Card Collecting

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1953 Bowman Musial

IN classic Mike fashion, on Sunday I declared I would post something every day, then Tuesday had a big, ambitious idea for a post, started working on it…went to the dentist and got a massive filling…worked on it some more…pain meds wore off and tooth started aching…worked some more…and it didn’t get done. And it’s not Tuesday anymore. Sigh. And sorry. This isn’t entirely surprising for the guy who has nine main characters in the novel he’s working on. I know none of you were surviving today’s self-quarantine by waiting by your computer or phone for my next post, but I still feel bad.

So it’s late now, but I’m still going to write something. It’s going to be short and sweet and sincere.

I’m in a baseball card group, OBC, which stands either for Old Baseball Cards or Old Baseball Collectors. It’s an online group, though many of the guys and one woman have known one another for over twenty years and become close friends who visit one another. We have this silly hobby in common: we collect pieces of rectangular cardboard (mostly) with pictures of men playing a game. It’s more than that, at least to me, but I always try to remember that the point is much more the people with whom it connects me than the items we collect.

If you are a hobbyist of any kind, I don’t need to explain to you what it is to love one’s hobby, and if you aren’t, my explanation likely won’t make sense to you. But OBC is special. We share. We collect vintage, often beaten up cards, some worth very little, others worth way too much. One of the main things we do is help one another make progress with our collections by sending cards that others need. Most of the time we’re not trading, we’re just sharing. We all have wantlists posted online. We check someone’s wantlist, figure out if we have extras (called “dupes”) of anything they need, and send them. We call those RAOK’s, Random Acts of Kindness. Cards go out and cards come in.

We strongly believe in the view that what comes around, goes around. The group has existed since 1991 (pre-internet) and I’ve been a member since 2008. When I describe OBC, many people respond, “You just give each other cards? Don’t people take advantage?” We’re not naive or Pollyanna-ish–okay, maybe a little–and we have an application process and prospective members need three current members to support their application. But sincerely, I wish the rest of the world functioned the way our group does. We look out for one another. We encourage one another. We share.

The author, pitching wiffle ball in his brand new Hudson Valley Renegades jersey, given to him by fellow OBCers Wayne Delia and Bob Chapman.

I know for some of you this probably sounds exceedingly nerdy, like, “Okay, he’s open and vulnerable about a lot of stuff but I can’t believe he’s admitting this!” Love of baseball comes from my childhood and connects with my Dad. Baseball was one of the best things we had together. He bought me my first cards. I have an intense nostalgia factor and some of my favorite players are guys I never saw play–Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau–but heard stories about them from him.

Image result for 1954 jackie robinson topps
1954 Topps Robinson

Beyond that, it’s a connecting point for me. In my experience, God wastes nothing in relationships. I’ve had some great opportunities to do what I do–listen, encourage, empathize–with many in the group. My dear friend Aaron, a member who happens to be a youth pastor, has dubbed me the “bartender” of our group, i.e. the one with whom members feel safe to share their problems. Our group has walked with one another through all the tragedies and crises life throws at us. We’ve done auction fundraisers to help with medical bills. In that bigger sense, card collecting, like ultimate, is simply a medium, a connecting point, through which we build friendships. But of course, as with any sub-culture, you must possess the currency of that realm. You have to know the lingo and speak that dialect of nerd to talk with nerds.

But though I say that self-deprecatingly, I am fascinated with cards as both telling our history and historical artifacts in themselves. “Old baseball,” vintage, for us means 1980 and before. My favorites are Bowman sets from the 1950’s. (Bowman and Topps were the big baseball card companies and then Topps pushed Bowman out and ran nearly solo for about 25 years). When the back of a player’s card tells you that he makes a living as a bricklayer or a carpenter in the off-season, you know you’re looking at different era. Baseball cards tell the story of integration, of racial tension and reconciliation, of changing culture. They collectively provide the account, as primary sources, of an aspect of our shared story. There’s also something magical for me about having a 1953 Bowman Stan Musial and wondering who owned it–Dad would been twenty-three in ’53–and how it got to my friend Geordie, who gave it to me. Sometimes the kids have left clear evidence and you don’t even have to guess!

I’m not trying to persuade you to take interest in baseball cards–by the way, we collect other sports and yes, non-sports as well, so the nerd rabbit hole just keeps going–but I hope you can perhaps understand my fascination. “Understand” may be too strong. Appreciate? Humor? Collecting cards is not growing plants in a garden nor playing songs on a guitar. It doesn’t create a garment as knitting does, or a meal as cooking does. But there is something peaceful and even meditative about ordering and organizing cards. One of our members donates less valuable cards (read “junk era,” mid-80’s to late-90’s) to a veterans’ hospital, where convalescing veterans sort and order cards as a therapy exercise. Similarly, Children’s hospitals have programs to receive card donations for kids.

This might be a good time to reconnect with your hobby, particularly if your hobby is one you can do at home or mostly by yourself. I just read an article pointing out it’s a spectacular time for birdwatchers to get out and do their thing.

I’m going to do a few more posts at some point on card collecting, which may be of interest only to other card collectors. But I’d be curious what your hobby is, if you will admit to it, and if it is one that you find therapeutic. Since I rarely see other members of OBC in person, our connection is just as strong or stronger in our current circumstances. And every access to supportive community counts double right now.

TJ and me reveling in our nerdliness.
A sub-culture within a sub-culture: the Poor Pastors Partnership–PPP of OBC!

Mike and Mike!

Two Things I’ve Learned about Stress

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Stress kills. I assume you know that. If you don’t, well…it does. You need to know that. That’s a freebie. I’m not counting it as one of the two.

I’m fairly easygoing. I know, some of you just laughed, because I’m intense and competitive and have a quick temper. Plus there’s the whole thing about driving myself crazy with my own thoughts. Okay, so not entirely easygoing.

But in some ways, I just don’t get worked up about things that I know other people do. I hear a lot of what others stress about and I’m surprised, even however many years into pastoring. My brain isn’t wired that way. However, I still get stressed.

Here’s the first thing (of the two I’m keeping score on): Stress sneaks up on me. I don’t realize I’m feeling stress. Because I’m not a big stresser, I don’t always notice when stressors are stressing me. That can be very unfortunate because I’ll get irritable and flash to anger without even noticing it coming. If I don’t stop and take a serious breath, I’ll let myself believe that whatever ostensibly triggered my anger is to blame. Anger tends to overwhelm reason, but we still imagine we’re being reasonable.

My twelve-year-old son specializes in getting to people–I’m not being mean here, he revels in it, with gleeful reveling–but it’s how he communicates with me right now. We hassle each other. Yes, I’m teaching him better ways to communicate, but I’m not asking him to stop being twelve. When I was twelve…oh, I don’t even want to tell you. But I remember.

Therefore, I have to watch myself all the more carefully, because Corin thinks we’re having fun and playfully teasing each other, when suddenly I’ll whip around on him and snap. It doesn’t matter if I can frame it for myself that he “deserves” it. He’s twelve. He can’t yet step back and help me identify that my problem isn’t with him. So I have to do that.

We’re in a stressful time. If you’re like me, stress accumulates unnoticed. So notice. Stop and take deep breaths and if your chest is like, “No, Dude, I’m not doing that,” pay attention. You may not know if you’re stressed, but your chest and diaphragm and lungs all do. They’ll tell you. I carry stress in my shoulders and high in my jaws. They’ll share that information if I ask.

Second, taking time to deal with stress is more important than whatever you think is more important than taking time to do that. Put more simply: dealing with stress is now a highest priority. If you’re an ER nurse or doctor, I’m sorry, this probably can’t apply to you for like 14-18 hours a day. Thank you, OH MY GOSH THANK YOU for what you’re doing for us! Everyone else, we’ve got to pray for them. And we’ve got to deal with our stress. I’ve got fewer ways to deal with my stress and more stress coming in. Uncertainty causes stress for all of us. It’s time to deal.

I love yoga and I’ve been a bit of a yoga proselytizer. You can do yoga in any three foot space with enough vertical clearance to stretch your hands above your head. Yoga mats are nice but not absolutely necessary. Yoga is like a stress magic eraser. I know, “Voices and Crystals and Eastern Mysticism, oh my!”–then don’t. Just do the stretches and breathe. I promise, breathing is not going to screw up your Christianity. But the wonders the breathing and stretching can do are very much according to our Creator’s design. Find a good intro video. Try it.

But yoga may not be your thing and that’s fine. The trick is, you have to find your thing that helps. Exercise is golden, but so are hot baths for some. Or hot tea and relaxing music. You know yourself, you probably know what works best. If you don’t, it’s time to learn.

This is a stressful time getting stress-ier. I’m urging you right now to deal with this aspect of what’s going on for all of us. If we’re gonna hang in tight quarters with folks we love but may not always enjoy, 24/7–and I’m including ourselves on that list–then we’d best find where the stress valves are before the pressure builds up. I promise, this is the priority and you’ll be glad you did.

Last thought: a number of things might feel like they’re the best ways to deal with stress, like starting a new Netflix series and watching all six seasons without a restroom break, or eating every morsel of chocolate left in your home. How do I break this to you…?

Try yoga.

Strange Times

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Strange times. I had a dental cleaning this morning, which I kept after a little internal debate. They took my temperature before they let me enter. The hygienist told me about her cancelled trip to Australia. On the way home, the deejay told me that Governor Inslee has called for restrictions on gatherings larger than 50 people (ironically, Wenatchee School District decided to have one more day before beginning their closure, which strikes me as missing the point), which was immediately followed by a commercial for a restaurant/bar with “eighteen local brews on tap,” and a spa in Leavenworth. Probably won’t be visiting either of those this week.

Here we are. I wrote a post trying to encourage people to take this situation seriously without panicking. A bunch of people thanked me and one person said, “Okay, now get back to your normal posts. Help us feel normal.”

I debated that in my head a bunch. These aren’t normal times. Thus far, one of the strangest things I’ve experienced has been being out in my car and having everything feel normal while it decidedly is not. Last night between 9 and 10 PM, I took our dogs for a walk. Wenatchee isn’t exactly humming at 9:30PM on any given Sunday, but it felt like I was walking at midnight. Walking about 2.5 miles, I saw perhaps 10 headlights and exactly one other person, standing in the dark in their yard. I can walk our dogs anytime I want right now, but I shouldn’t go to Seattle Yoga and Cafe, except maybe for takeout, which kind of defeats most of the reason I visit coffee shops. Strange times.

I’m still wrapping my head around how abnormal this will be. My 12-year-old and I discussed last night what we can do: bike riding, one-on-one basketball, tons of board games. He told me he realized he wasn’t very pleasant last night and needs to do better, since we’re going to be in close quarters for a while. Parenting victory! But not normal times.

Back to the comment, here’s what I debated: Do I address this directly from here on, or do I act like things are normal? Of course, being the SJW that I am (like Mister Rogers), I want to call everyone’s attention to the struggles going on right now, especially for those suffering more than we are.* But after a bit, I started to see the other point of view. These are strange times. People have fewer options and need to choose, for the benefit of everyone, to remain in isolation really as much as we reasonably can. (Mind you, our isolation is two cats, two dogs, a tweener, a teenager, a twenty-year-old, plus me and Kim and my sister-in-law and three nieces, because they live two doors away and we function, in practice, as one household. Oh, and a snake.)

I’m a writer and a pastor, certainly in practice if not according to the IRS. So what can I offer during these strange times? Well, perhaps more than I initially recognized, since I can do what I do from home (I always do) and reach you with what I do while you’re in isolation.

So here we go. I’m going to post at least one normal thing each day, whether it’s one of my “normal” observations-of-life posts or a short story or a poem or–get excited–more discussion of baseball cards and ultimate! I’m going to proceed to talk about the situation we’re all facing, as well, to encourage and exhort where I can. I won’t commit to one of these latter posts each day , but I’ll make that my goal. So you may get two notifications each day, those of you who subscribe (God bless you!), and as always you don’t have to read them all. But if having that available helps even a few of you, it’s worth my effort. Also, I have a significant catalog of sermons I’ve never posted. That won’t be everybody’s thing, but the timing might be good for some.

Astoundingly, some people are still debating whether we need to do this isolation at all. I hope that’s not you. I’ve learned that I can’t convince people who don’t want to be convinced, even when I have the best intentions (like telling people they are loved). But I have changed my mind about what is happening currently. I wasn’t taking it seriously enough, initially. Now I am. We all need to be able to change our minds when evidence calls for it, in all areas of our lives. Being able to recognize when we’re wrong is healthy; inability to acknowledge we’re wrong is a symptom of a psychological issue.

So, I was wrong: we need both a growing understanding of what we’re facing and a broader perspective that our world has not been reduced to the impact of a virus. We do need “normal stuff” to help us get through this.

Normal stuff in strange times, coming up!

*Not long ago, a friend on Facebook accused me of exclusively caring about people in poverty. I’ve never felt more conflicted about a critique in my life. How disappointed would Jesus be in me if he had to say, “You only love people suffering poverty!” Realistically, I know that’s not true, not even close, and I should be loving those people more than I am. But another part of me thinks, “If I’m coming across as caring only for those suffering, maybe I’m sort of doing okay.” I don’t think the biggest problem in our world is that too many people are speaking up on behalf of the suffering and oppressed. And then of course there’s the part of me that just hates being criticized and gnaws on it forever.

A Virus in the Neighborhood

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Well, I had another Mister Rogers post mostly written, but then I, along with everyone else, found the coronavirus* situation demanding my attention. Yesterday, one of my closest friends had to cancel our time together because he needs to self-quarantine for his own protection. I was going to suggest it if he didn’t. I live in Washington state. That’s our reality right now.

I’m not a medical professional. I don’t play one on TV. I never dreamed of being a doctor. I have one extremely narrow area of medical specialty: my Miracle Girl’s medical history–which is history now, but at one time was called “Life As We Knew It.” Or “Our Reality Right Now.”

So I’m going to address this not as a doctor, but as a pastor.

First, we have to distinguish between the actual situation concerning the spread and threat of this virus versus some people’s extreme response. Toilet paper. For some unclear reason, people are hoarding toilet paper. In other circumstances, I would be fascinated, sociologically. I lived in Nicaragua for seven years. We learned to carry toilet paper if we were going out and might need to use public restrooms, because outside of high income areas, you weren’t going to find any in the restroom. Of course, you might find a restroom for which you needed to pay 5 cordobas admission, and then you might get your two squares as part of your entry fee.

You think I’m digressing, but I’m not. Being without toilet paper is an unpleasant reality many people experience. Something in our developed-world, “First World Problems” mentality has concluded that, if we’re stuck in our homes for an indefinite stretch of time, the immediate threat of losing our civilized lifestyle would be to run out of TP. I sound like I’m mocking–and I am, a little–but I get it. We like our comforts. We’ve grown accustomed to them and have moved them from “privilege” to “right.” (Go ahead, have a debate with yourself right now: is toilet paper a right or a privilege?)

The run on toilet paper–and this rush is not a hoax or fake news, Target has signs everywhere limiting each customers purchase of hand sanitizer, TP, and a bunch of other things–reveals that we’re unsettled, maybe afraid, and don’t really know how to respond. Unfortunately, other people look at that behavior, label it “ridiculous,” and conclude that the actual situation, the spread of a virus we have yet to understand, much less cure, is not really happening.

I need to say this as clearly as I can: People’s extreme response to news of the virus has no bearing on accurate medical information about the virus. None. Chicken Licken went screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” It wasn’t. We know that story so well, we want to conclude if someone screams this way, there must be no real problem. It doesn’t work that way. If some people behave what appears ridiculously (justified or unjustified**) while a real problem occurs, the real problem is not nullified by their behavior.

Second, we have a medical situation that relates to politics (as virtually everything does) but this is not first and foremost a political situation. By that, I mean one’s political position must not inform their reading of the evidence concerning the virus. (In an ideal world, our political position would never inform our reading of evidence, about anything, but rather vice-versa. But hey, let’s stick to the pandemic for now.) I urge you to read what the CDC, the World Health Organization, and other health professionals have to say. I’m not going to site any figures or statistics here, because they will instantly become outdated. To follow this crisis, we have to keep informing ourselves and continue to learn what’s happening. Whatever we learn today will need to be updated and corrected tomorrow. We’re not in a static situation. We can’t just “find out what’s going on.” We must track with what’s going on.

Personally, I am anti-panic. I don’t have that personality and I fall on the other end of the spectrum in a number of areas (e.g. more untidy than germophobe, more “health optimist” than hypochondriac). When I first heard about the virus, months ago, I said what many have: “The flu is worse, it kills more people; if you want to get upset about something, get upset about that.” I was wrong, dismissing this danger by invoking a different danger. That latter does not cancel out the former. We learn. We correct. We adapt.

I’m going to repeat what should now be common knowledge: SARS-CoV-2 poses a different, potentially greater threat than influenza A and influenza B. Absolutely, more people get the flu and more die from the flu. In current numbers. Here’s where I was wrong: we don’t know enough about coronavirus to predict what will happen next, how much it will spread, how quickly, or what the mortality rate will be. We have no vaccine and won’t for at least a year. Our scientists are literally learning about this virus day by day, minute by minute. We have decades of knowledge from researching the flu (and thousands of years experiencing it) and mere weeks to months from studying coronavirus.

But what we have learned, so far:

Covid-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) appears to have a higher fatality rate (not total numbers, rate), but this may be skewed high because our studies may be missing less severe cases. It appears that people can carry coronavirus asymptomatically. Covid-19 is spread through small droplets from the mouth and nose and thus through coughing and sneezing. It may also be spread through airborne droplets, meaning it can remain in the air after the infected person is no longer present.

Words like “appears” and “may be” when describing what we “know” about this virus should tell you how early we are in the information-gathering phase. But these are not wild guesses, fake news, or theories that could just as easily prove false. This is the best information we have right now according to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

The biggest issue, the one requiring all these shut-downs, quarantines, and precautions, is that the spread of coronavirus could increase exponentially. If the cases of Covid-19 double in a few days time (as they have in the U.S.), and double again, and that pattern continues, the US will be in the same situation as Italy or even Wuhan, China. The demand for treatment could exceed our available resources.

Chart showing that proactive measures flatten the number-of-cases curve to avoid overflowing healthcare systems

This is our situation. We don’t have a vaccine for this virus. We can’t cure it, so preventing it becomes crucial. In Northern Italy, hospitals have higher demand for respirators than they have equipment available. If we respond successfully by reducing the virus’s spread, we’ll have fewer cases, fewer deaths, and the wave will subside before we pass our capacity threshold. If we don’t, many more people will suffer and, likely, many more will die. Those aren’t irrational fears. That is, as my friend says, just math.

If you’re tempted to say, “I thought you were addressing this as a pastor,” I am addressing it as a pastor. I’m encouraging awareness and education. All of us have to research and act on the information available in order to respond to the situation before us. Here we are.

Don’t panic. I’ll quote my pastor, Tim Wilbur, who is also one of my best friends:

Let’s not panic as we trust God for protection, while at the same time lets be cautious and conscientious towards others. In our neck of the woods things are looking bleak. There have been deaths and newly contaminated people are being discovered everyday. So trust God, be a good neighbor and use the good sense God gave you as we face this dilemma together, knowing God is loving and ever present.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you it’s not real, or not a real threat. If you are in the low-risk category, then you are more responsible to put others’ safety first, especially those for whom this virus could be life-threatening.

Our question right now is: “How can I be a neighbor to those most at risk? Those at risk from the virus itself or from the massive disruption this necessary effort to prevent the virus’s spread will cause?” We’re just beginning to grasp the social and economic impact our neighbors face, especially those already suffering poverty. That will need its own post.

The strangest part of our situation is that, if we succeed at truncating the spread of this virus, if we mitigate the outbreak so that our healthcare professionals can keep up, with the result that fewer people die…those who claim it’s either a hoax or a groundless, hysterical overreaction will feel vindicated. But the Bible tells us how those arguments will go. Cooperating to save lives is worth it.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”― Fred Rogers

There. Now it’s a Mister Rogers post, too. We have a chance for God to bring the best out of us in this scary time. We have a chance to be true neighbors the way Jesus described.

*SARS-CoV-2 is the name given to the novel coronavirus now declared a pandemic. There are other strains of coronavirus. In this post, I will use “coronavirus” but please understand I mean SARS-CoV-2.

** If someone ends up using every square of toilet paper that they hoarded before they’re able to purchase more, the ridiculous (appearing) behavior becomes justified.

A Horrible Day in the Neighborhood

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When I was a tween and beyond, we made fun of Mister Rogers. His name was not linked in our minds to kindness and compassion, but to simplistic, naive, pretend-everything-is-happy goody-goodism. Raise your hand, right now, if you remember Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood. (I know, you’re at your computer or on your phone at the coffee shop or, God forbid, driving your car. What the heck. Raise it anyway. And put down your phone while you drive!)

Eddie Murphy spoofed Mister Rogers on SNL and gave us a glimpse into a very different neighborhood than the one we’d grown up on. Do you know how popular Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood was? Nike paid NBA star David Robinson beaucoup bucks to do a series of commercials also entitled “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” (get it?) in which other basketball stars like Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, and Rudolph Firkosny (check it out) showed up at the door and they would make a quick joke and show you the Swoosh Stripe (TM). You know you’re popular when they make a parody of your parody.

Fred Rogers and Eddie Murphy

You also know you’re popular when they make a parody of the parody about you.

As a teenager I thought I knew nearly everything* and that my jaded, cynical, reality-is-ugly-but-at-least-I-get-it perspective made me superior to those who lived in a fantasyland of goodness. Even though I wanted to make the world a better place (while getting famous and rich), I was clear that people are generally awful. Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Animal Farm awful.

The brilliance of Mister Rogers–which I completely missed when I knew everything but get so clearly now that I know so much less–is this: Mister Rogers was not pretending that every day was perfect and thus beautiful; he knew that some days are horrible and could be beautiful, anyway. No, better than that: he knew we could make them beautiful, anyway.

The humor of Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood is that an innocent-sounding narrator describes and encounters nasty features of inner city life (“The word for today is ‘Racist'”). But the brilliance of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is that he acknowledged the painful, sometimes horrible aspects of life–for children!–and continuously spoke a message of hope, that we can be okay in this real world. We can make this painful real world better for one another.

“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.” Fred Rogers

Rather than putting on a fake smile or burying our head in the sand, Fred Rogers “preached” that we can smile, for real, and still look our problems in the eye. The very act of offering our smile to people in pain while standing with them in their suffering is an act of courage and compassion.

Think I’m making something deep that wasn’t? I’m not.

“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.” 
― Fred Rogers

Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot, arguably his most personal and intimate novel, about a loving, compassionate, authentically good character at the center of a culture that valued none of those things. Many of the other characters take Prince Myshkin to be simple-minded and foolish, an idiot. He does and says such things because he doesn’t know better. Ready for this?

I thought Fred Rogers was an idiot.

But I was.

The beauty of this, to me, is that people, generations, loved Mister Rogers. Loved him and recognized him as a hero in our midst. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the main character, based on the journalist Tom Junod, suspects that Fred Rogers must be fake, must have an angle, must be playing people with that “goodness and kindness” act. I just thought he was a fool. We were both wrong. As Dostoyevsky depicted with Prince Myshkin, many people felt drawn to Fred Rogers, but unlike Dostoyevsky’s embodiment of good in a corrupt culture, Fred Rogers remained grounded all his adult life, did not go mad, and offered his message of hope in kindness through the end of his life.

With this as context, look again at this picture that circulated through social media.

Fred Rogers and Francoise Clemmons

That image on a children’s television show was a radical act of racial reconciliation in 1969. Fred Rogers, whom I mistook for a fool, was a social justice warrior.** He confronted systemic, generational sin in our culture and fought for human rights: racial equality, education, disability rights, mental health, peace. You’d better believe he’s one of my heroes and certainly a role model for us to emulate.

“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16) What if the days are evil and we seek to make them beautiful? I’ve wrestled aloud on this blog, over and over, with how we confront these evils running rampant right now as Jesus followers, in his spirit of compassion and shalom. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…” “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17, 21)

I have a better idea how to do that now.

So please excuse me, I need to go binge some Mister Rogers’ episodes.

*By twenty-five I did, in fact, know everything. That started to get shaky with Rowan’s birth and went severely downhill from there, leading me at my current age to hang out with Uncertainty as my near-constant companion. Uncertainty is a strangely comforting bud to hang out with, once you stop fighting her. But hey, aren’t we all nicer to hang out with when the other person stops attacking us constantly us?

**I know that term is used as an insult (I recognize the belittling, mocking tone from when I used it as a teenager). I’m reclaiming it. I’d love to be worthy of the title. I think following Jesus requires this, in whatever small ways we can. If we’re not fighting for social justice, what is the alternative?

A Pretty Nice Day in the Neighborhood

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We just watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as a family. Eleven of us including Kim’s mom, which was apropos, considering that of all the people in the world I know personally, she most emulates Mister Rogers.

I’m going to reflect on the movie but I’m not going to give you my review of the movie other than See it. Please.

A central theme of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is: Can anyone that nice, that kind, be real? Can someone authentically live at that level of concern for others? Or does that have to be fake?

In a marvelous scene, Fred Rogers’ wife explains why she dislikes the word “saint” and describes how her husband practices the actions of kindness. This description both re-humanizes him and makes his behavior accessible–which is precisely her point.

Lloyd Vogel: So how does it feel to be married to a living saint?
Joanne Rogers: You know, I’m not fond of that term. If you think of him as a saint, then his way of being is unattainable. You know, he works at it all the time. It’s a practice. He’s not a perfect person. He has a temper. He chooses how he responds to that anger. 
Lloyd Vogel: That must take a lot of effort.
Joanne Rogers: Well, yeah, he does things every day that help to ground him. Reads Scripture. Swims laps. Prays for people by name. Writes letters, hundreds of them. He’s been doing that since I met him.

If you read my blog, or much of anything I write, you know a few things I insist on repeating: 1) I don’t care for easy answers or cliches, 2) I believe in the power of simple actions, even in the face of overwhelming situations, and 3) the simple actions require so much of us. “Love your neighbor” sounds so simple; it’s so hard.

Reading interviews with the real Joanne Rogers, we see she stresses this: her Fred wasn’t a saint. Others can follow his “way of being.” It’s attainable. He “did things every day to help to ground him.”

I want to spend just two moments recognizing this tension: God works through us and we live the practices that shape how we behave and ultimately, whom we become. We depend on God and we can attain kindness as way of life.

God’s spirit dwells in us. We get strength and peace from God. Even though I can’t quantify or fully explain that, I experience it.

We can’t do this (living compassionately) without God but neither do we find the autopilot and “leave it to God.” Trusting God sometimes sounds like “leaving it to God,” but if I just stepped back, withdrew my volitional will, and let however I react to things play out…ugly. We choose how we respond to our feelings and impulses.

Yet, if you’ve read my blog consistently, you will also know I frequently call attention to our brokenness and struggle, even our mental illness and depression that make our choices so much harder and make this process far from simple. I want to believe living like Mister Rogers in the world is attainable but I refuse to oversimplify this process, especially for those who find living in their own skin a daily challenge. It sounds simple. So does “do to others as you would have them to to you.” But when questions begin with “Then why don’t you just…” we’re only adding a layer of shame, rather than moving toward wholeness.

Putting it together: 1)God works through us and we can’t love others or show kindness without God’s spirit;* 2)we must practice the actions that show others love and kindness and we ourselves need to stay rooted, including keeping a routine or regular set of activities that ground us; and 3)we might be battling a mental state, chemical imbalance or predisposition that makes these actions or this routine much more difficult. Ideally, that directs us back to “1.”


I’ve been “off Facebook” for Lent. I’ve felt the difference, drastically. True confessions, I have not stayed all the way off. Intermittently I scroll and see horrible, disheartening things and rebuke myself for breaking my fast. I’m fasting from this for a reason and that reason becomes abundantly clear when I drift back on.

Saturating in bad news, I’ve grown angry and shrill and ungracious. I dwell and stew and fume. You might almost say “he does things every day to help keep him from being grounded.” You wouldn’t be far from the truth. Uncomfortably close.

I’m fasting from this constant inundation of negatives so that I can move back toward being the person I hope to be in the world.

At one point, the journalist interviewing Mister Rogers says this:

Lloyd Vogel: It seems like all these people line up to tell you their problems.
Fred Rogers: Isn’t it wonderful? Such bravery?

And one of my children immediately said, “Is that how it is, Dad? ‘Wonderful?'”

I laughed and said, “Oh, it’s wonderful alright.”

You don’t need me to tell you that I’m not Mister Rogers. But there’s something wonderful for me that my kiddos see that in me. It is a burden, I won’t kid you, and I’m sad that it’s one I don’t always bear well because it’s also an honor. I mean that.

I hope you get a chance to watch this movie. Movies can be like Rorschach blots: you see what you read in. Not everyone loves Fred Rogers and not everyone thinks his manner is a good way to be in the world. My guess is a lot of people think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if more people were like that?”

I want to be exactly like that. I watched it and thought: There. That’s how I want to be in the world.

I plan to write a couple more posts this week on becoming more like Mister Rogers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus’ central commandment (along with “love God”) is the invitation that little children’s ditty extends:

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Oh, one more thing: Chris Cooper is spectacular. For me, he nearly steals the show.

*I’m stubborn on this point, but I also believe God works through anyone who loves or shows compassion, whether they are aware of God’s working in them or not. So you can debate me on whether God exists, but not on whether only Jesus followers can love. I’ve seen too many people who show more love than I do who don’t believe what I believe. God’s grace is greater than that.

A Funny Thing About Prayer

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I had a wonderful weekend. I got to visit two of my favorite people, after having gone over two years without seeing them. When I was teaching and coaching and preaching and doing all kinds of that stuff in Nicaragua, Maggie and Peter were, well, part of all that stuff. I could say “I mentored them,” but that doesn’t really capture it. I learned at least as much from them and they did from me.

They’re both doing great now, by the measure of seeking God and pursing their “X” in Jesus’ Kingdom. Being with them reminded me how much I love (and miss) working with young adults as my main thing.

Image may contain: 3 people, including Mike Rumley-Wells and Maggie McGrew, people smiling, closeup

I drove to Edmonds, WA on highway 2, over Stephens Pass. I waited out the heavy snowfall and still had a slide on a patch of slush that could have ended very badly. The drive home involved some heavy rain, but only while going through towns on nice, flat stretches of road. By the time I reached the pass on my return trip, I had dry pavement, clear skies, and I could pray about my life and not for my life.

As you can picture, I came back on a high. Yes, a little sad to have said “goodbye” for who knows how long this time, but profoundly encouraged at how God is working in these two amazing young people’s lives. The pass, for those unlucky enough not to have seen it in person, is stunning. If I’ve never mentioned it here, my easiest time seeing and connecting with God comes in the mountains.

So I had hours to go, a huge emotional boost, my favorite scenery…and God was silent. I sang. I prayed. I pondered. Yet it felt as if God had taken a different ride back to Wenatchee. Maybe the train.

I used to experience hearing God “speak” (however that works) very clearly and fairly consistently. I don’t as much these days. But this was nada.

At this stage in my life and faith, I don’t need explanations for everything in the way I once did. I understand less than I did when I was young. I can sit with uncertainty much more. In fact, Uncertainty and I have coffee, go on long walks, and keep each other company most of the time. Sure, I miss having all the answers, but since that was an illusion, it’s more of a nostalgic yearning than a true longing. I don’t miss “knowing everything” the way I miss my dad; I miss it the way I miss dreaming that someday I’d play shortstop for the Yankees. Since that was never real, the sadness is only for an appealing story I made up that I once could pretend was true.

Back to praying to a silent God. I prayed about some big things and some small things. I asked questions and tried to hear answers. I asked again. I clarified. I didn’t quite reach “If you’re saying this, the next fallen tree I see will be lying perpendicular to the road, but if that, parallel…” Longing to hear from God is not satisfied by pretending to hear from God, at least not on this part of my journey.

Did I get frustrated? Not quite frustrated, but definitely disappointed. It seemed like a moment ripe for epiphany. I mean, if I were God, I would choose a moment like that.

But God who is God did not.

Funny thing, though: praying hard and hearing nothing, I arrived in our Valley, let my mind wander to other things…and something had moved inside of me. I want to describe this concretely, so it will make sense, but I don’t know that I can. I’m inclined to say I felt “better,” but I’d felt happy starting out. If anything, struggling in prayer had dimmed the wattage of my good mood.

A funny thing about prayer, that I think others experience, too: sometimes prayer doesn’t seem to “work”…except that on a deeper level, something transpires. The struggle itself changes me. Or God changes me in the struggle. George Herbert concludes his poem, “Prayer,” which is stuffed full of glorious imagery, with this simple phrase:

“Something understood.”

Cheery? Civil? Gracious.

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Some of us feel happy all the time and spill that happiness all around. 

I don’t feel that. 

But I do smile at people and say “Hi” to strangers by choice, not by effervescence. I’m grateful for effervescent people, I’m just not one. Warmth doesn’t bubble out of me; I try to offer it. I’m not faking being cheerful; I’m offering people what they deserve as Beloved of God.

Even smiling is complicated. Smiling at a woman I don’t know can come across as suggestive or inappropriate. Women learn men aren’t safe because some men aren’t safe and we don’t wear signs saying “safe” or “unsafe.” So I try to smile or greet in a way the person can feel grace from me. 

Sometimes gracious is to cross the street to avoid coming across as a threat. Sometimes gracious is a greeting without a smile. Sometimes gracious is asking a question that leads to a life story from someone I just met. 

How do we look at people with eyes of grace? Grace that is more than civility, even more than cheer. Grace as a greeting is “God, let the moment I pass be a moment of kindness for them. Let this moment of greeting be an encounter with you.” 

Does God’s grace come across in a mere greeting? Does a moment of kindness make a difference? Yes. And yes. Often I can’t see that difference. But I know because Jesus says it makes a difference. I know because Jesus says it makes a difference in me.

This Lent, I find God directing me to take my eyes off of the immovable, unsolvable problems and notice the smallest interactions, of which all these conflicts are constructed.

Loving God, let us walk through the world in grace and as grace. 

A Little Bit of Truth

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I think that’s all I can muster tonight.

Hummingbirds.

My friends who hug me like they mean it.

The cats and dogs in our house who went from acting like mortal enemies to lounging around together–in five days.

My son’s big heart that brought those cats to our house in the first place.

My wife’s willingness to take them in after she swore she’d never have another cat as long as she lived.

Riding my bike or walking to do an errand, every time I can, this whole upcoming year. Today: two miles to the pharmacy and two back.

My twelve-year-old wanting to split the cost of a new strategy board game so we can play it together.*

Cold air in my lungs.

Our ninety-four-year-old neighbor doing yard work Every. Single. Day.

Taking my kids to the high school basketball game and shouting together as it came down to the last second.

Getting a comment from someone I’ll never meet thanking me for something I wrote.

My daughter working so hard to rehab her knee after a second surgery.

Telling my Miracle Girl stories about when she was tiny.

Looking at a book cover on my shelf and remembering how wonderfully surprising that story was.

Thinking of an old hurt for the first time in years and realizing I’m not holding onto that one anymore.

My wife’s ability to forget arguments and not hold grudges.

Waking up tomorrow knowing it’s a new day and that, despite all the evil we’re committing and allowing in our country, Jesus still loves us and calls us to proclaim God’s Kingdom.

*

Today, we had a moment of uncertainty whether we’d have tomorrow. It shook me. It also woke me.

The truth is, none of us know if we get tomorrow. I can’t let myself forget to pay attention today.


*We’re getting Photosynthesis.

Benefit of the Doubt

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[I’m posting this with Annalise’s permission.]

I follow Jesus. I love Jesus and, for me, that means I believe love has broken in on my self-destruction. When I play It’s a Wonderful Life in my head, I don’t disappear as if I never existed; I see the man I would have become had God not interfered.*

Jesus in my life means I have grace for my failures. Jesus in my life means I have grace for others’ failures. It means that I seek to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. By this, I don’t mean that people who have committed evil acts should be treated as if they really meant to do good, nor that we should pretend those bad things didn’t happen.

I mean that everyone has more to their story. I mean that everyone who is losing to their demons is losing to their demons. I know what that’s like. I mean I can’t judge anyone’s behavior as if I could never behave like they are. I could be like that. I could behave just like that.

Yesterday, Annalise and I went to the DMV. Her eyesight is very poor, bordering on whether she will be allowed to get a driver’s license or not. She feels very conflicted about this, but mostly she just wants to know so she can go forward and plan her life accordingly.

We’d gone there together a month ago so she could get an ID card. The DMV was not busy that first time, perhaps half a dozen people at windows or waiting. We saw her number come up on the board, stood up, and walked to a window.

Unfortunately, we went to the wrong window. I think I led her there, somehow transposing the numbers between those on her little ticket and the window number itself. The man, tall and bearded and heavyset, glared at us and asked, “What are you doing at my window? I didn’t call you.” Informative and accurate, but not kind.

We retreated, found the right window, and received kinder treatment from the woman there. I kicked into my extreme version of grateful-and-deferential-client, learned the hard way in Nicaragua, to help Annalise not to feel any more uncomfortable than she already did.

If you know foreshadowing, you know what’s coming. We walked into the DMV yesterday, we were literally the only patrons in the entire building, and were immediately called…to that first guy’s window.

Annalise gave me her wide-eyed, Now what? look.

I’m going to tell you right now that I hate being treated rudely, or even brusquely, because I want to become everyone’s friend and have them like me and tell their significant other and cousins and pets what a great guy I am. Plus, I never, ever want my kids to be mistreated. I know the real world doesn’t work that way. But I want it to.

I’m also going to mention now the man is Latino. I lived in Nicaragua for seven years and can speak functional Spanish. I found him a little intimidating. He’s big.

He asked, “How can I help you today?” Annalise had a little difficulty trying to explain her situation. Finally, I clarified, “She’s not trying to get her license yet, she just needs to take the eye exam to see if she’d be eligible to get a license.”

“No, we can’t do that,” he said.

Then he smiled at us. And he proceeded to be accommodating, funny, and yes, kind. Annalise is legally blind in one eye, so taking the exam wasn’t an easy process. A lot of people who are blind in one eye have licenses and are fine drivers,** but the vision test is of course designed for someone with two functioning eyes. But he walked her through each step, encouraged her when she succeeded, and then encouraged her when she didn’t. Truthfully, Annalise had a bit of difficulty understanding his directions a few times and he treated her with unwavering patience. As a dad, I’m going to say it was beautiful. It was exactly how you would hope to see your young adult kiddo, trying to take responsibility but definitely still figuring it all out, be treated in a government office. Or in any office. Or by anyone.

You think the moral of my story is going to be “We thought he was a horrible man but he turned out to be wonderful.” No.

When Annalise and I left after our first visit, we had a good conversation about how the man spoke to us.

“Maybe he was having a bad day,” she suggested.

“Exactly,” I answered her. “We don’t have any idea what might be going on for him. Maybe he’s had some white people behave badly toward him. That can happen. Maybe people go to the wrong window all the time and it just gets annoying after a while. Who knows? That doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. We have bad days, too.”

We had that conversation before we found out more about how he treats people. In my usual experience, I would also have learned about him and his family and his ups and down for the last twelve years. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. But that didn’t happen this time. We were “all business,” but he made that business pleasant and as near to enjoyable as it could have been, in our circumstances.

Annalise and I laughed when we walked out yesterday. She was still frustrated over her situation. She has to go back to the optometrist, who had told her she needed to go the DMV in the first place. Isn’t that “adult life” for you? But we had to shake our heads at what a different experience we had of this man. We still don’t know what happened in that first interaction and we almost certainly never will.

But I want to give people grace. I want to give others the benefit of the doubt. Do you know why?

Because I want to be given the benefit of the doubt. When I snap at someone, which I do, I want people to believe that I might be a kind human being having a bad day instead of a bleep who always treats people like bleep. I want to do to others as I have would have them do to me. And I always want the benefit of the doubt. So I always want to give the benefit of the doubt.

I hope you understand, I’m not boasting that we didn’t jump to judgment against this man. I felt encouraged that I got one right. I’m passing on the reminder that Jesus gave us, almost certainly grinning as he did.

I want to live this way because Jesus loves me and shows me grace. People may not deserve the benefit of the doubt; I want to give it, anyway.

We all need grace.

*Dang, I hope I didn’t just spoil that movie for you.

**My brother-in-law, for one–okay, he goes a little fast sometimes. Man, I hope he’s reading this.