Back to School, Back to Better Rhythms

Some people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). That is to say, sometime in the winter months here in the Midwest, when there has been cloud cover for something like 100 straight days and the ground is brown and frozen and there are no leaves on the trees and it gets dark at 4:00 in the afternoon, some people struggle with depression.

My SAD is a little different. My SAD starts to settle in around the first of August, when it’s hot and steamy outside. It’s not so much about the actual season for me but rather about the metaphorical season.

Every year, when school lets out in late May, I’m so happy. It’s so good to throw off the shackles of regular bed times and being on kids’ case about homework. The freedom of the first days of summer are so life giving! And because I have a highly flexible job (both a blessing and a curse sometimes) I can take a day here or there to do stuff with my family, or I can shift my hours, going in early, so I can leave early to get to a baseball game.

But by the beginning of August, the lack of structure, the lack of rhythm starts to work against me. The freedom that was so invigorating and life giving in late May becomes the very thing that keeps me from the disciplines that nourish my soul.

And so, to that end, today I’m celebrating the return of my children to school. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids, and we’ve had a great summer together. I think Jennifer and I find ourselves enjoying our children more and more all the time. But I need them back in school so I can get myself back into the rhythms that make me healthy and productive.

I need to get back to the rhythm of reading. For all of my adult life, reading has been the thing that stimulates my creativity. It’s the fuel that helps me formulate my thoughts about the things I teach and the conversations I have with people. Reading – both fiction and nonfiction –  inspires me to see the world, myself, and God differently. I’ve been in a reading slump that pre-dates the summer. But I’ve been carving out time in the mornings to read again. And I was shutting off Netflix and reading in the evenings again, until the stupid Olympics happened. But that will be over soon.

[Disclaimer: in the Dean house, we are Olympics junkies. We’ll watch anything. People jumping on a trampoline? Check. People riding dancing horses? Why not, as long as the horse gets the medal? The television is never on in the Dean house as much as it is every couple of years during the Olympics. So, I have nothing against the Olympics, except that it does screw up my reading discipline!]

I need to get back to the rhythm of good discussion. One of the things I know about myself – and I know this isn’t true of everyone – is that I need regular, life-giving, good discussions in my life. I need groups of people around me who want to read, talk, think and interact about ideas. I think it’s related to the rhythm of reading, but in time, reading without discussion becomes a bit empty for me. I’m not sure what this looks like in this season of my life, but I’m playing with some ideas in my head.

I need to get back to the rhythm of regular exercise. The combination of kids’ baseball, a pretty severe hand injury, and oppressive heat have done their toll on my rhythms. Once our summer travel ended and my hand healed, I started back on this one and since the first of August, I’ve been aggressively working out. I can’t tell you how good it is for me to drown myself in sweat, to push my body to the point of throwing up. It’s good for me to feel the ache of well-exercised muscles. It’s good for my body, and I don’t exactly understand the connection, but it’s good for my emotions and for my soul as well.

And related to exercise, I need to get back into a rhythm of eating well. Right now Jennifer and I are doing something of an extreme diet. And I hate wacky diets, but there is something good in this season about being a little extreme. It’s a good detox from a summer full of feasting. I read an author a couple years ago (I think it was Shauna Niequist) who suggested that there should be seasons of feasting and seasons of fasting in our lives. The problem is, at least in our circles, it seems that it’s always a season of feasting. So, embracing a season of fasting, embracing some austerity in what I drink and eat is good.

And finally, I need to get back into a rhythm of prayer. And by prayer these days I mean ALL the ways that we communicate AND commune with God. For me, that doesn’t mean long lists, or wordy prayers. It more like written prayers – The Prayer of St. Francis, Thomas Merton’s “Prayer that Anyone Can Pray,” Celtic Prayers – and quiet meditation/contemplation. In the last week it’s meant reading Richard Rohr’s Yes, And… in the mornings quietly, slowly and then giving myself quiet time to ease into my day.

So, happy back-to-school day.

I hope that you, like me, find and pursue the rhythms of your life that sustain you and make you whole.

 

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On Doing the Work

One of my sons started this thing almost as soon as he learned to talk. When we put him to bed, just before we closed the door, he’d yell out to us, “I love you more than you love me.” What he wanted from us was an argument. He was asking for us to reaffirm our love for him. I don’t know where he picked this up; it’s not something we’ve ever done with any of our other kids, but somehow it spilled out of his psyche.

And I totally get it.

I was talking to some friends a couple of weeks ago, telling them how in my worst moments, I am looking for approval from other people – signposts to know that I’m loved/accepted/desired. And one of my friends said to me, “Where is God in your self doubt? Isn’t being loved/accepted/desired by God enough for you? You’re a pastor for goodness sake! Get yourself together, man!” (Okay, I made up the last two sentences. That wasn’t actually what was said, just what I thought to myself.) Ouch.

I choked it down, but in a word, no. Not really. In those darker moments, it’s not enough for me to be loved by an immaterial, Spirit being. I need real-life words, touches, affirmations. At least I need those things unless I actively work at it. I know, based on my personality type, I need a good support structure, but when I do the work, I need it a little less; I find myself a little less needy, a little more self-assured.

Don’t feel sorry for me. We all have our internal struggles. The more I study the Enneagram and the more I talk to people, the more I’ve come to understand that even the people who project “I’ve got it all together,” really don’t. (And in fact, the more they project that image, the more unhealthy they probably are.)

Your struggle might be like mine – believing that you’re loved. But your struggle might be believing in yourself, or lack of self-confidence, or apathy, or self-loathing, or not caring. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is what you’re doing about it.

For me, I literally have to sit on the floor in silence and concentrate on love. I have to keep coming back to the place in my mind where I am wrapped in God’s love for me. I think I’ve said before, either here or in a teaching, that my perception of God has always been “perpetually disappointed with me.” And no matter how much I fill my head with knowledge about God’s love, I have to practice the experience of being loved by God to change anything inside of me.

And often, I get away from my practice. I get away from my silence and solitude, contemplative prayer, meditation, whatever you want to call it. But, one of the most helpful things I’ve learned in the past year or so is that it’s not about accomplishing something but returning to the practice that matters.  I won’t ever be able to quit doing the work; I will always have to return to my practice, and maybe that is the accomplishment.

So, here’s the question: What is the work you need to do? What’s your practice? What is going to help you overcome whatever your struggle is? Do you know? Maybe you need help finding your practice, maybe you need to talk with a spiritual friend, maybe talking with a spiritual friend IS the practice.

Whatever it is, do the work.

(He says, mostly to himself.)

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Embracing Messy and Complicated

A year ago this week, I began a 3-month Sabbatical.

Even now, 9 months after it’s over I could tear up if you started asking the right questions about the state I was in, what I was feeling at the time, and the healing that happened in me.

Let me name some convergences that have intersected in my life over the past year, starting in Sabbatical and moving forward.

Brene Brown, Rising Strong. Taught me the ideas of “the story I tell myself” and the importance of “rumbling with my story.” So good. So important to my own good mental/spiritual/emotional health.

The Enneagram. I’m fully “in” on this personality tool. I would talk about it all day, every day, if there were people to talk to (hint! hint!). I’m a Type 3: “the Achiever.” That affects how I see everything. And I fall in the heart triad, where I’m always going to be dealing with my feelings about people. That’s just the way it is.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. I just re-read this book about spirituality in the second half of life last week. And everything in his book resonates deeply with person I hope to become. (Someday.) (When I grow up.)

We had a small exodus of people who left our church in the months after I returned from Sabbatical. Many of them left without saying goodbye, they just quit coming. Part of me gets it. That’s part of church leadership. People come, and people go. But at another level, it’s caused me to distrust almost all of my relationships. It’s rattled my cage quite a bit – more than I probably am willing to acknowledge most of the time (see my Enneagram Type).

There’s other stuff.. But this isn’t the right place.

The net sum however, of these convergences is that at 42, I’ve really had to lean into the interior journey, to understand myself better. Those of you that are long-time readers, you already know all this. And I’m not broken in the same way I was a year ago, but I’m choosing to stay in the journey – to keep pushing myself to stay curious.

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“There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.” – Thomas Merton

Frankly, I still feel like I’m kind of a mess some days as I try to sort out how I think and how I feel, how I understand myself and how I discover more of God. And most of the time, no one else but Jennifer knows. She sees me brooding, hears my hurts, listens to my questions-without-real-answers. She patiently  listens as I rumble with my story and reminds me no matter what I feel that she loves me and is committed to me.

But if Merton (and pretty much every other spiritual writer I’ve read) is right, the only pathway forward to wholeness is through a deeper understanding of the self. Even John Calvin said “It is not possible to know God without knowing yourself. It is not possible to know yourself without knowing God.” And so I’ve ventured in some forums to try to say my raw truths. And most of the time, I feel deep levels of regret and embarrassment, what Brene Brown calls the “vulnerability hangover.”

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And then, this afternoon, reflecting on my 1-year-Sabbatical-iversary (it’s Monday as I write this), I read Glennon Doyle Melton’s post “I need to tell you something” on her Momastery blog about her divorce. It’s beautifully written. It is honest and brave and true and sad all at the same time. And then, there was this one line, where she’s writing about why she feels the need to write a post announcing her divorce that caused my to catch my breath:

“I will be messy and complicated – and I will show up anyway.”

Yes.

I know that it freaks out some people when I choose to be messy and complicated. And it probably drives some people away, because we all love our shiny, manicured false images. But here’s my manifesto – and I say this not because I think I’m particularly good at it all the time, but rather, I say it as aspirational – as the person I want to be:

I, Charles, will be messy and complicated and I will show up anyway.

And I will choose messy/complicated because I believe it’s the ONLY way forward to wholeness. I was talking to a friend about this and I said, “to me, the only people who insist they aren’t messy and complicated are the people who might as well wear a sign on their heads that says ‘UN-self-aware.’” We’re ALL messy/complicated, whether we know it or not. I guess I just want to own my messy/complicated and so I can move through it and learn and grow.

So I will choose to be messy/complicated in my marriage, in my parenting, in my leadership, in my relationships. And I will continue to fight my desire to run away, to hide, to sulk and to bury my feelings in ice-cream and whiskey. This doesn’t mean I always need to do this externally, but sometimes it will. (God help me discern the difference!)

Listen, I promise, messy/complicated won’t be a permanent state. Messy/complicated is a place, but you move through it as you rumble with your story, come into new knowledge of yourself and learn new ways of seeing, new ways of being in the world. And it doesn’t mean I’ll be messy/complicated with all of you either. I’m discovering the right times, right places, right people to be messy/complicated with, where I feel safe, affirmed, and then gently pushed.

And I guess, if it makes people uncomfortable, or it makes me less desirable as a pastor, leader or friend, then so be it, because this is the only road to wholeness. It’s the only road on which I will find my true self and thus find God. This road is more important than all the other things. (Again, as I edit, this is more aspirational, but I’m working towards it.)

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But this post isn’t just about me. Mostly, I’m good. I’m not in any kind of crisis or major turmoil. But rather, I’m trying to embrace messy/complicated as a way of life. You move through it, you circle back around, you move through it again. You learn and grow and keep learning. There is no such things as “arriving.”

I’m writing because I want to say to you, “stay in it, show up, embrace your messy/complicated and ‘do the work.’” I’m inviting you to choose messy/complicated because sooner or later life will hand you messy/complicated and either you will prepared for it, or you’ll have to catch up to it when it comes. I’d rather be prepared.

So, today, schedule that coffee with the friend/pastor/therapist/spiritual guide/guru you need to get messy/complicated with. And be brave, my friends. We’re in it together.

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It Works (Until it Doesn’t)

I was sitting in a workshop a couple of weeks ago learning about personality theory, and the trainer said something regarding self-awareness:

“Things work for you right up until they stop working.”

What she meant is, we all see ourselves in a particular way, we all move about the world with a particular lens through which we interpret and interact with the world. And we will continue to use our lens until the lens stops working. But when that way of being doesn’t get the love we long for, or a person or situation confronts us, pointing out the myopia of our lens, only then will we change our lens to allow for a more holistic picture, a new way of being in the world.

Here’s what this looks like in life:

You take a job at a new company. And you love the new job, and the new people, and the new company. But then, over the course of months/years, a series of things happen, you change, and the new job stops “working” for you, so you dust off your resume and start looking for another new job.

-or-

You have a relationship. And in the beginning, this relationship just worked. When you first started seeing each other, you loved every new thing you learned about the person. And then circumstances changed – sometimes quickly, sometimes like quick sand – and it didn’t work anymore. So you go through the painful process of breaking up.

Jennifer and I were talking about this a while back, and we came up with the analogy of pulling at the threads of an old sweater. Sometimes you start to pull at something – a belief, a idea, a major life change, a career path, a relationship – and the whole thing just comes apart and you have to get a new sweater.

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With all apologies to my Baptist friends, this is what happened to me, starting in my final year of my undergrad at a Baptist college. I started pulling at the threads of my understanding of God, the Bible, and the church. Recently – over the past couple of years – I’ve been pulling at the threads of my own self, trying to understand the lenses I use to interpret and interact with the world.

At some point along the way, thinking about God as wrathful just didn’t work for me anymore. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it wasn’t “disobedience,” it wasn’t that I just wanted to believe whatever I want. Rather, it’s been the slow pulling of threads. One thought led to another, led to a book, led to a teaching, led to a reflection, led to an experience, a conversation with a trusted friend or spiritual guide, and pretty soon the sweater of my Baptist upbringing fell apart. What used to work, for the first 20 years of my life, didn’t work anymore. It worked, right up until the time that it didn’t.

This doesn’t mean I hate Baptists. (I know, if you’ve known me over the long haul, you know I went through a deconstructive stage where I was full of piss and vinegar…but that was only one stage of the process. A necessary stage, I believe, but only a throughpoint, not the destination.) I know a lot of people who are still Baptists – it still works for them, and that’s okay. And if they ask me questions about my beliefs, I’ll gladly have a conversation – but I don’t need to convert them, or make them see things my way. It still works for them.

And yes, there have been moments (probably all of them) when I’ve questioned the path I’m on. There are times I feel like I’ve let people down in my life because I’ve taken a stance different than their own. And at times I’ve been admittedly ungracious and unfair to my traditions as I “kicked against the goads.” But, I’ve come to believe that complexity, vagaries, dualisms and doubts — not certainty — ARE the essence of my faith.

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I was listening to a podcast in the car yesterday, driving home from Chicago, and the guy talked about how he was a Baptist, then he was a Charismatic, then he was into Eastern Religions, and then he referred to his current belief system as “whatever the road I’m on now is.”

I like that.

Baptist worked for me (until it didn’t). “Seeker church” worked for me (until it didn’t). Calvinism, Pre-Tribulation Eschatology, Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory, Dispensationalism all worked for me (until they didn’t). Progressive worked for me (until it didn’t). And now, I don’t know what categories to use. I’m pretty happy just being on “whatever road I’m on now,” trying to learn from all the traditions.

And I want to find God in the morning,

and in the tired hands of dusk.

At the mouth of the river and down by its feet.

Anis Mojgani, For Those Who Can Still Ride in an Airplane for the First Time

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Here’s the point of this post: I frequently hear of people who are starting to pull at the threads of their faith and and are scared, because the sweater feels flimsy and they fear the loss of their childhood God and the rejection of their faith communities. And I just want to say it’s okay. It’s okay to pull at the threads. It’s okay to raise your hand and say, “This doesn’t make sense anymore,” it’s okay to read books that are outside your tradition. When you do, you’ll find a whole community of us happy to be on “whatever road it is we’re on now.”

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My Ego Riding a 10-Year-Old Arm

This comes a little late, as Father’s day was at least a month ago, but here’s what I’m learning about myself through parenting right now…

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In the last week of the travel ball season, my 10-year old son was the starting pitcher in the first game of his final tournament of the season. He pitched nine straight balls to open the game. He walked the first three batters, threw a couple wild pitches and by the time the inning was ended, the other team was up 2-0 and they hadn’t hit a single pitch that he threw.

He came off the field with tears in his eyes, disappointed with himself and feeling like he had let his team down. I talked to him about resilience. I told him that one of the things about baseball is that even the most successful people fail – a lot. The best hitters in the MLB are successful only ⅓ of the time. The best pitchers give up home runs and walks. But what makes baseball players great is they have a short memories. They forget about the last pitch, the last at-bat and they move on.

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Two days later, same tournament, he was the starting pitcher again. And again this time he started rough, but he settled down, found his groove, and pitched the entire game, knocking off the #1 seed. Over six innings, he only walked 4 batters, while striking out 10 and allowing only a few hits here and there.

For a kid of his age, it was a great outing. (And, to top it off, he tripled twice over the weekend and only struck out once in 6 games over the tournament. He had a great weekend!)

But here’s the key insight about fatherhood. I’m trying to learn to pay attention to myself and I’m trying to learn to pay attention to what I’m feeling and I’m trying to learn to be curious about why I think and feel the way I do. And I’m trying to do the hard work of naming what I feel. And here’s what I noticed:

When my son was pitching poorly, I felt bad about myself. I was beating myself up for not working with him enough in the back yard. I was questioning how good a Father I am to him. I was feeling like a failure.

And when he was succeeding, I felt good about myself. I thought about all the time we’ve spent in the yard working on pitching. I thought to myself, “I’m a great dad.”

I noticed that my ego was riding on the arm of my 10-year-old son.

Ugh. “This isn’t good,” I said to myself.

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And so, on Father’s Day weekend 2016, out on the ballfields, I had to remind myself that my love for my son and my love for myself can’t ride on his arm or his bat. That’s too much weight to put on a 10-year old. And all the things I really want for him someday have nothing to do with his WHIP or OBP. The best thing I did for him last weekend in fact had nothing to do with his ability to play baseball, but rather was the speech I gave him about resilience and having a short memory.

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On the Monday after Father’s Day, while I was at work there was some family discord. Brothers being brothers, normal stuff. And Jennifer had to punish them. And 10-year-old son, after the dust had settled came to Jennifer privately and said with tears in his eyes, “Mom, dad is teaching me to have a short memory on the ballfield. Can we just have a short memory about this morning? I’ll do better.”

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Empty Bucket Theory

Let’s pretend for a second you’ve never met me. You know nothing about me except my name. In your mind, the category of Charles Dean is an empty bucket in your mind.

Now let’s pretend you meet someone and they say to you, “Charles Dean is a HUGE Cardinals fan. He loves watered-down light beer and his idea of a good time is a tractor pull.”

If there’s nothing in your “Charles Dean bucket,” you will probably just accept everything that was said about me without question. Why would you question anything you heard? If there’s no filter, there’s nothing in the bucket that would cause you to be skeptical. Those statements — I like the St. Louis Cardinals, I love watered-down light beer and my idea of a good time is a tractor pull — are not beyond the imagination. In fact, you just might assume that all Cardinals fans love watered-down light beer and tractor pulls. (HA!)

But if you know me, if there’s knowledge about me already piled in the bucket, there are filters for new information. If your “Charles Dean Bucket” has sufficient information piled up in it, you know that I hate the Cardinals with a righteous fury, I prefer craft beers (bring on the IPAs and dark beers!) and I have almost no interest in going to a tractor pull.

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Take the same idea and apply it to interfaith dialogue for a minute.

For example, if I know nothing about Muslims, if the “Muslim bucket” in my head is completely empty, and I see something on Facebook declaring that all Muslims are secretly trying to take over America and impose Sharia law on the rest of us, I might tend to believe it. (Especially if it aligns with my own religious impulses. Moral Majority anyone? Which is, I think, one of the reasons conservative Christians seem to be the ones most fearful about Muslims. But that’s a conversation for another time.)

If we are going to engage in meaningful dialogue with or about other religions, we have a responsibility to fill up our buckets first.

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But how we fill up the bucket matters. If you want to fill up your “Charles Dean Bucket,” you won’t get a very objective sense of who I am if you only talk to my biggest critics, or even if you talk only to my closest friends. You’ll get the most quality information in your bucket when you allow me to fill the bucket.

If you want to understand Muslims, let them tell you what they believe. Read the Qu’ran, talk to a Muslim, ask questions. Listen.

If you want to understand Democrats let them tell you why they see the world the way they do. Read liberal editorials with an open mind, talk to your friends about their views instead of just assuming you know why they think what they think. Listen.

If you want to understand why transgender people are conflicted about which bathroom to use, ask them. Let them fill up the empty bucket called “what transgender people think/feel” in your head. Listen.

This is one of the problems, I think, with Christian education. To the limited degree that we studied other religions in my formal education, it was always Christians telling you what Muslims/Buddhists/Jews believe. And there’s no way to do that without skewing the information. (I’ll admit that may be an over sweeping generalization of Christian education, but it was surely my experience. For example, the books I read in my formal education about Islam were predominantly by Christians writing about how Islam is wrong.)

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But all of this requires us to do the work. It requires us to get close enough to the people we consider other so we can ask them questions and allow them to fill the empty buckets in our head. It requires us to listen to other people with an open mind.

I’ll quote my friend, Stephen McKinney-Whitaker (I also quoted him in my last post, but it’s good, so you’re getting it again.):

“Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.”

So, who do you need to listen to today?

Maybe it’s an interfaith thing. Maybe you need to listen to a flesh and blood Muslim tell you what he or she believes rather than just believing the rhetoric you read on your Facebook feed.

Maybe it’s an intrafaith thing. Maybe there’s someone of your own faith who holds their belief in a different way than you do and you need to listen to why instead of just simply condeming or critiquing.

Maybe it’s a relationship thing. Maybe you need listen to a spouse, friend or family member and hear what they’re thinking or feeling.

So, go love well and listen to someone today.

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Peace for Peoria

On Monday night, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Peace for Peoria, a town hall Q & A event at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. I got to sit on a panel that included a Catholic, an Imam, a Rabbi and two Protestant pastors in front of a crowd at least 700 strong.

We were there to talk about how we can all work for peace, how all of us can have strong beliefs and still make space for each other, how we can have meaningful friendships with people of different faith and cultural traditions.  We also wanted to specifically address the irrational fear of Islam that seems to pervade our culture right now.

It was a breathtaking event. From what I could tell, there was great energy in the room. People seemed to be leaning into the conversation and many people were still hanging around the theater lobby talking nearly an hour and a half after the panel discussion was over.

This post is a collection of thoughts and impressions, two days after the event. I’ll be writing one more post in this series on interfaith conversations about an idea that emerged to me during the panel discussion. It’s written. I hope to have it edited and posted by Friday.

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The thought that occurred to me over and over again on Monday night was that this event was pretty unique. I don’t know of other conversations quite like this one, happening on a town-wide basis, anywhere else in the country. Part of it is because of Peoria’s size. Before the panel discussion we had several of the CEOs of the largest companies in Peoria talking about religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their workplaces, and the Mayor ended the night with a few comments. (I was also told that most of the city council was in attendance as well, although I haven’t confirmed that.)

Key civic leaders, business leaders gathering to listen to clergy talk about faith? In 2016 America? That just doesn’t happen!

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so proud of our city.

The other reason for the uniqueness of this event is that, behind the scenes, there are actual friendships between those of us who were on the stage Monday night. We’re blessed in this community to have an Imam like Imam Mufti and a Rabbi like Rabbi Bogard who are so open to conversation.

And special props to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Stephen McKinney-Whitaker of United Presbyterian for being the catalyst for making Monday’s event happen.

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If I had any disappointment, it was that events like the one on Monday are largely an exercise in preaching to the choir. People who affirm interfaith conversation and cooperation are more likely to attend an event like this one. The people who are most ignorant of Islam, the people who have the most fear, the people who most need to witness peaceful conversation between religions aren’t likely to attend this kind of event. Which is really too bad. We talked fairly in depth about important questions people have: Do we worship the same God? What about the violence of Islam? Don’t Muslims just want to convert us all and institute Sharia law?

But at the same time, even preaching to the choir, it was affirming to me.

My background, my roots are in an evangelical Christianity that would most likely NOT attend. The religious context I grew up in would largely see Monday’s event as some kind of selling out of the gospel. So it was personally affirming to me to be engaged in the conversation and to receive affirmation from people who attended that this conversation is the good work.

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And finally, I want to recap one thing that was said during the discussion. The first question was, “Do we all worship the same God?” and I want to recap highlights of that discussion, because I think, at least to some people, it’s the most important question.

When people ask that, it’s often a red herring. Regardless of how I answer, as a Christian I’m compelled to love. And to quote Pastor Stephen in his concluding remarks, “Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.” (One of my favorite quotes of the night, even though I’ve heard him say it before!) And so while I said that to some people it’s the most important question, personally, it’s just not that important to me.

But, to answer the question you have to first answer the question “what do you mean by same?” So it quickly descends into a matter of linguistics. Of course, all of us on the stage have different ideas about the God we worship. None of us prescribe to a lowest common denominator expression of our faith. I think we would all be insulted if someone said that inane thing that people sometimes say, “All the religions pretty much teach the same thing.”

We don’t.

Same doesn’t mean identical.

But at least among the Abrahamic faiths, we have what Yale Professor Miroslav Volf calls “sufficiently similar” understandings of God that enable us to have meaningful conversations. (Here’s a link to a discussion about his book Allah: A Christian Response.) And in a Twitter exchange with Northern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Scot McKnight, Volf says that if Evangelical Christians insist that they don’t worship a “sufficiently similar” God to Muslims, then they also need to apply the same logic to their understand of Jews. This is a trade-off that I think very few Evangelicals want to take.

But, in the conversation that we’re having in our community with Christians, Muslims and Jews, “sufficiently similar,” is enough at least to get the conversation going. “The God of Abraham,” is enough common ground that we can at least talk together. And, surely we can work together for peace in our community!

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So, anyway, these are my impressions. So proud of my city. So proud to be a part of this event.

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On Pain and Rising

“That’s the thing about truth and God: They will set you free but they’ll hurt like hell first. First the pain, then the rising. First the pain, then the rising — again and again forever.”

Glennon Doyle Melton, Facebook Wall Post, 5/7/16

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The other night, we had a couple friends over. The occasion was simply that we’ve been busy and hadn’t gotten together in a while, and they said they missed us. And our schedules aligned, which made it a good occasion to set up the deck furniture and grill the first pizzas of the year.

Late into the evening, we were sitting out under the stars playing cards, and I was chilly and  went inside to grab a sweatshirt out of my closet. And when I saw myself in the full-length mirror, I realized I had never styled my hair after my shower, shortly before they arrived.

I’m a vain man. I had stupid hair all night long. I looked like an unkempt Caesar. (Anyone remember when that was actually a style? Back in the ‘90s sometime?)

I put on a hat. Then I chastised my friends because “friends don’t let friends have stupid hair!”

We all had a laugh. It’s just hair. And good friends with whom I don’t really care if I have stupid hair. And it was easily remedied with a hat.

But there are other truths that hurt. There are painful truths that we need to learn about ourselves that will cause us to grieve and mourn and regret so we can learn and rise strong.

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Initially the challenge is to become aware. Sometimes awareness comes to us whether we like it or not. Our boss gives us a performance review, our spouse lets us know how we failed, we make a mistake, we lose our company money. Sometimes the pain of truth seeks us out like a heat-seeking missile.

But, more often, we have to lean into truth. We have to seek it out. We have to choose to be open to truth, curious about ourselves and our interaction with the world around us.

I was golfing earlier this week with someone who is a much, much better golfer than I. In fact I’ve never played a round of golf with someone as good as this guy. And after shanking another drive (common to my golf “game”) I asked him, “do you see anything obvious?” He mentioned that I needed to bend my knees more. I crushed the next couple of drives.

Sometimes, in the safest places, with people who are gentle with us, we need to seek out the truth, even if it might cause us some pain.

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A couple weeks ago two of my boys were cleaning up the kitchen and arguing the whole time. And I was annoyed with the tone they were using with each other.

So I barked at them.

And Jennifer, walking by, said, “They’re just speaking to each other the way we speak to them sometimes when we’re irritated.”

Ouch.

The thing is, once we arrive at truth, we have a choice. We can ignore it, bury it and to the best of our ability never face it again. Or, like Glennon Doyle Melton, we can numb it with alcohol, food, people — whatever we use to avoid dealing with our truth.

Or we can use it to transform us. We can rise. I can put on a hat, change my golf swing, change the way I speak to my boys.

“Universal Inner Work insight: Once we understand the nature of our personality’s mechanisms, we begin to have a choice about identifying with them or not. If we are not aware of them, clearly no choice is possible.”

Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 38

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“That’s the thing about truth and God: They will set you free but they’ll hurt like hell first. First the pain, then the rising. First the pain, then the rising — again and again forever.”

Glennon Doyle Melton, Facebook Wall Post, 5/7/16

 

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Some Rules for Interfaith Engagement

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A next Monday, May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. Please help us plan by signing up in advance. (And if you don’t sign up, please come anyways.)

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Okay, so suppose a new family of a different faith moves into the neighborhood. And your kids are the same age, attend the same school, play on the same sports team and you find a great affinity with the new family. And now it’s an evening in the summertime, and you’re sitting on your back patio after having a great cookout and the subject of religion comes up.

What do you say?

What do you not say?

Breathe.

Here are a couple of ideas for Interfaith conversation and engagement that may steady your nerve. Of course, if you have more ideas, please add them in the comments below:

    1. The goal is not conversion, it’s relationship. So relax. In the tradition in which I grew up, there was tons of pressure to convert people. In my tradition, people from church would go door-to-door “soul-winning.” They would knock on the door and launch into a spiel about their faith, trying to convince people to convert.

      I suppose we could have an argument about the effectiveness of such strategies, but that’s not what you’re after here. You want to have an ongoing friendship. So stop stressing about getting people to “pray a prayer,” or “come to our church,” or go through “four spiritual laws.”

      Coming from a Christian perspective, your goal is to live out your faith in this relationship, to demonstrate love towards every human being. So relax, be yourself, and be loving. 

    2. Ask questions. Sometimes we convince ourselves that some questions are too dumb to ask, and so we choose to stay ignorant. Which is itself dumb. If you don’t know why your neighbor wears a headcovering, ask her. Ask kindly, and respectfully, but ask. I have NEVER been offended when someone asks me an honest, sincere question. And especially when it comes to matters of faith – where there are thousands of different religions, sects, denominations and viewpoints, asking why someone practices in a particular way isn’t out-of-bounds at all!

      (2a) Get curious. This is true of ANY relationship, but if you want to grow a friendship, get curious about your friend. Ask them about the things they care about. Ask them to teach you something about what they’re interested in. Do they have a great flower garden? Ask them about it. Do they fly the W? Ask them about why they love the Cubs so much! Ask them about their religion. Learn something new about their faith.

      A couple months ago I read a book just because I heard my good friend say, “It’s my favorite religious book.” I’m curious about my friend, so I read the book he was talking about. I recently listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, because my friend told me she liked it so much. And so I gave it a listen because I was curious about my friend and why she might like it so much. (And then I too, fell in love with Hamilton!)

    3. Don’t project upon your neighbor what you read in a Facebook article. In other words, there is no Christian that speaks for all Christians, Muslim who speaks for all Muslims or Jew who speaks for all Jews. So, just because you read an article online that said “Christians want to drop bombs in the Middle East,” you shouldn’t assume that represents the views of your neighbor. So, invoking rule #2, just ask the question, “I read something the other day online, what do you think?”

      (3a) You might need to stop reading online articles. To be honest, there’s a lot of BS out there – especially about Muslims. If you aren’t reading it on CNN, NPR or NYT or some other respected news site, you really need to be careful.

    4. Find things you agree upon. Even among my closest friends, we don’t agree about everything. And while we aren’t afraid to talk about those differences, we also don’t focus on those things either. Rather, we probably spend more time talking about the things we DO agree on, causes that we can all rally behind. And if this is a neighbor we’re talking about, you have things built in: common schools, the neighborhood, etc.

    5. Don’t back down from what you believe. In fact, a healthy relationship can tolerate and actually benefit from a degree of tension. Oftentimes we only grow when pushed. Having friends of a different faith, denomination or sect can actually strengthen our own beliefs. So, when the conversation “goes there,” don’t be afraid to say what you believe in the kindest, most loving way possible. As my friend Michael Danner said, in response to my last interfaith post, “I actually want my friends of other faiths – and of no faith – to try to proselytize me. Not disrespectfully. Not manipulatively. Not coercively or arrogantly. But through passionate, informed, loving persuasion.”
    6. Believe the best of your friend or neighbor. Believe that they believe the things they believe for good reasons. Believe that they are equal to you in intelligence, equal to you in devotion, equal to you in their love for their religion and the country you both live in. Believe that they believe following their religion is helping them become a better version of themselves.

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Okay, that’s my list. I’m sure there are other great ideas. What are some additional guidelines for interfaith engagement?

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On 20 Years of Marriage, Becoming, and Continuing to Fall in Love

Twenty years ago today, I married my high school sweetheart. I know lots of people say “we were just kids when we got married!” — but that’s exactly what I feel when I think back 20 years. I guess we were technically adults (barely), but in our early twenties we knew nothing.

I frequently say to people about marriage, “Pulling off a wedding isn’t that major a feat. The real accomplishment is continuing to fall in love with the person you’re married to.”

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When I look back at our wedding photos and I think about myself, I seem like a stranger. I was twenty-two and had just earned my B.A. in Biblical Studies from a Baptist college! Yeah, I had some misgivings even then about my Baptist roots, but they were still (very) unformed thoughts. I was brash, confident, loud. I knew everything. I had God, religion, and ministry figured out. I had marriage figured out. I knew I was marrying an amazing woman and we would show the world how good marriage could be. I think of the size of my ego at 22 and it’s embarrassing!

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When I look back at our wedding photos and think about Jennifer then, I smile. She was as sincere then as she is now. Naive, to be sure — we both were naive about so many things. But she was disciplined and focused, organized and confident. All her best qualities, the ones that still attract people to her, were there.

And, despite the fact that it’s not really in her nature, she was willing to follow me into any adventure. I tell people all the time, “Jennifer didn’t marry ‘the pastor,’ she doesn’t love me because I’m ‘the pastor.’ She knew me, trusted me and loved me before all of that. And that’s one of the reasons I trust her so much.”

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When I look back at our wedding photos, those two people seem like strangers. Oh, there are a lot of seeds of things and characteristics and patterns of relating that are still recognizable today. But both of those twenty year olds have changed so much. Life has happened. We’ve laughed and mourned and suffered together. Just a couple of years ago, I remember lying in bed one night crying together because of stuff that was happening around us but fully confident in us — that we were in it together.

I tell Jennifer all the time, “I love the woman you’ve become.”

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It’s funny, we’ve often said that if our twenty-year-old selves could meet our forty-year-old selves, I don’t even think they’d really like each other much. I don’t know how much they would have in common. God, faith, religion would all be taboo subjects. Our 20-year-old selves would judge us for having too many kids, for being too liberal and for being too practical. (My 20-year old self would also be disappointed that I wasn’t ruling the known galaxy by now.)

Sigh.

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But this is the way of things. The real challenge of marriage is not to put on the best reception ever (ours wasn’t… no dancing, no wine…boring). The real challenge is continuing to become a better version of yourself, and to continue to grow in your love for who the other person is becoming.

This is why we leave jobs, leave friendships and sometimes move away and change our circumstances. We become something else, circumstances change, people change, we make mistakes, we get hurt and we move on.

Love doesn’t discriminate // Between the sinners // And the saints // It takes and it takes and it takes

And we keep loving anyway // We laugh and we cry // And we break // And we make our mistakes

And if there’s a reason I’m by her side // When so many have tried

Then I’m willing to wait for it // I’m willing to wait for it

“Wait for It” – Hamilton

But our marriage — 20 years in, today — is a commitment that no matter how much we break, no matter how much we change, no matter how much it takes, we will keep becoming and choosing to fall in love.

(I’m sure, if we’re blessed with another 20 years together, I’ll look back at even this post and laugh at who I was. That’s just the way of things. LOL)

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