Monday, August 29, 2011

Birds and Airplanes

The birds are calling from my backyard this morning to their neighbors across the street. The crickets and bullfrogs create a constant chirping hum in the background. I am accustomed to electric and mechanical noises, to computer fans running and cars driving by.

But today, the sound of nature outpaces the sound of humanity.

There is this complex relationship between the sounds of humanity and the sounds of nature. Both noises (at least in the places I have inhabited) coexist at all times, and it is up to our brains to distinguish between the two and choose which one will hold our attention.

This morning I am blessed by the near and urgent calling of the birds. Its volume, cadence, and conversational tone have caught my attention and the opened up my senses to hear the rest of the natural world around me.

But if I allow my ears to lose this focus, I can hear the hum of the cooling units from the bank a half a block away and an airplane overhead.

In the real world, these sounds all coexist and blend together to make up the background noises to our reality. While I'll give no argument against the idea that we have probably far too often paved paradise and put up a parking lot, at the root their is a harmony to these background sounds of the world and no need for us to create a false dichotomy.

The same is true for the human and divine.

Perhaps it is too much drinking from the moonshine of the mystics, but if the incarnation holds meaning, it must show us that God intends no false dichotomies between the human and divine. Those previous boundaries are swallowed up in the person of Christ, the One in Whom Everything Belongs.

In Christ (both in his earthly life and now through His spirit) there is a beautiful harmony present in the world, being sung by the Creator over the creation, with parts written widely for creation to join in.

But so long as we are concerned with whether or not others are singing the right parts, we will miss the primary Voice that holds all things together, creating harmony where there should be cacophany and peace where there should be tension.

For my part, I hope that my ears will be tuned to hear that Voice, whether it be faint or loud, so taht I can join in the song. I think we all have this longing to be a part of something greater than ourselves.

In each moment, I am presented with that opportunity.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Attention to the Now

I talk often (probably with anyone who will listen) about God existing neither in past nor in future, but only in the present. But it is difficult to pay attention to the present. Throughout the Lenten season, I've been trying to figure out how to focus on the now, how to pay attention to what matters, how to live into constant prayer. The distractions are plentiful, and they want to drag us all down into meaninglessness. But there is real life in the present, if only we could pay attention.

So, I've decided these past few days to try to write a bit of poetry (though it borders on prose). I'm going to share here some of that, over the next few days, as I seek to keep my head out of the clouds or other places and keep my heart centered here.

The Rocking Chair

The rocking chair
is underused these days
and the world suffers for it.

The only creaks and moans it makes these days
are faint echoes, teased out by the blown wind across empty spindles
that no longer bear the weight of the tangible,
but bear the weight of sorrow, emptiness, and loneliness with the same gentle comfort.

Across the world, bombs explode.
Hearts explode with sorrow as the anger of ideologues
is played out through the spilled blood of those who serve
what they believe has to be the greater good.
The cries of children call forth with expended energy the rumbling of their distended bellies
as the belches of the gluton fill the world with the noxious gas of indifference.

Why make a being with such a capacity of hate?

Wars are waged, one after the other.
The apocalypse is at hand and the rocking chair sits empty.

The problem may seem global, but the porch is the battleground
of indifference where the large problems of the world might still be subverted
by the gift of empathy born out of community.

The rocking chair cries out -
We belong to each other.

But its voice is blocked out by locked front doors
by devestating headlines
by blaring televisions.

In church, a place with its own mixed track record, we
used to call each other brother and sister.
We used to define neighbor expansively, if homogeneously.

Now, even the deoxyribonucleic acid in the blood in our veins that makes
us the same is not strong enough to defeat
the magnetic draw of soul-less individualism.
We all march to the beat of a different drummer with no regard
for the way our rhythm fits with the rest of the world.

We've lost our way, the rocking chair cries, and I pause to look upon its loneliness.

I sit.
I sit and begin.
I sit and begin to rock.
I sit and begin to rock, and the rhythm that emerges belongs to us all,
provides the backbeat to the hope of our words and hearts with one another.

In the creaking and sliding I belong to you and you to me,
the rhythm ready to call us back home to where we belong with one another,
siblings under the same roof,
more same than different.

All is not subsumed or lost but found in this rhythm,
beginning with me.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Getting Lost

Earlier this week, a dear friend posted on my Facebook wall the following statement, "only 1 thing -- oct?" My reply was, "Hm?"

That's right, it's been so long since I have written here, what was going to be a fairly regular blog, that I had no idea what she was talking about. It was almost like I had forgotten that I even had a blog. I certainly didn't remember what the name of it was. This is one of the purposes of community, to remind us of the goals we set for ourselves. Sometimes that's the only chance we have of succeeding at all.

Of course, I shouldn't be surprised that I failed to follow through on the whole blogging thing. In my basement, on top of one of my bookshelves, there is a group of journals about a foot and a half wide, held upright by bookends, each one equally void of completion. It's only by my consumeristic drive that there are so many of them. If I was smart, I'd keep a journal until I was finished with it, and then only buy another after I had finished the first.

If that was the way I had done it, I'd probably only have one journal. Even if all the wonderful entries had been combined from all the different journals, I'd only have enough for the first third of a decent sized journal. Or at least that would have been the case until recently. I've just finished filling up my first whole journal. It's a black Moleskine, unlined, that I keep with me at all times and fill with various musings, prayers, drawings (like the sketch of the sweet tattoo I'm thinking of getting), and wedding and funeral services. I don't remember when I bought it, but I do know that it has been well used - it's coming apart at the seams. I don't intend to brag about finishing the journal, but it has taught me something about myself that applies to this blog as well.

I have learned that I like new journals because they are unburdened by the failure of the past entries in old journals. Let me explain. When I make a journal entry (or most any entry), I put the date in a box at the top. It seems as good a way to do it as any to me. The trouble is, when weeks or months go by between posts, I feel like a failure. Like I've let myself down once again. So, the easiest solution, much easier than facing my own inability to stick with such a venture, is to buy a new journal so I can get it right the next time.

That's not how life works, fortunately. If we could trade out our perceived failures for "fresh starts," we'd never get very far. Now I know we've all been told that Jesus wants to give you a fresh start, but I don't think that's really it. When he saves a woman from adultery or a gives a man born blind his sight, he doesn't negate with his action who they were before.

Instead, he embraces it.

Jesus offers hope, but it's not a clean neat fresh start. It's a hand up to get going again.

It's that we take that hand that is important. So long as we stay on the ground, or refuse to face the reality of our own inability to be consistent (I'm assuming my problems are normative, right?), we will refuse to move forward into grace and instead seek the magic bullet of a "fresh start" in order to avoid learning from our past perceived mistakes.

So, I'm taking that hand. This time it was offered to me by the words of a friend wondering why I hadn't posted to this blog in so long. And I'll try to make it a little further on my feet this next time. But when I fall down, I won't start over. I'll just get back up - one stumbling step at a time.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why Do It at All?

Even as a pastor, I'd be lying if I said I didn't wonder sometimes why we do this whole church thing. Yes, I know the part of the bible where Paul says to keep meeting together, and I hear that Jesus has a real thing for community. But that said, there are still times when I wonder if we aren't wasting our time, fooling ourselves, pleasing ourselves on Sunday mornings, or doing church in general. But then, I remembered that there is a purpose to this, a point.

The heart is fickle and the will is strong. It is hell-bent on control and on desiring and creating its own outcomes. It deems itself the only player on the stage, demanding that all others deliver their lines and perform their blocking so that the will reigns supreme. It wants to, at the end of any play, shove the other players off the stage and take the bow alone, hoping that the encore will be more of the same. More of its own personal show.

It makes for a boring and meaningless play - a boring and meaningless life.

To assume that I am always the star, the prima dona, to assume that it is always me who is right or me who is to have my will done in any situation is to deny the work of the Director, the Creative Creator who is in all things, pulling this whole thing together.

If there is any star in this metaphor, it is the person of Jesus and we are all his understudies. We watch and read the story, the narrative in the bible, to see how he interacts with all the other players (not just so we read the bible, but to be formed), never making them less important than he is, always making them shine brighter because he is near. We emulate him and memorize his lines because they are for us the words of life.

If we will study, if we will spend time with him, he will make us ready to take his place. He will not move far off, simply off stage but within ear shot, giving us nudges and cues when our words become trapped in our throats.

This is life as we are to know it, studied and full of love. We have watched this scene time and time again, seeing the grace of the master actor (though he is being and not putting on a show) poured out in each and every scene. We have watched him ad lib and riff with the rest of the cast, drawing them into his greatness.

When it is our turn, we turn to the director who nods and gives us that knowing look that he has done his part and he will offer guidance and help, but he has already shown us the star, the model, the one we are to emulate, the one under whom we have studied.

We will hear, from stage left, gentle words of encouragement from the star himself. He is out of sight but still engaged, longing for and willing our success.

And the moment comes, the lights dim, the curtain begins to rise. This is the moment where we must choose, will we innovate, try to do something new, let our will reign? Or will we let the old, old story play itself out through our body, our role, once more.

Some days, the will wins. And we find ourselves lost in the middle of the cast, the audience jeering, buffeted about because we are confused, shocked, dismayed, and frustrated that our play, our lives, our will is not working so well. It is boring and it is petulant. It is hurt by the boos it hears. Our fellow cast members betray us, our families (sitting right in the front row) don't give us the applause and adoration we think we deserve or need. We are lost, alone - a lonely and tragic figure on a crowded stage.

But then we remember that we've seen the star in this same scene on this same stage before. He stood right here. He was in this place. And so, we gather what courage we have left and in our meekest voices we utter one of his lines. We move to his blocking.

And the audience responds with applause.
Our fellow actors walk along with us.

We begin to act with more confidence, really losing ourselves into the role. We begin to realize that everyone on stage with us has the same director, the same star under which to study. What seemed like it would be an abysmal failure turns into rave reviews. We are enlivened by the part we play; in it we have found our true self.

As the last act draws to a close, we find ourselves should to shoulder with our brothers and sisters, our faces glowing with the sweat of our parts well played, our hearts full and spent at the same time, and we realize that this is what we were meant to do all along. This is how it was always supposed to be.

And we hope we remember this same feeling when the curtain rises tomorrow. But between now and then, we show up at rehearsal. Practicing our lines, and learning our part. Until the very core of our being is no longer ours and our will no longer wants the spotlight but simply is ready for the Director's will to be done in us.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Game We Play

A church member with whom I was visiting the other day in his nursing home was explaining to me how he didn't like to go hear many of the preachers who rotated through their facility. He told me that at his age that he'd had enough hellfire and brimstone and didn't need that any more. He told me that people at that stage in life didn't need to hear any of that anyway.

I think he was right on both counts.

He then started to talk to me about the fact that so many in the free church tradition could become preachers and pastors with no formal education. He asked if someone would go to see a surgeon who had never been to med school. He then made a comment that I thought was hilarious - "Some are called, some just came."

Preachers in my tradition talk a lot about being called, about this overt experience where God comes down and taps you on the rear and tells you to get in the game. That is a great experience, an amazing phenomenon, but it negates the fact that there are no bench warmers in life. Everyone is either playing defense or offense for the kingdom, and both teams come from the same bench.

All are called to bear the image of God to the world, to be connected to the Creator.

The problem is that when some of us experience "call" we misinterpret that to mean a call to condemnation and the perpetuation of our own message of differentiation using the Word and ideas of God.

If we could only allow ourselves to feel called to be with God, then we would really learn how to be with each other. I think that most of the time that Jesus spends talking about hell he's referring to those who never really learn what it means to be with each other, what it means to be human.

The eternal butt pat from God is telling us all to get in the game, to live the godward life, to be connected and centered and whole. It is the constant assurance that the one who has created us desires us and loves us. We all fulfill our calling when we operate out of that love, and we all fail our calling when we do not.

It is no simpler nor more complex than that.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I was sitting in the car outside of Target while my son slept and my wife, daughter, and mother-in-law went in to do some shopping. Because Quinn seems very prone to napping while in the car, I have learned to take a book along everywhere or something else to work on while he sleeps. I’ve also noticed that people tend to assume the cars around them are empty when walking through the parking lot.

On this particular day, I was reading something in the backseat when a woman walked past the car on her way to the store and then turned around and walked back. She stopped right in front of my car and began to have a conversation.

“What’re you doing here?” I heard her ask. There was no reply.

“What’re you doing here?” she asked again, her pitch rising a bit as if that was the reason she had received no answer before.

It was then that I noticed that while she was talking, she was looking downward, towards the ground around the cart return. It was also then that I began to notice a squeak or a chirp coming from somewhere near the ground around the cart return. Immediately I thought, “How compassionate. How wonderful. This woman has taken time out of her busy day to turn back from her errand and care for an animal who has been wounded and ignored outside the Target in Longview, TX.”

The conversation continued.

“What’re you doing here?” she asked a third time, like Jesus, reinstating Peter to carry on the ministry of the Kingdom. Here she was bringing healing and life. I stopped even trying to read and watched.

It was then that I noticed that her posture was not one of a healer, but of an aggressor. Her shoulders were driven forward and her face was leaned in toward the still unseen creature on the ground. Perhaps she was frightened that her attempts at kindness would be met with aggression from this wounded animal, and so, she mimicked a posture of aggression herself.

Finally, she made her move.

“I haven’t seen any grackles, what on earth do you think your doing. Shoo, now! You’re not supposed to be here,” she said, and she made a movement toward the bird, chasing it away from picking up the remains of Target food court refuse left on the ground beneath the cart return.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no great defender of the grackle. So far as I know, they are not an animal of particular interest to the Sierra Club. When I lived in Waco, they were a constant nuisance. Anywhere that food might drop, they migrated. They are not birds known for their cleanliness; in fact, they probably carry with them quite a bit of disease. In Waco, there was an employee of the city (or so the legend goes) who was hired simply to ride around town with a shotgun loaded with blanks and fire up in the air to scare the grackles away from various establishments.
To me, they are unattractive and bothersome birds. But really, if they don’t come to my space, where else where they go? Have I built where they used to live?
When I heard this woman talking to the bird, I really wasn’t thinking about the environmental impact of shopping centers, though I have since discovered (through my awesome research skills and Wikipedia) that grackles had their habitat effected by human expansion early on, but now have a pattern of growth with human establishments, due to their ability to adapt and their “resourceful and opportunistic nature.” In other words, we are creating our own problem.
Instead, I was thinking about how those words sounded coming out of her mouth - “You don’t belong here.” 

I was thinking about the way that her posture stood to this small bird.

This woman, who was not large by any human standards, stood towering over this bird who was bothering her, who was not to her liking.
How often, and to whom do we say, “You don’t belong here?” 
How many of our systems say to other groups, “You don’t belong here?”
How many of our churches say to outsiders (be they outsiders based on religion, color, creed, race, marital status, or sexual orientation) “You don’t belong here?”
This is not a political concern for me. My faith is larger than my politics. This is a God issue for me. God, this One who is trying to bring everything together...I wonder what God thinks of the boundaries we are so hell bent on drawing in order to protect our own interests.
I’ve been reading a book called The Scapegoat by Rene’ Girard. His contention (in his reading of historical persecution texts) is that when things go wrong, the dominant power always seeks a group on which to place the blame (a blaring oversimplification, just read the book). When I look around me, in a society where faith and politics are intermingled and where the culture is shifting, I see dangerous patterns of blame and boundary drawing emerging from people who are confessing with their mouths that “Jesus is Lord.”
If Jesus is Lord, then we must understand that he is Lord of all, and let our actions follow that belief. Jesus may be my Lord, but I am professing that he is Lord of all. If that’s the case, then who am I to exclude my brother from the table. Not the table of America, the table of Life, the table of Christ. 
My hope and my prayer is that the posture of my life would be open. My shoulders would be relaxed and my face drawn in a permanent smile that welcomes the world to the God I know. My prayer is that God would eradicate in my life the word of negation the don’t that breathes in my small and scared self. May it be replaced by the affirmation of my sacred self so that with my life I take the time to turn around and say, “You belong here” to all the grackles (myself included) that I may encounter.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Looking Up

A few nights ago, we spent the night in a hotel while I was at an event for my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Staying in a hotel makes putting the kids to bed a bit difficult as they must sleep in the same space, a different space than the ones to which they are accustomed. Sophia loves this, it means that she gets to watch TV and sleep in a queen sized bed all by herself. Quinn, on the other hand, doesn't really know what to make of it. He normally requires a lot of work to put down, having to be reassured time and time again that we are not going to leave him in this strange space by himself.

As I was working with him to get him to drift off, I was able to watch what he does in a new way. The light in the hotel room was much brighter than the pitch black that is the norm for his room at night. As I watched him work to find a place and rest and comfort I thought about how my own struggles are grown up versions of his own. In the following poem, I tried to convey what it was that I was thinking about while I watched him.

I watch him
Squeezing and squirming
Working and straining
Trying to find that place of comfort 
In a sea of space where he feels alone
His companions are there 
And he reaches for them and is reassured
He rises, making sure of my watching him
I reach out, my arm stretched tight against the side of his world
And place the weight of my palm on the small of his back
Letting him know that I am there
His head drops back and he works back towards comfort
Finally he breathes deep and stirs no more
His back softly rising with the fabric of existence 
Moving in and out of his lungs
I am no different
I  look in a lonely world comfort to find
Finding my companions I seek the boundaries
I strive and struggle
Squeeze and squirm
Losing myself in work and the toil of it all
Until finally I look up and make sure that I too am being watched
It is the constant reminder
That the hand on my back is connected to the smile
On the face of the one who sits both in and out of my world
And that smile is for me
It is comfort that all is well and shall be well
If only I will remember to look up

I hope that we can remember to look up and see that smile. It's there for all of us, you know.