Control.

As a friend perused through an online dating site, she found one gentleman who had some pretty specific expectations for possible suitors. This gentleman demanded that any lady lucky enough to be his girlfriend needed a credit score over eight hundred, a four bedroom home, a blood pressure of one-hundred twenty over eighty, no debt, and a love of cooking, cleaning and exercise. This might sound like he was pretty strict with his standards, but he did graciously say if this lucky lady met all the other categories, but didn’t like to work out, there was one caveat.  He would settle for someone who didn’t work out, as long as she looked as though she liked to workout.

What a catch.

This guy was in his late thirties if not in his forties, which is not a death sentence for love. But when you are that adamant about a person, checking off all of your preconceived boxes is a death sentence. Because once you get beyond the basics of similar religion, family expectations, desired location of home and move into blood pressure and body fat percentages, you are displaying the selfish tendencies that destroy relationships. But for some of us, when things start getting away from us, we can’t seem to help but reach out for more control.

While on ESPN’s B.S. Report, Malcolm Gladwell opined that the demise of the newspaper industry was correlated to the industry’s rigid adherence to a silo mentality.  In the newspaper world, sports writers don’t venture into politics; political writers don’t venture in business. And there is no thought of changing this, if anything they are going to double down on this commitment, because as Gladwell continued, when in decline institutions become more conservative and pull in the reigns even tighter.

Adversity tempts us to grasp for something regardless of how stable it might be. Like sometimes when we might be lacking meaningful friendships, instead of re-assessing our understanding of friendships and how we treat the friends we do have, many will amp up expectations for the relationships we do currently have, and in that process we will smother them. Instead of fixing the void, we just make the void more pronounced. That’s the problem of momentum. There’s actually no problem when you have it, because when things are going well, it’s like you are going downhill on a skateboard. One little push keeps the wheels rolling for a long time. When you have plenty of friendships, you attract more because you are happy and people want to be around happy people. When your dating life is going well, other potential singles (and sometimes not singles) see you and assume you must have things going on. When your newspaper is selling and your site is getting hits, you feel like you can branch out and do whatever passion projects you want. Having momentum makes just about everything better.

The real question is how do you reverse the momentum?

It’s a lot like kitesurfing.3433kite_surfing

A kitesurfing rig consists of a belt or seat, which is connected to a bar that’s connected to your kite. The bar is the only thing for you to hold onto, but its real function is to be your gas pedal. When you pull on it, you go faster. As a novice even though you have been told that the bar isn’t for keeping you upright, your hands will not believe your mind. Whenever you start to feel like you are going too fast, you intuitively pull back on the bar. Here in lies the problem. When you pull back on the bar, it causes the kite to catch more wind, thus making you go faster. So when you start to go too fast, you can’t do the natural reaction of pulling back, but you must do the counter-intuitive thing, follow the wisdom of Frozen and let it go.

If the heavily descriptive internet-dating gentleman would ever email me for some advice, this is what I’d tell him. Accept that you aren’t going to get what you want in a woman. You will never find the perfect blood pressured woman with a penchant for good cooking and good credit scores. That’s going to be a hard pill to swallow. But just go ahead and swallow it, pretend like it’s a Lisinopril. But once you do get that down, you might be available to actually meet the real people in front of you. And you might also be able to meet yourself for the first time, instead of the idealized version of yourself that makes you feel entitled to some idealized woman.

It’s the same counter-intuitive wisdom we all must embrace day in and day out. When you’ve made peace with not getting what you want, you are able to receive whatever life brings before you.

Jonathan Merritt: Jesus is Better than You Imagined

Merritt_JesusBetterThanYouImaginedSenior columnist for Religion News Service Jonathan Merritt joins the show to talk about his recent post and the post’s pushback,  “Setting the record straight on Jesus, ‘Friend of sinners,'” the interplay of faith and mystery, sexuality, and his new book coming out April 1st Jesus is Better than You Imagined.

Monsters.

Once upon a time in a land far, far away a fire-breathing dragon lived high upon the mountain inside the deepest, darkest cave. The dragon’s thunderous roar would spill down the mountain filling the valley with its terrifying sound sending the village’s children running in fear. At night the villagers would see red flashes of fire coming out of the cave from the dragon’s breath. All the villagers lived in trepidation of the monster, but not one word was ever spoken of the fire-breathing dragon that lived high up on the mountain inside the deepest, darkest cave. The villagers and the dragon lived in their own separate worlds though they were so close.

One day a young orphan stumbled into the village dirty and hungry. The kind villagers had pity upon the boy’s lonely plight, so they adopted him as one of their own. He wasn’t anyone’s child, but he was everyone’s child. Every night a different family in the village opened their home for him giving him food and a place to sleep. Nurtured by the villagers’ love, the boy grew to be strong and brave.

Let’s stop that story right here. How does this story end?

We all know that somehow, someway the boy, the villagers and the dragon somehow will end up face to face. Maybe the brave boy ventures up the mountain. Maybe the dragon comes into the village. But one way or another, they will end up face to face.

You know why? Because monsters never stay hidden.

____________________

We all have monsters living under our bed, up on the mountain or in whatever crevice we use to keep them hidden. It might be the monster of fear or greed or shame or insecurity or your past. But the thing about all monsters is that they never stay hidden. You can keep your insecurities and your fears to yourself, but given enough time all monsters, all insecurities, all fear, all guilt, all shame will eventually find their way out of their cave.

______________________

3333-1In his book People of the Lie, Psychiatrist Scott Peck tells the story of George, a troubled but successful salesman in his early thirties. He has a marriage that he’s satisfied with and a troubled childhood that doesn’t seem to be bothering him too much. While on a business trip, George and his wife visit a Cathedral in Montreal. He decides to drop fifty-five cents in an offering box (George isn’t cheap, it was forty some odd years ago). As George drops the coins into the box, a thought shot through his mind.

“You are going to die at the age of fifty-five.”

Two weeks later another thought shot through his mind, but this time it said his demise would be at the age of forty-five. These ominous thoughts continued, becoming more detailed and haunting. Next it was the thought that he would be murdered. Then it was a collapsed roof that would do him in. Then it was the thought that he would never drive across a bridge without dying or a certain excavation site would be were he died.

When these thoughts became more specific, like the bridge or excavation site, George believed that he could overcome these disturbing thoughts by confronting them. If I drive over the bridge or go to the excavation site then I would be freed from the thoughts. He was right. George would get out of bed, drive to the ominous location, conquering the thought, then return home. He would then be able to sleep for the rest of the night, but then the cycle would continue in the morning. Soon he was driving around the countryside all night and getting less and less sleep.  Which lead him into Dr. Peck’s office.

The story progresses through three months of counseling with Dr. Peck seeing little progress.

The story peaks during a conversation in Dr. Peck’s office where a seemingly refreshed and rejuvenated George tells Dr. Peck that he’s better now because he has made a deal with the Devil that caused the thoughts to cease. As a rule of thumb, whenever you tell your psychiatrist that you are making deals with the devil, that’s when it’s about to hit the fan. And that’s just what happened. Dr. Peck, after the obligatory dramatic pause, looks at George and drops the unbridled truth upon him.

George you’ve been a coward who has been running from a childhood that’s a mess, a marriage that’s worse than you are willing to admit and a morbid fear of death that’s crippling you. These compulsive thoughts are smoke screens, your brain’s way of dealing with the harder issues from which you are running from.  These harder issues, from which you’ve fled, are now haunting you in the form of these obsessions and the compulsions.

___________________

All monsters eventually find their way out from under your bed. They don’t always present as the morbid thoughts and compulsions like Scott Peck’s George, but they will pop their ugly head out. The evil self-esteem monster will pop out from under the girl’s bed and will present as rudeness towards the girl who has what she wants.  The man plagued by insecurity will eventually have the monster show up as relationally crippling arrogance. He’s so insecure about who he is that he must over-compensate in the hopes of making people accept him, only his monster does the exact opposite. It pushes people away.

My wife and I have had three dogs in a decade of married life, the largest was a one hundred and forty pound American Bulldog named Champ. That beast ate socks, the corners of a hope chest, remotes, more remotes, a Bible (a slight misunderstanding of Jeremiah 15:16) and more. Until we turned to the wise council of Caesar Millian, the dog whisperer, who says that all dogs need three things:  exercise, discipline and affection, in that order.  What Caesar says is that the dog will continue to torment our home or we could take him out for a walk and give him the exercise he needs.

The way you become friends with the monsters that all of us have hidden away somewhere is by getting them out in the open. Monsters make their money in the dark where shame, guilt and isolation thrive. Phrases like “You are a terrible person because you…” “You are the only one who…” flourish when they can fester in the dark recesses of our hearts. Which is why salvation often occurs when you can bring your dark passenger out into the light.

_______________

denzel-washington-flight450

Denzel Washington’s character in Flight is an alcoholic pilot who (Spoiler alert) against all odds lands a plane with mechanical problems the only way possible, in an empty field upside down. He miraculously saves all but one person on the plane, his flight attendant girlfriend. The same girl that Denzel had been drinking and doing cocaine with a few hours before the flight.

Denzel becomes a hero until the toxicology report shows that he was not only well above the legal blood alcohol limit, but Denzel was also still high on cocaine. Which makes Denzel go from hero to criminal. But Denzel’s high-powered union lawyer finds a loophole discrediting the toxicology report. So all Denzel has to do to stay out of jail is remain sober for the trial and falsely testify that he wasn’t drunk during the flight.

Despite being locked in a hotel room the night before the trial, Denzel somehow gets drunk. But with the assistance of a delivery from his drug dealer, Denzel is functioning in court at the same high-level which enabled him to adroitly land the plane upside down. In a strange twist, the audience, at least this one person in the audience, finds himself rooting for drunk Denzel to hold it together long enough to lie his way through the trial so as to stay out of jail. Denzel does have some charisma.

Denzel is lying is way through the hearing until he’s asked how two bottles of Jack Daniels were missing when the flight hadn’t offered drinks before it crashed. The pre-established answer for this question was to say his late-girlfriend drank them. All that’s standing between Denzel going free is saying a simple lie that dishonors his dead girlfriend.

But Denzel cracks. He admits that he drank them. He was drunk then and that he was even drunk at that very moment.

Why does he break? Because the only thing worse than ending up in jail is to let the monster continue to live under your bed.

When I was in junior high a gentleman from our church responded to the post-sermon invitation. Something that rarely happened, and then something even more rare happened. He stood behind the microphone, pulled out a written statement and began to read. Even my teenage mind knew it was serious if it merited a written statement. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember what happened next. The entire congregation began forming a line and then one after another walked by and shook his hand. It’s one of the most poignant memories from my childhood church experience. He had obviously screwed up pretty good (see: written statement), but what the church did was a beautiful gesture. Four hundred people: men, women, old people, young people, white people and more white people (it was southeast Ohio, not the most culturally diverse area), all came forward to shake his hand. In my teenage mind it was a way of saying that you are still welcomed no matter what you have done. Like I said, it was beautiful.

But that must have been awful for him. Can you imagine your closest four hundred friends walking by, one at a time, looking you in the eye after you confess to making a huge mistake? But you know what the only thing worse than having to make a huge spectacle in front of everyone? Keeping that monster hidden under your bed.

Meaning.

I’ve heard it said that the reason accountants wear grey suits is to add a little color into an otherwise drab life.

I’m thankful for accountant types, because I am not wired to be that organized and responsible. Which is one reason why I often think the church I started would be a welcoming place for people who don’t like “Organized Religion. ” Because I’m running this religious ship and I’m not that organized.  I need accountant types, but the thought of worrying about carrying over the one and fiddling with a slide rule all day would lead me into some new habit that would eventually require a twelve-step program. So when my accountant brother-in-law told me he’s getting into gambling, I was actually relieved. If you are going to break bad, gambling is much better than meth.

The gambling accountant recommended me listening to a podcast discussing gambling because he knew I had an interest in learning about his new hobby. I did have interest, though he didn’t realize it was more of an interest in making sure my future nephews and nieces didn’t have a father with busted kneecaps because of Fat Frankie’s crowbar.  So I tuned in and this what I heard.

“Usually I wouldn’t care who won an early season college basketball game between two non-ranked teams, but because I bet on them, I do tonight.” The host said.

“Gamblers drive T.V. ratings because otherwise most people would turn off a blowout, but gamblers are still watching to see if the losing team’s kicker converts a field goal with thirty second left to cover the line.” Then the host said the line that captured my attention. “Betting gives meaning to meaningless games.”

“Betting gives meaning to meaningless games.”

And it all made sense to me.  When you put money on a game you are buying your way into the emotional experience. Not everyone’s team will play in the Super Bowl or playoffs (trust me I’m a Cowboys fan, I know) but if you put enough money on the game, it can feel like the Super Bowl to you. And that rush is what you’ve purchased with your bet.

The quest to give meaningless games isn’t just experienced with betting. A good fantasy football player will know the health of the last place team in the AFC West  third receiver’s ankle and which backup running back will come in for goal line carries for the Tennessee Titans. These pieces of trivia are quite meaningless, unless you’ve created a world of meaning by playing fantasy football.

Sportscasters will seemingly spends the same amount of time describing whats happening off the field as what happens on the field for the same reason.  If we turn a player into a character on a quest it gives the game more meaning.

And I blame all of this on Hollywood.

OK. Not really, but maybe I blame Hollywood a little bit, because our fiction affects our expectations for reality. So you are watching a movie. Let’s make this movie an action movie. In the opening scene your hero is introduced using the typical “save the cat” the move. The hero does something heroic that makes us, the viewers, like him, such as saving a cat or beating up a bad guy. During these “save the cat” scenes most of the individuals the hero encounters are throw away characters, which you can tell because their names are rarely mentioned and no time is spent giving any depth to their character. A throw away character is flat: completely good or completely bad. But if a storyteller takes the time to develop a character in the open section, you can almost be certain that character will re-emerge later in the story, because the most valuable commodity you can give to a character is time. If they spend five minutes getting you to know a character, they aren’t just going to be gone.

But real life doesn’t work that way. Just because you spend time on something doesn’t mean it will have a life-altering meaning. Just because you’ve learned some information doesn’t mean you will have some Slumdog Millionaire type moment when that seemingly trivial knowledge becomes the answer that earns you a large sum of money.   And just because you’ve watched every episode of Bear Gryll’s “Man verses Wilds” doesn’t ensure you that you will be shipwrecked on some Island in need of survival and rescue skills. Sometimes you experience things that have no tangible benefit later on in life. Actually that’s a large majority of your life. Despite having invested years in acquiring the skill of pole vaulting, I’ve never once used the skill to leap over an alligator filled river, yet.
The real danger of Hollywood is the antipathy it fosters towards the mundane. And that bleeds over into our expectations for what a deep spirituality looks like. A deep spirituality in a Hollywood-ized world can’t include the mundane and monotonous.

A deep spirituality in a Hollywood-ized world can’t include the mundane and monotonous.

I’m always worried about people who act like they have God on speed dial. You know those people who say, “God told me to go to this place to eat lunch or that place to gas.” But to be fair, I had a phase when I was trying to be a God on speed dial person in college. Some people have a phase in college where they smoke weed or abuse alcohol. I on the other hand had a phase in college in which I felt like God was on my speed dial. I assume the other phases get you more friends, but at least this one doesn’t hurt your kidneys as much. God on speed dial Luke felt that if he listened close enough to God’s voice then God would point him down the right direction for every little choice including lunch spots and gas stations. And if he did that they would be like those moving walkways at airports or the special arrows on Super Mario Cart where if you drive over them, they will make you drive super fast. If I listened carefully enough God would shoot me past the meaninglessness of everyday life into a having a never-ending God buzz.

The problem was I only heard one command over and over again. And it was a terrible one. At first I thought I had the wrong number to God, but no matter what number I dialed, it was the same answer. The voice was always telling me to pick up trash. Which was such a rip off. I wanted God to tell me some special details about my friends’ life, specifically their hidden salacious sin so I could be some kind Christian sorcerer knowing their dark secret.  But no sorcerer spends his time bending down to pickup cans of Mellow Yellow which is all I was doing until I grew out of that phase.

Mario Puzo wrote the Godfather when he was a young writer struggling to make ends meet. As the story goes he supposedly only wrote The Godfather because he needed money and knew that would be a way to get a quick check. Puzo assumed that with a little bit of money in the bank he would then be able to write the kind of books that really mattered to him. Yet Puzo never again wrote anything that had the cultural significance that The Godfather had and he even continued to go back to writing Godfather type books for much of his career. The project he thought didn’t matter turned out to be his life’s work.

Shane Hipps in his book “Selling Water by the River” makes the point that most of us have less than thirty thousand days in our life. If we were to monetize that, thirty thousand dollars would buy you a car and get you a down payment on a house, but for most American it wouldn’t keep food on the table and the lights on for too long.  When you realize the brevity of our life, that as James says, “Life is mist” you see life’s meaning. It is a meaning that isn’t found in extraordinary experiences and God’s not a shortcut to achieve those moments on the regular. The extraordinary experience is every breath. This moment you are in right now. This breath of air you consume right here and now. Right now isn’t waiting to be infused with meaning because the meaning already exists. That meaning has existed since it was infused with all the grace anyone ever needed when God breathed his spirit into dirt creating life.

It’s like the girl in every romantic comedy searching for her true love. And every potential love disappoints her sending her running into the arms of her best friend. The guy who has stood by her side for years, but she never thought of him as anything other than a best friend. Though everyone on the outside knows that’s her one true love. It had always been right there, even if her eyes couldn’t see it.

This moment, no matter how monotonous and trivial, has already been infused with meaning. So don’t miss the mist, because it will not be here forever.

Josh Graves and Jeff Childers: Ash Wednesday Special

Special two part Ash Wednesday podcast. In the first part we are talking the history of Ash Wednesday with church historian Jeff Childers. Second part we are talking “Waking up to Death” with Author/Pastor Josh Graves.

remember-that-you-are-dust