For Gina and Justin

My friend Gina is having surgery tomorrow to remove a tumor from her brain. She is the beautiful mother of Jude (2) and husband to Justin. And she also happens to be one of my “inner circle” people – the kind of person that I can say the truest stuff about myself to knowing that it is safe. This is a post for her and Justin, but I know that many of you who read this blog also know and love them, so I’m making it public.

It’s too bad that your first trip to San Francisco has to be under such awful circumstances. I visited The City by the Bay when I was a kid, and even then it’s so impressive in my memory. Someday I hope to get back there, but surely not like this.

It’s still hard to believe that this is happening. I remember the day Justin called me, on the road, racing back to Little Rock to be with Gina. It was such a punch in the gut. And it still is.

The night before the biopsy, the one where we took my favorite picture of us that hangs in my office, the one where you showed us downtown Little Rock – even that night you were so full of life, so yourself, and it didn’t seem real. And it still doesn’t.

And just 15 days ago, celebrating another New Year’s Eve with you (someday we’ll get through it without all the tears… maybe), it struck me that this can’t really be happening. But it is.

I know as your friend and your pastor I’m supposed to have the right words, but I’ve struggled to know what to say to you. You know how I loathe cliches and cheesy platitudes…  And so, I’ve been thinking about what I want to say to you and here’s what I’ve got:

I don’t know about “God’s plan.” Some people seem to think this thing or that thing is God’s plan, but I’m doubtful. I just think it sucks. People get cancer. Good people, like you. It just is what it is. And as much as I’d like to offer some platitude about God only testing people he loves or something like that, I just can’t. When I look around at the world, it doesn’t make sense. Good people sometimes suffer, evil people prosper, and it just sucks.

But what I do know is God offers his presence. He offers to be with us. And some days even that feels empty. And so, the way that God is with us most of the time, is he sends other people to be with us in his stead. And this is the thing that I know you know, but I want to tell you again and again and again, that I am with you. And I’m not the only one. We’re all with you. Every one of us. And we’re thinking about you (today it will be almost non-stop) and we’re praying for you in whatever ways we know how.

I hope you feel God’s presence. I really do. And I’ll be praying specifically that you will. But if you don’t, I hope you will feel ours. I hope our texts, emails and everything else reminds you that you are not alone and that whatever comes, we will continue to walk with you. We wish you were here. We’d fill that waiting room with our bodies (and probably sneak in a little beer for Justin). Knowing us, we’d have to get “shushed” by the nurses multiple times, but we’d be there.

But, since you’re something like 2,000 miles away, all we can do is text, call, post, “like” you on Facebook, etc. It feels so inadequate to “like” your status when what we really want to say is “love” and we’d sacrifice so much to take it away, or to actually be in your presence.

And another thing.

The two of you – you will get stronger because of this. And not because that’s just something that I say to everyone going through hard times. I’m saying it because I know you, and I know the two of you have put in the work at doing your best to cultivate intimacy in your marriage. Do you remember the rocks at your wedding? Do you remember how I wrote words on them and we talked about building a strong foundation for your marriage? All that talk about building a foundation – that was for moments like this – moments where you need a marriage to be built on bedrock. And I know you. I’ve sat with you, cried with you, celebrated the day you told us about baby Jude. I know your marriage is built on bedrock. And I know that this experience will only make you stronger.

There are so many other things to say, but mostly I just want to say – and really this is on behalf of a small army of people – we love you, and tomorrow we will pray/fret/think about you all day.


Let’s Be Still

At this very moment of writing I’m sitting in the cafe at Panera. It’s early evening on a Tuesday and the scorecard (at least what I can see from where I sit next to the window) is as such: middle-aged women sitting in groups of twos and threes conversing over dinner with their coats still draped over their shoulder and/or scarves left on: 13, men over 80: 1 and me. All to say, it’s the perfect place to put my head down, slip on my head phones and lose myself in textual commentary on the fourth gospel!

Anyway, I’m listening to The Head on the Heart, and there’s this song of theirs that I hear on the local radio station that I listen to all the time that I’ve come to love called “Let’s Be Still.

The world’s just spinning
A little too fast
If things don’t slow down soon we might not last.
So just for the moment, let’s be still.

Right now my life is non-stop motion. Work on our house, do my job, try to squeeze in a kid’s basketball game, and in the margins a little time with friends. This isn’t complaint. It just is. And even if I wasn’t building a house, I’d fill the time up with more basketball games and family life. Life with four kids is just going to be a little chaotic for a season, ya know? But just for a minute, I put down my book and live in the song.

The world’s not forgiving
Of everyone’s fears.
The days turn into months, the months turn into years.
So just for the moment, let’s be still

It’s so easy to wish life by. It’s easy to think about how things will someday be better and somehow life slips away. This is why I’ve become quite the evangelist for silence and solitude. I absolutely need time and space to just be still. I need those moments, to sit still and to contemplate, to think about my life and who and am and what I’m about and why I’m here and which direction I’m going. And so here, tonight in the cafe, for 4 minutes, I listened to a great song, and I was still.

They’re tearing down
So we can rebuild
And all this time
Is just circles in my mind
So just for a moment,
Just one moment,
Just for a moment let’s be still
Just for a moment let’s be still
Just for a moment let’s be still
Just for a moment let’s be still.

But now, it’s time to get back to work. The tyranny of the urgent always calls. There is always more work to do, more to rebuild.d

We All Have our Demons

A friend got me hooked on The Walking Dead. It’s not really my type of show. It’s really gory and brutal and I don’t really care about the whole zombie/vampire thing (although the same friend got me to read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on vacation a couple years ago and I loved it). But anyway, I was with my friend over Christmas Break. We were working on my house together, pulling wire and catching up on life and we started talking about The Walking Dead and how it’s really not about zombies, but rather about people and specifically how people behave when society falls apart and they are left to their own devices (which is what I love about dystopian fiction).

The thing I love about these dystopian reflections is that it forces us to face the fact that all of us are a mixed bag. Good people sometimes do evil things and evil people do kind, loving things. In theological language we all straddle Romans 7 (“Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”) and Romans 8 (“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”)

But it sucks, you know?

When I think about the past week, or even just the weekend, I see moments of brilliance. I see moments where I did good things for good reasons. I see moments where I was a loving, kind husband/father/friend/pastor where I created generous spaces of safety for other people. But I also see moments where I was evil, where I complained/envied/hated, where I only cared for myself and didn’t give a damn about anything or anyone else but me, where I was filled with so much anxiety that even my dreams were restless affairs. I thought at this point in my life I’d be so much further along. I guess I thought pastors of my age kind of floated on a cloud of righteousness and joy.

Maybe they do. on the other hand, do not.

On Sunday, I look out at the faces of the people in my congregation – they look so put together, so confident, so content, so unconflicted. It would be tempting to believe the nice clothes, the smiles, and the Facebook status updates  that project to the world “I’ve got all my stuff together.” But 15 years in pastoral ministry have taught me a powerful lesson: we all have our demons. Every single one of us. And most of us know our demons intimately by name. We know the evil voices that tell us we somehow aren’t enough, we know the deadly sins and which ones call to us like a siren song.

And yet, we are all tempted to believe the lie that “I am the only one. I’m all alone in my struggle.”

Take it from a person who talks intimately with a lot of people: YOU. ARE. NOT. ALONE.

And neither am I.

And – I’m not sure how – but that somehow makes it better.