2 (7)‘Tis the season to carry spare change, right?

At my faith community we raised over $2000 this week for the hunger advocacy center we helped to start a few years ago.  We made over 200 meals for gay/bi/trans/queer teens and served them in Boystown on Thursday.  And we packed up over 40 complete Thanksgiving meals for the food insecure in our neighborhood.

Oh, and we fed ourselves that night, too.  Five turkeys, every side-dish you might imagine, wine, cider, and a partridge in a pear tree (extra delicious).

It was awesome.

But the sad thing is that with exception for the 200 meals (we do that monthly), we only do this once a year.

I mean, we do other things in other seasons, but we only do this particular type of feasting once a year.

And, despite what we might want to think, poverty isn’t seasonal.

Do we donate at this time of year so that people can have a “nice Christmas”?  What about making sure that people have a nice life?

Seriously.

Thank God we can reach into our pockets once a year to donate a little more…how generous of the haves…

(and I’m a have)

Dave Ramsey had this terrible list out about a year ago, and it caused a little stink.  In it he lists the 20 habits of the rich (that, the not-so-subtle inference is, keeps them rich) and pits them against what he calls “the poor.”

It’s at this moment that I encourage you to look up Luke 6:20.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  You know that word “poor” the Gospel writer uses there?  It’s an economic term, not a spiritual term (though Matthew makes it a spiritual term, perhaps to soften the blow).

And how nice of Ramsey to pit the rich against the poor.  No need to draw such lines, Ramsey. Life does it well enough without your help, but thanks for contributing.

It caused such a stink, though, that Ramsey followed it up with an explanation (keep scrolling in the article to see what I’m talking about).  He defends himself by saying that what he posted “is a simple list outlining the habits of the poor versus the habits of the rich.”

The problem is that the list isn’t simple at all (and that there are serious philosophical problems with the whole thing).

It’s not simple because Ramsey imagines that the discussion is just about behavior.  But poverty is not simply about behavior.  I know out of work men and women who work harder than those of us with jobs, and for much less reward.

It’s not about behavior; it’s about systems.

And if there’s one big mistake that I think Ramsey makes it’s that he mistakes privilege for what he presents as “common sense.”

How lovely that you are wealthy enough to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.  How nice that you have the ability to focus on “one goal” in your day.  It probably means that you have access to a supermarket and only one job.

And you read for pleasure?! Bully!

I’m relatively wealthy; no denying that.  I have a bank account, savings, and we have a college plan set up for our children.  I have investments and disposable income.  We have a car, and when it needs fixing we can usually fix it right away. I never wonder how I’m going to eat, and I am (for the most part) not worried about how I’m going to keep the roof over our heads. Our son goes to daycare twice a week, and we fully pay for it. I read for pleasure and for work and spend more a week on coffee than any reasonable human being should (I’m working on it…).

I say all of the above not to make anyone feel bad, but to give myself…and you, reader…a gently disturbing thought: one of the fears that I have is that our participation in the systems of poverty is given a nice little exclamation point by our sense of generosity at “this time of year.”

I’m looking forward to giving a little more this Christmas.  More to my neighbor and more to God.

And then I’m hopeful that in doing so I might one day learn to give more on December 26th, too.  And May 9th.  And July 12th.  And…

Because poverty isn’t seasonal, and I want to remember that a Merry Christmas isn’t the same as a merry life.

Jesus wept-John 11:35

For such a short verse, John 11:35 gets a lot of airtime.  And rightly so.ww12

I guess we all need permission to cry.  And if we can get that permission from God, a God who cries with us, then all the better, right?

I’m not sure why we need permission to cry, though.  I think it might have to do with the fact that most of us generally don’t like that emotion, that feeling, that uncontrollable sobbing that happens when we cry.

For me it’s kind of like throwing up.  I hate throwing up because I hate not being in control of my body.

When we cry we lose control.  And, as Kristin Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids noted, some of us are ugly criers.  So there’s that…

On Armistice Day, Veterans Day, my thoughts turn to my grandfathers Red and Sodie.

My Grandpa Red, with his Cardinal red hair, never cried.  At least I never saw it…though I don’t suppose I would have.

He served in World War II, the second time we had cut the world in two, invaded little islands to set up bases displacing people who had nothing to do with our own little fights.  And then we sent babies off to fight in suits and ties.

Today I see more military pictures of women and men in fatigues, but the pictures from my grandfather’s era usually had them in dress uniform.  Suits and ties fighting for the men in big offices with suits and ties who had caused the problems in the first place.

No wonder my generation is experiencing a delayed adolescence.  Nothing makes you grow up at the young age of 18 like being told that today could be the “the day.”  The day it all ends.  The day you end it for someone else.  The day you’re drafted.  The day…

It reminds me of the beginning of the Gospel of Luke where the writer says, “In those days there came a decree from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be taxed…”

Those days.  That day.  Perhaps that’s what Jesus came for.

The only time my grandfather mentioned the great war was when he wanted to tell me vividly that war is hell.  He talked about coming home from battle finally after being a gunner on B-25’s over occupied China (and being shot down), going to the house of his best friend in the war who had died in action, and being rejected by his friend’s mother as she opened the door.

No, not rejected, slapped in the face.  “It should have been you,” she said.

My childhood fascination with the war faded there.  The military channel, fighter planes, hero stories…they all paled in comparison to this story, a story about a grief obscured.

My other grandfather, Sodie, fought in the European theater.  He was shot in the stomach.  He received the purple heart.

He died when I was three, before I knew him.

One day when I was 13 I was nosing around some boxes in the basement, and I found a cassette tape.  I popped it in and found a recording of him, my grandfather, on his death bed saying goodbye.  I don’t know that I’ve told anyone this before…

He was saying goodbye and talked about some regrets.  Regrets of failed relationships and things he had wished had gone better.

And there was a little line in there about the war, about fighting.  And not regretting being in the war or going to war for his country, but something about regretting that we fight at all like that.

The sound was garbled…another grief obscured.

Growing up we used to sing Onward Christian Soldiers as a hymn.  We were “going off to war with the cross of Jesus going on before.”

The irony there, of course, is that the cross was meant to end all war, all record keeping in that way.  It was meant to be the end of such violence and hatred and fear.  It was to show that killing can’t stop God, can’t stop life, so why bother?

But now the cross is a grief obscured.

Obscured by our desires for control and domination.  Obscured by our wanting to seem powerful in a world where we feel quite powerless.

I can’t sing that hymn anymore, though it’s nostalgic for me in some ways.  I think nostalgia can sometimes obscure our grief, too.  The church seems to be particularly good at doing this: obscuring the grief of the world through glossing over hard realities.  “Good Friday” can’t be too sad or else people won’t come to services.  Ash Wednesday can be done on the fly, at the bus stop or corner, because people are too busy to observe their mortality for any length of time other than a quick swipe.  Funerals can’t be too mournful because the person is in heaven now and we should be happy they’re in a better place…

Let’s pretend Jesus is a captain and we are Jesus’ soldiers and we’re fighting the world…when the real story, the actual story, is that Jesus was a servant who died for a world all too in love with violence and fighting.

I won’t observe Armistice Day by singing a hymn about might.  I don’t want to obscure the grief anymore than it already is.

I won’t observe Armistice Day by pretending that I think war is ok.  I don’t.  I just don’t.  I respect our soldiers, I pray for them, but I weep that those making the decisions to go to war are not those signing on the dotted line to fight them.

Integrity seems a bit lost there.

As a Christian, I observe Armistice Day by giving thanks for those who have given their life so that I can write like this.  I give thanks for my grandfathers who, though their grief was obscured, lived full lives after the hells of war.

Today I observe Armistice Day by praying that we’ll learn war no more.  Today I observe Armistice Day praying that we’ll have no more grief obscured, that we’ll take care of those scarred by war and help them sort out their grief.

I don’t begrudge people for waving a flag or putting one out.  I understand sacred symbols; I see why they do that. There is a part of me that loves Americana.  But I don’t do that on Armistice Day.

Today I give up a little control as a Christian.  Perhaps I even weep a bit like Jesus.  Weep with my grandfathers who couldn’t, or didn’t, or didn’t feel like they could, for whatever reason.  Today I let myself observe my grief over the whole idea of war; I don’t obscure it.

In doing so, I hope that I not only honor our veterans, but stand with them a bit.

 

 

 

kids-high-fivingThom Rainer posted an article on Saturday entitled “The Top 10 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Guests.”

It was a Twitter poll that he conducted.  The compiled answers drew some surprising, and not so surprising, responses.  I kind of love these polls because they’re largely a practice in the discipline of, “See?  Someone will hate something…”

The people are too pushy or too distant.  They’re not sincere enough (subjective anyone?).  Or the building is poorly laid out and poorly marked.

Actually, that last one is a real issue…

I mean, there is no way to please everyone.

But one of the surprising responses is what Rainer calls “The stand up and greet everyone time.”

Which is an un-fancy way of saying, “The sharing of the peace of Christ.”

And here is where we see what happens when practices lose their roots.

Because the practice of sharing the peace is not a “stand up and greet everyone time.”  It is not done to make friends, and it is not done to welcome guests or visitors.

It is not done to chat about your week, and it not done to make you feel uncomfortable.

The sharing of the peace is a rite as old as the first church where (and you can read about it in the books of 1 Peter, Romans, 2 Corinthians) the church is instructed to greet one another with a “holy kiss.”

In fact, ancient Roman authorities called Christians a “kissing cult” because of this practice.

Now, don’t expect a kiss from me on a Sunday morning unless you’re my grandmother’s age, my child, or my wife.  That being said, you could get lucky ;)

But back to the point at hand, this is a liturgical act.  It has deep meaning which we can see in many ways as being Christ breathing on the disciples in the hours after his resurrection where he gives them his peace.  You can see it as a redemption of the kiss of condemnation that Judas gives Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

And yes it involves touching.  We’re a touch-starved humanity these days.

And yes it is intimidating for introverts and too opportunistic for extroverts.  But community is as much about being stretched in our comfortability as it is being stretched in our restraint.

And yes it is time-consuming.  I’m not a big fan of extended periods of handshaking.  I’m usually a two to three person shaker/hugger/kisser, and then I’m all for moving on.

But, and let me be clear on this, I think it’s something that we can’t afford to do without.

Because in a world where you get shot at for wearing a hoodie in the wrong neighborhood, we need to learn how to approach people we don’t know in peace.  Because in a world where you won’t let your child play in the yard or talk to people they don’t know, we need a space where it is safe for us to interact in holy ways.

Because in a world where you might wonder if peace actually exists anywhere, what with the 24 hour news cycles of violence and the constant trumpeting of the next terrorist threat, there must be a place where we can embody the peace that Christ calls us to.

We need to be respectful.  We need to honor that some people can’t be touched for whatever reason, that safe touch is on the hand, that not everyone likes hugs.  We have to understand that.

But we can’t not share the peace just because it’s not comfortable.

And I don’t care if it is flu season.  Bow toward the person if you don’t want to make contact.  But realize that your hand may be the only hand that person touches that week.  If you don’t think that’s true, imagine the widow, or the homeless, or the person with a deformity that keeps people away, and then imagine you withdrawing your hand during a time where we greet one another with the peace of Christ.

You might be the embodiment of grace they need.

We’ll high-five at the bar but not at church?  We’ll high-five in the sports arena but not in the pew?

I’m sorry folks, but if sharing the peace of Christ will keep you away from church, I’m not sure you’re ready for community.

By God, share the peace.

pastor-search

Magnifying glasses can be used to bring things into focus. They can also be used to burn things. In this way they are the ultimate metaphor for good and bad scrutiny.

So you’re a new pastor, eh?  Or perhaps you’re a congregation looking for a new pastor.

Well, after five years in my current call, I’m now reflecting back on it all: the good, the bad, the great, the “man that sucked…”

And I think I’ve identified five things that either I didn’t anticipate, or the people of the church didn’t anticipate.  Nothing groundbreaking here, of course, but when you line it all up it is kind of sobering…and, I hope, hopeful.

Hopeful because for people who listen to death and resurrection stories every week, we’re still not very good at realizing that the pattern of death and resurrection is the pattern of the godly life.  So even when things die, new things rise.  We mourn in death, but we also wait for new life to emerge.

That is the story, right?

Anyway, here’s what I’ve identified as 5 things that will happen when you get a new pastor.

5) People will leave.  Yeah, they will.  No one is prepared for this (not even the people who leave, I think).

Perhaps they’re burned out from stressful leadership roles, or perhaps they’ve entered a new phase in life where the church isn’t as important for them, and their faith life takes a different path.

Or perhaps you’ve ticked them off.  That’s real, of course.  It happens.  As a pastor I don’t think you ever intend to tick people off (at least not to the point of their taking a hike), but it will happen.  And then people will come up to you and say, “What about so-and-so?  Where are they now?” And you have no answer because, while you’re pretty sure it’s because of you, your attempts to rectify the situation haven’t worked…or there’s really nothing you can do about it because their desires and the direction of the church just aren’t compatible.

Or sometimes people will be mad at you not because you’ve done anything, but because their life needs a scapegoat and you’re a convenient one.  That’s just true.  People take things out on the church, out on the pastor.  Or maybe they’re upset because you simply can’t help them in the way they want you to and they don’t know how to deal with that.

Or maybe you as the pastor don’t know how to deal with that.

Sometimes pastors take things out on the church, too.  That’s just as true.

And both cause people to leave or check-out.

I put this as number five not because it’s the least painful of these lessons.  On the contrary: this is the most painful part of it all.  I wish someone had told me early on that this would happen, though I don’t know that you can ever guard your heart enough not to take this personally.  I put this at number five because I think it’s surprising to all parties involved.  It’s a shared pain, but probably an unavoidable one.

Or if it is avoidable, I haven’t figured it out.

4) People will arrive. New people.  People you didn’t ever think would darken the door of a faith community will show up.  And then you and the community have to decide if you’ll be able to make enough social space to have them there.  Most communities want to make space, but they’re unsure how.  Patterns develop, both good and bad.  You have to work together to change them.

And this is difficult.

But people will arrive…you must prepare for that.  You should expect it.  And you should have a lot of open discussion about how these people may not know anything about being a part of a faith community, or may not care to join this committee or that, or may want to start a new initiative that looks nothing like previous missions.  You have to be prepared to tell people in the church that things will not be the same.

I remember one of our members pointing out to me that they started collecting high chairs years and years and years ago, long before there were enough children to fill them, with the expectation that they’d be used one day.

That’s good prep-work.

3) People will feel excluded.  Sometimes leadership change is welcomed, and sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes ownership over ministries and initiatives are willingly and eagerly changed over, and sometimes they’re not.

It’s tough.

It’s tough when the ministry that really gave you purpose is now shared by others.  It’s tough when the close relationship with the previous pastor isn’t shared with the new one, for whatever reason.  All of that is tough.

It’s tough when people who have been in the church for a long time feel like they’re being displaced.  It’s tough when you’re new to a church and no one has invited you to help in a ministry because it has run the way it has for years upon years.

No one expects to feel excluded.

It’s tough.  Community takes intention…and your pastor will try to do it all, but she can’t.  Your pastor will try to meet everyone’s need to be included and accepted and important, but he won’t be able to do it.

This, in my experience, leads to more burnout than anything.  As a pastor I sometimes want to sit everyone down in a room and say, “You are all important.  You are all needed.  And I need you to understand that without me having to tell you, show you, or start initiatives to prove it all the time.  I need you to live it.”

The cure for exclusion is to start taking inclusion for granted.  What I mean by that is that if you’re in charge of a ministry area, take for granted that you are to look for and invite new people to enter into it.  Constantly.

What I mean by that is that if you’re new to a community of faith, take for granted that you’re welcome to participate in all facets of life.

I hope any good pastor would try to foster that kind of atmosphere and would welcome it.  But we can’t create the atmosphere all on our own.  We all have to breathe the same air in rhythm to change the atmosphere.

2) New ideas will fail and old ideas will gain new life.  When I came to this community our second worship service, which is different in style and tone from the first, had a consistent 30 people in attendance and had been consistent in the 30-40 range for two years before I came.

That’s not sustainable in the long run. It was at a crossroads.

I was hearing voices on both sides of the “keep it/abandon it” argument speak logically.

Today after tweaking and retooling, it’s now a consistent 80-90.  This old idea gained a new life, and now has a life that is feeding many on a weekly basis…though it doesn’t look exactly like what it used to.

That being said, the evening service that was quiet and contemplative that I started two years ago didn’t last.  It was feeding people, but not enough to create a lasting community (though there is always a chance for resurrection!).

Sometimes old ideas gain new life and gain a new form.  Congregations need to be prepared and become OK with this.  Sometimes more effort isn’t what an initiative needs. Sometimes it’s effort that is differently focused.

In short, a new pastor will breathe new life into some old things, and will start new things that don’t have enough life to last.  There has to be space for all of this to happen.  New pastors always think that what they start has to last forever.  We think this because we don’t take seriously Ecclesiastes 3 when it lifts up time as the sordid mistress she is. There is a time for everything under heaven.  Not everything has to be forever.  Stars eventually burn out; but they’re beautiful in the process.

1) If you give it enough time and godly space, you will get used to one another and even love each other.

You will.  It will happen if you give it enough time and godly heart-space.

Despite the fact that some leave, that roles change and evolve and egos are hurt on both sides, that new things start and die while old dying things get new life (or vice-versa), if you allow godly space to grow together, if you hold each other accountable to the reason you’re called together, if you open your heart to the possibility that you might be wrong about this opinion/option/initiative or that one (both pastor and congregant have to reserve the right to be wrong), you will love each other.

You will.

All of my favorite theologians talk about the mature person as one who embraces the shadow-side of life (how Jungian, right?).  And the above are part of the shadow-side of having a new spiritual leader.

Embrace the shadow-side. That’s not a Star Wars reference; that’s life.

Hug these five cacti, prickly as they are, and trust that God’s mission in the world can work even through such imperfect systems.

joel-victoria-osteenBy now you’ve probably seen the shot from Houston.  If not, take a second and make yourself happy by watching it here.  Do it for yourself.

It’s ironic, of course, that the home of NASA’s “mission control” would be the place where a great deal of the Christian world claims the Gospel is going out of orbit.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a bit because I wanted to see the continual fall-out of this.  It’s no surprise that many church leaders across denominations are taking umbrage with VO’s remarks.  Article upon article, meme upon meme, floating around either point-by-point refuting her, or simply making fun of her.

I wouldn’t even call it “mocking.”  They’re not mocking her, they’re making fun of her.  Which is shameful. Mockery, actually, is a high form of critique.  Paul Woodruff notes this in Reverence, and I think he’s largely right.  Mockery actually takes the person seriously.

No.  I’ve seen people just more outright making fun of her.  Even Bill Cosby’s 40 year-old self has a response.

But, with all of this negative press, I’ve just been thinking of my Shakespeare. As Hamlet says, “Thou dost protest too much.”

In other words, I think much of the Christian world is so pissed about her words, so quick to say, “No way!  That’s not what we do. That’s not how it goes…” because underneath the skin, deep into the soul, there is a real fear that VO’s words are true.

True about the pastor who is quick to deride her for her words, and true for the parishioner sitting in the pew.

She meant them as prescriptive, of course.  But I take them, her words, as descriptive.

I mean, when we trumpet around that Christianity is all about “Jesus-and-me” for so long, are we really surprised that we are where we are here?  Osteen is not a theologian.  In fact, I dare to say she’s been raised and taught in the classroom of the pew her whole life.  Civil American Christian Religion has been a warm blanket for many pockets of society, and I’ve rarely if ever heard it seriously challenged from most pulpits.  And Victoria Osteen was just repeating what she’s heard her whole life, I think.

“Not from my church…” you might say.  But remember your church is one small thread in a whole tapestry of the Christian industrial complex, and whether or not you have heard it within your walls, I seriously doubt you’ve heard it challenged in any real, life-shaking way.

Why?  Because people might leave.  And no one wants to be down on a Sunday morning.  And we really do want it to be that personal, we really do want permission to be happy, and if we can’t get it from God, where can we get it from?

The theology of “feel good/do good” is a powerful force because it feeds a need within us to have permission to be happy and have a purpose.

That might be a bit cynical, which is not like me.  I’m an optimist, or at my best, one who lives on hope.

But sometimes when an opportunity comes to point at the emprorer’s pink parts because everyone caught a glimpse, a flash, of his nakedness, it’s important to take a moment and analyze the strong reactions we have.

Perhaps it’s because we realize that Christian culture has created these words, and Osteen is just repeating what she’s learned.

Perhaps it’s because deep down we realize that many do come to church to get their shot of Jesus, the drug of choice for many.

Perhaps it’s because deep down we realize that in many pockets of the world, VO’s message is exactly what people are hoping we’ll say from the pulpit on Sunday morning because one of the biggest motivators for us getting up in the morning is to chase that elusive rabbit of happiness in a dark hole existence.

…and it should be noted that there is nothing wrong with being happy, wanting to be happy, or searching for happiness in life.

But when we’ve turned that into the point of the Gospel, well, we can’t get mad when someone repeats it back to us.

And if that’s not the point of the Gospel, which I do not think it is, then instead of getting mad and making fun of Osteen (either of them), we should look at ourselves, our message, and realize that we’re largely sucking at getting it across effectively in many pockets of Christianity.

See, I think Victoria Osteen said something really true about Christianity today, and I think that our vehement reactions against her words are not just because we disagree with her assessment (which I truly do), but also because we know that she’s just, on TV, pointed out that the emperor is naked in many places.

Which means we have more work to do.

Osteen is not where the Gospel is going out of orbit.  Osteen is a product of a Gospel that is largely out of orbit, and has been for a long time.

I’m on vacation.  The beach.

I woke up on vacation to the sound of the surf and seagulls and the smell of salt water.  vacation-planning

I woke up on vacation to the sound of laughter being silenced as a brilliant comedic force lost a battle to depression.

These two things don’t mix easily.

I woke up on vacation to the sight of children running and playing in the surf.  Children of all ethnicities chasing crabs and picking up shells.

I woke up on vacation to the news of an unarmed black man being shot in cold blood. To rioting, angry voices justified in their anger, but not in the violence that followed. Death begets death.

…and yet in some ways I understand it…

These two things don’t mix easily.

What’s funny, of course, is that most of us are on “vacation” from this sort of death.  From pretending depression isn’t an illness but just a phase.  From pretending that racial inequality isn’t real because, well, if it is real then we might have to change the way we behave…

And, let’s be honest: we don’t really want to do that. (We have a black president, for Christ’s sake!  Doesn’t that mean racial inequality is a thing of the past?!)

Most of this country is on vacation most of the time.

And that vacation mindset can find a shock of reality in the church community, if we’ll allow it.

Most, though…I think most go to church to have their views reinforced, not challenged.

The pastor has become the conscience massager instead of the conscientious objector to the vacation tendencies that power and privilege provide.

People leave churches because their pastor mentions these things.  All congregations.  My congregation, too.  And in a time of church-attendance limbo we may feel like we can’t say anything because, well, what if people take a vacation from the congregation because of what is said?

So we massage it.

But there is another reality that can’t be massaged into something different, that can’t be escaped: a black man lay dead in the street.  A comedian became the victim of joylessness.

And we have to admit that God has something to say about that, something to say about a culture that considers you “OK” as long as you’re laughing; a culture that considers you “OK” as long as your skin color doesn’t automatically make you suspect.

Blood has only one color, though.

And for as much as we lift the blood of Christ up at the Communion table and say “for you,” you’d think we’d see the connection there.

So what to do?  Raise our voice in indignation?  Console one another? Tell the truth about depression?  Speak to racial inequality and violence and unchecked power?

Yes.  Of course, yes.

But also: let’s stop being on vacation.

Stop pretending these things aren’t reality.

The church can be a place where we help people live with the tensions of life, not trying to alleviate them, but helping us all live well with them.

Jesus helps us live here and now, in reality.  Jesus doesn’t let us take a vacation from reality.  “If you see me, you see God,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John.  If you see Jesus you see ultimate reality.

Do you see Jesus in the person battling depression?  In the black man dead in the street?

Or are we just all on vacation?

He was beautiful and tragic.Drinking-the-beer-and-smoking-a-cigarette

At least that’s how I took him to be at the time.  And I’m not romanticizing here…at least I don’t think I am.  And I’m not talking about “beautiful” as in “attractive.”  I’m talking about beautiful in that deeper way you talk about beauty, if you get what I mean.

Maybe I’m not sure what I mean by that, but it’s the only way I can describe it.

We were in Denver at The Great Divide, a nice little brewery that spits out tasty pints.  We were waiting to take a tour, but it turned out that there weren’t enough people for a tour that day.  We had to just settle for the wares of the place, and I stood at the edge of the crowded bar for a long time before the tender, also enjoying a tasty pint, noticed me.

Drink in hand, the five of us sat down.  If you looked around the table you’d see the width and breadth of what a college education spits out: a teacher, an artist, a doctor, a financial advisor, and a pastor.  The lawyer couldn’t make it this year, though he often rounds out the crew.

College friends.  College roommates.  Most of us fraternity brothers (the doctor and the lawyer opted out of the fraternity experience in deference for books…a questionable choice).  We all raised a pint and celebrated our yearly vacation together, something we ceremoniously call “Mancation.”

We’d been in Denver for a few hours, had already visited a brewery, and were on our second hop.

I noticed him standing just behind the guard rail of the sidewalk patio.  Black shirt. Deep blue jeans. Black rimmed glasses. Beer in hand, cigarette emerging from his pocket.  He was listening in as we chatted.  I knew he was going to chime in.

“Nice glasses,” he said to me.  I was wearing my Aviators.  They are nice glasses.  Prescription sunglasses, which means I wear them inside, after dark, because I always forget to bring my other ones.  The Financial Advisor in our group (I usually refer to him as a “banker,” which he hates) never fails to shame me when I wear them inside.

But they are nice glasses.  The guy obviously has taste, so I affirmed the truth of his statement, which gave him a conversation “in.”

Turns out he was a visitor to Denver, too.  Staying in town for just a few more days.  We chatted about the area, the dream that is Denver living, local brews. We found out his name was Wit, short for Dewitt.  He’s from North Carolina.  As a fellow Carolinian, I naturally respected him implicitly.

“What brings you here?” I ask. He takes a long drag off of his cigarette. “Treatment,” he says.

And I realized at that point that, every once in a while Wit would scratch himself just below his belt line. Every time he did that you’d catch a glimpse of his stomach, and these nice little cut marks all along his pelvis. And when he said “treatment,” I looked over at his left arm. Nice little cut marks all the way up it.

He looked at me and said, “Tell me Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I sat for a moment. What to say? It all became clear: the bony elbows, the ribs showing through his baggy shirt if he shifted just right, his collarbone showing clearly through pale skin.

“Do you think you are?” I asked. He smiled, his pierced lip breaking a little at the edge.

The Doctor gave me a knowing look.  He’s seen this about as much as I have.  His diagnosis is technically the same as mine, but I use a different word for it.

Wit’s plagued by a demon.

Maybe a demon of his past; maybe it’s more recent.  Whatever it is, it torments him.  It tells him lies.  It tells him things like, “Every bone should show…I can’t see that collar bone enough.”

It tells him things like, “If you cut just a little bit, the pain will go away.  You’ll see the red, you’ll feel the release.  It’s something you can do.”

He never answered my question.  He’s sitting down now, scratching the cuts on his pelvis every once in a while.  Bright red.  Not old cuts.

No one really knows what to say.  It’s kind of like when someone who has attempted suicide shows you their wrists.  You lose your words, and rightfully so.  There’s no words for those types of demons.  They eat all our words.  They digest them and spit them back out to us as shallow platitudes, no matter how much sincerity is behind them.

But I know that Wit already feels different.  He wants to be in the conversation, not out of it, even though he’s exposed himself.  It’s the reason why it took him five beers to get up the courage to join us.

“Treatment, huh?” I say, “Decided it wasn’t for you?”

“Let’s just say we had disagreements regarding method,” he said in-between a drag.  Cool. Smooth.  He’s used that line before.

“Well, if you’re wondering about skinny, that beer’s empty calories are giving you some answers.”  He laughed.  I figured he could laugh at that.  It wasn’t sensitive to him in that kind of way.  “I’ll allow these calories,” he said.

“Yeah, I know those other calories they try to give you.  Ensure and Carnation and all those chalky drinks.”

“Can’t stand the stuff.  Doesn’t taste good, anyway,” he smiled again.  Another crack. His lips were chapped in the middle of summer, the beer and the lack of calories sucking out the water from his skin.

We chatted a little while longer and after a bit my friends and I decided to head to a different brewery. We all bid Wit farewell, and I got up last to leave. And I looked at him before going, and somehow the pastor in me, the Christian in me, the human in me couldn’t just leave. And I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, “I don’t want you to give up on treatment, OK?”

He took out a cigarette, put it in his mouth, lit it and said, “Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I said, “Wit, I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t want you to worry about that question anymore. Don’t give up on treatment.”

And this guy, who was probably in his early twenties, who I’d never met before, grabbed my hand and pulled me down into one of the tightest hugs I’ve ever had in my life. His cigarette fell to ground, and he just squeezed me. And he started crying.

Jesus says in Matthew, “My yoke is easy. My burden is light.”

Wit was yoked badly. It was sucking his life away. He thinks he needs a lighter body, but he needs a lighter yoke. He needs a yoke that doesn’t cut into him, like those red lines on his arms reveal the one he carries does.

He’s trying to force a balance on his life, a balance of weight loss to counter-balance his pain, but he’s breaking himself in the process. He’s being devoured by this demon.

I’m not sure religion is the answer for Wit, but I’m pretty sure love is.  Love of self.  Love for self.  The love of Divine love that loves you even when you’re ill and possessed by the demons of this world…and somehow that helps you become well.

Usually I tell people that possession doesn’t really fit into my worldview.  And yet, I’m not sure how else to describe what Wit is going through.  He’s possessed not by some other-worldy entity, some literal demon, but by this worldly entity that continues to spit out lies to him.  A different tap spits out a different lie each time he draws from it.  His cup runs over in a bad way.

I was on vacation, and all I could think is, “Holy shit.  This guy needs a pastor and a doctor.”

And there we were…but we were helpless in that moment.  Or at least it felt that way.

I still keep Wit in my prayers, though we last met about a month ago.  I wonder if he’s back in treatment; I pray he is.

I wonder if he’s sitting somewhere today asking someone, “Tell me, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I wonder what they say.

I wonder if anything that can be said is enough to battle these demons.  I’ve seen both sides win in this.

For some reason I wanted to write this out today.  Maybe it’s because I’m going on a longer vacation tomorrow.  Maybe it’s because it’s a summer day in August and it’d be a good day for a beer.  Perhaps I’m still processing the encounter with this demon.

Perhaps someone needs to hear this today.

Perhaps.