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When our son Ben was a toddler, he was struggling to learn colors, and to develop new food tastes. One day as we pared pieces of a golden de...

Monday, June 26, 2017

Heart holes

Two weeks ago I found out that I have a hole in my heart. It's just a tiny hole, or at least the doctor thinks so. Tomorrow's test will be more conclusive. There's no reason that I should have known earlier, although it's been there since shortly after I was born, when the foramen ovale didn't close as expected.

One out of four people have this PFO, although only some know it's there. Mine was discovered when I went to the emergency room to explore symptoms resembling a heart attack and stroke. Blessedly there was no heart attack and no evidence of a significant stroke, but an echocardiogram done with bubbles revealed this heart defect.

When a PFO is present, there is a risk of stroke. Clots can travel through and to areas of the heart and brain that otherwise would not be allowed. These clots can obviously cause problems. 

I am glad that the problem was discovered prior to a major episode. Now it can be monitored and/or repaired as required. 

Not everyone is so lucky with their ailments. I'm thinking of my niece Marica. I'm thinking of my Aunt Joyce. I'm thinking of former colleague and friend Mary Jo. I'm thinking of Uncle Dick and Evy. And Dudley. And Mark. And so many others who had some type of "hole" that wasn't diagnosed or couldn't be treated effectively enough.

Actually, this is the second time I've discovered a hole in my heart. A few years back, without knowing what it was, I experienced heart-hole symptoms. Unfortunately there was no e.r. to go to for that particular hole. It wasn't treatable with an aspirin a day, and there was no "button" or "umbrella" procedure to close it permanently. 

My attempts to self-medicate weren't sufficient, either. In fact, they were harmful. 

In her book "Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy," Anne Lamott talks about how we "fold" ourselves in order to show achievement, to protect those around us, and to shield ourselves. "We got creased in those places such a long time ago that it seems hopeless to begin the great unfolding now. Our integrity got broken. ... Big parts of us got broken, parts of our hearts, minds, and beings." (pp. 46-47)

When I read these words this week, I was reminded of the hole in my heart which had been forming for many years of my life, and which only around 2012 began to show through my folds. It emerged as an existential crisis, an identity crisis, a professional crisis, a spiritual crisis and a marriage crisis. Some might categorize it as a mid-life crisis. The process was painful and rough for me and many others around me. I definitely didn't handle it all well, but perhaps that's exactly what uncreasing the folds reveals: that anyone can have a hole that isn't easily closed. 

"I want to unfold. I don't want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie." These words from Rainer Marie Rilke, which Lamott quotes, resonate deeply with me now. Much of my life had been a lie, not in the willful, agnostic sense, but rather in the obedient, suffering sense. In the end, however, I found what I needed for the resulting hole to heal. And I learned that life without folds leaves one vulnerable, and some may take advantage of that vulnerability, but in the end it's the only way to live.

Hearts and holes are on my mind this week as my Church of the Brethren sisters and brothers gather in Grand Rapids, MI for the Annual Conference. This ecclesial body had a lot to do with my first hole. I went to many conferences with my heart hole hidden away in a fold.

I think there are a lot of heart holes converging on the convention center and Amway Grand Hotel this week. Some folks are well aware of their holes, where they originated, how they've been (mis)treated. Other folks are living with so many folds that they have no idea whether or not there's a hole, or how big it might be. Some might suspect a hole, but don't really want to know.

Collectively, I sense a big hole in the heart of the body right now. Again, some see it clearly, others not at all, and some simply ignore it. 

There are two approaches to heart holes (trust me, I've experienced them both!). One approach, ignoring it and concealing it, made it much worse. If it had been a biological hole, it would have killed me. Since it was an emotional and spiritual hole, when it finally showed up there were no physically fatal consequences, although there were some incredibly agonizing and difficult steps toward healing. 

The second approach, like with my PFO, shows that when we know something's not quite right, good pursuit of symptoms can lead to significant discoveries. Those discoveries then lead to a thorough exploration, and the information gathered from the exploration will determine active steps to live better with or correct the problem.

Something is not right with us Brethren. There is dis-ease among us. No matter our theological ideology or our political -ism, we feel it. There is a hole in our heart, and has been for quite a long time now. We've tried covering it up. We've tried folding it in. We've tried any number of "treatments." And yet it's still there. 

I wish I knew what the solution was. If it were as easy as writing the 'correct' position paper on any number of topics, I suspect it would be cured by now. But it's not. If energetic blended worship could fix it, we'd be all better. If an adequate amount of ice cream and toppings were all it takes, our consumption would have cured us. But none of this has happened.

The symptoms are still prevalent. Leader attrition. Pastoral burnout. Fighting. Mission abandonment. Distracting folds. Non-essential activity. Judgement. Fear. Self-righteousness. Division. Power play. 

The cure for a broken heart is pretty elusive. The pain from a broken heart is incredibly hard to share, both to offer and to receive. The fix for a degenerating condition perpetuated by poor habits and years of folding is terribly uncomfortable to confront. 

There is a liturgical element that might help us here. Confession may be the most powerful healing practice we have. (and the most under valued one) Confession is the act of unfolding, of exposing the heart holes, and facing our lies. In the openness between us and God, in the fullness of Christ's community, the healing begins. 

If we Brethren have a hole in our heart, as I suspect we do, it's time to acknowledge the symptoms, press out the folds, and begin healing. What would happen if in place of new statements or stronger speeches or better insight sessions or substituting leaders or more lively worship we would enter a season of confession? Not just a few minutes, or even a few hours, but a season. Days. Months. Years even? Of course the Annual Conference program and agenda are already determined for this week, but what if.....???

Tonight I am praying for heart holes and their healing. For my own heart holes, both of them. For the heart holes of friends I know well. For your heart holes, even though I may not know you personally. For the Church of the Brethren's heart hole, as elusive and hidden as it may be. 

My prayers resound with confession, that precious act of faith which declares that there is hope in the face of the unfolding. Hope is known by many names: Grace. Mercy. Forgiveness. 

Mostly, though, we know it as Love, the kind of love that heals heart holes. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

I would be weeping

Today, for the second day of a three day party marathon, we celebrated our son Ben's 22nd birthday. As an adult with Williams Syndrome, a genetic deletion that makes many aspects of daily living a challenge, Ben can at times stretch his father's patience and stamina.

But Ben is a beautiful human being. He is the friendliest guy you'll ever meet. His smile is amazing. His empathy is deep. His ability to remember you is nearly unmatched. He sees you as a friend, instantly and forever. He is a lover of people. 

I am so proud of Ben: all he has accomplished in his 22 years, the hearts he has softened, what he has learned, how he has grown, the dreams he has for his life.

As I've scrolled through headlines today, I have been struck by a pretty simple question: How do the parents of our current political leaders see their children, these white men in power, making decisions to further disenfranchise the poor, to obscure the rights of so many people, to dictate life choices for women and LGBTQ friends, to recklessly destroy our environment, to pursue wealth at the expense of others, to threaten our world through state-sanctioned bullying, and to disregard the health needs of millions of Americans.

If these were my sons, I would be weeping.

As a father I am humbled to have an eldest son (and two other kids as well) that understands the most important aspects of life: to love, to share, to look out for one another, to smile, to remember, to befriend, to care.

I would be weeping; but when I see my child, all I can do is smile.

Friday, February 3, 2017


You know, I really have almost no fear about terrorists from foreign countries. I know the stats on the likelihood of being a victim, and my odds are very slim. For those whose lives have been affected, I know there is a different perspective. When any of us has our life changed by an event, it heightens our awareness of those types of things. And when they hurt we want to protect ourselves and others from them happening again. So I get why some people feel that way about terrorists, but I frankly don't share that fear.
What I fear far more are the hundreds of ways we are terrorizing each other here in the U.S. As the parent of a young adult with special needs, I am far more concerned with the hatred that our POTUS and cronies are fertilizing in my neighbor's heart and home, and when I'm honest and stop being self-vigilant for too long, the hatred being tempted in my own heart, hatred directed at the vulnerable of this world, and toward the powerful, too.
The tone of voice, the combative posture, the self-righteousness disregard of history, law, and reality, and the impulsively repulsive carnage being imposed into real people's lives is unconscionable. The lack of regard for basic human decency and contempt for those things which are beyond their own experience or far-too-limited capacity to comprehend is vile.
I don't actually hold very high expectations for government in general. I have never believed that our politicians are responsible for granting us the kind of life that, as a Jesus follower, I long for and work for. But there are certain standards of decency, postures of humility, perspectives of compassion, and a respect for humanity that I do believe serve as the hallmark for "successful" government.
Here in the U.S. I have always thought that what gave us our place of privilege in the world should be, and to a large extent has been, these things: decency, humility, compassion, humanity. Clearly we've not been perfect, for the conundrums of politics and nations frequently mean our officials are working in muddy waters. Republican administrations and democratic administration alike, I've felt for the most part that we've at least given it the 'ole college try.
I don't feel that way right now. I feel that our most powerful leaders, and many of us ordinary Americans, are instead more interested in proving self-righteousness, exercising unfettered power, satisfying greed, and perpetuating division.
Like many of you, I AM AFRAID, but what I am most afraid of is what we, of what I, am in danger of becoming. As I see it, the danger is not out there; it's in here - in my heart, and my hands, and my voice, and my actions.
Like each of you who've read this far, I love my family: my wife, our three kids, my parents, sister, cousins, you know, the whole deal. A special needs child has a unique place in the heart of a parent, and our son Ben in ours. But I am afraid for him, not because some terrorist hell-bent on destruction will come for us, but because YOU, yes YOU, my friend and neighbor and sister and brother, may fall prey to a heart of hatred.
It was Peter, one of his closest disciples, that denied Jesus three times. So before you say, "Not me," I implore you to stop, take a deep breath, and examine what is being birthed within you. Resistance is one thing; hatred is quite another.
The policies of our government will come and go. From my p.o.v. it's not primarily the policies that are the problem; it's the hardened hearts that are fashioning them, and the hearts, like yours and mine that are being shaped by them. We cannot give in. We. Cannot. Give. In. - to the hateful and dehumanizing forces that are wrestling for control.
I will start by examining what is within me. I will work, so that love will win. And, with God's help, I will not be afraid.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Oh, Say. Can you see?!?

Yesterday I was standing in a gym surrounded by amazing, brave, and loving athletes and their families, ready for a day of basketball.

As we focused our attention on our nation's flag and anthem, I could not ignore the painful irony that this week we will inaugurate a president who shows willful disdain for the very folks who are the best of what these symbols represent.

Also recited in that gym,
the Special Olympics pledge is 
"let me win, 
but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt." 

I would love for our son to look at the flag and hear the anthem which calls forth this courageous and honorable endeavor and know that we actually mean it, but instead, what I see and hear is a depraved PEOTUS making fun of the people I love the most, and a cadre of defendants rising in heartbreaking defense.

In spite of all this, we will not surrender hope

The love and bravery that filled that gym yesterday will remain undaunted. 

It is love and courage like Jesus - 
big love, 
unconditional acceptance, 
courageous inclusion, 
quiet power, 
all accompanied by enormous smiles.

There is no coercion. 
There are no threats. 
Bullying is wholly absent. 
Self-aggrandizement is nowhere to be seen. 
Indignant self-righteousness is mute. 
Personal preservation yields to the whole.

Teachers, coaches, volunteers, parents, friends and athletes: 
these are what is good about our world today. 
It is this good which will prevail. 

We are not going away. 
We will not be dismissed. 
We will persevere, with or in spite of or in the face of those who hold structural power.

We will win, and if we cannot win, 
we will be brave. 

Which means in the end we cannot lose the things that really matter.

Oh, say. Can you see? You will.

(originally published as a facebook post on January 15, 2017)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Into the Webbed World

Today I sent a piece of me into the webbed world.
An email, a message, a text, a chat, a tweet;
I can’t remember which.
It really doesn’t matter.

Into the webbed world it went,
Rich with wisdom,
Full of expectation,
Bare with honesty.

Into the webbed world it went
In search of a reply;
Anything would do.

Into the webbed world it went,
This byte-sized piece of
Thought synapse,
Probing inquiry,
Smart observation,
Information request.

Into the webbed world it went.
Audience known:
Audience unknown:

Into the webbed world it went:

Into the webbed world it went,

Into the webbed world it went.
My dreaming.
What I imagine.
How I hope.

Into the webbed world it went.
But who knows
Where it arrived?
If it was heard?
Will it be kept?

Does it really matter?
I can’t remember which:
An email, a message, a text, a chat, a tweet.
Today I sent a piece of me into the webbed world.