Friday, June 14, 2019

Strength to Serve

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. - John 13:3-5 (NKJV)
Service can be difficult because it can be uncomfortable. Comfort means doing what I want to do when and where I want to do it. Service is uncomfortable because I have to do what others need when and where they need it.

In the story above, Jesus is able to do what others would see as uncomfortable or even demeaning. How? I believe he can serve radically because he understands the identity and purpose of himself, God, and others. With that knowledge, he has the strength to put his personal comfort aside and serve.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

La Esperantisto

I learned about the Esperanto language while channel surfing my way into a cable tv biography of William Shatner. The Shat starred in a 1960's horror movie with all of its dialogue in Esperanto, which none of the cast spoke. Kind of weird, but it was the 1960s. The idea of a an artificial language was pretty interesting to me, so I held on to it, always meaning to learn more. That was a decade ago. Thanks to Duolingo, I'm now a couple months in to learning Esperanto!

As far languages go, Esperanto is pretty new - only 130 years old. It's what's called a constructed language (aren't they all), meaning it was artificially devised instead of organically evolved.
Esperanto Flag!

If you know Spanish or Latin, you might recognize Esperanto as a cognate to the Spanish esperar, or "to hope". That gives you a clue as to why the language was created - it's named for people who hope. Wikipedia says the language was formed "to foster peace and international understanding." The founder grew up in area sharply divided by language and culture, and he wanted more for the people of the world. He was interested in unity. (This was only a few years prior to The Great War.)

My understanding is that the language's founder wanted Esperanto movement to be just about the language itself and nothing more, but going to bat for peace international understanding is itself a movement So much so that the Nazis and the Soviet Union saw esperantoj (Esperanto speakers) as threats. Tyrants don't like free thought or unity.

I mentioned earlier that I'm learning Esperanto on Duolingo, the popular and free language app. It's a popular language, and a quick internet search will find subreddits, message boards, Instagram accounts, and other examples of people embracing the language.

Whether or not it ever becomes pervasive, I love the idea that millions of people around the world take the time to learn Esperanto based on hope and unity. Maybe it sounds silly, but it's my kind of silly. My kind of people.

Pacon!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Bold as Lions: Living in the Face of Death

Thanatophobia is fear of death, or death anxiety. It’s an unhealthy fixation on the idea that we will all die. I had never heard of it until a few years ago, when I was diagnosed with it. The problem wasn’t that I was thinking about death (Ecclesiastes 7:2 tells us we learn more in a cemetery than in a party), the problem was where my thinking on the subject took me.

If we all die, my thinking went, then this is all pointless. What matters? What is the worth of getting up in the morning? Why did God make me to exist in the first place? Why am I here? Thinking like that makes it hard to get out of bed. The best you can do is exist in a kind of wasteland. Existing isn’t the same as Living. How do I know? Because I’ve done both.

Last year, in a deep depression, I wrote to God about my experience in the wasteland in a poem (super emo I know I know). Some excerpts: “the stomach sours / and the throat chokes...shocking cloying of entropy / irradiated dust...Ash bodies / Unborn bodies / Inside out bodies...I study this old map and squint / The topography remains inscrutable / I don’t see you on here / I don’t see you anywhere / Are we winning?”

I asked God to tell me if I’d feel like this forever, so at least I could make peace with that fact. If not, I asked Him to show me how to know something else. He didn’t say anything out loud to me, or boom an answer into my brain. He did speak, though, over several months.

He spoke through a supportive wife willing to pay what it took to get me into counseling. She would work extra hours, she said. We would figure it out. He spoke through elders at church ready to drop everything to meet with me and listen. He spoke through doctors able to diagnose and prescribe. He spoke in a community center garden. A wasteland, of sorts.

I wrote that poem in our community center’s garden. I walk it regularly, keeping an eye on the various fish in the pond, the bees, the native plants and flowers and trees. I was making my daily rounds in winter when I wrote it - it was cold and rainy and everything that had been vibrant weeks before in the garden was dead. Except that it wasn’t. That’s when He spoke. I knew the garden enough to know that just because something wasn’t flowering at the moment didn’t mean that it was barren or over. It would be back. I knew what the garden looked like on other days. When spring came I was the first person to see the bees buzzing around the arbor, flying around the first blooms. I remember thinking Oh, this is what salvation is. This is what regeneration is. This is what Life is.

The Good News isn’t that bad times don’t ever come, or that we’re always safe. Evil happens, and death is real. We all know that. We see it around us. We see chaos, entropy, alienation, the damage caused by the illusion of Other-ness. The Good News is that Life overcomes Death. And it isn’t just One Day in the future that it happens. It happens all the time, in the past-present-future. In other words, knowing that Life wins changes everything, all the time.

It’s like this: On the show Game of Thrones, there’s a “water dancer” (an expert fencer) called Syrio. He teaches his students this: “What do we say to the god of Death? ‘Not today.’” That’s the Gospel in a nutshell. Syrio’s lesson isn’t that we won’t die - we will, certainly. We will all fall. His lesson is that in the face of Death, we choose to Live. That in itself is a victory. In the wasteland, the knowledge of Death chokes the life and joy out of the present. It renders life hopeless. It’s an early and ongoing death.

When we know Life, we say to the god of Death “Not today,” every day. We battle as soldiers, claiming ground for Life. Even on the day of our death, we say it to Death’s face. Even when awful things happen. We say “Not today,” by living with hope, by doing good, by loving, by celebrating, by having the audacity to take root and blossom and flourish. Proverbs 28 says, “The righteous are as bold as lions.” It’s that. We are never cowed. Not by Death, not by anything.

While it has been hard, I am glad I’ve focused on death for so long, because it’s helped me understand Life so much more deeply. Maybe that’s the point of my deployments to the wasteland. I know both Death and Life. I know to say to Death, “Not today,” every day.

I know that Life is beautiful.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2018 Favorites

Favorite Books of 2018

Just for Fun

Lara Jean trilogy by Jenny Han - A fun coming of age story about three sisters.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell - Rom-com set in 1999 with realistic characters.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell - An introverted fan-fiction writer heads off to freshman year of college.

Literature

The Road by Cormac McCarthy - Best book about fatherhood I've read. Read it out loud - it's poetry.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami - Moody, mysterious, foreboding.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy

The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey - Space opera at the highest level.

The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski - I was immediately sucked into the magic and political intrigue of this brutal fantasy world.

Spiritual

The Rule by St. Benedict - Some say the order of St Benedict is the oldest ongoing organization in the West (outside of the church). You can see why in this timeless classic of school for beginners.

The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr - Cut through the noise of the enneagram fad and learn how to utilize the ancient tool to grow as a person.

How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community by Judith Valente - The author is a workaholic journalist and broadcaster. Her background lets her clearly translate the wisdom of Benedict for the 21st century.



Best New (To Me) Band of 2018
Larkin Poe. The future of blues and Southern music. Ten years of performing has really paid off for the Lovell sisters. They're complete pros in writing, playing, and performing, and a joy to watch. Even though I'm a lifelong guitar player, I kind of thought guitar was dead. Larkin Poe and Gary Clark Jr. convinced me otherwise this year.

Monday, December 3, 2018

A Beginner's Guide to Orienteering in an Existential Crisis

I don't like to brag, but it's Internet in 2018 so I guess I will: Besides being left-handed and knowing a shocking amount about Hallmark movies, one of my standout qualities is the ability to jump from 75 to Brooding in less than a second.  I have decades of experience in brooding, and I've also brooded in over a dozen countries spanning three continents. Many amateurs think they need to sit in the dark and listen to The Smiths while clutching a highball glass like a talisman, but that's rookie stuff. Elite brooders like me can brood in broad daylight with no chemical enhancement needed.
Actual footage of a co-worker's note on my door, circa 2015.

I type all that knowing from experience that depression and melancholy are difficult things to experience, especially around the holidays. While I love pretty much everything about Christmas, the season can bring into relief difficult things that sometimes we'd rather not think about - missing loved ones, unrealized expectations, and the like. But it's not just the holidays. Hard times can hit at any time. Sometimes you get down and you don't even know why. There's no reason that you can find, but there you are, in the wasteland. Again.

If you're depressed or walking through a rough patch, the main thing I want you to know is that you don't have to go through it alone. As a fellow ranger of the wasteland, I'll be honored to walk alongside you. We'll figure it out.

If you aren't ready to talk (or don't want to walk with me), I've gathered notes on some helpful landmarks to help you get to friendlier terrain.

ESTABLISH A ROUTINE. Sleep seven to eight hours each night. Exercise daily. Even short walks at lunch and dinnertime are a huge help, especially if you get around some greenery. Eat real food. To quote Make Time, we're not just minds speeding around on Segways. Our bodies influences our minds and our minds influence our bodies. If you can take care of your whole self, it'll help. At the least, it will help you not make things worse, if that makes sense.

GATHER YOUR CREW. Like the Step Up franchise taught us, you need your whole dance crew to succeed. You don't even have to give an inspiring speech to sick beats to get them to rally. Your friends and loved ones care about you and really don't mind helping you out. Let them know what's going on so that it's out in the open. Darkness loses power over you that way. You might expand your crew to include counselors, yogis, religious leaders, fitness coaches, authors, and whatever else you need.

TALK TO GOD. The Bible is full of faithful yet very confused believers. They don't understand what God is doing (or not doing), and what a measly human is supposed to do in a giant, unknowable world. That's fine! Ask God for help in understanding, for the will to want to understand, for courage. Just ask all the questions you have. There's a pretty good chance all of your questions won't get answered, or at least not in the way you want. But, as Mick Jagger taught us, if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need. Even if what you need is just to clear the air with your maker.

CHECK YOURSELF. An uncomfortable lesson I've learned is that sometimes I exacerbate my issues. In the past I've done this through negative thought patterns, self-medicating with alcohol and comfort food, and pushing people away. Try and cultivate your mental and spiritual garden so that it's more likely you'll be well instead of unwell. Routine really helps with this.

HAVE FUN. Even in hard times it's possible to enjoy yourself. Laugh at silly movies and eat amazing food. Put on your cool clothes and go out with friends. Last year I was listening to a sheriff talk about working an especially rough case and he said, "Cry when things are sad and laugh when things are funny, or else you won't make it in this line of work." I think that's true in life. It doesn't mean you are pretending that everything is fine. It means you are living, engaging with the world. If you're the rebellious type, it means you are defying entropy and waving your beautiful bright freak flag in a gray country. That's cool.

I hope these ideas are useful for you. Take heart!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Silence & Speech

I don't talk much.

There are plenty of reasons why.

SILENCE

First, the Bible has so many verses about watching your mouth that it's hard to ignore. Here are some choice examples:
  • "As you enter the house of God, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. It is evil to make mindless offerings to God." - Ecclesiastes 5:1
  • "If you claim to be religious but don't control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless." - James 1:26
  • "Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble." - Proverbs 21:23
  • "You must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you." - Matthew 12:36-37
  • "A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even-tempered. Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent." - Proverbs 17:27-28
Experience, unfortunately, was another teacher. I learned the hard way that talking too much means being cruel, thoughtless, or just failing to convey what I really mean. Have you ever edited or deleted a social media comment? Have you ever been frustrated after a conversation because you couldn't move the oomph of what you wanted to say from yourself to someone else? They couldn't grok what you meant? It's a frustrating feeling because you aren't fully known and can't fully know others.

The last reason I don't talk much is because of a college class. At ACU, I took a course called Spiritual Pilgrims. The class was about traditional religious ascetic practices that may have been more en vogue in ancient Egyptian deserts or medieval monasteries than in the 21st century. These practices include silence, solitude, meditation, fasting, and contemplative prayer. These practices are, at least in part, about cutting through the nonsense we surround ourselves with in order to get to the truth. By truth, I mean who we really are, who God really is, what our real purpose is. Real stuff.

One of the books we read in the Spiritual Pilgrims class was Henri Nouwen's The Way of the Heart. That book is a wonderful introduction to silence, solitude, and prayer. The book is less than 100 pages, but it's full of nourishment and wisdom. I learned from that book that silence and solitude aren't the absence of something, but instead are the fullness of something. Nouwen says "words are meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they came."

Another book that's recently come across my desk is Martin Laird's Into the Silent Land. Laird explains that silence, full silence, is crucial for us to begin to realize the depth and profundity of our connection with God. He says "[u]nion with God is not something that needs to be acquired but realized." When we are one, talking isn't necessary. We fully know the other, so nothing needs to be said. Doesn't that sound great? Someone fully knowing you, and fully being known to you? What peace and comfort.

I don't talk much because there are lots of reasons to be silent. One of the main ones is that you don't come off like a jackass, even if you are a jackass! Also, enjoying the fullness of silence is a good thing.

At the same time, I'm trying to talk more. Here's why:

SPEECH

Silence is good, and it's not the only good. As a disciple of Jesus, my two jobs here on Earth and to love God and love people. So, if I'm serious about my faith, service is also good. What I'm learning now is that while our silence is an end, it's also for something. We carry the silence, carry the fire, and engage with the outside world. Silence allows us to serve. If we don't speak up, we miss those opportunities.

Nouwen puts it this way: "A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it. It is a word that reminds us of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that silence."

The Bible says this about our words:
  • "Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone."- Colossians 4:6
  • "Don't use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them." - Ephesians 4:29
  • "Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing." - Proverbs 12:18
  • "Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit." - Proverbs 15:1
  • "Kind words are like honey - sweet to the soul and healthy for the body." - Proverbs 16:23-24
How do you balance the wisdom of being quiet with the opportunity to serve? How do you know when to speak? Here's what I've come up with as times when it's necessary to speak:

  1. When it helps or affirms another.
  2. When you need help.
  3. When peace requires it.

Help for another: It's clear from the Scripture and theology above that we can be nourishing and heartening to others. We should do that. If we do, we're being good to one another and fulfilling our purpose. If we have the ability to and we choose not to, we're squandering our lives and also preventing others from flourishing. Affirming others when they've done or said something hard is a great way to offer help.

Help for self: Sometimes people need help but won't ask for help. Maybe this is pride, but I think a lot of times it's thinking that people think they're just not worth helping. That's just not accurate. God made you and loves you. You're worthy. You matter to God and to me, and probably lots of other people. Take care of yourself. Realize also that it's not just you that you're helping. In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes: "[Y]ou do not belong to yourself. You are not simply your own possession to torture and mistreat. This is partly because your Being is inexorably tied up with that of others, and your mistreatment of yourself can have catastrophic consequences for others." If you need help, ask for help. We're all better off for it!

For peace: We are a verbose culture. We're literally surrounded by audio and visual speech.  Magazines, books, podcasts, radio, Hulu, Netflix, yada yada. We carry the internet and scroll through it all day long. We bicker and snipe at one another on social media and we pick red team or blue team, yada yada. What we don't do all the time is think about the end goal. Are we helping one another by what we say? Why are we contributing to the noise that distracts from silence? A lot of times, the answer is that we aren't helping. Are we adding anything meaningful? A lot of times, the answer is no.

Sometimes, though, we do have to speak up.

If a situation or a relationship is broken and it's not being addressed, peace is broken. We're all worse off. We should speak up and try to help heal what's wounded. This can be uncomfortable and even dangerous. It's also good, so we should do it.


FINDING BALANCE

Silence is good. Speaking in service is good. How do you find the balance so that you can function in society? We don't want to be hermits or become detached. A couple of observations:

First, if you've mostly stopped saying awful stuff and are encouraging and helpful to others, I think people will probably like you and you'll feel good about yourself. That will help you not feel like a weirdo.

Second, on top of that, keep in mind the point isn't being disengaged, but appropriately engaged. We do not add to the noise; we do speak truth and peace into the world. We're doing our best to help.

Here's a quick test from the Spiritual Pilgrims class:

Before you say anything, ask whether it's good and necessary.

That should help you figure out whether to yell at the drive-through employee, make that comment on Facebook, or speak up when no one else will.

TL;DR

  • Shutting up is good.
  • Speaking up is also good. 
  • Help, get help, and heal.
  • "Is my speech nourishing and necessary?"