Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Rugged Durability You’ve Come to Expect

Cars are considered durable goods, which are these days defined as products intended to last more than three years.  I’m not sure if all cars qualify by that measure; a GMC Sonoma I once owned which soured me forever on that particular make.  Still, even with significant abuse, most cars do in fact make it beyond three years.
My first car was a little Dodge Ram D50 truck.  It had been my brother’s before that.  It was my dad’s company truck before that.  Manual transmission.  No air conditioning.  Horrible paint job (but until the very end, NOT rusting!).  It was a great first car.  I say that even though there was a while in high school that Lisa had to help me roll start it.  That’s because it dripped oil onto the starter, which caused the starter to fail about every 75,000 miles or so.  And yet we are still married.  Living proof that miracles do happen.
That truck certainly lived up to the “durable good” label.  It survived 3 people learning to drive on it (shredding at least 2 clutches in the process).  It survived more crashes than I’d care to share with you.  It was well past 200,000 miles before I quit driving it, and I handed it down to someone else who kept on going!
The thing is, I could fix that truck.  When the starter failed, I could replace it (after I saved up the money to buy it, of course).  When I crashed it, I could repair it.  It was a simpler time.
That’s the thing about durable goods.  When they break, you fix them (or you pay someone else to fix them).  You don’t toss them out because they cost too much to replace.  Because of that, we sometimes develop a relationship with them, which mostly explains why my brother has named his minivan “Homer” and I have named our washer and dryer “Bonnie and Clyde.”  [Editor’s Note: I actually haven’t named them that, but a good friend of mine used to say never to let facts get in the way of a good story.  Besides, my brother really did name his van Homer.]  And it’s worth noting, it seems the longer we have something, the closer the relationship becomes.  At this point, though I really do think Bluetooth is awesome and I wish I had in-dash navigation, automated calling, and the all-hallowed backup camera, my car has carried my family for 156,000 miles.  How could I just toss it to the curb for another?  It doesn’t seem right.  Besides, Marc Morgan would probably tell you at 156k, it’s just getting broken in.
In our lives, we have a variety of interpersonal relationships.  Some of them are transient...and others are, well, durable.  You know the durable ones.  It’s the friend you’ve known forever, and even if you don’t talk for several months, when you do talk it’s like you were never apart.  It’s the people you lean on and the people who lean right back on you.  Sometimes it’s someone you’re not close to at all, but you see regularly and come to know a bit at a time—like the teller at my bank, who greets me every time I walk in with a nice warm “Norm!” because she knows I’m watching “Cheers” right now.
The most durable relationships are family relationships.  Parent/child.  Spouse.  When those relationships break, you don’t throw them away.  You fix them.  Even when it’s hard.  Even if it takes time.  You give it the time, and you try again.  Because even when you hate them, you love them.  And you know how valuable those relationships are.  [Editor’s note: I’m sorry to interject here, but there is an important exception to be made here for abusive familial relationships.]
In increasing numbers, people have decided church just isn’t worth the effort anymore.  Sometimes it’s because of the politics.  Sometimes it’s because of the theology.  Sometimes it’s because they like to sleep in on Sundays.  But it’s not because it really isn’t worth the effort.  It’s because the durable relationships that used to make it worth the effort have atrophied.  The comfort they bring is a distant, misty memory.  But consider that phone call from an old friend.  The relationships aren’t dead.  They are sleeping.  Waiting for a familiar voice.  Or perhaps a familiar Voice.
At its best, the church is a place that creates durable relationships.  People come to know God as they come to know each other.  As Ken Callahan has said, it is a place of roots, place, and belonging...like Cheers, where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came [Editor again: always?!].  That’s why folks come back week after week.  Not because they feel like they have to.  Not because someone told them to.  It is durable relationships that keep people connected to their faith and to their church.
It may be a tall order, rebuilding atrophied relationships and creating them where they may not exist, but that is our gospel call.  Making disciples of all nations doesn’t mean requiring they proclaim a certain belief.  Rather, it means showing them the profound joy that comes with living in a community grounded in love.  You might say it means “connecting people with the unconditional love of Jesus.”  If there is a clearer statement of our purpose as a church and as a Church, I have yet to hear it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Love Is Scary

When Lisa and I were in high school, she had a poster on her wall.  [Insert “Awwww” or “grooooaaaan” here based on how you feel about learning that Lisa and I are highschool sweethearts.]  It was a picture of an empty cross at sunset, and a caption read, “It was not the nails that held Jesus to the cross but His love for you and me.”  At the time, I thought about that poster a lot like I thought about the Biblical account of the crowd ridiculing Jesus.  Clearly Jesus could come down off that cross.  He just chose not to. 
Fast forward a few years, and that explanation seems incomplete.  If Jesus could have come down from the cross, why didn’t he?  Because...that was the plan?  What would such a plan say about our merciful, grace-filled God?
I’m afraid full exploration of the reason for the crucifixion of Christ and all its implications is...significantly beyond the scope of both this simple column and also its author.  People a lot smarter than I am have been pondering this for a long time.
Perhaps Jesus could have literally called on legions of angels to save him from his fate.  Or maybe he could have made other choices that wouldn’t have led him to the cross in the first place.  Either way, I believe that Jesus could have avoided the cross.  But he didn’t.  As holy week approaches, I find myself wondering what that means for someone like me who claims to follow Jesus.
One of the ways I define my own Christianity is that I try to act like Christ would act.  Hokey as it sounds...what would Jesus do?  Well, it seems Jesus would die on a cross.  This does not sound like especially good news.
That brings us back to a great big WHY.  I know that following Jesus may lead me to a cross (I’m hoping a metaphorical one at this point).  Why did Jesus wind up on a cross?  Because he modeled perfect, unconditional love.  Love that honored everyone.  Love that deemed everyone worthy.  That can be unpopular if it threatens the status quo.
Yes, Jesus loves me.  Jesus loves everyone.  Following Jesus means loving everyone.  Even when it’s hard.  Especially when it’s hard.  Even when it means, well, finding yourself on a (again, I’m hoping for metaphorical here) cross.
We already knew this, of course.  Jesus said the greatest commandments were to love God, love neighbor, and love self (where God + neighbor + self = everyone).  But moving through the season of Lent and closer to Jesus’ suffering reminds us of just how radical our commitment to love should be.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rocky, Jesus, and Rudyard Kipling Walk Into a Bar

True confession.  It is Lent, after all, a time to confess our weaknesses and sins before God.  I like the Rocky movies.  You might be with me on the first one.  It is, after all the best.  But I haven’t met many people who can hang with the series all the way through.  No shame.  It’s not for everyone.
The reason I enjoy the Rocky movies is that in each movie the fight in the ring represents a fight inside the man, beginning with an internal fight over his self worth and including among others his struggle with his own complacency, death of a friend, and even his legacy as a fighter.  And sometimes he doesn’t have to win the fight in the ring to win the fight inside.  Yo, Adrian...it’s deeper than you thought.
One thing I like most about the Rocky movies is the iconic music.  I know I’m not the only one who has run up a flight of steps with Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” running through my head.  I promise you know the song, even if you don’t think you do.  And of course there’s “Eye of the Tiger.”  Classic.
One of my favorites, though, is “Burning Heart.”  It’s in Rocky IV, the one where he fights the huge guy from the Soviet Union.  You’ll find these lyrics about half way through the song:
In the warrior’s code there’s no surrender.  Though his body cries stop, his spirit cries—never!  Deep in our soul, a quiet ember knows it’s you against you.  It’s the paradox the drives us on.  It’s a battle of wills.  In the heat of attack, it’s the passion that kills.  That victory is yours alone.
Those lyrics are at once encouraging and challenging to me.  They are encouraging because they profess a truth: that our spirit (or perhaps our Spirit) ultimately has dominion over our body.  There’s something of a mystery there: that through sheer force of will we can push ourselves to the impossible.  They are challenging for the very same reason.
Rudyard Kipling was speaking to the same point when he wrote in “If:”
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them, “Hold on!”
The internal battle between will and flesh is not new.  In a garden outside Jerusalem, Jesus took those closest to him into the garden of Gethsemane.  He left them with one task: stay awake with me.   They had one job to do!  And yet when he returned to them, they were asleep.
He wasn’t just talking about their slumber.  After his betrayal, the disciples would indeed face a time of trial, a time in which their bodies would no doubt cry to them “No more!”  But the Pentecost Spirit within would empower them, forcing their hearts and nerves and sinews to serve their turn, pushing them through fear and doubt into an infant ministry that would leave an indelible mark on our world.
That Spirit that was in them, the one that drove them, it is also inside of us.  Like Rocky, we can gain mastery of our heart and nerve and sinew.  And though, like Jesus in the garden, we may wish for a particular cup to pass from us, we have confidence that we can drink from it.  We have confidence that in that moment when all feels lost, in that moment when our body screams “STOP!” the Spirit will answer...never.  And we will survive.  We will press on.  Faltering, perhaps, yet unbeaten.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Doctor, My Eyes!

About thirteen months ago I had photorefractive keratectomy eye surgery.   You might not have heard of that.  You likely have heard of its less excruciating cousin, lasik.  They are actually very similar procedures with very similar outcomes.  My eyes before surgery were something like 20/600. Seriously, I couldn’t read the big E at the top...I just always said it because I knew it was there.
You’ll understand I was a little uneasy about having my eyes hacked up.  The difference between lasik and PRK is that in lasik they just open a little flap on your cornea and then put it back.  With PRK they actually remove the entire outer layer of your cornea.  Believe it or not, the reason you’d have PRK over lasik is that it does less damage to the cornea!  Less damage means less risk of catastrophic failure of the cornea to hold back the goop in your eye, especially for people like me who have thin corneas.  I believe the word they used for mine was “dainty.”  What does “dainty corneas” mean?!  Anyway, I’m all for keeping my eye goop right where it belongs, thank you.
The procedure is surprisingly short and in the moment relatively painless.  They put some drops in your eyes, and after that it just looks like you’re underwater looking out.  As long as you aren’t thinking about what they’re actually doing up there, it’s all good.  There’s a little bit of light while they cook your eye with a laser.  Just a few seconds, though.  And you can’t feel a thing.  I mean, cooking cornea doesn’t exactly smell like chocolate chip cookies or anything, but it could be a whole lot worse.
Curious.  He kept putting cold drops in my eyes.  He said, “This is going to help with the pain.”  What pain?  When it was over I stood up, saw clearly without glasses for the first time I can remember, and was ushered to another room to wait for a follow-up.  Pain free!  Those people online who complained about the recovery must be big babies.
Then my eyes started to pinch a little.  Like I had an eyelash in them or something.  Except I wasn’t allowed to touch them.  Well, that’s inconvenient.  So when the doctor came into check on me, I said, “My eyes are a little uncomfortable.”  To which he replied, “You mean like if someone PRK’ed them?”  Fair point.  He added some more drops.
After he left, I started to understand what Jesus meant when he was talking about the plank in  your own eye.  Great news, Jesus, I found it!  The doctor came back in, and I said, “They must be bleeding.  Something must be wrong.  The pain is awful.”  His answer?  Must be time for me to get home.  Because the sooner I get home, the sooner I can get the good drugs.  He put a couple more drops in and sent me packing.
I’ll never, as long as I live, forget the ride home.  My eyes were closed.  I had the stylish sunglasses they give you on (to protect my eyes from my nearly irresistible instinct to claw them out).  I had my head down in the van.  I had a blanket over my head.  I had the sun visor down.  And it still felt like I was looking straight into the sun.  We went to pick up the pain medicine (wish they’d given me that prescription ahead of time).  By the time we got home my eyes were burning so badly I was certain they were going to set my hair on fire.  That’s about when my loving wife asked if it made me feel any better that I had chosen to have this done.  No, no it didn’t.
Eye pain is the worst.  It’s not like back pain.  With back pain a lot of the time you can get yourself into a position of relief.  “Doctor, it hurts when I move my arm like this.”  “Well, don’t do that.”  Simple.  Not eye pain.  You stick your hands over them (you can’t touch them because of the plastic shields, and even if you could, actually touching them would only make it worse if there is such as thing as worse).  You turn your head from side to side and move it up and down.  No matter how athletic your moves, you can’t escape the pain.  You want nothing more than for it to be over.  You beg.  You plead.  You offer deals.  Nothing helps.  You can’t get away.
And it’s all you can think about.  The pain.  You can’t take your mind off it.  You can’t wish it away.  You can’t do anything about it.  All you can do is writhe in the long seconds which lead to minutes which lead to hours until, if you’re lucky, you find respite in sleep.
When you wake up, the pain might be better, or it might not.  If it is, at any moment it can return.  Just as strong as before.  It comes and goes unpredictably.  But then, over time, you realize that it starts to go more than it comes.  It’s a little less severe (unless you instinctively turn the light on in the bathroom...I suggest putting a piece of tape over that switch until you’re sure it’s safe).  You can deal with it.  It doesn’t control you.  Ultimately the pain becomes a memory.  A real, painful memory, but a memory nonetheless.
When I think about the times I have been emotionally hurt (emotional hurt, not depression: depression is a very different thing), it’s a lot like eye pain.  It’s consuming and relentless.  It occupies my entire consciousness.  It can’ t be escaped or avoided, only endured.  If it goes for a time, it is guaranteed to come back.  Beg.  Plead.  Offer deals.  It won’t matter.  It still hurts.
Over time, though, pain gives way to healing.  And while there may forever be scars left behind (you can see on my eyes a slight color difference where they did the PRK), the process of healing usually leaves us stronger than we were before.  Last time I went to the eye doctor, I could see 20/15...and I could even make out letter shapes on the 20/10 line.   Not bad considering the eye tech used to laugh at me.
When I see God, I’m not going to ask why bees sting, why cockroaches exist, or why kittens turn into cats.  I’m going to ask why pain is the path to growth.  I’m going to ask why we stand to gain the most from the times in life that try us the most.  I’m going to ask why it’s impossible to remember all that growth potential when you’re in the middle of the suffering.
And then I’m going to say thank you.  Because when my eyes hurt so much that I couldn’t think of anything but the pain, I had Lisa to make sarcastic comments and also take very good care of me.   That is what the church, at its best, has to offer.  Not people to keep you from getting hurt, but people to hold you when you’re hurting and keep you safe until you have healed enough to be encouraged by the growth that will follow.