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More Than Baseball

Wednesday, November 2, 2016, Des Moines, IA, just before midnight.

Rally cap firmly in place and Jake Arrieta jersey donned, I had been standing up behind my recliner since the Davis homerun in the 8th inning that had evaporated what had once been a 5-1 Cubs lead. I nervously sipped at my glass of bourbon and watched history happen right before my eyes. The Chapman meltdown. The rain delay. The Zobrist go ahead RBI. The "almost" rally from Cleveland in the bottom of the 10th.

And then the moment so many of us will never forget. A bouncing ball hit towards the gap between 3rd and short, a charging Kris Bryant up with it. The throw to Anthony Rizzo at first base. The out heard around the world. After 108 years, the Chicago Cubs had won the World Series.

My initial reaction was stunned silence. As my phone began to buzz with incoming text messages and snap chats, tears began to roll down my face. It had happened. Next year was now. As Harry once put it, "Sure as God made green apples..." the Cubs had won it all. It was a story that had played out so perfectly, the eventual movie won't have to change a single detail. Two storied franchises, both facing gigantic championship droughts. Kyle Schwarber back from the DL after missing the entire season, just in time for the series. The rally after being down 3 games to 1, which included two road wins in hostile Cleveland. Oh, and Bill Murray.

I know Bill. I can't believe it either.

I know Bill. I can't believe it either.

In the days that followed, stories began to emerge that would prove infinitely more meaningful than a simple baseball game. The Iowa man who clung to life just long enough for the final out. The man who drove from North Carolina to Indiana to listen to the game with his father, at his grave site. The brick walls that line the outfield converted into a impromptu memorial for all those who didn't live long enough see The Curse broken.

Photo from ESPN.com

Photo from ESPN.com

Stories like this man, John Motiejuanas. According to ESPN, John met his wife four blocks from the stadium. She passed away 6 months ago from cancer. He wrote her name on this wall, sharing the moment they had waiting so long to see. A moment, I imagine, that was more bittersweet than he had anticipated.

Like Brad Pitt said in Moneyball, "How can you not be romantic about baseball?"

Several years ago, I wrote an essay about baseball in which I admitted that for a long time I was not a fan of the sport. When I was young I had a poor little league experience that revolved around a coach who wasn't very supportive of those of us who were not tremendously gifted athletically, and for a long time it ruined the game for me. Then when I was in college, I decided to give it another chance. I dabbled with fandom of a few other teams before settling in with the Chicago Cubs, thanks in part to my friends and the fact that the Triple A Iowa Cubs are here in Des Moines. Over the years, my love for the team grew immensely. Why? Not because they were good or because I had any particular connection to the city of Chicago.

It was the fans. The way that, no matter what had happened the previous season, everyone believed this could the year. The never give up hope attitude that was pervasive and infectious. I fell in love with the Chicago Cubs and with baseball.

I have met many people who do not like baseball. And I can't say that I really blame them. The season is long and games can seem to take forever, often end with scores like 1-0 or 3-2. The pace of the game doesn't reach anything near that of football, hockey, or basketball. It's slow. It's long. And dear readers, sometimes it's very, very boring.

And then every once and awhile, something special happens. The sudden crack of a bat when you know someone just went yard. The slow realization that it's the 7th inning and the pitcher hasn't allowed a hit. The increasing buzz of the crowd as an outfielder races to make an impossible catch. The routine ground out to first that will go down as one of the most important plays in the history of sports. 

It's not always interesting, but sometimes baseball is down right magical.

That's how life is too. It's often boring. It's all too easy to settle into a routine and just stop paying attention to the world around us. We are all guilty of it. But every now and then, something special happens that reminds us how beautiful life can really be.

This isn’t complicated. It was magic. It was the confluence of a once in a life time set of circumstances. You could wish for it again, but the moment won’t arrive because the cities and the stakes cannot be replicated.
— Scott Van Pelt, ESPN Anchor

 

What happened on Wednesday night was about so much more than baseball. The moment I stood behind my recliner in 2016 and watched the Cubs win the World Series, that moment isn't ever going to happen again. Sure, the Cubs might win more titles, and I hope that they do. But the circumstances, the pure magic of that moment, can't ever be reproduced. Every now and then something happens in sports that transcends the game itself.

On Wednesday night, so many people's thoughts were on - not the game - but their loved ones, the ones they wished could see this moment. The energy was palpable, even in my apartment 300 miles away from Chicago. This wasn't about baseball, bragging rights, or bringing home the trophy. It was about fans who were taught to believe in the impossible. It was about memories of listening to the radio and playing catch in the backyard. It was about the first time you set eyes on that huge iconic red sign that read "Wrigley Field Home of the Chicago Cubs."

I loved seeing the Cubs win the World Series, I really did. But what I am going to remember forever are the beautiful and heart-breaking stories that have emerged from it. Stories of promises kept and how hope was handed down across the years, staying alive for over a century. What the 2016 Chicago Cubs reminded me was that it's not really about score or records. It's not even about the individual players. At the end of the day, it's a game we made up. But these sports we watch, these games we play, they can be magical. They connect us across generations and with total strangers. They remind of the good times and are there for us during the bad times. They make us believe in crazy things. And sometimes they give us incredibly special moments that will never be forgotten.

There is a word for all of that: love.

I mean, come on. How can you not be romantic about baseball?

Photo Credit: Jon Lowenstein, ESPN.com

Photo Credit: Jon Lowenstein, ESPN.com

  

 

 

A Second Act Problem

Today I listened to a podcast of comedians Pete Holmes and Judd Apatow interviewing the great Norman Lear. For those of you are either too young or pop culture indifferent and have no idea who Norman Lear is, I will tell you. Norman Lear is one one of the greatest - a case could be made for the greatest - television writers and producers in the history of the medium. He is responsible for shows like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Maude. He has also won four Emmy's, a Peabody, and a National Medal of the Arts. So he's kind of a big deal.

This living legend is now in his 90's and he appeared on Pete Holmes' podcast "You Made It Weird." If you have the time, I would highly recommend giving their conversation a listen. At one point in the midst of a discussion about God and the meaning of life, Norman tells a story about a brief story about a taxi driver he met once. She had put her two children through college and, that done, had told Norman that now it was her turn to go. He said that he wanted to help her. After vetting the story for authenticity, he helped a woman who had had little to know connection with other than both people humans in the same car once for a while pay for her college. And then he tells Pete and Judd about a letter her got from her:

I get a letter from her. I forgot which fundamentalist Christian... She found God. Deeply Christian. And she wanted to save me because I had been good to her and she loved me, and I knew she loved me. But I couldn’t go, I couldn’t do what she wanted me to do to be saved... With all the love in the world, she wished to help me to get to where she was going, to God.

This story bothers me. Here you have a legendary creative mind who no doubt has an absurd amount of money. He meets this woman totally by happenstance, hears her story, and choses to invest in her. Why? Simply because it was the right thing to do. That's it. And it's important that I tell you that Norman doesn't identify as a spiritual or religious person, so this action didn't have those motivations either. Just a human being helping another human being because he could.

That's not the part that bothers me. That part that bothers me is - as you might have guessed - the letter. She wanted to save him. And I understand full well that this was done out of love, as Norman says. But it's the very idea of it that bothers me. I think Jesus said some stuff about helping the less fortunate at least once in the Bible, maybe more. Norman did that. The television show All in the Family is widely regarded as one of the best television shows of all time. It's intent, style, and impact on the culture is best summed up by this text, which was actually shown before the show's premiere. 

The program you are about to see is ‘All in the Family.’ It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.

Norman Lear helped to bring a fractured country together by shining a light on ridiculous some things can be. He influenced an entire generation's development in countless ways. He did that. (Come to think of it, we could use another All in the Family right now about...) My point here is that even though Norman Lear doesn't identify himself as Christian, he up to some pretty Christ-y stuff. He's participating in the Kingdom as much as anyone. So WHY is it necessary for him to go to a church and say some words? His life, the things he's done, isn't that enough? Isn't goodness for the sake of goodness STILL Godliness?

Later in the interview, they guys are talking about creativity being a connection to the divine. When asked if he believes God is present in those creative moments, Norman says, "Oh yeah, I mean you go to bed with a second act problem and you wake up the morning with the solution. What is that?"

Our Second Act Problem

I identify myself as Jesus person. I've spent years of my adult life thinking about God, heaven, hell, Jesus, resurrection, redemption, and just the heck is going on. I've had lots and lots of conversations with people from a variety of faith backgrounds with vastly different opinions. And I've reached a conclusion: we have a second act problem.

There is a traditional model of story-telling called The Three Act structure. In Act 1, we established setting and introduce a problem. Aaron Sorkin would say that the characters have to want something and if they can need it, that's even better. In Act 3, whatever the problem is has climaxed and we begin what is called "Descending Action". This is like the end of an episode of Grey's Anatomy where someone wraps up whatever everyone learned. (I've only ever seen the ends of episodes.) A picture can explain this much better than I can.

 

Christianity has a second act problem. As you can tell by the picture above, Act 2 is where most of the stuff happens. The central movement of the story occurs here and, in a traditional model, this is where tension is heightened. Let's examine the basic story of Christianity through the lens of the Three Act Structure.

Act 1: The inciting incident is the Garden of Eden. We have established now that humanity has fallen away from its creator and will start a journey back. (That's what I would argue the "story" of Christianity is, btw)

Act 2: Turns out we suck at this whole "relationship with God" business. We fail repeatedly and the tension heightens. But through all of that, God remains. The climax? Probably that whole death and resurrection thing, but I'm willing to hear other pitches. Maybe for you it was the fish and the bread.

Act 3: Humanity and God are restored to relationship with each other. Depending upon how you understand "heaven", this could mean going to heaven after you die OR it could mean participating in the kingdom of heaven that is already present here OR some combination of both OR neither. (I'll make an argument for one in a minute.)

When I say we have a second act problem, I don't mean that it's poorly written or boring. I mean that we have a tendency to miss it altogether. More often than not we want to jump right from Act 1 to Act 3, without much thought to the stuff in-between. And the stuff in-between is important. The stuff in-between, the Act 2 of it all, is a story about us failing miserably and being disappointing to God pretty much all the time and how God endures it all. It's a story about a love that is so wholly and entirely other that the Greeks made up a word for it: agape. Act 2 is the central part of the action. It is the story.

The Re-Write

So what if we re-structured our telling of the story of Christianity? What if we shifted our focus? What if we made Act 2 matter and made Act 3 totally different? Because the story is different by virtue of a stone that was rolled away to reveal an empty tomb. Let me make a pitch:

Act 1: The Empty Tomb

Act 2: The Kingdom Come

Act 3: The Steadfast God

In Luke 17:20-21, Jesus says, "The Kingdom of God can't be detected by visible signs. You won't be able to say, 'Here it is!' or 'It's over there!' For the Kingdom of God is already among you."

The Resurrection changed everything forever. It should be Act 1 of the story. In the re-written version of history and with a new understanding of the story of Christianity, Norman Lear doesn't need to be saved from anything. He already has been. And he might not call it the same thing as you or I; he might not participate in the same rituals as you or I; but by doing goodness for goodness' sake, he's participating in it. Maybe better than you or I.

The good news of the gospel is not: one day we all abandon this place.
It’s that God has not abandoned this place.
— Rob Bell

Who is in and who is out? Who is saved and who is not? Do you believe all the right things?

I'm tired of those questions. I want to ask different ones.

What can we do to be better? How can I engage with goodness more? Where do we see the light shining through?

Resurrection On Me

While I was thinking about Norman Lear and God, I got a Facebook message from my friend Jen. She said she had listened to a song by the artist Sia called "Jesus Wept". And since Jen knows that I like thinking about God and pop culture (Ref: everything I've ever written) she thought I should hear it. So I listened to it. And then I listened to it again.

And much to my excitement, it is about resurrection. Sia seems to have taped into a beautiful truth as she sings, "Resurrection on me," in a song that is both hopeful and heart-breaking. It's that resurrection didn't just happen, it happens. It is happening.

The game changed forever on the cross that day.

Redemption is here.

Salvation is now.

Resurrection is happening.

Love is everywhere.

The kingdom has come.

This is our second act.

Retreat? Hell!

On Sunday I ran my third half marathon, which is 13.1 miles in length. For those of you who have managed to maintain your sanity better than I have and thus have never attempted this grueling task, I would like to offer you a glimpse into the progression of thought that occurs - at least for me - during those 13 miles. 

Miles 1-5: "Maybe I should run a full marathon!"

Miles 5-8: "This is the hardest part, I just have to get through this part."

Miles 8-10: "Why in the hell do I do this to myself?"

Mile 11: "I'm going to die."

Mile 12: "This is the longest mile in the history of miles."

The .1 Mile at the End: "I'm the BEST!"

Or something like that.

Distance running is as much mental as it is physical, if not more so. That's one of the reasons I enjoy the sport: it is a constant battle with yourself. You mind will quit long before your body will, so some part of you (maybe your heart or soul or spirit) says, "Keep going. You can do this." It often helps to come up with a mantra or two that can be repeated during a long run. Which one depends upon your specific challenge and how you are best motivated. I don't know how other runners do it, but I don't typically "plan" my mantras ahead of time. I let the run dictate them, since I feel like every long run is hard for different reasons.

Now I want to share with you the phrase that came to me on Sunday during my half marathon:

Retreat, hell!

Allow me to share a bit of background regarding the phrase itself. "Retreat, hell" is the motto of the 1st Marine Division, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment based out of California. If it is sounds familiar, you may have heard it in the not so great sci-fi flick, "Battle: LA", which features the 2/5 Marines in combat with alien invaders. Though that movie was fiction - and also pretty bad - it at least got this little bit of history right. The aforementioned 2/5 Marine Regiment fought in World War I and it was during this time that Capt. Williams - one of the Marine officers - was advised by to retreat. He famously replied, "Retreat? Hell, we just got here!"

Why would this come to mind while running 13.1 miles? To be honest, the entire 2 hours of running blends together quite a bit. One does not spend a lot of time retaining specific moments. I believe I started thinking "Retreat, hell!" somewhere in mile 8 or 9. This is really the part that is the most difficult mentally for me, because I've already run so far, but yet feel like I have so much further to go. I feel so tempted to start walking during this time and, during training, I often will. However, during an actual race, I strongly refuse to let myself walk. In three half marathons I have fought through burning leg muscles; sore, tight shoulders; and my own desire to quit. I'm proud to say I've never walked once. After all the training I have done and all the work I put in, to walk would feel like a defeat. So as I ran, I started thinking, "Retreat? Hell." As in: I worked hard to get here, why would I give up now?

DON'T GIVE BACK THE GROUND YOU GAIN

If you haven't read my stuff before, I'll let you know that I have PTSD. I live with depressive periods, some anxiety, hyper-arousal, and all that other fun stuff. After I finished my race yesterday - and took a nap - I was watching football and thinking about how the race went. Like I said perviously, I don't remember many specifics of the run. (Except for one GIANT hill that was in mile 11. That's right runner friends, MILE ELEVEN.) I couldn't help but notice the parallel - as you probably have by now - between the struggle to complete a half marathon and the battle for mental wellness.

A popular treatment for PTSD - as well as a wide variety of other mental health problems - is something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The general idea is learning to recognition negative thought patterns and effectively "cut them off" before they can get too far. I have undergone a significant amount of CBT and, for the most part, I know when my depression is creeping up on me. As you might imagine, this can be very frustrating. It typically comes after a series of days during which I have felt good or, at least, felt even.

But now, when those times come, I have a new mantra; another tool in the CBT toolbox. Like so many others, I fight hard for my mental wellness. In the last year several years, I have committed to being healthy. I am leaps and bounds better than I once was. I have fought and gained a lot of ground. And I have no intention of giving it back.

Maybe you haven't run any long distance races and maybe you don't have depression, but I'm willing to bet you have felt like quitting before. You have pushed for something, worked for it, made sacrifices for it. You've battled everyday to gain ground in one area, only to feel like you're losing it in another.

I doubt I will blow anyone's mind here, but it's a fallacy that there is a point in our lives when the challenges stop coming. Adversity is inherent to the human experience. It's not a question of how to avoid it, just a question of what you will do when it comes.

So the next time you face it, I invite you to remember two simple words:

Retreat? Hell!

 

What I Learned From A Toddler

I want to tell you two brief stories.

Today I was sitting in a coffeeshop working on some writing, and a small boy (I would guess maybe 3 or 4) came up and sat down across from me. He didn't ask, nor did he have any idea who was I was, he just sat down. (For anyone who is nervous, his father was standing nearby, trying to get a shoe onto another child). I looked him and said, "Hi, are you going to sit with me?" He looked back at me confidently and said, "Yes." While his dad continued to fight with the shoe, I chatted with this little man, whose name was Axel. I do not know if that was his actual name or just what he thought his name was, but it doesn't really matter. We talked about standard little kid things like how old he was, what his favorite things were, and so on. After a few minutes, his father collected him and they left.

I frequent coffee shops around the Des Moines area. I find that I am infinitely more productive in coffee shops, probably there are not guitars or PS4's around to distract me like there would be at home. Several weeks ago, I came into a Caribou Coffee and - unintentionally - sat at a table adjacent to a girl. She was very attractive and we exchanged a few brief smiles before I had to leave. When I came back the next day, she was there again. And again the next day. Every day the interactions were the same: little smiles to one another and nothing more. I would leave and tell myself, "Okay, if she's there tomorrow, I am going to talk to her." But of course, I never did.

What is the difference between little Axel and myself?

What does Axel know that I don't? Because Axel would have gone over to that girl's table, sat down, and said, "Hi, I am going to sit with you." Axel, at three or four years old, has more game than most of us. It's okay for you to admit it, reader. This is a safe place. You wish you had the that toddler swagger. I don't think it's all about what Axel knows, but rather what he doesn't know.

Axel doesn't know yet to be embarrassed.

He doesn't know rejection.

He hasn't had his heart broken.

He is unburdened by the perceived structures of being a grown up person.

There was a point when I was like Axel. You were too. There was a point before all of this bull shit we call adulthood when we cared way less, or perhaps we cared more simply. We want to have fun, play, and laugh. We wanted to make new friends and didn't care where we sat because we didn't know about "popular and unpopular" yet. We dreamt of being astronauts, dancers, artists, pilots, and firefighters, and no one told us we couldn't. We were curious, ambitious, and honest like only children can be. And we still had our sense of wonder and amazement.

You used to be like Axel. I did too.

So, what happened to us?

WHEN DO WE START BELIEVING THAT WE'VE STOPPED GROWING?

It's pretty simple, really. We "grew up." You probably didn't even notice this happen, I sure didn't. One day I must have realized that people have opinions about me and those opinions matter. I must have somehow acquired a desire to be and act, "more like an adult." I must have realized how difficult it is to became an astronaut. I must have learned words like "realistic" and "practical." I must have determined that talking to pretty girls in coffee shops isn't something people actually do. I must have grown up.

The above video asks an important question: when we do start believing that we've stopped growing? Did you catch the reactions of the people when Idris Elba asks them what they want to be when they grow up? Most of the laughed. One even said what I assume they were all thinking, "I'm quite well grown." It's how many of us would answer the question, I suspect, because we fall into the trap of believing that we have reached that magic point at which we've become the people we will be for the rest of our lives. We've grown up.

"THE DREAM"

I love how the girl in the video says, "So, the dream?" The way she says it and the look in her eye, you can tell it's something she's wanted to be her entire life: a football coach. (Football meaning soccer here, in case you didn't notice everyone was British in the video.) Norene - that's her name - might have dreamt of that since she was a little girl. She might have kept it in her mind through high school and college, while life pushed it slowly further and further out of reach. And at some point, Norene came to terms with the reality that she was not going to be a football coach. But even so, it was in her mind. The dream.

What's your dream? What is keeping you from doing it? Are your answers anything like the people in the video?

"Time. It's taken years to get to where we are now."

"It gets to a certain point in your life when you think: if it hasn't happened, it's never going to happen."

"You kind of lose a little bit of ambition and then you kind of just ride along."

"Unfortunately, real life does kind of get in the way of your dreams, I guess."

"I don't think people have time to dream, bro."

The response that struck me as the most heart-breaking was the one I placed last on the list. Do you know what my go-to answer is when someone asks him how I am? I bet you do, because you probably say it too. Busy. Busy with school, work, training for a race, playing music. Busy. And I don't even have a wife or children in the mix. I mean really, who has time to dream anymore?

I'll tell you something, dear readers, sometimes I feel like I get so caught up doing life that I forget to live it.

YOU'RE STILL GROWING

Now, I tell you all of that to tell you this, though I suspect my point is pretty evident by now.

That point at which you stop growing, it doesn't exist. You and I are still growing, constantly changing. You are a different person than you were this time last year. So am I. Yes, life can be rather mundane, but there are opportunities for new challenges and amazement all around, if we are looking for them. 

My interaction with Axel today reminded me of some things I think I had lost. And I'm writing this in case you've lost them too. 

Be less serious.

Allow yourself to be totally and completely amazed by the world.

Give love freely, without expecting anything back.

Care more simply.

Rediscover your dreams and chase them.

Oh, and don't be afraid to talk to the pretty girl in the coffeeshop.

- CP

 

 

It's Not The Punchline, It's The Telling

Because how you get there is the worthier part.
— Shepherd Book, 'Firefly'

Probably one of the best shows that was ever put on television is Joss Whedon's (yes, same guy who wrote and directed The Avengers) short-lived sci-fi show Firefly. Set in the future following a war between a large superpower and group of rebels, the show follows Captain Malcolm Reynolds as he and his crew do their best to stay alive, stay together, and keep their ship in the air. In the first episode, the ship has landed on a planet to pick up supplies and passengers. A character, Kaylee, asks a potential passenger named Book why he doesn't seem to care where he is going. Book replies simply, "Because how you get there is the worthier part."

It becomes - not accidentally, I assume - the thesis for the show itself. It is never established where exactly the crew and the ship are heading; there is no final destination. In fact, Capt. Reynolds says more than a few times that the goal is to, "just keep flying." Think about that: to just keep going, without knowing where you're headed.

The other night I was talking to a good friend of mine on the phone and he started telling me a joke. You might not have heard this joke specifically, but you've heard one like it. It's long and rambling, with a punch line that is cheesy and - for the most part - wholly unsatisfying. Which is the whole point of the joke. My friend then explained to me that everything that precedes the punchline (save for the names, which have to stay the same for the end to work), the narrative of the joke is entirely populated by the joke teller. The long and more bogged down in unnecessary detail you can make it, the better. A person listens to and, in some cases, gets invested in a super long, detailed joke that goes absolutely no where with a punchline that isn't really funny. It's not the punchline itself that is funny, it's how the joke is told.

Until I sat down to write this essay, I did not understand those people who read the last page of a book first. (For younger readers, a book is a collection of paper with words on it. It's like a Kindle... Never mind.) But once I started thinking about this piece, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend who is a self-professed "last pager". I asked her how it didn't ruin the book for her, knowing how it ends. She told me that it improved her experience, because she liked seeing the path the story took towards the (known) conclusion.

I tell you all that to tell you this.

Think about your story. Specifically, think about how your story will end.

Here is a question: does it matter if we know the ending or not?

To answer, I'll tell you I've seen every episode of How I Met Your Mother several times. And I hate how the show ended. [SPOLER ALERT] Ted meets the wife, she gets sick and passes away, and he goes back to Robin. I hate it. A lot of people did. But I still love watching the show. I like seeing Ted and the other characters grow, the things they learn (or don't learn), and just exactly how each one of the "gang" becomes the person who they are at the series' conclusion.

What if knowing the ending isn't as important as we thought?

If that were true, it would mean all we have is the story and how it is told. I have spent a significant portion of my life not-knowing. In fact, I've spent way more time not knowing than I have knowing. Imagine if every time you sat down with a friend over coffee, you knew exactly what both of you would say and how you would say it. Imagine that whenever you started to tell a story, someone interrupted you and unceremoniously yelled the ending.

Now think about the last time you hung out with your oldest or closest friends or family. How many stories did you tell that everyone had heard a million times before? A lot, I bet. And I bet everyone sat and listened, even though they knew how it would end.

For those who are told to speak only when they are spoken to
And then are never spoken to
Speak every time you stand
So you do not forget yourselves
— Anis Mojgani, from the poem 'Shake the Dust'

I have always loved this quote from Anis Mojgani. This might come as a surprise to some readers, especially the ones who know me personally, because I am a writer, speaker, musician, and performer. I will eagerly tell my story to anyone who wants to hear it, and probably to some people who don't. But I was not always this way. And I had people telling me exactly what I am telling you now. But it didn't matter until I really started to believe it.

Now you can't get me to shut up.

Stop worry about the ending. Don't wait until you know how it all turns out. Tell your story. Tell it now, loudly, and often. Do not let anyone tell you that your story is not good enough.

Because there is truth in the telling and your story is important.

transforming the broken

How we respond to what happens to us - especially the painful, excruciating things that we never wanted and have no control over - is a creative act.
— Rob Bell, "How to be Here"

August 2013. Bagram, Afghanistan. I was met by the most senior enlisted in my command, my supervising officer, and an Army Chaplain I had never seen before. The moment still plays in slow motion for me. I exited the tent into the blazing desert heat, saw that collection of individuals, and I had that feeling. I'm willing to bet you've had it too; like a pit is forming in your stomach. That feeling when you just know you're about to get bad news. I was right. Given the setting of this little story, you may have already - rightly - assumed that things weren't going great. It was a time in my life when the challenges were coming in waves... Giant, relentless waves. Not two days prior to the moment I am describing, I said to a friend of mine, "If one more (explicative) thing happens, I don't know what I'll do." And then one more bad thing happened. I stood there outside a tent somewhere in Afghanistan and cried. The walls of my life came crashing down around me.

I look back upon that moment now as the start of something big that is still unfolding. Even then I think I had an awareness somewhere in the back of mind.

This is the moment where everything changes. From now on there will be the time before this and the time after this. I am not the same person I was even 5 seconds ago.

It was during this time that I did some of my best writing. I was turning out long essays almost everyday as I worked through my anxieties and battled my depression. I wrote and as I wrote I fought for my very soul. Which might sound a lot like hyperbole, but I believe it is the truth. 

I tell you that to tell you this:

God is the business of creating new order from disorder.

I don't want you to miss the language I used there, because it is intentional. New order. Not just order and not re-order. New order. New. Meaning that what rises from the chaos will be wholly different than what existed before. It means that resurrection is as much an act of creation as it is one of restoration.

When I was a child I had a Buzz Lightyear action figure. It was just like the one from the movie: buttons on the front that made him talk; wings that shot out of his back; a helmet with a visor that went up and down. I loved that toy. And the one day - while attempting to make Buzz "fall with style - I broke him. Specifically, I broke the visor part and it would no longer go up and down. My father fixed it with superglue, but Buzz forever lost the ability to take off his helmet and breath the free air. I continued to play with the toy, but it was never truly the same as it was before. 

Think about the language we use when tragedy strikes. How will you go on? You have to find a way to put your life back together. We are caught up in restoration. Making things the way they were before The Thing That Happened ever happened. Taking the pieces and putting them - maybe even forcing them - back together with the goal of making them look like they did before. We want to make Buzz's visor go up and down again.

But here's the thing: we can't. Just like Buzz Lightyear or myself in Afghanistan, sometimes things happen and - try as we might - there is no way to make everything go back to exactly the way it was. And pursuing that goal, especially in the face of great tragedy, is often a fruitless effort. When a puzzle is missing some of its pieces, it won't ever be complete again. You might be able to get close, maybe even get a general sense of what the puzzle was supposed to be, but it can't ever be exactly like it was the very first time someone put it together.

My therapist often tells me that if I had returned from the Middle East after having faced the emotional and physical trials I did there and I wasn't changed by them, she would be very concerned. Great suffering changes people. It is a fundamental stop on the road to transformation.

In the Bible, Jesus dies. Then, three days later, he rises again. He's dead, then he's not.

Death, then life.

Disorder, then order.

Loss, then creation.

Good Friday, then Easter Sunday.

With suffering and loss there comes an inherent tension. A tension between how you think things should be and how they are now. I thought he would beat cancer. I thought she wouldn't cheat on me. I thought I would have that job forever.

People who have been touched by cancer often donate to, participate in, or start cancer foundations. Being cheated on often forces us to work through our trust issues. Losing a job sometimes makes us take risks or jump at opportunities that we otherwise would not have. But these things don't happen until we accept one of the single most difficult and world-altering truths that one can ever come to realize: we cannot change what has happened. If the first stop on the road of transformation is suffering, the second is surrender. Surrendering to the reality of the now. Surrendering to the fact that you cannot do this alone.

I do not wish to make it sound as though this will be easy. 2013 proved to be the most difficult year of my life and it is something that I am constantly working through. The struggles born of that time are still very real, and I continue to face them even today. But it was a big moment in my life when I surrender - even a little, tiny bit - to the reality that I could not change what happened to me. What I had to the ability to change - with a lot of help - was the person I was becoming.

I wrote this on July 21st, 2013 while I was sitting in my office in Bagram, Afghanistan:

I know you’ve been hurt. Maybe you’re hurting now. I’m not going to tell you that everything is going to be okay or that God has a plan for you. Here, in this place, I invite you to own your pain, your sadness, and your grief. Lay hold of it, dig into it, dive deeper, because sometimes the only way out is through. It won’t be easy. It won’t be fun. And you won’t be magically cured one day. But if you surround yourself with the right people, if you go about it the right way, and if you’re honest and open with yourself, you’ll discover something important and life-altering:

God is up to something.

It’s something big. And it’s much bigger, deeper, and wider than just you and your salvation or me and my salvation. It’s about the whole of creation, all the ways we are broken. It’s about how God is reconciling us, putting the pieces back together again.

I'm so glad that I wrote during that time because it is fascinating to look back at it now, years later and much more healthy, and see the same themes still playing out today. If I were to write that final sentence today, I would write it like this:

It's about how God is transforming us, putting the pieces together in a whole new - and better - way.

Transformation. A thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance. The taking of one thing and making it something else.

I talk a lot about what happened to me overseas and the struggles I faced afterward. In August of last year, I was officially diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That is also something I am not afraid to talk about, in the hope that I can raise awareness and let people know that they are not alone.

But there is something important I realized:

Afghanistan doesn't define me.

PTSD doesn't define me.

My suffering, my tragedies, my struggles.

None of that defines me.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are told this: nothing will define you except the one who made you. Resurrection is a victory over all the other things that want to tell you who you are. From death, God created life. A life in which things will not be the same as they once were. A new reality wherein everything is re-purposed, renewed, reimagined, redefined.

You have been hurt. So have I. And we will almost certainly hurt again. But I wish for you to discover the hope that I have. God boldly embraces all things, the full scope of the human experience, because there is nothing he cannot repurpose, redeem, resurrect. There is no greater example of this than Jesus willingly going to the Cross, dying, and rising because it demonstrates what will now be the new truth or, as Richard Rohr puts it, "... the transformed pattern of all history." In a resurrected world, all things are now on redemption's trail. So we can own our labels, our defeats, our suffering, our deaths because none of it is so big or bad that it can't be transformed.

In fact, the beautiful part is that it already is being transformed, whether we realize it or not.