A Casual Paraphrase of John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you,you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Philip: “Nathanael! Nathanael! We found the one who is coming to save the world! It’s this guy Jesus from Nazareth!”
Nathanael: “Seriously, Philip? Nazareth? You found the saviour of the world in Nazareth?”
Philip: “Dude, just come see him.”
*they walk*
Jesus: “Oh heeeeey! Here comes a straight shooter! Here’s a guy who knows what’s up!”
Nathanael: “Excuse me?”
Jesus: “Oh, nothing. I just heard you talking shit about me under the fig tree.”
Nathanel: “Ohmygod! Uh… No really. Oh, my God!”
Jesus: “Wait, seriously? Dude, that was…. That was nothing.”

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Saying No

People talk a big game about about how they want their life to be more “balanced.” They wish they had more time. They always feel tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. They don’t sleep enough. Finances are tight. They don’t see friends as much as they’d like, etc… Actually, I feel like this an awful lot of the time, and I’m starting to realize that it often comes down to one thing:

    I have limited time, money, and energy, but I act like I don’t.

I pretend I have unlimited time when I stay up late instead of going to sleep. I act like I have money to burn when I go out for dinner with perfectly good food in the fridge. I imagine that I am a machine and not a human being when I schedule friends, work, errands, and out-of-town trips back to back for two weeks solid.

I originally drafted a very long post that dug into each of those three resources – time, money, and energy. I discussed how to quantify them and leverage excess amounts of one to make up for a deficiency of another. I had a long lecture with a bunch of math in which I concluded that you get about 40 hours of disposable time a week after doing the bare minimum of sleeping, eating, and working a full-time job, so you should use your time accordingly. But after writing lots of what amounted to pretty obvious “life-hacking” tips, I realized that it’s pretty much all about saying “no.”

Some of us, some of the time, are good at saying “no” to spending money when we can’t afford it. That is basic financial responsibility, and it’s generally understood that you shouldn’t be allowed to be an adult until you possess it. What very few of us are good at is saying “no” to spending time and energy when we can’t afford it. Unfortunately, almost every adult I know – including myself sometimes – is not only pretty awful at this, but doesn’t even consider it an important skill.

Imagine a friend invites you along on a weekend trip to New York. You are short on money lately, and Manhattan is an expensive place to visit. It’s hard, but you have to say no. You say “I wish I could, but I just can’t afford it.” Your friend does not argue that you technically could make it happen – by borrowing the money, skipping paying your bills this month, or acquiring some credit card debt. That would be extremely stupid and not worth it, and both you and your friend know it.

Now imagine the same situation with one difference: you have money to spare, but you have been very worn out lately and not getting much sleep. Do you tell your friend “I’m sorry, I’m just not up to it. I don’t have the time or the energy?” Even if we do, I think most of the time our friend attempts to convince us (and does not have a hard time doing so) that we could totally make it work. We agree to the weekend trip and – without really thinking about it or meaning to – decide that we will just do all the sleeping, resting, housework, shopping, errands, seeing friends, and everything else we would have done and need to do that weekend “some other time.” We don’t figure out where that time is going to magically come from. And we don’t consider that we will be even more worn out after a couple nights in the big city and not up to hitting the ground running on Monday to make up for lost time.

We make ruinous, bankrupting decisions with our time and energy while carefully stewarding our money. We even save up money for unforeseen needs, but have you ever “saved up” time or energy? I usually spend mine as soon as I get it – and then spend some more that I don’t have. We are so careful with money, which can buy goods and services, but utterly frivolous with the resources we need to function as decent, effective, creative, and loving human beings. Being short on money may impact my credit rating, but being short on energy impacts my marriage and being short on time impacts my friendships. I can love my daughter and be an encouraging co-worker with $0 in the bank, but when I am sleep deprived and burnt out I can’t do either of those things no matter how much cash I have on hand.

If God wanted us to have more hours in a day or require less sleep, he would have built humans or the world differently. He didn’t. We need to learn to say “no” wisely and without guilt. Only when we do so are we able to say “yes” to the things that matter most.

Instead of posting articles on facebook, I should stick to writing my blog.

I have a bad habit of overstating my case sometimes. So does the writer of this article, which I should not have posted on facebook without a bit more qualification.

I certainly don’t agree with the article on every point, but I do think it pokes a stick at some very important questions, particularly for urban families who have the financial and/or social resources to choose where their children will go to school.

Like any parent, I want what is best for my kids. As a Christian, however, I think it’s tremendously important to question what that means. “What is best” for my daughter is that she learns to love the Lord and love her neighbour as herself. She could go to the best school in the world (of whatever type that may be) and never learn this. She could receive no formal education whatsoever and still in the end have received what is best. So I first want to posit that whether or not you send your kid to private school or public school is not necessarily a question of whether you are giving them what is best or not. That said, education matters. You probably cannot overstate how much it matters.

I want what is best for my kids – and so does every other parent. But while I can choose where to send Jubilee to school, many of my neighbours cannot. Their children will go to the public school around the corner whether they like it or not, because they cannot afford another option. Thus, my choice of where to send Jubilee to school is not just an individual choice about what is best for my daughter. It impacts my neighbours. If she goes to the public school down the street, her presence and our family’s boots-on-the-ground investment in the school will have beneficial effects on our neighbour’s children. If we send Jubilee to private school, we remove that benefit.

Sending your kid to public school is clearly not the only way to love your neighbour. In fact, if you are spending your time and energy loving your neighbours in other ways, then you probably ought not to make the enormous commitment of sending your child to an underperforming public school with the intent of being engaged in its programs and environment for the betterment of the community. If, however, you have the resources and the calling to make that commitment, then I think it is well worth considering.

I think it is worth considering even more so if you have a lot of families from your church with similarly aged children who could all send their children to the local public school together, be invested in it together, and support each other in the difficulties of doing so.

I think that the article’s ideas have some merits, and I think that public schools could be helped and even transformed if significant amounts of socially and financially wealthy families committed to their well-being with their time, money, energy, and even their children. My secret pipe dream in life is to do this in West Philly along with other families from City Church.

My fear is that the liberal Pharisees will beat us to it. That the church might fail to show sacrificial love in such a radical way. I think that it can be done, and I think that it does not involve sacrificing our children on the altar of a progressive agenda, but rather teaching them how to love God and their neighbour in the best way possible: by example.

On Getting Punched in the Face

Every so often I have a dream in which I’m fighting someone – maybe to stop them from doing something bad or because they did something I didn’t like… you know, dream stuff. Without fail, every time I fight in a dream I am completely ineffective. I hit the other person over and over and over again, but my punches don’t make any impact. They just stand there and laugh at me – it’s very disconcerting.

In real life, however, I was recently invited to join the fight team at the gym I train at. It’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds – they just practice together at a higher level than in the normal classes and have a special emphasis on fight training. If they think you’re tough enough, experienced enough, and/or skilled enough, they ask you to join. The coach who invited me, Brylan, seems to have taken a special interest in making sure I am up to the increased intensity of sparring. His after-class habit lately has been to call me over, tell me to put my gloves on, and set the clock for five minutes. He doesn’t really ask “Hey Zach, would you like to get beat up by a professional MMA fighter for a bit?” He just starts the clock.

Sparring with Brylan is probably one of the hardest and most exhilarating things I have ever done. Just to be clear, he is nowhere near fighting his hardest against me (for an example of what that would in fact look like, go here and start at 1:30). But he also isn’t anywhere near going easy on me. He hits hard and fast, he doesn’t let up when I’m getting tired, and he doesn’t even stop if I am bleeding profusely from the face. (It was once suggested to him that maybe he should. His response was: “Zach always gets a bloody nose. He’s fine.”)

And he’s right.

What I am so deeply grateful for in Brylan is that he sees in me the potential and the desire to be a better fighter. Not only that, but he honors what he sees in me by beating me up on a semi-regular basis. If, when we sparred, he just kicked my ass and hurt me, it would be demoralizing and discouraging. If he took it easy on me, it would be demeaning and disrespectful. Instead, Brylan pushes me right up to and then a little bit past my limits. Every time I spar with him I come away a better fighter. Smarter, faster, tougher, grittier, and more unafraid. After facing him in the ring, most other people don’t intimidate me that much.

The first time I ever sparred with Brylan – which was long before I joined the fight team – his feedback for me after thrashing me around for a while was “Well you didn’t pussy out and run away the whole time like some people do.” Despite the fact that I was hurting all over and bleeding from my nose, this made me feel ludicrously proud.

Yesterday after fighting Brylan for a grueling five minutes with the whole gym watching, I was beaten up probably a little more than the first time. (My defense is way better than a few months ago, but that just means he hits harder and faster.) But this time he didn’t have to scrape so close to the bottom of the barrel for positive feedback. He just grinned and said “nice work.” I knew I’d landed a few good hits of my own.

I feel a little rough today – congested in the head (I presume from getting punched in the face so much?) and sore all over with a tender jawline and a fat lip. But I had a dream last night in which I beat up two high schoolers at a concert. So I’m calling it a win.

Responsible Fatherhood

Jubilee likes to stick out her tongue at me lately. She also loves giving kisses.

Recently at church, she attempted to do both at the same time. Being a responsible father who wants his little lady to know what’s up, I gently corrected her, saying:

“No, no, Jubilee. That’s for your boyfriend when you’re older.”

My wife and several other bystanders were not impressed by my attempt to make my daughter wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. So I attempted a fix:

“Much… older?”

Selflessness School

I used to have this long spiel where I explained how having a kid is basically an immersive learning experience on the subject of putting someone else’s wants and needs before your own. It would take me about five minutes to get my point across until one day my friend Jolene cut me off and said “It’s like selflessness school.” and I said. “Uh, yeah. That.”

So yes, Jolene, having a kid is like selflessness school. You get constant practice at not doing what you want to do, but doing what your child wants to do. You don’t go to the bathroom or get a drink or eat a snack or pick your nose when you want to. You do it when the kid is ok with you doing it. Or when they are napping.

Replace “kid” with “patients” and that is also an accurate summary of what it’s like to work at 12-hour nursing shift.

Which is more or less the point I’m getting at. It’s slowly dawning on me that while becoming a father has been a rather jarring shift into care-for-others-with-the-bulk-of-my-time-and energy-mode, the selflessness training that I’m going through is not unique to the parental role.

I experienced a similar shock when I got married and realized that my wife was there ALL THE TIME and would probably continue to be for quite a while. I couldn’t just do what I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it – and it turned out I was deeply attached to that mode of living. Margie took three days to find a full-time job after we moved into our first apartment; I took nine months. I am convinced this was because God wanted me to spend my time and energy on becoming a better and more loving husband and not on starting a career. Those nine months were also like selflessness school, if not selflessness bootcamp, and while they were very hard and involved a lot of fights and tears, I grew into a much more loving and much less selfish husband through them.

My friend Nick and I should not be friends. We like to do similar things, but we do them in completely opposite ways that tend to aggravate each other. We don’t see eye to eye on a number of important political, social, and aesthetic issues. What we do share is that we love Jesus, and we were both leaders in our college Christian fellowship. (OK, we also both love nerdy board games). After being friends for a little bit in college, we got to the point where we discovered all the things that really pissed us off about each other – the friendship was not fun anymore. But over the course of my junior year we eventually decided that we were not going to stop being friends just because we now found it hard. What we had in common and what we cared about together were more important than what we despised in each other. We were going to work on our friendship and by God’s grace, we were going to make it work.

Today, Nick is my best friend after my wife. Not because I get along with him most naturally or because I’ve known him longer than anyone else or because we have the most in common. We are best friends because we went through selflessness school together and we survived.

In a certain sense, doing selflessness school with a baby is easy. The baby makes you do it – she will literally die if you don’t make radical changes to your life and care for her constantly. There’s also a lot of social support and reinforcement for new parents as well. It’s generally acceptable to take extended time off from work to be a new parent. You will probably go to jail if you neglect your child.

My wife, however, will not starve to death if I don’t feed her. If I don’t keep up my part in caring for her she will be deeply hurt, but she will survive. On a day when I just can’t stand my wife, nothing and no one forces me to do selflessness school with her except the extent to which I feel bound by my marriage oaths. I have good friends and family who support our relationship and will correct me (sternly, if need be) when I am being selfish towards her, but I could theoretically get divorced and no one would die or go to jail.

It takes the most initiative of all to enroll in selflessness school with a friend. They will “do fine” without you even if you completely neglect them. It is more or less socially acceptable to let a friendship that has become difficult wither away. Friends are, after all, supposed to be there for you, right?

If we took notice of all the opportunities that exist around us to go to selflessness school, we would not just call parenting and marriage hard work. We would be willing to call friendship hard work. We would be willing to call living in the city hard work. We would call doing your job rightly hard work. But we would consider it hard work that is worth doing because of the impact it has on our hearts.
So all that to say – I think going to selflessness school is probably the most important thing to do in life, but it is also the very hardest thing to do. Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Christians tend to romanticize the image of the cross because of what Christ did with it, but to first-century Jews under Roman domination, this is the same as Jesus saying today “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, strap himself into the electric chair every morning, and follow me.”

To really love my child, my spouse, my friend, or my neighbour, I have to put to death my willful self that wants what I want when I want it. This is extraordinarily hard. It feels like I am dying a little bit inside every time I do it – probably because I am. But I take Jesus at his word that as every bit of my selfish heart is executed, it is replaced by a bit of heart that is like his – loving, wise, kind, and selfless. Ready at all times to care for the needs and wants of those that he puts in my life.

Mr. Rogers used to ask his viewers “won’t you be my neighbour?” And that was a very good question. My question for you – my friends, family, and coworkers who read this – is “won’t you go to selflessness school with me?”

I mean it.

Keeping Score

My friend Nick told me this story of the time he was hospitalized with a bad infection. It was 3am and as his body struggled to fend off impending septicemia, he was in the throes of night sweats and feverish dreams. His nurse came into the room and, seeing that he had soaked his pillow with sweat, replaced his pillow case with a clean one. In his semi-delirious state, this simple action prompted my friend to exclaim: “You’re an angel!”

There are a lot of different ways to keep score as a nurse. A lot of people go by how many lives they’ve saved. In fact, when I was a nursing student in clinicals my mom used to ask me if I had “saved any lives that day.” (Answer: “No. They’ll die of something else later. But I definitely prolonged some.”) Nick, on the other hand, always asks if anyone told me I’m an angel.

I keep score this way. So far, my score is 3.5.

It’s actually a pretty difficult metric. “You’re an angel” is not the most common expression of appreciation. And even if I allow myself the conceit that at least a few of my patients think it, it probably takes a special person to actually say it out loud. Fortunately, most of my patients are on drugs so they are all pretty special a lot of the time.

And that is why nursing is so great. You do these very, very simple things for people and it means the world to them because they are in such a vulnerable place. The very simple things that have gotten me my 3.5 points are:

-Giving my patient a cup of ginger ale with ice.
-Washing my patient’s feet. (When he thanked me, I said “I follow a guy who is big on foot washing.”)
-Praying with my patient when she was anxious.
-Helping my patient get into bed without hurting her incision. (Actually she said “You’re soooooooo niiiiiiice.” so I’m taking it as just half a point. This is also a good example of the drugs talking.)

It strikes me that it’s the easiest things that have this kind of impact on people. You don’t have to catch an impending heart attack or stop your patient’s carotid artery from rupturing with your bare hands (I wouldn’t advise doing that, anyway). Just get them something to drink. Make them feel a little more human. Be a comforting presence. Help them with a task they can’t do on their own.

We started having some electrical problems at the place we just bought. Most of the house lost power, and the circuit breaker board was slowly but surely becoming non-functional. I had no idea what was wrong, how bad it would be when we figured it out, or how much it would cost us. It dogged me like a suspicious lump that was steadily getting bigger and the doctors hadn’t figured out yet.

When the electrician came by this morning, he did some tests, adjusted some wiring, fixed the problem, and let us know that while some more work needed to be done eventually, our house was not going to blow up, burn down, or blackout in the near future.

My sense of relief was palpable. I told him “you just made me feel physically better.” Which maybe sounded really weird, but that’s how I felt, and I wasn’t even on narcotics. Here I was, Nurse Ferris, in a vulnerable place with a problem I didn’t understand, and in doing his job right, this electrician did a very simple thing that gave me great relief.

So it made me realize that I’m not in such a privileged position as I thought I was in nursing. There are a lot of ways to be vulnerable, and a lot of simple gestures that have tremendous significance when done in the right place, in the right way, at the right time. I don’t know how electricians keep score, but the one I saw today definitely gets a point from me.