Why I’m Open

“Taste and see that the Lord is good.”   Psalm 34:8

Dark clouds may hang on me sometimes /// But I’ll work it out /// And then I Look up at the sky /// My mouth is open wide lick and taste /// What’s the use in worrying, what’s the use in hurrying /// Turn turn we almost become dizzy.

Dave Matthews Band, “Dancing Nancies”

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A couple of months ago, I was cooking with my cooking club friends and offered my friends’ 7-year old daughter a bite of pickled beet (my contribution for the night being a pickled beet martini, a la Tyler Florence). She said, “ewww.”  Her mother said, “why don’t you not say ‘ewww,’ and just try it first?”

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The first time I heard Catholics pray to saints, I said “ewww.” I said it was foolish to pray to dead people. I said it bordered on idolatry. I puffed myself up with religious pride and declared my own enlightenment, that my way was better.

In my college years, I read a book by a famous fundamentalist preacher who wrote that Charismatic Christians (those who speak in tongues, prophecy, etc.) are either in the midst of a grand self-delusion or they are animated by demons. “Ewww.” That seemed reasonable to my young Baptist ears.

At least it was reasonable until I interacted with Catholics and Charismatics. And then I learned that they were lovely, reasonable people who believed things differently than I did for reasons that made good sense to them and their understanding of faith and the Bible. And when I chose to adopt a posture of openness to the world, to taste before saying “ewww,” I found that people weren’t as dumb and misguided as I had assumed in my arrogance.

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Over the last several months, we’ve been discussing the role LGBT people play in our church. In one of our recent leadership meetings, someone pointed out that rarely do people say to each other in the midst of differences, “Help me understand how you arrived at your position.”

Rather, we’re much more prone to express our opinion, to declare and defend our “rightness.” But a posture of openness means that I allow curiosity to lead. I often pray the prayer of St. Francis:

“O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love”

In fact, this idea of seeking to understand more than to be understood is so rare that, as the pastor of a church which people have left because of stances we’ve taken for LGBT Christians, I can’t remember a single person who has sat with me and said, “Help me understand your thinking on this topic.” (Okay, between the time of writing this piece and actually publishing it, one person asked.)

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Being open doesn’t mean I’m wishy-washy either. I’m still not Roman Catholic; I don’t pray to saints. Nor am I a Charismatic; I don’t speak in tongues, and I’ve never been “slain in the Spirit.” But I’m open. I’m open to the idea that my brothers and sisters in other faith traditions may have a way of knowing/experiencing God that is meaningful and rational to them, even if I don’t completely understand their way of seeing things. And I can affirm and celebrate their expressions of faith, even if I don’t adopt them as my own.

To me, being open isn’t about one particular issue, but rather it’s a posture towards the world. More specifically, it’s a posture towards other people. It’s about cultivating a humility that says, “even though I’m committed to my own way of seeing, even though I think I’ve thought it through, I’m willing to listen to you.”

Recently, I was recounting a story I heard of a guy who had been slain in the Spirit. And as I told the story, I said, “I don’t even know that I believe in that sort of thing. But I believe in this guy. I believe in his experience of faith, even if it isn’t mine.”

And while most of the time having a posture of openness doesn’t change my position on any particular issue, it softens me to people. Being open creates a space for me to embrace people and not feel like I have to convert, argue, judge or otherwise manipulate people into being someone other than who they actually are.

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But occasionally, it does change me.

Back to my friends’ daughter: she tried a bite of pickled beet. And she liked it. She opened herself up to a new experience and it changed her.

Who knows what new things, new ideas, new ways of being in the world, new friendships will come our way when we’re open?

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Why My Friends Call me Whiskers

“I’m curious, like a cat. That’s why my friends call me whiskers.”

– Will Ferrell (as Harry Carey)

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My son Madox is the youngest of four boys. And because he’s (almost) 9 and our oldest is 15, sometimes family conversations go over his head. Sometimes we use words he doesn’t understand. And one of the things I admire about my youngest son is that when he doesn’t understand, he asks questions. “What does ‘concussion’ mean?”

I think most children are like this. They aren’t afraid to ask about what they don’t know or understand. They don’t pretend to “get it,” in order to keep up appearances. If they’re not tracking with something they just ask. Sometimes it’s awkward, “Grandma, why do you have so many wrinkles?” “Mom, why does that old man have hair growing out of his nose?”

But somewhere along the way, I think we’re taught that asking questions, giving space to our curiosity is a sign of weakness. We come to believe that we should have certain knowledge and therefore we feel embarrassed. So we stifle our curiosity.

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I was thinking the other day about how much I admire adults who are curious. I enjoy conversations with people who wonder about the world, about why things are the way they are, about themselves, about relationships and about obscure branches of knowledge. I love the exploration of ideas together. I love it when a good friend says to me, “I’m curious about you and you…” Curiosity gets my energy up.

Nothing is quite so boring as having a conversation with someone who thinks they know it all and thinks they’re gifting you with their knowledge.

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So how does one cultivate curiosity?

The first step towards cultivating curiosity is to let yourself off the hook about what you don’t know. You know the things you’re embarrassed that you don’t know? Well, there are plenty of others who don’t know them either. I promise. So be gentle with yourself.

When I read some writers, I’m embarrassed about my lack of knowledge of Shakespeare. I wish I had been taught more Shakespeare in my formal education, but for reasons that aren’t relevant to this post, my Christian school education (high school AND college) didn’t make space for the Bard. So whenever people reference Hamlet, or random characters from famous Shakespearean plays, I have no idea what they’re talking about. And I have a choice. I can feel shame or just admit, I don’t know.

Which leads us to step two towards cultivating curiosity: follow your curiosity. Any curiosity will do. In fact, if you want to be a great conversationalist (one of my personal ambitions), your random, voracious curiosity will make you a great dinner guest. You’ll find more things to connect with people about, and you’ll just be a well-rounded person in whatever the conversation. Think about your last dinner party. The interesting people are the ones who have knowledge of the things you didn’t expect.

Liz Gilbert in Big Magic tells the story of how her novel The Signature of All Things began when she started following her curiosity about flowers in her garden. You never know where your curiosity will lead. It may lead to a new hobby, new friends, a new career or a new place in your relationships.

Curiosity “is like a box of chocolates, you never know what yer gonna git.” (I watched Forest Gump for the first time in probably 20 years over Spring Break. What a great movie!)

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I originally set out to say in this post that for me, curiosity is the supreme virtue. It’s not. That would be overstating. But, for me, it’s really, really important. It’s something I like about myself, and I like being around people who exhibit a great curiosity about the world.

So, what are you curious about? What do you want to explore? Who do you need to talk to? What do you need to read?

Whatever it is, follow your curiosity.

(Right now.)

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Oh, and by the way. I don’t think my friends actually call me “whiskers.” At least I hope not. But I do know, that I’ve had friends tell me that one of the things they like most about me is my voracious curiosity, and that I read widely. The result is that I know a little bit of stuff about a lot things. But, more importantly, I’m having a lot of fun!

And it doesn’t just extend to hobbies or historical interests, but it’s also about my approach to theology. I think we should be endlessly curious in our faith. (But, maybe that’s a post for another time!)

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It’s When I’m Crying That I’m Strong

I was having breakfast with a friend a month or so ago, and he was telling me about recent experience that had led him to tears. Big, fat tears of regret and pain and darkness. And, worse, it was in front of other people. So we talked about tears.

There’s a macho man myth that says “real men” don’t cry, that to be a “real man” is to be unaffected, to be a “real man” is to deny the things that hurt us, to be a “real man” is to brush yourself off and get back up again.

But, here’s the conclusion my friend and I came to: when we cry, when we embrace what we feel inside, that’s when we’re at our strongest.

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It takes no courage, no particular strength to avoid pain. Anyone can give himself to the pursuit of pleasure that denies or numbs the darkness. In fact, according to psychologist Terrence Real, in I Don’t Want to Talk About It, his book on male depression,

“There is a terrible collusion in our society, a cultural cover-up about depression in men.

One of the ironies about men’s depression is that the very forces that help create it keep us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something we are to rise above. He who has been brought down by it will most likely see himself as shameful, and so, too, may his family and friends, even the mental health profession. Yet I believe it is this secret pain that lies at the heart of many of the difficulties in men’s lives. Hidden depression drives several of the problems we think of as typically male: physical illness, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, failure in intimacy, self-sabotage in careers.

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And I guess if a man doesn’t want to face his pain and would rather numb and ignore his inner truth, it’s his prerogative. But, I know in my own life, when I don’t acknowledge my inner realities, it comes out in less-than-ideal ways.

When I don’t enter into that space of honoring my emotions, when I’m not brave enough to face my inner truth, when I cheat and make a bowl ice cream, binge watch TV, pour a glass of scotch in place of facing my inner truth – it comes out sideways. My wife, my boys, my friends, my employees – they pay the price for my cowardice.

So, last year on my Sabbatical, I determined that I would face some of my own inner demons. I named some of my ugly truths. Some of them I named only to God. Some I named only to Jennifer, some I shared with others. And I learned some things.

First, I learned that not everyone is safe. As a “verbal processor,” I too often feel regret for the things I say in a conversation. I’ve learned that not everyone is safe. That’s not to say that other people want to harm me, but I’ve learned in time that I don’t feel safe when people don’t reciprocate. In time, I will come to think that I’m being judged or “managed,” and I’ll grow resentful.

I’ve also learned that not all truths need to be said out loud. Some I just need to acknowledge my truth in my own silence and solitude. (I read a novel on the beach over Spring Break in which there was this great line: “Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste.”) I’m thankful that Jennifer doesn’t name all her truths to me!

And I’ve learned that I’m not a “wallower.” I don’t like to stay in tearful places very long. But I at least need to acknowledge my hurts, my brokenness, my sin – whatever darkness there is – and I need to feel it so I can get up and move on.

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So, here’s my manifesto:

When I cry, I am strong. When I name my doubts, when I embrace my failures. When I’m neither dismissive nor wallowing, when I choose to wrestle with the hard stuff, when I come back and apologize when I’m wrong, that is the true Charlie being his bravest self.

When I avoid, when I run, when I hide, when I choose to numb my pain. When I refuse to say “I’m sorry,” when I say the words, “I don’t want to talk about it”; when I try to be a macho, successful, American male who is unaffected by unkind words, intentional (or even unintentional) slights, heartache and rejection, that’s Charlie being his most cowardly.

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One final thing:

I’m fortunate that along the way, I’ve made plenty of friends like me. Men who are willing to be brave, to deal with their darkness. Men, who out of their love for themselves, their wives, their children, their friends are willing to be their bravest selves.

You know who you are. We’ve cried in restaurants, hugged in parking lots and declared our love for each other. Thank you.

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I See Beautiful Things in You

I posted this just about a year ago, at the old domain in the Lenten season. I was reminded of it recently and it’s one of my favorite posts that I’ve written. It’s deeply personal, written about my wife (you can hear her story here) and it’s what I believe about faith, journey, darkness, pastoring and “in it together.”

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You don’t know I’m watching you across the sanctuary.

The room has mostly cleared, most of the people have hurried off this first warm(ish) afternoon in the Spring for outside activities. But there you are, deep in conversation, tears filling your eyes. I noticed them throughout the teaching time as I talked about the pain and frustration of unanswered prayer. Somehow your blue eyes shine even more brightly when they are filled with tears.

I know this season of your journey is difficult. I know it’s hard to pray when you’re not sure what – or even if – you still believe. I know even to show up at church on a Sunday morning is difficult, surrounded by people who by all appearances seem to have it all together. (Spoiler: They don’t!) And I know that you don’t even always have the words to express exactly what you feel. Sometimes there are only tears.

And still you come nearly every Sunday. And still you keep fighting, arguing, naming your rage, identifying your doubts, rebuking the angry, vengeful, “mean Gandalf” God that was pounded from the pulpit into your fragile, young mind. And still you keep talking about what you think and how you feel, saying the truest things you know to the people who are safest to you, even when those things feel scary and dark.

And in this season of Lent, you still lean in. You still create spaces of quiet and reflection, even though the quiet only seems to lead to fogginess of the soul instead of the enlightenment promised by so many. And still you come.

As your pastor, let me say this to you; behind your tears, I see beautiful things in you. I know naming your doubts feels vulnerable and scary, and I’m so privileged that you’ve chosen to include me in the journey. So many people would cut their pastor/priest/husband out of dark conversations like the ones we’ve had. And even though it feels scary to you and you feel alone and more than a little lost, I can tell you from where I sit in my office and coffee shops and bars and restaurants talking to so many people, there are many of us who wrestle with the same doubts, the same fears, the same “not-knowing” that you feel. And we are in it with you.

So, please, keep moving forward. Keep stumbling in the dark, because even though it doesn’t feel like it to you, even though you feel broken and fragile and vulnerable, what we see is an incredibly strong person who is willing to face the darkness and keep wrestling with God. You may never arrive at the assuredness of the faith of your childhood, but – as we’ve already discussed – that was a lie anyway. God was never that simple. Instead, you’re figuring it out for yourself, and in the end, I’m confident that where you arrive will be beautiful and strong.

[And just to be all “pastoral” for a second, let me remind you that you’re in good company. Moses argued with God and refused to go to Egypt alone, Jacob wrestled with God (perhaps literally), demanding a blessing and David specialized in bitching at God about nearly everything. And these were God’s “favorites.”]

So – especially in this season of Lent – keep at it. We’re in it with you because we believe in you, and behind your tears we see beautiful things at work.

 

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Happy New Year!

I’m a sucker for the sky.

In my new house, I have a nearly complete view of the entire expanse of the southern sky. Standing on my deck, I can watch the sun both rise and set. I can’t even begin to tell you how many mornings I’ve stolen a moment and walked out to the deck in my pajamas, holding my cup of coffee, to admire the orange, blue, and yellow of a sunrise. And on the flip side, I’ve spent so many evenings sitting on the deck with a book in the late summer as the last light lingers in the sky to the west.

It’s been way too long since we’ve been on a beach vacation, but one of my favorite moments is the sunset; that moment when you quietly whisper “thanks” for a day spent frolicking in the waves, playing in the sand, reading, napping, feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin. A “thanks” whispered simply for the joy of living.

All sunrises and sunsets are good to me. But here’s what I’ve learned – the most beautiful ones, the ones that have me taking thoroughly inadequate pictures on my iPhone – always include clouds. The most beautiful sunrises require the clouds to reflect the sunlight before it emerges on the horizon. It’s the contrast of the orange clouds against the dark night of sky slowly turning to blue, that causes me to gasp in wonder.

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I’ve tried to be as honest as appropriate here on this blog, so it should be no secret that 2015 was a difficult year for me, dark and stormy at its worst moments, cloudy at the best of times. It was a year during which I drove myself to exhaustion building our house while still trying to do my job well. It was a year during which I experienced dark times of deep loneliness. It was a year of friendships shifting and changing, and a year when we said goodbye to Jennifer’s grandma (who probably prayed more faithfully for us than anyone in the world). It was a year during which I rumbled with my own stories, and I stared down shattered hopes, expectations and bitter disappointments, both with myself and with others.

Many people are worse off than I, and I’m culpable in my own demise. But that sentence is a load of crap, too. While the voice in my head says “you got what you deserve,” and “other people have such bigger problems than you,” I wouldn’t say those unkind words to anyone else. Rather, to someone sitting in my office I would say, “It doesn’t matter how you got here, and it’s not a comparison game. When you feel darkness in your soul, when you feel alone, it’s real to you and so you have to rumble with it.”

And so, this year, I’ve let the clouds be clouds. I’ve stopped trying to wish them away or pretend they aren’t real.

But here’s the thing about clouds: they provide a great canvas for the sun as it emerges on the horizon.

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A woman grabbed me at church the last week of Advent and said, “You seem so focused and strong since you’ve come back from Sabbatical.”

Thank you. And yes, I’m getting there.

I wrote earlier this year about hope rising. And as I think back across the year, as I see the sun rising in the morning, it’s the interplay of light and clouds that is beautiful to me.

I used to think that some years are good, some are bad. I used to think that when we said goodbye to the past year and cheered in the New Year, we could start over with a hope that this year will be better than the last. But I don’t think life actually works like that. Instead, life is always sun and clouds. Every year is full of goodness and pain at the same time.

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Over the past five or six years, I’ve had a New Year’s Eve practice of reminiscing over the past year — naming the highest highs and the lowest lows — and toasting those whom have chosen to take front row seats in my dramas, and I in theirs.

Who know what this year holds — at the time of writing, my New Year’s Eve plans are still undetermined — so I will do my practice here, toasting us all (but without having to face you all and cry all the way through it as I’m prone to do).

Here’s to us, in the coming year. Here’s to the clouds that will inevitably come our way – may we face them with courage, strength and good people at our sides. May we get to the other side where we see the beauty of the clouds and how they so magnificently reflect the sun. May we rumble with our stories, say the hard truths about ourselves and arrive at deeper truths for all the hard work. May we discover the beautiful imago dei that each of us uniquely reflects. May each of us in the coming year get to be the sun in someone else’s life, gently holding space for them and then reminding them over and over that their clouds are beautiful. May we be fully alive, may we capture more moments and live in the now.

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Thank you for reading. Thank you for sharing, for commenting, for writing me encouraging emails, for following up with coffee and beer. Thank you for the kindness you’ve shown, in words, in hugs, and in “me too’s.”

Happy New Year!

(oh, and the photo…from my deck 7:02am, December 10.)

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For These Things I’m Grateful

Here’s a smattering of loosely connected thoughts on Thanksgiving Week.

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I was telling someone the story of how in the first year of our marriage, Jennifer and I moved to Denver so I could attend graduate school. If we were making the same decision today, we’d never do it, because looking back it was completely irresponsible. There was simply no way that we had the finances to do it. But, young, naive, in love and a strong sense of Calvinistic Providence led us to move a thousand miles from home.

The first couple of months, I don’t even know how we managed to buy food. It was so very tight. And I remember how Jennifer’s grandma – who just passed away early this fall – not only paid our rent the first couple of months, but sent us a little money so we could go out on a date. All we could afford was to go to the double feature at a drive-in close to our apartment. I made carrot cake, popcorn and a portable thermos full of lemonade (we couldn’t even afford a couple beers!). Sigh.

But we were so grateful and so happy. Life was so very simple.

Obviously things have changed for us. On Friday night, we were sitting at a local wood-fired pizza place in Junction City (even given all my foodie tendencies, Jennifer and I will still always choose pizza (miss you, Mitchells!)) and we were talking about how, although we still have to mind our budget, life has changed and we have enough margin that we can go out on a Friday night.  But we aren’t any more or less grateful. Life isn’t simple anymore, but we still like each other a lot, and sitting at Brienzo’s for close to two hours talking, enjoying each other, we’re still young(ish), very in love, we don’t really believe in Providence in the same way, but we’re just very grateful for the life we have with each other.

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Two weeks ago, I had a good friend call me to tell me she was pissed at me. Frankly, I deserved her ire. Instead of being brave and wholehearted, I had played chickenshit and let my inner voices win the day, and in the process I hurt her feelings because of my actions. But she didn’t lead with “I’m pissed at you.”

She started with, “Help me understand why you made the decision you did.” And for about 45 minutes she listened and empathized and demonstrated to me in a powerful way that she loved me and valued our relationship and she was doing everything in her power to see the world through my eyes.

Then, she told me why she was pissed.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so lovingly confronted by a friend. I called her the next day and told her how loved I felt.

I have a job where, in the course of events, people get pissed at me. Sometimes I deserve it. Sometimes my job is like walking through an emotional/relational minefield. Some days it feel like I’m skipping through, others it feel like I hit every mine on the field. And sometimes I’m just the “authority figure” who someone needs to rage against. And I’ve learned – mostly – to let those go.

And, in my job, I have plenty of people who are ready and willing to tell me what I “should” do in any given situation.

So, “confrontation” isn’t really all that unusual in my life. Emotional/relational messes are just the milieu of church work.

But, a “confrontation” that leaves me feeling all warm and fuzzy and loved?

That’s a gift. That’s the kind of interaction where I said to Jennifer afterwards, “I feel so loved because I talked to our friend and she told me off.”

Who ever gets to say those words?

I’m grateful for friends like her and others, who have lovingly walked beside me in my rumbling with stuff. And despite my prickliness at times, keep coming back.

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Jennifer pointed out to me the other day that in Matthew 25, where Jesus famously says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Jesus is identifying himself as “one of the least of these.”

We talk a lot about “being Jesus’ hands and feet,” and how that means we ought to do good for other people. And that’s true too.

But, it’s also true that one of the hardest things for me to do is to receive someone else’s kindness and generosity. I am hell bent on keeping things “even-steven” in the scorecard of my mind. Actually, I’m hell bent on staying “one-up” whenever I can. It makes me feel strong, powerful and in control.

But the cross-shaped ministry of Jesus was about emptying, about choosing “one-down,” even to death on a cross.

I’m learning to be like Jesus in receiving things from others. I’m thankful for how – this year in particular – I’ve had to learn some hard things.

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And speaking of giving and receiving…Our culture is so uber-focused on material things. Verizon has a new ad campaign that is driving me batty right now. They’re calling it “Thanksgetting” and the tagline is “get into the spirit of getting.”

“Barf. O. Rama.” (To quote a friend of mine). As if Americans need any encouragement to “get into the spirit of getting.”

I think – especially as Americans – when we think gratitude, we think of the material things we’ve gotten. But, the most important things to me – the things that make me cry – aren’t material. They’re relational. It’s the ways people have given of themselves to me.

I have a long list of names that I’d love to put here, but I’m sure I’d leave somebody out and then I’d feel badly. But I’m very grateful this Thanksgiving for the people who have given of themselves to me, who have poured out their souls and who have sat with me and held my hand in one of the uglier years of my life.

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One final thought.

I think we over-assume that the people in our lives know how much we mean to them.

And, at the same time, I think we underestimate how much we mean to the people in our lives.

Don’t let Thanksgiving go by without saying some specific, heartfelt thank yous, like this one:

Peggy – thank you for editing pretty much everything I write on this blog and making me appear to be a stronger, more conscientious, more grammatically correcter version of myself. LOL! And thank you for the joy that you seem to take in doing so. I don’t understand how you love it so much, but I know you do. I thank you and everyone who reads this does too – even if they don’t know you!

 

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Aching for Wonder

For the past month, there’s been a poem by Mary Oliver echoing through my head. And what’s funny – or coincidental or providential or whatever you believe about these sorts of things – is that since I first heard the poem about a month ago, I’ve seen it referenced by no less than three different people in blogs and speeches. Weird.

Here are the first lines:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

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I’ll tell you right now, some of you just skimmed those lines of the poem. (I know that’s what I’ve done a lot in my life with poetry.) And some of you probably read them and thought to yourself, “meh, don’t know what the big deal is.” And some of you probably projected some ideas you have about me upon the poem and now are questioning my sanity.

But there are probably a few of you who read those lines and you may have gasped because somehow, in some deep, mystical way, those words cut through you.

I call this the ache of wonder. Sometimes a song, a poem, a picture, or a moment, sometimes in a religious space, sometimes in the most ordinary of situations, I see or hear something that is full of meaning and wonder to me.  At times, I’ve simply been standing under the open sky at a concert and for whatever reason – the music, the weather, the people I’m with – I have a deep ache inside me.

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I don’t think I’m strange in this. I think we all have these moments if we are willing to open ourselves up to them, if we slow down, if we pay attention, if we stop and listen when we feel the invitation to gasp and hold the wonder in our chest, for however long it wants to reside.

I think this is a part of intimacy – when we share these moments, when we share our aches of wonder and we find someone who aches over the same beautiful thing, a connection is made. This is why lovers make mix tapes, why writers write, why painters paint – we’re looking for “our people,” the people who are inspired, moved by some of the same things we are.

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I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn’t even have language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

Yes, in case you’re following along, I’m quoting Big Magic AGAIN. And if you talk to me in real life, I quote “my friend Liz” (not really, but I wish) a lot. But she’s so right – paying attention to wonder connects me to my soul.

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So here’s a thought that’s been rattling around. To be honest, I’m a little nervous to put this out there. But I’ve been thinking about creating a wonder gathering (yes, I know I need a new title). I’ve been thinking for a long time that I would love to create a space where I could sit with other wonder-seekers and say, “Here’s a song, here’s a passage from a book, here’s a poem, here’s a food that moves me.” And in turn, I want to sit with other people and their wonder and maybe discover that what causes the ache of wonder in them also causes ache in me.

Maybe you already have this kind of space. I think this is what book clubs can be when they get beyond “What do you think about the text?” and get to “Didn’t this one sentence just cause you to stop and sigh and marvel at the beauty?” I think this is what small groups can be if the members can get beyond discussing ideas about whatever they might be studying and instead get to deep places of intimacy where they share wonder.

I was talking with someone not to long ago, a new friend, and he was telling me of the dance party that he hosts at his house every year to celebrate New Year’s Eve. But also he told me of the email he sends to friends throughout the country asking them, “what are the songs and books that moved you over the last year?” Yes. Dance parties are fun, but sharing wonder moves us towards those whom we love.

At the same time, this idea scares me a little, because to share my wonder is to share my soul and my soul is fragile and doesn’t want to spread itself out to everyone. So here’s a lesser invitation. Share with us one wonder. Share with us in this space a song that you can’t get enough of right now or a picture or lines from a poem.

To rewrite the fifth line from Wild Geese:

Tell me about your wonder, yours, and I will tell you mine.

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What Do You Say in the Face of Grief?

“There aren’t words to say // words aren’t remembered // but presence is // a good friend once told me // And he was there.” – Caedmon’s Call, “Center Aisle”

Overnight, my Facebook feed filled up with pictures and tributes to a woman we knew, who lived just down the street from Brimfield house. When our oldest boys were younger, we played on the same ball teams, we went to all the same school events, and I seem to remember her daughter – now a senior in high school – babysat our youngest boys a time or two when they were much smaller.

On Sunday she passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of her family and our community.

What do we say in these moments? How do we speak of God when the universe seems so random – arbitrary and cruel to take someone so loved? Some of us lapse into well-meaning, but empty clichés, others of us drift towards the darkness of despair.

When I was younger, long-haired, ear-pierced, fresh out of seminary, I thought I had good, logical answers defending the seeming capriciousness of God. I had well-developed theological constructions that would help me explain to people why their loved ones passed, or why God “took” some and left others, or why God “allowed” some personal tragedy or another.

But after 16 years in full-time pastoral ministry and especially on days like this one, those “well-developed” answers ring hollow. And despite my numerous misgivings about the theology I was taught in my teens and twenties, what I stubbornly hold on to, is that Christian Theology insists God – in Jesus – stepped into the agony of what it means to be human. It insists that in our pain (and to be fair, in our celebration as well) – God showed up, became human. And not human in a keep-your-distance-from-suffering kind of way, but rather in the poverty and oppression and dirt of 1st century Palestine. In fact, one of my favorite stories of Jesus is about how – upon hearing of the death of his friend – Jesus wept.

If we saw the family today there are no words, no “well-developed” theological answers that we could give that would bring their wife/mother/sister back or ease the pain of the deep loss I’m sure they must feel. There is no explanation or defense of God and “God’s plan” that will ease the suffering.

But rather, I’m confident that the Brimfield/Kickapoo community will rise up and walk with them, that we will be present. Meals will be prepared, tear-filled hugs shared, tributes offered, flowers bought and good people will act out their belief – that when bad things happen, we show up for each other, just as God did for us. That, I believe is at the heart of the gospel – that in our deepest agony, God shows up through the hands, feet, hugs, the presence of his people.

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Hey, I Like You

I don’t normally get caught up in celebrity news. No judgement to those of you who follow it, but it’s just not my thing. I’ve never felt like I’ve wanted someone’s autograph and I surely don’t care what famous person is marrying/divorcing another famous person. I just don’t care that much. Except when Robin Williams died just over a year ago.

The thing that was saddest to me about Robin Williams was that it was as if he couldn’t hear the applause of the millions who loved his work. I don’t know what the voice inside his head told him, but it surely didn’t tell him how much we wish he were still around to make us laugh again. It didn’t tell him how much he was loved.

Earlier this summer I was reading Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please, and she was talking about how she had occasionally performed with Chris Farley in their early years in Chicago. She writes, “He would stand backstage and berate himself if he felt he didn’t do a good job. It was almost like he couldn’t hear how loud everyone was laughing.” (emphasis added). I remember reading that sitting beside a pool this summer, and it took my breath away.

Because of the nature of my job I often end up being a reference for scholarship applicants, job applications and other situations in which having a clergy person say something nice will help someone out. And so, it’s not unusual for me to write letters or talk on the phone to say nice things about people. It’s really kind of fun.

A couple of months ago, I finished one such phone call and realized I was really excited about the opportunity I had to to talk up my friend, to talk about all the ways he’s amazing and how I think he does an incredible job and is one of the most creative people I know. And I just really, really like this friend of mine and it was fun to unabashadly brag about him for a bit with a stranger. It was kind of exhilarating. And just as I hung up the phone, driving home from work, sitting at a stoplight at the intersection of Allen Road and War Memorial, I had this thought: “You know, people feel this way about you, too.”

That’s hard for me to believe sometimes.

For me, some of this struggle is tied up in how I used to think about God. I used to have this idea that God didn’t really like me very much. In fact, he was rather appalled at me most of the time, but based on a technicality (Jesus), he loved me. In other words, I used to think God loved me, but he didn’t really like me. I don’t believe this anymore (mostly), but I’m still cleaning up the mess from that idea that lodged itself in the dark recesses of my mind.

And, it’s easy to only hear the critics. And it’s easy to only hear the inner voice that blames you for everything that happens, that tells you you’re not good enough. But, I promise you, there are people out there who love you and would love the opportunity to gush on and on about all your greatest attributes. In fact, they may be doing so when you’re not around (it’s just awkward though, to say it to your face).

So maybe, today, this is an invitation to tell someone you like them. Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to hear it from you. They need to hear about how great they are, and for whatever reason your voice matters to them. I know, we’re all busy, we all have a thousand things to do, we all think that everyone else has all their shit together and doesn’t need encouragement, because everyone else is confident and strong. But mostly, that’s a lie. And the people who project that are mostly just hiding. And the people who actually believe that are probably a bit narcissistic. Maybe today, in the middle of all the busyness – theirs and yours – you can speak something beautiful and meaningful into their life.

I know. It’s not Valentine’s Day or somebody’s birthday. It’s just Monday. But what if you spoke something beautiful into the world today? What if you told someone some (or all) of the ways that you like them?

PS: Somewhere in the space between the first draft of this post and the last, I got this text from a friend: “I just really really really really like you.” Unprompted. (I am not making this up!) And for a couple minutes, that text helped silence the other, darker voices in my head. And I smiled.

See?  It works.

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When You Walk Into a Biker Bar in Rural Nebraska

Saturday night I found myself in a podunk, one stoplight town amidst the rolling hills of Northwestern Nebraska. It was the kind of town where my friend and I kept asking each other “what do people do who live here?” And yet we found ourselves hunkering down on a Saturday night to spend the evening. 

We bypassed the two chain hotels – a Best Western and Motel Six, if I recall – and opted for a local inn. The bottom floor was a bar. Most of the patrons we saw were bikers headed to or from Sturgis and local Native Americans. This was the kind of place where the wall of liquor was filled with dusty bottles because everyone here drinks beer. (And maybe the occasional shot of Jack Daniels.) Checking in, we signed a register – remember those? – and were each given a drink on the house. It was like stepping back in time.

We walked up the two flights of stairs to the third floor, wooden floor boards creaking every step of the way. The rooms were wood paneled, the art kitschy and it looked as if nothing in the place had changed in at least 30 years. We dropped our bags and headed downstairs to claim our free drink.

We met the owner, who had an innkeeper’s knack for conversation. Where are you from? What brings you to our small town? Where are you headed? The normal conversation you have in a small town when you have nowhere to be and you aren’t in a hurry.

After she got us taken care of, she moved over to a corner of the bar where she pulled out a spinning wheel and started spinning thread. I had just read an article in the July issue of National Geographic about how Gandhi encouraged his followers to spin their own thread as a basis for Indian freedom from British rule. I asked her if she knew that tidbit about Gandhi, and her eyes lit up and we launched into a conversation about Gandhi, mediation, Martin Luther King and Jesus. 

Meanwhile, her 90-year old mother had entered the bar and my friend started talking to her. We found out that as a young woman, she was a real life “Rosie the Riveter,” drilling the holes on the leading wing of B-29s for the riveters to put the rivets in the wing. When she opened the Inn in the early ‘60s, she was the first woman in their city to apply for a liquor license and had spent years working against “the establishment.” Along the way, she befriended the local Sioux, welcoming them into her bar and treating them as friends, to the point where they made her an honorary member of the tribe. 

We left to grab some dinner at the place across the street, and I said to my friend as we marvelled about the conversations we had just had, “Funny, you’d never guess it, but that place is holy ground.” Unbeknownst to us, we had walked into a place that, just below the surface, was full of Spirit. Just below the surface, there was a desire to live deeply in the now, there were actions for justice, there were struggles for equality. 

Something I’ve come to learn about myself is that while I’m a raging extrovert, it’s not the party that I’m always looking for. Rather, I want to go deep. I want to go below the surface and hear what’s really going on. I want to create a space, wherever I go, that allows for people to open up and feel safe revealing their true selves. But in the hustle and bustle of “real life,” it’s difficult. It takes intention and the skill to ask good questions. Mostly it takes time. It means not being in a rush to get off to the next place. But I’ve learned that this space is where I feel most alive.

And I don’t think I’m unique in this. I think all of us long for true, deep interaction with people. But we don’t know where to begin. All I’d say is begin where you are. Try out a question. Ask somebody something beyond “how’s the weather,” and “what about the Cubs,” and see where it goes. Not everyone is open to this and you’ll know almost immediately when someone has their guard up. But more often than you think, if you really lean in, people want to talk about their lives and have more than surface conversation.

So, may you this week find holy ground in unexpected places like an odd little biker bar Inn in podunk, Nebraska.

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