Live Small, Live Slow

The Christianity for the Rest of Us blogs were originally published in late 2014, 2015, and early 2016 on christianityfortherestofus.com, an inactive website where a few friends and I attempted to foster a spiritual community. This post was published on that site:

We often ask ourselves: “What do we believe?” The real question might be: “What do our unpeeled lives look like?”

The answer to the second question might be the truest test of our actual beliefs.

Do our private worlds hum with serenity, joy, and contentment? Are we filled with love for ourselves and others? Are we gentle people?

When I ask myself these questions and I look honestly into the details of my own affairs, I fail this test. He’s a quick report:

– I have many broken and unrepaired relationships.

– I have many resentments that I’ve been unsuccessful at relinquishing.

– I have habitual behaviors that are destructive to me and my family yet I haven’t adequately addressed them.

– I am often quick to anger and quick to defend myself.

The simple evidence of my private world proves to me that my beliefs are not getting me where I want to go. (I know without a doubt where I want to go: I want to go toward love and peace and patience and wisdom. I want to have the kind of gray hair-in a few years, that people can trust.) But the evidence shows me that I probably shouldn’t be leading any kind of visionary movement right now. I probably shouldn’t be imagining and creating a new paradigm of beliefs when my own beliefs haven’t gotten me out of bed.

Over the last few weeks a phrase has been jangling around in my head:

“Live small.”

I don’t know exactly what that means, or even how it got up there in my skull, but I’ve been chewing on it for almost a month now and I still haven’t been able to swallow it.

I think it might have to do with examining my personal beliefs before foisting them upon the world. I think it might mean that I should spend my best energy trying to be sober minded, trying to be a worthy husband and a steady father rather than striving into the wee morning hours to be the next great white American genius.cartoonporchbaby

And over the last few days two new words have added themselves to my growing mantra:

“Live slow.”

These two words are still foggy in my brain. But what is emerging- along with the horror that my aspirations might not materialize overnight- is the sense that I might have better outcomes if I tackle my life one bite sized day at a time.

I’ve always hated Day-At-A-Time slogans. They’re so matter of fact. So uninspired. I’ve always want to be at the pinnacle of my life yesterday. I was the kind of kid who imagined opening the door one morning and running 26 spontaneous, consecutive miles- faster than most, of course.

The call to live slow asks me to be OK that accomplishment does not appear immediately. It asks me to relinquish my hold on a fantasy reality: the one where I could lose 30 pounds in 30 days, could write a best seller on my first try, could inspire a worldwide movement at any moment.

Instead, it asks me to find joy in the easy, natural pace of life- the wisdom written in the eternal codes of growth and change.

I see it in my son, who at 3 months old cannot walk, or talk, or even crawl. Yet his daily struggle to focus his cute little eyes is so obviously perfect and timely and good. He already knows how to “Live small, live slow,” much better than I do. He’s teaching me to find joy in the quiet moments where it’s just the two of us on the couch, staring endlessly at the colorful patterns on his burp rags. We coo and giggle at each other and in those moments our eyes are reflecting secret messages back and forth and who cares who’s walking and who’s not.

“Live small, live slow.”

That’s what I need to remember today.

Maybe you’re like me? Maybe you want to be amazing. Maybe you want to learn something or do something or say something important. And maybe you want it to happen now. Maybe you see the years sliding month by accelerated month into oblivion and you’re getting anxious because nothing is changing- not even you. If that’s you, maybe you’re looking too far forward, like me. Maybe instead of flexing your wishing muscles for a great big immediate change you could join me in flexing your actual muscles for an itsy bitsy tiny change.

Today my change is this: I’ll be attending a 12 step meeting with my humility in tow, just like I did yesterday and the day before that.

When you’re ready, what change will you start with?

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What Happened When My Son Was Born

The Christianity for the Rest of Us blogs were originally published in late 2014, 2015, and early 2016 on christianityfortherestofus.com, an inactive website where a few friends and I attempted to foster a spiritual community. This post was published on that site:

Please be patient with me. Last week I witnessed the birth of my first child. I’m still moist with joy and exhaustion.

If you must know, I’m recovering from watching my wife push out our baby. I’m not kidding. Nothing prepares you for that job. Ditch digging, thief chasing, pulpit pounding, paper writing- nothing readies you for the uselessness of a man when a miracle unfolds. What happens is, you’re full of pride at having made a person and full of confidence that everything will be fine; yet you are helpless, and as the minutes turn into hours your spine gets tighter and tighter until it launches you to the moon.

That was me in the delivery room- the solitary male in a crowd of eleven, clutching Dani’s limp leg, holding it high and separate, stroking her naked skin, counting to ten again and again, watching her lips curl back like a wolf, telling her it was almost over, wondering if it was almost over, glancing over my shoulder toward my mother and her mother and my sister and her sister, and then across the bed where the nurses had dressed the doctors in what appeared to be HAZMAT suits while other nurses monitored heart-rates and IV drips, and all I could control was the Pandora radio station on my IPhone- about which Dani had hollered mid-contraction: “Turn that off unless you’re connected to Wifi!”

She pushed for two and a half hours. And I don’t mean delicate pushes like you’d expect from your wife. I mean sweaty moan-y pushes like you’d expect from a soldier with a sword in his liver. And her moans kept getting louder while her tears kept growing larger until they were the fast rolling drops that would make any husband panic.

Soon enough the baby started poking through. His hair came first, dark and thin. A sopping wet tuft and a trickle of blood. He scooted forward and backward with every push and release. In and out like the twitch of a tongue.

All the eyes in the room focused on the crux of the V. It was like we were waiting for the entrance of an unknown celebrity- the open runway, the camera flashes, the intense focus on a bright red curtain behind which someone important waited. I wiped Dani’s sweat, whispered in her ear, pressed my forehead against hers when the moans got sharp.

During one moment in particular I drank in the the entire room. Women in motion like synchronized chaos, the rise and fall of voices with every push, the counting and cheering, the use of bars and pulleys and mirrors, my mom’s steady breathing cues, the beep-beep-bop of the computer screen, 126, 126, 127, everything’s good, everything’s great, the empty IV and the nurse who replaced it, Mel and Ray scrunched beside me- sharing Dani’s leg, patting my shoulder, locking eyes with us both.

I wanted to spread myself across the entire room. I wanted to stand at the foot of the bed so I could catch my baby and at the head of the bed so I could hold Dani’s hand in case she needed to break my fingers. And weirdly, I wanted to huddle up with the doctors when they whispered among themselves. And when two nurses rushed out of the room and returned with antibiotics I wanted to drift over to the corner where I could lock arms with both moms and we could all clench our helpless teeth in unison.

That’s when an unexpected inkling arose. “Hey wow,” I thought, “this is WAY too much to absorb!” That was the whole revelation but the revelation kept growing throughout the entire delivery. Every push, every trail of blood, every tuft of baby hair that widened into a baby head- it was all fraught with such precarious, miraculous life-and-death intensity that it stole my ability to cry. It stole my ability to laugh. All I could do when my son burst through was nothing- but gasp in helpless, flabbergasted wonder.

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Look. I’m not the kind of guy to get swallowed up in a moment. I’m the kind of guy who swallows up the moments. I jump forward or backward in my mind if the present moment can’t live up to it’s billing. Or, if I must remain present, I try to infuse it with craftier beer or unexpected thrills or anything to make it pop.

Usually the only time I’m fully in the moment is when something happens that I didn’t see coming. Like a truck, in the opposite direction. That’s when I feel my heart pulsing in my forehead and the cold skin of my palms against the wheel. That’s when I notice how gentle the threads of my jeans are when I jerk my foot to the break, when the rumble stripe rumbles, when the back-draft whips my hair while I recover. That’s when I’m in the moment.

But the birth of my son turned out to be a big enough moment to consume me. I felt every sensation you could imagine- just as screechy as if my sedan was careening across the highway.

We’re home now and I’d be back in control of all my moments if that delivery room didn’t change me. Unfortunately, my son is already teaching me about the sacred nature of ordinary moments. For example: what if it isn’t only the spectacular moments that are too much for me? Like, what if every moment, however mundane, has more life gurgling within it than I could absorb? My kid sure makes it seem possible.

I’ve been thinking about those mundane moments as I watch him. Over the last 12 days he’s been nestled in the crook of my arm, gazing up with the exact foggy-eyed wonder that crossed my eyes in the delivery room. And just like the delivery room was for me; now all of my sons gas cramps are alive and immediate and overwhelming.

Which is how I felt when he came to life. It’s been reverberating in my bones like existential vertigo. But it got me thinking about how often Jesus riffed on the mysterious Kingdom of God- how it’s present and distant and inside and outside and already and not yet. And for a brief flash the Kingdom of God sounded to me like the mundane moments of everyday life.

That’s when I thought of Martha and Mary and how Jesus jived with Mary’s mundane life but questioned Martha’s. If that’s a valid litmus test for faith then perhaps true spirituality is nothing more than to witness the moment-by-moment unfolding of life, to accept our cradles in the cosmos, and to receive each inexplicable moment as a treasure which can only be partially explored.

That sounds too easy. And maybe it is? I’ve been watching my son and I’ve noticed that his secret for living in the moment is his helplessness. It’s precisely the fact that he cannot change his own diapers that keeps his senses bright while I do it for him. If he could do it himself it would just be another forgettable shit.

But nobody springs for the “I’m helpless” paradigm. I don’t. (Who knows, maybe that’s why I need a truck to barrel toward me to feel alive these days.)

What I do know is that an elegant relationship is already forming as a result of my son’s helplessness. He needs me and I find him irresistible. We both live in the moment, his needs get met and my love swells, he learns to trust while I learn to be attentive.

I hope me and him go on like this forever! I’m the luckiest. :)

Will God Take Care of Us?

The Christianity for the Rest of Us blogs were originally published in late 2014, 2015, and early 2016 on christianityfortherestofus.com, an inactive website where a few friends and I attempted to foster a spiritual community. This post was published on that site:

Last month Dean told the story of his friend who fell off a roof in Malta and of a God who did nothing to save him. This post is my reply. It’s an old story from the summer of 1995 when I was a 14 year old infant, still pre-puberty, still ripe to believe.

Keep in mind as you read this story that one year earlier, on the opposite side of the globe, the Rwandan genocide stole 800,000 lives in 100 days of slaughter. Meanwhile, I lived in a tiny farming community in Western New York with my dad and mom and my two little sisters Melody and Micaela.

For eight idyllic summers my dad was the pastor of our purple-steepled-country-bumpkin church. Mister Barney’s pigs lived at the top of our green sloped backyard and every few days we carried a slop-bucket of egg shells and onion skins to treat them. Money was tight, but aside from clipping spaghetti sauce coupons and forcing ourselves to switch brands from week to week, our existence was a spring-bird’s song.

I never lost any sleep about the Hutu extremists who used machine guns and machetes to slay members of the minority Tutsi community. I didn’t even know that an ID card stamped “Hutu” was the only item that could save a man from constant terror, from hiding his family under a bed or fleeing for safety in the night. In my creek-bed community, the nightmare of neighbors killing neighbors, of women captured and kept as sex slaves, of husbands slicing the throats of their off-ethnic wives; that kind of fright was beyond the scope of my imagination. So too, was a God who might look the other way.

But God came into question in my own ordinary story the following summer when dad resigned his sturdy pulpit and my adolescent life plunged into chaos. Until then our evenings had been predictable. Dad prayed over the pasta as it steamed up to heaven. I squinted at my sisters through the steam. They complained, “Hey mom, Matt’s peeking!” and I pinched their palms in reply.

Sometimes after bedtime mom’s voice might spill under our bedroom doors. Her worries were as soft as the hallway light and dad’s voice was low and steady in reply. However muted their voices, phrases like “empty grocery budget” and “another tough church board meeting” kept slipping into the galaxy of my open black bedroom. But we all kept warm in our beds with the safety of ourselves and the hills and the slow moving life that came one faithful day at a time.

Until the Board Meeting when dad spontaneously resigned. That fateful Tuesday night was the first moment when grown-up uncertainty struck me in the chest. I remember staring out the window toward the cow speckled twilight, tears in my eyes, wondering if I would ever see such deep green grass for the rest of my life. It seems obtuse to fuss about it now. But when I was 14 I had no inkling to interrogate a God who permitted milk cows to moo praises in nearby pastures while Rwandan orphans, covered in their mother’s blood, wept. To my cozy palate, the resignation of my father, and the 100 anxious days that followed, were enough to unhinge me from the hope that God was good and that God would take care of my family.

When my father resigned he came home with a flushed face and said “We’ve got three months to get out!” To this day I’m uncertain if mom knew in advance of his resignation. But with that singular revelation our house ceased to be our home and reverted back to “the church’s parsonage.” I kept delivering slop buckets to the pigs, same as always, but there were only so many slop buckets until we had to leave town. It was the end of civilization as I knew it.

A plan materialized anyway. We would move to the outskirts of Rochester, NY, where a small Pentecostal Bible college was known as an oasis to folks who’d been parched in the desert of ministry. (It even said “Oasis” on the cover of their yearbooks, which dad took as confirmation.)

Dad relocated first for interviews while the rest of us stayed behind to pack. He slept in a tiny dorm at the Bible college but neither the school nor the affiliated church could employ dad, who was educated only for operating tanks in the U.S. Army, for preaching the Bible like a Wesleyan, and for teaching American History like a Pilgrim. Between interviews dad installed cable boxes- which evolved into a full time gig partly on account of Rochester’s limited demand for tank drivers.

Back at the parsonage we packed like the devil was at our backs. You should have seen the sweat on mom’s shoulders. I think that sweat was how the fear found a way to leak out since she couldn’t whisper to dad at night. But every weekend she loaded the girls into the back of our station wagon, she handed me a Rand McNally Atlas and a Rochester PennySaver in which she had pre-highlighted the rental properties, and we set off to hug dad and to secure a new home.

Hugging dad was the easy part because he kept getting skinnier. Finding a home was impossible. “Does it have three bedrooms?” Mom would ask without moving her eyes off the road. “Do they take pets?” I’d nod. “How much?” Her chin might twitch toward me for the crucial question. I remember my fingers on the newsprint, following the line again and again to every awful price-point: $1075. $1250. $1495. $925.

“Too much.” I’d say.

“How much?!”

“$925 a month.”

We didn’t visit houses priced higher than $600 unless we were in the mood to torture ourselves. One house in particular was nothing more than a condemned hunting cabin. The yard was yellow marsh grass, three feet high, barbed wire in the distance. The porch was rotten wet wood and most of the first floor windows were punched out. We only showed up because the landlord took pets and claimed to be negotiable on his $700 ask. Every weekend we visited a dozen equally depressing options: trailer parks, abandoned foreclosures, high crime neighborhoods.

BLOG car1 (1)We always reported back to dad and dad always reminded us that God was preparing an oasis for us. Which is crazy when you think about it. If there ever was a moment to temper your kid’s expectations, this was it. But my parents swung hard the opposite way. Dad believed in an oasis and mom drilled down into the sand to find it.

On one house-hunting expedition mom handed me a pen and a yellow legal pad, she eyed Melody and Micaela in the rear view mirror and announced, “Let’s make a list! We’re gonna tell God our wildest dreams for this new house.”

I gawked and the girls giggled but none of us spoke until mom confessed that she had always wanted a covered porch to watch thundershowers and a dining room for hosting and a deck for dad’s grill. Then she signaled for me to write it down item by item on the legal pad.

Micaela followed mom’s lead by announcing that she had always wanted her own room. At which point Melody exclaimed that she wanted pink wallpaper which I said was ridiculous. I wanted a paved driveway and a real basketball hoop. From there it escalated into one of those Sound of Music sequences where everyone is rosy cheeks and sing-song shouts.

“I want a basement that’s dry!”

“I want a big yard for pets!”

“I want a TWO car garage!”

“I want TWO bathrooms!”

“I want LOTS of kitchen cupboards!”

“I want bay windows with a bench!”

“I want two stories and my bedroom on the second floor!”

Our station wagon cruised up the highway while the summer sun shone down and the ideas kept popping until the legal pad list was three pages long and fifty items deep. We thought of everything but a laundry chute and if we’d thought of it we would have written it down.

Mom was careful to remind us that God was not obligated to our list, that we would maintain an attitude of trust and gratitude regardless of the outcome, and that this was simply an affirmation that God was interested even in our little cares if we would let him be. But still! It felt so dangerous to me. We kept the list on the dashboard in case we thought of something else and I kept a leery eye on it in case it turned into a snake. And if I’d been smart enough to be a cynic back then I might have felt a little selfish too.

Then one Sunday as September crept closer and the long afternoon shadows were promising winter and there was no possibility of any house on the horizon, mom pulled onto the highway toward an address that had appeared in the morning paper with an unlisted price. What was printed in the paper may as well have been a description of the moon: 5 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 acre of land.

Melody and Micaela didn’t seem to realize the disappointment that was about to unfold and I couldn’t bear to tell them. Lately I’d even stopped pinching their hands during mealtime prayer because soon enough they’d have to bow their empty faces into empty plates.

I didn’t notice the paved driveway when we rolled onto it. I saw the basketball hoop but my pulse didn’t rise one tick. What registered was the size of the house and the hulking shadow it cast in the evening sun. It was a giant white box, it could have been a skyscraper, and it stood in a well spaced neighborhood where rollerbladers eased down the lane, waving, until an awning of trees swallowed them up.

A man stood smiling in the driveway. He led us into the house where the air immediately drowned us in an aquarium of cat piss. He rubbed his forehead, he explained that he’d never rented a house before, that he was moving to Florida, that his wife’s dying cats had expired across all parts of the carpet, and that shucks wouldn’t it be a lot of nasty work to tear up. “Would $650/month be too much to ask?” he wondered aloud.

That one easy comment triggered the springs in my teenage legs. Our legal pad hadn’t even conjured up a house this large and I knew mom and her sweaty shoulders could tear up carpets better than any carpet man who ever lived if she put her mind to it.

I triple jumped to the second floor where Melody was exclaiming that one of the rooms was already pink and Micaela was falling in love with the tiniest room with the cutest windows. And that’s when I saw the laundry chute. Right beside the big bay window bench which overlooked the basketball court. I opened the chute and peeked inside where the wide metal duct ran all the way to the basement which I had not yet visited. It was while my head was in that chute, contemplating all the laundry that I might never have to carry again, that disbelief and belief began to co-mingle through my bloodstream.

I slammed shut the chute and raced to the basement, which was totally dry and which had an extra bedroom for no reason at all. At the back of the house a sliding glass door released me to the biggest wooden deck dad could desire. It overlooked a wide open yard where I opened my stride through the uncut grass like any fourteen year old would do.

The sun was setting and my sisters were squealing behind me. I could feel their energy like the energy of the sunset which was slicing bursts of orange through the deep green shadows stretched out across the lawn. I remember that moment in time with more clarity than any other moment in my life. It was like I was absorbed into something Other, a small particle of an Incomprehensible Whole. I’ve never been so warm before or since and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as close to the Truth as I was at mid-stride on the left side of that house when the tears outraced me, when all I could see in the blinding sunset was the image of that legal pad on the dashboard, no longer a snake and a no longer a gamble, when I believed that no matter how bad everything was that God himself had proved both interest and compassion, and that my family would be safe in September beyond the farm.

We signed the papers at dusk. We ripped out the cat piss carpets. We made a batch of memories I cherish more than others. And then, twelve months later, we moved again.

By then I’d learned about the Rwandan genocide. How the straggling survivors set up camp in Tanzania while I was feeding pigs in my backyard. How the dead were rotting on grave-less dirt while my family was signing for our miracle house. And how when we moved away the following year those ten thousand refugees remained collected in tents, terrified to return home.

It haunted me. Where was God in Africa, you know? He rarely seems predictable when you compare stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe our house was a miracle. All I’m saying is that I don’t understand God. But what I am confident of is that my mom could have accidentally careened us all over a gorge on the way to that house without ruining the miracle at all.

Because the real miracle was something else entirely.

The real miracle was that in the midst of our (mild) suffering my parents took an unlikely posture. They made no demands or negotiations. They rolled up their sleeves by day and their prayers by night and they understood exactly how tall they stood among the stars. They taught us that it’s best to believe in a God who cares. That no matter the stakes, no matter the outcome, if we’re human and we’re breathing we always have an opportunity to look for God in our pain.

I suspect some Tutsis held such a perspective throughout the entire Rwandan genocide. If so, I wonder what they might understand about God that we don’t. I don’t understand why the genocide was so brutal, or why the Bible School never hired my dad, or why my sister-in-law was killed by a drunk driver, or why one of my best friends quit speaking to me without explanation.

I still ask God those questions in the same way mom taught me. I hold them up in the air. Usually nothing happens. But usually I stop feeling alone.