The messenger matters more than the message

“Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.”

Faith takes time

I claim a strong Christian faith, but I’m not one to beat you over the head with it. I’ll probe here and there, make a comment, give you a look, write one or two sentences, engage in a respectful conversation if you’d like, and let it go at that.

My faith is a lifestyle, not just a list of rules and regulations to follow or not follow. So, it (hopefully) permeates most of what I write and how I talk and act, even if I’m not explicitly mentioning God by name.

Planting seeds, Christians like to say. Or, maybe watering seeds that someone else has planted.

God gives the growth. God changes hearts. I do not.

I will not change your mind about anything. I know this.

If I want to plant seeds of change, I must learn how to listen first. Because that’s all I can do: Plant seeds.

The fruit belongs to the living God.

The fruit of mentoring is …

When I connect with a young person through school or church, I’m giving my time, and not much more. In formal mentoring programs, I’ve eaten lunch with a youth for up to a year, perhaps played a game or two that he enjoys. We talk about his life.

I’m not allowed to discuss my faith, unless he brings it up first. That’s OK. I’ll listen to his story, because his story matters – whether I can relate to it or not.

Is that planting seeds of change? I’ll never know, actually. One year with the student, then he’s gone. Or, I’m gone. Or, the program is gone.

I’ve experienced all three scenarios.

One student moved to Arizona after the school year ended to be with his dad. Another time, I accepted a job out of state and had to leave a wonderful situation where I was reading one-on-one with students during class. Twice, the mentoring program itself ended – one with no notice at all, the other with a formal letter.

Did any of those young men gain anything through the time we spent together? Only God knows.

If no one else watered the seeds, or if I didn’t plant deep enough or water enough, perhaps not. But that is in the living God’s hands, not mine.

I donate blood regularly. I never learn who receives my blood; it’s done anonymously. They tell me the process saves lives; I take their word for it. That’s in God’s hands too.

That’s enough for me.

What seeds are you planting?

Societal change

During this time of COVID-19, we are seeing many changes. The virus is a silent killer, pervasive and unseen. It attacks certain people more readily than others, but not uniformly – so it’s impossible to predict who will get sick (and potentially die) and who will escape its effects.

Changes happened literally overnight because of the coronavirus. Schools closed. Businesses were shut down. Nursing homes became de-facto prisons – no one in, no one out. Social distancing became the norm. We wear masks and, in certain situations, gloves.

These changes did not happen slowly. Perhaps that’s why we’ve fought them so much.

Proportionally, the vast majority of us will not die from COVID-19. Or even get sick. But because it’s very contagious, we might be carriers without knowing it.

This is all old news.

We are gradually opening up our country again. It’s not fast enough for some, but we don’t want the virus to spike. Mass gatherings still won’t happen anytime soon.

The next town over just announced their very popular pool won’t open at all this summer. There’s no way to enforce social distancing and keep the pool and surrounding areas clean and sanitized, city leaders said.

The return to normal will take time. We must be patient. Americans have trouble with this. We are a fast-paced, immediate gratification society. We drive fast. We work long hours. We’re all about production and measurable results. We eat on the run, and pay for it with obesity and other health issues. We love our concerts and ballgames.

COVID-19 feeds on all of that.

We are forced to slow down. To be patient. To cook at home. To think of the health of others before ourselves.

I hope we don’t lose these lessons as we ramp up this summer and beyond.

We are seeing the best of our society during these days, and the worst of society too.

We deliver groceries for neighbors. Make and deliver masks. Call, text and/or Zoom with people we can’t visit right now, some of whom we haven’t contacted in quite awhile.

Since this also is a presidential election year, we’ve retreated to our social media platforms and dug in. I have friends on both sides of the political aisle, and I’ve had to un-follow several of them because of the vitriol they keep posting.

Political patience

Progress and change happen slowly. In the political arena, are they happening at all?

I think so, yes.

Extremists run both political parties now. But most Americans live somewhere in the middle. Most of us, I’d say, lean one way or the other, but we’re providing for our families, working and living life in our communities, not basing our day-to-day decisions on the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling or tweet from the President or bill passed by the state Legislature.

Our governments should serve the people, not the other way around. Government, especially at the federal level, these days seems to be about selectively restricting who it serves – keeping immigrants out and reducing welfare programs, while allowing abortion clinics and gun shops to remain open.

Are there seeds of change we can plant politically? Can we learn to get along with each other, despite our differences?

Well, let’s see. I haven’t told you yet who said the quote I began this blog with. Actually, I read it in a book. I didn’t want to tell you right away, because a certain segment of you would dismiss it and not read this blog just because of who wrote it.

The messenger matters more than the message.

That’s how judgmental we’ve become.

Planting seeds of change means listening even to people we think we don’t like. No one on earth is the Devil personified. Truly. There’s good (and evil) in each one of us. You and I included.

I wish we not only understood this, but lived like we understood it.

That quote about progress, change and patience was written by Michelle Obama in her book, “Becoming.” Page 370. If anyone understands those concepts, it’s the former First Lady. She’s lived them, and continues to live them.

Are we listening?

 

Photo: Max Wolf spikes plants in a greenhouse of the August-Heyn gardening school on March 17. Berlin’s oldest gardening school has existed for 100 years. Every year it brings nature closer to about 30,000 children. (The Associated Press)

COVID-19, Lent offer same message

Is it I, Lord?

I participated in a dramatic reading many years ago in our church of the Last Supper. Jesus’ 12 apostles were seated in the Upper Room, and Jesus had just announced that one of the 12 was going to betray him.

In turn, they all asked Jesus: Is it I, Lord?

I was assigned the role of James the son of Alphaeus, sometimes called James the Lesser. Hardly anything is known about him, so the paragraph I had to memorize was short.

Yes, it is I

The fact that the announcement troubled most – all but one – of the apostles proved that it was not them. But they asked the question anyway, sincerely.

They gave their lives for him. They gave up their careers for him – some of them permanently. (Once Matthew walked away from his tax collector job, there was no going back.) They listened, feared, walked on water, found food to feed 5,000 people, asked questions and learned.

After three years, it came down to this:

Is it I, Lord?

Jesus gave them the answer right away. No, it’s not you. It’s Judas.

A few hours later, they all fled during Jesus’ biggest hour of need.

Yes, it is I.

A time of reflection

As Christians, we are in the period known as Lent, which takes place for about six weeks before Easter.

Lent is a time of reflection. Christians often give up material things as a sign of penance in preparation for Maundy Thursday, when Christians remember the Upper Room scene. Some fast. Some give up meat. Some forego sweets. Or other things.

This year, everyone around the world, Christian or not, is being forced to give up a lot more than a Friday night steak. I don’t think it’s coincidence that COVID-19 struck during Lent.

What truly matters in life? We are doing without sports and entertainment. As with Lent, these sacrifices will be temporary. It’s not the new normal. We don’t know the end date, but there will be one.

Perhaps we will see a new normal. When sports and entertainment return, will we get caught up in them the way we did for so long? Or will they be as they are intended, an escape from “real life,” a chance to relax and unwind?

Temporary suffering

The Last Supper was not truly so for the apostles, of course. It was for Jesus. The apostles would continue the tradition later as communion, which Christians still celebrate today.

We remember what happened on that night.

The night that changed everything.

The night when Jesus transformed the Passover seder into communion, with his body and blood symbolized by the bread and wine.

We’re upset that our jobs are suspended, temporarily. And that does hurt (even with unemployment benefits). Our favorite concert halls, movie theaters, sports arenas and stadiums are dark and empty, temporarily.

Jesus gave his life. His Father gave it back to him on Easter Sunday, giving us the hope of forgiveness of sins at the same time. That’s why Christians view Easter as the most holy – and happy – day of the entire year.

But first, Lent came. Loss. Suffering. Anguish. Fear. Sleepiness. Anxiety.

Lent and COVID-19 serve the same purpose

Today, all of us, worldwide, get to share in that. Whether we want to or not.

We decide for ourselves how to respond to COVID-19. There are public responses which we are asked to support – stay-in-place, go to the store only when necessary. The virus spreads very rapidly. People are dying from it. The curve has not flattened yet, at least not in the United States.

The worst likely is yet to come.

Will we submit to our leaders?

That’s what Lent is all about. Submitting to a higher authority, the living God.

Today, all of us get to do that.

This life is not about us. Some of us are having a difficult time grasping, or accepting, this.

But it’s true. The world existed before any of us was born, and it will continue after all of us depart this Earth.

Is it I, Lord?

Yes, Lord, it is I.

Lent is a time of reflection, of self-sacrifice. To what end? To understand Jesus’ sacrifice for us.

COVID-19 sacrifices are temporary, except for those who die. That’s why we must sacrifice – so we can keep those deaths to a minimum.

It’s not about me. It’s not about you.

This is the message of Lent, and this is the message of COVID-19.

Sacrifice – and hope

What are we doing with the extra time we have, thanks to social distancing? Are we giving thanks for what we still have? Or do we complain about what we’ve lost?

What have we lost? Nearly all of you reading this blog don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, even with stay-in-place orders. We aren’t facing life-changing consequences, unless we get the virus.

When the social restrictions are lifted, and they will be eventually, we will return to some semblance of normalcy.

Will we be changed? Will we be more grateful for the blessings we’ve had all along? Will we appreciate more the things we’ve had to give up during our enforced Lenten season?

Time will tell.

Until that day, we will live in Lent. A period of sacrifice, waiting, suffering – and hope.

Easter is coming. Whether the pandemic ends on April 12, Easter Sunday, or not – I rather doubt it – Easter will come.

That’s a promise. Let’s get ready.

God’s affection at Christmas shows up in July

Hollywood would recast the Christmas story … A civilized person would sanitize it. No person, however poor, should be born in a cow stall. Hay on the floor. Animals on the hay. Don’t place the baby in a feed trough; the donkey’s nose has been there. Don’t wrap the newborn in rags. They smell like sheep. Speaking of smells, watch where you step.

“Because of Bethlehem Love is Born, Hope is Here” by Max Lucado, page 131

 

This describes my workplace. Perfectly.

I work with developmentally disabled adults. Some of them are not sanitary, and make it difficult for the rest of us to be sanitary. I won’t get too specific, except this one example: I drive some of these individuals in a wheelchair-accessible van. One individual I drive wets himself, through his clothes and adult Depends, and the bench seat where he sits. He does this a couple of times a week, at least.

It smells in there. I’m constantly cleaning it and spraying Lysol.

I can’t keep a full roll of paper towels in the van; he takes it apart and puts his hands all over it.

Jesus was born in a place like that.

Messy. Unsanitary. Possibly even unsafe.

At the day program where I work, washing my hands is not a simple chore.

This is real life. Some of these folks don’t know any better.

And I stay.

God came to me – and you – in a place just like this. He didn’t arrive in a climate-controlled hospital room like our three sons did, surrounded by nurses and doctors who made sure each was healthy before they sent him home.

Thank God for hospitals.

But Jesus never saw one, and I don’t work in one either.

 

lucado

You, like Joseph, knocked on the innkeeper’s door. But you were too late. Or too old, sick, dull, damaged, poor, or peculiar. You know the sound of a slamming door. So here you are in the grotto, always on the outskirts of activity, it seems.

Page 133

 

I’ve been fired twice, relocated once (I quit first, though), and downsized once, all in the past 10 years. I’m hardly unique. Nobody works in the same job for an entire career anymore: My two oldest sons also have seen their jobs phased out – and neither is 30 years old yet.

Both have landed on their feet. One has landed his dream job; the other has a decent position, but still isn’t where he wants to be.

Both make more than they spend.

Because my wife has a good job, we do too. I provided for our family of five as our sons grew up, but those days are long gone.

I knocked on the innkeeper’s door, but I don’t have the passion, drive and self-promotion to thrive in today’s job market. Nor am I willing to relocate again. AARP asks me all the time about age-related job discrimination. Maybe that plays into it, or maybe it’s just me.

Old, dull, damaged, peculiar … especially peculiar. I don’t have the “presence” that employers are looking for. I don’t come across as enthusiastic with all these great ideas on how to improve your company.

I was a copy editor, for heaven’s sake. Behind the scenes. Making you look good. It’s never been about me.

Even newspaper executives don’t get that anymore, if they ever did.

So, my newspaper career is done.

And I’m in a smelly, unsanitary day program for developmentally disabled adults.

I’m glad I’m there.

Because, hopefully, I can make a difference.

 

You do your best to make the best of it, but try as you might, the roof still leaks, and the winter wind still sneaks through the holes you just can’t seem to fix. You’ve shivered through your share of cold nights.

And you wonder if God has a place for a person like you.

Find your answer in the Bethlehem stable.

Page 133

 

I was looking for something to read the other day and found this Max Lucado book on the shelf. We received it as a gift for a monetary donation we made, obviously around the holidays, to a radio station we listen to.

I’m reading a Christmas book when it’s literally 90 degrees outside.

The timing is perfect.

Fifteen years ago, I didn’t dream about being where I am now. I had a great job in a wonderful town with great friends and plenty of community involvement.

Life happens, as we all know. Society has changed a lot in the past 15 years.

For all of us.

And not always for the better. Right?

Depends how you look at it.

I’ve met many wonderful people in the past decade or so since my life got bumpy. I’ve joined Facebook and LinkedIn, meeting new people and reconnecting with long-ago friends. I’m in a job that tests my patience sometimes, but that’s how I learn patience.

 

It really comes down to that: God loves us. The story of Christmas is the story of God’s relentless love for us.

Let him love you. If God was willing to wrap himself in rags and drink from a mother’s breast, then all questions about his love for you are off the table. You might question his actions, decisions, or declarations. But you can never, ever question his zany, stunning, unquenchable affection.

Pages 134-5

 

This thought is timeless, for all people, for all seasons.

It’s why I get up a few minutes early every morning and spend a little time with God, just me and Him, before the day begins. Get right with God before punching in at work, before reading all your Facebook emotions, before doing yardwork or exercise or whatever else I’ll do today.

Start the day right, and the rest of the day has a better chance of turning out well.

Whatever that means. When something goes awry, there’s a lesson to be learned, a trial to endure or patience to reveal. God’s affection never wavers.

That’s the point of Christmas. And we don’t have to wait until December to experience it.

Am I good enough?

I am not good enough.

“The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

I am the least in my family.

“I will be with you.”

This is the story of Gideon, starting in Judges 6.

It also is my story.

If I choose to believe it.

An angel of the Lord called Gideon into battle. Instead, he found excuses. He hid. He wanted the angel to choose someone else, I’m sure.

Satan has told me this same lie for years, and I believed it. I’m not good enough. No one cares what I think. No one is listening, so why barge in?

Send someone else, God.

My thoughts don’t matter.

No one has ever actually told me that.

Why do I believe it’s true, then?

Because very few people try to draw me out, to seek my thoughts on an issue. It’s easy to remain unnoticed.

Sometimes, I don’t have anything to say. (I pick my battles, far fewer than many people do.)

Other times, I’ve thought about speaking up. Occasionally, I actually do.

But that’s why I write. It’s easier for me to share my thoughts with a keyboard than verbally.

My thoughts frequently are off the wall anyway. They would make you uncomfortable. I’m sure of it.

Iron sharpens iron, they say. But iron is hard. It hurts if someone gets hit with it.

So, like Gideon, I make excuses.

But sometimes, God speaks to me too, as He did to Gideon.

No more excuses, Gideon. I’ve got a plan for you.

Go do it.

“I will be with you.” (Judges 6:16)

Does God have a plan for me?

He does.

God talked with me over the weekend, several times. I attended a men’s retreat with about 40 men from our church.

Actually, it wasn’t a retreat. Our leader called it an “advance.” Men don’t retreat. We move forward.

We advance.

Like Gideon did, despite his low self-esteem.

At one point during the weekend, I watched a Canada goose for 40 minutes. The goose swam peacefully on a small lake for awhile, then came ashore to find some breakfast.

Until one of our men walked past. As he approached, the goose sensed danger and retreated to the safety of the water. When the man continued on and the perceived danger was removed, the goose returned to the shore in search of breakfast.

This happened three times, as three men passed by, one by one.

Men are not supposed to retreat like this goose did. If we perceive danger, we are to face it.

Perhaps the danger is real. Perhaps not.

None of these men had any intention of harming the goose. In fact, all of them ignored it. Didn’t even notice what the goose was doing.

The goose didn’t understand that. It perceived danger, and removed itself.

We are men. God gave us minds and hearts to make sense of the world around us.

We are to live in the moment, not retreat from it.

We are to engage. We just might learn something. Or solve a problem.

Perhaps I might get hurt.

Or, possibly, a man and the goose might help each other. Companionship. Assistance finding breakfast, for example.

How do we know unless we engage?

At another point during the “advance,” God told me I need to change my heart towards two people in particular. A specific challenge.

With one person, I’m not good enough. I misunderstand and I’m misunderstood, because I don’t share my thoughts and feelings nearly enough.

I need to engage much more than I have done.

With the other person – who has developmental disabilities than make him unable to understand life the way I do – I need patience and love. He is an adult physically but not mentally. I should not expect him to respond as an adult should.

It’s hard to treat an adult with respect when he acts like a child. He is a child in an adult’s body.

Patience.

Getting angry hasn’t solved anything yet. Frustration doesn’t work either.

Patience.

One of our “advance” speakers challenged us to say yes to God, even when He asks us to do impossible things. And God will ask us to do impossible things because we are men, and we are given opportunities to glorify God – because we are worth that much to Him.

We are good enough, our speaker said. We are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for.

Despite our failures in the past.

This is the God we worship.

“I will be with you.”

On Saturday afternoon, seven of us men descended a couple of hundred steps (I didn’t count them, I’m guessing here) to the top of a beautiful waterfall that emptied into a gorge. We saw some flat rocks in the gorge that we could stand on, so we bushwhacked down the hill to reach them.

No steps or path there. It had rained the day before, so the leaf-covered hill was damp and a little muddy.

And steep.

And slippery.

We descended anyway.

Once the first couple of guys started down the hill, the rest of us followed.

The waterfall was beautiful from down there. We hung out for a little while, enjoying nature’s beauty.

Eventually, we had to climb up. We joked about calling for a helicopter to rescue us, but that was a joke.

Grab a tree branch here and hope it holds my weight. Pull myself up. There’s a big root over there; I grabbed that next. My shoes got muddy and I got a scratch or two, but I made it up to the stairs.

All seven of us did.

It took us a minute to catch our breaths.

On my own, there’s no way I would have trekked that hill. Such a thought never would have crossed my mind. When the steps and the path ended, well, that’s where I stop.

See what men can do when we work together? Encourage each other? Push each other, even?

I’m not good enough.

Oh, yes I am.

Now that the “advance” is over, I need to live the rest of my life that way.

Those men won’t be with me day by day, but the living God is.

“I will be with you.”

I need to say yes to God.

Today. Moment by moment.

Let the adventure begin.

 

Learning to love ourselves

… love your neighbor as yourself.

Matthew 22:39

 

When Jesus said this to the Pharisees as part of his response to their question about the greatest commandment, Jesus assumed that the Pharisees, and us as readers of Matthew’s gospel, love ourselves.

The focus of Jesus’ command is to love our neighbor. This takes many forms. It’s not an option. It’s the second-most important command Jesus gave us, behind loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind.

Loving myself

But how can we love our neighbor if we don’t love ourselves?

Am I the only person who asks this question?

I know my sins and shortcomings far better than anyone else does. And I’m sure God knows about sins I commit that I’m not even aware of.

I know God forgives me. I really do.

But can I forgive myself?

That’s hard.

As a result, over time, I’ve learned to bury my feelings deep in my heart. I can’t remember the last time I cried.

A friend asks me frequently who the Detroit Lions’ next opponent is, since he knows I lived most of my adult life in Michigan (I’m in Ohio now). I’m in a family-based NFL pool so I pick the winners and point spread of each game. Still, I often don’t remember who the Lions are playing.

Very little in life registers with me. Nothing penetrates my deep inner being. I feel like I’m just going through the motions.

How can I love my neighbor when I have no feelings for myself?

Several good friends recently attended a weekend men’s retreat based on a book by John Eldredge, “Wild at Heart.” I didn’t attend the retreat, but I’ve read the book.

When they told our Wednesday men’s group at church how the retreat went down, they emphasized two themes that I relate to very well, themes that Eldredge knows affect men deeply.

The father wound

All men have a wound in our hearts. For most of us, that wound comes from our father.

Mine did.

I never doubted my dad’s love for my sister and me. He was (and still is – he’s 84) the strong, silent type. He’s opening up more now, but as a child I didn’t receive hugs, praise, verbal encouragement or emotional support. There are reasons for this; his own childhood was not that way either.

I didn’t realize all this until I became an adult. Indeed, I’m still figuring this out.

I decided I wanted to break the cycle, to give our sons what I didn’t have.

All three of our sons are adults now, living on their own and doing well.

However, none of them are married. More than that, none of them have ever had a significant girlfriend, to my knowledge.

And that’s OK. There’s benefits to being single.

But I passed the father wound to my sons. I know I did.

Will the cycle ever end?

It can.

By the grace of God, and only by the grace of God, it can.

The poser

The second Eldredge theme proves why I bury my feelings. Like many men, I put my best face forward in public. If you ask me how I’m doing, I’ll say, “Fine” or “doing well” or something like that – even if I’m not.

I’m posing. I’m not being real with you.

Do you want a “real” answer when you ask me that question? I could give you an earful if I really wanted to.

I can talk superficially just fine. I’ll tell you about my job, a volunteer role or two I have, how our new house is coming along or the yardwork I’m doing – stuff like that.

Ask me how my soul is, and I most likely won’t give you a “real” answer. I have wounds in there, things I don’t like about myself. Things I’d rather hide.

Our Wednesday men’s group this fall is going through a video series on overcoming addictions, especially sexual addictions – because those in particular are so prevalent.

I’m not surprised that sexual harassment and worse is the issue of the day in the news. Pornography is huge. So are other sexual sins. The male species is exposed to it at a very early age – preteens for most boys. Did you know that?

It’s all over the internet, and boys have access to it (unless the parents have blocked it).

We men are posers, remember. We hide things. We’re very good at it.

But these sins have a way of showing up at very inopportune times.

I’m not saying every man is a sex addict. The temptation is there for every man (and boy), but we don’t have to give in to that temptation.

In fact, by the grace of God, and only by the grace of God, we can turn down that temptation – or overcome it if we’ve entered in to it.

We hide other things, too. Things we think. Money we spend. Things we do in private, when we’re sure no one is watching. (Do we ever want to get caught?)

The solution

I’d like to say I’ve figured out how to overcome the father wound and the poser mindset. I haven’t.

The speakers in the video series say there’s no quick fixes for this kind of stuff. It takes time, perhaps years. It takes accountability with other men who are willing to listen as we break down those poser walls and get real.

We know what we’re doing is wrong. We can’t stop by willpower. It just doesn’t work that way.

This is why it’s so hard to like ourselves. We hurt inside when we fail.

Sharing my feelings with someone else when I’ve literally never done that before doesn’t happen by chance. That too will take time.

In the meantime, don’t be so quick to judge me. Not all of us men are evil. Many of us want to get it right. We really do. Perhaps we just don’t know how.

Is that a sin?

Be patient with us, please. Encourage. Ask questions. Listen.

We probably won’t respond right away. Trust doesn’t come naturally.

Be patient.

We just might get there someday.

This is one way to love our neighbor. We listen to his story. We share ours.

Our real stories.

We become brothers.