like a football shiver, and flipped me over his shoulder. He held onto the ball just fine. His name was Lonnie. We played on a couple all-star teams together.

You can dive two feet to either side, as long as your fingers can still reach back and graze homeplate. Unlike base stealing, or even running from one base to another on any type of contact by the hitter, with running home you need not keep contact with the base; all you have to do is touch before you’re tagged. If the catcher has to reach for the ball in either direction, you’re flying for the opposite side of home.

But if the catcher is already set, you want to slide, not dive, because a good catcher can block the path to the plate in a way an infielder rarely can. Oh, plus catchers wear armor. Bit of an advantage there.

PS I never had to learn to dive for a disc playing ultimate because I’d spent my youth diving into dirt at someone’s cleats; diving into soft grass for a piece of plastic was a dream.****

*I think Dad believed Yogi Berra first said that, but it was Wee Willie Keeler.

**That’s an oversimplified stat to make a point. It’s always much more complicated than this. A .300 hitter often will get more walks than a .240 hitter, because the former has proven more dangerous and therefore will see more balls than the latter. And yes, in some situations, a hit is much more valuable than a walk. But 1)we’re talking baseball aphorisms here, and 2)I’m not describing an inviolable baseball truth but how my dad taught me to play baseball, which fit well with my God-given abilities.

***We did, however, once turn the JUGS pitching machine up to 99MPH…when our coach was not present…and were lucky to survive. It didn’t have great control at that speed.

****Of course, not all grass is created equal, and diving on the “grass” during dry season in Nicaragua meant a guaranteed ground burn on knee , hip, elbow, for forearm for the next three weeks. Ideally not all of the above.

on the ground,

Living Our First-Person Lives

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Well, it’s time once again to remember that our lives are direct, first-person, face-to-face when possible, and heart-to-heart.

I’m a writer. Like many people in this culture, I need someone to pay attention to what I do in order to succeed at my vocation.

So today, if I wanted to get people to pay attention, I could weigh in with all my profound or superficial opinions on a specfic few seconds of an awards ceremony last night.

There are important issues and even lessons from this event.

But I’m taking it as a reminder that we live our lives–our lives, not their lives–in arm’s reach. With people we know and care about. We spend our days encouraging and loving or discouraging and ignoring (see what I did there?) people we pass on the street, those we notice or disregard at the grocery store, in church, at the pick-up game, and in the office.

Who in your life is suffering domestic violence? Yes, there is someone. If you don’t know whom, that does not mean it isn’t happening. Statistically, it’s almost certainly happening to someone–sorry, turn that around, it’s almost certain that someone is abusing someone else within your sphere. It’s not “happening” passively.

Who in your life will experience racism today? Can you do anything about it? Can you help support them? Or, perhaps, take steps to stop commiting racisms yourself? Most of us are committing these daily, actively or passively.

I do not like identifying as “white,” and if you know me, you know I’m extremely partial to identifying with my Irish roots. Nonetheless, I’ve benefitted from my skin color, in more ways than I’m aware of, which I know because I’m now working to become aware and have seen things I once ignored. What can we do today, or this week or month, to stand with others who experience prejudice we do not? Not as “white saviors,” but as people who understand, as Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny. I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”

Ableism is also something of which I have started to become aware and I’m admittedly late to this party. I’m 53, and the ugly truth of my youth is that we spoke horrible things about those with differing abilities. No, I’m not talking about “political correctness,” I’m talking about the love of Jesus that sees the value and belovedness of everyone and builds them up accordingly. Living by grace means we don’t seek out the things that elevate us above others as proof of our value nor feed our urge to tear others down. How can you affirm God’s love and blessing in those with different abilities than you have? How can you counter the cultural voice that tells people in your life that they are less valuable, less inherently lovable, because they have disabilities or genetic predispositions different than yours?

I can say with a (reasonably) clear conscience that I was earlier to the party in opposing sexism and misogyny and affirming equality of those created in God’s image. Yes, including the calling to preach and pastor, which I want to assert at every opportunity.

Of course, it helps to have married someone as mighty and steadfast as Kim. When I had my 15 minutes of fame, a podcast mentioned our hyphenated name with a comment implying we’d done something novel.* In a few weeks, Kim and I will celebrate 29 years married. Our son Corin is quick to point out that there is absolutely nothing remotely new or novel about us. I’ve had countless conversations about why we chose to hyphenate our last names, summarized thus: “the two shall become one, not the two shall become him.” That’s it. In truth, I was far more sexist when I got married and have learned more from Kim and from other mighty women in my life than I can describe–or even list–in a single blog post.

Do you hear sexist jokes in person, where you can speak up against them? More insidious, do you hear people’s off-hand comments denigrating women, fostering negative stereotypes, reinforcing that it’s “normal” to cut women down and belittle them? Or maybe you don’t hear them, but I promise the women in your life do. Ask them. Talk with them. Let them know you think those views are bullshit and you see them, not the stereotypes about them.

I find “celebrity culture“–especially our obsession with famous people, our cycles of glorifying and worshiping, then tearing down and reviling them–absolutely bizarre. Remember, it’s all part of someone making money. That doesn’t mean I never get caught up in it myself. I see someone play a role I love and admire and I catch myself hoping that the person depicting this part also has these qualities. Why do we like to see people–remember, these are actual flesh and blood people, like us–lifted up far higher than anyone should be and yet also enjoy seeing them plummet and crash?

I love books, movies, and shows. I profoundly appreciate the part artists play in our lives and even fancy myself an artist (almost breaking my fingers fighting myself not to add a self-deprecating derogative disclaimer here). But we as a culture are way out of balance with how important to our lives we’ve made people whom we do not–and will never–know personally. Our seeming glee in watching some of them self-destruct is just another layer of this unhealth. I might dig into that another time.

As always, I’m sharing my observations and thoughts; I invite you to consider how much this applies to you personally, if at all. I’ll stand by this assessment and provide evidence if necessary, though to me it seems so obvious with People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and TMZ, not to mention what’s trending on social media every bloody day. But I’m not attacking anyone personally, and I’m not even attempting to delineate where healthy appreciation becomes unhealthy vicarious living.

I am saying that this specific incident, which will garner massive attention for the next two-to-five days, should not be as important to me as the people in my real (not vicarious) life, and if I’m worked up about the issues arguably related to this incident, sounding off about them will do less than acting on them for those same real people. The good I can see from paying attention to the hubbub–this or any other–is learning for the benefit of others.

I want to say clearly: some folks out there have insightful, convicting analyses of this altercation to which I’m referring. I’m not saying it’s unimportant; I’m reminding myself, and now you, that I’m not the authority to tell anyone what it means. However, the uproar over it spurs me to live my life well, and lovingly, Jesus help me, rather than live someone else’s.

PS In case someone still feels inclined to argue, “But Mike, don’t you care about violence?” again I’ll say, I’m not dismissing this incident as unimportant. I’m simply not claiming authority to hold forth on it. I care very much about violence: the violence occuring today against women and children, against Black people, against the LGBTQIA community, the violence perpetrated by Putin and the leaders of Russia against the people of Ukraine, the violence unleashed during the insurrection on The Capitol on January 6, 2021.

*Quoting from The Holy Post podcast, Episode 361:
“This is a piece that Relevant published written by Mike Rumley-Wells. Mike Rumley-Wells.”

“You like saying that.”

“Is that one, how is that–“

“No, hyphenated. ‘Rumley hyphen Wells.’ So apparently ‘Rumley’ is his maiden name. I don’t know.”

“No, it’s his mother’s.”

“I don’t know, or his wife’s. Maybe his wife’s name is ‘Wells?'”

“Maybe he took her name?”

“Yeah, I don’t know.”

“Anything goes these days.”

Love Amidst the Madness

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I want to be a peacemaker.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

I’m so sick of people screaming and arguing and fighting.

I’m so sick of people acting as if destroying their opponent in an argument gains them anything.

But the “peace” that Jesus talks about is not superficial, fake smile, act-nice-and-be-polite-while-injustice-mutilates-people-but-hey!-no-one-is-raising-their-voice.

Thus, here I am, longing to be a peacemaker, but longing for the real peace, the reconciliation and restoration of God that breaks down the dividing walls of hostility (Ephesians 2). I envision living and embodying the shalom that leads people into full relationship with one another and with God-who-is-love (1 John 4).

And at the same time, here I am, weary to death of the bitter, self-serving acrimony that we see (and fall into) across the political chasm and, worse, between Jesus followers with different understandings of this calling. The only credit I can take for being different is that I keep my arguments in my head most of the time. Believe me, I’m sick of that noise, too.

Do you feel this? It’s a tough time for peacemakers. Maybe it always is. Noisemakers and hate-stirrers get a lot more attention. It seems easier for them to rally support.

Switchfoot, a band I’m still fond of, has a song called “Adding to the Noise.”

If we’re adding to the noise, turn off this song

Lord Jesus, if I’m merely adding to the noise, pouring gasoline on an already raging fire, just shut me up. I know, I’m not good at shutting up; I have not honed this skill over the years of my life. But I’m serious. When I write, I’m always aware and checking my spirit, feeling both burning and bound by this dilemna. Am I helping or making it worse?

You have no idea how many posts I’ve written and then consigned to the purgatorial draft folder because the more rational part of me could still discern that saying this may do more damage than healing. It isn’t a simple equation. I got criticized for a post in which I was extremely blunt about TFG (The Former Guy, i.e. Trump). I certainly could have been more diplomatic. But sometimes stating things bluntly helps those who have been harmed, which is worth the risk that others will feel criticized. I try to check these scales every time.

To give an obvious example, I’m going to speak up loudly for women who have suffered physical or sexual assault, and I’m going to consider diplomacy or being “constructive” for the attackers a secondary, tertiary, or way-further-down-the-line concern. Yes, you might have explanations or what you consider mitigating factors in why you committed assault. Yes, I desire your healing and redemption, as well.

But one in three women suffer physical or sexual attack–men are physically or sexually attacking one in three women. Note: Do you see the difference in that phrasing, that construction? Women aren’t victims of attack unless there is an attacker. Why is every headline about the victimization but not addressing who the bleep attacked them?

Yet TFG stated, publically, “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.” Certainly a false accusation of physical or sexual violence is a frightening, potentially life-hijacking experience. That happens between two and eight percent of the time.* Think about this: one in three women actually suffer assault–that many men are assaulting them–and about twenty-five out of one thousand attackers will go to jail. Is it a dangerous time to be a young man or a young woman in America?

This is an example of true peacemaking: if we can reduce the number of men attacking women in our sphere, our nation, our world, we are making peace. If we can help heal, empower, and restore the women who have been attacked, we are making peace. If we can help protect women and empower them to protect themselves and, consequentliy, prevent the violence and reduce the horrifying one in three, we have helped bring real peace in our world.

I come not to bring this old peace which is merely the absence of tension; I come to bring a positive peace which is the presence of justice and the Kingdom of God. Peace is not merely the absence of something. but it’s the presence of something.

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957 speech, Montgomery, AL

Peacemaking is not always making everyone feel better. If peace requires the presence of justice, then speaking truth to power, confronting those initiating violence, and standing in solidarity with the oppressed and persecuted all become aspects of peacemaking. I know I’m not giving an advanced class on biblical justice here, nor am I attempting to. I’m pondering when we need to speak up and act. How often does silence not equal peacemaking? I’d guess many of us experience this continuous, unresolved tension of how to be a peacemaker during this never-ending screaming match.

I’m asking you to wrestle with this along with me. A reader whom I will not name (because I don’t know if that would be welcome) recently told me, in response to my expression of frustration:

I can appreciate your feelings, but don’t even think of giving up writing that blog! You are the thoughtful voice of reason and love amidst the madness and I ALWAYS appreciate and learn something from your thoughts and sentiments!

Yes, that helped my writer’s morale. A lot. But in addition to encouraging me, this person reminded me, with great clarity, of my purpose. Jesus, may this description be true! I mean, I could do with less madness. Sadly, it looks to me to be increasing, not decreasing, so trying to live up to these words feels more crucial than ever.

I mention it here because we need to be peacemakers, not noisemakers.

Here’s what I’ve got:

Having people complain that we speak up does not mean we are “doing it wrong.” Of course, getting pushback doesn’t guarantee we’re speaking truth or contributing constructively, either. Therefore, I don’t believe we can pull this off without some form of community that will give us feedback and check us when we are wandering off course.

BUT “some form of community” must be more than people who merely agree with all our views and are happy to cheer and echo our shouting. In an ideal world, we’d have people from many perspectives who will challenge our assumptions. I think our non-negotiable for community, though, must be folks who share our understanding of “peace.” When I ask, “Okay, how do I speak truth in love here? I’m struggling to be kind when I’m so angry,” I need a better answer than “F— kindness! Why do you have to be kind? They don’t deserve kindness!”

Yeah, I know they don’t. That’s how grace works.

I’m going to speak bluntly here. I know a lot of Christians are speaking with hostility while simultaneously taking the role of persecuted victim and martyr (when they aren’t), and somehow seeing this as okay with or even pleasing to God.

I’m not their judge and God has more grace than I do, thank Jesus. I’m horribly disturbed by this trend, just as I am aghast that so many Christians now believe–and spread–conspiracy theories.

Their behavior is not mine to fix. Thank God. Being responsible for me is more than big enough for me, as I demonstrate all too frequently. Again, that’s how grace works.

But I am committed not to reciprocate. I need community that will strengthen my faith and resolve to speak up and help me not to return hatred for hatred or attack for attack.

In the midst of such community, I will continue to seek justice in whatever ways I can and to ask Jesus to show me what more I can do. I will not let others’ unloving theology divert me from Jesus’ calling. AND I will not respond with an eye for an eye. Okay, that’s my prayer, not my noble declaration. I will try. Lord, hear my prayer.

I will continue to speak up on behalf of the LGBTQIA community and, I hope, do a better job of this. I’m learning and God has grace. If this is the point at which you decide that I have stopped following Jesus, go in peace.

I will continue to add my voice concerning the climate crisis. We are in a climate crisis, due to humankind’s poor, greedy, and selfish choices, including the horrible disparity between people with wealth and those living in extreme poverty. How we treat God’s creation is at the heart of how we love God, and how we seek justice for those suffering in poverty–upon whom pollution and environmental damage always hit hardest–is at the core of the Gospel. Jesus says God loves everyone and declares “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”** “Today,” Jesus concludes, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I give these as examples. I’m not suggesting these are the only ones or that peacemaking equals these. I know many Christians disagree on them, but these are not “issues;” they are our decisions whether or not to love the people God made and seek justice for and with them. I cannot be a peacemaker while remaining silent for fear that speaking about them will draw criticism. I did that for too long. I repent.

As always, I am learning and unlearning. My ideas and beliefs are growing and changing. God is faithful. I’ve been wrong a bunch and expect I still I am. That’s why we must be open to change. I hope all of us are.

I’m not going to scream and argue. I started this post with how sick I am of it, and I end with that I have to accept I’m not going to solve it. I wish I could. But being silent will not keep others from screaming–trust me, I’ve tried this approach–and will only leave those who need an advocate feeling more alone. Neither will I spend my time and emotional resources getting sucked into fruitless debates. To paraphrase Tracy Chapman, I’m too old to go chasing them around, wasting my precious energy.

Your voice matters. Your advocacy matters, more powerfully and to more people than you realize. I know some of you live this more fully than I could dream. Thank God for you. I also know some of you are exhausted. I want to be a peacemaker, not in the same way I want to eat chocolate or hike in the mountains, because it makes me feel better instantly. I seek to be a peacemaker because that’s what it takes to love others. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I’m grateful for your partnership and for the hope you give me.

Blessed are the peacemakers. And a blessing are the peacemakers.

*This is, understandably, a difficult number to ascertain with accuracy. The range of 2%-8% is simply a report of the findings of various studies.


** Luke 4:16-21 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Between Gratitude and Grief

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Every Wednesday and Friday, I wake up sore and stiff.

We play ultimate Tuesday and Thursday.

Every time I get up on a Wednesday or Friday, I’m grateful. I mean every single time.

I spent almost three months last summer incapacitated by a back injury. Being in my fifties, I saw with absolute clarity that I had no guarantee I would be back running full speed again.

I’ve always felt gratitude that I have a sport I love that makes me feel more alive when I play. But if I’m honest, I’ve focused more on improving (or not losing ground) than I have on rejoicing simply that I can play. Something shifted in me as I hit my fifties, as Corin took interest, and especially as my back forced me to the sidelines and then healed.

Back when we found out we would have Corin, who was born in 2007, I was thirty-eight. I committed to myself (and him) that I would remain an active dad. In fact, I made it very specific: by the time Corin turns 18, I will still be able to play basketball one-on-one with him and not humiliate myself. Or, implicitly, humiliate him for playing with me. I don’t have to be able to beat him, just not have him feel pity for me or say, “That’s okay, Dad. You can’t really do that anymore.”

Last night, we played goaltimate, the indoor version of ultimate we have until spring frees us to put on our cleats and head back outside. We ran hard for almost two hours and had a blast. For those who get the implications, Corin and I were the first players to arrive. (Some of you just had to sit down and could probably use a glass of water. Or perhaps help up from having fainted.) We both played really well, neither of us flawlessly but both with highlights we recounted while we drove home.

On one point, Corin and I were on opposing teams and his teammate threw him a pass in the goal. I was the one back guarding that area and I jumped up and knocked it down–just as Corin also jumped and arrived a split second later. We collided.

If any of you gasped for my little son, you have not seen Corin in a while. He’s now almost as tall as I am and more muscular. Or you may have gasped for me, which would be more appropriate. We were both fine. His hip was a little sore this morning from where he landed on it.

A discussion ensued as to whether or not I had committed a foul. If you’ve played ultimate, or seen it played, you can picture exactly what I’m describing. If not, the crucial info is: ultimate is self-refereed and there are both detailed rules about what constitutes a foul and a process in place for disagreement (basically a replay). I would call the discussion earnest but not heated. We all concluded we need to go back and review the rules and an instant replay would have helped.

I know some of you are not enthralled with the specifics of ultimate, while, on the opposite end, a couple of you are asking, “What exactly happened and who initiated contact?” I’m describing the play because it simultaneously shows that I am back to full speed for the middle-aged athlete I am (feel free to put that word in quotes, if you prefer–either of them) and that Corin has reached the level at which, if I hold back at all, he will destroy me on the field.

I suppose if I were smart, I’d be worried about how I’m going to keep up until he’s 18. But fortunately for me, I’m not. I’m thrilled, out of my mind thrilled, that my fourteen-year-old is rapidly closing the gap on being a better ultimate player than I am. Please don’t tell him this.

I’m joking about that last part, of course. I tell him all the time how amazing his progress is and how proud I am of him. He, in turn, tells me how I will soon be eating his dust.

He’s not wrong.

But I have to keep trying to express how wildly, soul-deep grateful I am to God and for my own little body that I can do this.

Last Tuesday, I had a bad night at goaltimate. I got angry and could not shake it off. I played sub-par to my own expectations. I shouted in frustration. More than once.

Last Tuesday, I arrived at goaltimate angry and disheartened. All the news (which I’d been scouring all day) indicated that Russia was on the verge of invading Ukraine. I’d lost hope that this brutality might be averted.

Last Wednesday, with Ukraine ten hours ahead of Washington state, confirmed this horror.

I’ve mentioned (roughly a thousand times) that playing ultimate helps me stay sane and functional. Or as close as I get. But some problems are too big. My brain couldn’t unplug, even for that therapeutic hour and a half of sprinting and jumping and bantering.

Corin was a bit bummed. I don’t blame him. I was unpleasant. It was not the enjoyable experience he’s come to look forward to.

BUT, that car ride home was the real deal. He’ll be fifteen in two months. He has a better idea of what’s going on in the world than I did at 15, and I thought I was enlightened and informed.* We discussed what this war will mean for Ukraine. We talked about how some have praised Putin and what that means, how that emboldens a dictator.

There is no perfect balance. We’re constantly adjusting and readjusting, trying to love well within our limited capacity. Last Thursday morning–our next day to play–Corin suggested, less-than-half-joking, that I not spend the entire day reading bad news, so that I wouldn’t be so riled up that I couldn’t enjoy playing (or that he couldn’t enjoy it as much–he is 14, after all).

So we talked about that. We discussed balance, staying informed versus overloading. I told him that sometimes you need to know about others’ suffering, so you can pray and because it feels wrong to ignore, even when it doesn’t impact you directly.** I’ll never forget an editor for a major publisher telling me that, while I’d written a good book, he couldn’t publish it because people here don’t care that much about what happens in Nicaragua. In fact, he said, “Unless there is some major international incident to make people care…”

I wasn’t praying for Ukrainians before this major international “incident” began. I was keeping an eye on the news, hoping that this violence could be averted. I wasn’t yet weighing in my head the contrast between their hiding in a cellar, trying to survive a bombing, and my getting to run around with Corin. I love the people of Nicaragua, especially our friends and family there. But I understand that’s a personal connection I have from living there for seven years. I grasp this reality that we cannot focus everywhere at once. My purpose is not to make you feel guilt. I’m talking about how we live our lives in this balance between gratitude for what we have and awareness of others’ hardships and suffering.

This is real life. I’m grateful that at 53 I can run around with my son. In Ukraine, people are deciding whether to stay and hope they survive or flee and become refugees. People make the same decision in Nicaragua literally every day. I don’t have any insightful conclusion here. I’m simply sharing my own version of this impossible tug-of-war. When I lost my mobility, I realized how precious it is simply to walk, much less run. When I wake up sore, I’m grateful to God for life. These days, I’m acutely aware some are not waking up at all. My heart is torn between gratitude for simple things and grief for those in Ukraine, in Nicaragua, even in Wenatchee, who are having these ripped from them.

*I thought a lot of things about myself.

**There is every reason to believe Russia’s war against Ukraine will impact all of us, indirectly and directly.

If You’re Feeling Sick about Ukraine

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“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

I think we should feel sick about Ukraine. That means we’re paying attention.

I’m thinking about our responses to suffering and evil. I’m thinking about the horror they’re experiencing right now.

I’m not going to try to give a real summary of what’s happening as Russia attacks the sovereign nation of Ukraine because it would be outdated before I hit “publish.” I will offer resources to read. I hope you’re paying attention and trying to learn and understand. I hope doing so causes some strong emotional response in you.

Not that I wish suffering upon you, but we live in this world and I believe being faithful means choosing to see and know. Choosing to weep with those who weep as well as rejoice with those who rejoice.

“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” we read three verses later, in Romans 12:15. I find I get to respond to this verse three hundred times a day. I often fail, but still I seek to live peaceably. But “so far as it depends on you” circumscribes this passage tightly.

Much of the time, it does not depend solely on us. Often, living peaceably depends on others, as well, and we have neither power nor even much direct influence over them. We face huge questions of what lines we should draw to keep peace, when we should break peace, and when we accept “it is not possible.”

Right now, we’re watching a war of aggression carried out far from here and none of us get to decide. We can still “live peaceably with all” in our own spheres, but that won’t bring peace to Ukraine. That won’t protect their children. It won’t prevent the wave of mothers, Ukrainian and Russian, keening over their dead. Nor the flood of new orphans.

To make it worse, the sanctions imposed against Russia and aimed at the Russian oligarchs by the U.S. and E.U., while probably (and hopefully) effective, will also cause horrible suffering for the Russian people, many of whom, as we are learning day by day, oppose this violence and aggression. The ruble has collapsed versus the dollar (about 100 rubles to the US dollar as I type this) and Russia increased their key interest rate from 9.5% to 20%. Imagine that here.

Violence, especially violence against innocent people, should sicken us. I’m going to speak bluntly: we should not come up with reasons why it’s okay; we should pray not to become numb to the suffering of others. When we allow ourselves to become indifferent or calloused to other people’s misery, it can only dehumanize us.

Personally, I’m encouraged by the international response to this invasion. It gives me a little more hope in humanity, which has been flagging recently.

Here, then, are my thoughts:

  • Take in as much as you can, pay attention, learn, and keep your balance. Do not let it capsize you.

I’ve been trying to fill in my gaps concerning Ukrainian history. Our funky community is pooling resources for legit and reliable news resources.

If you are on Twitter, I offer @IAPonomarenko @KyivIndependent and @terrelljstarr as firsthand sources. Terrell Starr is a U.S. journalist living in Kyiv. Justin King, who goes by “Beau of the Fifth Column,” has military experience and insight and his conversational videos make difficult subjects accessible. Here are a couple introductions to the current situation. For an explanation of the sanctions against Putin, as well as a personal insight into Putin’s character, watch this interview on PBS with Bill Browder. If you have other recommendations, do share them.

Now, the other half of keeping balance: I realize it may feel pathetic to say “I know their homes are getting bombed, but I can only bear reading so much about their misery.” We learned in Nicaragua that even when living in the direct presence of continuous suffering, one had to breathe, take breaks, and find ways to sustain. We had to learn to care and not drown. If people can’t find this balance, they either leave or implode. Or both.

If you’re prone to depression, reading news about Ukrainians dying until 4AM will not save any Ukrainian children, but it may cause harm to you and your loved ones. Yes, I know this is the height of privilege to be able to look away when we need to. And yes, I’m aware some people hate this word “privilege,” but it’s the precise word here, and I’m too much of a (stubborn) writer not to use it. Of the privileges we likely take for granted, one is that our nation is not currently being bombed and invaded. I just walked to our mailbox with no fear that a rocket or sniper would kill me. We are privileged when others suffer and we have the freedom to see it or ignore it.

My point is, when we’ve learned our limitations for our health, ignoring them or feeling bad about ourselves for having them merely makes it worse for us, not better for anyone else. If you’re someone who tends to ignore bad things, you may need to choose to look. If you’re someone more likely to get capsized, you may need to read, watch, and witness in more limited quantities. Keep doing your healthy stuff! Be grateful for that privilege and don’t neglect it.

True, that’s awfully practical and pragmatic, coming from me. But I’m sticking with it.

  • PRAY.

No, really. I mean pray like you think it will change things.

I’m not getting into a debate about the efficacy of prayer here. I believe God loves us and therefore our prayers make a difference. That’s all I’ve got.

But unlike when “thoughts and prayers” is used as an excuse and a refusal to act when action might make a real difference, beseeching God when we can do nothing else is,* in my view, a hopeful act.

If you have any belief in a love that holds the universe, any hope that the “moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice,” now would be the time to cry out. A friend just described the type of prayer of which I’m thinking, and instead of trying to improve on that description, I’ll just steal it:

This is the kind of prayer that begs God to intervene and then perhaps moves us to act in an embodied way that puts to work the mental faculties that God gave us, in the form of educating ourselves about these kinds of geopolitical conflicts, why they happen, and how our voting habits here in the states might be contributing to instability for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. To say that this is all complex, is quite an understatement, and we all have different capacities for how much time we can give to understanding global issues. But I think it’s incumbent upon us as members of a country where we DO get a say in policies and power-brokers with our vote. 

Kristi Ahrens, “Truth Vs. Lies: Don’t Look Away”

My view is that Jesus is both loving and humble and doesn’t need us to “get prayer right.” But praying will change us. If you have courage, pray for more capacity to see the suffering in the world and sit with it. Ask for ways you can help Ukrainians more directly. For that matter, if you have suggestions of good ways to offer direct help, share them! Prayer can work that way, too.

  • Please hear this next point out before you shut me down, if at all possible.

No one knows how long this armed conflict will last. We hope and pray for a peaceful resolution, but even trying to imagine how that might come about with Putin in charge is difficult. He doesn’t have the personality to back down. Sanctions and other non-violent interventions may impact the Russian economy–again, creating scarcity and suffering for many lower-income Russian citizens–but it may be impossible for Russia to withdraw from this violent aggression unless/until Putin is removed from power. To remind you, I’m not an expert and you should read and investigate for yourself.

I point all this out because this armed conflict may go on longer than we are prepared to care.

We grow weary with compassion fatigue. We also have short attention spans. The United States, especially, is known for our massive, generous, and compassionate responses to crises–and the brevity with which we can sustain interest in issues not directly impacting us. We’ve been going through a pandemic–which, bizarrely, turned into a political chasm rather than “only” a public health crisis, because, well, we’re special**–and thus we are already, as a people, spent by the two-pronged crisis.

A friend, Kristi, wrote a tremendous blog post I quoted above on our response to this current crisis. Among other things, she challenged us not to turn the Russian-Ukraine military conflict into merely a chance to blame “the other side,” i.e the other political party. Yes, I know, there is much to be said here. Please hear me: if we turn this solely into a blame game, we lose sight of the Ukrainian people, suffering and fearful, right now. Yes, we need to continue to seek the best leadership for our country. Yes, U.S. politics has, sadly, played into the current situation. But I’m talking about how we seek to be people of compassion and peace.

Trust me, I also feel like screaming at the “other” side, but I know that’s not going to help, certainly not help the Ukrainians for whom our hearts are moved, nor even help anyone here, as it would only serve to deepen our divide and be the opposite of “live peaceably with all.” The changes we need to pursue here involve building relationships, organizing, and voting, not screaming and posting memes to “own them.”

I have to remember that, often, my anger is actually an escape for me from having to sit with others in their suffering. Feeling sick about Ukraine is the approriate response. Making that feeling stop should not be my priority. Jesus calls us to open ourselves to sharing in others’ suffering–which is exactly what Jesus does with us. Even from this distance, we can pray and have solidarity with those who weep, grieve, and like us, pray for peace.

To end, I’m brought to tears by this video of Ukrainians feeding a captured Russian soldier and calling his mother for him so she can see him alive. Watch this to the end. See him and his captors crying. See him give his mother a kiss.

See the Kingdom of God and the world that we, too, are called to create.

*If any of you just got defensive, I’m not saying that we pray only “when we can do nothing else.” Again, I wrestle so much with prayer–and with God in prayer–that I have no interest in the posturing or virtue signaling about how much greater one person’s faith is than another’s as measured by how strongly they can phrase that prayer is more than everything else. I don’t want to play.

**Yes, of course I have more thoughts on why this schism occurred. I’m being what they call “diplomatic” here.

Twenty-Two Things

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It would seem a waste to pass up this opportunity, since I shan’t be around to see the next such perfect alignment of numbers.

  1. As I grow older, I become both more convinced that God is gracious and more sad about how humans are.
  2. Every time I see kindness now it makes me cry. Every time.
  3. My competitive flame was starting to sputter until my 14-year-old reignited it. I do not know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.
  4. I still miss Nicaragua.
  5. I’ve made friends that I never would have expected to make and I’ve lost friends I never would have expected to lose. This is still happening, now, in my fifties.
  6. Annalise told me, “I know writing is how you process things,” and I realized wow, that’s exactly right.
  7. Our willingness to accept others’ suffering as the price for our comfort is the ugliest thing I’ve seen. Our ability to rationalize this is mind-boggling.
  8. Some of the coolest people I know, I have never met in person.
  9. I still don’t understand the combination of gifts God has given me nor whether I’m using them as I should be; it feels pretty late in the game for this.
  10. I wish more people felt empathy.
  11. It’s a slow process, but I’m more at peace with myself than I have been. I dislike myself less and am less depressed, but I don’t know which is cause and which effect.
  12. Now that I’ve been married almost twenty-nine years, I’m even more astounded by those who reach fiftieth or even sixtieth anniversaries…yet these also start to seem possible.
  13. I still love Star Wars, dinosaurs, baseball, and baseball cards…all things I loved when I was eight.
  14. I didn’t drink alcohol until I was twenty-nine and coffee until I was fifty–and now I definitely do. Together, even.
  15. I like underdogs.
  16. Giving my heart in relationships has been one of the hardest things I’ve done; that I still do it, even after the number of times I’ve been burned, makes me feel good about myself.
  17. I still don’t get this “boundaries” business. Maybe when I’m sixty.
  18. Faithfulness is simply small steps in the right direction; following Jesus is simply seeking to be faithful and accepting grace when I fail.
  19. I think I learned to care less about what people think of me–which used to own me–when it finally became clear that the decision was between being faithful in speaking up and trying to make sure everyone thought well of me. I couldn’t do both.
  20. Jesus is love and love is simpler, more beautiful, and harder than I thought.
  21. I love that Kim and I have brought awesome human beings into the world!
  22. The journey is everything.

Steps Toward Compassion

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I’m really tired today. I’m tired by choice, because I rock and roll all night and party every day played goaltimate with Corin last night and then stayed up watching Mission: Impossible and eating Wild Mike’s Ultimate Pizza (best frozen pizza ever!).

I spent years being tired not due to my bedtime choices, but because I suffered insomnia. When my insomnia finally alleviated, I had a far greater value for sleep than before its onset. Before insomnia’s relentless siege, I would casually skip sleep. In fact, I considered it a badge of my rugged and indomitable spirit that I could pull an all nighter, or muscle through on three or four hours or less, sometimes for several days in a row. When I list my youthful foolishness, this definitely makes the cut. Of course, I was still doing this in my mid-forties, so you can decide whether that counts as “youthful” or on my list of “delusional foolishness.”

It’s funny/not funny how we can enjoy an experience as long as its optional, but find we hate it when we have no choice. You might enjoy the feeling of being buzzed but feel very different about vertigo. “Roughing it” can be fun, but not being able to make ends meet and deciding what you’ll do without is a different experience entirely.

I suspect we don’t recognize our privilege because we haven’t grasped this difference.

When we lived in Nicaragua, I tried to explain that we lived next to those in poverty, but we did not live in poverty. In fact, I remember a conversation with a supporter who didn’t understand why, if we were going to live in a country where people were living on $200 each month, we needed to raise so much more than that. The answer to that still makes me uncomfortable. Someone who lives on $200 has no health insurance, no car/gas/insurance, no new clothes, and very meager budget for food. Paying for school supplies is difficult and attending anything other than public school is usually impossible. Toiletries like toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and shampoo become luxuries that one more or may not be able to afford in a given month. What we would consider minor medical concerns become crises.

By U.S. standards, we lived very simply in Nicaragua. I remember this every single day as I experience luxuries here. Handwashing dishes, no hot water in our house, a clothes washer but no dryer, etc. Plus, life simply works easier in a country with functioning infrastructure, generally observed traffic laws, etc, etc. Yes, I’m still talking about “wealth” here, because we live in a place now where these services are built into our lives. You would have to live in a place with roads that alternated between teeth-rattling and impassible to appreciate fully how wonderful our paved roads are here. I don’t say that as criticism, but as fact. I didn’t appreciate sleep when I went without it but could choose to catch up anytime I wanted. You might drive on a rough road and think, “This is unpleasant!” But when you have no other option, every day, you discover how miserable an unpaved road can be. That’s a minor example.

The privation that really hit home for me was water. We were still privileged, in that when we woke up and found we had no water coming out of the faucets–which happened intermittently, from a few days at a time to six weeks in a row–we could still buy water to drink. Many of our Nicaraguan neighbors didn’t have that in their $200 budget and instead had huge barrels of water set aside for those situations. Of course, some simply had no running water and had to find ways to fill those barrels year-round.

But do you know what happens with a standing barrel of water in a tropical climate? It becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes, practically ideal conditions if you wanted the mosquitoes to thrive. Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya, and several other truly nasty diseases are carried and spread by these thriving mosquitoes. We contracted all of those during our time in Nicaragua, though we didn’t have standing barrels of water; we lived in a barrio where our neighbors had no other choices.

That’s only one aspect–and for most Nicaraguans living in poverty not even the primary aspect–of not having running water. Drinking, cooking, bathing, toilets, everything becomes damned difficult. But don’t forget that all of those diseases are miserable, sometimes life-threatening, and there was barely any money for medicine, either.

I think it’s funny, as in funny-ridiculous, when we want to reject that we experience privilege. Of course we do. Having lived in Managua for seven years, I know I have an advantage in seeing it. I also know I didn’t appreciate sleep very much until I couldn’t sleep more than three hours in a row for days or weeks at a time. The camouflage of privilege is that often we can’t quite see what we have until we don’t have it. We can’t quite grasp what other people suffer until we get some taste of what going without as they do would really be like, not as a lark, but as deprivation.

Saying this does not mean I have had an easy life nor that my suffering doesn’t count. Isaac still died. My dad still died three weeks before our son. My bouts with depression are real and not a good time. No more am I saying that your difficulties somehow matter less. When we hear this word “privilege,” we seem to have a knee jerk reaction to prove that yes, I have too suffered.

But for us to live as compassionate people, we must grasp that others suffer in ways we do not. We have to let ourselves see what others experience, even if–no, especially when–it’s not what we experience. Traveling helps with this, but so can reading.* Or plain old listening.

One last, heavy point: insomnia was so much worse than I imagined, maybe worse than I could convey to you. Going without sleep isn’t only physical deprivation, nor even that plus the emotional toll; it’s also the desperation and despondency piled on top. Hours of going crazy, begging God to help me fall back asleep, but it seemed the moment you realize you’ve woken up again, the wheels spin out of control, like the frustration and discouragement have a cumulative effect. I tell you this not because I need sympathy for something from which I no longer suffer. (If you write a reply about that I’ll know you weren’t following my reasoning.) When we are willing to listen and pay attention, to believe people about their suffering, we also remember that we still don’t grasp it from the inside. When we start to get a glimmer, it’s only that. We don’t get what they are going through.

What examples do you have of A)what you’ve experienced that others don’t get and B)what you’ve glimpsed and realize others have suffered that you have not?

*Yes, books on tape and documentaries also count!

That’s What I’m Here For

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Two different friends contacted me yesterday because their mothers are dying and they wanted to connect.

I’m guessing both of them are reading this, so I’m partly writing this for them.

Because you can only say so many times, “Of course, don’t apologize, that’s what I’m here for.”

They believe you, but they still feel bad, because they’ve got this enormous grief, this massive weight of sorrow they’re carrying and it feels like a terrible, presumptuous imposition to ask someone “Hey, I’m carrying this, could you take a moment with me? I can’t really let go of it, but if you know I’m carrying it that might make it a little better (or less awful) for a moment or two.”

But it’s not an imposition. It’s not even presumptuous.

That’s what I’m here for.

I love you, Friends. It’s okay that you don’t usually check in and then have to when your mom is dying. It’s more than okay. When your mom is dying, you get to break social norms. And I will drop everything to hear you.

That’s what I’m here for.

I’m here for other things, too. The dogs and cats expect someone to feed them. Roughly 80% of the time, I’m “someone.” They appreciate it for a second or two.

Sometimes, some days, when I’m struggling and at my bitterest, I think I’m here for comic relief, the character you feel bad for laughing at but can’t help yourself. Go ahead. It’s all so preposterous.

But those are bad days, days in which I’ve lost sight of my purpose. Days in which the doubt and self-castigation have spiraled out of control and I can’t remember, or fathom, that I’ve done anyone any good. Those are the days of eating poorly and cursing like a drunk sailor doing construction work. Those days. I’m guessing you’ve had them.

Sometimes God redeems those days and I can see some good even in them. Other times, I just survive them.

They aren’t most of my days–though they feel like my entire existence at the time–and mercifully, I’ve had fewer of them recently.

But days like yesterday wake me the expletive up. In the best way.

I don’t have any advice or counsel to offer with this post. I’m simply sharing that sometimes I forget. Then I’m reminded, and not because someone stroked my ego or flattered me.

I’m reminded that I’m here for relationships. I’m here to love people as best I can–limits I’m much more aware of as I get older, wiser, and finally develop boundaries.

With God as my witness, I have the hardest time receiving grace–and forgiving myself–for relationship failures. I could list them all.

But I’ve come to believe that grace comes in having the relationships. Period. I no longer think in terms of doing this perfectly, just as I no longer think in terms of fixing people. (Others have different words for that.) God gives us grace that we, imperfectly, get to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)*

I’m not the one everyone would call. I don’t have to be.

But I am glad, in the deepest sense, that they did.

That’s why, without betraying your confidence, I’m telling you publicly. I’m not happy you had to. I am glad you knew you could.

That’s what I’m here for.

May be an illustration
From The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy

*One of the two called me partly because I have such a grim sense of humor I can joke with them even in that situation and not think less of them for needing to.

My Seven Areas of Expertise

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A humorous exchange in a politics dialogue group.

The group [not the admin, not a human being] just offered to make me an “expert.” Badge and everything. I thought for a few moments and then accepted. But THEN it wanted ME to fill in the categories in which I’m an expert. Wait a minute–YOU said I was an expert, not me. I tried “sarcasm.” No category found.”Heckling.” No category found. My final attempt was going to be “Jesus stuff,” but even “Jesus” wasn’t found. (See how I was going to integrate the other categories?) So, no. Not an expert. Oh, well.

Yes, yours truly was declared “the expert.” If you know me at all, you know I’m going to run with that. Because I do have some expertise, and such a vague, impressive-sounding-yet-meaningless medal for my chest will always get those wheels spinning fast enought to burn rubber.*

Here are the areas in which I believe I am an expert:

1. Self-deprecation

No one, and I mean no one, thinks about my faults and shortcomings as much as I do. Trust me, it isn’t even close, unless you’ve secretly made this your full-time job. Even then, you’d better be pulling some overtime to keep up.

Here’s how I’ve grown in this area of expertise: I express these things more light-heartedly, and offer myself much more grace in doing so. It used to be funny (I hope) but was actually pretty vicious self-attack. Now I’m mostly laughing at myself and remembering how much grace I, a ridiculously flawed human being, receive on the daily and isn’t that cool?

Here’s the truth: I think more people should practice being self-deprecating. Though not infallible, it’s an effective antidote for being argumentative, arrogant, and belligerent. Stop taking yourselves so damned seriously! You’re not all that. Just a thought. I am, after all, the expert.

2. Punctuality.

Obviously, a FB group wouldn’t know to give me this (though the way they spy, is it out of the question?). But I moved to a culture in which timeliness was far less valued than in the U.S. and my dear friend, Pastor Bismarck, declared me “Más Nica que Nicas!”

I rest my case.

3. Ultimate Player (for my age)

Before you laugh at this one, consider: I am far closer to being the best 53-year-old ultimate player than I was to being the best 33-year-old ultimate player. I have a goal and I will, God-willing, be closer to it twenty years hence.

Also, I once threw a disc through a tire from about 50 yards away.** On only my third try. So there’s that.

4. Loving Kim

I’ve devoted coming on 35 years of my life to this, from the literal first moment, when seeing her twitterpated me.

However, we must acknowledge that doing something for many years does not, per se, make one an expert. I’m certain you could cite some examples. I have perfected ways in which to drive her crazy, but that is a different type of expertise and I hope (and believe) I’ve cut way down on these, if not eschewed them altogether. (See #2, above.)

But my claim to being an expert lies in 1)being the world champion at knowing Kim Trivia, and 2)affirming her and making her laugh and smile. In all humility, I think it’s too late for anyone else to catch up now. And I’m not resting on my laurels with these, either.

5. Rejoinders

Of course, I think I’m hilarious. My kids do not (or claim they do not; I suspect they’re in denial). But I’m not funny at joke-telling, impressions, stand-up, or slapstick. I believe–and you will not convince me otherwise, in case you’ve considered trying–that I excel at the witty retort, the absurd and humorous non-sequitur, and the smart-ass reply.

Am I proud of this? Wouldn’t you be?

Being serious for a second now. There’ll be a quiz later on which ones were meant sincerely and which were sarcasm.

6. Transparency and Vulnerability

“Expert” may be the wrong word for these, but I’ve committed to practicing them. “Self-deprecating” is not the same thing; you can make fun of yourself without having revealed anything true to anyone.

My friend Trish calls it “Reckless vulnerability.” It kind of is, in the sense that I’m not good at counting the cost of it.

I wonder sometimes about having committed to this track. I have moments of wondering why in the hell I’ve let people know how I struggle. Sometimes they use it against you. See, being vulnerable leaves you vulnerable. You can quote me on that.

But here it is: yes, I know I’m not getting ahead, but it’s not a race.

May be an image of text that says 'We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are justpassing through Our purpose here is to observe, to learn to grow, to love... and then we return home. Padebbek Flk -Aboriginal Proverb Facebook/Compassion, Love Respect'

I know that some people think less of me for having told truths about myself which make them uncomfortable. I won’t pretend that always rests easy with me. My insecurities still sound off sometimes. But not as loud as they once did, so we’re going in the right direction.

I don’t want people to feel alone. I know I can’t fix that for everyone.

People wonder “Can I really be a Jesus follower if I’m this screwed up/struggle to forgive/cuss this much/doubt everything we’re supposed to believe?”

Depression, discouragement, and self-doubt always tell you, “You’re the only one like this, no one else is as bad as you, and you’re stranded on this island forever. There’s no hope for you here. No help is coming. Give up now.”

How am I supposed to love those people?

Being honest about how I am is a small cost to help someone who wants to die want to die less. And I know it’s happened. So if I’m not an expert, I aspire to be.

7. Parenting

Ha! Don’t I wish! Just testing to see if you’re still paying attention. Consider this one a freebie for the quiz at the end.

8. And finally…

My mind skips through all the other Expert claims I might stake: Listening, 1978 Topps baseball card collecting, Preaching, Creating and Arranging Clutter, Coaching, Compiling To-Read Lists (versus Reading). Writing. Any of that Jesus stuff. Oh, and getting lost. I’m so good at that!

But I know real experts in all of these, and thus I know where I don’t rank. Enthusiast? Sure. Motivated amateur? Definitely. But no expert. I’m convinced I could be an expert at both sarcasm and holding grudges if I weren’t actively seeking to follow Jesus, but instead gave my heart over to becoming elite in these areas. Don’t worry, I have no regrets on that count.

So I will slip back into being serious for one more moment and grant myself a final nod, in an area I referenced earlier. I believe I am an expert encourager. I know this because of the fruit it has borne and I would have no fear asking others to validate this claim. As with vulnerability, I’m investing my life here because I’ve come to believe this is how I can do good in a healing, making whole, Kingdom of God sense. I’m grateful that I can.

I hope you understand that I’m not using a technical definition of “expert” anywhere in this post. Again, the original motivation to compile this came because I’m far from an expert on anything in the realm of politics and it cracked me up that some FB algorithm decided I’d asked enough questions and made enough snarky comments to elevate me to this rank. It’s also a metaphor for our current range of self-proclaimed experts. To be exceedingly clear, THAT’S NOT HOW YOU BECOME AN EXPERT.

Your turn. What are your areas of expertise?

PS Just kidding about the quiz.

*Correct: Metaphor mixing should make the list!

**We didn’t measure; it was “midfield.” I did have witnesses. I hope some of them are still alive and willing to testify. For those who care, it was a forehand.