Fun with Forty

I thought I turned 40 years old yesterday. Turns out I had the day wrong. They say the mind is the first thing to go.

The truth is that birthdays, for me, have always been arbitrary milestones. I’m sure I must feel different than I did at 30. But we live moment to moment, not decade to decade, and so it’s hard to notice the changes. When I woke up this morning, I was neither any wiser nor any wiser than yesterday. It’s a day in my life, and not much more.

That being said, the forty-year mark does provide an opportunity to reflect on the world I was born into and the one I live in now. So, on this arbitrary milestone, here are some arbitrary fun facts about the last forty years:

  • Since January 17, 1974, the earth has turned on its axis 14,610 times. There have been 495 full moons and 87 solar eclipses.
  • The earth’s population has grown from 4.1 billion to over 7 billion.
  • When I was born, my parents had a rotary phone on a party line. Now they have cell phones on which they can watch television.
  • 162 people have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, including Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider.
  • The United States has seen 8 presidents, seven of which were elected and one who ascended from the VP position. Three were Democrats, Five Republicans.
  • Bell bottoms, olive green, and tie-dye have gone in and out of fashion multiple times.
  • Thirty-eight sovereign nations have been established. The breakup of the Soviet Union accounts for 7 of those.
  • I have lived at 17 different addresses in 12 different zip codes. I have worked at a newspaper, a post office, a daycare, a restaurant, two campus ministries, and too many churches to count.
  • Personal goals accomplished include making all-region band, graduating seminary, establishing a family, pastoring a Wesley Foundation, and writing a good book.
  • Personal goals yet to be accomplished: dunking a basketball (10 ft goal), biking coast to coast, making lots of money, and actually publishing said book.

I’m sure there are other equally arbitrary and also entertaining things I’ve left off the list, but this list is enough to illustrate how much the world has moved and changed. But, in the words of my friend Betty, it’s been such a good life so far and I’m so blessed to have lived it. Here’s to the future and all the hope therein. Onward and upward.

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!

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.

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.

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.

Paws without Claws

Sweet enough when she's sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

Sweet enough when she’s sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

In our household, we expect guests to live by three general rules:

1)      Make yourself at home.

2)      Be careful backing out of the driveway (it curves deceptively at the end).

3)      Don’t pet the cat.

The third rule usually gets the most double-takes, especially from animal lovers. What kind of cruel pet owners would deny affection to such a lovely creature as our Sammi? And why deny our guests the chance to stroke her sleek fur and hear her purr gratefully?

Because, in the words of my eldest son, “She’ll try to gnaw your hand off.”

While Z’s statement is certainly on the dramatic side, it is in keeping with both the cat’s character and my son’s experience.

Sammi comes by her malice honestly. When she was a kitten, some of the youth from our church would sneak over to the parsonage during worship and tag her with water guns—a “game” my wife and I did not find about until years later, or else we would have put a stop to it. The poor cat was so traumatized that she licked herself bald. Her hair grew back once we left that appointment. Understandably, her trust in children did not.

By the time our boys were born, Sammi was set in her ways. Even a decade later, she will allow my wife and I to pet her most of the time, but not Z or J. If the kids come near, she will swat and snap and occasionally hiss before she runs under the bed. She has no front claws, so there’s no real danger to them. But it scares them when she swats, and it hurts their feelings to have Sammi respond to gentleness with fury. Most of the time, they avoid her.

On occasion, however, Sammi decides that the time has come for a battle of wills. She sits in the hallway and will not budge as Z or J approaches. About once every week, I turn the corner to see one of them locked in a staring contest with Sammi, afraid to move past her.

“Go on,“ I tell them. “She won’t hurt you.”

“She’ll swat at me.”

“Maybe. But she doesn’t have front claws. All she can do is pat you.”

“But she looks mad.”

“It doesn’t matter. She can’t hurt you.”

“But…”

And so the argument goes, until the cat gets bored with it and slinks away to terrorize dust bunnies.

I’ve been realizing lately how much of my life is spent in similar fear. I run into an obstacle whose only weapons are surprise and intimidation. It may not have power to hurt me, but it scares me into inaction with threats about what it might do and what I might lose.

Sadly, I often run across this in my job as a pastor. Sometimes it’s from colleagues whose insecurity turns them into bullies. Often, it’s from lay people whose unresolved fears lead to issues with control. Most frustrating of all, I sometimes see our denominational leadership resort to intimidation tactics for no better reason than to get people to do what they want.

When mature Christians give in to such tactics, we do no service to anyone, much less to God. What we need then is a little perspective, and perhaps a little courage to go along with it.

We mature Christians need to remember that we have all we need in Christ. We may lose an argument, and we may even suffer at the hands of those who abuse their power over us. Jesus certainly did. But nothing can ever be taken from us that would diminish the love of Jesus within us—not our pride nor our appointments nor even our lives.

When we learn not to be afraid of those who wish to control us, we are free from more than just the discomfort of fear. We are free to see behind the bluster of our adversaries. We can seek to understand the way they are, and by understanding to treat them with a bit more kindness, even as we resist their efforts to frighten others. We are free to move, and free to love our enemies, and free to live happy lives.

When seen through the lens of Jesus, those who would intimidate us are all paws and no claws. We can walk past them without fear.

Back to Work–Thank God

I am glad to see summer go.

That may sound strange coming from a campus minister. Many people, including not a few of my clergy colleagues, believe that I get summers off. And they are right—if by “off” they mean a frantic, irregular schedule marked by camps, retreats, fundraising, groundskeeping, building maintenance, and recruiting. Throw in annual conference and a family vacation, and I’ve had about all of the so-called freedom I can take.

I don’t believe I’m alone in this. I know there are plenty of other geeks like me who trudge through their summer jobs, pining for the classroom and the chance to learn. And I know there are plenty of socially awkward people like me who crave the kind of defined boundaries for human interaction that the academic setting provides.

But I think there’s more to it still. American summers send us into a hyperawareness of how quickly time moves. We realize how much we want to do and how little time we have to do it in, and so we pack the longer daylight hours with as much “life” as we can.

Only it’s an illusion. We may have more daylight in the summer, but we still have only 24 hours. We may have more flexibility with our schedules, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into more freedom. No wonder so many involved in education dread the start of school. We are exhausted from summer hysteria, like sprinters chasing a retreating finish line. The thought of how much work classes require makes us want to crawl under our desks and eat glue.

For me, however, I know that the start of school signals a return to normalcy, the crazy hours of Wesley’s Welcome Week notwithstanding. By mid-September, I will be back in a rhythm of working and eating and sleeping and praying. I will be more disciplined in my writing and more at ease in my relationships. Even baseball will lose some of its power over me, drained by the perspective that comes with living my own life again.

We humans need the recreation that summers afford, but we need it in much smaller doses than we think. More than the perfect vacation or the best camp ever, we need rhythms of work and rest, strain and sleep, accomplishment and release. For my family at least, the return of routine makes these rhythms much more possible.

So welcome, fall semester! God, but I’m glad to see you arrive.