Because They Promised

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This woman. She’s been my mom for over thirty years. I’ve called her mom since the day I married her son. Easier, I suppose, since I no longer had one. We’ve been very different people for those thirty-some years, except in our mutual fierce love of our children. I know she didn’t understand me in the beginning or, really, for quite a while.

But she loved me. It didn’t matter. Honestly, when your son marries a 23-year-old who knows a lot about Shakespeare but not about life, you can assume she won’t even understand herself for a good many years.

Kneeling by her bed and crying last week, I listened to her soft voice, almost inaudible from dehydration, tell me those things we seem to only tell when we know we have limited time to speak them. I heard, “You’re one of my girls. You’re my daughter.” And I will treasure those words for as long as I have my own breath.

She deserves her loved ones around her, fiercely protecting her this time, and she has them. Children and grandchildren, being the loving humans she taught them to be. I see her nearest granddaughter drop by regularly, her grandson sitting at her side whispering kind words. I watch my own daughters paint her toenails, hold her hands, and caress her hair.

I am undone by this.

It’s the hard work of 85 years to have family like that. There is a legacy that will remain a thing of beauty long after breaths are taken and heartbeats cease.

I’ve never walked with someone at the end of life. I’ve lost a lot of people. Both parents and two sisters. But they all were there one moment and gone the next. No preparation. No ability to say all the things that need to be said and hear all the things that need to be heard. No time to process all the feelings that come with this downhill walk, and no choice in whether you want to make it.

I do want to.

I had this discussion with my daughter recently about our two cats that passed. One quickly and with no warning, the other with a diagnosis a few months before. Which was worse, saying a sudden, unwanted goodbye, or dragging through the daily hurt of watching it happen and being helpless? We mourned out kitties—we loved them so, and two in quick succession was too much. We both knew we were talking about more than the cats. We both agreed warning was better.

Yet we don’t know how to take this slow walk down the hill, a quicker walk than we had hoped, really. We don’t know when to laugh, when to cry, and we’re figuring out that both are OK, and they happen when they happen. We hate the tug-of-war between our lives here, jobs that demand us, lives that need living, and our longing to be there, sharing every minute we can. We don’t how to dance that choreography, and we realize no one does.

And what of this man? He’s walked beside her for over sixty years. When I tell him he’s a good man and a great husband, he merely says, “Well, it was all in those vows.” Indeed it was, but I’ve seldom seen anyone live his promises so well. He knows that a man’s promise is where his character is determined. But I don’t think he’s thought that—he’s simply done it.

I know this is supposed to be a series on young peoples’ voices. But these words needed to be said. Maybe these words need to be said to young people, not by them. I know marriage isn’t so popular anymore. I know suspicion of institutions leave the next generation wondering if it’s worth the risk. Commitment is frightening, and there are no guarantees. If there’s anything we have taught the next generation, it’s that they should always demand guarantees. Never try anything that isn’t sure to succeed.

Silly us. Why? That was such a foolish lesson. These are the lessons we needed to teach. The lessons of time. Long-haul belief in the family you’ve created. Faith that others will cling to after you’re gone. Love regardless of comprehension. Commitment to people who change, hurt, and confuse you, because they’re your people, and we keep hold of our peoples’ hands. Even, especially, when they have no idea where they’re going.

I’m glad she knows well where’s she’s going.

Men who delicately wipe their spouse’s forehead and hold her hand and walk with her through the pain of loss. Because they promised to. 

If only we had taught you that, rather than “success.” Because that right there is what success looks like. Like my mom and dad.

It’s Complicated

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Relationships are complicated. My husband and I were friends for a year before we started to date. Before he finally asked, however, we danced around each other for a few weeks in a confused waltz of unclear intentions.

Does he? Does she? Is this happening? Who’s going to go first?

I lost patience before he did. That has not changed in 32 years.

Love Is Complicated

One of the most complicated relationships in the Bible has to be Peter and Jesus.

Peter. oh, dear, crazy, too-much-like-me Peter. He is the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Also, he’s the first one (the only one) Jesus calls Satan.

He’s the first out of the boat when Jesus gives the invitation to walk on water. He’s also the first to say he never knew Jesus. One moment he’ll die for his friend; the next he wants to get on with his life as if Jesus never happened. The Rock of the church starts as a quivering, frightened boy in the upper room.

Peter is a contradictory mess. Like us.

The question Jesus asks him—the last question Jesus asks anyone—matters. It matters perhaps more than any other question Jesus levels at anyone. He levels it at us, all the time.

Later, Jesus appeared again to the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. This is how it happened. Several of the disciples were there—Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples.

Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing.”

“We’ll come, too,” they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.

At dawn Jesus was standing on the beach, but the disciples couldn’t see who he was. He called out, “Friends, have you caught any fish?”

“No,” they replied.

Then he said, “Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!” So they did, and they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it.

Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and headed to shore. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yards from shore. When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread. (John 21.1-9)

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Once again, Peter is the first in the water. His friends will have to pull in the catch, land the ship, and everything else. He’s gone.

Peter is excited to see Jesus. Then, I imagine that sometime in that water, he begins to remember what he’s repressed. It all comes back. He relives every moment of his denial. The smell of the fire. The particular voice of the woman who asked if he knew Jesus. The sound of Jesus’ being hit and the sight of his face looking back at Peter.

He’s remembering as he swims, and I’m guessing he swims slower and slower, wishing he’d stayed in the boat. That long swim in cold water woke the memory of a complicated relationship.

“Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught,” Jesus said. So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn’t torn.

“Now come and have some breakfast!” Jesus said. None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Then Jesus served them the bread and the fish. This was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples since he had been raised from the dead.

After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”

“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him. (John 21.10-15)

My idea of a perfect day is a beautiful morning on the beach with a breakfast that someone else cooks. But there’s a nagging issue. Peter may have avoided being alone with Jesus the first two times he appeared to the disciples. Now, because of his impulsiveness, he can’t.

Jesus takes him aside. Have you ever been in that situation? A boss, teacher, parent, takes you aside? You know it can’t be good?

Peter has disobeyed and disowned Jesus. He definitely expected a different question. A talking to. A pink slip. To be voted off the island.

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Do you love me?

It’s not what he thinks is coming.

He dodges at first. He plays the bold face he has used before, the unique Peter bravado.

Of course, you know I love you. I’m here, right? Do I love you more than these other guys? Hey, I’m the one standing here soaking wet, aren’t I?

Except Jesus isn’t speaking Peter’s language. Jesus’ word for love is agape—a word that means sacrificial love. It’s the highest form of love—one that will give of itself for someone else. It’s Good Samaritan love. It’s Christ’s love for us. It only gives.

But Peter chooses phileo love, not agape. Brotherly, friendly, approving love. It’s like giving Jesus a fist bump rather than an embrace.

Jesus, you’re just alright with me.

Yeah Jesus, I love you. Like a brother, man. Just not one I’ll take a bullet for.

Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”

“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.

Comparison

The second time, Jesus drops the comparison. That’s an easy dodge.

It’s easy for Peter to compare himself to the rest and feel good.

It’s easy for all of us to find someone who will end up farther down the scale. Someone who gives less, obeys less, messes up more, sins worse.

“Someone else” is an easy place to hide.

Do you love me? I imagine Peter’s assurance came a little slower the second time.

A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”

Fist Bump Love

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The third time, Peter is genuinely hurt. He’s hurt that Jesus comes down to his level of love—he asks only for phileo this time.

Finally, Peter is broken. The third time, he doesn’t give an easy “you know.” He uses words that imply “you have come to know.” Like, you have come to know the real truth about me, Jesus. I’m still the same sinful man you met in a boat once before, catching fish. 

This time, there is no bravado. He simply looks at Jesus, acknowledging what they both know—that his love is weak, and his passions sometimes overtake him.

And that’s where Jesus can begin. Peter thought he was at end—but his admission signals a beginning.

Do you love me? Then follow me. Start over. Grab a new beginning. Take a second chance. Get out of jail free.

Peter loved Jesus in glorious times of walking on water and feeding 5000 and cutting off ears like a hero—but he didn’t love him in the hard, scary, unknown. Agape love is needed there, and it’s much, much harder. It can’t be done alone.

Do you love me? Love is sacrificial. It goes second. Or last.

We are not supposed to ask if we can afford  it or if it fits our calendar or if we like its political  statement before we ask, do I love him?

Love is not comfortable. It’s hard sometimes. Love goes beyond waving palm branches in glory and sometimes has to march to the cross.

Love goes beyond sending cards to crying with others.

Love goes beyond thoughts and prayers to sacrificing for others.

It’s the difference between fist bumping and footwashing.

Do you love me?

Our answer isn’t always an exuberant agape yes. It’s usually “you know, Lord.” I do love you. But you know my weakness. I’ll need your help. I thought I could do this on my own. I thought I had what it takes. But I don’t. You know, Lord. You know.

That, says Jesus to Peter and to us, is where we can finally begin.

Going Deep

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Last week, we began talking about Jesus’ story of the soils. It’s part of a series on Jesus’ stories and how to be good storytellers with out lives. You can read the intro here.

The basic idea is this:

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

More than anything, it seems, people want to tell good stories with their lives. So shouldn’t we want to hear the stories of the one who most people agree was the best at that? I do.

Jesus told his listeners about a farmer who tossed seed around—some on a hard path, some on rocky soil, some amid weeds, and some on good, fertile soil. This week, let’s talk a little about those rocks.

“Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock.”

You can guess what’s going to happen here, right?

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We have a bare spot in our garden, right along the driveway. Every so often, I decide to put a plant there. I shove the transplant spade into the dirt. And it stops, abruptly. Under that bare spot is a slab of rock, not an inch and a half down. I always forget it’s there. But the shovel reminds me with its jolt, and I know I cannot plant anything in that place. It’s roots will never grow deep enough to survive, especially in the dry, tree-root ridden soil along our driveway.

Rocks are not usually conducive for growth. The only things that grow among rocks are small plants that don’t have much for roots. (I know—things with giant taproots do as well—but that’s another theological truism.)

The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. (Matthew 13.20-21)

Shallow Soil Produces a Shallow Story

I have known so many of these people. They react immediately to hearing inspirational messages. They are all in. The emotional high grabs them, and they want to spring up and sign up as God’s right hand, right now.

Then life happens. The heat gets turned up. The high is gone, and life returns to so very . . . normal. I start to hear things like,“That’s not what I signed up for.” “I didn’t expect this.” “Well, God’s not working for me anymore.”

God ends up like a fire alarm in the hallway of their lives—pull in case of emergency, but otherwise, he stays behind the glass.

The ones whose faith lands on rocky soil never develop deep roots.

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Is your heart shallow or deep?

To tell a good story with our lives, we need deep hearts.

A story without depth is boring. If a plotline never gets beyond small demands and low risk, who really wants to read it? Who’s going to option the movie rights on the tale that never embroils its hero in anything interesting?

If Frodo just FedExed the ring to Mordor, no one would care.

The story happens in the difficult moments. Characters are created in the hot sun. When drought hits, we know which people we want to watch until the end.

The ones who have shown depth of heart.

The kingdom of God thrums a heartbeat of deep, messy, thoughtful life. The ones who see the demands, the depth, and then opt out have forfeited the opportunity to grow deep hearts.

I know that choice. It’s tempting to look at the heartbeat of the kingdom and think, “That’s too much. That passion would ask more than I can give. Feeling the things that break Jesus’ heart could break mine. Pull back. Pull back.”

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I made that choice long enough, settling for rocky soil and a heart that went to a certain level and no farther. Then, Jesus forced me to see with his eyes.

What do you see when you get eye to eye with a lonely elderly person? When you visit an addict in the hospital? When you listen to an immigrant or refugee tell her story? When you really get a look at hurricane devastation on an island unable to recover for itself? I know what you see.

You see Jesus looking back. You see yourself in a way you’ve never seen you. And you like it.

Because here’s the thing—we’re created to be more than skin deep. There’s a cost to skating the surface. It seems easier — we’re too busy. Too overwhelmed. Remaining shallow-hearted is survival, that’s all.

But the cost is our soul. Deep hearts are real hearts. Broken hearts are alive.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

What will you risk this week to grow deep?

It’s Your Party and I’ll Come if I Want To

I am a party failure. True story. In this month of talking about community, I’ve got to come clean. I cannot throw a party. Other than unicorn/princess/Harry Potter themed birthday parties that have long since seen their day. My baby is almost twenty. She is not so into letting me plan gift bags with glitter tattoos and a rainbow cake anymore. But at those kinds of parties—I was a boss. Just so you know.
 
But now? Friends, neighbors, coworkers—all those people you want to have over and just kick back and have fun around the backyard fire? Fail. I have them, and no one comes.
 

Party Fail

I once threw a surprise birthday party. And No. One. Came. Do you know what it’s like to sit around with a big tub of sour cream and onion dip and and pretend to your spouse (the birthday-ee) that no, there was just a good sale so you bought that industrial-sized cheetos bag for only the two of you? I cannot even remember how I explained the Happy Birthday banner. Whatever, people. It’s been over 25 years; I think we’ve moved on.
 
But it’s not just me. See, I googled it this morning. There are pages of stories of people who have thrown parties to which no one came. Advice columns. Blogs. Humor essays. Ugly crying in latte essays. All over the world, people throw parties and no one comes. I thought it was just me.
 
In fact, it’s endemic.
 
No one RSVP’s anymore because everyone is just planning to wait until the day to see if they feel like it or not. 


Guilty as charged. 
 
And the reality is, on the day, more often than not inertia sets in. No matter how much you think you should go or you know you’d enjoy it, the pull of not changing the status quo is too great. We don’t go. We find better things to do. We find nothing to do, which is often what we need after a hard day/week/year. 
 
I am one of these people. I know of what I speak.
 
But while I talk about how important it is to create community, I have to be honest, too. I am a community creating failure. And I know it’s not just me. Lots of us are feeling the same way. How do we create a community in the midst of a culture that won’t commit, needs downtime like we need oxygen, and considers relationships as disposable as hitting the “unfriend”button on facebook? How do we not just quit when no one shows up to our lives?
 
I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t be a party fail. But I have found some interesting tips. I am terrible at most of the things experts say to do, so there is that. Maybe some of these ideas will stick. But honestly, I don’t know.
 

Timing Is Everything

In her blog, Conrinna Gordon-Barnes writes, “In my experience, there’s an optimal time frame between too lengthy notice and too short notice. Experiment and find what works for the people you want to invite.” In other words, my method of inviting people to come to an event in approximately ten minutes probably isn’t the best modus operandi. Figure out what the magic window is for your people. They’ll still cancel or not RSVP, but you’ve set yourself up for a better chance.
 

Personal Touch

I hate rejection. I hate leaving people out. So I don’t invite people personally. I make blanket invitations. Those almost never work, according to professionals (and according to all those would-be party throwers crying into their drink of choice whose blogs I read). With a blanket invite, people feel free, almost empowered, to not show up. Someone else will. It wasn’t meant for me anyway. I’ll come next time. Here’s a big hurdle for me. I need to do better.
 

Make ‘Em Pay

Not literally. But most experts tell us that having some kind of stake in the commitment makes people keep their word. If someone commits to bringing the flaming pumpkin dessert, he or she is not as likely to flake out on you at the last minute because the ex-boyfriend is back in town and maybe they’ll get back together. That’s good news for you and for the dessert bringer.
 
This is hard for me, because I prefer low key, casual, come and go. If you can you can, if you can’t, no worries. But more often than not, can’t is what happens.
 
I don’t know the answer. I really don’t.
 

But I know this. I need to be a better committer if I want this elusive thing called community.  . Maybe that’s the real answer. Maybe it’s not learning how to throw a better shindig or understanding the exact equation for maximum attendance. Maybe it’s as simple as being a committed friend. Being what I want to see. Because like I said, I am so one of the guilty people.

 
And the truth is, sometimes, we need to be. Sometimes, we do need to take some stuff off our schedule and say no. But sometimes? I think we overdo that.
 

The late Chuck Colson writes, “The basic building blocks of society simply erode without commitment. Any sensible society must address this problem by educating people that commitment is the very essence of human relationships. When we refuse to commit, we miss out on one of the great joys of life. When we obsess over ourselves, we lose the meaning of life, which is to know and serve God and love and serve our neighbors.”

 
If I want to be a better community-maker, I need to serve.  .Not hors-d’oeurvres. People. I need to be the commitment I want to see. Oh, that’s scary. And uncomfortable. And opening myself up right now to anyone who reads this and says, “Hmm. I can guilt her into whatever I want at this point.”
 

But scary is sometimes the best thing we need to move forward.

Do you have any answers for community building? Anything that’s worked for you? Any failure stories you’d like to share (so I don’t feel so alone)? Start the conversation below!