Loser? Nope

My work clothes for the day. Sometimes, I'm just a big kid after all.

My work clothes for the day. Sometimes, I’m just a big kid after all.

This is what I wore to work this morning, and not because it’s Halloween. If that were the case, to paraphrase an unnamed St. Louis fan from facebook, I would be invisible–just like the Cardinals’ offense. But I don’t have the energy for such snarky humor today, and it’s not a costume anyhow. Rather, I wore m Cardinals gear because that’s what I do at the end of the baseball season. It is a symbol with the dual purpose of celebrating the past year and looking forward to that glorious day in February 2014 when pitchers and catchers will report to spring training.

This throwback jersey fits both purposes, and with special significance. It is from the 1982 season, the first World Series I can remember and the reason I became a Cardinal fan. That year, a rookie named Willie McGee wore No. 51 and stole the show. McGee went on to an impressive career despite personal struggles with substance abuse. He’s 55 years old now–far from the rookie phenom he was in 1982. But time goes on. I’m not the same kid I was thirty-one years ago either.

Except that I still am that kid, at least in so many ways that matter. The day I picked up my Willie McGee replica jersey, I got to see the Cardinals play the Pirates. Michael Wacha, this year’s rookie phenom, pitched a two-hitter for St. Louis. I screamed and cheered until I was hoarse, completely forgetting for nine innings the troubles and complexities of adult life.

So why should I be depressed because my team lost the World Series–an outcome, I might add, that I had absolutely no influence over to begin with? This season, my favorite team worked hard, won a lot, and were an easy group of guys to root for. They didn’t get the biggest prize, but so what? Life rarely hands us everything we want. But life is still deeply good and gratifying.

And so closes another season, and so begins my season of waiting. For the past eight months, baseball has been my escape, my metaphor, my way of marking time. It’s been good to me. So thanks, 2013, for some good memories. And here’s looking forward to next year!

Night Things, and Saints

You can survive being that vulnerable. I think it is at the heart of being human, sorrow and sadness. It’s certainly an essential component of loving. If you don’t want to cry, then don’t love anything.”  –David Saetre, campus minister, quoted in The End of Night by Paul Bogard.

For years, Halloween has easily been my least favorite holiday. I don’t say that as some in my tribe do, with spiritual condescension toward those who celebrate it. For me, it’s just a matter of personal preference. I don’t like being scared or startled. I don’t like gore. I think zombies are interesting only as metaphors, not as costumes. Generally, I just don’t participate, lest I become the Grinch who stole Halloween.

But for the first time in my life, I’m gazing at this Halloween with an eye toward the other side of it. Most of us know that the word Halloween means “all hallows eve,” but we associate that only with ghosts. In fact, however, All Hallows Day is a Christian festival that has been celebrated for a millennium and a half to honor all the saints. In my tradition, that term is applied to all who have died in Christ, particularly those who have joined the church triumphant in the previous year. Like many others, I will be standing in honor of a friend this year when that part of the service comes around.

As I was reading Paul Bogard’s book on the need to preserve darkness, I came across the above quote. The pastor he references says that he spends his time signaling toward the divine, but also reminding people not to pass too lightly through the times of doubt and struggle. After all, the rhythm of our world is darkness and light, darkness and light. Both together are necessary for our health.

I won’t be wearing a goofy costume or watching slasher movies this Halloween. But I think I will be contemplating the necessity of darkness, the need to be still, the promise of resurrection. During our All Saints celebration, I will try not to cry in church, but if I do it’s not because of despair. It’s because both love and loss are the very fabric of human experience, part of our souls’ rhythm. Light and darkness, but always hope.

Rules for Crying

“Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.” –Golda Meir, former Israeli Prime Minister

I spent a lot of time last week crying, which is something I don’t normally do. Like most men, I learned a long time ago that tears are unbecoming in a male. When someone–anyone, regardless of gender–cries, people get uncomfortable. They shift in their seats and turn their palms up helplessly. They confirm, whether they intend to or not, that crying is a rogue state, something not only unusual, but also somehow out of order, like the person in tears is broken. And when things are broken, they need to be either fixed or put out of sight.

It’s not always been so. Many cultures have a much deeper understanding of how to endure loss, which often includes very public displays of sorrow. For all of our American freedoms, we lack a structure for our mourning. We are left to find our own way.

All of which has made me think about my own grieving process, both in the recent past and in the weeks to come. I’ve not yet worked out exactly how I’ll get through this, and even if I had a plan it would doubtlessly be altered as time goes by. But I have come up with a few basic rules for crying that, while not comprehensive, are nonetheless widely applicable.

1) Allow for tears when they come, but do not invite them unnecessarily.

2) It is okay to cry alone or with others, as long as it’s with people who love you.

3) Be careful with touch, but don’t be afraid of it. Human contact can be wonderfully healing.

4) Do not draw attention to yourself. People who care will notice without you having to make a scene.

5) If you are crying because a close friend has died tragically, it is okay to swear, insult him, and call him terrible names, as long as they are things you have already said to him while he was alive.

Okay, so No. 5 is not so broadly applicable. But it’s mine for now, and I’ll own it. I’ll own all of these rules, and sometimes I’ll break them, but they at least give some shape to my tears.

We Will Stand

Friends of Jason Molitor from twenty-five years of Arkansas Tech Wesley sing together at his send-off.

Friends of Jason Molitor from twenty-five years of Arkansas Tech Wesley sing together at his send-off.

It’s 10:30, and I’m alone for the first time all day, and it feels right.

That’s not to say I have not enjoyed the community that gathered today at Jason’s funeral. Our presence bore witness to the number of families he belonged to: the Molitors, the Tysons, United Methodist clergy, the ’90s era Tech Wesley, Russellville FUMC,  modern day Tech Wesley, Age to Age–and many others I’m forgetting. The list goes on and on. We leaned in on each other, much like the stones of an archway. Alone we would collapse. Together, we pressed against one another and helped hold the weight.

Almost.

When the various generations of Circuit Riders (Tech Wesley’s musical group) stood to sing together, it seemed a near perfect tribute to Jason. Then, as we sang “We Will Stand,” several people in the congregation stood up also, and I couldn’t stop the tears–not only because I like many others feel Jason’s loss acutely, but also because that was for me the most intensely I’ve felt his continued presence so far.

In college, we were idealists. Jason never outgrew that. That God’s children could come together in a love bigger than any individual was not a theoretical statement for him. He believed it could and should and sometimes even did happen in fact. When we all stood together in that moment, I had the same unexpected and overwhelming feeling I had during my earliest days of adoption into the Wesley community all those years ago: this is a window to heaven, and by grace I am part of it.

Now, as I think of these things alone in my bedroom, they don’t seem silly or trite. In fact, they seem like too much to really take in. I need time to knead through these things, since the work of grief demands both shared and solitary effort. But I will sleep better tonight because of what I experienced today. Because of the reminders of what heaven looks like from Earth’s vantage. And, to paraphrase Rob’s song, it’s beautiful.

Christ’s peace and good rest to all tonight. As long as there is love, we will stand.

On Jason, and What’s Next

How do you carry a grief like this?
Jason Molitor, a husband and father and friend, died Monday morning of a heart attack at age 41. He was many things to many, many people, and I love many of those same people too much to risk speaking for them. For me, he was at the very least a brother, and no other words I might spill can convey what he meant to me. What he means still.
This is not my grief, though–at least not mine alone. Jason was woven through hundreds of lives, each with their own stories of his love and generosity. He is even now cherished by Emory and their daughters and innumerable others. His absence creates a real and present void.
How do you carry a grief like this, weighty as it is? It is a formless, dense, unyielding thing. It is a parachute full of sand you are tasked with dragging uphill. This grief has no handles, nothing by which you can grasp it, no way to gain enough purchase to move it forward. You can’t move it. Neither can I.
But I believe we can together, if we take it slow.
These past two days I have hugged and laughed and cried with old friends I rarely see. But these friendships were forged in Christ’s love decades ago, when we were with Jason as students at Tech Wesley, and they have held. It’s only one of the circles in which Jason mattered deeply, but it is the one I most belong to. We are all within speaking distance right now, pulling together, carrying the weight of grief with as much grace, humor, and love as we can.
The only way to do the work of grieving is to do it together. And so tonight, broken hearted, I am nonetheless thankful that I am not alone.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for life comes from God.” –1 John 4:7
Billy and I watched the sun come up on Mt. Nebo, remembering our friend.

Billy and I watched the sun come up on Mt. Nebo, remembering our friend.

Odd Man Out

My, how quickly we forget.

It was only five months ago (May 11, to be exact) that Shelby Miller allowed a leadoff single to the Rockies’ Eric Young. After that, the Cardinals’ rookie retired twenty-seven consecutive batters—a perfect game, if not for one bad pitch to start the first inning.

Miller’s performance tailed off some after that, but not much. He ended the season as the Cards’ second-best pitcher and put himself at least in the conversation for Rookie of the Year.

Then the playoffs started. And Shelby Miller disappeared.

You would think that a team that won the National League pennant and is getting ready to start the World Series would want a guy like Miller around, and in fact they do—just not as a starting pitcher. The Cardinals have stashed him among the relievers as one of the last options out of the bullpen. Miller, effectively benched, is now considered an emergency option should the starter disintegrate in the early innings.

Plenty of people who know more about baseball that I do (a la Rob Neyer) can debate whether the Cards made the correct decision in pulling Miller from the rotation, and it’s an interesting argument for baseball geeks like me. But as a guy with a slant toward the metaphorical and spiritual, it seems to me there are some lessons to be learned here, even for the non-baseball fan.

From Miller’s perspective, his apparent demotion cannot be pleasant. Every kid dreams of playing in the World Series—not just wearing a uniform and watching, but playing. That dream is just within Miller’s reach, but it looks like his bosses aren’t going to let it happen.

Still, Miller has remained positive. Publicly, at least, he has not whined about his situation. He continues to get himself ready just in case, and to cheer on his friends and teammates. It’s not that he is not competitive or does not want to play. It’s just that he seems to understand the situation and be able to put his ego aside for the greater good.

Would that we were all so selfless, or at the very least that we could all maintain such perspective.

But there’s another side to this situation that also bears exploring. The Cardinals have been quiet in terms of what’s going on with Miller. No surprise there. The organization is not known for loose lips.

Behind closed doors, however, I hope they remember how much good Miller did for the team this season, winning fifteen games and logging 173 innings. And I hope that they express that gratitude. In a culture with a memory span barely longer than the 24-hour news cycle, we need people who remember to say thank you.

In my years as a church professional, I’ve worked with plenty of divas (male and female) who could not function in ministry once the spotlight was taken from them. I’ve also worked with countless people who never recognized the sacrifices made on their behalf, much less went back to say a word of thanks. And, truth be told, I’ve spent a considerable amount of my time trying not to become either high-maintenance or ungrateful, an effort that has not always yielded success, but has probably been good for my soul nonetheless.

How much better would Christian community be if we could trust one another enough to set aside our egos? How much more joyfully would we sacrifice if we knew that someone other than God was watching and would someday comment on our good work? And what would happen if, rather than just complain about it, we tried to become the kind of people we wished we worked and lived and worshiped with?

Whether you’re the star of the show or the odd man out, these are questions worth pondering.

 

A Funny Thing about a Great Divide

Last Friday marked the beginning of an American institution. On October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live debuted. And within forty seconds, host George Carlin was already cutting away at one of the great American divides: football versus baseball.

(The video of that opening monologue is here. For those of you reading in the classroom or office who don’t want to get busted watching videos at work, you can find a transcripted version of Carlin’s routine here.)

As I watch the baseball-football monologue, I’m struck by how these brief comparisons between America’s two most popular sports so easily widen into larger cultural divides. That was true in 1975, when the country was still reeling from Watergate and Cambodia and Vietnam. And it’s true in 2013, when we are often too blinded by political ideologies to even talk about caring for our neighbors. Every issue, it seems, has two sides and multiple voices, but no room for compromise.

Football is a game of aggression, played under the pressure of an expiring clock, based on quick reaction and brute force. Baseball, on the other hand, is a game of courtesy, governed by tradition and unwritten codes of conduct, based on anticipation and highly specialized skills.

The two games don’t just differ in rules or vocabulary. They represent completely different ideas of competition. Both baseball and football fans love sports, use them to teach their children, care about sportsmanship and fair play. But both sides can get so entrenched in their perspective that neither can see the common ground on which they stand.

Which is why Carlin’s routine works so beautifully. He uses humor to disarm the combatants. His jokes are not rhetorical in nature, meant to ridicule one side and fire up another. They are merely observations that tell the truth without accusation. And because they are funny, they provide commonality.

I’m not so naïve as to think that our latest national spat over the budget, healthcare, and the debt ceiling can be solved by a comedic routine. Some tensions require long-term work from both sides. Some may end up being irresolvable.

But I am naïve enough to think that we need humor to shed light on things we could not otherwise admit to ourselves. We may not be able to laugh at some of the crises we’re dealing with; there’s nothing funny about the struggle to survive for many of our poorest citizens. But we can laugh at ourselves when our battles for justice devolve into petty or ridiculous fueds. And maybe by laughing we can see that we don’t have the market cornered on wisdom, that common ground may exist if we can build a bridge to it, and that no ideology is more important than providing real help to real people.