Plot Twist!

A funny thing happened on the journey between who I used to be and who I’m becoming. Lemme back up for those of you new to the story.

This all started a little over a year ago. I was feeling antsy professionally…and in my experience that meant that significant changes were afoot.  So, I decided to pursue my doctorate and give myself five years to figure it all out. That process necessitated some soul-searching.

The short version is that Tracy and I discovered a lot about ourselves (with the help of some professionals and some friends, and some professionals who have since become friends)…which mostly started with the ideas that neither of us were being who we were created to be or doing work that aligned with who we are and what we’re about. Translation: I needed to walk away from a job that I enjoyed (both the people and the work) and take a blind leap of faith into the next thing. I’d done that a couple of times before and things turned out well, so why not?

So, we sold the home and moved downtown to a loft to figure things out…as one does, right? No plan. Just trust God and do the next thing.

Which, in my mind, meant searching for a full-time job in a church amidst a smorgasbord of reading and classwork for the dissertation. I’d done that before, too. Web sites. Resumes/cover letters. An hour a day…ish. Reading: 2-4 hours a day…ish. Writing as needed. Hanging out on our cool roof watching cool sunsets and thinking deep thoughts: A half-hour to an hour a day…ish…

…which is as romantic as it sounds…

…for about two months.

Then you begin to doubt in the darkness what was told to you in the light. The rejections from churches were fast & furious and rarely explained (unless you were too old, then they thought they’d encourage you by saying, “you’re perfect for the job…just older than our committee wants.”–FYI: this is in no way encouraging). The bank account is dwindling no matter how responsible you’re being. You’re back at square one once or twice a week with no job, no prospects except the resumes you sent that day and a pile of reading to do and papers to write.

So, you now try to trust God, do the next thing, and try some new things.

So, to put a tourniquet on the bank account I started substitute teaching in addition the being a graduate teaching assistant at the seminary. I quickly got tired of “independent study” (read: give them laptops and they quietly surf) and started asking teachers for the lessons a day in advance and I’d teach. Word got around to the staff that you didn’t have to lose a day of instruction and I became a “preferred substitute,” meaning I worked every day at the same high school.

Flash back: When people used to ask me what I’d do if I weren’t working full-time for a church…I’d shrug and say, “I dunno. Probably teach high school English. Maybe coach baseball.”

Flash forward: The leadership and staff at the high school campus in Deep Ellum was encouraging me to get the necessary certification to work there. “You just fit our culture,” they said. “You have the part of teachers that we can’t teach,” they said.

And, last Friday I went through the final part of the interview process–a demonstration teaching session. I figured they’d watch/grade, communicate to the main office, and I’d know in a week or two if I’d made the cut.

Turns out, I waited 20 minutes, they offered me a job. 24 hours later the papers were signed, sealed and delivered.

Starting July 24, I’ll be teaching high school juniors at Uplift Luna High School. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

And, over the next few days, I’ll be blogging about all the lessons I learned in the process. But know that over the next few months, I’ll be hounding a lot of you to load my classroom up with all the Post-It notes and notepads and staplers and pens and pencils and paper your company uses for promotional purposes…

…because I intend to maximize the benefits of who I was for the person I’m becoming–which begins with getting my new students the tools they’ll need to become who they’re created to be. That’s what I’ve always done, when you think about it. That hasn’t changed. It won’t change, I don’t think. Nonetheless,

Here’s to new beginnings…

It’s A Long Road Up to Recovery From Here, A Long Way Back to the Line…

A lot of social media highlighted how uncomfortable 2016 was in the big-picture sense.

I’m far afield from humanity on this. There were deaths of people who wrote books I didn’t read, performed music I didn’t listen to, made movies I didn’t watch, and athletes whose prime preceded my understanding. There were political events that my GenX cynicism of institutions and politicians protected me from experiencing the vitriol others seem to have. There were heartbreaking world events but I remember Live Aid, so each year brings those, too…your heart just breaks for different tribes. So in the big-picture of things 2016 seemed like a pretty normal year to me.

For me, 2016 deviated from the script in that it treated me like a parent treats their graduating senior in late July before heading off to college. Every little thing became a life lesson to cram into my head before it was too late.  I responded in kind to 2016 like by taking the path of least resistance by nodding politely like I’m really interested and taking it all in.

Like doting parents, the reality is 2016 was right and I digested them once I got some distance between me & them. Here are a few of the ways:

My spiritual gift is teaching and I need to be using it. I’ve never been more convinced…and after not using it consistently for over five years, well, it’s high time to get back to that.

I’m not as good a student of my wife as I thought I was. The majority of that story is hers to tell so you’ll have to get her version. The bottom line is that while I was aware she’s an artist, I should’ve put two and two together sooner and recognized our suburban lifestyle was choking her. Our eclectic neighborhood has the crazy diversity where a 10-minute walk can provide interactions with a homeless person, a Ferrari owner, a band member, and a school teacher. I have gone more than a week not using a car. This new lifestyle fits us, man.

My identity was WAY too tied in to my profession. A quarter-century of pastoring provided recognition I embraced. “Doctoral student” is only part-time. “Teaching Assistant” is only part-time. “Substitute teacher” is only part-time. Don’t get me wrong. They’re all legit and keep most of the bill collectors at bay. My point is that pastoring, while somewhat embarrassing to bring up in some circles, opened a lot of doors and gave pats on the back in the circles I used to run in. Not so much anymore. It still stings when I apply for church jobs I feel may be perfect fits and my resume isn’t good enough. Seriously? I thought I was good at my job all that time. Maybe not. See what I mean about my identity tied to my job now?

God uses imperfect people to teach me. I’m not gonna go into it because it’s bad form to pull back the curtain on how church sausage is made. Suffice to say that some hard lessons were learned that came through people who I’m better off removing from my phone contacts and Facebook feeds. Sometimes I don’t like knowing what I know…especially when I know I’m right.

Different expressions of church life are okay. Granted, I have strong opinions about the role of the local church body and how to go about executing that role. I’ve been pretty judgmental on the local church (for the first time in our lives Tracy and I went to Sunday gatherings as visitors) and how they go about their business. Truth is they all have their place in God’s economy and need to go about their business in the way their leadership senses God pushing them. While I’m still frustrated by what I see out there in our Tribe’s business I need to give a bit more grace…even if I can’t find a comfy fit.

I need to get my edge back. Someone I admire told me over libations that I’m at my best when I challenge the status quo…and then punctuated that by saying that God wired me that way and I was bordering on disobedience because he “hadn’t seen that fire” in me for about six years. He said he didn’t want middle age to take away that “Clash, Ramones & Social Distortion” edge that “evangelicals need now more than ever.” He’s right. You know it. I know it.

So, buckle up, 2017. Let’s dance.

 

Happy Suvitsef, Everybody!

In many parts of the world, the day after Christmas is referred to as Boxing Day–a day in which the social order is reversed. The working class gets celebrated with tips/gifts. Some in the military switch ranks for the day. Some have public celebrations where the working class leads parades.

Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to reverse the order of Festivus on the day after it, and declare that it shall henceforth be known as Suvitsef…a day in which we celebrate the Airing of Commendation followed by Repose of the Humble.

It is in that spirit that I offer equal time today for my Airing of Commendations!

Kudos to my wife of 28 years. She’s more beautiful to me now than ever before, and embraces the peculiar adventure of life I drag her through with grace and a smile. We might not have any idea what we’re doing here in midlife, but we’re doing it together. Lesser women would’ve been gone long ago.

Kudos to my daughters. I’m smitten with their wild differences and devastated by their similarities. They are truly smart, beautiful and unique. I couldn’t be prouder of them if I tried. “Love” just scratches the surface of my feelings toward them.

Kudos to the Creator for inventing dogs, far and away the greatest animal on the planet.

Kudos to Deep Ellum for welcoming all comers, especially the missus and I. We found our fit here in the most eclectic neighborhood in Dallas, and this place is lifegiving.

Kudos to the Ramones, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Social Distortion, X, Fear, Black Flag, R.E.M., the Talking Heads and Frank Turner for providing the soundtracks that help me get through tough times…and celebrate some good ones.

Kudos to some folks at Dallas Seminary who are part of the LEAD weekend. They helped me and the missus discover some things about ourselves that will give the last half of our lives true meaning and such. Not to get all sappy about it, Dr. Hillman and Bill Hendricks, even though we’re broke, we’re bohemian happy and smiling at the future.

Kudos to Alan Hirsch, Hugh Halter, David Fitch, Mike Frost, Charlie Ridenour & Barry Jones for beating the drum of incarnational ministry. It’s flipped our lives upside down–which it’s supposed to do (which is why so many like the idea but truly fear executing, hence will never do it)–and I can only hope all your influence in these areas will get our Tribe seriously neighboring, third spacing and getting the heck out of the church walls for Kingdom influence. Now if we can just get congregations to execute instead of lip-servicing.

Kudos to Peticolas and Lagavulin. You know why.

Kudos to my hetero life mates. I have few friends I can depend on to call me out or build me up when I need either but you guys seem to find that balance every time.

Kudos to all the readers here at The Diner. I’ve been here posting thoughts since 2003 (I can’t believe I used to blog daily) and you’ve been here reading the things I write only to get the clutter out of my brain so I can get stuff done. But for some reason an inordinate amount of you keep coming back…so thanks for that!

Now, for all of you gathered around the Suvitsef Cairn, it’s your turn…

Happy Festivus, Everyone!

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As you all know, December 23 is the official date of Festivus…the holiday–invented by Frank Costanza–for the rest of us. So gather round the Festivus Pole after dinner for the annual Airing of Grievances! The one chance you have to tell people how they have let you down…so gather ’round the Festivus Pole and enjoy:

My neighbors who fail to clean up after their pets, especially in public parks or on the private property of others.

Anyone who drives in the left lane while people pass them on their right.

Posting on social media any of the following: allusions to your love/need for coffee and/or chocolate, photos of your food, anything political designed to persuade others.

Pitbull. Seriously. How is he a thing?

Texting while driving. Seriously. Stop it.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sure, they get some inductees right but how in the world are Abba, The Bee Gees, Electric Light Orchestra and the Crickets in and bands like Motorhead, the Pixies, The Cure, Tina Turner, The Smiths and the Replacements (I’d love to see X, the most underrated band in the history of ever, voted in) not in?

I’ve got three for pastors: First, if you used your pulpit in 2016–where you should’ve been preaching Christ–for endorsing a political candidate, shame on your for making your highest calling the lowest form of alliance. Second, if you’d leave your job to do anything else making the same amount of money, do that thing right now–you’re not doing any favors for yourself or those you serve. Third, quoting yourself on social media–stop worrying about building your brand and expanding your platform.

Any college football team that gives star players slap-on-the-wrist punishments for things normal people would go to jail for, well, you know who you are: almost all of them.

Star Wars ain’t that great, world. It’s time somebody said it.

2016. Don’t let the door hit ‘cha where the good Lord split ‘cha on the way out, okay?

Alright, my 10 are done…your turn, patrons!

 

2016 Advent Ramblings: Urgency and Understatements

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Urgency = “Importance requiring swift action.”

Understatement = “The presentation of something as being smaller, or worse, or less important than it actually is.”

“Brent, we need to go to the hospital…

…Right…

…NOW!”

Let me back up.

It was 1991 and Tracy was a couple of weeks in front of the due date for Kid1. We’d just spent Labor Day with her folks eating BBQ and deflecting a barrage of jokes about going into labor on Labor Day. We were tired so we decided to skip making sure we had enough gas in the tank even though the dashboard gas pump was on.

Before bedtime, I’d told her not to wake me up with jokes about being in labor on Labor Day because I had a busy work day ahead and wanted to get rest. Since about week 36 she’d been sleeping in our den on the most comfortable couch we ever owned since we had a full-sized bed at the time as well as a full-sized Black Lab at that time. Don’t judge me or us.

Anyway, Tracy woke me up on Labor Day +1 at 2am with the quote above. Water broken. Contractions timed. Doctors had contacted. My heart rate went from resting to 120-ish faster than any other time in my life.

The word I’m looking for is URGENCY.

She told me I had enough time to get gas for the car while waiting on the doctor to call back with further instructions. Did that and apparently the guy with 16 years of college the seemed to think that contractions starting at about three minutes apart meant to get to the hospital with…

…the word I’m looking for is…

…URGENCY.

We ran red lights. We broke speed limits. We got there in record time.

Now, we’d had well over seven months to prepare for this. From the pregnancy test to telling the family to baby showers to cravings to name choosing sessions to packing a bag to breathing classes and the whole deal, well, we were just going about our lives. Going to jobs. Eating dinner. Going on dates. Visiting family. All that stuff. Even though we knew the baby would be here mid-Septemberish, we were living our lives waiting for the imminent, inevitable life-altering event.

But then the contractions started and things got fast and chaotic and real…and after that trip to the hospital Tracy and I were more than just Tracy and I (and well, Buford the Black Lab).

That sense of urgency is how I think of Mary and Joseph and the no room for them at the inn and in that stable around back on that night we all read about. I don’t envision that event like the “silent night/holy night/all is calm” nonsense with cattle being all silent and halos around babies and beautifully smiling Mary and Joseph. I have no idea how that picture came from a reading of Luke 2.

Verse 7 gives us an incredible understatement: She gave birth.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a labor & delivery situation, but when the day starts after about two hours of sleep and water breaking and fast and chaos and all that…followed by 18 hours of labor and delivery, well, yes…my wife gave birth. She was a mixture of sweat and surgical procedure and pain and beauty and exhausted smile and wanting sustenance beyond ice chips. The contractions started and things got fast and chaotic and real. That backstory about a maiden giving birth gave Mary a lot to think about.

Then in verse 9, we see the shepherds, who, if my research is correct, are teenagers. Likely some young women among them. Unclean by religious standards. Just going about their business of wrangling and protecting the animals at night who get interrupted by…

…A heavenly host of singing angels.

See, I’ve heard that song “Angels We Have Heard On High” sung a lot around this time of year. Usually some large choir with majestic sound in a big opera house elongating the “In Excelsis Deo” chorus. But that’s not how I understand that song. Nope. Not at all.

The event being described was urgent. Fast. Chaos. A word from God after 400 years of silence? Are you kidding? A punk band singing it is how it should be done. May I recommend the band Bad Religion and their version of it? Go ahead. I’ll wait:

Or, if you’re more into alternative college rock sound, how about Lost and Found on their Christmas album? Go ahead. I’ll wait.

These are just a couple of ways this song should be sung, man. Fast. Loud. Lotta motion. Unbridled joy. Silent? All is calm? Not a chance.

They know Israel’s seven centuries of waiting is over. Even better, the four centuries where no prophetic word from God had happened is over. The silence is broken. The Messiah has come. The hope has turned to reality. The imminent, inevitable event has happened. And, oh, by the way, you’ll find him a couple of miles away in a manger.

Another understatement: “Let’s go see this event…”

They have news. Good news. For all the world. This despised class of young people had some information they needed to communicate…and I’m guessing the angels assumed they’d be taking a field trip since they gave specific instructions on precisely how they’d know they found the right baby. The word I’m looking for is urgency.

They had to go roughly 2-3 miles and I can’t imagine that it was a quiet stroll. If you have ever worked with young people who are excited, well, quiet and stroll aren’t really a part of that equation. My guess is they covered that distance in a half-hour at most, rolling through town with abandon trying to find the location. The word I’m looking for is urgency.

Another understatement: “When they saw him, they related what they had been told…”

Again, the word I’m looking for is URGENCY.

Lotta motion. Lotta noise.  Busting in on an exhausted teenage mom. Talking over one another with their own version of the story…

…of angels…

…of songs…

…of Messiah.

Which, I’m sure gave Mary another reminder that she’s not crazy no matter what the townspeople think. Virgin birth. She knows what she knows but she likely was aware that folks weren’t buying her version of what she knows. She treasures these words in her heart. Teenagers get each other.

And then one final understatement: The shepherds went back. Glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard.

My guess is that you can’t go back and tend sheep the same way you did a few hours ago. The world looks different now. Feels different now. The world is different now. God became a person and moved into the neighborhood.

Silence becomes urgent.

Understatements become reality.

Ponder this in your heart…because we all have to go back and tend our sheep. And if we are living our lives the same way we were before we experienced the fast, loud, chaos of God moving into our neighborhood…

…we miss what it means to truly live while in the now and not yet. There will be another fast and furious and chaotic and imminent and inevitable life-altering event. And that in and of itself is an understatement.

2016 Advent Ramblings: May As Well Enjoy The View

*Just idle ramblings on stuff I’m reading for Advent this year. Today, I read Isaiah 9.

 

“If you’re gonna have an evil lair, better make sure it has a view.”
–a member of Easy Company, as quoted in HBO’s WWII miniseries Band of Brothers

“The people walking in darkness will see a great light; light shines on those who live in a land of deep darkness. You have enlarged the nation; you give them great joy. They rejoice in your presence as harvesters rejoice; as warriors celebrate when they divide up the plunder. For their oppressive yoke and the club that strikes the shoulders, the cudgel of the oppressor uses on them, you have shattered as in the day of Midian’s defeat. Indeed, every boot that marches and shakes the earth and every garment dragged through blood is used as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us. He shoulders responsibility and is called Extraordinary Strategist, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His dominion will be vast and he will bring immeasurable prosperity. He will rule on David’s throne and over David’s kingdom, establishing it and strengthening it by promoting justice and fairness, from this time forward and forevermore.”
–Isaiah 9: 1-8

I have to admit I’m a sucker for the Band of Brothers mini-series. It’s an automatic stop-down anytime I channel surf.

For the uninitiated, it’s the story of paratroopers in WWII, Easy Company, and their journey from training to V-E Day. After a grueling boot camp designed to create elite soldiers they were eventually dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day, and not a lot went right. On the fly, one of the men who would eventually lead the company designed a strategy to secure their location…and those maneuvers at Market Garden are studied at West Point to this day.

Then came the Battle of the Bulge. Survival was the end game for them. Stay put while surrounded and hold their position. Brutally bitter Belgian cold. Digging foxholes in a forest. Every night as sitting ducks hoping enemy shells didn’t score a direct hit. Supplies never got there. Many died. Eventually, allied troops got through and Easy Company went on the offensive.

Then a campaign in Holland as the war turned. They discovered and liberated concentration camps.

The end-game of the war required securing Nazi locations, one of which was Hitler’s mountain retreat in Austria. Easy Company was put in charge of that operation. A group of men who had been through it all…the absolute worst of the European theater…discovered the wine cellar. Contents: the finest whiskey and wine from all over the world, and more than Easy Company could drink. They took what they wanted and then shared the spoils with the other companies. The warriors divided the spoils.

The mini-series depicted the men on an observation deck from the lair. That’s where the line about an evil lair having a great view came from, but can you imagine? Months before you are in a forest, sitting ducks, nearing starvation and frostbite if not dying from war…

…how sweet must that celebration have been?

When you’re in that forest hoping to survive, fighting back fear. Don’t you think it would be a different enjoyment of a fine wine in that backdrop rather than if you’d simply flown to a mountaintop hotel and had a glass on vacation?

Isaiah 9 paints that picture in my way of thinking. There are people in darkness. Their land has been overrun. Their culture has been denigrated. Their God has been mocked. They have homes that don’t feel like homes. And this goes on for generations. And generations. And generations. And generations. And generations.I imagine grandparents whispering into the next generation’s ears, “Someday…”

Someday, the light will come. God will rescue us. Maybe today…

…maybe not…

…but be on the lookout.

Fight your battles every day in case He doesn’t show. But He’s coming. Maybe today. Maybe not. But we will be faithful today. Me and my house will, anyway. This military leader will put the boot on the throat of the enemy. Their cloaks will be dragged in the mud and blood. He will give us back our nation. Past that, He will be God Himself. He will give us peace, now and forever. Good times are ahead. We win.

And we will enjoy it like fine wine from an observation deck on an mountaintop on a cool, sunny day.

Maybe today…

…maybe not.

But, be on the lookout. He will come. We will wait. Even if it’s freezing. Even if we can’t go on the offensive. Even if we run out of supplies. Even if we are being shelled. Even if some of our buddies are killed by trees falling or bullets or friendly fire. He will come.

Those whispers are true for us even if we are a bit more comfy than Israel was. Those whispers are true even if our freezing is cured with socks and a blanket. Even if we’re stuck between where we are and where we want to go. Even if our loss of supplies is metaphorical while we know where our next 1,000 meals are coming from. Even if the oppression of our brothers and sisters are headlines that overwelm us because we can’t protect them all.

He will come.
Somehow.
Someway.
He will come.

God will show up. Even though it’s dark out. Arise. Shine.

Taste the wine. Enjoy the view. Even if, for today, it’s all in your imagination. Taste the wine. Enjoy the view. Like warriors dividing the spoils

The darkness we are in will eventually make the reality that much more sweet.

2016 Advent Ramblings: All That’s Left To Do Is Live

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*Just idle ramblings on stuff I’m reading for Advent this year. I read Isaiah 7 today…

“You can get so confused, that you’ll start in to race, down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace, and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space…

…headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…

…Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come,
or a plane to go or the mail to come,
or the rain to go or the phone to ring,
or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.”

–Dr. Seuss, in Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

“And it feels, and it feels like
Heaven’s so far away
And it feels, yeah it feels like
The world has grown cold
Now that you’ve gone away”

–The Offspring, from “Gone Away”

In the late 8th century B.C., the king of Judah had to make deal. See, Israel and Syria banded together to stand against the threatening Assyrians and were planning to take over Judah as part of that plan. Fighting for the survival of his country, Ahaz wanted to send cash (and lots of it) to the Assyrians for protection.

Spoiler alert: Dealing with an enemy that has the leverage is like living with a rattlesnake. Eventually it will bite. You don’t know when. In the interim between the deal and the bite, fear gripped Ahaz and his people. The Bible describes it as “the hearts of the people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.”

Enter Isaiah with a message from God. The prophet let Ahaz know that Israel and Syria wouldn’t be an issue for Judah…and side note, if you trust God on this, your nation will survive. If you go about it another way (like cash and lots of it) things will not end well. Spoiler alert: Ahaz spent the cash and lots of it.

The rattlesnake would bite and things would get dark within decades. God, however, offers comfort that Ahaz’ decision wouldn’t be the end of Israel: “Behold, a maiden will be with child and bear a son, and she will can His name Immanuel.” The bottom line: Things will get tough and stay tough for a long while, but somewhere down the line, God will deliver His people.

Then the clock started counting down on Judah…and the clock on their dark, long “waiting place” would begin.

Far be it for me to disagree a bit with Dr. Seuss, but the waiting place doesn’t have to be “a most useless place.” You can get a lot done at the bus stop or train station. A trip to the mailbox can bring all sorts of surprises (Christmas cards, anyone? Wedding invitations, anyone?). A ringing phone can change life as you know it. New snow always looks good to me. The “yes” or “no” is a revelation. A cancer patient’s new head of hair is pretty great, too.

All of Dr. Seuss’ instances of people just waiting assumes passivity…but there’s active hope built right in. You believe the bus or train will take you where you want to go. That the mailman will bring the mail. Folks will call. Winter will come. You will get your questions answered. Your hair will grow.

See, there’s a lot you can do while you wait. Around 150 years after Ahaz’ deal, the prophet Jeremiah wound up in the midst of the darkness after the fall of Jerusalem. He wrote these words to tell them during their exile: “Build houses and live, and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”

In short: live well while you wait…even if it feels like God isn’t with you, well, your feelings are lying to you. They’ll do that here and again. “Immanuel” means “God with us” after all. Remember that when your feelings lie to you.

I’d be lying if I said I felt like God is with me right now. I’m in a season of waiting myself. Granted it hasn’t been some 700 years of waiting…it’s only been about six months. I don’t seem to have bus fare or plane tickets. The mail has been discouraging (got no less than four rejections for jobs on Friday alone). The phone isn’t ringing. Winter isn’t even really winter here in Dallas. There have been plenty of “no” answers and a dearth of “yes.” My hair is growing even if it seems like my hairline recedes at a noticeable rate.

Nobody seems to think I can be a good pastor these days. Nobody seems to think I can be a good teacher these days…at least on a full-time basis. I’m still waiting on what God wants me to do vocationally while I am quite clear on my calling (there is a difference).

It feels like God is so far away.

My feelings are lying.

And I will choose to live in my mini-darkness. I will love my wife well. I will enjoy my family and friends and dogs. I will embrace the Kingdom glimpses in my neighborhood and work days. I will enjoy good books and see movies and watch football. I will grade master’s level papers. I will eat good food and enjoy good drinks and time around tables. I will enjoy good sunsets from my roof and crane my neck to see other little glimpses of Him in the everyday interim.

Because my feelings of divine abandonment and personal inadequacy and the myriad of pity-party inducing emotions are lying to me.

Waiting is not useless. God is with me.

I want that to be enough…

My Life Right Now in 10 U2 Quotes

Just havin’ a little fun…been on a U2 listening kick for a few days so I thought I’d let you know why I’m digging them again:

“Here’s what we gotta be
Love and community
Laughter is eternity if joy is real”

“Well my heart is where it’s always been
My head is somewhere in between”

“I will follow
I will follow
I will follow
I will follow
I will follow”

“I thought I heard the captain’s voice
But it’s hard to listen while you preach”

“It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away”

“I’m not broke but you can see the cracks
You can make me perfect again”

“One day you’ll look back
And when you see
Where you were held
How by this love
While you could stand there
You could move on this moment
Follow this feeling”

“I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide”

“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost, now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”

“I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice”

The Flip Side of My Fear: Emotional Detachment (Part 4)

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(this is the last entry for my series on my fears and the flip-sides of my weaknesses. If you’re still with me, well, thanks for reading!)

 

We all have unrealistic expectations. For the most part, they stay tucked away and unseen. Like the undertow.

Until some sort of disappointment, insult or injury pulls you under. Then you become hyper aware of them.

We all have realistic reactions, too. For the most part, they are pleasant surprises. Like a tax refund.

They are the universe’s little bits of encouragement, honors or other delights that show up when you’re at the right place and the right time.

I’ve said before that I had an unrealistic expectation that my dad would live to be past the ripe old age of 36. Sure, the statistics would point toward the reality that it’s likely he’d have lived to be double that number…but people win the lottery. The odds of that are higher than being struck by lightning. People get struck by lightning, too. Don’t confuse unrealistic expectations with statistical norms.

So, it’s pretty normal to live your life with those statistical norms…which makes it even more strong when your roulette number comes up. The anger that surfaces first when one of these unrealistic expectations hits tends to be directly proportional to the odds against it. For example, you might roll your eyes when your toddler doesn’t pick up their toys or cuss when someone cuts you off in traffic or wail your eyes out when they wheel your dad’s casket adorned with the same type of flowers that were in your mom’s wedding bouquet the day they married.

It’s also pretty normal to clap and cheer when your toddler takes his first steps or high-five the folks at the bar when your team scores a TD or have your heart jump into your throat when you see your daughter in her wedding dress—that you made a point not to see her in it previous just so you’d have that moment—standing at the top of the Driskell Hotel lobby staircase (in the interest of fairness, I had a similar reaction when the other daughter’s name was called to give the valedictory address at her school). I’ve found those reactions are proportional as well.

Our personalities play into that, too. I’ve got friends that weep deeply at movies that begin with a desk lamp jumping on the letter “i.” I’ve also got friends who can see their favorite band live with 60,000 people screaming and have their arms folded across their chest…but having the time of their life nonetheless.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ll cuss under my breath and punch a pillow when the Tigers fumble at the one and high five my buddies when Mazara puts one in the home run porch. I’ll hug my students when they get accepted to their first choice college. I’ll hold the hand of another student on the transatlantic flight because they didn’t know they were scared of flying until that moment. I’ll laugh like crazy when my friends are funny. I’ll smile when my wife walks through the room and my first thought is how pretty she is. You get the idea.

But that’s the new me. That’s years of recalibrating my emotional responses after my dad’s death.

And recalibrating is precisely the word I want to use.

Because I’d shut off any and all emotion in high school…with the exception of anger but even that was more of a controlled aggression. It showed up in heavy contact in non-contact sports and those fake sports fights where you point fingers and start shoving knowing full-well it’ll get broken up before it gets much past that. Mosh pits were about the only place I was fully emotional.

Everything other than that was squelched. I kept busy. I choked them all down…the things that hurt and the things that were fun. It was easier, frankly.

Then I met my Winnie Cooper and started reading my Bible. In that order.

My high school girlfriend was great in a lot of ways. The most interesting to me was that she cared enough to ask good questions and then gave me time & space to answer. It usually went something like this:

“So, how, exactly, did your dad die?”

“Heart attack.”

“Hmm. (silence for a half a minute) So, when do you work this weekend?”

(Two days go by)

“Hey, remember on Tuesday when you asked how my dad died. It isn’t really as simple as a heart attack…(some long story of whatever I was thinking about the whole ordeal)”

“Thanks for telling me that. I know it isn’t easy for you and I’m glad you did. You can always talk to me, you know.”

She knew when to speak and when not to. For some reason I just knew she was trustworthy. I could count on her, too. I made choices to love her and my feelings followed. Might’ve been the first time I really felt anything other than anger in three years. She was my best friend in high school (distinctly different than my buddies who had a needed but entirely different role to play). Bonus: I got to kiss her. Double bonus: She was exquisite (and my guess is she still is…we are Facebook friends but tend to go years between chats and neither of us are really class reunion people. If I didn’t plan the first two I’m not sure I’d have gone). It’s an understatement to say she was easy on the eyes but add all the extra lasting character traits and, well, wow. Needless to say, I was–and this word is precisely the one that fits–gutted when things didn’t work out (timing can be a real wicked bitch sometimes and that fear of abandonment thing? Yeah, that came back in spades for a while) but at least I was feeling again. It was high-risk and I lost the chips I had on the table. But I was in the game, man.

That made me a better person in the long run. A better husband. A better father. Better at almost the things that really matter to me. I could ante up and play high-risk again.

This ability to feel again was coming at a time when I was getting closer to God and spending a lot more time in my room reading the Bible. One passage was a game-changer for me…so much so that it heavily influenced how I taught my students when I was on the teaching end of things.

It’s that well-known section the Byrds sang about in “Turn! Turn! Turn!” You know it: “There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance…”

And on it goes. It never hurts to go back and check that one out. Ecclesiastes 3 if you’re interested.

Anyway, the theme of the book is on gaining wisdom…which is something I really started to strive for. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I stole the phrase from a friend of mine and incorporated it heavily into the lives of my students: Wisdom is knowing what time it is.

Is it time to fight or not? Is it time to laugh? Cry? Mosh? Refrain from moshing? And on it goes.

It seemed to me that the Bible was clear on the idea that emotions are a good thing…just be wise in how you deal with them.

So, what is the flip side of my emotional detachment? What strength comes from that?

First, I learned that emotions are responders in that they respond to whatever stimuli they’re given. Whether it’s getting cut off in traffic or getting a tax refund. The wise thing to do is line them up with Scripture and see if they are the appropriate ones…or at least rational ones. They can be controlled appropriately. I use the example of waking up from a nightmare and you are shaking and breath is short. Everything changes when you sit up, take a look around and your brain changes the response because it’s now feeding you truth.

As an aside, this is why I push back hard when people tell me they “just have to vent” or “they made me so mad” or “if Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” Please. Mama needs to get happy. Someone else’s behavior doesn’t excuse you from self-control. Venting (unless it’s to God—be careful with that fine line) is anger. Self-control is a thing. A fruit of the Spirit thing. Live supernaturally, I say.

Second, I learned to be in the moments. One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, said that sometimes, we need to take a step back when we are in a pure life moment and say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” And my use of the phrase I stole from Stephen King (“manalive!”) tends to express my feelings a great deal. It’s also okay to let my personality be what it is. So, if Dez caught it and dives for the end zone I can high five my friends. When the refs overturn it and call it incomplete, I can curse under my breath. I don’t have to be over-the-top if that isn’t who I am. We’re all God’s children and there’s room for all of us.

Third, I can choose to let others in and be better for it. Sure, you can get hurt–even gutted–but that’s the risk. You’re playing another hand and that’s a good thing. I’m pretty picky about who is in and who isn’t in my circle of trust but if you’re in, well, you might not like what you see but what you see will be real. Letting others in and being transparent with them—no matter how much time it takes for me to get there—makes my life more abundant.

And that’s wisdom…

…which…

…when you think about it…

…is what I really got from my fears and their flip sides.

 

(up next: thoughts on leaving the suburbs and moving downtown)

The Flip Side of My Fear: Loneliness (Part 3)

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I learned pretty quickly that I was supposed to fly right, wear khaki, vote Republican and strive for middle management. This complicated my re-entry into all things Christian.

My life had stabilized a bit in the three years since my dad’s death. My mom completed her Master’s degree and she was home after work. My sister was in middle school doing whatever it is middle school girls do. I was driving my ’77 Cutlass, running for senior class president and dating the girl who would become the Winnie Cooper to my Kevin Arnold.

There was a guy from the outreach ministry at my high school who had a knack for talking to me about Jesus while being sensitive to the deal I’d made with God to stay on His side of the universe while I stayed on mine. He knew his subject matter—both Jesus and me—and kept harping on the anti-authority stories about Jesus. It worked. I was intrigued.

Keep in mind my spiritual life from the church nursery to my dad’s funeral was wonderfully Alabama Episcopal. We were a rare breed and we were serious about the liturgy and stained glass and candles followed by a covered dish lunch every week. There were plenty of picnics with kegs and my dad took the nickname “whisky-palian” pretty seriously. They were hardcore about both the worship of God and the table/party…which certainly a draw for the Irish in me.

But Duffy kept inviting me to his Bible church. I’m not sure why I went the first time, but I know that I was pretty naïve about the visit.

I didn’t do anything out-of-the-ordinary that first Sunday. I drove into the parking lot with the windows down and the Jensen cranked up playing the Clash. I was wearing a ¾ sleeved baseball undershirt that had the local hard-rock radio station call letters on it. Flip flops (standard issue) and jeans with holes in the knees. At that time I was wearing an ear cuff since piercings and tattoos were verboten at home and school.

And I got looks.

The kind that either said, “it’s great that Duffy is bringing in those lost kids” or “it’s a stage that he’ll grow out of” or “we’ll have Bob talk to him after the initial breaking-in period.”

After that initial breaking in period people did start talking to me. About the music that I loved. Asking kinda personal questions about what my Winnie Cooper and I were doing when we were alone. About how I presented myself. About the political thoughts I had regarding Reagan’s America. About what movies I needed to stop going to. About the American Dream and how my college choice could let me grab my share of it.

I was fascinated with the revolutionary Jesus that Duffy and Bob and Pastor Mickey kept talking about it. I was annoyed with the version I was hearing from the rank and file. There was a gap I couldn’t make sense of.

But they did care about me. It was a nice respite from the loneliness of the past three years…even if that care came with a few unspoken (but clearly communicated nonetheless) conditions. I was drawn to them even if I’d traded silver, candles and stained glass for plastic communion cups, acoustic worship and AWANA squares. Since Bible was their middle name they focused on getting me in that. I gradually walked away from the Book of Common Prayer but I can still step back into it anytime I’m with my Episcopal peeps. It’s on my brain’s hard drive.

What was cool was that, in my naivety, they listened to my honest questions about God and Jesus and the Bible. I was an ideal youth group kid. I really wanted to know, and when I’d ask questions it made the Bible-church-from-the-cradle kids either show how much they knew to be true or how much they toed their own party line. Duffy and Bob and Pastor Mickey—and eventually a guy named Dave who handled the day-in, day-out me—loved it when I’d make folks in the church revisit what they thought they knew.

In short, even though they weren’t big fans of my music or taste in clothes, they made time for me. They appreciated what I brought to their table. They gave me a hearing. They were patient with me. They majored in the majors and minored in the minors with me. As leaders, they were a lot more open than the volunteers and random adults in that local gathering of about 400. My guess is they had meetings about me initiated by the concerns of the latter.

They “got” me. They gave me space to let the Holy Spirit do His thing on His timetable.

I wasn’t lonely anymore.

I learned a few things from going through the loneliness and coming out the other side with the Tribe.

First, they were pretty clear that there was room for an outlier. I’m not sure they ever put it into words, but the leaders seemed to welcome a different perspective. “Why are you always late to church?” they’d ask. “Because the music is bad.” “How is it bad?” “It’s too slow and the words are about joy but nobody really seems joyful singing them. Last night at Black Flag we sang along with the band about how we’re going to rise above and we all really meant it. Here, they just sing what’s on the overhead like robots.”

“Huh. Well, let me tell you about the history behind that song…”

And it was that way about almost everything I questioned, from Bible interpretation to the night they brought an expert in “backward masking” to tell us about the evil rock and roll (“Am I the only one in this room that thinks this is total nonsense or no?”). They were really cool that way. Even though I was an outlier in almost everything, I learned that it was okay to be one. That I have value and a place in the tribe even if I’m off the well-worn path to Republican khaki American Dream middle management.

Second, I learned that I had to deal with pride and give grace. See, you can’t always be the one who is catered to. That’s not how family works. There are plenty of little old ladies who were offended by my wearing my Atlanta Braves cap backward to the church service. Or my Ramones shirt. Or my cassette tape of the band “X” full volume as I came into the church parking lot. I needed to learn that my view of how this revolutionary Jesus wants me to live isn’t the way he wants them to live.

I’m a big fan of receiving grace, not so much on giving it. If I could serve these blue-haired prayer warriors and understated heroes of the faith by leaving my cap in the car or wearing the good jeans or collared shirt with the penguin on it, maybe that’s one less battle to fight. What’s it to me to turn my music down? Maybe I do need to think through the movies I’m seeing. I could learn from every question somebody asked me, and maybe I needed to re-think my positions, no?

I also needed to value the legalistic, behaviorally-managed, khaki-wearing, Republican-voting (full disclosure, I’ve voted Republican several times, so please don’t infer my political leanings from my repetition of that, okay?) middle managers. There’s just as much room in the Kingdom for them as there is for me. It’d be a pretty boring Body if everybody thought alike and lived alike. God’s working on all of us on His timetable and I’m glad I was taught that, too. That give-and-take way of life together is a lesson we’d all do well to implement more often.

Lastly, I began to value the importance of community, both large and small, in my life. If you’ve ever been lonely, you realize how meaningful it is. Even when it’s messy. Even when it’s full-throttle disagreement. Iron sharpens iron. And when I was just rolling through life lonely and divorced from any meaningful Christian community. I didn’t realize how much I began to just accept the ways of the world as normative. The Tribe, even at our very worst, well, they’re my Tribe. Warts and all. In all the forms they take.

And, my new community in my new urban setting has more than their fair share of youth and tattoos. There is room for them in the Kingdom. There is room for the more conservative and homogenous in the Kingdom, too. Either we’re all God’s children in our individual and collective beauty, or we’re all just living a lie.

And I have to say that it’s nice to know that I won’t be lonely. Ever.