Keep Walking

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;    — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

There was a time where your beliefs worked, where you toed the party line, where the answers to the existential questions – who am I?, where are we from? what is the arc of the universe? – made sense. You felt confident and comfortable because you had answers that worked.

Until they didn’t.

You didn’t choose this path. Like Frodo leaving the Shire, you didn’t go looking for an adventure. You were happy in your warm hobbit-hole. But the journey showed up on your doorstep and invited you out into the world; a world of trolls, dragons, dense forests, heroes, villains and great loves.

And now you can’t go back. (And, most of the time, you wouldn’t choose to even if you could.) You can’t unsee what you’ve seen, you can’t un-taste what you’ve tasted. You’ve awoken to a new way of understanding the world, and now the old answers don’t satisfy like they once did.

But now you may feel alone. The people who were once “your people” still live in the Shire. They don’t feel the dissonance you feel, they don’t long for something new, the journey hasn’t called to them (at least not yet). Or, maybe it has, but they’ve chosen to shut the door, because let’s face it, this isn’t a safe, predictable journey for the faint of heart.

There was a time where I was a good, Baptist boy, earning A’s in my Bible classes in a conservative Baptist college. And I remember the exact day when the journey first came knocking on my door. I was sitting in a theology class in my senior year, weeks from graduation, and someone asked our professor to explain dispensational theology to us. And while his answer to the question probably gave most people in the class a solid framework for their beliefs, it created a chasm in me. I remember thinking, “this feels so arbitrary, and artificial and just does NOT resonate with me.” It was the first tremor that indicated an earthquake was coming.

Fast forward a couple years. I’m sitting in my office in my first post-seminary job as a youth pastor. I had just finished Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian (which it seems like I read in one sitting), and I felt breathless, excited and not alone. It felt like confirmation that there are others who think like me. (I also remember thinking, “This book, these ideas will be perceived as dangerous to some.” But even that idea was exhilarating to me.)

Since then there have been more books, more conversations, more experiences that keep pushing me onward.

Today, I continue to grow, continue to expand, continue to ask questions of myself, about God and about the nature of the universe. I can’t stop asking these questions. I’m compelled to keep walking down the road. But the thing is, I didn’t choose this path. Rather, this feels like the path I have to walk. There are moments when I wish I wasn’t so contrarian, that the Baptist answers would have worked, that my theology didn’t scare people, that I was more predictable. But I’m not, and most of the time,  I wouldn’t change my journey.

You know this feeling too, don’t you? Your own journey of questioning, doubting, growing, waking up to new understandings of yourself and the universe – you didn’t choose these, but instead are just walking the path that’s in front of you.
What I want to say to you (and to myself) is simple:  just keep walking. Keep responding to the invitations that come your way. When ideas and answers don’t satisfy anymore, look for new ones, look for new “my people” to travel with, read new-to-you authors. Maybe that person or idea that used to scare you will become your spiritual guide for this stage of your journey.

Just keep walking.

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To Learn and Love Again

\I am a new day rising
I’m a brand new sky
To hang the stars upon tonight
I am a little divided
Do I stay or run away
And leave it all behind?

It’s times like these you learn to live again
It’s times like these you give and give again
It’s times like these you learn to love again
It’s times like these time and time again

(Foo Fighters, “Times Like These”)

When you have four boys in three different schools, this is the season of back-to-school nights, meeting new teachers, putting school supplies in desks and piling boxes of tissues on low tables in elementary classrooms for future use in the coming cold months. Within the span of 2 weeks, Jennifer and/or I will have attended a freshman orientation and three back-to-school nights.

So, early this week I found myself sitting in an advanced math class where a teacher was explaining that this class was for students who have shown they excel at math and therefore will be moving through math concepts at a quicker pace. She explained that some student won’t be able to sustain the pace and will have to drop out. And then she said to us:

The kids in this room have always been at the top of their class in math. And this class will most likely be uncomfortable for them because they’ve never struggled before with math concepts. Up until now, it’s all come easy to them. But this experience will be good for them.

Do you catch that? Sometimes, it’s good to feel off-balanced and unsure of yourself. Sometimes we need to feel like we’re in over our heads, like we don’t know what to do next in order to move on. Sometimes we need the (over)confidence to diminish and we need to feel like we’re drowning in order to learn how to really swim.

I remember a couple of year ago, when I signed up for my first marathon, I felt like I was in way over my head. So, I did when I usually do when I feel off-balance:  I bought a book on running and I studied it and I talked to my brother (the real runner in the family) about running a lot. And I just took it one run at a time, and I trusted his advice and the training plan I was following. It was uncomfortable not to know what to do.  But these days, I don’t hesitate to sign up for long race, or engage in a long-term training plan, or coach a friend. It’s all kind of automatic now. I’ve gained a competence that started with disequilibrium.

Yeah, I know, the way life goes, we don’t always get to choose when we’re going to feel off-balanced; sometimes it just happens TO us, ya know? Occasionally we choose a new hobby, or set off on a new career path or start a new relationship and it’s discombobulating, but we knew it would be from the start (like taking an advanced math class.) But more often it seems, we get fired, dumped, lost or depressed and we didn’t ask for it, we didn’t see it coming.

But it’s in times like these where you learn to live, love and give again (thanks Foos). Really. It’s in times like these – where you feel lost – where you reassess big questions about your life, “who am I?,” “what is my life about?,” “who are ‘my people’?” Actually, it might be more accurate to say, it’s only in times like these that we’re OPEN to facing these kinds of questions. When life is all blue sky, we don’t tend to embrace this kind of existential dialogue – at least not with the same fervency and intensity.

And in time, you will find your way. I promise you that you will. And you will be stronger for it. But first, you have to steer into the darkness. You have to embrace it, question it, deal with it. You have to name it and befriend it. You have to talk about it, write about it, paint it, sing it, scream it and cry over it. Only then will you settle into it. Only then, will you learn the new math, learn the new training regimen, learn the new career, learn the new relationship. And you will thrive because you went through a season of feeling uncomfortable and you owned it and you grew.

So, here’s to the seasons where we don’t have it all figured out. Here’s to the times in our lives where we feel off-balance, unsure of our purpose, goals, careers, or friendships. Here’s to finding our way and to learning what it means to live and love again.

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“I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough…”

For the last 6 weeks, I’ve engaged in a new practice. Every day – usually several times a day – I say to myself, “I love you Charles.” At first it was weird. (It still is a little.) And at first I didn’t believe myself at all. (I’m starting to believe myself a little.) But I think this simple practice is transforming my life. (Little by little.)

It started when I was in Laguna Beach at Rob Bell’s Keep Going conference. I was sitting next to my friend Steve on the second night and we were watching Rob Bell and Pete Holmes do their show, Together at Last. It was hysterical (and poignant at the same time).

Pete was telling a story, and as an aside he mentioned how he reminded himself in the midst of a tense moment, “I love you Pete.” 

And I gasped, and nudged Steve. 

Do you know how, from time to time, someone says something in a conversation or you read a line in a book or hear a quote on a television show, and it cuts to your core?

In that moment, I knew that line was for me. 

To be honest, I’m not very good at loving myself. I’m actually pretty hard on myself. I know people look at me and see accomplishments (houses built, marathons run, good grades, church plant, that kind of thing), but I don’t see myself that way. I see two marathons where I didn’t hit the times I was looking for. I see houses I built full of little mistakes. I see every point in every sermon where I could have been better. I see broken relationships that I’ve screwed up over the years.

Most of my self-talk is pretty ugly. It’s easy for me to get in dark places where I am 100% convinced that people in my life don’t really like me that much, but rather pity me, that people compliment me because I try hard or something like that.

Enter my new mantra: “I love you Charles.”

I was listening to Pete Holmes again the other day while I was out on a 9-mile run. He was interviewing Weird Al Yankovic, and Weird Al said something like, “Every day I wake up excited and I think, wow! I get to hang out today with Weird Al!” And as I was running, I thought to myself, THAT is what I’m after. That’s what inner peace, soul stillness, centeredness (whatever you want to call it) looks like. It starts with loving myself.

I have these two friends – one who is local and whom I talk to nearly every day and the other who lives in Minnesota.  Both of them are guys who regularly affirm their friendship with me. And I’m trying my best to learn to believe them when they tell me they love me and that I’m important to them and that they value my friendship and that they look forward to being with me. 

So, that’s what saying to myself over and over again, “I love you Charles,” is about. It’s about getting to a place like Weird Al, where I can like me. (Did I just aspire to become more like Weird Al?) It’s about getting to a place where I can live in community, believing my friends and not thinking all the time that people are simply putting up with me or pitying me. (And if they are, so what? The goal is to get to a place where I like myself enough that I’m having a good time being with me.)

I think some of us have grown up in traditions where we’ve somehow caught the idea that we’re dirty, rotten sinners who having nothing good in us. We think that talk of “loving oneself” is hippy, dippy bullshit – although we’d NEVER say bullshit, of course. But I really don’t think we can know love until we learn to love ourselves. 

And I think, telling myself all the time, it’s slowly beginning to change something in me. At the risk of TMI, I finished a long, sweaty run the other day, and I was bleeding through my shirt due to chafing. Jennifer was dutifully kind and felt bad for me, but I said to her, “It makes me feel kind of tough.” And then I thought to myself, “I like a guy who runs through the blood and finishes an 8-miler in the heat. I want to be around that person.” Hmmmm. Maybe I’m starting to believe myself a little bit.

Maybe this isn’t your struggle. Maybe you are full-to-the-brim with self confidence and you look yourself in the mirror every day and think, “I piss excellence.” But, my guess is there are a lot of you out there like me, who struggle to be okay with yourself, to like who you are, to enjoy your own company. May I suggest that you try telling yourself that you love you? Yes, it’s going to feel a little strange. You might feel a little like Stuart Smalley (“I”m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me”).  But somehow, saying it to yourself over and over, you might start to believe it.

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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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Intersections

Several years ago, I was led into a regular practice of silence, solitude and meditation. I’m not very good at it – the monkey mind wins most days – but I continue to try. And as I’ve attempted to lead myself and even help others along the same pathway, one of the analogies that I find helpful is that of sitting in a theater.

Imagine your life as a stage:  Daily you’re on the stage, going about your life.  You go to work, you navigate relationships, you exercise, you watch a little television, you play with your kids, you have a beer with a friend. Silence/solitude/meditation is the practice of stepping off the stage for just awhile and sitting up in the balcony observing your life. It’s taking the time to be an observer of your life and not just a participant. And when you get the perspective from the balcony, you will often see things that you might have missed when you were busy on the stage, busy playing your various roles.

For me, when I sit in the balcony for awhile, one of the things that happens is that I start to make connections. I notice how a conversation with one person overlapped a conversation with someone else. I notice how an experience impacted another experience. I notice how one relationship changed the dynamic of another. I notice how my posture or reaction in one set of circumstances set me up for success/failure in another. I don’t judge myself in these moments; I just notice. And when I notice, patterns and intersections start to appear.

Let me make this more concrete.

Monday, I had early morning coffee with a friend and we talked about a bunch of ideas. Then, a couple hours later, she sent me an email with a link to a webpage that she was confident that I would like. And when I went to the webpage, I fell in love with a website (which, ironically has happened twice this week … weird). And watching a video on the website recalled a conversation that I had with a friend, running the streets of Laguna Beach together a couple weeks ago and another conversation with a friend in LA a couple days later. And then I had a conversation with another friend – who has started to make it a habit to stop by my office early in the mornings when he knows I’m the only one in the building – and I was telling him about these things and he affirmed this idea that I have, which led to an email yesterday to someone about this idea and another affirmation in his response to my email, and, well…who knows where this idea of mine will go, but the point is, there’s an intersection, and I think that’s an invitation to lean into that place.

Sitting in the balcony gave me the space to notice the intersection of these ideas, conversations, thoughts and inspirations. I’m trying these days to pay particular attention to places in my life where there is intersection. I want to really notice the ideas that keep coming up, the relationships that keep colliding, the conversations that keep coming back around to the same themes, the opportunities that present themselves, and the recurring feelings I feel in different situations.

I’m convinced the universe, or God, or the Spirit, or whatever you feel most comfortable calling it, is inviting us into new ways of living, new ways of being. There are new ideas to be put into the world, there are new ways of saying old things that need to be said again. As C.S. Lewis says in the Chronicles of Narnia, “further up, further in.” That to me describes the journey – always further up, always further in.

But I’ll only notice them when I take the time to sit quietly in the balcony, observe my life for a bit and pay attention to the intersections.

So, may you find time today to sit in the balcony and observe your life. And may you see the intersections, the places where things seem to be lining up, where the universe seems to be inviting you into something. And may you have the courage, the wisdom and the strength to dive into the intersections.

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Yours? Mine? Ours?

Recently I was boarding an airplane and I was amused by the silliness of the boarding procedure. Of course I understand the efficiency of boarding in groups and all that, but the thing where the first class passengers walk across the blue carpet, then they close that “lane” and have the rest of us schmucks walk in a different “lane.” Dumb.

And yesterday, I got a call from my primary care physician. He’s firing me as a patient. He only wants to be a doctor to rich people. Of course, I see all the benefits to him, and to his patients, but when it comes down to it, he only wants to serve the “haves.”

I have a good friend. We don’t see eye-to-eye on political stuff. He’s a solid right-wing guy and I’m solidly “undecided” in every presidential election. But on this one thing we agree; the growing gap  between the “have’s” and the “have-not’s” doesn’t bode well for the American future. I like to say, that the gap can only grow so far before you get a major rebellion by the “have nots” that leads to violence (e.g. The French Revolution).

And the reason I’m writing about these things is because it’s symptomatic of an American distinction between what’s yours and mine. My house is mine. It’s not yours. Your car is yours, not mine. This is the way we think, the way we act, the way we live. Even the most altruistic among us have limits. Even the most generous of us still has a sense of what’s ours and what’s yours.

That’s why as I was reading a book this morning, I was really struck by a comparison of African tribal culture to American culture. The book is called Poor Millionaires. (And btw, I LOVE this book. It’s a great story, hits on a lot of great ideas, and it’s really well-written!)

The two authors – one raised in suburban Minneapolis, the other in a nomadic, Kenyan tribe – met at a Christian college, and in their first encounter, the African (Michael) say to Nathan, “Can I drive our truck,” referring to Nathan’s truck. After Nathan corrects Michael, “Our truck?” Michael explains:

“Oh, sorry. I don’t mean to offend. In Africa, we have a saying, ‘I am,’ — he pointed at himself — ‘because we are’ — he pointed at me. ‘We are because I am.'”

He continues a little bit later,

“In my tribe it is impolite to say ‘this is my cow’ or this is my hut.’ Instead we say this is ‘our cow,’ or ‘our hut.’ We don’t own things in the same way people seem to here in America. In fact, if I were to drive this truck to the village and say, ‘This is my truck,’ the elders would get so furious and say something like, ‘No, Kimpur (his African name), this is our truck because you are one of us.'”

I know that changing American culture isn’t really going to happen. We aren’t going to ever think like nomadic Africans. And I don’t really even think that American Christians can change this about ourselves. It’s too deep, too ingrained, to much a part of us.

But maybe there our ways that I can live more with the mentality of “ours” than I currently do. What if it’s better to live this way? What if being part of something is more satisfying than having something?

This past winter was really bleak for Jennifer and I. And at Christmastime – knowing we were living in a small-for-six-people apartment that faced north and literally got no sunshine – some new friends offered us their house to use for Christmas as they were headed out-of-town for a week. “What’s ours is yours,” he said, as he handed me the key. “And I don’t want this back.”

And I believe him – to a point. I don’t think what’s really his is ours. I don’t think he’d approve if I showed up after completing a run on the Rock Island Trail, threw my sweaty clothes in his laundry basket and jumped in his shower. That level of “ours-ness” may be an African reality, but it’s surely not an American sensibility. But, as I’ve gotten to know this friend, I think that he’s really trying to live in as open-handed a way as he can.

Couldn’t we all create a bit more of a sense of ours? Couldn’t we all let go of our possessions, our time, our energy, our pursuits so that we could share more? I know that I sure could…

(Feel like I ought to hat tip Tony Jones here. I’ve been working through the books on his Books of Note post from early April and they’ve all been excellent so far – including his book)

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