Joshua Graves
Exploring the Collision of Culture & Faith
January 17, 2014

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If I don’t write this down, it will get away from me.

The truth is that it is already slipping away . . . already becoming something different. Each time we put the pen to paper, words to experience, we capture and miss the thing altogether. That’s part of the human dilemma. Our best moments are beyond the reach of articulation: oral, written, otherwise. It has taken me some time to be at peace with this truth.

I was recently part of an innovative conference for leaders, creators, thinkers, dreamers–about 80 people from all over the U.S. (and a few other places) created 48 hours of space to think deeply; to discern what God was up to in their life: their life life, work life, family life, etc. Pastors, Silicon Valley CEO’s, writers, story-tellers, teachers, journalists, doctors came looking for something. Or Someone.

We learned about rest, creativity, story-telling, communication, confession, work, play, conflict, philosophy, Sabbath, how cultures change (and families and churches and individuals too). We learned about knowing, acting, and being the movement of God’s spirit as it is being unleashed in the world because of God’s decision to raise Jesus from the dead. Mostly we felt something that was beyond cognitive description. It was about resting in the deep awareness that God’s grace permeated the totality of creation: space, person, body, time . . . guacamole, pizza, beer. God’s grace in all things. Every moment laced with the magic of God’s beauty, and inherent goodness.

It was a really good conference. The only one I’ve ever recommended to friends. By ever, I mean ever.

And, then, we went surfing. My first time to do this thing Californians call “shredding the gnar bru bra!”-Exactly. I have no idea what it means but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean “Good luck.” I think it means, lean into it. Every moment. Be there.  I was supposed to go surfing a few years ago with my father while were on a guys trip that spanned from Yosemite to Malibu but we chickened out when we saw the water temperature that day. Man was that a poor decision. Say “yes” as often as you can, right? “No” in the face of risk is often the beginning of death.

So, we went out, most of us having no clue what we were doing (other than realizing we were being ushered into the courtyards of the palace that is what some spiritual teachers call The Beginner’s Mind). The thing about surfing (or basketball or climbing or writing or whatever) is that it isn’t really about surfing. This is what I mean: 1) The harder you try the worse you are. It’s about relaxing, letting the wave carry you. Do you know how hard that is for someone like me? I love to be in control. I crave control. 2) 2 hours of surfing entails about 3 minutes of total surf time. It’s like baseball: 3 hours packed into 20 minutes of action. Most of the time you are “surfing” you are not, in fact surfing. You are swimming/paddling, spitting salt water out of your mouth, stretching a cramp, listening to your instructor, planning your next move. You can choose to be annoyed by all the non-surfing when you surf or you can embrace it was part of the larger whole. In the words of one writer/Christian teacher, “It wasn’t until I could see God in the kitchen and every day splendor of parenting that I could see God in the stadium, or on the big stage.” Read that last quote a few times. I thought about that as I floated waiting for my next attempt to catch a wave: thought about Kara, my boys, my work, my passions, my dreams. God. In. All. Things. Now that will wake someone from a slumber.

As we ended our time in the Pacific, I didn’t want to get out. I laid on top of the surf-board, sun beating down on my back, salt drying out the skin on my face, slight breeze falling over my head. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to press time-out (Like Zack used to do on Saved By the Bell). Why do moments like go so fast and others linger for so long? Find the answer to that and you will be a rich person. Yes, I just googled Saved By the Bell. Who am I?

As I walked back up the shore humbled (I was very very average), rested (water does that to you in a crazy way), I was eyes-wide-open awake. One person said, “You are fully alive right now, right?” I had this sense that my best days are ahead of me (Kara, Lucas, Finn too), that this is God’s story we’re living in, that it’s all gift, that the generosity of God is as close to us as we are to ourselves. If only we’d stop being so stingy and open our hands to receive.

So I opened my hands and received that moment as gift. Because I deserve none of it. And I love all of it.

Yes, I like THIS SONG even more now. It has saved my faith in the future of “Christian” worship.

Because it isn’t about being baptized once.

It’s about being baptized first so you can be baptized over and over and over and over again. To remember, time and time again, how good God is, how good it is to be alive, air in your lungs, blood in your body, guacamole and Dr. Pepper on your tongue.

Same with the bread and the wine of Judaism (passover) and Christianity (Eucharist). I have a friend, Chris, who talks about food as if it is part of heaven. Seriously, I can eat two steaks and if he called me to talk about food, I’d want to eat again. And you know what…I think he’s right. We don’t simply receive the Supper from a preacher or priest during a weekend religious service. We receive it at the dinner table with our family, in a dingy hut in Uganda as a young mother offers you (literally) everything she has, in an East Nashville restaurant as friends pour out their deepest dreams and fears. We receive the grace of the thing over and over and over. God’s grace never stops; it is oozing out of the very fabric of creation.

And we keep receiving until we are unable. Which, when that comes, we will no longer need anything. It was about surfing but it wasn’t –at all–about surfing. It was–as are all moments, people, places–about God, who is in all, ahead of us, waiting for us to experience all that is to come, even if in this life it is only in small hints, tokens, foreshadow.

I’m told that some Benedictine monks sleep in their coffin every night. This helps them bodily remember that they are dying, that they were “dust and to dust they shall return” . . . I guess a sticky note on the bathroom medicine cabinet isn’t sufficient. They need the actual coffin in their room. Every night. Dying so that they might live another day.

If I’d had a coffin with me the night following my surfing adventure, I think I would have glimpsed what these Benedictine monks are learning: You only get one life to be a Jesus-follower, husband/wife, parent, friend, artist, story-teller, athlete–why hold anything back? Why let fear of death, or death itself anchor you to a lie that isn’t real?

Why not pursue God in everything you do, in all you are, in every place you find yourself . . . and see what happens? What else is there, really?

January 17, 2014

My friend, Micah Redding, wrote this after I asked some trust friends to reflect upon their experiences with death, suffering, etc. I respect Micah for what he believes and how he lives. He’s been a true gift to me since I moved to Nashville. A talented thinker across the disciplines, his perspective always causes me to see differently. Read this personal reflection.

My grandfather died in December. For me and my siblings, this was the first real “death in the family”, and it was a lot of new experiences and new stresses and new awkward situations. His heart stopped for 30 minutes, and then we had 5 days of waiting in the hospital, trying to find out what was going to happen, and trying to be there for my grandmother, and trying to be there for my grandfather in whatever way was still possible.
I was hyper-conscious of religion in this situation, because some of my family are very religious, and some of my family are not.
A few of them had a really hard time being in the room with him, because it was hard to see him that way, unconscious and swollen. But for whatever reason, I did want to be in the room. I wanted to be there with that real person, in that real situation. I didn’t want to just “remember him as he was”. That in its own way would be a sort of concession to death, a sort of rejection of the life that was still there.
I very much admired my grandmother through this whole process. She fought for his life, even when it became apparent that if he did regain consciousness, he probably wouldn’t regain full independence. Even when it became apparent that he would probably struggle with brain damage, and all the intense difficulties that would entail.
I admired her, because she so clearly valued his life, to whatever degree it was possible. I didn’t feel like this was just being afraid to let go, or holding on to something symbolic and unreal…I felt like she was quite ready for whatever “life after heart stoppage” would mean.
When they finally told us that there was no brain activity, and no chance of him regaining brain activity, she asked her children to help her make the decision, and then sat with him the entire night, holding his hand for as long as she could.
During this whole process, a lot of scriptures were read, and a lot of songs were sung, and a lot of encouraging things were said. I felt like most of them were glib; I felt like they were disconnected from the reality of what was happening in front of us. But Job 19:

I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.

For some reason, that resonated. I’m mostly familiar with this passage as a tool in the debate over whether we are resurrected as spirits or as flesh — people argue over whether it says “in my flesh” or “out of my flesh”. But I think that was the farthest thing from the author’s mind. The passage is not about those kinds of issues; it’s about who we are, and our deep and never-ending hunger for connection. It’s about that yearning reaching beyond death, beyond our place and situation; the first experience of life, and the last experience in death. “I myself will see him; with my own eyes — I, and not another.”
January 15, 2014

A few months ago the CDC issued a summary of a report that made a crazy claimMore people in the United States died as a result of suicide than died as the result of car accidents. As I type this, I even have a hard time believing it. But it’s true. Multiple sources and agencies confirm. Each time you are driving in a major city and it says, “This year, 769 people have died on Michigan highways”…more people died as a result of taking their own life than the number on the highway-update-scare-you sign.

When I read this statistic, I thought of a few people. I tend to think in terms of images and faces. People just appear in my mind’s eye, or soul, or heart, whatever you want to call it.

I thought of a friend in middle school who died as a result of a gunshot wound only to learn later it wasn’t an accident, it was whispered to have been a suicide. I remembered Virginia Woolf-arguably one of the greatest literary minds in Western literature. At the age of 59, while writing a book with the haunting title Between the Acts, she decided the pain and deep sadness, was simply too much to bear. She wrote to her husband (the last letter or thing she ever wrote), “If anyone could have saved me, it would have been you.” She thanked him for their years of marital bliss and happiness. She put on a coat, filled it with rocks, and drowned herself in the River Ouse. Her body was not discovered for 3 weeks. For 3 weeks her husband lived in absolute in torment. And then, after 3 weeks and 1 days, things got worse.

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I thought of the TV and public debates I witnessed growing up in Detroit with Dr. Death-Jack Kevorkian.

I also thought of David Foster Wallace when I read that CDC report. I thought of this brilliant speech he gave at Kenyon College (OH) later published as the pithy but provocative book, This is Water. If you are short on time, watch from the 5:50 mark to the 9:50 mark. Warning he uses a few cuss words.

Ultimately, Wallace couldn’t stand up under the weight and vision of this speech. In 2008, three years after this speech, he hung himself on the back porch of his own house. “Freedom means day by day, choice by choice, dying for others. That’s real freedom.” One of the greatest philosophical minds of the 21st century . . . no longer.

Because I’m a Jesus person … I tend to always wonder how (not if) these stories connect back to the ancient put powerful examples within the borders of Jesus’ own life.

Ultimately, the story that gets the final word with me is the story of friendship in the Gospel of John. Stay with me.  The second half of John possesses some of the richest teaching on what it means to truly be friends; to be in community. A true friend, according to Jesus, is one who is willing to lay down their life for the sake of another (Jn. 15:13).

Credibility through death and sacrifice.

In the John narrative, there are two true cowards in the entire gospel: Judas and Peter. There are hucksters and power-brokers and sinners and hypocrites and timid and courageous and dumb characters . . . but only two are cowards. By the way, they also happen to be the most prone to violence (Judas wants to incite it, Peter chops off the ear). There’s a fascinating thread in the gospels between fear, cowardice, and violence. Jesus, the truly brave character in the story, looks violence in the face, not flinching, because he understands that there is a strength stronger than violence and death.

In John’s account, Jesus predicts Judas and Peter’s cowardice in the form of betrayal in chapter 13. While predicting Judas’s betrayal, it’s Peter, of course, who’s enraged. Just a few verses later, Jesus turns things around and tells Peter he’s no better. Later in the John Story, Peter will deny and betray Jesus multiple times. During one such denial, Peter and Jesus’s eyes lock. We have no idea what that looked like but we can’t skip over it. In some of Bono’s writing for instance, I sense him wrestling with his own cowardice. At times, he’s Judas, at other times, he is Peter.

We know (via Matthew and Luke) that Judas could not bear the shame of what he had done to Jesus. Judas takes his own life. Whether or not Judas was disappointed in Jesus (hence the betrayal and suicide) or thought that by speeding up the messianic coronation, he was “doing Jesus a favor” only to realize he’d backed the wrong horse . . . these are matters of historical and psychological debate that go beyond the narrative’s interest.

What we do KNOW, for certain, is that Jesus has two friends who are cowards. Cowards meaning-they could not actually do the thing they said was most important to them. Which means, ahem, we are all cowards. All of us. Shades of cowards but cowards nonetheless.

Jesus dies for them anyway. Or dies for them especially. After his resurrection, Jesus shows the most interest and the most passion for Peter. I’m convinced that John 21 is centrally focused on Jesus dealing with, not Peter’s guilt (though there was plenty of that), but the intense shame that had caused Judas to kill himself and probably pushed Peter to the brink of similar consideration. Jesus’ last conversation with Peter was one of liberation from shame. I think, partly, Jesus was motivated to make sure that Peter didn’t allow his own disappointment, shame, regret paralyze him the way Judas could not resist. He didn’t want to see another friend go the way of suicide. Jesus still had big plans for Peter (Judas too perhaps). He had to fight for Peter’s future and view of self.

I don’t recall the details, but one of the more moving contemporary pieces of Midrash I’ve read, deals with Judas’ mother and Mary (Jesus’s mother) talking in heaven about their pain and wounds from the deaths of their sons.

I think Jesus saw Peter post-Resurrection and made a decision he was not going to let Peter’s last chapter be titled, “Coward.” Jesus had more chapters to write in Peter’s life. He had more chapters to write in Judas’ life too, but didn’t get the chance (at least not in the realms we are familiar with).

Some practical suggestions for local churches/synagogues/communities of faith.

1. The local church has to deal with depression, mental illness, and suicide (3 separate but interconnected conversations) in a robust fashion. Because of the stigma attached to panic-attacks, depression, anxiety, postpartum, etc. the church sometimes only makes the problem worse. We have to be ready to aggressively and lovingly walk with those in the pit. This is not about getting people to “think right” or “just make choices”…it’s far more complicated. It is mysterious. It is layered. It is bigger than all of us.

2. Suicide is not the last unforgivable sin. It’s really bad theology. So, please stop it. Death doesn’t get the last word. God does. It’s God’s story. Debating this simply distracts us from the church’s call to enter into people’s darkness before they get to a point where ending life seems like the only real, viable option. I almost loathe even writing this but that sentiment is still alive in some evangelical circles. God is past, present, future. God’s not bound to work within the realm (a human’s present) like I (or you) am (are). Just because you take the gift back from the Gift Giver, doesn’t mean the Gift Giver can’t give again. Know what I mean? Feel me?

3. The shame brought upon families of suicide victims is one of the largest burdens anyone or any group can bear. No one (unless you’ve gone through it) understands. Save religious cliché, shallow theology, and hallmark sentimentality for someone else. It is not helpful in any way. It can wreak hell in families for generations, birthing an anxiety that goes to the core of human identity and soul, injecting toxic whispering voices.

4. The tragedy of suicide is that it takes the pen away from the author’s hand. Instead of living as characters in a sacred story, we take the author’s role and make it our own. That God allows us to do this shows God’s ultimate respect for the mutuality of the divine and the created. It is that moment when the walls close in so tight, you literally cannot imagine another possible scenario. That’s the moment that if you lack grace or compassion or sheer heart-breaking love for the person committing suicide, you lack the heart of the human God intended you to be. Sorry, that was really preachy.

5. If you or someone you are close to is truly struggling, really in the deep dark abyss, please, by God, please reach out to a pastor, a friend, a counselor, a spouse. Reach out to someone. And if you are that someone, listen, pray, err on the side of action and compassion. Reject secrecy and shame. Be a safe place. But be a place for transformation and healing. Reach out and hold on for dear life. We can’t exhaust the depth and mystery of God. That’s why we can’t exhaust the depth and mystery of all that which God created. Let’s never tire on chasing things/problems/ideas that really matter.

I realize I run the risk of alienating people on all sides of this … I am not a professional, I’m a pastor/theologian who walks with people through the best and worst moments of their lives. Therefore, I have to think out loud on some of this. Consider it simply part of a larger conversation in the intersection of psychology/theology/medicine.

January 9, 2014

I know it’s a shocking claim . . . but . . . are you ready for this?

We all die. Death is coming. The minute you are born you start to die. (This is a five part series, see previous four posts)

As I was formatting this post, a friend stopped by my office. This new friend spent a major part of his early adulthood in prison for shooting a classmate. Having come so close to death (of another, of his own, death’s power in prison systems) — life was more sacred and precious. And this is the point. The more aware you are of your own death, Your own journey towards death, the more life matters now.

“It’s really all about how you go,” says one sage. “You needed to plant a tree 20 years ago. If not then, today is the next best option,” says another.

All of us. We don’t stay dead. That is,  if you are a Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, or Jew–you believe in some kind of after life. (If you are interested in that particular conversation, my good friend Jonathan has done an extensive teaching series on this from a Christian perspective). I think Jonathan’s right by the way. Also, Mike Cope did a fantastic series on death, grief, losing a child (it’s sacred space).

It’s important to think about your death. You know, because it implicates all us, this thing we work so hard to avoid.

Fun exercise. What elements do you want in your funeral? What do you want it look like? Feel like? Sound like? In no particular order . . .

*Lots of U2 music (preferably from Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum).

 

*Lots of choir/black soul music. Like this.

 

*Oh. Definitely this song.

*Love song written and performed by me for Kara. Did I mention said love song would be epic, life-changing? Stay tuned.

*Stories/snapshots from family, loved ones, and friends (key mentors, college basketball coach, siblings, college teammates, church community, fellow preachers). I’m not gonna lie, I’d be a little nervous about the stories my college teammates might share.

* A sermon by Randy Harris (if he’s alive). If not, Jonathan Storment and Josh Ross can do 15 minutes each (would be harder for Jonathan to pull off than Josh). Definitely have to include some of Coach Garth Pleasant’s great stories in this gathering too.

*Don’t know where this fits in, but definitely this from Allison Crowe. Hallelujah.

 

*A little ZOE WORSHIP (with choir) to transition.

 

*Maya Angelou reads from Revelation 21-22.

 

*Finale: Bob Marley’s Redemption Song (everyone has to sing).

*Last but not least, my twin brother, Jason, offers the benediction.

What would your funeral/celebration look like? What would it sound like? Be creative. Someone might actually remember this when the time comes. Deal with this:

When you haven’t yet had your heart really broken, the gospel isn’t about death and rebirth. It’s about life and more life. It’s about hope and possibility of a brighter future. And it is, certainly, about those things. But when you’ve faced some kind of death– the loss of someone you loved dearly, the failure of a dream, the fracture of a relationship– that’s when you start understanding the central metaphor. When your life is easy, a lot of theories, but you don’t really need them. When, however, death of any kind is staring you in the face, all of a sudden rebirth and new life are very, very important to you. –Shauna Niequist

NOTE: If you think this is morbid or depressing . . . go ahead let someone else plan your funeral. Not me. No way. I’m a control freak. I want to know for sure that a party is going down in my name, in my honor . . . I mean, in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ honor.

 

January 8, 2014
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January 7, 2014

See post #1 and #2 for the intro to this blog series on death and telling the truth about the pain of death.

Part of dying (what we sanitize by calling “aging”) means telling the truth about the chasm between the promise of sacred scripture and the reality of our every day experience. “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” writes Paul in I Cor. 15.  

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So, I asked Dr. Richard Beck, a friend and provocative thinker (who will be teaching with me at Otter Creek Church Feb. 16) a basic death question. That is, I asked him about his book and his coming to OC next month as part of a series on death and the Christian faith: “What’s the one thing you want people to know deep in their bones about death and the Christian faith?”

Here was his response (now you know why I’m having Richard Beck is my Homeboy t-shirts printed up as I type). Words of power and dynamite from Richard.

If I had one thing to say to that demographic I’d start with Henri Nouwen’s question: 

“Who am I when nobody pays attention, says thanks, or recognizes my work?” 

The answer most of us would give, shaped as we are by the culture, is this: you’re a nobody. If you’re not someone who “stands out” you’re a nobody. Brene Brown calls this the “shame-based fear of being ordinary.” Nobody wants to be ordinary. We want to be extraordinary.

And why is that? Because of existential (death) anxiety. We want our lives to matter, to be noteworthy and significant in the face of death. We don’t want to fade away, we want to leave a dent in the universe. So we grasp at anything that makes us stand out from the crowd, that allows us to make and leave a mark. And so we get caught up in the neurotic social comparison game–online, at work, and in our social relationships. The main symptom of this “shame-based fear of being ordinary” is envy/jealousy fused with a feeling of inferiority and inadequacy. 

The trouble with this, and here is the pastoral turn, is that everywhere we see Jesus asking us to “take the last place.” To be a servant. To be the littlest, least, and last. But that is impossible if our egos are being driven by a neurotic and shamed-based anxiety. Because the reality of Good Friday is that if you become like Jesus–if you carry his cross–nobody will pay attention, no one will say thank you, no one will recognize your work. That’s crucifixion. Of the ego, of the self, of our aspirations to be “a somebody.” 

So that’s the rub. Jesus asks us to become a “nobody” in the eyes of the world. In our own eyes. But because of our death-infected neurosis–the shamed-based fear of being ordinary–we can’t accept Jesus’s offer. We don’t want to take up the cross. It’s too embarrassing. We don’t want to be a servant. No one will applaud or like us on Facebook. 

And so we set out to gain the world but end up losing our soul. 

 

January 5, 2014

You are going to die. Repeating this to yourself on a daily basis is a sign of health not morbid darkness. See link for previous introductory conversation. Psalm 90:12 Teach me to number my days so I might have a heart of wisdom. I believe that repeating this to yourself actually helps you lead a more beautiful life. 

Here are your psychological choices. These are the choices that I’ve encountered as I’ve watched friends die, walked/grieved with people who’ve lost children, spouses, parents, close friends, etc. I would not say any of these choices are “bad” but ultimately I want to help you think in terms of healthy and whole versus unhealthy and fragmented. I don’t claim psychological expertise, these are simply observations from working/running a spiritual hospital (local church). Also, realize that in the midst of death, especially an extremely painful death, one does not have the “space” to know the choices. The first several weeks is about survival, and breathing, and more breathing. If you are dealing with immense pain and darkness, reach out to a local pastor or grief counselor.

Avoidance. Death visits you and you try to return to life as normal. You work harder, dream bigger, dress nicer, vacation with more swag. You simply up your game in life instead of dealing with what’s just occurred. The problem: All the pain, anxiety, disappointment, and fear has to go somewhere. Where does it go? Compartmentalizing is like putting trash in your bedroom hoping to come home one day and find it gone. Nope. That’s not how it works is it? The trash just stinks more.

Denial. Similar to avoidance, denial is the intentional and strategic approach of denying one’s own mortality in light of the mortality surrounding them. Think about Botox for instance (No eternal judgments here, just a cold observation). Most of the time you can tell when someone’s had Botox, right? Not all the time, but often. When you receive a Botox treatment you do so under the auspices that it will make you look younger. The truth: It makes you look like you want to look younger. It makes you look like you want to avoid the appearance of aging. Which is to say, you don’t want to look like you are dying. So Botox, actually does the opposite of that which it promises. Botox draws attention to the fact that you are dying AND to the deeper truth that you don’t want people to know that you know you are dying. Crazy, right?

Obsession. See The Year of Magical Thinking for this (totally) normal approach. Someone dies. They might have been moderately to super close to you and become consumed with a) every detail of their life b) how they died c) how they might not have died had you done something different and d) what their death means for your death (and those close to you). You save pictures, voice recordings, anything that might keep that person alive for just a few more moments.

Melancholy. A deep sadness not quite depression  gets you like a sniper while you are walking through a parade (My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman is a terrific embodiment of this necessary deep sadness, see also the main character in The Shack. Yes, I just quoted you The Shack, get over it. There’s a reason the book touched millions of people). Know what it is. Name it. Talk about it. It’s a gift if you allow it.

Depression. I hope we are to the point where “depression” isn’t a taboo-four-letter-not-accepted-in-society-word. Seriously, it’s here. We have to deal with it. Most of us, at one point in our lives, and at various levels, will have to wrestle the demons within when it comes to depression. Most of the great artists, musicians, theologians, and writers I’ve been around carry the wounds of depression. Paradoxically it is a sign that artists probably feel at the deepest of levels and understand just how complex and broken the world really is. Depression isn’t something to “wish away”–it is a reality that requires all your strength, grace, and fortitude. “A continual overwhelming outlook that your life is worthless and that you are not significant in any real way.”

Grief. Active grief and passive grief (probably a post for another day). A MUST read (Tim Keller’s work on this). Grief is the active work of naming, knowing, wrestling, meditating, observing the loss of the person and relationship. It is to hold said person in front of you appreciating all of her/his beauty and worth, all of the powerful moments, all of the ways you failed said person, all of the mystery and things you wish you’d said. Grief if one of the things that sets humans apart from all other animals in God’s temple of creation (don’t write me about how Dolphins grieve–that might be true but we simply don’t know enough yet). Grieving is the active pursuit of changing the things you can change and accepting the things you cannot change (in the words of the great Niebuhr prayer). It is a process that you never graduate from. You are always grieving multiple things, you might not be aware of it, but you are (the loss of a friendship, job, dream, etc.) Grief is the vessel by which God carries you through (and stronger) to the next season/chapter.

Peter Rollins ‏@PeterRollins22h (loved this tweet recently from Rollins) 

Our days come 2 us as a riddle,&the answers aren’t handed out with our birth certificates. We must journey 2 find the life we prize~John Eldredge

January 2, 2014

Not your average “feel good” … “it will all work out” blog post.

I’m looking at a picture of myself in college. It’s 2000. Maybe 1999. I know this guy staring back at me like it’s this morning. I’ve been working out twice a day, 5 days a week. I’m in the best physical condition of my life. I can bench press 300 pounds. I can run all day. I eat like a horse. I’m 6’4″, 215 pounds. For two solid years, I’ve sold out to my coach and mentor–giving the college hoops program everything I have.

It feels good. Feels right.

Then I look in the mirror, today. It’s  a few days into the new year. The calendar reads: 2014. Gray shades the side of each temple and sideburn. My forehead hair-line is receding like a shaken battalion in an already determined war on male hair follicles. The crow’s nest in the corners of each eye is formidable. I’m 34 going on 40. My wife is 30 going on 26. Our birth certificates say we’re 4 years apart. The eye test says 14 years difference. Best case scenario: 9 years apart. Seriously, she refuses to age. It’s crazy.

We do this family and friends, right? You think of them as you last saw them. Then you see them and you’re like “Huh?-That’s weird, they’re aging (which is to say “dying”) just like I am.”

I’m not whining or complaining (not now anyway), I’m simply stating the facts. One day in my late twenty’s I began to realize what is so obvious yet hidden: I’m dying. And so are you. And so are they. All of us, dying. The beautiful baby just born now resting in the Beaman Neo-Natal Unit at Baptist Hospital downtown Nashville. . . he/she is brand-new and . . . yet . .  that baby has a limited number of days. She could live to be 60, or 85, or 105.

It’s trite but startling. You are as old as you’ve ever been. You are as young as you’ll ever be. Right now. Older. Older. More older.

I hope I didn’t ruin your day. Sometimes I bring this up in conversations with friends . . . almost always, I get no response. Silence. Polite silence but silence nonetheless.

Did you know that jellyfish and oysters are immortal? Allegedly.

Or that, in Tibet, when you die, they bury you on top of a mountain. #likeaboss

Or that in the 19th century, a well-known medical writer, estimated almost 3,000 were annually buried alive. Some suggest that the number was more like 800 (still, 800? That’s a lot of people buried six feet deep).

Or that, according to the most accurate measurements available, suicide is now the leading cause of injury related deaths in the United States, surpassing car accidents in 2012. Read that last sentence a few more times.

What I’m saying, well I don’t know exactly what I’m saying . . . but I know this. I’m going to die. I’m pretty sure you are too.

IF you liked this blog, you might want to READ THIS BLOG too. Or THIS BLOG.

Teach me to know my number of days. And to live in the middle of each day like they’ll never run out.

Even though they will.

“I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” -Woody Allen.

Ernest Becker claims that the only true way to live whole is to a) acknowledge one’s mortality and to b) embrace each moment leading up to the last. Humans, as far as we know, are the only animals on Planet Earth who are aware of our pending death.

Faith–faith of any kind: Buddhist, Judaism, Hindu, agnostic, New Age, Christian (my conviction)–faith had better help Americans deal with our pending expiration. Other wise, what’s the point? What’s the point of any of it? In the last calendar year I’ve been part of funerals for two infants and several old people.

If my faith didn’t help me (psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, relationally) with the one certainty of human existence, I say it’s time for a different faith.

I’ll be doing a series of posts the next several months on death, dying, suffering and what it all might mean for a person of deep faith and hope. Most of those posts will come from a Christian perspective. But you don’t have to be Christian to think about death. You just have to be a human. Last time I checked, the giraffe doesn’t wax philosophical about his last breath.

One last story.

I’m playing with my son (age 4) in his room. I’m running my hands through his hair. He mimics me, running his hands through my hair. His eyes are ocean blue. Ocean that won’t quit.

“Daddy, you are losing your hair?”

“Yep, buddy, I am,” I reply (this is the first time he has ever made this astute observation).

“You lose your hair because you are getting older?”–probing the depths of the human condition more than thinking about my plight.

“Yes. Ahemmm.”

“And then you will die?” Didn’t see that coming. He asked so innocently. So pure. I couldn’t help but well up with tears in my eyes. Not because I know I’ll die one day but because I know there will come a day when Lucas’ dad won’t be with him to share stories, laughs, hurts, cries, or pain.

And. Here’s the thing. This is probably what my dad feels too. The circle of life. Life’s great equalizer.

That’s waking up to death.

I’d rather know the cold, hard truth than a fancy, shallow lie. Wouldn’t you?

 

 

 

December 26, 2013

I’m not a reporter or sports journalist. I spend most of my time writing or speaking about theology, faith, and spirituality. But, I’m taking a break from that this week to do this piece. Why? I don’t know but it’s something I keep coming back to. So, here it is. You get to deal with it now too.

In honor of the worst NBA Christmas Day slate of games in recent memory(and the fact that I personally attended MJ’s last game as a Chicago Bull against the Detroit Pistons in 1998)–I was transfixed), let’s walk down the path of basketball history for a few moments and reflect upon MJ. Michael Jeffery Jordan is the G.O.A.T.–the Greatest of All Time. There’s no question in my mind. You can make an argument for Kareem, Bird, Russell, Magic . . . but MJ seems to have an edge on all of these individuals (read Bill Simmons’ The Big Book on Basketball-see below) to get the best analysis of the greats, how we measure, ranking, etc. One can debate Jordan’s status per all-time greatest athletes (Jim Thorpe, Bo Jackson, Jim Brown, Marion Jones pre-steroids) . . . but you can’t (IMO) place anyone else above MJ on the hoop pyramid. He simply dominated the game, ethos, and international expansion of the NBA. Larry and Magic saved pro hoops, Michael made it divine.

When you think of Michael, you probably think of this game winner against the CAVS early in his career.

How do you not triple team him on this?
Or you think of this game winner that ended his legendary Bulls run of 6 championships. Yes. He pushed off. So what. How do you not triple him on this shot either?

I go back to childhood and this video. I probably watched this 100 times between ages 8-22.

 

Just for fun. Remember when this was Spike Lee’s claim to fame?

In case you don’t know. Here’s the kind of athlete/competitor we’re talking about. While you might not prefer college/pro hoops over football or baseball, basketball players are the best athletes on Planet Earth.

Over the last 15 years (O.K. longer than that-whispers started around his first retirement: gambling, trouble with the mob? Barkley?) a different sketch of MJ has emerged. Seems he has a shadow side. Seems he burned many bridges throughout his life. ESPN did a MJ at 50 piece that was phenomenal. Stop and read it. Seriously. Stop, what are you doing? Oh, and did you see MJ’s Hall of Fame Speech? Train-wreck. Absolute train-wreck. Here it is. He starts out strong but then, the wreck.

How great is it that Kukoc showed up for this event? I bet the Bulls paid him $100k to make an appearance.

BTW-did you know that Michael never got from his high school basketball team? Yep, read it HERE. Michael tried out for the varsity team and was put on the JV team as a sophomore. The coach MJ claims “cut him” –his life was ruined by the stigma. Michael never apologized. It was a lie. He simply played at the level most sophomores played at -junior varsity. Michael told himself a story and came to believe it. And he did that a lot. He would tell himself a story (INSERT: Buzz Peterson, Isiah, Bulls management, Kukoc, etc.) and stick with it. That coach-his life ruined by shame and alcohol addiction. He took on Michael’s story as his own even though it wasn’t historically accurate. He let Michael’s story become the defining story of his life. Michael was always the underdog in the story of his mind. Always down and out. He can still dunk at 50 in case you were wondering.

So this is the thing. Is it possible that the very thing that made MJ a great basketball player probably makes him a miserable person? There’s no question the post-performer Michael has struggled. To be fair, MJ never claimed to be a role model, person of great spiritual depth, social change agent, he just wanted to be the basketball player on Planet Earth. But there’s a valuable lesson in this. Just because a trait/characteristic makes us “successful” in one area of our life doesn’t mean it always helps us in another area. I know this is true of my own life. 

Bill Simmons writes about The Secret. Simmons, the best basketball mind alive today (debatable: Popovich, Jerry West, Bird, Coach K). According to Simmons The Secret is this.

Bill Simmons, sports and culture aficionado, wrote a fascinating book on basketball a few years ago (title and cover above).* Warning: he likes to push the edges of humor, stats, footnotes, and analysis. One thing you know for sure, if you read his book, you get a book that was a work of passion, science, and art. He worked for three solid years on this book. He poured everything he had into this book, and we’re all better for it.**

The single most important moment in the book, IMHO, involves Isiah Thomas. This caught me off guard because a) I’m a life-long Detroit Pistons fan and b) am not used to post-player-career Isiah getting positive pub.

If you don’t know who Isiah is . . . here you go (2 time NBA champion, one of the best pure point guards/leaders in league history, tough guy):***

During a chance meeting in which Bill Simmons talks with Isiah Thomas (even though Simmons had publicly roasted Thomas for years in the media AND Isiah has struggled mightily to apply this to his off-the-court life) about life, hoops, coaching, etc.–Isiah makes a profound observation. In my own words, a summary: Basketball isn’t basketball. The secret isn’t a secret. Or at least it shouldn’t be. The secret is so obvious, it’s hidden. It’s hiding in plain sight. The secret about being a great basketball player, a great leader is that you care more about the success of those on your team (in your context). The great players and great teams became iconic because they learned that playing for each other was more important than playing for themselves/their city/their contract/their own agenda.****  This is how teams, organizations, etc. get over the hump of surviving to thriving, from maintaining to dynamic impact–they get the focus off themselves and onto the larger goal/task/vision at hand. 

We like to root for talented people. But we love to root for those who use their talent to make others better than they would be if not for the talent/gifts of the particular person.

As a pastor and spiritual writer I’m contractually obligated to note here that much of this thinking can be traced back to early Judaism/Christianity–Jesus most obviously. Jesus who not only taught the virtue of giving one’s life for the sake of others, strangers, the world, etc. but who also lived an even more compelling vision with his own blood. Think: Nietzsche’s idea that the only thing to be trusted as written by a person is that which said person writes in his/her own blood. On Jesus’ influence in Greco-Roman society per humility as a virtue, see Ortberg’s brilliant book, Who is This Man? 

Have you ever noticed that Jesus never talks about leadership in any of the gospel accounts of his life? That’s partly because I don’t think leaders need to talk about leadership. Leaders don’t need to say “Here I am, I’m leading. Watch me lead. See me leading?” Leaders recognize one must gain the intrinsic believability and trust from others based on elements that go far deeper than words, ideas, titles, persuasion, argumentation.

This is true in neighborhoods, families, marriages, teams, churches, cultures. It’s true in some places because it’s true in most places. The secret shouldn’t be a secret and the fact that it’s a secret should make us rethink what is hidden what is obvious.

I’m a huge Michael fan. But when I tell my boys about different players, I’ll tell them more about Magic, Bird, and LeBron. That’s just me. The guys that played with MJ loved that they won but I don’t know if they loved playing with him. Magic, Bird, and LeBron–they’re teammates love(d) winning with them and loved playing with them. Big difference.

*If you know Simmons’ work, you know that he loves the footnotes. In his honor, I shall footnote. **Like a P. Yancey book or a Ken Burns documentary. As for the song selection on that video, wow, just wow. No words. ***From the Pacers to the Knicks to coaching a smaller school in Florida, Isiah’s genius on the court has not translated off of it. ****Ladies and Gents: This is why Bird, Magic, Tim Duncan, and LeBron James are all-time greats and great teammates. Kobe is Michael. He’d rather have 5 rings than teammates who admire him. I bet Michael will figure it out. Eventually.  I hope I figure it out. “Limits, like fears, are often just an illusion,” claims Michael. That is true with relationships too.

 

December 20, 2013

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Reading Romans: An incredibly thorough investigation of the kinds of church homes that probably existed in Rome and other parts of the Greco-Roman Empire. Truly stunning work.

Who is This Man?: One of the best “books on Jesus” I’ve read the last 5 years. Absolute home-run. A great book for seekers and life-long people of faith. Ortberg focuses on the humanity and historical impact of Jesus. His timing is great as the New Atheist Movement gains PR steam, Ortberg offers a necessary corrective daring us to imagine what the world would look like with Jesus or Jesus’ followers.

Chasing Francis: My good friend, Ian Cron, has given us a gem of a narrative. I don’t like to say too much about fiction. It’s a compelling piece. You will fall in love with Jesus and St. Francis and the church all in one sweeping story. Ian and I will be co-teaching a class at the Pepperdine Lectures in May. Make note!

My Bright Abyss: So poetic and profound, you have to chew on this book slowly. Provocative and theological, Wiman takes us beyond certainty and control and into the dark place of suffering and faith.

Scarred Faith: Josh Ross’ debut book (full disclosure: he’s one of my best friends)–I simply can’t believe the quality and power of this, his first book. Remarkable. I know it is speaking to thousands of people. Don’t be left out.

David and Goliath: Vintage Gladwell. The best all-disciplines story-teller we have in North America. And, he’s a person of faith (who knew!) who grew up in an Anabaptist tradition (who really knew?). He recently preached his first sermon and I got to be there for it, with 15k of his closest friends.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: Oldie but a goodie. Klosterman is a beast. How did it take me this long to start reading? Probably the smartest culture guru I’ve ever read. His work is intensely theological. Stunningly so.

Everything Belongs: With God, nothing is wasted. Perhaps Calvinists and Arminians/Open Theists are both right. I can’t believe I just wrote those words. Rohr is part Yoda part St. Paul part Rumi. Provocative and fun.

The Denial of Death: My first interaction with Becker (thanks to Richard Beck, his work in Unclean–on last year’s “best of list”) and it won’t be my last. I think I finally get Freud and Kierkegaard. That’s no small feat. This book is helping me with the preaching and teaching I’m doing in 2014.

God, Sexuality, and the Self: Coakley is a five-tool theologian. No weaknesses in her game. She’s a power theologian and will require you to work and discern. Very thankful to have started reading her work this year. This is her most recent book.

The Promise of Despair: My favorite read of 2013 (written a few years ago). Moltmann for pastors and church leaders. “The love of God protects us from nothing but prepares us for everything” is one way to summarize this book on death and all the minions working for death (sin, disease, sickness, divorce, addiction, etc.). I’m leading a 12 weeks series at Otter Creek straight from the raw material and insight of this book.

*N.T. Wright’s work on Paul, Barbara Brown Taylor, Scot McKnight (I’ve read it but it’s not out yet)–all books that will surely make the 2014 list.

***I left out Bill Simmons’ book The Big Book on Basketball because I realize 90% of you don’t care about NBA hoops (even though you should, but I digress, that’s a discussion for another day). His book is probably the most engaging, entertaining book I read in 2013.

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