God Continues to Speak…

God speaks…

…in the heat of the day when my shirt, hat,  and top half of my trousers are soaked with sweat, and I am wondering why 94 in Florida is so much different than 94 in Kansas City, as the sweat pours into my eyes behind sunglasses so fast that my shirt sleeves are eventually useless to dry them, and my vision is blurry and eyes stinging from the salt.

God speaks…

…as I roll down the window while I drive to my next appointment so I can smoke a cigarette, and realize simultaneously how good the hot wind feels against my wet skin and how thankful I am to feel God’s…

…patient…

…persistent…

…nudge towards the day that I will quit smoking…

…not because God is angry that I smoke…

…but because God’s love is…

…patiently…

…persistently…

…convincing me that I am both worth loving, and worth having around on earth for a few more years.

God speaks…

…as the workday ends, and I drive home listening to Bill Withers knowing full well that when I get home, and after I organize my schedule for tomorrow, that I will argue with myself about whether I will go to the gym to sweat some more.

God speaks…

…while my mind composes beautifully articulated, well chosen words and phrases that communicate perfectly what I would like to write, except I am driving, so cannot record them, and the only ones to hear them are God and me…

God stops speaking…

God listens…

…and I realize…

I am praying…

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God Speaks…

God speaks…

…in the early morning, during the final dream state of the night, as my Unconsciousness magically expresses my deepest longings or greatest fears in a symphony of emotions, free from the…

commanding…

demanding…

structuring…

influence of Consciousness.

God speaks…

…as my mind slowly climbs out of the clinging, inviting arms of slumber, and the enticing gaze of the snooze button, then regretfully instructs my arm to wrestle the covers off my body, and swing my legs over the side of the bed.

God speaks…

…while my muddled steps wind their way to the waiting coffee maker, and my fingers fumble with the filter after partially spilling water poured into the reservoir, followed by coffee spilled both in the filter and into the water on the counter.

God speaks…

…as I grumble about needing to clean the spill, but lose the argument, push the “Start Brewing” button, then wander to the bathroom to brush my teeth.

God speaks…

…when the aroma of brewing coffee  brightens my optimism for the day, all the while trying to desperately grasp, or shake loose the retreating emotions of my final dream.

God speaks…

…when I remember that the dream wildly leapt from one unfinished storyline to the next in a disconnected ramble which elicits a response of, “What was THAT all about?”, while the toothbrush rumbles away in my mouth.

God speaks…

…in my first taste of coffee…

…which energizes me to clean the mess surrounding the coffee maker, and order my thoughts about the day before me.

God speaks…

…when my thoughtfully constructed plans for the day work perfectly, and I begin to progressively feel like I have a handle on this thing called Adulthood.

God speaks…

…as the events of the day conspire to crush my thoughtfully constructed plans for the day, and I am left hearing Life laugh at my audacious attempts to control the future.

God speaks…

…graciously, on the days I have NO plan, and events work perfectly in SPITE of my incomplete preparations.

God speaks…

…when I am listening…

God speaks…

…when I am NOT listening…

God speaks…

…when my response to Parker Palmer’s wise counsel to “Let Your Life Speak” is, “But my life speaks a language I don’t understand, and I could use either an interpreter, or a ‘Life-to-English’ dictionary! Is there a Gibberish interpreter in the house?”

God continues to speak…

…and I will too…

Later!

 

 

Peace in the Present…

One morning this past week, as I was beginning my morning routine before heading off to work; I was sitting outside on the back patio drinking a first cup of coffee. I woke up a little early, so my mind was active for some reason. In recent years, my mind is slower to get running in the morning, and slower to shut down at night. On this particular morning, however, my thoughts seemed to be reaching out for….something.

There is a cat that usually meets me on the back patio. My neighbors told me the cat was part of a herd of cats fed by the woman who lived in my house previously. Some of them were feral cats that she fed in a little workshop which borders the patio on the left. She cut a hole in the door to install a cat door, and left food inside for them to eat. Although this seems nice at first glance, once she moved, she left them without the food source they had come to depend on. The last time I saw the woman, she asked if I wanted to continue the practice. I responded, “No. Although I love animals, my life style doesn’t allow me to be a good pet owner.” So she put a piece of plastic in the door, to obstruct entrance to the space.

(Eventually, I found another reason not to keep feeding those cats. I bargained with the property manager to allow me to clean, and re-paint the interior of the house as long as I could choose the colors. I had help with both the cleaning and painting. My sister and brother worked with me to get the house ready for me to move. One task that I accomplished on my own was removing the carpet… It was a heavy Berber carpet, and it STUNK from cat urine! The lower parts of the walls bore the stains of male cats spraying their territory. By the time we were finished cleaning, I was CERTAIN I made the correct decision about feral cats outside!)

The cat that meets me when I go out on the patio, is interesting. Reportedly, it was born in my house. That is easy for me to believe, because the manner in which it first approached me was as an offended owner of the house. All the other feral cats eventually left the yard (someone else in the neighborhood started feeding them), but THIS cat walked into the yard, and immediately began to yell at me! I had to respect that, so…..I eventually began putting cat food on the patio in the morning.

Yeah…

I know…

I’m a sucker for anything showing pluck!

Now, part of my morning routine encompasses putting food out for the cat…which also becomes food for birds….and the occasional opossum and raccoon at night. On this particular morning, as I was drinking my coffee, a dove flew down and lighted on the roof of the house no more than ten feet away from me.

Four years ago, shortly after I moved into the house, I noticed the yard seemed to be a haven for doves. At the time, I was attending an online master’s degree program in Spiritual Formation from George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and my vision for using the degree, was to become a Spiritual Director and develop a program for Spiritual Formation specifically for the pastoral staffs of churches. The presence of the doves in my yard spoke to me about the house being a place of peace for others as we learned together how to experience and pursue Shalom. One day, when my brother was there the doves returned. I said to my brother,

“I want this house to be a place of peace for other people.”

My brother responded simply, “I am hoping it will be a place of peace for YOU!”

In the succeeding years, I have found this statement to be both insightful, and prophetic.

Prophetic, not in the sense of telling the future, but in the biblical sense of confronting people with Truth which is dissonant with their current perceptions, actions, and life.

Ok…

Back to the dove on the roof…

I began to talk to the dove, telling it that it was safe, and that I wouldn’t hurt it…

…and eventually, a second dove lit on the roof next to the first. The two moved impatiently upon the roof while looking at the patio and the grass next to it, as if seeing all the insects in it…..food. Finally, the late-comer lept softly down onto the patio, and began feeding on the grass seed, or insects, on the concrete. At this point, the dove was within five feet of me, and about six feet from the cat which was facing away from the bird and feeding on what I had put out.

Quietly, I spoke to the dove…

“You better be careful… you’re awfully close to this cat!”

When the cat moved, the dove on the patio softly flew upward to a limb of a tree beside the patio and patiently watched me, the cat, and probably the cat food.

At this point, my attention was distracted by a bird sitting on an electric line about 30 feet away.

I thought, “That looks like a dove, but it looks different, too.”

While I fixated on the bird in the distance with features like a dove but also not like a dove…

…the doves closest to me flew away…

Disappointed, I realized how the experience felt like a metaphor for my life to this point.

I have often become so…

distracted…

fixated…

obsessed…

by a shadowy future, that I miss out on the beauty closest to me.

I often ignore and neglect the gifts of the moment in my pursuit of a fantasy built by an unhelpful definition of perfection, and the comfort I believe will be…

…in the future…

I don’t like this habit…

I am robbed of the present by this habit…

Now…to be fair…

Dreams and visions are not bad.

They help us imagine how the world could be.

That can be a VERY good, and generative, perspective…

But…

Dreams occur when we are asleep…

and visions occur when we are transported out of the present…

So, in some ways, dreams and visions are a criticism of the reality of the present, and when we are transfixed by them, our mindfulness of the present can be distracted so that we are blind and deaf to the ways God comes to us in THIS moment!

So…

What can I do differently?

What can WE do differently?

We can:

Observe our peace…

It would be easy to say that violence is the opposite of peace, but that’s too easy. As I have thought about it, I have come to believe that being numb is the opposite of peacefulness. Peace does NOT mean the absence of conflict. Peacefulness is a process which involves a recognition of conflict, and a determination to look for generative and sustainable resolutions to conflict. Living peacefully is a way of seeing and living life in a way that acknowledges all the tragedy in the world surrounding us, chooses to embrace the uncomfortable emotions we feel in response, and learns to find God in the midst of it all. Often, our best way through conflict, or tragedy, is to wait…

Stop…

A good practice is to allow the emotions and thoughts to wash over us without trying to deny, numb, or ignore them. I realize that some people during crisis events must act immediately in order to protect others or themselves, but eventually there needs to be a time we acknowledge how these events have affected us personally. We need to carve out space to “feel what you feel.” I’m not saying that life will stop to wait on us, but we must realize that what we feel is a biological part of being human, and denying them will NOT stop them from being expressed in a physiological way. Acknowledging our own emotions is a step of trust, in ourselves, and in God.

When I am conscious about my life, I notice how often I try to run from my feelings by numbing them rather than acknowledging them, feeling them, and soothing, resolving, or expressing them. If I numb them, they don’t go away. Often, they sneak out when I least expect them, which can be embarrassing, given the circumstances. Peace invites me to let down my guard, become honest about and identify what I feel, and in vulnerability, express them.

Look… 

Its amazing how often I miss seeing things that are right in front of me. I have always used the metaphor of a bulletin board when I talk about becoming more observant of our life. A bulletin board is a tool used to communicate something visually to people. However, it is my experience that a bulletin board, because it is so “normal” becomes part of the wall. Often, I view it as part of the visual blah, blah, blah of an external space, such as in a break room at a jobsite. So, that which is meant to communicate important information is ignored, because I am pre-occupied with something else. If I am not careful, I can become so pre-occupied with the visual cues in the world…

the media…

an angry driver…

the sameness of my physical surroundings…

that I miss entirely the beauty and significance of the gifts I have been given:

health…

a job…

a home…

family…

friends…

the world around me…

To guard against this, I have to find ways to slow down my constantly shifting gaze. Photography is one way I do this. When I have a camera in my hands, I slow down and take in the world around me, not just to absorb and enjoy it personally, but also to capture an image of what I see in order to share it with others, as well as with myself at a later time. When I view one of the images I have captured with my camera, I am reminded of the experience of that moment, and I am thankful…again. This tool has helped me recognize the beauty when my hands are empty, too. I see everything with new eyes and in greater depth, so that I feel part of the world around me. I realize that I am in the picture.

Listen…

I have found that in order for me to hear another person, I need to attend to them…I need to give them my attention. In fact, I have instructed my sister…who I also works with…to wait until she can look me in the eyes before she tells me something.

…and then text it to me…

There is noise all around me. And much of it becomes “white noise” that I tune out. There is also noise in my head…my thoughts…which can compete with what I hear from other people. Peace invites me to listen both to my life, and to the natural world, because in so doing I often find the presence of God. One practice which can help me develop the skill of listening is engaging music, either in the hearing, or in the doing of it. I often put on headphones and lose myself in music. I become part of it, and it becomes part of me. My emotions eventually find a resonance with the style to which I am listening.  It is similar when I venture into the natural world, and listen…really listen. It is in those moments that I hear the music of God, which speaks to me on the level of my soul, and it is renewed with peace.

Protect our peace…

Boundaries…Honestly, I haven’t been very good throughout my life at either identifying what boundaries are or what I need them to be in my life. In the past 5 years or so, I have begun to understand the concept of boundaries in relationships. I now realize that boundaries are different than obstacles. When we construct obstacles in our relationships, we are essentially running away from intimacy and trust while running to isolation and distrust. Constructive boundaries in our lives actually allow us to be more available in the present to people, tasks, and activities we care about. A personal boundary is something we set and acknowledge which communicates how we choose to live. They are choices that communicate self-respect, and ways we want to be treated by others. For me, setting boundaries is difficult not because I am unwilling to defend them, but because it is hard for me to identify the need for one, and where it needs to be placed.

I am a preacher’s kid, and in my family, other people always came first. ALWAYS! The theological perspective within which I was raised pretty much sanctified the concept, even though Jesus set clear boundaries in his own life and ministry. As an adult, I often said “yes” to something that I really didn’t want to do, then felt aggravated at the person to whom I said “yes”! This was true in my personal life, as well as career. Eventually, I learned how to say “no” in my career, as well as to stand up for myself when I felt something was unfair. In my personal life…especially my marriage…I never really did. This could have been one of the reasons it was so unsatisfying to both of us, and ended in divorce.

Protecting our Peace means not choosing to place ourselves into circumstances in which we are treated with disrespect, nor to associate with people who treat us with disrespect. Although we may have to be associated with those types of circumstances or people for short periods of time or in events which occur outside of our control, the choices we make on a regular basis protect our peace when we live treating others and ourselves with respect.

Embrace peace in the present…

Sometimes I fight myself, and my expectations of myself. For instance, it is Saturday as I write this. This morning, I wanted to do several things:

Go to the gym– I have a sore shoulder, and I need to do some strength training with it.

Clean the house-I have found that I feel calmer in an orderly personal space, so when I have put off cleaning the house for awhile, I realize I am running from something, so am punishing myself by letting my space become disorderly.

Do yard work– I enjoy this, for the most part, but especially enjoy the way it looks afterward and the feel of my body with dirt under my fingernails.

Budget– I hate money…..

So…what did I do this morning? I came to Starbucks and began writing. It’s now 4:40 in the afternoon, and my day is almost over. I am feeling a mixture of emotions, and not much peace! What I am trying to do right now, is embrace the process of writing with the hope that, once I publish it, other people might find something in my experience they recognize, or that it stirs their thinking in ways that promote growth and living in healthier ways.

And…

Quite honestly….

I mostly hope someone likes it….

I also realize that once I am through with a piece of written work, I feel very peaceful about having written. Right now…that peace is what I will embrace as a gift from God. I also will embrace it because I will remind myself that it takes courage to tell pieces of your story, as well as your thoughts about it. Embracing one’s own voice is a way of embracing peace, and when I neglect to write, I am instead embracing the fear that the value of my life experience and what I am learning has no value. Because embracing peace also means embracing growth and sharing that growth with other people.

Release our peace into the world…

Peace isn’t a commodity we buy and then horde. Peace is shared. When we embrace a life of peace, we release it in the process of embracing it. Whether we realize it or not, the people around us know if we are at peace or not. Sometimes even better than do we! As I wrote previously, peace doesn’t mean the absence of conflict, and it also doesn’t mean there will be no struggle. Peace and struggle co-exist…personally and collectively. Peace means that we will fight. Personally, my most common combatant is myself. I often fight with fear, and shame, and isolation, and pride, and ignorance, and anger, and impatience, and body image, and addiction, and….numbing…

Yet what I keep coming back to, are the words of Jesus:

“In this world you will have many problems, but take heart! I have overcome the world!”

Perhaps that is why he has been called the Prince of Peace!

Only Love Matters…

Every other Sunday evening, I take my mother to church. Connie, my sister, and I take turns. The service we attend is called: Country Church. Most of the folks that attend are older, and the music is kind of down-home with more than a hint of Southern gospel. They have a background set that looks like an old country store. The band and worship ensemble wear western boots and an occasional western hat. The service begins with the worship leader…or maybe that should be trail boss… greeting the congregation with “HowDEEE!”
Really….
Pure kitsch…
But… I sometimes kind of like it. (When my eyes aren’t rolling…) Mainly because many of the songs they sing are ones from my childhood. It reminds me from where I came, and my heritage, or at least some of it. Mom really enjoys it, especially the preaching. That part I sometimes find hard to sit through. It is a Southern Baptist church, and the conservative slant can really grate on my moderate nerves.
Mom is 89-years-old. She has increasing, age-related dementia, exacerbated, I think, by the fact that she has bi-polar disorder. We never knew that as we were growing up, but noticed that about every 7 years, she would have a depressive break. Looking back, and talking to my brother and sister, I think that each break changed her. She is on medication now, but my sister bore the brunt of her last break, and it was really difficult for her and Butch, my brother-in-law. Moving here has been an opportunity for me to take on some of the load of dealing with Mom.

As I considered moving, that was one of the issues that worried me. How would I respond to Mom? Our relationship, or maybe it is more accurate to say my relationship with her, has been difficult. Yet I am not sure I realized that, until the last 10-15 years. It especially became apparent to me after my divorce, and I began to take some classes in seminary that led me to explore issues with my family of origin. Especially issues with my mother. I had to take an honest look at this most intimate, and fundamental female relationship.
We each begin existence encased in the body of another person. When we are born, the mother-child relationship is extremely important, because in it we find our most basic needs are met, or they aren’t. We learn a lot about the world, or rather what we expect from the world in terms of safety and comfort and provision in this one relationship. Even though a father can come alongside to care and help a mother meet the needs of an infant, the child’s attachment to its mother contributes to what it feels about life and the world… and themselves.
I won’t go into it here, but Mom’s illness affected me in those earliest days of my infancy. I have needed to look back, be honest about the lack of stability in our relationship, but also other parts of my life as a growing child. I needed to grieve it, which included anger at the way I felt I was perceived by my mother. I felt like I was expected to be a heathen, and many times as an adolescent, I fulfilled the expectation nicely. I know that she and my father loved me, but I couldn’t gloss over how some of their decisions, manner of living, and approach to life; which included Mom’s illness; affected me. I am NOT trying to figure out where to place blame. Blame is a form of denial, not truth-finding. I needed to understand why I felt the way I did for much of my life, so I could begin to heal, grow and change.

When I first moved to Florida, near my mother, and siblings; I was still angry with her. I now understand the anger was both natural… I needed to feel it… but it was tied to my own unfulfilled expectations of her, and how I wished she would have interacted with me. This was a necessary step in my healing. When she called…I didn’t answer. I seldom spent time with her. I was afraid that her tendency to live in guilt would affect my thinking and feelings about myself. It had my whole life, and I was just being freed from it due to personal growth, and God’s grace. She felt the absence, too, and kept trying to get me to draw nearer to her. By using guilt… so it was a vicious circle.
Then I became involved in a relationship with a woman that eventually didn’t work out. When we broke up, I began to explore my part in the break-up. I did a similar, much more extensive process when my marriage of 23 years ended. In both circumstances, I tried to examine what I did well, and what I didn’t do so well.
One day, as I was thinking about the most recent break-up, I believe God spoke to me, and helped me realize that in order for me to go forward into another relationship with a woman; I needed to seek reconciliation with my mother. Or, more honestly, reconciliation with my feelings about Mom. I needed to see her as she is, was, and what she was capable of being, rather than what I wished and expected her to be. She needed to be a flesh-and-blood person, with great strengths and great failings. I needed to see… her… not a caricature of my own making. I was beginning to believe I could see her as a sister-in-Christ…as the Beloved of God. Maybe, if I could see her in that light, I could love her as she is and was, and maybe even…myself. God began to show me that, as she continues to grow older, and more child-like, I would sort of father my mother. This began to give me some hope, because I enjoy many aspects of being a father. Age has softened me, too, so I am more patient, and am able to find humor instead of frustration…

Mostly…
Every quarter, Country Church has a service with only music. They call it: The Grand Old Gospel Opry…
Of course they do…
The Grand Old Gospel Opry is quite popular especially with the crowd that usually attends Country Church, which are generally senior adults. Mom, however, usually doesn’t attend because she likes to hear the pastor preach. This past Sunday evening was one of those nights and there were “Special Guests” to go along with the regular bunkhouse gang. (Actually, the worship team and band is quite talented…) On this night there was a bluegrass band and a men’s quartet, a man and wife who travel as evangelists, and other groupings of people that attend the church.
We began with congregational singing. I enjoyed the songs, because they were ones we would sing while my family was in evangelism. A noticeable theme began to evolve with each song: Heaven.
“That makes sense…” I thought. “Play to your crowd.”
The evangelists got up next and began to sing together. I was reminded of sooo many couples I have seen and known through the years. People that travelled from church to church, singing and preaching the gospel. People like my family. This was before four-dollar-gas and one-hundred-dollar-a-night motels; when singers used pre-recorded-sound-tracks that weren’t considered karaoke, and there were only three or four channels on TV, so there weren’t as many entertainment opportunities to compete with the drama of revivals. My first thoughts in response to the couple were pretty negative:

“C’mon brother… don’t you know that your time has passed? That style of doing church is dead and ineffective.”
However, it occurs to me just how much I needed to see them. They were like characters emanating from my heritage of faith. People who put aside a safe, and consumptive lifestyle in order to tell other people about the Christ of new beginnings, of new life, of resurrection… I need to embrace that heritage. It was hard and disruptive… for me, but also for my mother. Mom raised three kids on the road, from one conglomeration of church services to another, all the while having to keep the kids occupied and quiet every evening for a couple hours of church, while sitting IN FRONT of scores of people that could be VERY critical of the preacher’s wife and kids! It was keeping the kids entertained in the car through endless miles of travel. It was keeping the family fed while in poverty, and in clean clothes washed either in borrowed washers and dryers, in a laundromat, or in the sink of a travel trailer and then hung to dry on a makeshift clothesline. It was using cold starch on my father’s white shirts, so they would be… just….so……. It was being the kids’ first (and only at least for a period of time) teacher. It was singing in front of people though she felt intimidated by her self-perceived lack of musical talent.
A tough life…
A committed life…
The service wound along until a trio of women began to sing. Mom said that one of the women was…

“…the daughter of the song leader. She just finished college and is really pretty. I wish I knew somebody that knows her, so I could introduce you to her.”
“Um…. Mom….she is the same age as my daughter…”
“Oh…”
Right now, to my mother at times, I am still about 27. A young man. I think it is because I am single, and we weren’t around each other for so many years. For my first birthday after I moved here, she gave me a book entitled: “God’s Little Instruction Book for Graduates”.
Well… I have been in grad-school for the past three years…
And I confess that in my OWN mind, I still feel like I am 27… at least until I wake up in the morning… then my body says: “Helloooo 52…”
The most beautiful part of the Opry was several songs into the set of the men’s quartet. I had been enjoying the quartet, and remembered how often we would drive many miles to hear quartets when I was young. My dad loved men’s quartets. While he was in college and grad-school at small religious schools, Dad travelled with other young men in a quartet doing public relations for the school. In fact, that was how my mom and dad first met. Dad’s quartet held a concert at the church my mother attended, and they first noticed each other. Eventually, Mom enrolled in the same school.
Pretty effective public relations, I would say…
My father was the first tenor in that quartet, and as Mom and I listened to the first tenor of the Opry quartet singing lead; she leaned in to me and said with quivering voice, “That makes me think of your dad.”

I gently put my arm around my mother, and pulled her tightly against me. She began to quietly cry freely.
For just a moment, my imagination took me to a little church in West Virginia, and I saw a young woman, with striking auburn hair and expressive brown eyes, about 17 or 18-years-old sitting in a hot, crowded sanctuary listening attentively to a group of young men sing. One young man especially held her attention… the good looking first tenor with the crisply starched, white shirt beneath the trimly cut black suit. His hair was dark, and slicked back, and she noticed that as his gaze travelled across the crowd, it would linger with increasing frequency in her direction. With each repeated gaze, both their hearts would beat a little faster. After the concert was over, she would go to the table with information about the college he represented, and ask for a brochure… just to, you know, learn about the academic programs. He would shyly approach her, and their eyes would once again meet. He would hand her the brochure… their hands would touch ever-so slightly… Sparks!
As she cried, my heart cried with her.
For her loss of her Love…
For the loneliness in her life now…
For her desire to be near him again…
Somewhere inside me, I began to see my mother for the first time. The past disappointments and frustrations I felt through the years didn’t really matter. Love began to vibrate for this woman that bore me and introduced me so imperfectly to the world. I saw, instead, God’s beloved daughter. My natural fatherly instincts began to take over. As the song ended, and before we began to applaud, I kissed her on the forehead, as I would my own daughter.

Before I moved to Florida, I wrote four blogs in which I suggested the need for me to be redeemed to my heritage, and my heritage redeemed to me.
God is doing just that…

Empty Calories II…

(This is a continuation of a post from several days ago…)

And yet…

It isn’t the end of the story, as John tells it. The story continues as Jesus leaves the crowd and his companions to venture into the mountains by himself to pray. The disciples go down to the shore, enter their boats, and push off into the sea. A surprising response to both the miracle, and to Jesus’ absence, but life once again must go on, even after miracles… Darkness catches the disciples in the middle of the sea, without Jesus, and a storm rushes in. As the disciples despair of life, they find Jesus…

…in the middle of the sea

…in the middle of the storm

…walking on the water

…the disciples fear him a ghost

…and Jesus calls Peter onto the water

…catches him when he falls

…then gets in the boat and it comes quickly to shore.

……………………………………………………………………………………………

I have a renewed friendship with a woman I knew in college. At the time, we were basically friendly acquaintances, whose paths crossed in the music department while in choirs, operas, and the like. Eventually, she married a guy that shared an apartment with me at the time. I really liked the guy, and he was especially caring for me when my father was killed in a truck accident. Our lives took sharp turns away from each other after college, and she enjoyed a deep love with my buddy as well as shared ministry with him. They had two daughters later in life, and while the girls were young, he was found to have cancer. After a heroic battle with the disease, he died, and his wife… my re-found friend… was left to raise the girls alone. My buddy did a wonderful job of organizing their financial affairs during the final stages of his disease, so his three girls have been supported and cared for by him even from the grave. He was and is a wonderful, courageous father and husband… one for his daughters to remember as a model as they eventually enter relationships of their own.

Lori, Dave’s wife and my friend, has born the grief in heroic fashion, too, I must say. Even though Dave’s provision has cared for their needs, and her church family was deeply supportive, she still has had to walk through the dark storm of grief, loss, and the wet blanket of loneliness which seems to suffocate hope at times. I imagine her to be like the disciples in the boat, on a violently tossing sea, fighting despair and trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus through the darkness, rain, and waves.

This year is the fourth since Dave’s death. Each New Year, Lori tries to find a one-word theme to pull her through each day as a faith-mantra that invites her gaze to continue to slice through the storm to find the Beloved Christ walking upon the open sea. This year, our friendship was renewed due to a Facebook status I wrote at the end of 2012 which was trying to point towards the living presence of Christ in 2013 even before we arrived there. I wrote the status, as a message not only to others, but also to myself. I suggested that we either do or do not trust that God loves us, and is capable of bringing resurrection out of death. Lori and I exchanged comments about the post, and I suggested a beloved book I have read: Ruthless Trust, by Brennan Manning. Through this interaction, Lori decided to use the word, Trust, as her theme for 2013. We are now reading the book together and conversing about our lives and God’s presence in them.

I will include below some excerpts from Ruthless Trust about following the confident, water-striding Christ:

Trust is our gift back to God, and he finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for the love of it” (Pg. 2)

 

“Unwavering trust is a rare and precious thing because it often demands a degree of courage that borders on the heroic. When the shadow of Jesus’ cross falls across our lives in the form of failure, rejection, abandonment, betrayal, unemployment, loneliness, depression, the loss of a loved one, when we are deaf to everything but the shriek of our own pain; when the world around us suddenly seems a hostile, menacing place—at those times we may cry out in anguish, ‘How could a loving God permit this to happen?’ At those moments the seeds of distrust are sown. It requires heroic courage to trust in the love of God no matter what happens to us.” (Pg. 4)

 

“Craving clarity, we attempt to eliminate the risk of trusting God. Fear of the unknown path stretching ahead of us destroys childlike trust in the Father’s active goodness and unrestricted love.

We often presume that trust will dispel the confusion, illuminate the darkness, vanquish the uncertainty, and redeem the times. But the crowd of witnesses in Hebrews 11 testifies that this is not the case. Our trust does not bring final clarity on this earth. It does not still the chaos or dull the pain or provide a crutch. When all else is unclear, the heart of trust says, as Jesus did on the cross, ‘Into your hands I commit my spirit.’ (Luke 23:46)

If we could free ourselves from the temptation to make faith a mindless assent to a dusty pawnshop of doctrinal beliefs, we would discover with alarm that the essence of biblical faith lies in trusting God. And as Marcus Borg has noted, ‘The first is a matter of the head, the second a matter of the heart. The first can leave us unchanged, the second intrinsically brings change.’

The faith that animates the Christian community is less a matter of believing in the existence of God than a practical trust in his loving care under whatever pressure. The stakes here are enormous, for I have not said in my heart ‘God exists,’ until I have said, ‘I trust you.’ The first assertion is rational, abstract, a matter perhaps of natural theology, the mind laboring at its logic. The second is ‘communion, bread on the tongue from an unseen hand.’ Against insurmountable obstacles and without a clue as to the outcome, the trusting heart says, ‘Abba, I surrender my will and my life to you without any reservation and with boundless confidence, for you are my loving Father.” (Pg. 6-7)

 

The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God acting in the desert of the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.” (Pg. 12-13)

 

“Wallowing in shame, remorse, self-hatred, and guilt over real or imagined failings in our past lives betrays a distrust in the love of God. It shows that we have not accepted the acceptance of Jesus Christ and thus have rejected the total sufficiency of his redeeming work. Preoccupation with our past sins, present weaknesses, and character defects gets our emotions churning in self-destructive ways, closes us within the mighty citadel of self, and preempts the presence of a compassionate God.” (Pg.15)

 

Hopefully you get just a taste of the feast within this small book. Trusting God is stepping out of the boat of perceived safety all-the-while feeling like an idiot! Risking trust will most likely open us to the criticism of those still huddled in fear in the thin structures of the boat of legalistic comfort, and humanly constructed and maintained moral safety which is inherent in human empires… especially religious ones. The crowd in the boat will most likely shout words of shame in our direction, and our inner voices are tempted to pick up the chant and even expand them. Yet the grace and mercy of the walking Christ invites us to cast the words into the depths of the untamable waves of God’s forgiveness. There is no going back… Rather… full speed ahead!

Of Dreams, Death, Resurrection, and the Tower of Babel…

A few weeks ago, I again watched the movie “Meet Joe Black.” The central character, or central human character, is Bill, an uber-wealthy man about to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday. However, Bill has been experiencing intermittent chest pains, and begins to hear an audible, whispered voice saying, “Yes…” Despite all his wealth, intelligence, and good will from the people who love him; Bill comes face to face with the inevitability of his own death:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae-mN5aD8Qg&feature=plcp

Death becomes a person: Joe Black. The rest of the movie shows a man trying to deal with death walking beside him in his everyday life. At first, it is really awkward, introducing this new “friend” to work associates and family. As part of the deal Bill makes with death which will buy him more time with his family, Bill must allow Joe to go with him everywhere. Essentially, Joe calls the shots! Bill knows if he doesn’t play the game right, he is done. However, eventually, death begins to pay particularly close attention to Bill’s beloved daughter, and Bill stands up in protection of her. Throughout the movie, you see Bill having such normal reactions to the death that walks beside him.

He denies…

He bargains…

He fights…

and finally… He not only is resigned to the ongoing presence of death, he seems to even embrace it. Bill begins to see his life differently while death walks beside him, and tries to make things right with the people, dreams, and legacy to which he had given his life. He spent his life building something, and began to see how quickly it could be taken away. And yet…

Bill’s experience of walking with death by his side, brings him to the place of gratitude for all of his life:

I am reminded of Jesus’ words of invitation to “…take up your cross daily and follow me.”

Our tendency as a species seems to be to build towers that we believe will take us to God. The tower can be experience, money, power, pleasure, morality, or even… or maybe especially… theological/religious ones. We begin to build, and even invite others to build with us, but eventually, we each become so focused, so obsessed, in a glassy-eyed, tunnel-vision dream-like state; upon only our piece of the tower. We stop listening to each other. We become deaf to the call of community, due to the clarion call of our personal obsession.

…and the tower goes unfinished…

It is God’s grace to send the whisper of death into our deafness. We must learn to embrace death in order for Resurrection to supplant it. For there is no resurrection without death…

Death of our dreams…

Death of our expectations…

Death of our obsessive need to be right…

Death of our illusion of control…

But the cross is the gateway to new life! What we thought we wanted is replaced with something better, richer, deeper, eternal. The way to embrace our death, and to receive new life, is the way of Trust in the God of the Resurrection. Trust changes the grief of death to the gratitude for a life without end, from which  love is the by-product.

Courageous love…

Servant love…

Encouraging love…

Listening love…

Embracing love…

Tenacious love…

Sustaining love…

Patient love…

Healing love…

Giving love…

Forgiving love…

Christ’s love…

Empty Calories…

Have you ever been really hungry? So hungry that you really aren’t hungry anymore, or that you don’t realize just how much your body needs food?
A few years ago, I went through an extended period where my economic situation was pretty bleak. I didn’t have a car, so my only transportation was either a bike, or my feet. I had a job, but the number of hours I was scheduled per week varied greatly, and my checks could be quite small at times. I received my paycheck every two weeks, and usually my money would run out before my next check. Sometimes several days before. As a consequence, I got pretty hungry by the time I received my check, and could buy food. On the day I was to receive my check, I would ride my bike the 4 and a half miles to my job, pick up my check, then ride back to a Walmart to get my check cashed. In the Walmart was a Subway. I always looked forward to that first meal… On the ride back from receiving my check, I don’t remember being particularly hungry, yet the anticipation of Subway made the trip seem particularly long. As soon as I walked through the doors of the restaurant, the aroma of freshly baked bread would instantly remind me of my own hunger. I usually ordered the same sandwich:
A footlong, ham and provolone, with lettuce, tomato, spinach, pickles, jalapeno, and mayo…
That was the best sandwich in the world, man…
In fact, now that my financial situation has improved, I still love going to Subway in celebration of those hard days, and how the food I received there nourished my body, quenched my appetite, and revived my soul. I could have purchased other food from other restaurants, or from Walmart, that would have been temporarily just as filling, but I knew that not only would the Subway sub quell the hunger pangs, it would also provide better nourishment that my body needed. Since I could add on veggies, if I chose, the sub was a better choice than other options which would provide me with empty-calorie choices which would leave me hungry again sooner, and wouldn’t contain the nourishment my body desperately needed.
Living by the beach, I have come to know something about empty-calorie living, and the temptation of chasing things that might quench our appetite for a time, yet leave our minds, souls, and bodies malnourished and crying for more…
More…
…empty-calorie food…
…empty-calorie beverages…
…empty-calorie touch…
…empty-calorie sex…
…empty-calorie relationships…
…empty-calorie sunsets…
…empty-calorie experiences…
Even empty-calorie religion…
It is easy to make the world a commodity that we consume as a self-medicant, through which we attempt to deny and run away from the brokenness, loneliness, and pain within. However, the medication we use does not aid in our healing, it instead masks the need for nourishment our souls need, and denies the need for transformation. Empty-calorie living denies the beauty of all we see around us… even the beauty of ourselves… it instead leaves us in the tyranny of our appetites.
Now… this thought begs the question: Are all empty-calorie activities bad, or wrong? Aren’t they ok in moderation?
Those are questions probably every kid raised in the church or an authoritarian household has asked at some time in their life. And I can’t really answer them for you or even for me sometimes. And it isn’t even the activity itself that designates whether it is empty of nutritional value or not. It is the manner in which we relate to it. This is what I know about me: It’s like the old Lays potato chip marketing line from a few years back: “Lays… You can’t eat just one.” While sitting down with a bowl of potato chips, I know that if I don’t self-edit my appetite, I will soon have the whole bag next to me, and; especially if I am watching TV; the bag will eventually be gone, and I will be looking for another bag. That is the design of empty-calorie foods… THEY TASTE GOOD! That is what is so surprising about the demise of the Twinkie! But the design of empty-calorie food is such that they draw you in to eating more of them, yet they have a negligible nutritional value, and a steady diet of them leads to ill-health.
I know how the faith tradition I grew up in would answer the questions above…
The faith tradition I grew up in used the term “self-denial” to describe a manner of living which fought against empty-calorie living. I confess that I misunderstood the concept, or the way that it was taught was confusing, or… something. Anyway, I am finally beginning to understand it better now. I used to think self-denial meant that there were certain things we stayed away from either completely or for certain periods of time:
…alcohol…
…sex…
…food…
…dancing…
…movies…
…television…
…fun…
Ok… maybe that was just my perception, but it WAS my perception. I am finding in the scripture, a more holistic approach to living and a better understanding of “self-denial.”
In the book of John, chapter 6, the story is told of Jesus’ feeding a large crowd when resources were scarce, and the location was isolated. Matthew writes that when Jesus found out about the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod; he retreated with his disciples to “a lonely place” (Matt. 14:13). Mark writes that the retreat to “a lonely place” was made after the disciples returned from a preaching/evangelizing tour, and the purpose was for them to decompress and “rest awhile”. (Mark 6:30-32) They travelled across the sea in a boat, and a large crowd kept sight of the craft all the while skirting the shoreline quickly enough to meet Jesus and his party on the other shore. So the scene is of a large crowd of diverse people in the wilderness with negligible provision for self-maintenance.
Jesus puts a frame around the dilemma when he questions the apostle Phillip:
“How are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?”
Phillip’s response typifies my own response many times when in a similar situation:
“Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little!”
When seeing great need, it is easy to become overwhelmed with my inability to meet either my own need, or that of another. Peter’s brother Andrew at least scours the crowd to find resources of some type, and he approaches Jesus with a possibility: “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?” Even while he is enterprising enough to at least look for an answer for the problem, he perceives his efforts and the found provision from his search, to be inadequate for the need. So Jesus instructs the people to sit down, and is doing so they…
…end their searching
…give themselves over to the provision of Jesus
…stop striving
…stop arguing
…stop grabbing
…they wait
And…
…the little boy gives
…Jesus receives
…Jesus prays, asks and receives God’s blessing
… He breaks and gives
…the people receive
…they break and give.
…they receive nourishment from God’s provision
…and give from their brokenness which has been blessed by God
…for the nourishment of their neighbor.
Twelve baskets were left after all the people were filled, satisfied, and nourished. This is a picture of the economy of God.
I mentioned earlier that my understanding of “self-denial” is undergoing a change. Honestly, I don’t completely see the picture God is trying to trace for me about how this concept works; but I am beginning to understand that “self-denial” is less about what activities we DON’T undertake, but more about the practices we DO! It has to do with what we receive from God. God’s provision is tricky, and frequently in packages we don’t expect. Sometimes God’s provision comes in a miraculous bounty meant for both our nourishment, and that we might be a conduit of nourishment for others. Other times God’s provision comes in brokenness, and the manner in which we receive it allows us to still be a means of nourishment for the souls of others. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.
I must confess, though, that being open to love people in their brokenness can hurt. It is a strong temptation to become so engaged with the hurt of another, especially when they are self-medicating, that you can become sucked into looking for nourishment from empty calories as well. Love invites another into healthy love which brings nourishment to the soul, yet is willing to accept the rejection of your invitation. That is hard. Yet it is what Jesus practiced all the time. Jesus accepted the pain of loving people that were so enmeshed with their empty-calorie life that they walked away from the full-grain, Bread of Life which was packed with life nourishing qualities they needed to be fully-functioning human beings; in search of a white-bread life stripped of all nutritional value. It is important, as disciples of Jesus, that when we are “fishing for people” we not become entangled in our own nets… While the Bread of God must be received and consumed for our own nutritional needs, it also is broken and shared. Yet it must not be hoarded. It can be easy to hoard our brokenness, rather than allow it to change us into giving people. God’s provision is always generative for the one who receives it, and then shares it.