Christmas is a few weeks away. It’s all festive everywhere you look. Even here in the desert. Twinkle here. Feliz navidad there. Unnecessary wearing of red and green.
Traditionally, I become even more gregarious, playful and a bit too excited this time of year. I typically embrace all the trappings of Christmas: the music, the lights, the presents, the food, the parties…all of it.
But this year, I’m not feeling it. Holding hands with death does that to you.
Over the last couple years, my family has been in a bit of a vice. Jill (my bride) has stage 4 breast cancer.
Cancer sucks. It’s life-sucking. It has affected every part of our lives…especially Jills. She feels tortured. Lost. Hanging on by a thread. We are all hanging on by a thread. We’re tired. We’re fed up. We don’t know how to pray any more. Rest escapes us. Our kids struggle with believing in God. They’re angry and sad. So are we. We’re tense. We’re lonely not because we don’t have people, but because relationships are either on pause – strained or transactional: “Can you help me with this?” “Will you run this errand?” “Can you go sit with Jill because she needs human contact?” We’re in a shell.
We sometimes say the wrong things and overreact to minor things. Like last week, one doctor told Jill to “get all your affairs in order – it doesn’t look good”…we cried, we freaked out, we didn’t sleep…but a day later, the doctor we need to listen to said, “We’re gonna beat this!”…we cried, we laughed, we slept. Quite the roller coaster.
I’m not out to kill the hot cocoa vibe of the season. Or be a Scrooge. Really. I’m not. I’m not gonna turn down a steaming cup of Cafe de Olla or an accordion accompanied mariachi bellowing “Feliz Navidad” or a few tamales here or there (nor will I reject the playing of the greatest Christmas song of all time, Elvis’ “Blue Christmas”, more than once a day).
But sitting in this ‘meh’ reality is okay too. I want something more than this…season. I mean, isn’t that what the Advent season is all about? In the midst of…Life. Death. Joy. Struggle. Pain. Happiness. Depression. Blessing. Disappointment. Health. Doubt. Sickness. Wealth. Poverty. Destruction. Restoration. Hate. Love…we live in expectation – in anticipation…of something more?
I expect my best friend – my lover – my Jill…to be whole. Is that too much to ask? Feels like it. So we wait…still.
Peace + Grace + Hope to you. And to me.
I’ve been reading through Dallas Willard’s “Renovation of the Heart“. To say it’s timely is stupid. It is exactly what I need right now. Annoying.
In it he said this: Being dead to self is the condition where the mere fact that I do not get what I want does not surprise or offend me and has no control over me.
Last night as Jill & I were passionately discussing treatment, how she’s feeling, how I’m feeling, how the kids are, what we do next – you know all the things – it settled in that I am scared to death. And it’s controlling me. Every. Part. Of. Me. I am not getting what I want. Jill’s not getting what she wants. Cancer is not what anyone wants.
Regardless of what kind of treatment Jill is going through – I can’t control the outcome. Not even a little bit. I can’t lean on my manipulation abilities, coaxing cancer to give in. I can’t lean on my anger to bully cancer to get scared and run away. I can’t lean on my performance, behavior, or humor to bail me out. I have been surprisingly surprised by this.
Willard’s words settled in about 1AM this morning. Gut punch: “I’m making this about…me.”
This morning, as I was muddling through what the heck was going on internally, I was reading a devotional on a Bible app. It was about God’s names. Elohenu Olam: Our Everlasting God.
Maybe what Willard is getting at isn’t so much about the self, but about the self in relation to the Everlasting? I mean, if it’s all true – this God reality – then the world isn’t much more than a pebble in His hand. And what I get controlled by (in this case, fear of losing my bride) or consumed by (again, not being able to control a vile disease) – does not control or consume Him. He is not overwhelmed. In other words, “He’s got this Greg.”
For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end. [Psalm 48:14]
Sounds like a pretty bow on a package, right? It’s not. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s, well, a pain in the butt. Allowing or better, embracing a ‘guide’ at any level is counterintuitive. But maybe, what I need to do is embrace THIS guide. ‘Cause what I’m doing is not working.
Wear the world like a loose garment, which touches us in a few places and there lightly. [St Francis of Assisi]. Gonna try that. I’ll let you know how it’s going.
As for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more. [Psalm 71:14] Let’s hope together, yes?
It’s not often I find a hero. Especially in what we Christians like to call “Heroes of the Faith”. It just seems contradictory. And dirty. Especially, when we elevate people when everything in our ‘faith’ requires…sacrifice/humility/servanthood. But that’s not the point.
Sorry. I got sidetracked.
A few weeks ago, I sat across from a hero. Or maybe better, somebody who ‘gets it’. And lives what has come to be called ‘The Jesus Mission’. His name is Antonio Briones. Antonio lives in Anapra [colonia], Juarez [city], Chihuahua [state], Mexico [country]. Antonio runs Colegio Susana Wesley. A 1st-6th grade elementary school in Anapra. One of the best in the city. Shoot – one of the best in the country. 133 of the 4400 kids that live in the colonia attend this school. A Christ-centered school.
We were meeting because a couple months ago we had rain here in the Borderland. We don’t get much. But when we get it – we get it. It comes hard & leaves it mark quite visibly. Floods. Damage. Destruction. The US side of the fence seems to recover within weeks. The Mexican side – well – months…maybe years. It’s all about resources. Anyway, we were meeting because the roof on his school caved in. They lost all their reading books. They lost some curriculum. They lost their bibles. And Antonio wanted to know if I’d be willing to let him & his team raise money by selling crepes at Paseo one Sunday morning. The money is for a new roof. The grand total needed?
Um. Yes. I think we can do that. November 10th @ 9AM-???. Crepes @ Paseo’s Gathering. Come get it.
But that’s not what gets me. It’s Antonio’s story. Antonio was a mega-church pastor in Chihuahua City. He had a Methodist church of about 2500 people. Read that again. A 2500 person Methodist church in Catholic Mexico. Impressive, right?
Not really. Well not for Antonio.
Antonio told me how he would speak about how Christ’s love required radical action. And preach about it week in & week out. Week in & week out. And after listening to himself do this over & over again – he decided it was time he put his action where his words were. Especially after he went to speak in Anapra on some sort of crusade & people were standing in the streets to hear this Gospel. The street was their building. It hit him. Hard. So he resigned. Left everything. Loaded up a van & his family & drove to Anapra. No cash. No support. In a van – down by the river. For reals.
And he sold hamburgers & tortas to make a living. And he started a school in response to the lack of schooling in the area. And over a decade later he’s still there. With his school. 133 kids. 11 staff members (who make an avg of $4000/year). A deep love for Anapra & her people. And a building that needs a new roof b/c it rained.
Oh yeah. He’s also starting a church.
Not really. Not for Antonio. He’d never say that or claim that. For him – he’s just following Jesus where he is leading (his words – not mine).
Of course. That’s how heroes roll.
A week or so ago I sent out an email to some friends, and I just ranted. Something someone did that had nothing to do with me set me off on this angry, mean rant. And instead of you know, controlling it or having healthy discourse, I took aim. And shot. Even with my disclaimer, which described my mental & emotional mess of how I was tired & beat – how I was feeling worthless – how I was in a bitter/jealous spot…I still took aim.
So a few days later, I send out an apology cause now I have guilt & shame piled on top of my poo mess. And a few folks responded – all with a ‘you seem angry’ kind of tone in their email. Oh, they noticed? Shoot.
So I was honest about where I was at. I even asked for them to pray. Which is weird for me. ‘Cause you know, angry desert prophets only pray to bring down The Man, destroy stuff, & break people – right? And of course, after I asked for people to pray – I felt like a sissy, weak, & like I was standing naked at the Super Bowl (sorry for that image). Ugh.
Stupid Greg. Never ask for prayer from people who pray. Cause they do. And stuff happens.
Enter Tuesday. To be honest – it could’ve been any day lately. I’m hitting 40 in a month & I have this overwhelming sense of ‘boy, you’re a loser Hunt’ that lurks around. Taunting me. Reminding me of how all the other 40 year old folks have their poop in a group. And how I am the broke, emotive, discontent who is ready to give up on – you know – ‘the dream that was/is Paseo’. Plus I have moobies. Call me Party Boy.
I had a meeting with some of my CCDA cohorts. We were talking about this community outreach I was gonna do at our building. Where we were gonna unfold all we could do for the surrounding community. How great we were. And talented. And how beneficial we are to this new ‘hood. Then my friends started talking about listening & not pushing. To have no agenda. To lower expectations of how great we are. To walk with instead of dictate direction. Oh. Yeah. So it’s not about me? That’s right. Hmm.
And then I called a friend back who had called me like 8 days previous. I was avoiding calls that week. I wanted to waller in self-pity. But I called him back. He basically told me he was fighting for what I was ready to walk away from. He, a busy, never been to our city/church/community, leading an incredible deal in another country was fighting for Paseo more than I was. What?!
Reeling off of that, I call one of my close friends. He skipped ‘church’ on Sunday. So I called him to give him a hard time. To make him feel guilty for not attending a gathering. Just b/c he can take it. After I got my teasing guilt-laden comments out. And he laughed. He said, “Yeah, I went out to the Annex on Montana to visit with…” The Annex is the El Paso County Jail Annex. And he skipped ‘church’ to go visit with a guy (a co-worker) he led to Christ & baptized who was leading his cell-mate to Christ…and just wanted my friend to pray with them. Oh.
A friend of mine, before all this sent me a verse: So if you are suffering in a manner that pleases God, keep on doing what is right, and trust your lives to the God who created you, for he will never fail you [1 Peter 4:19]
And when he sent that – I was like – “That’s right bro! Preach! I must be doing a lot of right – cause I’m sufferin like crazy! Eat that non-sufferin’ suckas!” But that’s not true. I might be suffering but not because of doing right…but because I’m not paying attention to what I get to be part of. To the people who will go the distance with me. To what God is doing right in front of me. To the way I always thought ‘church’ should be has unfolded right before me. To how even an angry desert prophet type still gets responded to with…
[NOTE: This is a tad long.]
Today I had a pretty encouraging phone call from a guy I hope becomes a constant voice in my life (Patrick O’Connell). We’re part of the NewThing Network. He was doing some follow-up & introduction type stuff. And he was rolling through the questions you ask when you’re getting to know someone, and he came to the ‘How you doin’?’ one. I took advantage & shared about our weekend. And what I’m affectionately calling The Paseo Plagues. After that, he prayed. I don’t know what he prayed exactly, but I remember this – specifically about what is going on here – all the poo & stress/frustration – seeming like the apocalypse to me – he said, “…in the moment.”
In the moment. That’s all this is. A moment. Not a fun one. Not a pleasant one. But still, a moment.
This weekend, for our Gathering, we had to move from our regular space to a park. Super last minute.
Some background – we gather in this 107 year old building on the edge of the downtown financial district AND on the edge of one of the poorest zip codes in the country. Not to mention about 6 blocks from the US/Mexico border. And within the historic district. Fantastic spot to make a difference. Or at least facilitate it. We’ve (Paseo Church) been entrusted with the ‘property manager’ role. So we carry a lot of influence with this space.
But with every 107 year old space – it has issues. And this weekend, we had some. A sandblasting experience that left a couple inches of sand all over the inside. And an infestation of fleas. Yes. Fleas. All over. Hopping around. Doing what fleas do. Not to mention we’re in the final stages of prettying up the space for the first real event of Magoffin Hall. A wedding. And reception. Yeah.
One friend described it like this, “You know, it’s like we just spent a week making & decorating a beautiful wedding cake and somebody took a crap on it. And made us serve it.” Exactly.
So at 10PM Saturday night, after spending too long at Home Depot deciding what bug killer to get, I get back to the building & there’s the owner sandblasting. At 10PM. On Saturday night. Sad sigh. And maybe a little overreaction by someone. In the middle of the street. With flailing arms (works in our ‘hood though b/c there’s lots of people who are doing that everyday :)).
Whaddya do? Got the Gathering. Got an Enchilada Extravaganza planned. Got a book drive. Got…well you get it. So we end up at a park. Everybody loves it. We have an abbreviated Gathering. Take communion. Pray. And eat. One of our best Sundays ever. Really. Ahh.
But we still have this week. How will we get it done? Who will help? What are we gonna do? Fleas. Sand. Kitchen installation! All by Saturday!!!!! So I ask a friend, “Why the hell does God pick us (Paseo) to unleash all these flippin’ issues? And bless those who already have & are already blessed? What have I done?” He didn’t respond. Punk.
But God did…IN THE MOMENT – it seems like the apocalypse – but it’s just dirt & bugs. IN THE MOMENT – it seems like no one will help – then a brigade shows up. IN THE MOMENT – it feels like God is picking on you – but he’s really just showing off. IN THE MOMENT – you want to punch a lot of people in the throat – and instead you laugh b/c it really is funny.
And maybe I’m oversimplifying God. Or overstating optimism (if you know me – you know that ain’t true). Or maybe this really is just a moment. And God is trying to get my attention about how well He does under stress. And with frustration. And exhaustion. And the desire to just chuck it all & give up.
Sigh. Dang it God.
We’re called here. To this corner of Virginia & Magoffin. Downtown El Paso. Crossroad of wealth & poverty. With messy people. And a messy building. With a messy Gospel.
Just for this moment. His moment.
“Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
As I approach 40 (if you are taking notes, November 24th – I’ll hit that grand slope – and I’ll need your gifts to help me climb it, so gifts can be sent & will be received well), this quote really resonates. The words ‘paying attention’ – ‘soften’ – ‘wake…up’ all spell out why I love writing. And why I should settle the internal natives who are hogtied to my best pal – insecurity & self-loathing cynicism.
Paying attention & softening, I’m finding, are winsome. Not weak. And waking up – well – it’s better than drinking a cup of arsenic, right? More than that, I’m finding with each conflict – pain – bad go at something – failure – what have you…I’m more hopeful. One conversation is becoming the only conversation. I cry. Dammit. I cry! WITH people (when did that happen). Disillusionment is turning to wonder. I have embraced my awkward (what’s yours?).
And I’ll renounce all that I just wrote at some point. When I run into my curmudgeon self. You know the one. Broad statements. Angry. Dagger words. With a cherry on top. The one that listens to the identifiable mentally ill voices of paranoia & bad Mexican gas wearing a bedazzled trucker jacket.
Not saying I’m a good writer. I just love it. Calling it an obsession is impotent. Undercurrent? Maybe. My favorite way to communicate is sending hand-written notes. In the mail. With a stamp…but I don’t because my handwriting is really – well – sad. Blogging, obviously, has freed me up to reflectively vomit. If I could, my sermons would be written & read instead of spoken. I have a book percolating which will remain unpublished but given to family & long suffering friends as a thank you for riding the Gregger Train. My prayers are words on paper. It’s what I do.
Point? I like to write. Not that I have a platform or much to really say. But I do want to pay attention. Soften. Wake up. And tell the Story I see unfolding before me as I live it.
So this might get daily. And boring. And pointless. And I’m good with that. Because rambling is…good.
A song for your ride home, Laundry Room by the Avett Brothers:
I am in El Paso waiting to head to the great swamp play land of Orlando, FL. Home of THE Mouse & all his minions. Also the host to Exponential, a church planters conference. Also home of the most plaid you’ll ever see in one location (I confess I contribute – love me some plaid shirts especially with pearl snaps – in my mind pearls snaps will never go out of style…I digress). It’s quite the affair. I have a love/hate relationship with this event.
Love it b/c I get to see a bunch of people I absolutely love being around. Love it b/c I stay out late & talk w/ those loved people. Love it b/c it’s a break from the everyday routine we pastors sometimes fall into. Love it b/c I laugh entirely too much & make a fool of myself.
I could list the ‘hate’ reasons but really, do we need another deconstruction of a hyped conference? No. No we don’t.
I wasn’t planning on attending this year…as is the case for the last 3 or 4 years. But every year, the generosity of others sucks me back into the fray (this year it was my good friends @ Nexus). And this year, my bride, Jill, gets to traverse with me…and I couldn’t be more excited.
You see, she is the secret to us lasting 6 years in the desert. She’s the one who keeps me sane. She is the one when I am ready to chuck it – which happens more than I like – reminds me of the calling we BOTH received. She softens my hard/harsh edges. People like her way better. And her biggest flaw is she’s trying to weed out the plaid in my fashion diet. I love her.
I don’t know how many main sessions we’ll attend. I don’t know if we’ll get to hang with all the folks I usually slum around with. But I do know this, I am looking forward to having her with me. Because, honestly, she is the best ‘missional/exponential/discipler/servant-leader’ church planter I know. And who wouldn’t want to be around that kind of influence?
So, Exponential & you plaid wearin’ fools, we’ll be there soon. I know you’re worried we weren’t *sarcasm*. My prayer for this year’s conference is we remember this thing we do/are is not ours alone.