A Call to Love

For the purpose of this post, it doesn’t matter how you voted last week. It doesn’t matter whether your Facebook feed is mostly red, mostly blue or mostly cat videos. This post is about perceptions.

Here’s the plain fact of the matter: the perception of most of the American public is that American Christians (specifically Evangelicals, but unfortunately we all get painted with broad brushstrokes) are anti-gay, racist, sexist, xenophobic and mean spirited.

Now, I know lots of you who claim Christianity as your faith. And I know plenty of you aren’t any of those things, but, sorry to tell you, that’s the perception. I know it makes many of you uncomfortable.  It probably should. And it probably feels a bit unfair to many of you. And it may anger you a bit.

However you feel, though, Jesus said,

“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”

Sadly, the perception of Christianity in America is not “those people are radically loving,” but rather, what I outlined above.

Now, at this point in the conversation, it would easy to start pointing fingers at other people and point out the ways they aren’t loving to us. But if we’re going to love well, we don’t get to let ourselves off the hook simply because “they did it first.” The text doesn’t say, “love the people that are easy to love.”

Also at this point in the conversation, it is easy to climb a moral high horse and demonstrate how we are “right” on all the issues. I know you think you’re right. Newsflash: we ALL do. The text also doesn’t tell us to lead with “right” or “stand for truth” but rather to love one another as Jesus loved. (Context: he said this right after he washed their feet. Even Judas’ feet. Hmmm.)

To be clear, I’m not saying you should change your political views. Sure, I probably disagree with many of them – Christians have been disagreeing with each other about nearly everything for over 2,000 years now!

What I’m saying is this: even if you have “the truth,” and you believe it’s given straight from God’s mouth, it’s not an excuse to stop being loving. Period.

So, the perception is that Christians aren’t loving although we are called above all to be loving. The question is what are you going to do about it today?

How are you going to demonstrate the love of Jesus to the LGBT community? To immigrants? To people of color? They know your condemnation and discomfort with them. You’ve been pretty clear about that. But how are you going to demonstrate love? Hint: because you hold the beliefs you do, you’re probably going to have to go above and beyond the normal demonstration of love. I know that doesn’t feel “fair,” but that’s just kind of the way it goes.

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All of this intersects, of course, with my life as a pastor. I have conversations all the time with people who are leaving churches because they increasingly feel the church is out-of-step with them. They don’t feel welcome in our houses of worship. They don’t feel loved.

And it breaks my heart. I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind for the church.

I grew up evangelical. But these days, the perception of what “evangelical” is isn’t something that I can relate to. My friends in the OPEN network are working to recover evangelical by adding the word progressive to it. I think we’re doing some good work together, but it feels right now like a drop in the bucket. I mean, I know of all kinds of churches trying to live out a “just and generous Christianity,” but there’s not enough of us to change perceptions – at least not on a national scale. At least not yet.

What I do know is that at my church – Imago Dei Church in Peoria, IL – everyone is welcome. We don’t believe that agreement is the pathway to relationship, but rather love is. So whether you’re gay, straight, republican, democrat, immigrant, rich, poor, Catholic, Baptist, or however else you identify yourself – you’re welcome to worship with us, to enter in and become part of our faith community. And you’re more than simply “welcome” – as you enter into our community we will do our best to love well and move towards you in relationship. We won’t just tolerate you; we will embrace you as fellow seekers of Jesus.

Yeah – we’re not perfect. And sometimes our best intentions fall flat or are misunderstood, but that’s our goal. In the words of the late Leonard Cohen – who died late last week:

“Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

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Finding the Right Words

Someone asked Jennifer recently about how she handles my big emotions. (Don’t worry, I was sitting right there. It was a friendly conversation. And yes, I have big emotions. I’m okay with that!) And in the moment she didn’t really have an answer. But, being on vacation together with no children gave us a lot of time last week to talk about lots of things and so we talked about it later.

Because I have big feelings, and I’m an extrovert, and I’m a “verbal processor,” (I don’t love this terminology, but I’ll get to that in a moment) the way Jennifer deals with my big emotions is that she provides a lot of space for me to talk.

And talk.

And think… and come back and talk again.

And mostly repeat myself.

And think some more… and talk again.

And talk some more.

Until, I get to the moment where I find the right words and there is clarity.

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My friend Peggy reads all my blog posts before I post. (Three cheers for Peggy!) I wrote a post a couple weeks ago that I still haven’t posted because at the time I wrote it, it felt vulnerable and raw. It centered around a quotation that I came across in a book. When she edited it the other day, she said – in the kindest way possible (she’s good like that) – “I felt like I knew all this about you. It didn’t feel as vulnerable to me, the reader, as it seems to feel to you. Which isn’t to negate your feeling of vulnerability…” And I told her, in response, “it wasn’t the idea that was vulnerable necessarily, because I’ve been circling around it for sure, but that  quotation put a super-fine point on what I’ve been trying to say.”

In other words, I’ve been circling around an idea in myself, but I came across the perfect-for-now words that gave me clarity. This is that moment where your therapist asks the question or says something, and for just a minute, everything gets super-clear. SO GOOD!

(The post is sitting, I may still publish it later this week… we’ll see.)

Sometimes, I read because authors have a way of putting into words things that I’m struggling to put into words. And when I come across those things it’s like everything lights up in my brain. This is one of the reasons I love a good book discussion. To me, a great book discussion isn’t just about ideas, but it’s about how those ideas connect to each of us at a deep level and put words to what is also true of us.

It’s the same thing when I listen to the Robcast — Rob Bell, for me, puts things into words that help me get clarity. It’s why I’ve started reading more poetry; Mary Oliver has a way of putting things into powerful arrangements of words that move me and help me “find” myself.

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The reason I don’t like the term “verbal processor” is that I think we all need to find the right words for who we are, how we feel, and what we’re experiencing. Even introverts need spaces where they can find the right words.

This is what pastors, counselors, therapists, life coaches and authors do. They help us find the right words that apply to us. It’s healthy and good to find the right words. I don’t know if there’s any other way to growth.

This is one of the things I love about the Enneagram: it’s helped me put words to who I am and how I see the world. It’s helped me put words to relationships and people that I couldn’t understand before.

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When Moses encounters God in the burning bush in Exodus 3, one of the first questions he asks God is “what is your name?” Naming things is essential to understanding things. This is at the heart of theology: naming what we know about God. Then rejecting those ideas, and adopting new ones. Rinse. Repeat.

And you don’t have to do it out loud. I came home from vacation feeling connected to my wife in a way I haven’t in a long time, because we had lots of time and space to talk, to name things. But that’s not everyone’s pathway.

Some people need to get there with a counselor, some people need to read a book, some people need to use music to find their words. Some need to write. I know lots of introverted people who don’t love to “talk it out,” but rather, journal extensively their thoughts and feelings about the world in an attempt to capture and name what is true of them.

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So, what’s churning in you that’s currently beyond words? What do you need to do to name that thing? Who’s your “safe people” to help you sort it out? Who’s the trusted pastor or counselor who makes generous space for you to talk it out, ask questions?  Who are your people who will let you be what you are, but help you in the journey of finding the right words?

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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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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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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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18 Hours in a Hammock All Alone

I preach silence and solitude to people all the time. I tell them how important it is in an age of constant connection, iMessage, the 24-hour news cycle and the halcyon glow of nearly everything to slow down, to shut off, to get alone with one’s thoughts.

And I believe every word I say.

But I have a hard time doing it myself.

I have a morning meditation practice that I’m inconsistent with. And when I do, it’s a non-stop battle with my monkey mind. And, as soon as it’s over, I’m off to the races — writing, talking, responding, racing home, exercising (quickly, if I have time), then off to a boy’s baseball game or practice. I get home and it’s dark. And I’m tired. And I go to bed. Repeat the next day.

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Last weekend, I went backpacking with my good friend Justin. We hiked 37 miles of the Ice Age Trail in Southeastern Wisconsin. One of my practices while backpacking is that I shut off my phone. I check in with Jennifer quickly in the evenings and mornings, but mostly I keep my phone off.

The first couple of miles, my mind is crazy. I think about things left undone before setting out. I think about relationships that feel “off,” I think about all my particular crazies.

But in time, the voices begin to quiet and I start to tune in to the steady rhythm of my feet on the trail, to my breath, to the moderate strain of quads and hamstrings as I carry my 30-pound pack up an incline, to my parched lips, to the soft, melodic trill of songbirds, to the rustle of chipmunks in the leaves along the trail.

And soon, thoughts of life outside of the trail drift away, and my thoughts become simple and elemental: When do we find water again? When do we eat? Where will we sleep? How does my body feel? How do my feet feel? Am I too warm? Too cold? Will it rain?

These simple, animal thoughts consume my mind, leaving room for not-much-else. Sure, occasionally, Justin and I talk about our lives outside — our careers, our hopes, dreams, marriages, books we’re reading, Hamilton — but most of the miles we walk in silence.

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On this particular hike we dealt with rain. A lot of it. Cold, early spring showers. And on Saturday, after putting in a hard 13.5 miles in a sloppy, wet, marshy prairie in just over 5 hours, we strung our hammocks and rain flys and hunkered down to ride out the storm in a pine forest. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. We spent the next 18 hours curled into our hammocks trying to stay warm (except for the brief time Justin “had me over to his place for dinner”).

And I probably would have broken my rule about using my phone, but my phone was acting screwy and after a brief conversation with Jennifer mid-afternoon, it died.

18 hours in a hammock in a cold rain in the middle of nowhere. You would think all my crazy would set in.

But, not so much.

In that place, it was okay. I slept. I read my kindle. I watched the rain. I embraced the enforced silence and solitude.

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Jennifer asked me when I got home if I had any epiphanies on the trail.

“Not really.”

She asked if Justin and I had any life-changing conversations.

“Nope.”

But it was still so very good. I think silence and solitude is like changing the oil on the car. It clears things up, it’s good for engine maintenance, even if it doesn’t lead to an epiphany.

And the daily practice of contemplative prayer, meditation, or whatever you want to call it is good, but extended silence needs to be a part of the rhythm too.

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Now, here’s the part where I get really honest.

I’d love to say, that I came back and just rolled in the bliss. I’d love to say that on Monday morning, my mind was clear and I was surfing on my good vibe throughout the week.

But the truth is, life comes right back at you. Sunday night, I stayed awake late wrestling with my demons, wrestling with my constant companions of insecurity, loneliness, unfulfilled desires and all the stuff I think about when I can’t sleep at night. (Or, to be more accurate, the stuff that keeps me from sleep.)

But I still believe in the goodness of the trail. I still believe that even though your life is waiting for you at the terminus, those three days of clearing the mind are worth every bit of effort. It’s still good to create that space, even if it can’t be maintained.

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May you find silence and solitude. May you find spaces between the chaos of modern life to shut it all down, to tune out the world, to just “be.” And may you have epiphanies. And when you don’t, may you find rest in that, too.

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Where I’ve Been

Hi! Remember me?

I’m the guy who used to post on this blog.

Okay, it’s only been a couple of weeks, but it feels like FOREVER!

I have a real post simmering, but I just wanted to check in. I was meeting with one of the leadership teams in our church earlier in the week and had to give a report. And in giving the report, I recognized how much has happened in the past month. So many good things. So here’s a quick rundown.

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For the second time, our church hosted Clare Loughrige to teach a workshop on the Enneagram, and then she stuck around to teach at church on Sunday. The people of our church have come to love her.

On a personal level, hosting Clare in our home for the weekend is a real job-perk for me (and for Jennifer). We’ve both come to love our interactions with her. She’s a skilled spiritual director and asks probing/insightful questions in a gentle way.

As a pastor, it’s so good for me to get to interact with people outside of the church. It helps me get perspective.

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The next weekend we hosted Rob Morris. Rob is the cofounder and president of Love146. (You might remember that I went to Southeast Asia last fall with Love146.) I think many of us who know of Love146 were familiar with Rob’s story and had expectations, but he blew us away. (Link to the Teaching.)

And again, personally, I had the opportunity Saturday night to sit up super-late drinking whisky with Rob and a couple other guys. And it was one of those great, mutually stimulating conversations when time flies and you’re sad when it’s over. So good for my soul.

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And then it was Holy Week, and I spent 4 evenings sitting around a table at a local bar talking about Jesus with some people, and I loved that.

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And then, as soon as service was over on Easter morning, I walked to our already-loaded van and took off for Spring Break with my family.

What did the Deans do on Spring Break?

Nothing. We walked the one block from the house to the beach and back. We ate, slept, read, watched movies, played games, listened to Hamilton (a lot) and rested.

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Okay. Those are all my excuses. That’s where I’ve been. That’s why I haven’t written much. Life, in the last month, has been full of good conversations. Of course, between those good things there have been hard conversations, people have left our church, I’ve gotten angry at things and been wounded by others. But that’s life, ya know?

And so, that’s why the blog has taken a back seat. I’ve just been super, super busy, and have had lots of other things going on in my life and in my head. I hope to get back to a more normal schedule next week!

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I’ll Let You be You

You know when we were talking the other day? It was the conversation that we humans often seem to have – the one in which we try our damndest to understand each other, to be understood, but no matter how many words we say or write, it’s still not enough. No matter our intentions or herculean efforts to put into words what is deep inside of us, this conversation will never end.

Anyway, when we were talking the other day, I said this thing. I think we’ve all said this thing to someone else at one point. You told me something, I think you were doing your best to help me understand you, and then I said, “You did that because you think…”

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Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with a sense of joy about my job. One of the best parts of my job is that I have the opportunity to talk to some of the most interesting people from a wide range of interests, socioeconomics, and life experiences. I mean, I’m no Barbara Walters, and you probably don’t even know the names of half the people I meet with, but they’re no less interesting — and honestly, quite often, more so — than the most famous people.

Anyway, I was meeting with someone and I can’t remember what we were talking about — probably something about cross-religion dialogue — but he used the words “generosity of relationship.” And I while I’ve read plenty about how being generous towards one’s partner has a positive effect on a relationship (you really should read this article), it was clear in the context that’s not what he meant. So I asked him to unpack what he was trying to say, and here’s what he said he meant. (I asked him to repeat it a couple times, so I could capture it word for word.)

“What I mean is that I’ll let you be the creator of the image of you in my mind to the degree that I am able.”

In other words, instead of playing armchair psychologist, instead of thinking that I know what’s happening in your head, instead of jumping to conclusions about why you do what you do or say what you say, I’ll let you define it for me.

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Sometimes we take a personality test, or read an article or somehow come upon an insight, and it causes us to think “oh, this is why my spouse/friend/child/parent acts the way they do.”

And you know what? Occasionally we’re right. But, perhaps more often, we’re not. This is what I’ve learned in nearly 16 years of pastoral ministry. You may think you know why someone does what they do, but you don’t actually know. Personally, I get myself in all kinds of trouble when I assume that I understand why people say the things and act the way they do.

I’m always a better pastor, husband, father, friend, human being when, even if I think I know the why of someone’s behavior, I assume I don’t and proceed with questions, if I “let you be the creator of your image in my head.”

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When I said to you the other day, “You did that because you think…” that wasn’t fair. And I’m sorry. What I should have asked was, “Have you thought about why you did what you did in that situation?”

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to try my best to stop assuming I know why you do what you do and let you be the creator of the image of you in my head.

I know that when it comes to me, I’m complicated. My emotions, my thoughts, my circumstances all lead to a complex web of reasons for why I say what I say and do what I do. I don’t even understand myself sometimes. I think that’s part of the inward journey. I think that’s what growing up and becoming a mature adult is all about.

So, until I’ve nailed my own stuff down, I’m going to stop assuming I’ve figured you out. (I think Jesus may have said something about this in terms of specks and logs and eyes.)

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So here it is. Can we commit to this together?

I’ll let you be you.

And, if you could, will you let me be me?

And we’ll keep leaning in, tenderly asking each other questions; learning and growing together. And we’ll be generous in our relationship. And maybe together, by asking questions, we’ll help each other find our truest selves.

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From the Vault: When the Night is Dark

Recently, I’ve been looking back at old blog posts, and I’m going to try something for awhile. On Mondays, I’m going to go into the vault, rework an old post, and then post it again here. This morning’s post comes from November 4, 2014. Additional thoughts have been added at the end of the post.

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Saturday night I couldn’t sleep.

Again. It’s been happening too much in the last six months or so.

The previous day, I had been up since 6:30 am. I had worked hard all day building my house, and then I spent the evening with friends. By all rights, I should have fallen into my bed at 11 pm and been fast asleep in minutes. But instead, I tossed and turned, flipped the pillow one way, then the other, kicked off the blankets, pulled them back on, waiting, begging for sleep to come.

There have been a lot of things keeping me awake recently, and even when I manage to get myself to sleep, I find my fears, failures, and anxieties waiting in my dreams, often waking me up, sometimes in cold sweat. Saturday night, I would start to drift off, then in the fuzzy space between waking and sleeping a dark thought would penetrate the haze and I’d find myself staring wide-eyed at the alarm again, calculating the moments until my alarm would sound at 5:15am.

When the clock reads  two something and I’m breathing heavily from a bad dream, I try to pray. Most often simple repetitions of the Our Father, or The Jesus Prayer. But even still, fears break through like arrows. I don’t know how to shut off the megaphone in my head.

And finally, I find rest, but only a couple hours before I’m awake, clearing the cobwebs from my sleepy brain, trying to focus on the Sunday morning task at hand.

At church, in my office, between services, feeling tired and a little beaten down, I reach for one of my favorite prayer books, Ted Loder’s Guerrillas of Grace and I find this excerpt from a prayer/poem called Release Me from the Dark Fury.

Release me

from the dark fury

of assuming I am unloved

when the day calls for sacrifice

and the night for courage.

Release me

from the ominous fear

of thinking some sin

or failure of mine

can separate me from you

when life demands hard choices,

and the battle, high risks.

Sitting in my office between services, tears well up in my eyes because these words, pierce my soul. These days the nights can be “dark fury,” and feeling “unloved” or that some failure of mine will separate me from those I love is always at the forefront of my inner battle.

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Life was dark a year ago. And even though I hinted at the darkness in various places on my blog, there are only two couples who know the depths of loneliness, despair and inner turmoil I felt. In response to this post, my friend Steve wrote me a public response that made me cry. I didn’t know, when I wrote this in November that I would only spiral downward. I didn’t know that I was really on the beginning of a difficult journey and not at the beginning. And in the impending gloom I read his post many, many times. In fact, I just read it again, and it brought tears to my eyes…AGAIN.

Originally, this post was fairly helpless. But, on this side of things, where I feel healthy again inside (although, I told a friend last night, still tender in some places), I’ll say this: if you’re in this space, if life feels like foggy darkness, find the people in your life who will pursue you, who won’t let you be alone, who won’t be satisfied with blow-off answers, who won’t let you hide, who are strong enough to deal with your prickliness. Those people won’t be able to fix it for you, but like Steve’s post, they will help you breathe, they will lovingly remind you that this is only a season, they will spend long hours listening to your gripes and then gently, patiently nurse you back to health. 

 

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Where the Sex Trade Got Real

Four girls sit in a market stall not much larger than a single-car garage, intensely focused on their work. Each one hovers over a small notebook in which they practice artwork that, once they’ve achieved a level of confidence, they will paint on the fingernails of paying customers. They’re clearly embarrassed by the attention of the eight Americans watching. When they dare to look up from their work, they do so blushing.

These four girls work in a beer garden. I know what you’re thinking: craft beers served in large pint glasses, maybe even in lederhosen. But here in Phnom Penh, beer garden means something else entirely. Here, the beer garden (as well as the karaoke bars) are the places where young girls like these are expected to not only to serve drinks, but to entice the patron to eventually pay for other services.

These four girls – who look to be in their mid- to late teens – began their training with the Precious Women ministry just yesterday. They will be trained to paint nails first, as a way of learning a skill that will give them the ability to make income so that they can quit their job as a beergarden girl. The hope is that they will choose to enter a year-long vocational training program so that eventually they can arrange a micro-loan in order to start their own business. But, to be honest, that seems a million miles from here, and there are so many obstacles.

The reason I’m in Phnom Penh with Love146 is to see the how complex the problem of human trafficking is. We’ve met with various groups that Love146 has partnered with over the past decade, and let me tell you, there are so many factors that create vulnerabilities in these young girls. There’s a cultural vulnerability stemming from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, there is legislation, familial and cultural expectations and attitudes that make these girls vulnerable to those eager to exploit their bodies for money. We’ve sat with groups trying to make a difference and those who have dug deeply into the research trying to understand the problem and how to make a difference, how to end the trafficking of children, yes, but also all those who are vulnerable.

But, standing at the door of the market stall, watching these four girls practice their designs, I’m suddenly choked up and tears well up in my eyes, hidden behind my aviators. In just the next 12 hours, these young girls will be groped and fondled and eventually expected to fulfill the whims of men two and three times their age. And suddenly, right now, shit gets real. In this beautiful country, filled with beautiful people who almost sing their beautiful thank yous, hellos and goodbyes to us, this is what will happen tonight.

It breaks my heart. And I’m sure it breaks the heart of God as well.

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