Rachel Held Evans, 37

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I’m thinking about my mortality a lot lately. More than I wish I were.

Today, my sister gave me the news that Rachel Held Evans, the author and blogger, died this morning. She had lived thirty-seven years.

If you hadn’t ready the news, this is how she died: [Rachel] entered the hospital in mid-April with the flu, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, as she wrote on Twitter several weeks ago. According to her husband, Dan Evans, she then developed sustained seizures. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma, but some seizures returned when her medical team attempted to wean her from the medications that were maintaining her coma. Her condition worsened on Thursday morning, and her medical team discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died early on Saturday morning. (quoted from Slate.com)

I loved her writing. Not everyone did. Some were offended that she had such a strong voice, that she had/was given authority to speak so loudly to so many, just one individual woman, not a trained theologian, not a pastor of a big church.

I read her books and her blog and I loved them. I just reread her very last blog post. She wrote it for Ash Wednesday. Paradoxically, it speaks both of readiness for death and of her plans for the series she would write for Lent. Rachel did not know she was about to die. Read the post. She probably had outlines of a few of these posts, at least in her mind if not yet on her computer. She was going to draw from Rilke and Lisa Sharon Harper and Barbara Brown Taylor. She intended to write about grieving over the loss of our faith and the hope of finding it again, not in the exact same form but reborn, something both old and new.

But then she died. She had no idea it was coming. She got the flu, then had an allergic reaction, and then she didn’t recover. There was no plan for that. Her little boy is three and her little girl is one.

I want to honor Rachel Held Evans by saying I think she was a great writer, but she was a great writer because she was a great person. In her last post she wrote

Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t reach out to me, in person or online, to tell me they feel betrayed by their family of faith—by what has been done, and by what has been left undone.

You can glean her compassion and her humor, her imperfection–about which she is more than forthright–and her grace through what she wrote. But this, between the lines, tells us that when they reached out, she responded. She loved and listened to people, including strangers. She gave of herself. This is so clear in her blog.

People don’t get to demand real spiritual authority. Positional authority is something different. You can be given a title and decision-making power. But spiritual authority comes when people see they can trust you and invite you to speak into their lives and lead them. Pastor them. Spiritual authority is given by those who follow. Some people are misled and deceived and Jesus warns about wolves pretending to be shepherds so they can eat the sheep. But Jesus also teaches that you will always know by the fruit they bear, by the impact of their lives on their followers, by what you see in their character.

Rachel Held Evans did not take spiritual authority, she was given it by people whose trust she earned, by people she loved well. She shared her life and her griefs and joys. She spoke truth to power and confronted evil, both inside and outside the church, and received exactly the backlash you would expect for that. She wrestled with the Bible and took it more seriously than most and came back around to loving it. Of that she wrote:

 Anyone who has loved the Bible as much as I have, and who has lost it and found it again, knows how a relationship with the Bible can be as real and as complicated as a relationship with a family member or close friend.

 Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.

This is a funny thing to quote, but as I am grieving, I have been reading through the comments on her blog from her readers. They tell the story, both of how friends and strangers received love from her and the blowback she got for daring to say this things. So here was her comment policy:

Comment Policy:Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

That doesn’t mean we hide from the negative things in life or sweep them under the rug and focus solely on rainbows and unicorns. But don’t be constantly negative or a general ass. Stay positive. If it is critical, pleae make it constructive.

If it is critical, please make it constructive.

That’s what I see in Rachel Held Evans’ writing. She wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood not to mock Scripture but to make sense of it from the inside, to find for herself what was true. Consider the titles of her books:

Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.

She had doubts and anguish and the abuse and politics she saw in the church drove her to leave evangelicalism in 2014. She describes it here. It’s a painful experience that she lays wide open. But, to my amazement, she takes what is critical and makes it constructive:

So rather than wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars, I think it’s time to focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees—women called to ministry, our LGBTQ brother and sisters, science-lovers, doubters, dreamers, misfits, abuse survivors, those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith or their compassion and their religion, those who have, for whatever reason, been “farewelled.” 

Instead of fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, I want to prepare tables in the wilderness, where everyone is welcome and where we can go on discussing (and debating!) the Bible, science, sexuality, gender, racial reconciliation, justice, church, and faith, but without labels, without wars. 

I’m in.

Today, I am grieving the loss, the shocking, nightmarishly-too-early loss of a voice of grace and hope for the Kingdom of God for all the people God loves. I’m honoring a brave woman, a powerful writer, and a true shepherd of a self-selected flock of misfits and broken folks. How many people have felt a little closer to God and a little closer to sanity when they have read her words? That is good fruit.

Today, I am also realizing that life is too short and I have been letting myself be censored for too long. I’m angry, as I’ve mentioned on here once or twice, but the remedy for my anger is not to self-gag nor to stew. Rachel taught us, for the precious few years she had, “If it is critical, please make it constructive.” Oh, and don’t be a general ass or a troll. It’s time to speak up and help build that community.

Life is too bloody short. I think about death, how I have less time left than I’ve already spent. I think about how in Nicaragua I could make some small difference while here I am floundering…and the clock is ticking. Sometimes I also think how it would be nice just to be done. Depression and discouragement and feelings of failure can swamp my little boat.

Instead, I’m remembering, and I’m telling you, today is the day. Today is the day because tomorrow is promised to no one. Rachel Held Evans ended her post with this:

Death is a part of life.

My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Lord, hear our prayer. Thank you for Rachel’s life. We commit her spirit to you. We commit our spirits to you. Help us to live and love while we still can. Life is short and death comes too soon…

and death is a part of life.

Failing, and Gaining from, Lent

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Lent is almost over. I’ve fasted from being on social media for Lent. If I were to grade myself for how well I’ve stuck to my fast, I’d give me a “D.”

However.

The biggest reason I chose this fast is because I’ve been so angry about all that is going on in our country. All that this administration is doing, on a daily basis. I read the news and I am outraged, over and over, every single day. I was seeing the negative effects to my physical and mental health. My blood pressure went up. My depression intensified.

Last night, Kim and I went to dinner. We don’t do this often. But yesterday we celebrated 26 years of marriage. Last year we went to Ireland. This year we went to Indian food. It was delicious, including my shockingly expensive mango mohito (sic).

During our conversation, which was mostly about our children–we were laughing afterwards: “If you didn’t want to be talking about your kids for anniversary twenty-six, then you shouldn’t have had kids!”–we discussed my choice to step back from the constant news stream and the neverending, bellicose debate over these events.

I told Kim I feel less angry. Immediately, she said, “Yes, I’ve noticed. It’s really obvious. You seem a lot better. I can see it.”

I have prayed a little more during Lent, but not a lot. Prayer hasn’t gone particularly well for me in the last…since I moved back to the States. I’m guessing if you either have a consistent and bullet-proof prayer life or don’t pray at all, that sentence might not make a lot of sense to you. If you’ve been married 26 years and you know the ups and downs of a relationship over the long haul, it probably needs no explanation whatsoever.

I still pray. If I say I’ll pray for you, I’m praying for you. I still pray for me. But I don’t feel much connection and that is something I can neither manufacture nor fix.

I had hoped this Lent would help me feel close to God again. It hasn’t.

So I would call it a success at helping me regain a little balance and sanity. But as a time of reconnecting with God, I can’t discern much having changed. For this, I wonder if being more consistent at cutting out all social media would have helped more. Maybe.

Because of this lingering question, I don’t think, come Easter Sunday or that classic fast-breaking Monday after, I will call it good and go right back to what I was doing before Ash Wednesday. I’m thinking now that this fast has been a good start to ramping down my social media time and I need to keep going. I don’t imagine doing so will solve all my problems–I’ll probably still be late and have illegible handwriting–but it’s not a bad rule of thumb, when moving in the right direction, to keep going.

The main things I need to do more are pray and write. Spending less time on social media can only free up time. No guarantee I’ll use that time well, but who knows? I might.

There is a whole conversation about how I can best be a responsible citizen, here and now, and what role being on social media might have in that. There is another, related discussion about my awareness that I’ve had a positive impact on many people through my presence on Facebook–I know because they’ve told me. I value that highly. I’m searching for that elusive (or illusive) golden mean.

Meanwhile, Easter is coming. I like the seasons. I love spring. I like the church seasons. I love that grace abounds and Resurrection does not depend on how we feel or even on how hopeful things appear in the world, but on love’s power to overcome death and hate and the evil in my heart.

Lent is also our time to remember we are sinners, saved by grace.

I get a much higher grade for that.

Winter into Spring

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On Sunday, I walked out of our house to go to church. I took one breath. And I knew:

Spring.

Regardless of what the Weather Channel tells me, regardless of anyone else’s forecast, even more authoritative–if you can imagine this–than the groundhog, by that single breath I knew.

I lived in Nicaragua for seven years. We had different seasons and played a different waiting game. We watched dry season get hotter and drier and dustier and then, when you thought it was unbearable, get more humid, and more humid again, but still without a drop of rain. It started in February. By May, we prayed hard for rain.

I had forgotten waiting through winter for spring. Not the idea of it, but the feeling. We had a *&(#-ton of snow in February and severely cold temps. Kim and I drove into a blizzard because we were on a schedule that allowed no Plan B and we still almost stopped because, well, dying was not a good Plan A. Short, cold days and bitterly cold nights. Watching the sun drop behind the mountains at 3:15 PM. You know it has to end but no one can tell you when.

“Well,” the chipper man on the radio told me, “looks like more snow in the forecast, with up to eight inches accumulating by this weekend.”

I’m not a skier. My niece broke her foot sledding this winter, which kind of put a damper on that activity for us. The Sunday before last, my 11-year-old son asked me to go play one-on-one basketball with him. He’d had enough of being cooped up. So we did. We started in 34 degrees and ended in 29. The ball that promised it would not go flat kept its word admirably. We ran hard enough not to freeze. It was cold.

Now we have flowers coming up through the snow around our house. We are watching the snow mountain that the plows piled up in our cul-de-sac lose its war of attrition.

Winter has been gorgeous. From an aesthetic standpoint, watching the mountains go white, covered in new snow over and over, has been stunning. One day when we took the dogs on a hike, we reached an altitude where the snow had crystallized. It shined like a hillside of diamonds in the sun and, when you scooped a handful in your glove, it shattered, not powder, not flakes, but truly crystals. You could hear the snow breaking as it fell from your hand. On a walk home one night, the flakes were so big that when I caught them in my mouth–completely owning how ridiculous I looked, out on the sidewalk, mouth gaping, picking out flakes to track and capture–a single flake filled my mouth. I know that sounds like I’m exaggerating. When I missed, they soaked my nose or a side of my face. I have no video proof, but they were the biggest flakes I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve lived in both Illinois and Colorado.

I can both appreciate winter’s beauty and long for spring. I find nothing contradictory, nothing mutually exclusive in these responses.

In fact, I feel the same about Lent and Easter. Lent means taking time to see my own brokenness. To focus on repentance. To face the distance I have let my heart move away from God and even let myself consider the causes. It’s more pleasant to focus exclusively on God’s beauty and love for me than on my sin and self-rejection. But looking only at the happy stuff doesn’t make the ugly stuff go away, it merely gives it more space to grow.

My analogy here is not that winter is a time of darkness, though I personally could certainly use more sunlight than Wenatchee winter provides. I’m saying that, if I allow myself, I can see this time of self-reflection and facing truth has beauty, too. It’s easier to see the beauty of Easter. Flowers offer more obvious beauty than snow. It’s easier (and tempting) to jump straight to the good news without spending time meditating on and offering up the bad.

But I don’t simply mean Easter is more beautiful because I’ve gone deeper into Lent. It’s true that “Hallelujah” has a truer ring to it when I have repented as fully as I can. I mean I can see some moments of beauty in the ashes themselves. I’ve been in a dark place spiritually for a while now. I know that and it’s not something I can fix quickly or even at all, on my own. Knowing it doesn’t solve it. But finding hope in darkness holds a different beauty than happy celebration. Trusting God in the darkness means knowing God here, now, in this darkness. That is a moment of winter beauty, not spring.

I’m glad spring is coming. I’m trusting that the darkness I’m in will not last forever, either. I’m trusting I will learn and grow from it, as I always have from these deep tunnels in my life. Trusting is not the same as knowing. There’s a lot more hope involved. There’s also a lot more doubt.

God is walking through this season with me. I don’t think winter will become my favorite season; I don’t think this will become my favorite season in life.

But these glimpses of beauty are undeniable. I appreciate them, even as I long for more light.

Stop Hiding

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Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. Luke 12:2-3

God has gifted me strangely. I have the gift of transparency.

I am wildly screwed up and sinful…

and I talk about it.

In tandem with that, people trust me with their stories, their secrets. I believe God gave me the gift of having people open up to me.

I know that’s an odd gift. I’ve had strangers tell me their life stories in parking lots so often that my kids now expect it. A man working in the Lincoln Museum as an actor, doing a dramatization, somehow stopped in the middle of his presentation and started describing his family and employment situation to me. I joke about having some code written on my forehead that tells people I’m safe. I can’t see it in the mirror. I’m the boy who listened.

Humor aside, I consider this an honor and a sacred privilege. At times, I feel overwhelmed by it. I don’t always appreciate it in the moment. But I know we all need to be heard and encouraged. I’m grateful that I can give these to people, including strangers.

Self-deception kills us. So does keeping our darkness hidden. Having these gifts compels me to tell you, “Do not hide your darkness.”

When I talk with people about this, sometimes they look at me like I’m crazy. Of coursewe keep our darkness hidden. Yes, we disguise or cover up our weaknesses. That’s a given.

Two days ago, I heard from a friend that their high school principal had an affair with their social studies teacher. These two wrecked both their marriages, scarred their children, sent horrible shockwaves through the school, they both lost their jobs, the husband of the teacher, a pastor, lost hisjob (they told him he needed to work on his marriage), and of course it damaged the church he was pastoring. I heard about this because my friend’s four boys go to that school. Both the principal and teacher had become significant influences in these guys’ lives. They are four of literally hundreds of people hurt in the fallout. 

We pretend that we have it together while we trainwreck our lives.

God still loves them. Us. God still calls us to repentance. God still offers grace at every moment. But if we’re blind to our own darkness, we see no need to repent. If we insist on denial or deception, we cut off the path to repentance.

I’m not saying something new here, but I’m going to say it with the voice God gave me, because I think many desperately need to hear it. I’m praying that some can.

I’ve never cheated on my wife, though I’d be the last to say I haven’t experienced temptation. Could that happen to me? Of course it could. Could that happen to you? Adjusting the question to the equivalent self-inflicted wound in your own circumstances (e.g. you may not be married or in a position of leadership), could you make that mistake?

How do you respond when you hear what they did? I know it’s become a common story. But do you think “How could they?” or “There, but for the grace of God, go I?” Do you judge them and categorize them, two more Christians who aren’t doing this as well as we are?

It becomes increasingly clear to me as I get older that we want to hide our weaknesses and struggles not only from others, but from ourselves. We have this strange love-hate relationship with hearing about others’ sins and failures. Don’t believe me? Why are the celebrity gossip magazines and shows so popular? When leaders among Jesus followers crash and burn, do we share that news—and seek to hear that news—because we want to pray for them? I know what’s what we saywe want, but does intercession truly motivate us, or is it something else? 

As for the love-hate, I believe it’s this: we are reassured when others fall, because we have an uncomfortable suspicion that we, too, carry brokenness in us and their self-destruction gives us opportunity to say, “Okay, not that bad, anyway.” Yet we hate, and I do mean despise, the evil or darkness in others that mirrors what we have in us, much of which we hide from ourselves. When I truly can’t stand someone, I have learned to ask, “Okay, what do I loathe in myself that I’m seeing in you?” I don’t actually ask them out loud, it’s more a conversation between God and me. Jesus almost always shows me. Funny how I can’t always get direct answers to my prayers, but when I ask “Why does this jerk bug me?” God will notbe silent. It’s almost like Jesus was waiting for me to ask that question…or even…prompting me. 

Hmm.

I’m going to keep this short and direct. I’ll ask you one question for Lent.

Some of us fast from certain things, “give them up for Lent,” be it chocolate or alcohol, chewing gum or gossip. I like this discipline because focusing on being closer to God in a specific way helps me and because there is power in joining much of the Body of Christ in this act of repentance (even if we’re giving up something objectively good, we’re doing so acknowledging that we have let our love/desire for it pull us away from God).

If, for Lent, God asked you to give up hiding, what would come into the light? 

I Give Up

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“I give up!”

I heard my dad say those words so many times. You cannot imagine what impact that has on a young child. I know I heard it when I was maybe six or eight, but maybe four. I think Dad’s lung disease first got bad when I was six years old, so he was forty-three.

His “I give up” speech almost always included: how miserable he felt with his illness, how hard he had tried to make things go better, and how hopeless it all felt now. Often someone’s unfairness to him or downright abuse of him came in.

I tell you now, the absolute scariest thing for me about getting older is this: I understand better and better how my dad felt.

I don’t know that for sure, of course. But what once seemed so extreme and unreasonable, I can now relate to. I do not say this as a good thing.

And no, for the actual love of God, do not jump in with “See? Parents all get wiser as we get older.” I’ve addressed this in another post. My dad was wise in many ways and generous and caring beyond most men of his generation, but he was also bi-polar and severely unhealthy, physically and emotionally. His rantings and refusal to forgive haven’t suddenly transformed into wisdom.

But I miss him more than I used to. I know this is partly because, twenty years after his death, his unpleasantness no longer remains fresh in my mind while I do still remember clearly that he loved me. Praise God. In fact, as I fail and fail with my own children, I’m encouraged that what has stuck with me about Dad is how he truly did love me, as best he could within the limits of his own brokenness. I take some hope from that.

Coming back to the impact on me, as a child I would hear, in vivid detail, his despair. He was angry and discouraged and sick and beaten down, and all this makes sense to me now. He chose to tell that to a small boy. This still does not and, I hope, never will.

But hearing it changed me. I felt responsible. I felt guilty. I felt I had done something wrong, or was failing to do something right. I don’t think I could express any of these things at that time–in fact, had I been able to, likely someone in my life might have said, “Mike, that’s not reasonable or realistic. You don’t have to and aren’t supposed to. In truth, you can’t.” But no one said that. I don’t think anyone said, “Stop telling your six-year-old that you give up.” Or, if anyone did, Dad did not heed them.

I’m not going to sift through all the “this happened to me but I’m not a victim but I need to treat myself with understanding” nuances. That’s another post. The fact that, twenty years after his death and fifty years into my life I’m still dealing with it tells you what you need to know.

I wish that I could say “I feel really bad for how my dad suffered in his later years and I have no idea what that must have been like for him.”

But I feel like giving up. I feel angry too frequently. I’m not shouting this at full volume at my son Corin while he sits on a beanbag trying to watch TV (for one thing, we don’t own a beanbag). I’m also not chronically ill with a disease that makes every breath difficult and robs me of my energy and physical activity and much of my purpose. It’s sobering, and more than a little humbling, to say I don’t know if I would handle it any better if I had to go through the same thing Dad did.

I’ve lived a very different life than he did. I started following Jesus at nineteen and he found peace with God only near the end of his life, after he had lost much of his independence and mobility. I’ve worked hard to forgive others and not hold bitterness–and a good thing, too, because I suck at it and need all the work and all the grace I can get. I do think growing up with a man who could or would not forgive others–including me, at times–made it both harder to learn forgiveness and clearer what a high price I’d pay if I did not. I’m sure that’s why forgiveness is a central theme in my first novel–I’m trying to teach myself.

I want to give up because I have not fixed anything. The world is just as awful as when I got here, and, I would argue, getting worse. That’s the summary. There’s a longer, itemized list. Most days I feel like a failure and I mean loudly I. Feel. Like. A. Failure.

I think he did, too. We’ve had different goals. He felt sorry for himself for being so sick and he struggled to find purpose and meaning after retirement. He’d gotten screwed and now he had to gasp for air and people had abused him at every turn and no one appreciated what he’d done.

But then, for some years, it got better. He relaxed. He found ways to have fun. He and mom went on vacations. He golfed, for heaven’s sake. His breathing problems improved significantly. He laughed more and shouted less.

I am discouraged because people whom I thought shared my values have rejected them and argue that I’ve done something wrong. If it sounds like I’m not taking responsibility, well…that’s what’s happened. I’m taking responsibility to forgive and having a hellishly hard time doing it. I feel like giving up. I don’t know what giving up entails, but it calls to me.

So here we are. Tuesday. Hours before Ash Wednesday. Hours before Lent.

I think it’s time to give up. I’m ad-libbing this, so bear with me.

I’m not going to tell you I’m giving up changing the world. I cannot

. I’d be lying and I’m not trying to wrap this in a neat little false bow for either of us. Perhaps when I reach a healthier spirituality, when I become a contemplative, I will. Or perhaps I’ll simply have more peace about failing.

I’m very tempted to give up on some people. I’ve been offered this as the way of peace. I’m not sure I won’t end up doing this, but I’m not there yet.

Okay, I just took 45 minutes to ponder and meditate. Not usually what I do in the middle of writing one of these.

Giving up feeling like giving up is not an option. It doesn’t work that way. The only option is whether to keep going or not.

But doing things the same way over and over while expecting different results, we all know that as one version of madness.

I’m giving up these negative lines of thought. By that I mean I’m going to choose this Lent not to indulge in giving free reign to these negative thoughts, beliefs, voices, attitudes, responses running amuck in my brain. But by lines of thought, I also mean how those negatives get rolling there in the first place. I’m not sure of all the implications, but at the least this means I’m taking a Lenten fast from social media, getting worked up about politics, and unnecessarily entering conflictive situations (“unnecessarily” being the operative word there).

I announced on Facebook I was taking a break and then realized I would do better to make it a fast that started with Lent…but decided not to announce that, as well. I’m pretty compulsive, so this won’t be easy. When I feel anxious that I don’t know what’s going on in politics, I will either read news directly or, better, spend that time and ease that anxiety by praying.

Thanks for reading this. Sincerely, I do mean thank you. Comment if you want. Pray for me if you pray. I feel I’m at an important impasse. I’m trying to figure out how to go forward from here with God. God-willing, this will free both my time and energy to write more. Conversely, it may force me to address the causes of these negative voices–I’m not imagining just deciding “don’t think negatives” will make them all hush up–and lead to some deep soul-searching.

But it is Lent. Soul-searching fits.

Thoughts on Fandom as I Wait for Spring

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I think the joy of sports fandom comes in direct correlation with one’s investment in the team. It’s not about whether one has a “valid” claim to be a fan—no one except the players and coaches directly win or lose games—but how much one has given heart and soul over to share the team’s fate. None of this changes the actual outcome, contrary to what my, and every other fan’s, superstitions dictate. How you sit, which hat you wear, whether or not you breathe during the pitch, which beer cozy you utilize, these do not impact pitches and swings, catches and throws. They don’t.

But telling a fan this won’t convince him or her, any more than telling a dog that the ringing bell has nothing directly to do with getting fed. Bell leads to salivating because it means food in the dog’s mind. Sitting on the beanbag hunched over with my Yankees shirt and cap and batting helmet and batting glove and glove on meant victory. The dog gets food not because the bell rings—there is no causal effect between bell and nutrition—but because the owner/experimenter took the food and put it in the bowl. The fan gets a victory because Bucky and Reggie hit home runs and Guidry and Goose threw the ball well enough to keep the Red Sox from equaling those homers (Woohoo!), notbecause of my clothing or baseball equipment or position or respiration. 

However—however!—the investment we make, emotionally, and even spiritually, in our teams, in paying attention to them, talking about them, thinking on them in our idle moments, making our world about their world, knowing them in this sense, these all cause us to feel attached and thus we experience either joy or sorrow at their contest’s outcome. We have invested our hearts.

Believing that we influence any game’s outcome makes us feel connected more than anything else could. It’s a fantasy, a delusion, completely and utterly in our minds and nowhere else in reality,* but to believe fully that our and their outcomes are joined, are one, we must convince ourselves that their win is our win, our loss is their loss, and only because we, together, did everything right do we share our collective triumph.

As convincing as this sounds, it does not tell the whole story. The relationship between player and fan is much more intertwined than I just described because one other point of connection exists, that keeps this insane planet and moon spinning together and, in fact, leaves us questioning which is the planet and which the satellite. Which is dependent on the other? Or, as some astronomers have argued, are we interdependent after all? 

The “fantasy world” of fans would not exist without the physical world of players. But neither would the world of professional athletes exist without fans. We aren’t mere spectators. We, collectively, are patrons. The players play their games in what we call the “real,” physical world and fans build massive sky castles atop this world. But fans fund the enterprise. We don’t write the players’ checks but we pay the salaries. Fans, in the big picture, foot the bill for the whole venture.

We talk about rich, spoiled modern players, but fans make them wealthy. The entire solar system of sports and fandom rests on the people who don’t play the game professionally and our willingness to finance the people who do. I am a big fan—that might have come across—but how hilarious that fans imagine we control pitch location by how we hold our tongues, yet forget (or never quite grasp) that this entire house of cards depends on us because we paid for the cards!

Image result for sitting alone in a stadium during a game

Now, as with our body politic, this doesn’t feel true, or doesn’t feel personal. If you or I decided to boycott professional sports when players went on strike to demand more compensation from owners and, when no agreement could be reached, a season was cancelled (not hypothetically speaking, see 1994) our dollars would not be missed. There are too many of us, and too many varied levels upon which this castle is built, for any one of us to feel like he or she, you or I, have power—exactly as with voting, when we “know” that one vote means nothing. Enough votes together means everything.

One fan buying tickets and jerseys and full season broadcast viewing and sports cards and beers and hot dogs at the stadium, though this can add up to a significant budget item for a middle class individual, still means jack in terms of a professional sports franchise. If, next year, you decide to spend all that money, be it hundreds or tens of thousands of dollars, on ballet lessons, the works of Moliere and Flaubert, and a trip to Naples, Italy, instead of Naples, Florida (spring training) and whatever is left from your previous year’s fan budget on eye and dental care for refugee children, though your life might change significantly, your team would not change one accent mark of a Hebrew letter. They will still make their budget, sign their multi-year players, offer their tens- or hundreds-of-millions dollar contracts, fill their stadium, and keep their crazy world spinning. 

Related tangent: The most alluring/enticing/maddening figures, to me, are the ones that estimate the good we could do with the money we would save if only we would stop drinking Coke (for example) and give that money to feed starving children or cure malaria. It might be true, those might even be accurate estimates, but it will never happen. Too many people like Coke, too many people believe in their “right” to buy whatever they want with their money that they earned, too many people love their own comfort and small luxuries more than a stranger’s “right” to eat or stay alive. What does “right to life” mean in that context? “If you could afford it, you would have a right to life? Unfortunately for you, you can’t.” Sorry, got serious there for a second.

In professional sports, which is the planet and which the moon? Without this major league game, can our fandom exist? Without fans providing the gross national product of developing nations on sports team-related expenses, would the professional players end up in local adult leagues? Would the Carolina Mill Leagues form again? 

And thus, when a team wins their title, be it Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, or Stanley Cup, almost every single year when the players from the winning team get interviewed after the game, in that frenzy of excitement and manic joy of receiving their ultimate prize, they will say, “We wanna thank our fans, the best fans in the whole bleeping world, cuz we could’na done it without you.” 

That is true. 

Here, then, are the two poles of my argument: We are not, in reality, connected with these players or teams personally or directly to have any claim that they are “ours,” though many of us garner meaning in our lives from precisely this claim; Yet we, the fans, spend absurd and obscene piles of money on what must be called, by definition, luxury, and we sustain the system that makes 20-year-olds into multi-millionaires because they happen to be born with certain athletic ability and drive;

Is it all in our heads? Or does forty—or eighty—years of shouting for a team, crying (or cussing) when they lose, rejoicing when they win, wearing their colors and following their stats day after day while our kids grow up and get married and move away and have their children, while our pets go from young pups to old dogs and die and we get new ones and maybe even our marriages don’t last (though I hope they do), does all this mean that we’ve been “with” this team for longer than we’ve been with anything or anyone else in our lives? And even if that’s so, maybe it’s still all in our heads.

Is it real? Is it a superstition? Is it like praying to the moon or worshiping the fairies that come dance on our lawn? Is it more real if we do it for more years than we do anything else? Just because we’ve done it our whole lives doesn’t make it true, or substantive. Does it?

But maybe there is a connection. Maybe the one who follows his or her team through the ups and the downs, as reigning champs, cellar dwellers, and middle-of-the-pack hopefuls, who helps (in small part) to keep the team in business and collects cards of each player, whether great or mediocre or hopeless, who sends the grandchildren Yankees or Tigers onesies, who finally makes the team part of life, maybe this one has made him- or herself part of the life of the team.

If some of our happiest memories are at the ballpark, or in front of the TV when the impossible finally happened (Chicago Cubs, 2016), if we can recount a story in such vivid detail from the ninth year of life and it only makes us want to know and learn more, about then, about now, perhaps…

Perhaps.

*Except maybe if you’re a 12th Man for the Seahawks.

Some Quick Thoughts on Prayer (while I’m up in the middle of the night and in a good mood)

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I have not been praying as much recently. That’s because my world has been topsy-turvy and I’m trying to find my way back, not to normal–which I’m increasingly convinced doesn’t exist, for anyone–but to living more centered on God.

I’m seeing some things about prayer more clearly while returning to the practice. I guess that’s a silver lining. So I’ll share these, in case they encourage you or help you think about prayer a little differently.

I believe we pray more for the purpose of opening ourselves for God to change us than for changing God. I’m not going to dig into the theology of whether God acts or changes in response to our prayers (those aren’t quick thoughts and I do need to sleep sometime).

When I don’t pray much, I leave vastly more space for negative thoughts to go wild in my head. You’d think that might be enough to keep me praying. You’d think…

I believe sin makes us think wrong. When I don’t pray as much, I also don’t open myself for God to realign my thinking. Picture your vehicle out of alignment and anytime you try to drive straight it pulls off the road. I need not only to repent of my sins but to have God do an alignment on my thinking. If that sounds like, “Whoa, God is brainwashing you,” I mean things like “I’m so pissed off at people, people suck, I think I’ll avoid all people.” That’s going to make it challenging to love my neighbor. Jesus says to love my neighbor as myself, which puts us right back to the point above–not thinking well of myself, not thinking well of my neighbor. Sin makes us think wrong. Prayer restores thinking clearly.

I’ve been very angry at this current administration for a long time. I’ve been bogged down in that anger, stuck there, and been getting consumed by it. Setting aside whether you agree with my assessment, I’m not doing myself or anyone else any good allowing this to happen. The fruit of a little more prayer has been writing about peacemaking in the midst of this, rather than raging futilely at things I can’t change. Speaking the truth? Yes. Giving myself high blood pressure? No. More prayer equals more Jesus-looking response to the things at which I feel angered.

Once again, you might wonder why I don’t just pray and pray? Taking that seriously and not merely as a rhetorical question, I find that drifting away from prayer and moving back toward prayer tend to be gradual processes. When I’ve drifted far, it takes me time and focus and work, frankly, to get my focus back on God. Mental discipline.

“But can’t you just jump back in and pray a lot again?”

If you can, do. I find it doesn’t work this way for me, so I choose to be patient with myself and trust that God who loves me is drawing me back. Wooing, even.

Last thought: Sometimes I get stuck on a big theological question I can’t answer or I’m angry at God or I’m just so confused I can’t make any sense out of the world. Sometimes, like now, two of these or even all three. I’ve learned that getting road-blocked like this can lead me away from prayer and then I think, “Okay, I’ve got to sort this out before I’m able to get back in and pray.” I don’t mean just having problems, I mean having problems with God–or with what I believe about God. So I finally realized that in these cases I need to call a truce on that thing or those things, just agree with God not to bring them up, and get back to praying so that I can eventually work through them.*

I know it sounds a little funny, “Just agree with God not to bring them up.” God does what God does, whether or not I agree to it. But I’m the one who returns to these things incessantly, obsessively (as my wife might–no, would–say). I fixate. So I’m giving myself permission to believe God loves me anyway and come back to where I can hear God reassure me that it’s true. That always puts me in a better position to try to work through such difficult things, anyway.

So on one level I’m kind of lost and floundering right now. I’m told that reverse culture-shock does this to most people and it’s “normal,” which is mildly reassuring but fixes nothing. I’ve still got to find my way through it.

On another level, I think I’m coming to a better understanding of some things, which in the long run should bear fruit in my life. Yeah, painful as hell now, but once again, Jesus shows absolute commitment to my growth and significantly less commitment to my comfort.

Is he safe? No, no he’s not.

Is he good? Yes, I believe he is.

*I’m not talking about being stuck in some conscious sin here. Tabling that to pray does not work so well, certainly not in my experience. If you believe that wrestling with, being confused with, or being angry at God is itself such a sin then we understand relationship with God very differently.

Hate Is Louder than Love

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“Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable 
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.”

–Indigo Girls

This one makes me sad to write. But it’s also a statement of hope.

I believe love is stronger than hate. I absolutely do.

But hate, in my experience, is louder and, for most of us, more…

Enticing? I don’t want to say “compelling.” Alluring?

This came to mind because my last post, about being right versus being loving, got very little attention. Nope, I’m not bitter. But I wrote two strongly anti-Trump posts that still reside in my drafts folder. I think both of them express important ideas and truths. I know, absolutely, that if I post either of those, it will get ten times more reads than the one in which I talk about peacemaking.

I’m not drawing a conclusion from one example. But that triggered my thinking. Why does expressing a bunch of negatives draw more attention than encouraging us to positives? I’m the same way. Bad news draws me. It makes my stomach churn and my chest tighten but I let myself get sucked in. No, that’s too passive. I willingly bite on that fishhook. I know better. I should be a smart fish by now, considering all the times I’ve had my mouth ripped open by those barbs. But I still bite.

It’s easy to hate and it’s hard to love. Is it a flaw in the design? Why is lightness hard to hear?

Okay, in case I’m moving on before I convince you: Is it easier to try to understand the person who posted something stupid that conflicts with all your views and beliefs or to call them names and dismiss them? Is the person who cut you off maybe having a bad day, maybe distracted as you sometimes are when you (never ever) glance at your phone, or is that person just a *(&*(#&%&# for cutting you off? Is it easier to give people the benefit of the doubt or jump to conclusions about them? To forgive those who hurt us or to dismiss/bear a grudge against/distance ourselves from them? It can be easy to love people who love us, but if we really dig into love as Jesus talks about it, that’s no cakewalk* in the park, either.

I recently gave a sermon in which I stressed, repeatedly, that God as revealed in Jesus is great at loving enemies. I am perhaps more grateful for that than for anything else in my life. God loving us when we made ourselves enemies is grace. Me? Love my enemies? I kind of stink at it.

I have not kept secret that I consider President Trump and his administration horribly dangerous, not merely politicians whose tax policies I question nor whose fashion sense offends mine. I have spoken out, and taken flack for it, because I believe I have that moral responsibility.

But I keep looking at this abyss we’re excavating, this schism that grows wider every day, and I know shouting into the chasm will not help our divide.

Many people on both sides have concluded that “They are unreachable. No point in trying. We just need to focus on how we know we should fix this country and ignore them or shout them down.” Both sides say this. A guy I was friends with in college told me that he and others would “crawl over broken glass to vote to keep the other side out of office.” “Great,” you say, “he’s a patriot, a dedicated voter.” But it wasn’t to get his party elected; he expressed such drastic motivation because the other political party has become the enemy.

Name-calling comes easily. “Snowflakes” and “Libtards.” “MAGAts” and “Drumpfsters.” Generalizing and oversimplifying the oppositions’ positions while assuming the depth and nuance in our own. I no longer post political memes because they increase rancor; they bring nothing positive to the conflict.

I’m talking about politics, of course, but talking about more than politics. Hate is loud. Yes, media adds to the problem by what and how they choose to report, but we eat what they serve. We buy what they sell. We like it. We might complain about it, but it works for them. We make them money by producing it so they keep producing it. We weren’t all kind and cuddly until they made us hateful and vicious. They have responsibility in how they report and we have responsibility in what we buy (click=buy). That cycle feeds upon itself.

I’ve been trying, as a proactive campaign, to report all the good news I can get my eyes on. (Why yes, that does include Jesus’ Good News.) It lifts my agonized and antagonized heart that friends have started sending good stuff my way. I’m thrilled to become known as “that guy who likes to share positive things.”

That’s one means I’ve found so far to amplify love in my own little sphere.

But I need a lot more.

What can we do? Brainstorm with me. Put away your sarcastic response of “If they would just go away…” They aren’t. But more to the point here, hate rejects and love accepts. Did I mention it’s harder to love than to hate? I think I did. So think with me about what we can change to raise love’s voice.

Today, I read a discussion/debate spurred by a study that found “Almost half of Millennials (47%) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” As you might guess, that raised some ire and heated disagreement.

My mind immediately went to the surveys that tell us how non-Christians most often describe Christians. The top words used are almost always “hypocritical” and “judgmental.”

I can’t speak for the younger generation but I can say that, in my efforts to express Jesus’ love for people, I’ve heard too many horror stories how people have been belittled, mocked, patronized, and verbally abused by Christians.

I mention this because the answer is more than “Tell them about Jesus.” Or, as we used to say in BOC, one of my young adult groups, “That’s the right answer, but it isn’t the complete answer.”

Here’s what else I’ve got so far:

  • Affirm the heck out of people. Just speak up more, find positives and say them, write them, mean them. Most of us hear criticism so much louder than we hear praise and take negatives to heart much easier than positives (which sucks, by the way). I suspect some just think I’m a little rah-rah. I’d rather be known for that.

Can you find ways to affirm the people with whom you disagree? Can you try?

I know, I know: they’re the enemy. But that doesn’t get us out of anything, because Jesus told us “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

  • Find people you can talk to who see things as you do and agree with you and express your strong feelings to them. I’m totally serious here. If you are reading this and you like Trump, do you want to hear from me all the reasons I do not? I’m going with “no.” How do I know that? You would have asked me. I have friends with whom I try to make sense of it all, and though we don’t solve anything, it does prevent me from expressing my frustration in a way that would come across as unloving to others.**
  • Find people you love and respect who see things differently than you do and engage them personally. DON’T do this in a public forum where their buddies will chime in by calling you an idiot. Mmhm, had to learn that one the hard way. A couple of times. Sigh.

Categorizing and dismissing others is not love, it’s that other thing. Demonizing the enemy, which countries have long done against other countries in war (and I consider this evil), we now do with no hesitation to our neighbors. Don’t believe me? Check out some memes against someone you like, for whom demonizing might prove more recognizable.

Because this current of mockery and hate flows so strongly, I encourage you to find smart people who read and know what they’re talking about with whom you can discuss these issues to understand their perspective. The ideal would be to find all that in a person of grace. But we may not be looking for the intelligent, well-reasoned discourse partner. Sometimes we like to keep the opposition’s viewpoint oversimplified and easily dismissed. It’s way more fun than having to acknowledge “they” may have a point. But intentionally misinterpreting, ridiculing, and mocking are hateful actions. If we dislike having it done to us and our views, we must not respond in kind. We are called to treat others as we want to be treated, not “if they start treating me better then I’ll treat them better.”

Coming back around, hate, in my experience, is louder and, for most of us, more…

Oh, shoot. I hope the word I was looking for isn’t “fun.” As in, “Hate is more fun than love.” Because honestly, we act like hate is more fun than love. But I don’t believe it is. The fun that hate offers is a bitter, cynical, spiteful warping of true, life-giving fun. Love is harder, but it’s more fun, more real fun.

  • Last thing. Hatred is in the eye of the beholder. I know, we live in a time when people get offended by everything. I understand that you may feel the current political correctness means you can’t say a single word to anyone without causing offense. That makes this tricky, yet it remains true that if someone feels hated by us, we don’t get to fix it with “But I didn’t mean that,” nor “Well, that’s just your problem.” If you’ve been taking this stance and feel justified, I’m just going to say again, love is harder. Wining the argument and going home the conqueror does not embody Jesus’ love in the world, no matter how stupid we might consider the other person’s argument. I believe in reasoning and persuading, but I’m coming to realize I no longer believe in arguing as a means of engaging others. If I have to choose between having someone feel loved–or at least not hated–and arguing with them, Lord, help that to become an easy choice for me.

Hate is louder than love, in my own heart as well as on my Facebook feed. I have to change that now, in whatever way I can. I am convicted by Jesus to become more of a peacemaker. This does not mean I will stop speaking the truth. But as I seek to speak truth, I want to embody love.

I want to love as loudly as I can.

*Our eldest, when young, would win every single time at the cakewalk, to the point where it was not a game of chance but an automatic walk-in-a-circle-and-get-a-cake.

*If you said, “Mike, I’ve seen what you post, and it’s not working,” just imagine what I’d say without my venting friends!

Being Right vs. Being Loving

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Here’s the thing: you can be right all the time and still be a horrible human being.

When Jesus followers use the word “believe,” we mean an action, not a set of abstract truths to which we consent. Therefore, “Believe and you will be saved” does not mean “Agree to this information and your soul will know life.”

People ask me, all the time, “Why are Christians so awful?” Christians and people who are not Christians alike ask. That’s not a fun question to hear. It’s even less fun because a lot of people who label themselves as Christians do atrocious things and claim Jesus as their inspiration or justification or moral covering. I’ve already tried to weigh in with what I think being a Jesus follower really means. I expected a bit of backlash for that one, but got none, which probably means either people didn’t read it or they just quietly cut me off.

Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” He said, “They shall know you are my followers by your love for one another.” He also said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, just to make sure he’d covered the range, “Love your enemy.”

Then there were all the times he said, “Make sure you’re right.”

No one will know we are Jesus followers who have God’s love by our winning arguments. Absolutely no one will know we follow Jesus when we behave like buttheads in our arguments.

Being right, biblically, is not as important as being loving.

I’m going to say that again: Being right is not as important as being loving.

Some will immediately jump on their high horses (meaning they must be good high jumpers) and shout “Truth! Truth! You can’t compromise truth!”

I’m not talking here about truth. I’m talking about our seemingly unquenchable need to prove ourselves right.

Three things remain, Paul writes. Remain after what? See how it begs that question? Three things endure, last, still matter after everything else has passed. What are those three things? Faith, hope, and love.

Of these, faith might be the one related to knowing and expressing the truth, but most of us realize that living by faith or practicing faith requires action and obedience, not mere assent to information nor the ability to debate that I have the right information. Both “belief” and “faith,” in biblical language, are actions. But by no stretch of the imagination (at least not mine) can I render “‘faith remains’ means dying on this hill of my own rightness.”

The greatest of these is love.

Of course, no one here does what I’m describing. You aren’t feeling convicted because while we all know “they” do this, we certainly don’t.

So let me tell you what I do: I think less of people when they argue too much and I judge people who won’t stop arguing. Sometimes, in my mind, I call them names. Sometimes, those names move from my mind to my vocal cords.

You know why I do this?

Because I’m right.

So let me dig in further: when I say this, I don’t mean “If you disagree with people, love requires deciding that they are right and you are wrong.” That isn’t love. Neither does love require staying silent in every discussion.

However, neither does speaking the truth substitute for love. I know (too) many people who believe that if they just speak the truth, God will open people’s minds, convict their hearts, and therefore the only thing that matters is “speaking the truth in love.” If every time I speak the truth it’s guaranteed to help people, then speaking the truth in love simply means speaking the truth, which is, de facto, loving.

What’s the strongest way I can say “That is wrong?”

I suspect this view explains how we get people equating “I prove I’m right” with “I’m being faithful to Jesus.” I see people label this “Standing for the Truth” or “Refusing to Compromise.”

I’m not even wading into whether we turn out to be wrong when we think we’re right. That, as they say, is another kettle of fish. I’m saying that we’re better off staying silent than speaking the truth without being loving. When people seek to start arguments with me on social media, most often I simply don’t respond because I see no fruit coming from the argument. If I can’t figure out a way to respond in love, I try to shut up. I will tell you, doing this hurts my ego, wondering if they think they’re right and have silenced me with their brilliance (when I happen to think they’re dead wrong). But I’m not seeking to preserve my ego; that would require different priorities than Jesus calls me to.

To drive this home: You can “win” an argument and push people further away from Jesus. You can be right and demonstrate the opposite of God’s love for them. You can do that in Jesus’ name.

Getting back to me for a moment: I have strayed too far from staying centered on love. When I witness someone arguing, and I disagree with their view, do I think “how can I love that person?”

If that seems extreme, I have this sermon I’d recommend on loving your enemy.

The answer may simply be “Shhhh.”

It may be praying for someone whose views oppose mine so strongly that I would label him or her an enemy.

It may be disagreeing respectfully.

Can you really be right all the time and still be a horrible human being? If we define “being right” as “having an accurate understanding of a specific truth,” then yes, absolutely. Knowing the truth and living the truth turn out to be widely, sometimes wildly different things. “Living the truth” means being changed by the truth we live. If you can’t see yourself changing (or have someone you trust see that change for you, if you’re a harsh self-critic), growing in grace, humility, love, generosity, kindness…then it’s possible your “truth” may be merely the hammer you wield.

I know that sounds harsh. I just see too many people swinging hammers and feeling self-righteous about the assault.

God, let us be known by love and not assault.

I want people to ask me, “Why are Christians so loving?”

Loving Your Enemies

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Preached at New Song Church, East Wenatchee, Washington on January 20, 2019. Titled “But What If I Don’t Have Any Enemies?”

Luke 6 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.[e] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.