Saturday, December 22, 2007

Running to the window...

...he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!

"What's to-day?" cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.``

"Eh?" returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

"What's to-day, my fine fellow?" said Scrooge.

"To-day?" replied the boy. "Why, Christmas Day!"

"It's Christmas Day!" said Scrooge to himself. "I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can..."

This is going to be a very different sort of Christmas for us. It will just be our nuclear (or nucular, if your last name is Bush) family. I have had mixed emotions about this (the holiday and the Bush family). We will miss our extended families very much. Still, I welcome, with hearty embrace, the opportunity to form and/or seal our own traditions this holiday season. As the day draws closer, I can actually feel my excitement growing. It’s been a while.

Midweek I helped deliver Angel Tree gifts and baked goods to the children of inmates. I have to say, it wasn't entirely what I expected. I'm not sure what I expected. But, it was really wonderful all the same.

For a variety of reasons, we have had to budget more conservatively this year. Ordinarily this wouldn't be such a big deal because our children would be overloaded with packages from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins galore! I think our tree has a total of about 8 presents beneath it as I type. None of them are terribly impressive. I hear Santa is bringing something really cool. That old coot will be getting credit for the big excitement on Christmas day. Oh well. His gift is consistent with our thinking this year. We want our big Christmas gift to each other to be about family and quality time.

As for our gifts to friends, we baked. It was fun time with the kids. We mixed batter, decorated cookies, loaded the goodies into tins... the whole thing. We wanted the gifts truly to be from all of us. We spent a good deal of our allotted Christmas funds on our other gift to family and friends. This gift is another first for us. Tuesday night, Kris, the boys and I signed cards that began...

This season, we, as a family, have chosen to give our gifts, not to you, but from a heart and shared evangelistic passion along with you...

Instead of shopping for dozens of people who, like ourselves, need very little, we made a sizable donation in the names of these persons to an international organization, providing Bibles to individuals and families worldwide. I know, I know… it all sounds so very George Costanza and the “human fund.” But hey, we figure since God has so generously demonstrated His love to each of us through the gift of His Son, the least we could do is give the hope of that gift to others this season.

There are a couple of people on the list who may not appreciate their gift so much this year. Ah, but they won't be able to say anything. To show disdain for something like this would be selfish and tacky. [insert satisfied, evil laugh here] Seriously though, a few of the cards have already been received and have, so far, met with heartfelt smiles and warm, generous gratitude.

Funny thing is, I'm not really sure I cared all that much what people thought. Of course I hope the gift represents something of value to each recipient. Regardless, this is what we felt we should do, what we wanted to do. At least for this year, it was the right thing to do. And a season that, in the past, has largely fed my frustration and cynicism concerning the exploitation and churchification of God's gifts to humanity, has become a real joy to me. [Yes, you read that right. I’m not talking about the secularization of Christmas in the world market. It seems to me the church has gratuitously commercialized Christ’s birth, reducing God’s astounding sacrifice for mankind to warm, fuzzy images of angels and shepherds and wise men and children singing “Silent Night” softly by candlelight and pageants starring flannel board caricatures and “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” bumper stickers. But, that said, I retire, take a deep breath and walk purposefully away from my soapbox.] In fact, I'm not even approaching this Sunday's kid's choir screechfest and cat-killing with the usual dread. I think something's wrong with me Marley. Quick, call Bob Cratchit!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated...

In 1976, when Laverne and Shirley locked arms and went skipping down the streets of Milwaukee, their credo seemed so noble. It was all so convincing. Taking the world by storm, facing all fears head on, words like…

We’re gonna do it! Give us any chance, we’ll take it. Give us any rule, we’ll break it…

Nothin’s gonna turn us back now. Straight ahead and on the track now…

There is nothing we won’t try. Never heard the word impossible. This time there’s no stopping us…

And we’ll do it our way, yes our way. Make all our dreams come true, for me and you.

The trouble is, dreams come and dreams go. Which dreams do you chase? Seriously. Set aside the “power of positive thinking,” the humanistic “doin’ it our way” part and what do you have? Tenacity, dedication, determination, hope… nothing wrong with that. But applied to what?

Mind you, I have always been something of a pragmatist, yet I find myself strangely intrigued, intoxicated even, by this idea of an all-consuming dream. Even so, I’m not sure I have ever sold out to this kind of vision. Have I? Should I?

There is a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine is to read and review a manuscript for a job interview at Viking Press. Only, she doesn’t know of the assignment and, through a twist of disastrous circumstances, must rely on Kramer (who, consequently, has read the book) and his thoughts on the story.

Elaine: So what's it about?

Kramer: Well it's a story about love, deception, greed, lust and... unbridled enthusiasm.

Elaine: unbridled enthusiasm...?

Kramer: Well, that's what led to Billy Mumphrey's downfall.

Elaine: Oh! boy.

Kramer: You see Elaine, Billy was a simple country boy. You might say a cockeyed optimist, who got himself mixed up in the high stakes game of world diplomacy and international intrigue.

I have a good friend who has these big dreams (or at least he used to)—I mean, wonderfully grand visions of what lay ahead for him and his life. I believe wholeheartedly that he possesses the raw talent to see these dreams come to life. Still, he lacks the tenacity, discipline and overall faith in himself to ever come close. He has had a couple of false starts and minor failed attempts at moving toward his visions, but he has never been a serious contender. Cockeyed optimist, yes. Enthusiastic, sometimes. Unbridled, not so much. I fear the viability of his “dreams” will soon time out.

I remember friends growing up who, like Billy Mumphrey, were certainly optimistic, unbridled enthusiasts, but they lacked the fundamental talent, were devoid of (or at least seriously limited on) the resources necessary to make any serious attempt.

I have another close friend who has, at points in life, possessed both the attitude and the talent, all of these things and more… personally, that is. But, the rest of his life (relationships, placement, timing) and his external resources have kept his many sincere and noble attempts from reaching any real level of measurable success.

So, given the seemingly inevitable frustration dreamers face, why would, why should one give such noble gauge to these lofty hopes?

This is not a question that can be answered with a casual Proverbs 29:18 retort. You know that whole, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” business. This is one of those cases, in my opinion, where the King James Version does a really lousy job. Literally translated the verse reads more like, “Without a vision is a people made naked, and whoever is keeping the law, O his happiness.” (YLT) The Hebrew word the KJV translates as “perish” is iphro which basically means “to loosen or become unbridled.” By implication it can also mean “to expose, dismiss, bare or uncover.”

The New Living translates the verse, “When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases, “If people can't see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves; But when they attend to what he reveals, they are most blessed.” (The Message) I like that. It actually seems more true to the original language.

Furthermore, I like those definitions of a dream, a vision—“to accept divine guidance or to see what God is doing.” And I like the subsequent proper pursuit identifiers, “obedience” and “attending to what He reveals.” I love that pursuing this kind of dream in this fashion leads to words like “joy” and “blessing.”

I believe passions often come from God, especially the kind that are born deep within the soul, revealed over and over in many different forms. Still, I’m not sure all dreams, passions, visions are to be pursued—lived out to some sort of actualization. They only work, they only really make sense when they are, indeed, coupled with or steeped in or born of “divine guidance”—when they are “what God is doing.” Any other attempt to live your dreams seems like quite a long shot. On the merit of my dreams alone, I am the undisputed underdog. “What God is doing,” dream or no dream, feels like a much safer bet.

And so, the dilemma seems all too obvious. If dreams are important (and in spite of myself I believe they must be), what is God doing and do I dream it? If I am dreaming it, does that necessarily mean He’s guiding it? Is that a matter of trusting Him to “make all our dreams come true?” Or, is it in the surrender of our dreams that we find His? The tragedy of it all is that my struggles with these questions have reduced many of my would-be dreams to fleeting fantasies. I don’t know… is that even really such a tragedy? I guess it depends on “what God is doing.”

Sunday, December 9, 2007

"Why is it you only feel the thorns... your feet when you stop running?" I love this quote from the film, "Amazing Grace," released this past February. We watched it again last night. (I saw it twice in the theater. I just received the DVD for my birthday.) The line is spoken by Prime Minister William Pitt to his long time friend William Wilberforce. They have been racing barefoot through the grounds of “Wilber's” estate and have slowed as they approach the house. Wilberforce questions in reply, "Is that some sort of heavy handed metaphorical advice for me Mr. Pitt?" "Yes, I suppose it is," Pitt says pausing. "We must keep going. Keep going fast." [jabbing Wilber in the stomach and taking off in a run]

There were a number of memorable (and quotable) moments in the film. There is a line spoken by Wilber’s wife-to-be, Barbara Spooner…"It seems to me, that if there is a bad taste in your mouth, you spit it out. You don't constantly swallow it back." This is a creed by which many might argue I already live. I’m not sure that is entirely true. But I do think there is a big difference between turning “the other cheek” and spiritual/personal compromise. The former is kind to all as, by Christ’s example, the principle demonstrates grace and a higher sense of personal value than that which is satisfied by simple retaliation seeking vindication. The latter is cruel to all; both the one who compromises, hiding or avoiding the truth in the name of grace, and the one who is robbed of ever feeling truth’s weight or is, in genuine grace, required to respond to it.

So, here it is, from where my grace ends and where God’s must begin: You see, I had forgotten about this moment in the film until last night. It leapt out at me like a tiger at his prey. In general, I am pretty careful about not taking doctrine from media, anecdote or tradition. Still, I’m not sure this isn’t a sound Scriptural/spiritual concept. “You only feel the thorns… once you stop running.” I’ve been grieved, vexed, if you will, lately by certain layers of negativity that surround me. I am referring to my own attitudes as well as those of others in my world (though each is decidedly different). I often justify my own negativity because of the intentions, the motivations behind it (though these themselves deserve scrutiny). Still, I cannot say the intentions of others are malicious—the motivations, sometimes questionable. But, back to the plank in my own eye.

There are ways (maybe “areas” would be a better word) in which I feel I have stopped moving. I don’t know exactly when it happened. Still, it did. A pause from time to time seems reasonable, even wise, right? Catching one’s breath, assessing the progress, mapping the next leg of the course, enjoying the environment, tending to a wound or an ache, refreshing through nourishment, entertaining the need for rest… But, there are consequences. Loss of momentum, stiffening of the muscles, recognition of pain (the loss of adrenaline), slowing of the heart, a clouding of one’s sense of direction, grappling with the temptation to make camp rather than forge ahead (it is, after all, much easier to stay at rest once one has already established the state—thank you Sir Isaac Newton)...

But William Pitt calls it “feeling the thorns.” Here’s the thing. Thorns hurt. Especially in your feet. And I don’t know anyone who, when in serious pain, cavalierly shrugs it off and moves on. Seriously. When we are in pain, it usually shows in one way or another. Conspicuous observation #2… when we are in pain, we usually do our best to get out of it. Either this, or, if we are narcissists suffering from a victim complex, we juice it for all it’s worth. Our selfishness (or distortion of grace, stipulating others should demonstrate God’s love toward us by our definitions not His) convinces us others should know and care and be responsible in some way for making us feel better about it. Unfortunately, this sounds all too familiar to me.

Right now is a challenging time in the life of the faith community to which I belong (am even a leader). The community itself is MUCH older than I and, I’m afraid it just may be that many of its wonderful members (my friends) have stopped running also. I say this primarily because it seems our complaints and discussions and perspectives sound more like loss of momentum, stiffening of the muscles, recognition of pain (the loss of adrenaline), slowing of the heart, a clouding of one’s sense of direction and grappling with the temptation to make camp rather than forge ahead.

The problem is with that idiot Newton. How do you get the proverbial ball rolling again once it is at rest.

Rest, hmmm, that sounds WAY too nice. I have been thinking for some time that what I needed most was to catch my breath, to get a good handle on where I am and where I’m going, to map out the next leg of the course, to learn to take in and find joy in my environment, to heal and settle into the ease of restoration, to be nourished and rest. But, now I’m thinking these things may not be hiding where my best logic dictates they should be found. Maybe they were never in the stopping. Maybe the thorns don’t need fixing. Maybe they don’t matter as much as I think they do. Maybe they are a lame attempt at distraction (lame but effective by election). Maybe I need to leave them alone and just start running again. Not running away from the thorns. Just running the course ahead. I don’t think it would take long before I stop feeling their sting. You know they say adrenaline is the best pain killer. I imagine purpose is pretty potent as well.

Luke 9:57-62 (The Cost of Following Jesus)

As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.”

He said to another person, “Come, follow me.” The man agreed, but he said, “Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.”

Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.” But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Wouldn't you know...

...I decide to launch a public blog and I have nothing to write about. Okay, that's not exactly true. I always have stuff to write about. I am, after all, still breathing in and out. (Forgive the sentences ending in prepositions. I fear I'm becoming a descriptivist in my old age.) What I mean is, I can't just post the random life stuff or my personal rants or, well, just or... no one wants to read that, not even me. So, here I sit, trying to think of something brilliant and thoughtful and deep and all I can think of is "dang it, I forgot to give Mark his birthday card."

On a more personal front, I entertained an absolutely noxious thought line today. I have no idea why (the old man rears his ugly head—why can't he just stay dead). And, though God and I had a long conversation about it (in which I offered my pathetic apology and He offered His astounding patience and unyielding grace), I'm still fighting feelings of distance.

It is amazing how quickly one can lose a sense of closeness with another, that is, with God and with other people. Gaining relational ground seems so difficult at times. But losing it—the most simple thing in the world.

As for God, I know the closeness, the intimacy is not really gone. I'm not talking realities, just feelings. Still, feelings are powerful and the way we respond to them can very much shape our realities.

People? Well, that's another story entirely. Unfortunately, MANY people equate feelings with reality. If they feel a certain way about something or someone then that is the way it is. They cannot be convinced otherwise until something causes them to feel differently.

I read this today. Haven't yet wrapped my head around all that is here. But it seems somehow apropos.

John 8

31 Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. 32 And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33 “But we are descendants of Abraham,” they said. “We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?”

34 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. 35 A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. 37 Yes, I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message. 38 I am telling you what I saw when I was with my Father. But you are following the advice of your father.”

39 “Our father is Abraham!” they declared.

“No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. 40 Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. 41 No, you are imitating your real father.”

They replied, “We aren’t illegitimate children! God himself is our true Father.”

42 Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. 43 Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! 44 For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! 46 Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.”

I am amazed at how quickly we digress from "Jesus said to the people who believed in him" to "but you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God." What's up with that? Seems all He was really asking them to do was be free and, in response, they outright denied their very need for freedom. They didn't feel bound so they must not be. Right? I wonder if the inverse is true? If I don't feel close or righteous or free... hmmmm... what does that mean?