In the Moment

The worst moment is when you think everything is going right, and then suddenly it all falls apart.  One of my favorite shows, The Walking Dead is brilliant at this.  (A bit of a year old spoiler ahead…)  For example, there was this sweet kid, Beth.  She disapeared for about a year.  Suddenly she is back.  We get reminded how wonderful she is.  Then?  Then she dies.

Though I am not a sports guy, I can emphasize with football fans.  The team is about to come back, the quarter back throws a beautiful pass, across dozens of yards.  They bar erupts in cheers!  And then, the other team comes in, intercepts, and then it all falls apart.  Touchdown, field goal, or maybe a home run or something.  (You have no idea how proud of myself I am, for that sports metaphor.  Based on the above accuracy, you will probably be amazed to find out that I am not a sports guy.)

121811 Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis (21) intercepts a pass intended for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson (13) in the third quarter at Ralph Wilson Stadium. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)
121811 Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis (21) intercepts a pass intended for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson (13) in the third quarter at Ralph Wilson Stadium. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

I think God must get this feeling a lot.  Perhaps by you.  Most definitely by me.  There are times when I suspect “he” is like, “That’s right Jeff, you are thinking the right way.  Just keep going in that direction, keep thinking that way…. What?!?  No, you just messed it all up!”

Last blog post, a pondered about the ways that God shows up in the flesh, the ways he is here, in the details, in the mess, in the dirt.  God is amazingly specific and detailed.  He is an example, not an abstraction.

And yet?  As I shared this… I was all abstract.  Theoretic.  I heard once about a presentation given on “The Interactive Classroom.”  It was a power point presentation.  This adventure in missing the point is a bit like mine, I think.

I am writing, mostly, to myself, and for myself here.  This is my reminder to myself, my attempt at calling myself out to something bigger and better.    The bigger and better?  It is living where and when I am.

When I am among the hurting, I want to hurt with them.  I want to carry that burden.  I want to feel the pain.  I want to embrace the specifics of the pain, rather than deflecting with abstraction and theoretics.   This will mean, often, closing my mouth and sitting in silence with others…  Because these canned responses that we save for hard times…  They are as much about protecting our own selves as they are about helping out others.

And when I am among the rejoicing, I want to rejoice.  I am terrible at rejoicing.  I think it is an age, culture, and gender thing…  Straight white middle aged men?  We are typically terrible at rejoicing.  To explore why would probably require a bunch of paragraphs.  Or maybe a whole blog post.  Or maybe a whole book.

Whatever the reason, my failure to embrace the actual reality of a moments of joy means that every last one of them will never come back.  They are lost forever.  And I think it’s time I stopped that.

I am new to this…  and maybe not very good at it.  How do I step out of the theoretical and ideal and into the reality of the moment?

The Wrong Question

I have had these golden moments.

They are connected to others, sometimes.  Or something in me.  Or something about the world.  Often times, it is a combination.  A perfect moment with people who I love in a beautiful place.  Or a moment when I was doing what I know I must have been made to do, a moment when I forget my worries and my own petty limitations…

I know that you have had these moments, too.

For better or worse, we have had the opposite of these moments.  Conspiracies of our factors beyond our control our baggage, betrayal and hurt that runs so deep.

There is an obvious question about these extremes: Is it worth it?  Are those moments of good worth putting up with the bad?  Perhaps this implies a related question: Which happen more often?  It feels like this one is a no-brainer.  Certainly, the bad times some times feel a lot more prevalent, sometimes.

But these are the wrong questions, I think.  There is a more important question.

What is the universe?

Nebula Wallpaper, carina, ngc 3372, stars, universe

Is one of these extremes the fundamental nature of the world?  Is one an abberation?  Is the world just a mish-mash, of the good and bad all mixed up together?

Faith, for me, is trust that the good is the most basic part of the universe: no matter how deeply things have been broken and perverted, there is something beneath that is better.  Beneath the surface of our personalities, beneath the pettiness and anger and hate.  And beneath the surface of the world.  The created world is like a lottery ticket, there is this thin, grey covering, and it is hiding riches beneath.

The source of love, the author of mercy invented power itself.  The world sprang up out of his kindness.  He made us and placed his reflection within us.  This is not a denial of evil, not a minimization of your hurt or my hurt.  It is a proclamation that these things are not the last word.  There is so much more.

Pretending the Bloody Nose Doesn’t Hurt

I can remember before I learned how to drive.   There were some things that I did not know.  If I wanted to drive, I needed to learn these things.   I am not a very practical guy.  I love speculation and theoretical possibility.  I love thinking about thinking.  I love learning about other’s deep thoughts.  I love to share my own.

When it came time to learn to drive, I should have determined which one was the break and which one was the clutch and which one was the accelerator.  It was important for me to learn how to turn on the head lights.  At that stage in my life I lived in Southern California, so most likely figuring out how to turn on the wind shield wipers could wait; it wasn’t likely to rain any time soon.

Knowing the history of the automobile?  Even less relevant than operating the windshield wipers.  The kind-of guy I am, it is tempting, in situations like that, to want to explore thermodynamics.  I remember learning the term fitzgig around the time I learned to drive.  A fitzgig is a tiny explosive, the “spark” caused by the spark plug.  In the film “The Dark Crystal” they named a character fitzgig.  That animal is named after this concept.

Learning how to change a spark plug, that is not the sort of thing I get excited to learn.  I paid a lot of money to mechanics.  And I have had way more than my share of accidents.  I should have paid a lot more attention to these practical things.

I am learning that spiritually, I am not much different.  With the car I spent all this time contemplating theoretics.  I should have been practicing pushing down on the pedals.  And in my spiritual life, I have spent all this time arguing theology.  I have ventured to the edge of the sorts of things that can be expressed in words.   Probably, I have spent some time well beyond this point, trying to wrap my puny little human brain around stuff that I just won’t be able to explain or understand on this side of the grave.

I am in the midst of this strange time of transition.  Some of it is connected to my spiritual community at large.  Some of it is very personal to me.  Some of it I am in the center of.  Some of it I am on the peripherary.  And some of it I am only connected to indirectly…

I am feeling lead in a direction on this stuff.  I am learning so much important stuff.  In some sense it is so basic, just as the actual mechanics of driving a car are in some sense so very basic.  A way I can express this is to say that I am called to make peace through this turbulence.

I am learning that there aren’t any right words when people I love are suffering.  Explaining where I think God is can be callous.  Asserting that it doesn’t seem like God is there at all can feed into somebody’s struggles with faith.  Telling somebody that I know what their pain is like can belittle them and turn the focus on me.  Telling somebody that I can’t imagine what their pain is like can isolate them.

I am not saying that we should say nothing.  I am saying that all these words we have are not the important thing.

The important thing is that I am fully with someone who is angry or suffering or lost.   Right there, with them, in that moment.   Don’t we all know, when somebody is with us, in our pain?   For me, that is an incredible gift, when I know that somebody has stepped past their own baggage.  They are not thinking about how it is for them.  They are just with me.

I am probably not much good at this yet.  I am learning that in the past, the things I said to somebody else, they were at least mostly for me.  So often the words I have said to somebody else, they are motivated so very wrong.  When someone I love is hurting, it hurts me.  And I don’t like hurting.  And so in the past, too many times, I have found kind words.  It is less that I want my friend not to hurt because they are my friend, and more that I do not want my friend to hurt because there hurting hurts me.

Somewhere, we know it, when our pain is hurting someone else.  We know it when they are trying to stop our pain in order to stop their pain.  I remember when my youngest was tiny.  We used to wrestle-tickle.  Once (ok, twice, actually) he got his little fingers inside my nose.  His little toddler fingernails scratched up something good in there.  I bled all over the place and hurt quite a lot.

And he was really freaked out.  I found myself covering up the bleeding, covering up the pain.  And that is what a dad should do.

But there have been times in my life that I have been the toddler.  Times that people are hurting are greatly.  And me?  That hurt makes me hurt a little bit.  Perhaps the person hurting doesn’t want to see me hurting; they are avoiding some wierd and dysfunctional feed back loop.  At the minimum, they have enough on their plate.  They don’t need to wrestle with my pain, too.  So I offer up some stupid  plattitude, and they pretend it makes them feel better, and problem is solved.  (I am hoping the sarcasm in those last three words is duly noted.)

The first thing I am learning in this season of my life is that one of the things I am called to do is to walk toward pain, not away from it.  At this stage in my life, carrying my cross means that I put on my big boy pants.  I accept the idea that hurt is going to hurt.

I have been reminded that in this hurt, that is where Jesus dwells.  I have found him, as I have worked at being fully present to other’s pain.  Jesus was with me, waiting for a reason to manifest.  And he was in the other person, whether or not they follow Christ.  And also, he is in that space between us.

Jesus’ Hands

I have been haunted, recently.

This haunting began when I said something to a friend.  There was a group of us, mostly followers of Christ.  This friend was expressing some pain, hurt, and sadness.  I said something that was not unique or special, really.  I asked, “How can we be God’s hands and feet and take care of you?”

And then it hit me, this haunting image: If we really want to be God’s hands and feet, our appendages?  They will need to have holes in them.

It struck me like a brain freeze, like rock from a sling to my forehead.  This unshakeable image of mangled, bloody hands and pierced feet.   It struck me, I suppose, because we so easily talk about wanting to be God’s hands and feet.  But we can live in denial of how very hard it is to be God’s hands and feet.


Don’t get me wrong.  I believe strongly that the contemporary evangelical church is a morbid beast.  I think that Passion movie was a glorified snuff film.  In short, I think our conversations about the death of Jesus need to be kept in a context with his life and his rebirth.

However, it also won’t do to pretend that the bible doesn’t speak about Jesus blood: on the one hand, dying wasn’t the only thing that Jesus did.  But on the other… it is something vitally important that he did do.

And so this image, of Jesus’ hands and feet, they serve as a brutal and terrible  and awe-inspiring reminder of the cost of loving people, a reminder of the sorts of things we are called to do.

As for me?  Well, I can’t say that I found a way to meaningfully and directly help this friend who was hurting.  Clearly I need to work at hard at heeding that call myself.

Shall We Leave the Adversity Outside? Or Do We Take It In?

So, I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ way, lately.  I’ve been thinking about how he does not win the way we ant-brained people win.  He conquers through loss; he wins by losing.  He dominates through submission.

I’d been toying with the word “undercoming” as a way of expressing this.

Another thing I’ve been doing lately is falling in love with the Ted Talks.  They are 15 minute speeches given by a dizzying array of amazing people.  There is like a gazillion online, and half a gazillion available to watch on Netflix.  I watched one tonight given by a double amputee named Aimee Mullins.  She moved me and said all kinds of amazing things.

The thing that struck a chord with all this Jesus-stuff I’ve been thinking about is this:

I’ve never been comfortable when people ask me about overcoming adversity.

She went on to explain that overcoming adversity is based on this paradigm where there is a normal life, and there is something that happens, and we make this attempt to remain untouched, unscathed through the challenges so that we can resume life on the other side.

It brought to my mind the criticism that we try to live in a subject-object metaphysic; we try to operate in a world where there are do-ers and there recipients of our do-ings.  We deny our interconnections, the ways that we are impacted.

Mullins talked about the idea that we ought to recognize, perhaps even celebrate, the transformations that adversity provokes.  Our goal should not be to return to life-as-it-was before.  Our goal should be to find ourselves made new, recreated by that which we face.

Her points helped me to draw a connection with another thing I think is so crazy about the way that God works.   He makes himself vulnerable to us.  He did so in the garden of Eden.  And he did it again at Calvary.  

I don’t think it’s right to say that God learns through his hurts.  He knows everything already.  I think it’s right to say that we can try to overcome, by seeing adversity like a mountain outside of us.   But better yet is Jesus’ way, the way of undercoming.  Undercoming requires a sort-of submission to adveristy… But rather than being a mountain we must climb, the adversity becomes something we embrace within ourselves; and somehow, in the act of being transformed we transform the adversity to.

This is all kind of sketchy in my head.  I think I need to work out some concrete examples.  Maybe I’m just full of crap.  But it feels right.Image

Pain is a Brain Freeze…. But the Most Important Brain Freeze Ever

And yet… Suffering!
I wrote yesterday about how pain is just pain, and I (and maybe you, too.) can sometimes run in fear, make an idol of it, turn it into something it is not.
I am not contradicting myself today. I am holding another equally powerful truth in tension with what I wrote yesterday.
The experience of the thing, pain and loss… these are perhaps the most important thing there is. It might be that the ultimate, most important question is not saome bizzare thing that turns out to equal 42. It might turn out that the most important question is this:
Life hurts. What now?
The experience of suffering was important to Jesus. And being the loving Man-God that he is, he didn’t hog it all for himself. Jesus was quite eager to share.
People who have made a careful study of Jesus’ reactions sometimes talk about how he found a third way where it only seemed like two options presented themselves.
This might turn out to be true.
But if it is, it doesn’t mean what I used to think it means.
I used to think that Jesus had this way of outsmarting suffering. The third way was some option that didn’t involve hurting. He was a bit of a stage magician, on this understanding. Always giving us the illusion of hurt. But if we studied his hand directions, if we just new his little tricks, we would find out that it didn’t hurt at all. As if he some divine advil to dull the pain of the cross. As if he had some visualization techniques to help him focus past how he’d just been cut off from God after an eternity of unity.
If any of what Jesus said or did is to mean anything, then none of that last paragraph can be true. The point is that Jesus suffered for us and that he suffers with us, a convinving simulation simply won’t do.
It is with some reluctance I have come to be in touch with these truths. If Jesus 3rd way was just about outsmarting the sources of evil, I was all over that. I had been using my brains to minimize my suffering for my whole life.
Jesus call is that I use my brains to full engage and embrace suffering in the most powerful way possible. And that’s maybe where the apparent contradiction begins to boil away.

I am greater than my suffering in Christ. And Christ in me, is greater than my suffering. (Are these two ways of saying the some thing.)
Suffering is required. But only because of what it will do to me, and what it will do to others. Suffering is the eroding torrent. If I chose to, I can with stand the onslaught and be left, reshaped and transfigured once the suffering is gone.
But a part of the pain is choosing the pain. The act of submission is the first step in allowing myself to be made into the image that my maker intended for me.
And that? It kind of sucks sometimes.

Brain Freeze of the Soul

I kind-of hate brain freezes. I think hospitals should re-work their little pain charts. The “10” with the frowny face ought to have a guide of ‘kidney stone’ or ‘giving birth. Their ought to be an 11 with an extra-frowny face, with the words “brain freeze” under it.
(I have never personally experienced either a kidney stone or child birth. I hope you’ll forgive me a little hyperbole to make the point.)
The funny thing is, that if you could watch me in the summer time with my favorite frappacinno or ice-cold smoothie, it would probably be pretty funny, because I am not very good at avoiding them. Perhaps more accurately: I am not very motivated to avoid them.
untitledOften times, I will get one, and the spike that is lodged between my temples has barely been removed before I am on to the next gulp. It’s not that I’ve forgotten. It’s not that I am unaware. I take that gulp well-informed that I have an excellent chance of re-experiencing the same brain freeze I have just gotten out of the grips of.
I don’t know if this is alien to you. Maybe I am alone in my foolishness. I’ve recently realized I am a pretty smart guy… except when I’m not. And maybe this is just one of those times I am not.
I’ve been reflecting on why I do this, recently. Here is what I came up with:
A) I know the pain is temporary.
B) I really like the pleasure of the drink.
C) The pain can’t hurt me– so far as I know, brain freeze is not like a concussion. I am pretty sure I am not accumulating long-term effects.

Just to be clear, I hate pain. I am open to the charge of being a wimp. Ordinarily, I do my best to avoid unpleasentness and suffering in all it’s varied forms.
In fact, it’s this realization about myself that got me thinking of it all in the first place.
I have spent a long time, working hard at minimizing the pain — physical and mental– I experience. My willingness to subject myself to brain freeze is very much an exception, not the rule. The thing is that despite the time, work and energy I have put into minimizing the pain I experience, I don’t think I have been very successful.
Recently, I had this realization:

It is all brain freeze.

It is all temporary. It is all necessary for pleasure to come, too. In the end, there are no eternal pains. Someday — though maybe not in this life– they will all fade away.

I don’t know about you, but I am ready to stop living from a damage-control mind set. This does not mean I need to be reckless or masochistic. But it means that pain is just pain, and sometimes things hurt.. But in the end, hurt is just hurt. And there is no way to escape it anyway.