On Asking What You Look Up To and Quoting Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber

You put me on a pedestal and tell me I’m the best
Raise me up into the sky until I’m short of breath (yeah)
Fill me up with confidence, I say what’s in my chest
Spill my words and tear me down until there’s nothing left
Rearrange the pieces just to fit me with the rest, yeah

But what if I, what if I trip?
What if I, what if I fall?
Then am I the monster?
Just let me know
And what if I, what if I sin?
And what if I, what if I break? Yeah
Then am I the monster? Yeah
Just let me know, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Shawn Mendes’s album Wonder (featuring the Bieber) holds this kind of deeply distressing song “Monster,” the opening lyrics of which kind of trip and tumble out of the artist’s mouth. Bieber’s adds the next verse, equally as pleading and ponderful, giving an honest assessment of what it’s like to be famous before you can barely tie your shoes, let alone tie responsibility to your actions.

Too much money and too little mentorship have led to some pretty tough goes at life for otherwise quite privileged people. Fame, power, and fortune do not fall upon the morally perfect (some might even say, “deserving,”) and yet Jane and Joe Public like to act as if it should.

We’re all scoffers in our corners of secret envy.

Here’s the thing, Beloved, this Sunday’s Gospel asks the brutally honest question of us and minces no words in doing so: what do you look up to?

What do you think is going to save you in the end? What do you put on a pedestal?

Your bank account?

Your reputation?

How you look in the mirror?

Your privilege? It’s saved so many people over the years…ugh…but not forever…

Your job security? Hasn’t the pandemic dispelled this myth?

Your high-placed friends and contacts that pull the strings of power?

Your charisma or ability to “always land on your feet?”

Your power, your booming economy, your superior gun arsenal that you’re so proud of?

What do you look up to?

In John 3:14-21 the Christ recounts how, when they were wandering listless in the wilderness, plagued by venomous serpents who would take their lives, Moses took the bronze replica of that thing which killed them, hung it on a pole, and placed it in the middle of them all. To be cured of the venom, all you needed to do was gaze upon that golden serpent and be healed.

But, here’s the thing Beloved: the bronze serpent didn’t do the healing.

In fact, I’d say that the serpent mocked the whole thing, kind of like all of our idols end up doing in the end.

The bronze serpent is an idol of their fear, and like the hangover sufferer who still has a day of vacation left, the idea that some “hair of the same dog” will cure the ill plays into their desire to grab on to relief of any kind.

Enshrine the thing we fear, and we will bow to it.

Enshrine the economy as the thing we have to worry about the most, and who cares if the wages suck for the workers just scraping by.

Enshrine our weapons above everything else, and sure food stamps can be cut, but not that military budget.

Enshrine our power on a pole and sure, we can make sexist remarks or grab women anywhere we want because treating others isn’t the point, power is the point.

All idols are bronze. Hollow not hallowed.

The bronze serpent didn’t heal the people; the Divine promise did. A promise that they didn’t trust in the first place, which is why they were suffering in the wilderness and wandered into snaky territory!

And look: I get it. Divine promises are hard to trust.

It’s hard to trust that you will be OK when it feels like everything is falling apart. It’s hard to trust that you’ll live through the pain when it feels like you’re in a desert of a world and all you want is some reprieve. It’s hard to trust that you are loved and perfect as you are when it feels like everyone is rejecting you for being who you are.

Divine promises are hard to trust.

And so we set up other things on poles and bow down to them: fame, fortune, money, power, celebrity, economy, keeping up with the Joneses, the latest-and-greatest, the most…

Hollow. Not hallowed. Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber, those erstwhile prophets who we figure think mostly about profits, are probably right.

Most of what we bow down to in these days are just monsters of our own making. Hollow like that bronze snake.

And so what does the Divine do?

In the Jesus story we see that the Divine takes our violent propensities, our desire for rock star saviors, our need for power, fame, and fortune and kills it to prove how impotent it all is in the end.

And then takes the one thing, love and companionship, and raises that after three days to say that that…that love, that never-ending presence of Divine love and companionship…that cannot die.

Look up to that kind of Divine love. That kind of Divine “not-leaving-here-without-you”-ness.

Look up to that, Beloved.

So, the question remains: what do you look up to, Beloved?

Video Killed the Radio Star, and Media Kills My Deep Work

illustration by Mark Armstrong

In my mind and in my car (and, quite literally, everywhere else), screens dominate my attention.

Sure, I’m not always looking at them, but more often than not they are facilitating my activities.

Podcasts on my drive and on my run.

News in the morning and the evening.

Social media breaking up the work day.

Even, this: my writing is more electronic than long-form most days.

I don’t say any of this as a grumpy “get off my lawn” rant about how it was better in some yester-year. Honestly, I have no idea if it was or not because while I certainly had an analogue childhood, my adulthood has been all digital.

But I know I consume too much media these days, and it affects my attention span.

Humans are certainly evolving. I can feel myself changing (though, I’m compelled to point out, that is not the same as evolution). My attention span is shorter. Long-form anything seems like an uphill battle most days. And despite my meditation practices, it still takes me a good while to sink into a space of non-thought. This has always been true, but I’m finding it takes longer, even though my practice has remained relatively constant.

Some of this is the pandemic, of course. Screens have become our life-line to an outside world that we see largely through a window pane (unless you live in Texas or Mississippi, and there you’re likely to see it through the pane of a Covid-ward…please wear your masks!).

But even before the pandemic, before all of this, the constant media feed has prevented me from doing something that I find supremely productive, integral even, to quality output: deep work.

I stumbled upon deep work through a podcast, ironically enough, because podcasts occasionally keep me from entering into deep work. It is essentially a state of non-distraction, and this term coined (I think) by writer and researcher Cal Newport is really descriptive of what the state is trying to achieve: a deep productivity.

And I know…I can feel it…the constant media consumption, day in and day out, moment by moment, prevents me from getting to that deep, imaginative attention that I long to put into my work.

So this week will be kind of an extension of last week’s discipline (coming to a new negotiation with my phone usage), only this week I will attempt, more of than not, to enter into some meaningful moments of deep work, to turn off the screens in the evening, and though I won’t be divorcing myself totally from media consumption, I’ll be sampling from a lighter menu of it.

As with all of these weekly disciplines, my goal is not to cut them out of my life, but to get in better relationship with them. And today has been a bit better, honestly: I’ve been mindful of closing tabs, of limiting social media engagement, and making a concerted effort to cultivate work windows free of distraction.

I know my attention span is evolving, and not in a way I totally enjoy. I wonder if I can retrain it, though…we shall see.

wePhone over iPhone. knowGrace over noGrace.

I didn’t hear it happen.

I saw the work out front where the city was modulating the water pressure for the neighborhood, re-chlorinating the system. Water gushed from the pipe into the cul-de-sac and, despite that volcanic water spout, it all seemed copacetic.

Until there was a frantic knock on the door. And my phone rang in the distant room. I’d been trying to live with my phone in the other room for the week, especially when I’m at work and have other screens to dull my brain wrinkles.

It’s interesting: when the phone is in the other room, I don’t feel compelled to answer it. I’m not sure if it’s just the inconvenience of getting up to get it (I haven’t felt that need since childhood and the phone anchored in the den!), or perhaps it’s because lately so many people have been concerned about my car warranty (“God bless their hearts,” as we say in the South).

But, for whatever reason, I didn’t get the phone. Or the door (it’s a work day).

Until the knocking continued, frantic.

I come downstairs to find my neighbor and her dog at my door. She’d been out walking him and noticed that our front yard had become Lake Gaston. Finn’s basketball floated in the center of it, mocking my inattention to the second largest body of water in North Carolina forming amidst our naked rose bushes.

“What happened?!” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, dumbfounded at the water gushing up from the ground like “a’bubblin’ crude” just under our Japanese Maple.

And then I remembered the city doing the water work today and, through some pretty simple logic, figured the pressure modulations had burst our pipes.

I reached for my phone…but it was upstairs.

I thanked my neighbor, ran upstairs and called the city water department.

“We’ll have someone out to you soon,” she said. “Stay by your phone.”

In a week where I was practicing not staying by my phone, I was now being told to stay by my phone. And, sure, it was an emergency, but the dilemma felt real in the moment.

I took it as an opportunity to make some other calls: to my spouse and my parents. And then to Google repair cost averages. And then to Google how much selling a kidney would bring in to pay for said repairs.

I had a hunch the city would not be footing this bill (spoiler alert: they won’t because it’s on our property between the meter and our house).

I put the situation on social media in a humorous way, asking for shipments of “beer and fruit snacks.”

And then the texts started to come. I was “staying by my phone” as the city instructed, and texts of love and support and, yes, offers for beer (from our great neighbor) came in. Offers to house our children overnight if needed. Offers to get us dinner.

The offers haven’t stopped, continuing to this morning.

In the end we’re getting the water taken care of on Monday. And, though it’s an expensive repair, we’ll be alright. It did, however, bring me a renewed empathy and passion for electing officials who understand how tightly families live, and the reality that most of us are a major emergency away from having our savings wiped out.

But, more than anything, it was a moment of true grace for me. I was kicking myself for having to be by my phone in order to get this done. But in the midst of my irritation, I was getting offer after offer of grace far and wide, and I wouldn’t know that grace had I not had that blasted device in the moment.

Being addicted to the phone is bad. But, when in right relationship with it, it can be a medium of grace.

I’ll tell you, honestly, that when I left parish ministry I was concerned we were severing ties with our “village.” I really don’t know how to cultivate community except through a congregation, and we have not landed in a new one as of yet (pandemic, ya know?).

But after this I am not worried we don’t have a village. It was there all along. And in this moment of pinch, the iPhone became a wePhone, and that made a lot of difference.

Bargaining and Meritocracies Have No Place in the Kingdom of God

“Save me, St. Anne,” Martin Luther supposedly said, cowering in a lightening storm, “and I shall become a monk!”

Spoiler alert: he didn’t die. And, I guess it follows that, because he didn’t die, he had to become a monk.

I’d bet that we’ve all found ourselves at the Divine craps table before, making a wager in exchange for an ideal outcome or a blessing. That kind of bargaining is pretty normal for humans, actually. In moments of despair we’ll cling to whatever hook calls itself “hope” at the time.

Luther, though, backed himself into a tough corner there. I wonder what he would have done had he just pushed through the fear and panic without making the wager. Perhaps he would have become a monk all the same. It certainly was on his heart (much to the dismay of his father).

Sometimes we back ourselves into tough corners, too, setting the parameters for Divine agreements that we have no business setting.

I know more than a few people who asked for a miracle and, when it didn’t happen, took it as proof that there was no God. Conversely, sometimes miraculous things do happen (life in general, and biology in particular, is tricky that way…it usually follows norms but, every once in a while aberrations happen and the lotto numbers appear), and people have taken it to mean a Divine blessing has fallen their way.

The problem with both of the above scenarios is that none of that is objectively provable, Beloved. In other words: you make the meaning in both situations. The center for meaning there is not some “Divine plan,” but that “choose your own adventure” you’ve assented to in your own heart.

Humans make meaning. We have to. It helps us love and move and breathe with purpose in this world.

In other situations we do less bargaining and more earning. Through oblations, good deeds, generous donations, self-sacrifice, we secretly or not-so-secretly think we’re earning chips on the Divine poker table, increasing our chances for a nice pay-out.

We’re taught in life that we live in a meritocracy: work hard, reap the benefits.

Except, that’s largely a lie.

The world is not one where the hard-working are rewarded (cough: looking at you minimum wage) and the slackers go without. It’s one where opportunity shines brightly for some, and less brightly for others, due to a complex mix of historical racism, geography, health-factors, gender discrimination, sexual privilege, socio-economic influences, and just sheer luck (or lack of it). And, truthfully, I’m probably missing some factors there…

The tricky thing, of course, is that this “meritocracy lie” is less of an outright fib, and more of a “half-truth” parading around as the whole enchilada. Hard work does, sometimes, get you somewhere for some people. But I know folks who do all the right things and get the short end of the stick anyway. It seems their chip stack at the Divine poker table never grows, no matter how they play their hand…

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson from John’s rendering of the life of Jesus is one that, I think, encourages us to disabuse ourselves of either of the above ways of operating.

People read John 3:13-22 as Jesus writing some greedy wrongs of the Temple in those ancient days, and surely some of that might be true. This act will be, in John’s Gospel, the reason for Jesus’ arrest.

But the larger lesson here, and the one I think is more helpful in shaping our spiritual sensibilities, is the idea that Jesus is actively dispelling the notion that we can bargain for God’s blessing, or that we can buy or earn our way to the miracle-circle of life.

The hope that God provides is not one that ensures a certain outcome, but rather one that says, “No matter the outcome, I am with you.”

I think that, especially in these days of illness and vaccine, storms and cold and “why the hell are we still here a year later?!” where certainly honest prayers for help and concern have been thrown into the universe, perhaps the best thing that the church can do right now, even with all her flaws, is to reorient our people toward the deep truth that bargaining and meritocracies have no place in the Kingdom of God.

It’s natural for humans to do that kind of thing, of course, which is one of the reasons we know it can’t be God’s standard operating procedure.

Instead, God invites us to move away from the craps table and cashes in all her chips on our behalf instead, standing beside us in the lobby of life as a friend, not a dealer, having decided that the “house always wins” mentality the world uses is not only not a good way to live, but certainly isn’t the abundant life the Divine intends for us.

If you’re still not convinced, flip ahead in the story just a bit to where Jesus is praying in the garden in the wee hours before they’ll string him up. There he doesn’t bargain with God, but rather just says what he truly desires, “Don’t let this happen…” he says.

No conditions. No wagering. No, “see how good I’ve been?!”

He just says, “I don’t want this.”

But then he says (in not so many words), in a wisdom that is so instructive for me…for all of us, “But if it happens, walk with me.”

Put down your chips, Beloved. They’re not worth anything lasting, anyway. God’s not dealing out blessing and curses, aces or fives.

God’s alongside us. We don’t need to bargain. We don’t need to earn it. Hear it and live.

No iPhone. No iFunction. iAddicted.

Banksy’s sketch of iPhone addiction

This week’s discipline, severing my ties with my iPhone, is a miserable failure so far.

On Sunday I did put it away. Far away, in fact. Took whole trips without it: on a walk, to visit family, to the store.

I found myself reaching for it. Often.

I sat in the car and waited for our order at St. Bucks of the Stars to be fulfilled wondering what I’d do while I waited…cause, you know, I always have to “do” something. We’re always “doing” aren’t we?

Shamefully, I found myself reaching for it at red lights.

I even found myself reaching for it while doing other things! Like, while watching TV, believe it or not. Absent-mindedly reaching for it, as if my brain now says, “Nope, you’re not overstimulated enough. TV won’t just do it, we have to have something else…”

As I walked out the door I checked my pockets: “Keys? EDC (Every Day Carry) Stuff? Pen? Mask? iPhone? Wallet?” and, when it wasn’t there, a small panic arose in me.

What if I got lost? Or stranded? How would I handle it if I couldn’t call someone?

I mean, it’s not like people didn’t get lost before iPhones, right? And somehow they survived…but my mind and heart races just thinking about the sheer inconvenience of it all.

It’s only Tuesday, but I’ve realized two things about my iPhone:

  1. I realize how much is on there that I use everyday: credit cards, bank apps, music, email. It has replaced my wallet, my radio, my pen and paper, my camera, my map, and (ironically) my phone…because I rarely call anyone on it except for work.
  2. I have a subconscious, learned-dependency on it that is just really unhealthy. It’s part of why I’m doing this whole thing.

So far, I’m crashing and burning though. Sunday I did pretty well, but yesterday and today I find it by my side. I’m literally looking at it right now, sitting there as I’m typing this, begging me to pick it up. Caress its virtual buttons. Explore its connectivity possibilities.

I mean, I don’t mean to sound sensual, but that’s kind of how it is almost. All addictions touch that nerve in us, don’t they? And yes, I can say it: I’m addicted to this thing.

Which is a spiritual issue. All addictions are. They cloud the mind and keep us from clarity.

Be honest with yourself: are you addicted to your iPhone?

I resolve to do better with this. In fact, I’m going to go put it up right now…as soon as I check the weather app.

Ugh.

Who Needs Sleep? Be Happy With What You’re Gettin’…

So, this week the Lenten discipline was a 10pm bedtime. In case you’re not familiar, the titles of each of these posts was from a song produced by one of my favorite bands, The Barenaked Ladies off of their album _Stunt_. You can find the song “Who Needs Sleep” here.

In answer to that question, though, it is clear that I need some sleep. And, as honestly, I don’t need as much as I claim I need.

Because here’s the truth: a sleep schedule is both gift and discipline combined. If I want to rise at a certain hour, sure, a 10pm bedtime helps. And is good to keep, in most moments.

But honestly the rising part of that equation takes discipline, not an early bedtime. Because, well, no matter when I go to bed, I can rise whenever I will myself to rise.

Bedtime, as with running, lifting, and most physical practices, is more about the discipline than the motivation. Motivation certainly helps, Beloved; I’ve found it easier to rise at 5am when I get to bed at 10pm.

But it’s merely sufficient, not necessary.

What is necessary is the discipline.

Yet, knowing that it is sufficient is surely helpful. My heart intends to keep this bedtime more regularly than in the past, knowing that it aids in keeping my early-rising goals.

But it is not necessary. I’ve risen at 5am when going to bed at a later hour. The trick is discipline.

And maybe that’s the larger realization I should carry with me. Because sometimes a later bedtime is necessary, depending on the season of life I’m in. And though I do believe a more regular retiring hour plays into my current stage in life, I need not be bound by it.

Instead, I must be bound to my rising time with more regularity.

I will be practicing an earlier bedtime in the coming days. It’s been a blessing.

But my resolve it, whether I retire at 10pm or midnight, to rise at the 5am hour. When I get off-kilter, the 10pm deadline will help me reset the schedule. In the in-between, I’ll be grateful for what I’m gettin’, as the song rightly says, knowing it’s sufficient for rising early, but not necessary.

This week I’m practicing keeping my phone at bay. Today I started the practice by intentionally leaving it at home on a few excursions I took.

Suffice it to say: it was not easy.

I encourage you to practice this with me. More soon.

Who Needs Sleep? Tell Me, What’s that For?

I read that Dolly Parton wakes up around 3am to start her day.

I remember reading something about Al Roker and Tom Ford doing the same, around 4am each.

I kinda want to be that person, you know?

The Blessed Martin Luther said he used to rise at around 4am to pray because he didn’t know where else he’d fit it in his busy medieval day.

The hours of the morning feel very fruitful to me, but also very inaccessible if they follow too quickly on the heels of one another.

I’ve spent the week calling it quits at 10pm. I wasn’t always *asleep* by then, but I was in bed by then: no screens, maybe a book, but that’s it.

It was actually freeing to have a bed time. One of the struggles in adulting is figuring out what time it is, you know? I mean, not chronologically, but in that Kairos sense of time, that “time out of time” state that helps us figure out important patterns and rhythms that allow us to move well in our stage of life.

I might be in the stage where I need a bedtime, as much as I hate that idea in many ways.

But there’s a reason that monastics stick to a pretty strict schedule: it frees them. It frees them from having to figure out what time it is. I’ve heard people in the military say something similar.

Like being on a regular diet, like living out of a capsule wardrobe, having a bed time (and a corresponding time of rising) is freeing for me.

The closest I ever came to living like that for an extended period of time was when I was a camp counselor in college. There we had no cell reception, few clocks except for the watches on our wrists, and pretty simple living. There was no snacking except those given to us by the kitchen. There was time for rest and fun, adventure and quiet.

And when the sun came up, you rose. When the sun went down, you retired.

It was the most natural rhythm I’ve ever lived in. I envy that most days.

This week-long Lenten discipline is reminding me of that time in my life.

I know I am instinctively a morning person; I always have been (much to the chagrin of my partner). But I find when I can’t rise as early as I need to in order to feel like my day is full, and fully mine (we give so much of the middle of our day away!), I get off-kilter.

I’m not in a right relationship with myself, others, or the work at hand.

I don’t know if moving forward I’ll keep a strict 10pm bed time, but my plan is to make it the norm rather than the exception.

I mean, that’s what Lenten discipline’s are for, right? To come back into righteousness and exit the wilderness different than you entered it?

What about you? How is your relationship with sleep? Are you righteous in this corner of your life?

If not, what will you do about it? I’ve found that it affects every aspect of my being, including my spiritual self. In fact, that’s one of the things I’ve noticed most: taking the time in the twilight hours to meditate, center myself, and connect with the Divine has opened up my work, my parenting, my health, and the wisdom within.

Rhythms are freeing.

Names Mean Something

Hi, Pastor.

If you’re looking for something to hang the sermon off of this week, a really effective golden thread that weaves its way throughout Genesis (17: 1-7, 15-16) and Mark’s Gospel (8:31-38) is the importance of names and naming things.

You might think it’s low-hanging fruit, but dig deeper there…I think you’ll find some profound insight here. So many sermons will focus on Jesus calling Peter “the Satan,” and the scolding lessons that will come from thinking that Jesus had come to take the easy way out of the Divine work, but I’m just gonna throw it out there that the church doesn’t need another sermon like that.

It really doesn’t.

Either the hearer will feel shame because they, like Peter (like all of us?) miss the mark, or they will feel their ego swell because they don’t believe that about themselves and really we don’t need any more tearing down or puffing up in the church. That deflation-inflation rhythm has led to a mass exodus over the years, and rightly so.

What we need is an invitation to go deeper not pull a moral from it all.

Like, what if this whole Peter episode was less about Peter missing the mark, and more an invitation for Peter to reflect more deeply on his name? Jesus had just one short episode earlier called him “The Foundation,” and it might be worth noting that a) that’s something to live into and b) even foundations aren’t infallible.

And notice Jesus doesn’t name Peter “Satan,” but in saying that out loud perhaps he’s asking Peter if he’s forgotten who he (Peter) is. “Remember, Simon, what I’ve named you…”

Remember who you are.

And for the assembly that name is given in baptism. It’s not “Brian” or “Shelita,” it’s “Beloved.”

It’s, “Child of God.”

Because, here’s the truth BELOVED, this world is gonna call you all sorts of names.

It’s gonna call you lazy.

It’s gonna call you wealthy.

It’s gonna call you a son-of-a-bitch.

It’s gonna call you a slut.

It’s gonna call you a fag.

It’s gonna call you a role-model.

It’s gonna call you a star athlete.

It’s gonna call you intelligent.

It’s gonna call you single, partner, parent, aunt, loner, Democrat, Republican, patriot, Communist, lover, fighter.

It’s gonna call you stupid.

And it’s important to remember, Beloved, so that you don’t do that deflate-inflate rhythm on a daily basis, that all of those names can be stumbling blocks when twisted in the wrong way, and though they try to stick on you like Velcro, the waters of the font have washed it all away in favor of:

Beloved.

Abram gets a new name. Sarai gets a new name. Simon gets a new name (and he’s asked to remember it!).

And so do you.

I say all this, too, because names become important for us in other ways, too. Because when a Beloved is given a true and rightful name, or they choose one for themselves, that, too, deserves honor and respect.

Like, no pretending you can’t pronounce a name that’s from another culture. That kind of privilege degradation has been pulled by white people for a long time. It’s a way of saying, in not so many words, “You’re not one of us, and I don’t have to bother learning your name.”

They are Beloved, just like you, so don’t try to pretend they’re not.

And like, when our Trans siblings identify that their birth name does not fit their gender and have found a name that suits them well, we honor it, by God.

They are Beloved, just like me, so no getting around that fact just because it’s confusing for our simplistic understanding of gender or not “we’re not comfortable” with it. Want uncomfortable? Try living as a gender you don’t identify with…

Names mean something. Names are important. And on this road to Calvary that we call Lent we’re offered a chance to reflect on what we call one another and what we’re called by God.

And I just think it’s an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up, Beloved.

Who Needs Sleep? Well, You’re Never Gonna Get It…

Sleep and I have a sordid history.

I’ve been gifted (I PREFER TO SEE IT AS A GIFT!) of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), and so for much of my choice-informed life I’ve chosen experience over going to bed.

In college I would regularly start my school work at midnight, closing up shop at 4am and rising at 7:15am just in time for my 8:00am Greek class, my participles all accounted for.

I got good grades. I got poor sleep.

I both lost and gained weight in college. Up and down. It made it hard to buy clothes.

No, that’s not correct. I had no money to buy clothes.

It made it hard to fit into the clothes I had. Too loose, too tight, too much inconsistency.

I fully believe that my sleep habits affected my weight. Affect my weight. It certainly affects my food choices. Skipping meals, or eating high calorie dishes to get energy because I was just. so. tired.

Am. tired.

These habits have followed me off and on throughout my life. Being a parent has exacerbated the sleep issue. By the time the boys are in bed I’m tired as all get out, but they just got to bed so those twilight hours are the only ones I have to myself.

It’s a real struggle.

Add into the mix the desire to workout (in the morning? night?) and to meditate (morning? night?) and to write consistently (morning?! night?!). When the day begins at 6am, there are breakfasts to be made and kids to get up and out the door.

The night feels like it’s really the only time…for everything not work or kid related. But by nightfall my body has said “peace out,” and my brain has this big error message scrolling across it and my old patterns aren’t working anymore like a quilter who is trying reproduce a stitch by memory, only the fingers aren’t as nimble.

And also, let me be perfectly honest as a parent: by 8pm if I get one more request, one more touch, one more anything I might just spontaneously combust into a ball of feeble utility.

You know?

The pandemic has made these sleep issues worse. Insomnia has crept in as an uninvited houseguest, sometimes banging around on the pipes of my brain for no reason other than to make perfectly clear that redundancy causes my neurons to go on the fritz.

This week’s experiment with getting into bed at 10pm, come hell or high water, is in its infancy, but I’ve already noticed three things.

First: I’m not missing out on much. Late night TV is largely banal. I console myself with the idea that I can always watch the rerun anyway…and then never do, which seems to be a deceptive pattern that works for me so I’ll keep it.

Secondly: I’ve had to say no to work. A lot of times I’d crank up the old hamster wheel laptop again after the boys are in bed to finish a report, an excel, a writing project, a blog…the past two nights I’ve thought in my midday brain, “I can finish that later tonight” only to realize that, no, I can’t.

And probably shouldn’t. I have to get to bed.

St. Ruth of the Bader-Ginsburgs once wrote that, “You can have everything in life, just not all at the same time.” I’ve come to realize this is true about sleep for me. I can work or I can sleep. And now, at this point in my life, sleep is the more needful thing.

And, finally, the last two mornings I’ve gotten up at 5:00am consistently without even really wanting to crawl back in bed. The most productive periods of my life have been marked by early rising. It’s felt good to want to get out of bed, to meditate in the twilight hours, to make coffee and read and see the first news (always the freshest takes!) and take stock of the universe before the pitter patter feet tumble out of their trundle beds.

In the scriptures we regularly read that the Christ sought a place by himself to pray and be alone, and slept when he had the chance. In the Hebrew scriptures we know God instituted a sabbath, meaning that there were times to work and times not to work. The people turned that into a commandment, when really I think it should be seen as permission.

I’m seeing it as permission.

I have FOMO, but I’m choosing not to miss out on sleep right now. It’s my stage in life. Who knows how long I’ll be in this stage, but it’s time to get back into a better relationship with sleep.

Running Fast and Making Changes

Blow the trumpet in the holy city
bless a holy fast!
Get everyone together
bless them all
the elderly
the young children
even babies who still breastfeed!
In the middle of their weddings
get brides and grooms to stop everything
.
-Joel 2:15-16-

This reading will be read at most every Ash Wednesday service today, virtual or in-person…however we’re getting our ashes in this pandemic (which feels like a heap of ashes already).

The prophet Joel intends to call people back into right relationship with God. In order to do that people would sometimes be invited to fast. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism…fasting is pervasive in all the major religions. A bit of self-denial heightens our indulgences, right?

Sometimes people fast for poor reasons, though. I know of someone who does regular fasts because they are certain that they can “hear God more clearly” when they fast. I’m not sure that’s a good reason, honestly, because I’m not sure that’s how it all works. Certainly there is a need to get rid of distractions in order to discern the Divine in the world, but not eating that candy bar (or anything?!) for forty days seems like an ineffective way to do it.

God doesn’t need your sacrifice…at least, not that kind. If you eat too much candy, sure, fast from it. But if you think it’s getting you brownie points with the Holy Presence I think you’re kidding yourself.

Sometimes people take on fasts to just “do it,” like not eating meat on Friday or not eating meat at all for Lent. That’s fine, I think, if you consume too much meat (and most Americans do, honestly). But if you’re doing it just to see if you can…I’m not sure that’s a good fast, Beloved.

The prophet Joel blesses a fast in order to bring the people back into right relationship, otherwise known in the scriptures as “righteousness.” Fasts are not used to deny people good things as much as to help them see how their relationships with things (or people, or food, or, well, anything) is off kilter.

I’ll say that again for folks in the back.

Fasts are not about denial for denial’s sake. They are about taking a hard look at how your relationship with certain things is off kilter.

And, yes, in the process you’ll continually be invited to analyze how the relationship with the Divine is off kilter, too.

Now, if this hasn’t been your practice in recent years, no need to feel bad about it. There are all sorts of ways the messaging on Lent and fasts has gone awry…humans are wont to do that (hence why we have the season of Lent at all! We’re kinda messed up in all the right and wrong ways). And fasting is not the only thing to do in Lent. Many people choose to add a practice, work on habit change, or do some spring cleaning both physically and spiritually.

Those are all great.

But I’ve decided to fast. To look at some relationship stuff.

I’m going to embark on a Lenten journey of my own, with some updates/devotionals to add to the mix. Most fasts will begin on a Sunday and last the full week (there are 6 of them), and you’re welcome to join in. I’ll be writing and reflecting each week about the particular fast and what I’m learning, and I’ll be noting my thoughts, ponderings, and realizations.

All of these fasts are intended to help me better analyze my own relationship with each subject, and be honest about how they’re off kilter. I’m not righteous in these areas, Beloved. I know this. I want to dig deeply into that.

Week 1: Fast from delaying bedtime.
This pandemic has been terrible on my sleep. Many of the folks I coach have noted that, too. I’m going to go to bed when I’m tired at night, or at least by 10pm.

Week 2: Fast from iPhone.
I carry it around with me. I scan the apps. I respond to texts in two seconds. It’s out of control.

Week 3: Fast from Media.
This will be a bit tricky, but I’m going to say media in general, not just “social media.” Too much binge TV at night. Too many apps open on my phone. Too much stopping in the middle of work or writing to scroll social sites. I’ll still post on a social site this week, mostly to keep the blog updated, but I’m going to “post and ghost.” No reading the comments…

Week 4: Fast from Buying.
The pandemic has made Amazon a little too convenient. But not just Amazon, I’m constantly looking for excuses to go out and grab a coffee-to-go or skip making dinner and just ordering in. Not this week. That urge needs to me analyzed and, I hope, curbed a bit. I’ll allow for grocery buying (because I’m the cook, so I do that shopping), but other than that, no purchases (and no gift-cards, either! Loopholes are for suckers).

Week 5: Fast from Processed Foods
It’s not that it’s just not good for me, it’s not good to me, either. I know it’s not. This week will be interesting because it means no processed anything, even that Friday beer, those corn chips I allow in a moment of salt-crave. Nope.

Week 6: Fast from Meat
We don’t eat meat with every meal, but I think we eat it too much. On the far side of this fast I intend to make some rules around meat consumption. And, here’s the thing we forget: when you eat an animal, you also eat what they ate! It’s a double-whammy of mindless chomping there.

So, here are the fasts. And you’re welcome to join if you’d like. In fact, I would like that very much, especially if you take a bit of time to reflect on your off-kilter relationship with the topics and send them on to me, either as a comment on a post or in an email. I want to be in a more righteous relationship with these things.

But, maybe your relationship with these things isn’t off kilter at all. Maybe you’re working with other issues that need addressing. Alcohol? Snack foods? Lack of activity? Spiritual practices?

Whatever it is, take a fast. But don’t do it to solely to deny yourself that thing; absence does make the heart grow fonder and, do you really want to go back to the old you when this is all over? The you who had an off-kilter relationship with these things?

Do it to analyze your relationship with it all and, on the far side of the fast, sanctify some changes, Beloved.

After all, repentance, metanoia, means turning around. Changing.

If you think you need that, if something is off kilter, run (a) fast toward change. See if you don’t find a new you rising come April 3rd.