Monthly Archives: April 2017

Puzzle pieces

I’ll write about it–to some degree–at a later time. But for now, I think your life is a puzzle–a big honken jigsaw puzzle that you put together as time goes on and you try to make sense of the picture.

I got a mess of new pieces this past weekend. I don’t quite know how all the pieces fit into place yet, but I know the picture is different now that I have these pieces.

I’m probably going to take these pieces and try to force them together in ways they don’t fit–mostly because I’m impatient and I want the picture to come out sooner than later. The problem with that is, once the picture is clear, the puzzle is built and there’s no longer any need to build.

Fortunately for me, my Father–my Daddy–watching me build the puzzle, is a kind and generous father. When I try to force the pieces together, he’ll either nudge me to let them know they don’t fit that way, or he’ll let me figure that out for myself.

And when I pretend that I haven’t seen the new part of the picture–when I act as if the picture I saw last week is the picture that represents reality, which is something I’ve already done less than four hours out, he’ll be patient with that, too.

I know I’ve be writing about religious stuff a lot lately, but honestly, it’s important to me. I’m not a smart man in these areas. I’m like the stupid little kid who keeps holding my hand near–and sometimes on–the stove burner to see if it’s on now.

But that’s me.

One last thing: if you’re reading this and you’re put off by angry, self- and other-loathing Christians who shatter the dream that would occur if they (we) (I) really followed the rules, two things…

First, you’re right to be put off. And I’m sorry. I’ll ask your patience and forebearance, because I’m figuring all this out, the same as you. I’m not better than you. I’m probably not a hell of a lot worse, either. I’m doing the best I can–which is less than I should be doing.

Second, that’s part of the point. I cannot achieve perfection in this area. My religious belief system is built around that core premise. If I could–if all of us could–we would have perfect justice and perfect mercy. Those things could co-exist. But none of us can do that. (But isn’t that what we all want, anyway?)

So I offer my best–flawed and hurtful as it may be. I understand if it’s not good enough, because–guess what? It’s not. But I give you my flawed word that I’m doing my best.

And I’m trying to learn from my master so I do better and hurt the people I should love better less.

“Then you can come over to my house”

The Leftovers is currently on HBO–the greatest show in the history of forever that no one is watching.

There’s an enormous amount of backstory involved, but the primary antogonist of season two is a woman named Patti Levin, played by Ann Dowd, who spends the season torturing Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey from beyond the grave.

Patti is an awful person. The Guilty Remnant, a cult-like group she leads does some breathtakingly horrible things to people in season one. Conspiracy to commit the stoning murder of one of her own members is among her lesser atrocities.

Faced with the disintegration of his second family, Kevin decides he will do anything to rid himself of Patti. So he decides die and go to a parallel world. If he kills Patti, he’ll be free–and he’ll return.

He does both. And without giving away secrets–because this show is brilliant, if a little edgy, and you should watch it–by the end of the battle, you not only hurt for Patti, you see her parallel death as a release for her, as well as for Kevin. In spite of the horrors inflicted on Kevin by Patti, he grieves her and hates what he has to do.

Flash forward a couple of episodes, to the scene where John Murphy, a neighbor with a dark past and enough baggage to cripple National Airport, shoots and kills Kevin. He goes back to the other place, and returns by singing Homeward Bound during hotel karaoke. (The brilliance of this show is that it makes that ridiculous plot line work in spades.)

After John sees the now revived Kevin, he has to face his own past–and the fact that his family is likely shattered. As they stand in front of their houses, John looks at his darkened house and says to Kevin, the man he shot and killed, “What if no one’s there?”

“Then you can come over to my house,” Kevin says.

As an uneven, flawed follower of Jesus, I’m called to be the Kevin of those scenes. I’m called to do my best to love the Patti Levins and John Murphys of my life. I’m called to try to see beyond the antagonism. I’m called to see beyond the petty, stupid tortures and see them as little girls and men who are suffering a loss I can understand. Even when they beg for war against me. Even when they metaphorically shoot me in the chest.

My job–the one I accepted when I decided to try for the 490th time to get serious about all this Jesus stuff–is to try to see beyond the white-clad, ugly, profane Patti Levin and to see the precious little girl that she still is. The one that’s been covered over with decades of a life lived within its own confining boundaries.

My job is to see John Murphy as a man whose baggage and circumstance I understand, then metaphorically invite him into my home, into the place were I exist. In spite of his having shot me in the chest.

My job isn’t to be stupid or naive. It’s just to try to see past the face slaps and the profanity and the anger and to try, if even of a fleeting second, to see those people as Jesus sees them. To see them as Jesus sees me.

And to love that person.

I’m not great at this job, but I recognize what the job is, and that’s a start.

Empathy and hard hearts

I read something once, posted in a political context, that said that people don’t care about the bad things in the world until it happens to them. The statement was made as an indictment of people from one political persuasion by people of another political persuasion. It was a slam.

Maybe there’s some truth to the slam, maybe there isn’t–that’s besides the point.

But the simple fact of the matter is, you can’t walk in someone’s shoes until you’ve walked in their shoes. You simply can’t know what it’s like to be in another person’s circumstance–to know how it feels, how it looks and smells, how it rubs your soul–until or unless it happens to you.

You may consider me hard-hearted for saying such a thing. (I will tell you the cardiologist looked at my heart a couple weeks back and really did find nothing…)

But honestly, I’m not. Not for this.

A couple of years ago, I thought I would be bed-ridden and largely unemployable for the rest of my life. All this with my son entering college and our supposedly golden years creeping up on us. Anything I did made me feel worse, and I had to work. I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), and nothing toasted my knickers more than someone saying, “Exhausted? I know how that feels?”

Respectfully, you don’t. You know know how it feels to have to stop halfway across the living room and rest because you have to. You don’t know how it feels to have two headaches at the same time, or to sit at a table while your work teammate looks at you for an answer to a time-sensitive question and to have your brain go completely flaccid. You don’t know what it’s like to go to the rheumatologist and have him say, “You don’t understand. You don’t come back from this. This is your life from now on, and it’ll probably deteriorate from here.”

That’s not a bad thing. I’m personally glad that you don’t know that.

But you don’t. And you shouldn’t say that you do.

There are a lot of really horrible things in the world. And yeah, most of them aren’t going to hit my in the heart unless they happen to me.

That’s necessary. It’s how people get by.

So to anyone in one of those circumstances, I’d never presume to understand–to say that I feel your pain. I don’t. I can’t. And honestly, I hope I never do.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t understand a little of it and it doesn’t mean I won’t listen to you when you need someone to talk.

What if it’s true?

In the Christian faith, today is Easter. It’s the day when Jesus’ mission on earth was fulfilled. He came. He held a mirror up to people that made it impossible for them to look away from what they were and to preach the message that God loved what was in the mirror, that you didn’t have to change first to be worthy of God’s affection. He was killed in what amounted to a political assassination. In doing so, he fulfilled all of the Jewish law at the time by allowing continual grace–a way to approach God without becoming perfect first.

As an aside, the Easter story in Matthew says that the curtain in the temple sanctuary was torn from top to bottom. That curtain separated the people from where God resided in the Temple. Jesus’ death eliminated the need for that division. The tear from the top to bottom shows where the tear came from.

Then, Jesus rose from the dead, to show his ultimate triumph and to show God’s victory over the things that would separate us from him.

You don’t have to believe all this to celebrate Easter.

But let’s, just for a moment, pretend it’s true.

If it’s true, then it’s a sign that God came to be with us. He wanted to know what it’s like to have shoes that don’t fit right. He wanted to know what it’s like to have to deal with people in power who seem to want nothing more than to crush you. He wanted to know what it’s like to have a bad stomach after eating food that’s not quite right.

He wanted to be here with us.

He didn’t precondition his being here on our being perfect. He came before we got better. And if you look around what’s happening, we still haven’t gotten better.

If that’s true. If God really did love the world so much that he gave his son to be with us, then what does that mean? It means that we’re never alone. It means that we’re loved. It means that even on those days when we can’t seem to get out of our own way, when every single thing we do turns to crap, that he’s still there and he still loves us.

And that’s got to make it better than it would otherwise be.

If we could just believe, even for a minute, that such unfailing love can exist, it would change everything.

More about Mike Pence and the Billy Graham Rule

To recap, Billy Graham made a decision decades ago that for propriety and as a matter of his own faith, he wouldn’t be alone with woman who weren’t his wife. Vice President Pence has made the same decision. Yesterday, I blogged that while I understood the vice president’s argument, I think he has some hard thinking to do.

I’ve thought about it more, and I disagree with myself–it happens more than you think.

I respectfully assert that as a leader and as a Christian, Mr. Pence can’t do the job without allowing the women who work for him the same access as the men who work for him. As vice president, Mike Pence is a leader. He’s the second most powerful man in the country and, if nothing else, he’s the workplace leader, the boss, for a lot of people. You can’t be a good boss without being a mentor.

The most valuable conversations I’ve had with bosses and mentors have occurred one-on-one, with the door shut. I don’t need mentoring on how to do a VLOOKUP in Excel or how to accomplish this, that, or the other task in my job. If I can’t figure that stuff out, I should have a different job.

The best mentoring I’ve gotten have come where my work self overlaps with my interpersonal self. Many of those conversations have been positive, helping me push my boundaries to places they haven’t been before. Some have been difficult and unpleasant. In all cases, they’ve been appropriate for two sets of ears only. In many cases, they’ve involved me and the woman I happen to be working with.

I’ve also been on the other end of those conversations, and in some cases, they’ve also been with women. And in almost every case, they’ve been best held behind closed doors.

I understand Mr. Pence’s concerns. I get and, on some levels, respect, where he’s coming from. I understand the risks the a guy like him takes when he’s alone with a woman. It would only take one woman with an ax to grind to make tone of trouble. And I understand that woman are, in general, desirable and fun to be around. But loving one another means you see them as more than potential sexual partners.

The bottom line is that he actively sought a job in which one-on-one conversations with anyone under your purview is reasonably considered part of the job–a pretty key part of the job, to be honest.

With all respect to him, if he can’t do that part of the job, he might not be the right guy.

Mike Pence and the women

Billy Graham had a rule in which he wouldn’t be alone in a room with a woman who wasn’t his wife. The rule was created among Graham and a group of other evangelists who were often on the road. The rule said that they wouldn’t eat, meet, or travel alone with any women other than their wives. It was intended to help them avoid the pitfalls other evangelists had fallen into (not to mention singers, actors, and ball players). Basically, it was an admission of their own weakness and an acknowledgement of perceptions and what they perceived to be important work.

Now, almost 70 years later, the Billy Graham rule is stirring controversy because it’s being put in place by Vice President Mike Pence. This New Yorker article criticizes the Vice President for his view of women–and the fact that his mindset may cripple the careers of the women around him. His critics’ arguments aren’t frivolous or based solely in political and religious intolerance. If a woman is worthy of doing the job, then she should get the job, even as Mr. Pence’s chief of staff–and it shouldn’t matter that she’s a she.

I request the highest of fives.

Put other way, if Camille Paglia, a sometime-conservative woman who happens to be lesbian, were best qualified for the job (and Mr. Pence could do a lot worse), shouldn’t she get the job? The same can be said of any other professional woman in conservative political circles.

I know you don’t like the guys so much, but still, you may not play.

And, critics charge, what makes Mr. Pence think that he’s so utterly irresistible that professional women, who worked hard to get where they are, would throw all that away because of his animal magnetism? It seems, they would argue, incredibly presumptuous on Mr. Pence’s part.

Then again, search Google for Christine Keeler, Mata Hari, or Margo Adams. Clearly, men like Graham and Pence could be undone by even the appearance of impropriety, even if that appearance wasn’t rooted in truth–especially in today’s political climate.

So what’s a Christian guy to do?

I try to be a decent representative of Jesus. And I have to be honest and say that if I were traveling a lot and away from my wife a lot, there would be times when temptation would be very, very strong. You’re on the road and you’re tired and lonely and you just got into a big long-distance fight–the eighth one this month–with your wife. And when you get home, there’s more fighting to come. The travel’s put a strain on the relationship and no one’s happy.

Nothing like a night at home, chatting with the old ball and chain.

And here comes a woman who’s willing to listen, who’s everything the wife–you’re thinking of her this way now–isn’t. And you have a couple drinks and she listens and maybe you drink a little too much and before you know it, Glenn Close is cooking you bunny soup.

So it’s clear that you have to build boundaries. But with those boundaries comes nuance. A pastor of my acquaintance has a group of guys who support each other. When they travel, they make sure to text each other–whoever’s traveling gets a text that evening, consisting of one word. Safe? The answer, at least as far as I can tell, is always yes. The goal is mutual support in the face of temptation. It’s not backward or sexist or dismissive.

If you believe in Jesus, you need to love your neighbor, even when that neighbor is a woman. In other words, if a woman came to you with a broken heart and you could say the words to ease her angst, would you turn her away solely because no one else was around? What if God wanted you to minister to her? What if your horrible experience was the “talent” you were supposed to put to work for God in that instance? Would you bury it in the ground?

I can imagine what you’re going through and I’d love to help you, but there are these bumps under your shirt and…

I’m not asking these questions because I think they have easy answers. I understand what Mr. Pence is doing and why he’s doing it. I suspect that John Perfumo, Wade Boggs, Tiger Woods, and any number of men maybe wish they’d done something like Pence and Billy Graham. And to be fair, I think these men and others who take a similar stance aren’t doing so frivolously or because they don’t like woman.

But in a sense, it seems like too easy a solution. It takes care of the man’s needs, but ignores the woman’s. And if nothing is impossible with God, it seems like you need to try pretty hard to aim higher.

Afraid Not

A long time ago, there was a movie called Defending Your Life, starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep. It was cheesy, not memorable, and its basic premise boiled down to salvation being a function of overcoming your fear. Taken at face value, it was theologically saucer-deep and kind of self-involved.

But there was a kernel of truth in it.

Let’s put aside the God angle for a moment and concentrate on fear.

Fear is perhaps the most self-involved emotion there is. I am afraid that something will bad will happen to me. I’m afraid that I will get laid off. I’m afraid that she will reject me. I’m afraid that my loved one will go out and be killed and not come back to me. I’m afraid of falling into a giant pit of snakes.

It could happen.

Okay, that last one is actually reasonable and appropriate.

But the rest of them make it impossible to see past one’s own fears to see to others.

As has been said countless millions of times–courage is not the elimination of fear. It’s acting in spite of that fear.

You can’t do that on your own. You can’t just say “today I will not fear” and expect it to happen for longer than a few fits and starts. In order for fear to be right-sized–because it’ll never be vanquished–something bigger needs to come.

Because fear is rooted in me, the only thing bigger than fear is something that shifts your direction outward. The only way to right-size fear is to move your focus of yourself and out to others.

To be clear, I’m not talking about some warped I am less worthy than others so I have to concentrate on them mindset. That mindset is a lie. And it contradicts itself, because its first impulse is entirely self-obsessed. I’m talking about an approach that says, How can I help you? My worth is present and need not be defended.

In a word, love.

This isn’t some mushy, sentimental Albert Brooks movie love. It’s hard. It means acting in ways that are manifestly uncomfortable. It means that when fear creeps in and trips all your wires, you have to push back. And that action of pushing back isn’t instant. It takes a long time to master. And that means when you screw it up, it’s not about my screw-up, it’s about how to be more present the next time.

It’s hard internal work, and it’s necessary to heal yourself and then help others to see your own hope.