Good God, It’s the New Year

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them, “I’m a writer.” This obviously sounds way cooler than it is, but it’s far easier than saying, “I’m a psychologically disabled veteran, who volunteers as a church youth leader, plays a lot of video games, and writes a blog – along with several volumes of unfinished fiction. Oh, and I’m fortunate enough to have qualified for enough programs in the VA to be able to support myself and my family without having to work a regular job – which I probably wouldn’t be able to do, even if I had to, because of the aforementioned psychological disability.

So, yeah. It’s much easier to just say, “I’m a writer.” For some reason, that statement gets a better reaction than, “I’m a disabled veteran”, and requires far less explanation.

But, I actually am a writer, at least in the strictest sense. I’m not published outside of the Internet, but I am (apparently) read in 138 countries across the world. And, I do have several  unfinished fiction and non-fiction works sitting in my Documents folder. They will all get finished before the Second Coming… I hope.

I am a writer, and writers are supposed to have a process. Typically, you want to shroud that process in as much mystery as possible, so as to make it seem far more intense and professional than it actually is. I’m sure that successful authors – those who get paid for their work, or whose work is sought after rather than stumbled upon – have a really beautiful and ordered process. But, my process goes something like this.

I wake up and think, “I’m probably going to write today.”

I eat breakfast, do a little vaping, check my social media, brush my teeth, make a cup of coffee, kick my kids off the computer….

And then, I write. I typically have a few Internet tabs open, if I’m writing about a current issue. There are at least 3: one to tell me about the thing, one to give me an analysis of the thing, and the third to give me a refuting opinion about the thing. If I’m writing about more abstract topics, or topics that my knowledge base is already solid on, I’ll throw on some headphones and listen to something that’s either soothing or engaging – acoustic jams or hard rock jams, depending on what I’m writing about.

Other than that, I just write. I do kind of a stream of consciousness with appropriate punctuation, and then I go back and tweak some turns of phrase or word choices. I typically edit out about 90% of the profanity, leaving only the words that I absolutely feel are necessary for emphasis (this is a Christian blog after all, and I don’t wish to offend the Pollyanna crowd… much.)

I just spent 500 words explaining how I work, just to get to this point: I don’t spend a lot of time planning what I’m going to write about. When something happens that makes me absolutely need to write, I’ll either write about it right then, or I’ll wait a day to gather my thoughts. But, if I’ve reached a point in the week or the month where I think, “I need to write a blog soon, or I have to stop telling people that I’m a writer”, I’ll come up with an idea in the shower, or while attending to my morning ablutions.

So, while attending to my bowels and teeth this morning, I thought about what I might need to write on December 31st, 2015. I started this blog on the New Year in 2014, and so it feels symmetrical and appropriate to write on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day each year.

First, let me say that New Year’s Eve snuck up on me. This has pretty much been the MO of the entire month of December. I’ve written some stuff this month that I’m really proud of, and it feels like I should have been more aware of the month passing. But, it was just the opposite. The whole thing kind of passed me by, just a blur of personal remembrance days and a Federal holiday. So, when I woke up this morning and heard my wife talking on the phone about plans tonight, I thought, “Oh God, it’s New Year’s Eve.”

I don’t feel strongly about the day either way, other than the fact that fireworks are traditional (which means that my plans will involve noise-canceling headphones and a jittery dog.) But, for most people, the New Year involves the dreaded resolutions. New Year’s Resolutions are kind of a joke to most people, even to those who make them. Every year, I passingly say something like, “I plan to go to the gym for at least 2 days this year… in January.” Or, “I plan to drink more beer and exercise less this year.” But, lest you think I’m legitimately counter-cultural, I always silently add that maybe I do need to go to the gym more often, and I do need to drink less beer.

There is a sense that we need to be better people next year than we were the year before.

I thought about this for a little while, whilst I was brushing my molars, and I wondered, “Why is this? Why are we so set on being better people in the New Year, when we’re so okay with being crappy the rest of the year?”

Let’s face it: 2015 was a crap year. It was the year of an unending stream of police killings, mostly of young, black men (and more than a few young, black women.) It was the year of mass shootings, at colleges and clinics, at churches and movie theaters. It was the year of ISIS. It was the year of the Syrian refugee crisis. It was the year of terrorist attacks. It was the year of Kim Davis. It was the year of Trump.

2015 gave a writer like me plenty of material.

Why would we think we could be any different in 2016? Why would we even care?

Why are we so intent on being better people in the New Year than we were the year before?

After applying my brain to this problem for the length of time it took me to rinse my mouth out,  I came up with an acceptable answer.

It’s Christmas. Christmas is what makes us want to be better people.

For those who are not Christians, it’s probably the presence of family, the spirit of giving, and the general warm fuzzies that everyone feels during the Christmas season. But, for Christians, this holiday is meant to have a significance that goes far beyond the warm fuzzies. Because, in our faith, something has happened that has changed the world forever.

Emmanuel has come.

God walks among us.

We have just marked the day that we celebrate the Christ being born. We have just finished singing Silent Night, Away in a Manger, and O, Little Town of Bethlehem. We understand, more than at any other time of the year, that the world has changed forever – and that we must change ourselves to match it.

We think of the Son of God, the King of Kings, being born into nothing – and we realize that we have been ungrateful for all of the things that we have. We think of the shepherds and magi coming to honor Him – and we realize that we have failed to honor Him in so many ways. We think of the innkeeper, denying shelter and warmth to the Mother and Child – and we think of all the ways that we have denied shelter, warmth, and comfort to those who need it the most.

We realize, more than at any other time of the year, that Jesus is most at home among the cold, destitute, and helpless. And, we realize that we are more often the innkeeper than the shepherds.

And, we want to be better people, as a result. We so desperately want to be the shepherds, the magi, the angels singing the Hallelujah chorus. So, we think of ways that we can better ourselves. We think of ways that we can be kinder, more giving, more temperate, more compassionate.

This is probably all subconscious in most people. Not everyone has the time to consciously think of these things and type them out in a structured format – most people haven’t earned their retirement by age 30. But, just maybe, this subconscious desire to be better (at least in those raised in the Christian subculture) stems from the way that the Christmas story seeps into our bones during the months of November and December.

But, then, our desires get confused. We start to think that the ways that we need to improve ourselves are external. Society tells us that we just need to lose a little weight, gain a little muscle, eat a little better, get a new car, get a new look, make some more money, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. And, we slowly give in to those persistent voices coming from the TV, the radio, and our close friends and family. We decide that these things will make us feel better about ourselves, that we’ll be better people if we do those things.

So, we forget about others. Our changes become purely about how they will make us feel. And, before we know it, we slip into the same patterns of behavior, the same patterns of thought, that made us so dissatisfied with ourselves in the Old Year, that we were so intent to change in the New Year.

Let me be clear: I’m not knocking good diet and exercise. I’m not saying that new cars, new clothes, or better pay is a bad thing. Some people really need those things. But, as I look at the past year, as I look at all the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things that have happened, I think that what we need has far more to do with people’s hearts than with their bank accounts. As I look back on all the people that we, as a whole society, decided not to care about – the Eric Garners, the Tamir Rices, the refugees, the minimum wagers, the prisoners, the hungry, the homeless, the victims of guns, the victims of drones – when I look back on those people, I realize that we care far too much about how much time we spend at the gym, and not nearly enough about how much time we spend helping the oppressed, the dispossessed, and the powerless.

I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. For every word that I write to advocate for the oppressed, there are 3 words that I don’t say, for fear of offending the wrong person or getting into a conflict with someone that I love. For every dollar that I give to help those in financial need, there are 5 that I keep for selfish reasons. For every prayer that I say in intercession for those in danger, there are ten that I fail to say, because my privileged life is far too busy to take the time to pray.

So, to close out this long-winded piece of writing, I’m going to throw down some resolutions in public. I want to have accountability partners in 138 countries – people who are willing to call my integrity into question if I fail in these things.

1) I want to go to the mat with the powers and authorities. I want to stop being scared to speak out on issues that might offend friends and family members. I want to join the chorus of voices that scream, “Enough is enough” when faced with oppression and injustice.

2) I want to give more. I want to give $5 for every $1 I keep for anything beyond things that we need.

3) I want to leave my comfort zone, the safety of my computer screen and my mind. I want to walk out, physically, into the world, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people that I write about and for.

4) I want to care more. I want to refuse to shut my mind down when it gets too hard to care, when the emotional weight gets too much. I want to learn how to make my (spiritual) back stronger.

5) I want to pray more, and I want to stop mentally mocking the concept. I want to add prayer to my deeds, to daily remember in intercession those that I’m working and advocating for.

….and, it probably wouldn’t hurt for me to spend a few more hours in the gym this year.

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What topics would you like to see me cover this year?

Where should my advocacy in writing be focused?

I wish each of you, of all nationalities and faiths, a very Happy New Year. May we all be better people in the New Year than we were the year before.

MBW

Can I Please Have Some Joy?

I deliberately skipped last week’s Advent blog, because I got my Sundays mixed up. I thought that last week was the Joy Candle, and that this week was the Love Candle. Love is easy to write about – I’ve been writing about it since high school oratory competition (I was State Champ, and I am bragging.)

But, me being who I am – and God being who God is – my carefully steered boat got rocked this morning. I haven’t been feeling particularly spiritual this week – I had remembrance for two more combat deaths this past week – and I was giving serious consideration to skipping church again, regardless of which candle we were lighting today. But, my wife reminded me that my mood is always vastly improved by attending church. As she is much wiser than I, and employed by the VA to be the guardian of my mental health, I decided to sacrifice a little sleep to attend worship.

I was looking forward to a good sermon, as my pastor is a 30-year veteran of pastoral ministry and missions. He always delivers the goods. At first, I was simply suffering through the Christmas carols (our worship band is spectacular, but I am something of a grumpy purist when it comes to carols, and they do non-traditional/contemporary music.) Then, the Advent liturgical and Scripture reading happened, and it started with, “Today we light the Candle of Joy.”

And in my mind, I thought, “Oh shit.

I looked at my wife, and said (out loud), “Since I tried to avoid this candle, he’s going to preach directly at me this morning.” (He doesn’t mean to do this, but he almost always does when it comes to theological topics that I struggle with. This is why I say that he delivers the goods.)

His sermon wasn’t particularly challenging to me, personally. It was all about his own travels to Bethlehem, and the irony of the most important people in history being in a small town in Palestine on Christmas night. And, that particular message has resonated with me for the past few years, ever since I embraced the dangerous, subversive, revolutionary overall message of the Gospel. BUT… while I know intellectually why the birth of Jesus should bring me great joy, and while I desire it greatly, I don’t feel it in my soul. I don’t have that peace and contentment that I have always felt is the prerequisite for joy.

As an aside, and by way of explanation, I’ll tell you this: a few years ago, as I was undertaking a serious search for my place in the five-fold ministry, I had an experience that left me with a certainty that my place was that of the prophet. I might explain that in more detail in the New Year – I only tell you now to provide a little insight into why peace and joy are such difficult concepts for my spirit. Go back and read some Old Testament prophets, and you won’t find a great deal of joy or peace. Very rarely (if ever) do you hear a prophet – either ancient or modern – say, “You know what? We’re doing okay. Everything is pretty great. You guys just keep doing what you’re doing.” NOPE. The prophet doesn’t exist to comfort; the prophet exists to challenge, to cry out and rail against injustice, to confront. It’s a pretty lonely place, which is why there are a lot of pastors, teachers, and evangelists out there, but not so many people who embrace the role of the prophet. Our lives are generally difficult even before we embrace our ministry, and acceptance of it typically only increases that difficulty.

So, joy? Peace? Not typically on the menu for me.

I’m sitting there in church, half-listening to the sermon and contemplating why I can’t feel joy, why I have such a hard time with the concept, why I feel like such a terrible Jesus follower for not walking around with a Giant Joy Halo all the time. And, suddenly, Joy walked in.

Actually, his name was Da’Von. He’s one of my favorite teenagers ever, and I hadn’t seen him in months. I think about him often, but I don’t stay up nights worrying about him. He’s a good kid, and I am pretty sure that he’s staying out of trouble. But, seeing him… it brought me such a feeling of peace and contentment, that I can only describe it as absolute, unfettered joy. And, he was excited to see me too. It was an epic hug that we shared, huge smiles all around.

And, as I knelt at the rail later and prayed, “God, can I please have some joy?” it was as if the Spirit descended as a dove and said, “Look around, Prophet.” And, I realized that I experience that joy every Sunday morning. This is the reason that my wife sees my mood soar after church: it’s the 10 teenagers that greet me with a hug and a smile when I come in. It’s the older men and women who greet me with those same smiles and hugs, one of my “spiritual fathers” ragging me about my wrinkled shirt and my messy hair, my “spiritual mother” telling me how handsome I look and how happy she is to see me. It’s dancing to the familiar praise and worship songs, or to 80s funk in the burrito joint after church. It’s making those employees laugh, giving a good tip to them, jamming out to Colin Hay and Indigo Girls on my iPod. It’s all these little things in my life, but it’s especially all these everyday – yet extraordinarypeople in my life.

The life of the prophet might be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be lived alone. And, while I don’t get this spiritual ecstasy listening to the Christmas story, I do get it from living like Jesus is in the face of every person that I meet. Whether it’s a teenage man-child that I haven’t seen in a while, or it’s in a homeless, hopeless family on the side of the road – Jesus is born in those people each day, and it’s up to us to be the shepherds and the magi that recognize the glory and the majesty of what we’re witnessing. We’re witnessing the Incarnation forever and ever, world without end.

Now, here’s the challenge: I can’t just find that joy, that Jesus, in the faces of the people that I love. I have to find it in those people that I nearly despise, those people whose deeds and words I rail and cry out in opposition to. I have to see the Incarnation, the birth of the Christ child, in those that I would make my enemies. Because, that baby in the manger that turned history and power on its head, the one who grew up to say, “Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor”… He also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you.” I feel like, today, He’s saying to me, “Michael, Prophet, find joy in your enemies, in those who hate you (and others), in those who persecute you and those that you love. Find me in their faces.”

I may be a grumpy old Christmas carol purist, I may feel like hell every December, I may not get all tingly at the Christmas story – but, I have joy. It just takes a little effort to recognize it.

May I bring that joy to the world. May we all bring that joy to the world.

Merry Christmas.

Peacemaking is a Dangerous Business: Reflections on the Worst Day of My Life

December 6, 2006 was the worst day of my life. I’m going to tell you why, but not right away. Instead, I’ll tell you what I have learned from my memory this year.

Today, we lit the Peace Candle on the Advent Wreath. Last week’s candle was Hope, and last week I was able to talk to our youth group about hope without reservation, without qualification. But, today, peace is a tough thing for me to talk about. December 6, 2006 really marks the day that I lost my peace. And, while I have fleeting moments of it now and again, I can’t say that the past 9 years have been a particularly peaceful time for me.

One of the names that the angel gave Mary when it was announcing that she would give birth to the Savior was “Prince of Peace.” Peace was something that was in very short supply in Jesus’ time. In fact, peace was something that had been conspicuously absent from Jewish history – an absence that can still be felt today, in Israel and Palestine. In fact, two millennia after the birth of Christ, our world is still in a constant state of turmoil. In the past month alone, I have mourned mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Before that, I watched – and participated in – a war in Iraq that lasted for 10 years. Thousands of my brothers and sisters in arms are still fighting in Afghanistan, just as soldiers have been for the past 13 years. Syria is aflame. Iraq is chaos. We are watching as an entire region of the world circles in a death spiral. We are living in a country where it seems that every day we hear of more violence, more death. The lack of peace lies like a shroud over our country, and it is difficult to imagine that the Prince of Peace has made any difference in this world.

People of faith from all over the world pray for peace, they hope for peace, and yet peace seems ever more unattainable. Every time we see on the TV or the Internet that more people are dead, more violence has occurred, we hear politicians tell us “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.

Thoughts and prayers for peace are good. But, something that I have learned through the years is that peace cannot and will not be prayed, thought, or wished into being. Peace is something that has to be created, it has to be worked for. This is why, on the Sermon on the Mount, I believe that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We are called upon to engage in the act of peacemaking in a restless and violent world.

 

And, peacemaking is a dangerous business.

 

Peace – both external and internal – cannot be created or maintained in a place of safety. Peace always exists in the midst of conflict, and it has to be made in the midst of conflict. Jesus also famously said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He then goes on to describe the sword as a sword of division, one that will divide people against each other. This division is, in fact, a byproduct of peacemaking, of spreading the Gospel of Peace.

 

People’s hearts are in a constant state of division, between the violent natures of our ancestors and the intended nature of peace. And, for many, that violent nature has won the battle. People can be cruel, oppressive, violent, unstable, and because their hearts desire to be at peace with themselves and others, there is a constant war within them. That war spreads from their hearts to the world around them, and they become hardened to the suffering of others – and sometimes even participate in bringing that suffering. It is from these hardened and twisted hearts that comes the division. Because, the act of making peace is offensive and repulsive to a heart dedicated to violence and injustice. This is why Jesus was chased out of most towns that He went to, constantly pursued by the authorities who sought to kill Him. Their power and fortunes were dependent upon violently and unjustly controlling the weak, the poor, and the hopeless. So, when Jesus brought peace to those people, He inevitably came into conflict with those authorities.

 

Peacemaking is a dangerous business, but it’s the most important business that we can be about.

 

On December 6, 2006, I was in Ramadi, Iraq. One of my duties, when I wasn’t out on patrol, was listening to the radio from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., waiting for any casualties to be brought in for treatment. This was something I had done many times before, and I didn’t expect anything to be different about that day.

 

But, at about 9 a.m., I began to hear reports from one of the guard towers that there was some suspicious activity on the corner of 5th and Sunset, an intersection that was very close to the gate of our Combat Outpost. Ramadi was a very violent city, a city constantly in conflict, and so we knew that “suspicious activity” probably meant that they were hiding a bomb to blow up a convoy. But, because we didn’t expect any activity that day, we didn’t take any immediate action. The bomb squad would get to it, eventually. Until then, we’d just tell people to avoid the road.

 

But, not everyone decided to avoid the road that day. A convoy was coming through to our COP, a convoy carrying a Public Relations team and a crew of reporters. In the midst of our daily operations, we prepared to receive important visitors. Floors were swept, supplies were organized.
As the convoy approached our COP, we heard a very loud, incredibly close explosion. The convoy had found the bomb at the corner of 5th and Sunset, and the results were catastrophic. There were four people in the truck that was hit by the explosion. Three of those people were either forcibly ejected from the truck, or only managed to crawl out after they were already on fire. The fourth man ran to our gate, his uniform still on fire, and made it to the Forward Aid Station, where I sat listening to the radio.

 

There is a lot more that I could tell you. This event was ongoing, and so much about it broke my heart, permanently scarred my mind and spirit. There are horrors from that day that I can still recall with perfect clarity, both things that I saw and things that I felt. I’ve been told by therapists through the years that telling this story, especially the hard parts, will somehow make it less painful. That hasn’t been the case. So, I will spare you the parts of the story that still keep me up at night. Instead, I’ll tell you two important things that happened that day. First, that was the day that I lost the ability to pray. Second, it was the day that I lost my peace.

 

But, there’s a comfort that has eluded me until this year, nine years later. It’s a small comfort, but it helps a little. There was something different about the 3 people that died on this day in 2006. While most of us in Ramadi were dedicated to pushing back the enemy by force of arms – by kicking in doors and laying down gunfire – these 3 were dedicated to bringing peace to Ramadi. They did this by traveling around the city, putting themselves in danger each time they went out, and talking to people that would bring peace to the region through politics and social change. From a few years after my unit left until the rise of ISIS, Ramadi was a city that was mostly at peace, and a beacon of peace for the other cities in the region. And, while it was in part because of our actions in pushing back the enemy, I believe that the larger part of that peace was achieved by people like Major Megan McClung, Captain Travis Patriquin, and Specialist Vincent Pomante. Those 3 brave soldiers died because they were peacemakers. And, peacemaking is a dangerous business.

 

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “True peace isn’t just the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.” And, I say that the act of peacemaking, of being a peacemaker, will never bring the absence of conflict to the person making peace. Peacemaking is a dangerous business, and it will always bring you into conflict with those who profit from violence, injustice, and oppression. Peacemaking will always call on you to find creative solutions to problems where violence, either physical or emotional, is the easiest answer.

 

Peacemaking won’t bring you glory. It won’t bring you fame. It won’t always make you feel good. Major McClung, Captain Patriquin, and Specialist Pomante were eventually given a hero’s funeral, but they spent most of the day that they died in unmarked rubber bags, laid out on a concrete slab. Jesus would eventually rise from the dead, and be worshiped as a Savior. But first He died as a criminal, and was buried in a hole in the ground. And, while you might never be called upon to die for the act of peacemaking, you will be mocked, insulted, and threatened. You will be divided from some of the people that you love the most. You will find yourself at odds with the conventional wisdom, with the easy answers. While you try to make peace, you will feel conflict in your own minds and spirits.

 

And, you will likely never see your work completed. Peacemaking is a dangerous business, and it’s also a lifelong pursuit. I wake up every morning, and I just want to quit. I want to join the violent masses, go buy myself a gun, and arm myself against the violent and oppressive forces throughout the world. I wake up every morning, and I’m tired of the constant struggle. I’m buried under the weight of the memories of days like December 6, 2006. I’m haunted by the ghosts of all of those who have gone before, who have given their lives in the cause of peace, and who have still seen so much of their work undone by the violent, unjust, and oppressive forces of our world. After every mass shooting, I wonder if I can do it. After every terrorist attack, I despair that I can’t live my life running against the wind. After every day of more war, more poverty, more violence, more pain, more death, I think, “I don’t want to be a peacemaker! I don’t want to care so deeply. I want to live in ignorance, in apathy, calloused against everything around me. If I can’t live in peace, then why should I seek to bring peace to those around me?

 

But, today, on the 9th anniversary of the worst day of my life, I am able to put a face to a few of those peacemakers who came before me. Today, on a day when I don’t want to talk about peace, I don’t want to think about peace, I can’t even imagine what peace feels like, I can almost hear their spirits whispering to me:

 

Peacemaking is a dangerous business. But, it’s the only business worth doing.

 

I don’t think that any of those 3 wanted to die that day. I don’t think that it was part of God’s Grand Design that their truck was blown up on the corner of 5th and Sunset. But, if they had to die, then I am glad that they died for something that they believed in. I am glad that the last days and weeks of their lives were spent bringing peace to a troubled, violent, and conflicted region. And, I can only hope that if I have to die of anything other than old age, that I can die in the act of peacemaking. Being a combat veteran, I was given plenty of opportunities to die for my country. I wouldn’t have asked for it, and I’m thankful that I survived. But, my prayer today would go something like this:

 

“God, if I must die for something, let it not be for a nation. Let it be for an idea, for a hope, that there really can be peace on Earth, that goodwill can exist between people. God, if I must die for something, let me die in the struggle against the violence, injustice, and oppression that grips people’s hearts so tightly that they have to bring it to others. God, if I must die for something, let me die for the dangerous, awful, necessary business of peacemaking.”

 

The Prince of Peace might have brought division, but He left us with a responsibility. He called us to bring the Gospel of Peace, even if we ourselves feel no peace, to a world in desperate need. He called us blessed for this dangerous act. And, He gave us a promise. Another name for the Prince of Peace is Emmanuel. It means “God will be with us.” So, as we all go about the work of peacemaking, as we carry out the responsibility that the Prince of Peace left us, let us always remember that God will be with us. That, if there is any peace to be found, we will find it in Jesus.

 

May we never be satisfied wishing, thinking, or praying for peace. Let us always go out and seek it, create it, make it, no matter how dangerous it might prove to be.