Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Religious Freedoms and Your Neighbor

There is a bill sitting on Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's desk called SB 1062. Arizonans who support this bill say that this legislation is needed to protect the religious freedoms of business owners in the state. The bill says, in an oversimplified nutshell, that any person or private organization cannot be "unreasonab[ly] burden[ed]" to provide services when provision of services would go against privately held religious beliefs.

For example, should this bill be signed in to law, a wedding photographer could not be sued for refusing to photograph a gay wedding on religious grounds. This was a news headline in neighboring New Mexico.

On the surface, this bill seems fair - a businesswoman should be able to conduct her business as she sees fit.

But opponents of SB 1062 - or as it is more colloquially known, the "Turn the Gays Away" bill - argue that this bill is so broadly written that it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people. Speaking to a similar piece of legislation that was considered in Kansas, Dana Liebelson of Mother Jones reported that:
The bill, which covered both private businesses and individuals, including government employees, would have barred same-sex couples from suing anyone who denies them food service, hotel rooms, social services, adoption rights, or employment—as long as the person denying the service said he or she had a religious objection to homosexuality. 
And indeed, Kansas and Arizona are not the only states debating this kind of legislation - similar bills have popped up in the state legislatures of Oregon, South Dakota, Maine, and in my own state of Tennessee. Arizona just happens to be the first state where the bill made it to the governor's desk. Gov. Brewer has not indicated whether or not she would sign the bill into law. She has until Friday to sign it or veto it; however, if she does neither, then the bill will automatically go into law.

We Christians in states like Tennessee, Kansas, and Arizona need to ask ourselves, who is our neighbor? And to that end, I simply want to offer a revised version of one of Jesus' most beloved parables - the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Imagining that the Word Made Flesh, Emmanuel, came to us in the early 21st century, I suspect the story would go something like this:

Jesus was hosting a prayer breakfast for powerful religious and political leaders in the Phoenix community. One young legislator raised his hand to test Jesus. "Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responded, "What does your Bible say?" The legislator replied,“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live."

But the legislator, wanting to justify himself, said, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus said, "There was a man biking around town when a car hit him and knocked him on the side of road. He was severely hurt and unable to move. A pastor of a large church drove by, but he did not stop to help him. Then an elder of another church drove by, but he too did not stop to offer any help."

"But then two women, a couple, saw the man and immediately pulled off the road. One woman checked for a pulse on the man, while the other called for an ambulance. Once the wounded biker was put in the ambulance, the two women followed him to a nearby hospital and into the emergency room. Amidst the chaos of the scene, the two women found the nearest attending nurse. "Nurse," they said as they scribbled words on a piece of scrap paper, "This is our address. Whatever this man owes, you forward us the bill. And here's our phone number; you call us the moment he's able to see visitors."

"Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the biker who was hit?” And the young legislator said, “The ones who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise."

What do you think? Who is our neighbor? And what does it look like to love our neighbor the way that we want to be loved?

Until Next Time,

Monday, February 24, 2014

Somebodies, Nobodies, Anybodies: Coming Out and the Visible Community

University of Missouri football player and defensive player of the year for the SEC Michael Sam recently came out with the support of his teammates; he may be the first openly gay player in the NFL.

But many people said, "Who cares who he sleeps with? I really don't care about his sexuality."

Oscar nominated actress Ellen Page recently came out in a speech, saying that she was "tired of lying by omission." Many people praised her for her candor and vulnerability.

But I saw comments on Facebook that said, "Ellen Page came out, and I'm not surprised."

I recently spoke at a church about The Marin Foundation, and afterwards a man came up to me to say, "Listen, I'm a straight liberal man. I love everybody, and I have a few gay friends. But I get real tired about talking about all this gay stuff. Why do gay people need to make their sexuality such a big announcement?"

For the record, I was a little surprised that these words came from a self-proclaimed liberal.

From the athletic celebrity and the celluloid darling to the countless nobodies who will never have a large platform, the decision to come out is still a complicated one. Families of LGBTQ children can see their dreams of a "normal" life for their children disappear. Straight folks have come to me to ask, "A friend of mine just told me he's gay. What do I do now?" Evangelical Christians have told me, "I don't know why anybody wants to call themselves gay. Why would you ever want to identify by your sin?"

On more than one occasion, those words have been directed right at me.

Nearly every gay person I know has had to confront one question at some point in their life: "Will I be rejected by my friends and family just because I'm gay?" And for those of us who were raised in a church, we must confront one more question: "Will God reject me because I'm gay?" So we're left with two possibilities: either play it safe by lying about ourselves, or take a risk by being honest about ourselves. Eventually, the risky but lighter yoke of authenticity overcomes the devastatingly heavy weight of solitude.

I remember the thought that began my coming out process in 2001: "I can't keep lying to people. Someone has to know who I am." I didn't believe that I could be loved until somebody knew that I was different in some mysterious kind of way. Coming out was a sacred moment because I was finally able to share for the first time all of my fears, my questions, and my most intimate understanding of self.

I recently saw a tweet that said (in so many words), "I don't see it as coming out, but rather as inviting others in." Here is a beautiful image of what Bonhoeffer calls the "visible community." God did not create people to live in the dark shadows of disconnectedness; He designed us to belong to each other in vulnerable relationships. Therefore, coming out is my invitation for you to share your life with me just as authentically as I share my life with you. In this way, coming out is somewhat in opposition to American culture in the 21st century. All of our social media gives us an immediate connection to one another, and yet we're starved for significant, long-lasting relationships.  Coming out is a decision based on the hope that our community can be built upon shared vulnerability and respect.

Lastly, though we may come out with our sexuality, we don't want you to define us by our sexuality; we don't want to be your gay friend. Michael Sam, the Mizzou football player, recently told a group of journalists at the NFL Combine, “I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player." And when asked if he felt like he was a pioneer, Sam replied, "A trail blazer? I feel like I'm Michael Sam."

Coming out still matters, and it has little to do with sexual orientation - or for that matter, one's sexual history. Coming out is an open confession of a private journey towards the understanding of one's physical, emotional, and spiritual self. Thus we all come out at some point in our lives, and we all consciously choose to invite people into the inner sanctums of our life. Let's cherish these moments for what they are: vulnerable, transformative, and sacred.

Until next time,

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Walking through John 5: Contrary Callings

My housemates and I are walking through the entire Gospel of John. We recently finished two weeks on John 5, and I want to share some of our thoughts with you. This is the third and final installment of a three-part reflection on John 5.

Let's jump right to it - Jesus breaks the Law, and He has no qualms about doing it. His ministry flew right in the face of culturally accepted norms and theological constructs for his time.

How do I know this? Because it's all recorded in the Gospels. In fact, as my friend and The Marin Foundation colleague Michael Kimpan explores in his forthcoming book"in the four gospels, jesus crosses both cultural and religious boundaries repeatedly - over 45 separate examples – in an effort to stand in solidarity with the Other."

To story of the long-suffering invalid found in John 5 is just one of those 45 examples. Jesus breaks two laws:

1. Christ approaches a crippled man. People with physical infirmities were often considered unclean. For just one example of this, look quickly at Leviticus 21:16-24 - Moses is told to instruct Aaron that any of his descendants that suffer from a physical defect are forbidden from approaching the LORD's food offerings, and they are strictly forbidden from entering the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies.

2. Christ heals on the Sabbath. Working on the Sabbath was the specific charge the Jews of Jerusalem levied against Christ and the Invalid - Christ healing and the Invalid carrying his mat. Why was this such a big deal? Because according to the Revealed Law, you were required to keep the Sabbath above all other things, or you would be punished by death.

God doesn't approach invalids - the Law forbade it. And above all other things, the LORD did not work on the Sabbath.

As if that wasn't enough, Jesus had the audacity to say, "My Father is working until now, and I am working."

My Father - God - My Equal.

No wonder "the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him" (John 5:18).

Jesus responds to his accusers with a long series of statements that would have deeply offended 1st century Jewish sensibilities.

The Son can do nothing on His own authority, but only what He sees the Father doing (v. 19).

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life (v. 24).

The testimony that I have is greater than that of John [the Baptist]. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very (Law-breaking) works I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me (v. 36).

And perhaps most startling of all - startling even to us worshipping in 21st century Evangelical communities:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you...if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words? (vv. 39-42, 46-47)

Jewish boys living in 1st century Judah would have been required to memorize the entire Torah by the time they were 10 years old. Evangelicals today are exhorted to read and memorize large portions of the entire Scriptures. For my part, I read the entire Scriptures over the course of the year; I practice this discipline daily. I like to think that I "search the Scriptures" because, in no small part, I do find life and meaning in them.

What we have in John 5 is a crowd of Torah experts telling a nameless Invalid and an itinerant Rabbi that they are breaking the Revealed Law of God. In our world, we evangelicals feel it necessary to speak Capital-T Truth from the Scriptures into every situation we encounter, especially when a person's narrative doesn't quite fit our own understanding of the world. In so doing, we perhaps miss out an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to celebrate a person's life.

Christ validates our discipline of Scripture intake; Jesus says that these Scriptures bear witness to Him. Nowhere does Jesus tell us to stop reading the Scriptures, and in a few decades following Jesus' ministry, another itinerant pastor named Paul will exhort new churches to cling to these sacred and holy texts.

However, Jesus' words should challenge us: You pour over the Scriptures, but you refuse to come to me that you may have life. And His challenge comes to a Jewish people who are so hung up on a single Law that they cannot celebrate the restoration of the Invalid.

I have a few questions for us to think about.

Is it possible to thoroughly pour over the Scriptures and miss the point entirely? 

What do we do when our carefully constructed Biblical interpretations come into conflict with the world around us? My colleague Jason just wrote a fantastic post on this question.

Do we American Christians have a solipsistic reading of the Scriptures? That is to say - here is what the Bible says to me in my context, and this shall be the only correct interpretation for me! Or another away of putting it:
Does Jesus ever call us to follow Him in such a way that conflicts with deeply held religious beliefs? After all, He healed on the Sabbath - and he approached an unclean Invalid. What Rules and Laws might He ask us to break?

Leave your thoughts, comments, and pushback below. Let's get a conversation going!

Until next time,

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Above All, Keep the Sabbath

If you grew up in the church, then you were taught the Ten Commandments from a very early age. The Big 10 form a solid foundation for creating a Christian ethic; heck, most people in the world, regardless of faith, would say that over half of the commandments are, by and large, good rules to follow.

But which commandment is the most important of them all? That's the big question a lawyer asks Jesus in the Gospels, and Jesus answers succinctly, "Love your God with all your heart, mind, and strength; and the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself."

Groovy. We all know that.

But if we had to pick one of the Big Ten to elevate, which one would we pick? Don't murder? Don't steal? Make no idols? Have no other gods besides God?

The Scriptures have an interesting answer.

In the second half of Exodus, we see Moses standing atop Mt. Sinai as he receives the sacred Law from God, which includes the Ten Commandments. There are long passages of how to build the Tabernacle, how to construct the Ark of the Covenant, how to fashion together elegant priestly robes. And at the end of their meeting, just as God is about to send Moses back down to camp, He says:
“You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death." (Exodus 31:13-15)
Wait a minute. Above all The most important thing to rest? You mean to tell me that of all the Big 10 Commandments, resting takes precedence over no idol worship, no stealing, no coveting, no murder? Resting is more important than not killing somebody? God surely not, no!

But the Scriptures bear three different witnesses to the importance of the Sabbath.

1. The word Sabbath is mentioned a total of 123 times in the entire Scripture - 66 times in the Old Testament, 32 times in the Law. God spent a lot of time detailing what the Sabbath was, what it was not, and why we should keep it.

2. The Sabbath is a big sign that "I, the Lord," will sanctify us. The Sabbath is a testament to God's abiding presence with us. The Sabbath is important because it is holy for us - literally, it has been set aside for us. This is God's gift to us, as if to say to the ancient Israelites, "You toiled without rest for 400 years under the hot Egyptian sun. Things are different now. You will rest, because the human body is not a machine."

3. A stern warning accompanies most Biblical mentions of the Sabbath - if you break it, you will be put to death. This example from Exodus 31 is no exception.

Rest. Or you die.

Actually, that sounds about right. The human body is not a machine, and we Americans tend to work ourselves to death. Too many people lie on their death beds with one looming regret: I worked too hard to enjoy life. 

Rest. Of you'll be cut off from the people.

Actually, that sounds about right. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Or in my music world, the conversation goes like this:

"Jimmy, let's hang out tonight!"
"I can't. I have rehearsal." 

No joke, this happened last night, verbatim.

So the Sabbath was then and is now serious business. When we let our work become our entire life, we lose touch with our friends and family. When we let our work become our entire identity, we lose sight of our full humanity that is being restored and sanctified by God. And sometimes, the only way to meditate on the person and the work of God is to put down your own toil, turn off your iStuff, and rest every once in a while.

With our God giving us such clear expectations for us to rest, it would be shame if we were to break the Sabbath. It's not like a certain Son of God ever did such a thing...

Until next time,

Monday, February 17, 2014

Walking Through John 5: Having No Eyes to See

My housemates and I are walking through the entire Gospel of John. We recently finished two weeks on John 5, and I want to share some of our thoughts with you. This is the second of a three-part reflection on John 5.

For several summers during college, I worked as a youth counselor for a local urban home repair ministry called Service Over Self (SOS). Nearly 200 youth would come to our organization every Sunday afternoon incredibly excited to work, and they would exit our doors one week later high on Jesus, high on life, and deprived of sleep.

Of course, we college kids were no different. We logged 70 hours a week on the clock, and after 10 weeks of that brutal schedule (did I mention this included roofing in the Memphis summer sun?), our bodies were broken and exhausted, but our spirits were lifted from the community we built as we ministered to the neighborhood and to one another. We were high on Jesus, high on life, and deprived of sleep.

Camper and counselor alike left SOS with new commitments to the faith - new promises to read our Bibles daily, to minister to the poor, to love our neighbors deeply, and to be the best Christians in town. We had met Jesus at SOS; we were transformed.

But the story for both Camper and counselor was always the same. Within one week of coming home, we had slipped into old patterns, we had forgotten our promises, and for many of us, we lost much of our joy.  Now let 's be honest: part of the problem was that we were teenagers and young adults who couldn't keep a commitment if our life depended on it. And the other problem was that some of these Jesus highs were merely emotions that quickly fizzled out.

But part of the problem was that we had friends and families who did not experience the kind of transformative experiences that we had enjoyed. We struggled to find the words that could adequately describe how incredible our summers had been at SOS, but as so often happens when we receive a large helping of grace, our words were often clunky and wanting. But we tried our best to share, and when we shared our new commitments - whether to the faith or to some kind of ministry - our friends and families just nodded their heads in tacit acknowledgement, as if to say, "Well, that's not gonna last."  Our moms would say, "Honey, that's nice. Don't forget to take out the trash tomorrow." Our friends would say, "Well, that's cool. What else is going on?"

It seemed that no one outside of our SOS families understood what we had experienced; we became lonely and discouraged as we struggled to find our place in a world outside organized ministry.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, an invalid faced a similar problem. The poor man met the Messiah, and this divine encounter transformed his body - from crippled to fully mobile. But this is not what the people of Jerusalem saw. Upon seeing the former invalid walking about with his ratty old mat, the Jews publicly rebuked him:

"HEY! You're not supposed to carry your mat. It's the Sabbath!"

Talk about missing the point.

And talk about some discouraging words. Here was a man, sick and scorned for 38 years. Despite his mobility, he was still friendless and nameless. Though a transformative moment changed his entire being, a merciless crowd held him to an old identity. I can't imagine how incredibly alone this poor guy must have felt.

The crowds further interrogate the man - "Who told you to pick up your mat and walk?" And with a nasty sneer, "Who healed you on the Sabbath?"

I don't get it. Why didn't the crowd celebrate this man's renewed life? Why didn't the crowd celebrate the work of Christ? Why were they so fixated on the Law that they mocked the former invalid and persecuted Jesus?

We're all discomforted by that which we don't understand. We explain the mysterious things away by leaning on old models of understanding. For the Jews of ancient Jerusalem, witnessing a self-proclaimed Son of God break sacred Law by healing on the Sabbath was about as blasphemous as it got, so they relied on a centuries-old understanding of the Law to silence the outcast and persecute the subversive Messiah.

When our loved ones come home from transformative experiences like mission trips and retreats, they are eager to share how Jesus changed their hearts, but because we weren't there with them, we do our best to put their experiences into boxes that are easily understood. It is astonishing to me the great lengths we will go to restore a grace-transformed, peace-drenched person to a default setting they had before encountering Christ in some real and powerful way. It's as if we suffer from grace envy, as though we were jealous that someone other than myself experienced Christ in some incredibly powerful way. If I can't have that kind of joy, then no one can.

In the summer of 2003, I attended a church retreat called Chrysalis at a retreat center in the Texan Hill Country called Mt. Wesley. It was 72 hours of pure joy, and I remember meeting my 3 best friends on that trip - Billy, Byron, and Michael. I called a friend as soon as I got home from Mt. Wesley and excitedly shared with him all that God had given me on that weekend - most especially those three men.When I finished, a quiet voice on the other side of the line said, "Did you get what you were looking for? And you know those friendships won't last long."

That was it. That's all my friend had to say about my Chrysalis retreat, a weekend that meant so much to me. I was deeply hurt because I felt like he could not nor would not understand that I met Jesus in a powerful way on that mountain. (By the way, he was wrong - 11 years after this retreat, I still enjoy fantastic relationships with Billy, Byron, and Michael).

When we hear that somebody has received a tremendous blessing of grace from God, let's not be skeptical, and let's not lean on an outdated model to explain away a new work. Let's celebrate the work of grace, and let's seek to understand what Jesus is doing in the lives of our friends and family.

If you've had those miraculous encounters with Jesus - the kind where nothing can ever be the same again - don't let the world discourage you. "Look!" says the Christ, "You are well!" People will do everything they can to explain away your unexplainable experiences, but I encourage you to cling fast to what Jesus has done for you.

How about you? Was there ever a time that you experienced radical grace, only to have other people dismiss your story and explain it away?

Until next time,

This meditation is based on John 5:10-17: So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk. ’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working."

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Walking Through John 5: Crippled by Despair

My housemates and I are walking through the entire Gospel of John. We recently finished two weeks on John 5, and I want to share some of our thoughts with you. This is the first of a three-part reflection on John 5.

Picture this: an itinerant rabbi comes into Jerusalem with a rag-tag group of disciples. It's time for one of the annual feasts that called for a pilgrimage to the capitol, so Jerusalem and her temple would have been more crowded than usual. As Jesus enters into town, he passes by a healing pool frequented by the sick, blind, and disabled - men and women who were long since forgotten by Jerusalem's townsfolk.

Jesus doesn't avoid the multitude of untouchables. He doesn't quicken his pace, nor does he advise his disciples to turn their eyes away. He goes to the pool and he singles out one man who had been crippled for nearly 40 years. No doubt, this nameless man is covered in his own filth. He smells, and his hair is greasy, matted, and unkempt. This is not the kind of person you want to have over for dinner.

Yet Jesus, the Word made flesh, walks to the invalid to ask him a simple question: "Do you want to be healed?"

We would expect a resounding "YES" from this man, but that's not what he said. Instead, the man lowers his eyes and mumbles something about not being able to enter into the pool because everyone else beats him to it.

Let's stop for a minute. How you would describe the invalid? Some would say he was too proud to accept a man's help. Others would say that he was a pathetic excuse for a human being. "You have the Messiah in front of you," you might argue. "Don't you know what He can do for you?"

But when you've been crippled for nearly 40 years of your life, your affliction becomes more than a part of you; your infirmity becomes deeply intertwined with your identity. Your affliction becomes you.

In other words, the invalid was beyond hope. This invalid had absolutely no reason to believe that he would ever walk again, because this disability had become his entire life. And it's quite possible that, over those four decades, he saw dozens of others wade into the healing waters and walk out of their pain and misery. This man, however, was not one of those fortunate few, so as far as he was concerned, he was never going to be able to walk.

Despair crippled the man - both physically and spiritually. Not only was he unable to move independently, but his wearied spirit hardened his heart from any hope of a restored body.

All of us, at one point or another, are burdened by despair.

How many of you have been burdened by debt? Some of you have been paying off your student loans for years, even decades, and that principal on the loan just will not go down. Living a debt free life seems like an impossibility for many of us.

How many of you have shouldered an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or porn? If you've been addicted to porn for 15 years or more, then it would seem impossible that you could ever break those chains. It's just the way it's always been, so why should you expect to live free from it?

How many of you are still single as you enter your late 20s, your 30s, even your 40s? It seems that no one wants to spend their life with you, and with each passing year, you suspect that no one will ever want to spend life with you.

As if those burdens weren't enough, you see your friends pay off their massive debts. You see your friends overcome their addictions. You see your friends get engaged, and you go to their weddings, and you receive their children's birth announcements in the mail. And you think, "All my friends get the good life. When will Jesus bless me?"

If you find yourself in any of these situations, then maybe you have a taste of the invalid's despair - no one ever notices me, and nothing will ever change.

And here's where life may get unfair. Jesus, in John 5, immediately heals the invalid. So you might think, "When is Jesus going to free me from my burdens and sorrows? When will Jesus bless me with a debt free life? An addiction free life? A beautiful and loving partner? Doesn't Jesus want me to have good things, too?" And for most people, that kind of miraculous kind of change just doesn't happen.

I don't have an easy answer for you, but I can tell you two things that I can only hope are small consolations for you.

One, many invalids were laying beside the pool at Bethesda, but Jesus healed only one. For reasons unknown to us, Jesus did not heal every single person that day.

Two, Jesus does not want us to be identified by our burdens, our addictions, our sorrow, or our despair. Maybe that's why Jesus will say to the invalid later on, "See, you are well! Don't sin any more." It's hard to not identify yourself by your limitations, especially when you have to live with your burdens on a daily basis.

More than healing the invalid's body, I see Christ healing the man's spirit. Christ's simple act of talking to this man - when the world had long since forgotten him - says to him, "I see you. I affirm your dignity, and I acknowledge your inherent worth. You are a human, and I am a human."

Restoring mobility to the man's legs? That's the final exclamation point on a powerful, "You are loved!"

Are you struggling with despair? Have you let your burdens become your very identity? Are you wondering why everyone else seems to get a good deal out of life, yet you still wrestle? Remember a few simple things.

Everyone has burdens to carry; you're not alone.
You are fully human, and you have worth and value.
Christ sees you, and He sees His image within you.
Christ is restoring you every day.

Until next time,

This meditation is based on the following passage:

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids- blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be healed?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me." Jesus said to him, "Get up, take up your bed, and walk."And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. (John 5:1-8, ESV).

Friday, February 7, 2014

Lessons from the Bike: The Tough Guy Crashes

Any of my friends will tell you - I love to bike. I have a Carpe named Balrog Trouble Cornwheel - or Trouble, for short - so named because he's menacing like the evil Fire-Demon of Moria, he's constantly getting me into some kind of mess, and, well, Cornwheel just sounds like the bicycle version of my last name.

Even at rest, he looks mean
Trouble and I go for some decently long rides. It's not unusual for me to take him on a 20, 30 mile ride on a nice day. During the summer months, we'll average about 80-100 miles a week. We commute. We exercise. We flip off drivers who cut us off. We're made for each other...even when Trouble is getting me into trouble.

Like last Friday, when Trouble and I got into a nasty accident on a major Memphis road.

Madison Avenue is a road that runs from Midtown Memphis all the way to the University of Memphis Law School's downtown campus. I love biking on Madison because not many motorists use the road, and it also offers bike lanes, which gives me a decent sense of security.

But Madison Avenue has a nasty little trick. It has trolley tracks built into the road, and if you're not careful, those tracks will take you down.  As my good friend Clark, owner of Victory Bike Studios, will tell you, "I always tout that the trolley tracks are what keep orthopedic surgeons in business. You can't ride parallel to them, or you are gambling."

There's a point on Madison where the trolley tracks cross from the middle of the road to the sidewalk; for a cyclist, this crossing is the most dangerous part of the journey to downtown Memphis. If you hit the crossing at any angle other than 90 degrees to the tracks, you will crash.

And for a dozen trips down Madison, I have won Clark's gamble, safely coasting over those metal devils.

But last Friday brought the unlucky craps shot. I came in at the wrong angle, and my tires got lodged into the grooves of the tracks, and I spilled face first onto the pavement.

And I immediately got back on my feet.

I immediately put the chain back on the gear.

I immediately got back on the road.

I immediately biked to my intended destination.

And I didn't bother to see the damage until I got to my intended destination.

Not damage to Trouble, mind you; the bike got away without a scratch. (Like I said: Trouble).

Rather, the damage to my body - to my left knee. My jeans were ripped and covered in a small amount of blood. My knee was scraped bad - not bad enough to need stitches, but it hurt. And my knee was dirty, covered in soot and gravel from my spill on Madison.

My riding gloves - it was cold - were also ripped. That could've been the flesh of my palms.

But you know what? I'm a Tough Guy. I don't have time to mope, and I'm not about to call a friend for a ride home. So I chain my bike up outside the coffee shop I intended to visit to meet with my intended friend for my intended cup of coffee, and over said cups of coffee we casually joked about my fall, my ripped up jeans, my bloodied knee.

Well, I joked. My friend Tyler laughed only because I laughed - in reality, Tyler wanted to give Trouble and me a ride home in his truck.

But no. I'm a Tough Guy who is going to spend all day on his bike, scraped up body be damned. So Tyler and I finish coffee, and we hug goodbye, and I mount my bike ("Dang, my knee hurts"), and I head east on Madison to meet another friend for lunch, and I go over the same trolley tracks, and I spill again. Not as hard as the first fall, but even then, it was like adding salt to an fresh and biting wound.

(Yes, Reader, I was wearing a helmet).

And I immediately get on my feet, and I immediately fix the chain, and I immediately hit the road to have my lunch with my friend Andy, because Tough Guys bike to lunch with a banged up body.

When I meet up with Andy, he's looking at my ripped up jeans, my bloodied knee, my scraped gloves with that look - you know, the one that says, "Jimmy, you're an idiot. You know that, right?" Andy offers Trouble and me a ride home in his truck, but I politely decline. I'm a Tough Guy; I'll take care of myself.

I bike to Rhodes to do some work ("Dang, my knee really hurts"), and I have to tell my colleagues what happened to my bloodied knee and ripped up jeans. Eh, let's be honest, I'm smirking with every detail I tell them, because pain is cool, and I'm a Tough Guy.

By now, all my adrenaline has worn off, so I am exhausted. I bike my sorry self home ("[Expletive], this frackin knee really hurts") and I pass out as soon as I walk into my bedroom.

When I wake up about an hour or so later, I start thinking:

Why didn't I stop?
Why wouldn't I accept anybody's help?
What joy do I have in telling people I crashed on Madison?

I could have been seriously hurt.
I could have broken my wrists.
I could have been hit by a car while I was down on the ground.
I could have gotten killed.

I suffer from Tough Guy Syndrome - a sequence of lies and half-truths about masculinity. I believe this lie that says pain for the sake of pain is noble and good. I believe this lie that says only weak people accept help from friends. I believe this lie that says you must always be the noble hero at every moment; you must always push every envelope.

I'm a Tough Guy on my bike. Where else am I a Tough Guy?

I'm a Tough Guy in my friendships. I don't like to ask for help, nor do I like to receive help. My roommates are always asking if they can help me make dinner, but I always shut them down. "Nah, I got it."

I'm a Tough Guy in my work. It's midnight as I write. I've put together lectures, class plans, and e-mails at an even later hour. Why? Because I must push through the fatigue; only the weak need rest.

I'm a Tough Guy in my faith. Anyone who knows my story - which is many of you - knows that I have endured some horrifically rough episodes, most notably during my time in North Carolina. I've never really allowed anybody to help me carry those burdens. Sure, I've shared my story many times, but I don't know if I have ever allowed many people to help me confront the pains, fears, and anxieties I carry in my heart.

Because I'm a Tough Guy. There's no time to stay on the ground. I gotta get back on the bike and get moving to my next destination - and I'll gladly wear my bloodied wounds openly on my heart and body.

But it takes a humble man, a strong man, a healthy man to say,
I need to stop and rest.
I need to heal these wounds.
I need someone else to carry me right now.
Or I'm going to hurt myself - and others - more deeply than I am already hurt.

There are more than a few guys in my life who are willing to carry me home. A Tough Guy will always decline, but a strong man will humble himself enough to gratefully accept the help.

"Bear one another's burdens," writes the Apostle Paul, "and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)

Trouble may not be able to teach me how to accept help, but he has revealed a wound that cuts deeper than a scraped knee. Self-awareness is the first step towards wholeness and restoration.

A few good friends and a gracious Father in Heaven is teaching me now how to ask for and receive help. That's a hard lesson to learn, but even in the last few weeks, I have benefitted greatly from it. But that's a lesson to share for another day.

Until next time,