Thursday, December 31, 2009

10... 9... 8... 7... 6...

A friend from years gone by posted this statement today on a social networking site…
Dear 2009: We are so over. You've been the most miserable year of my life. You lied to me, stole from me, and betrayed me. Worst of all, you shattered my heart without once looking back. But you know what? You will never destroy me because I am strength personified. Don't let my door smack you in the ass as you leave--good riddance!
I began a response. “Actually, it sounds like you owe a lot to 2009.” I should have stopped there but, instead, continued with something about how our character is more clearly defined in difficulty than by ease or even triumph. Impossible though it may seem, the message actually went downhill from there, attenuating to a level of triviality traditionally reserved for cheap fortune cookies. I quickly back-spaced the thoughts into cyber oblivion.

The truth is, in many ways, I share her sentiment. 2009 was not my favorite year and I can't say I'm sorry to see it go. I too find myself happily looking ahead.

Even so, I am not a big New Year resolution guy. Fresh starts? Great. Resolve and subsequent discipline? Let’s go. But, quixotic visions of new identity inspired by a superficial delineation of time? Good luck with that. Still, these superficial delineations are the framework for the world in which I must functionally exist. And, while I don’t believe it possible to make a clean break of the things I don’t like about who, what, and where I am, just because the year is coming to a close; change must find its beginning.

I am seldom completely unaware of the consequences of my actions. I live much more intentionally than that. However, that does not mean potential consequences are the major motivation for many of my choices—especially those I have or will come to regret most. No. Those choices are usually motivated by selfishness, immediacy, even apathy; regardless of any impending consequences.

I cannot speak of my resolve. I will make no personal promises. I'm not sure anyone ever really does. I think it is more accurate to say we have New Year desires—New Year hopes. So, what I long for in the New Year is to live in the full implication and reality of the statements made by a follower of Jesus, two millennia ago.
God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn't deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn't deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God's action in them find that God's Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn't pleased at being ignored.

But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won't know what we're talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God's terms. It stands to reason, doesn't it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he'll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ's!

So don't you see that we don't owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There's nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God's Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It's adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike "What's next, Papa?" God's Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what's coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we're certainly going to go through the good times with him!

Romans 8:3-17 [1]

1. Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.

Monday, November 30, 2009

James and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I want to sleep in. I do. But as the autumn sunrise brightens the room, the anticipation of adventure stirs my soul. It’s more angst than anything, really. There is still much to do before we can leave. I’ve yet to take a family vacation for which we were anywhere near prepared when the day of departure arrived. The reservations have been made, the time frame for hitting the road has been discussed, but my wife and I carry in our heads two different versions of a last minute "to do" list and we are far from ready. We dig out the ice chest and load up bags with snacks and paper products for picnic lunches. We throw our clothes into a suitcase and remind the boys to pack their toothbrushes. I’ve made eight road trip mix CDs—a little travelling music. We load the mountain bikes on the back of the SUV, make sure the house is secure, and we’re off. Two hours later than I would have liked, but we are on the road all the same.

Our destination is only a little over an hour away, but Thanksgiving traffic may stretch the trip a bit. As we near the halfway point, I get a phone call from my mother. She and my father are camping for the holiday in the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma. She has called to wish us a happy Thanksgiving, but the conversation, as it often will, encompasses a much broader range of topics. Just before we say our goodbyes, I notice the light indicating the pressure in my right rear tire has dropped below an acceptable level. A few exits go by and I pull off the freeway to add a bit more air. I plug in our small emergency compressor and proceed around to the rear of the vehicle only to discover a near flat tire. I can actually hear the hissing as the air escapes. I feel around the tread. My hand is met by a forceful stream flowing from where the inner sidewall meets the tread line.

The SUV is heavy laden with “necessary” provisions for our adventure. The bikes and bike rack prohibit the opening of the back door (from whence the spare is lowered and where the jack is stored). The spare, if I could get to it, is not full sized and would be inadequate for the journey (Joshua Tree National Park with an itinerary to include some back country travel). And, though our tires are under warranty with a major auto chain, it’s Thanksgiving Day and no one will be open.

Now, I understand that in the grand scheme of life, this is by no means tragic. However, in moments like these, when the excitement of actually getting away—the urgency I feel deep inside to escape to adventure is so palpable I can almost hear the movie score in my head, I have to tell you, I wasn’t taking it so well.

There is a Walmart half a block away (isn’t there always). Anyone who knows me will tell you I am not a fan. All right, that is a gross understatement. If it were 30 degrees below zero and a trip to Walmart meant the difference between a long, warm, happy life and slowly freezing to death, alone in the bitter cold, I'm still not sure I'd give Sam Walton the satisfaction.

Digression aside, I pull around to the auto center to see that they are chaining up the service bay entrances. It is almost noon and it looks as though they are closing the automotive department for the day. I enter the store and walk the aisles looking for God only knows what when I spot a can of aerosol flat repair for SUVs. I know what you are thinking. “DON’T DO IT! IT’S A TRAP!” But, “safe for tire sensors” is printed right on the side of the can and I’m desperate. If this can of flat repair will just get me to the hotel, I can unload the vehicle, change the tire, and formulate a more permanent solution from there. If it doesn’t work, I’m right back where I started, right? WRONG!

I follow the instructions precisely. Flat repair fluid comes gushing out of the hole in my tire and is now running down the parking lot. Subsequent steps call for driving a couple of miles to let the fluid evenly distribute and for the pressure to build, after which, once the leak is sealed, if the tire is still not fully inflated, more air can be added. I drive around a parking lot for about 10 minutes. When I stop, no more hissing. It worked! Even so, the tire is still 12-15 lbs low on pressure. I try to inflate it. The compressor nearly explodes. It seems as if no air can get through the valve stem.

I drive back to the retailer (whose name I dare not type three times in one post). Three mechanics are standing around in front of the auto center. As suspected, they have closed for the day. I approach the trio. They stop and look at me like I’ve just interrupted a nuclear disarmament summit.

Mechanic: “Do you need something?”

Me: “I have a question… well, more of a story really.” (I proceed to tell them what has transpired)

Mechanic: “You shouldn’t have done that.”

Me: “You think?”

Mechanic: “You probably messed up your sensor. They cost $50 to replace.”

Me: “But it says right on the side of the can that it is safe for tire pressure sensors.”

Mechanic: “Yeah, I don’t know why it says that. The repair fluid is designed to plug holes. It doesn’t know an air pressure sensor or the valve stem from any other hole. It just plugs everything.”

Me: “All right. On to ‘plan B’ then. Thanks.”

They all three give me the look. You know the one. It was like I'd just asked Pavarotti if he knew how to sing “Glow Little, Glow Worm.” Then, fully satisfied that they have exercised due disdain, they return to their conversation as if the annoying interlude had never taken place. Don’t get me wrong. This is completely expected. It happens to me nearly every time I take my car in for any kind of repair. I have come to believe most auto mechanics, physicians, college professors, a large portion of France, and Barbara Boxer are all cut from the same cloth.

I understand what it means to be annoyed by people who just don’t get it. But, who am I to judge elective stupidity? What I don’t know about a lot of things is… well, a lot. There exists a universal bank of information that socially productive individuals should probably know. The impact of a consumer marketed flat repair product on the inner workings of tire sensors is not in this standard repertoire. Even so, teach me what I need to know and don’t assume I’m incapable of comprehending or patronize me for having somehow missed this day in "life-school." In eighth grade, when given the choice of electives, I chose Spanish over shop. Sue me. [the writer gently steps down from his soap box]

So, now stressed to the point of internal frenzy, I remove the bikes, unload the cargo hold, and proceed to change the tire. We unpack our picnic lunch (which has now become road trip fare) and return home. For the second time we unload the vehicle and for the third time load (now into our small sedan) our supplies. Nearly five hours after we first left our home, we arrived at our destination. It was 45 minutes before sunset when we entered the park.

And that is how our wonderful Thanksgiving vacation began. Really. We had a great time. Funny how the highs and lows of life can come at you in such rapid fire. Funny how quickly and easily an otherwise reasonable grown-up can revert to what is tantamount to a toddler meltdown (at least on the inside). Funny how, just like the toddler, with a little time, something to eat, and a place to get out and run, all of the angst can just melt away.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Know Me

Regardless of how much easier it might seem for you…

I am not the sum of nor am I defined by what I’ve done.
I am not confined to the implications you assign to what I’ve said.
I am not concerned with my appearance—how you see me.
I am not responsible for maintaining your good feelings.
I am not limited to your experience with me.
I am not conscripted to only the things I’ve promised.
I am not beholden to you.
I am not inconsistent.
I am not predictable.
I am not controllable.
I AM God.
“...everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.” - Paul

Monday, October 26, 2009

Aloysius Snuffleupagus

I very much enjoy the writings of Donald Miller. I am proud to be one of the few people who actually bought Searching for God Knows What and Through Painted Deserts (yes, he has written quite a bit since Blue Like Jazz). Last week I finished reading his newest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

I know this girl (we’ll call her Big Bird) who used to constantly talk about her “friend,” (we’ll call her Snuffleupagus). Snuffy was Big Bird’s roommate. But, every time we went to visit Bird, Snuffy wasn’t home. Big Bird would regale us with wonderful tales of misadventure and mayhem involving herself and Snuffleupagus. But, alas, Snuffy never materialized. Eventually, there were photos on the wall of the notorious (yet ever illusive) Snuffleupagus. Photoshop magic? We began to wonder if “Snuffy” was really just Big Bird’s alter ego. One evening we attended a party, of sorts, at Big Bird’s house and, low and behold, there was Snuffleupagus (or at least the actor hired to play her to throw us off the trail). She hung around for 20 minutes or so and then vanished. That was a few years ago. We’ve not seen her since.

I know this guy (we’ll call him Gordon) with whom I lunch from time to time. Last week, over Asian food, we started discussing life and faith. The conversation went something like this (I will undoubtedly embellish. That is a writer’s prerogative, you understand.)

Gordon: Growing up, I was always taught that the most important thing a Christian is to do is make more Christians. But, how can I convince someone else of something if I have so many unanswered questions about it myself?

Me: Like what? What do you mean?

Gordon: Imagine you’ve grown up being taught that all of the answers to life's questions and everything you ever need to know about God can be found in this book. The book tells you how much God loves you and cares for you. Then, as an adult you start to look into this book, where it came from, how it came together… you look around at the world you live in and you see all of these inconsistencies. Even things in the book itself don’t seem to always add up. People around you ask you all kinds of questions about your faith, what you believe and why, but your answers often seem to come up short—both for them and for you. What if you are discovering that maybe God isn’t who you thought He was. You’ve had undeniable experiences with Him, but you don’t know how they fit into your understanding of who He is.

Me: Academically speaking, the Bible is a loose collection of writings spanning hundreds of years, removed from their original context, translated, organized and distributed by believers in Jehovah; followers of Jesus, the Christ. Whatever you believe about it from there, know and understand the limitations, apart from Divine insight, we most definitely have in understanding the intent and context of each writer. Would it really represent a compromise to who God is for one writer in one time and place to have one experience with Him and yet another to have a different understanding? The story of the three blind men describing an elephant comes to mind.

Gordon: Yeah, I get that. But where does that leave me? Then there is the whole,” if God is so loving, why is there so much tragedy and suffering in the world?” argument. Where are the biblical answers to that? If I can’t find God there, where do I find Him?

Me: Exactly. That is exactly my point. You have to stop trying to find God IN the Bible and start letting God speak to you through it. The Bible isn’t merely a means to knowing God. You can acquire an exhaustive knowlege of the Bible and still not know God. I had a professor in college who had a master’s degree in biblical studies. He knew more about scripture than I did but didn’t believe in God at all. He had only pursued the degree because of his fascination with the Bible as literature. Literary understanding of a book won’t connect you to God. Hermeneutically reconciling any contradictions between accounts by various biblical authors is not the secret to knowing God. I do, however, believe the Bible is the principle of quite a few different ways God can speak to us. It is also a good way for us to get caught up on this grander story—who He has been and wants to be in relationship to humanity; to creation.

Would you believe me if I told you I knew the author, Donald Miller?

Gordon: Probably. You haven’t given me any reason to believe you would lie to me.

Me: Okay, so you would believe me based on the nature of my character as you know it. Fine. Good, in fact… thank you for that. But, say you had doubts. What would it take for me to convince you that I know Donald Miller? Keep in mind, I’m very familiar with his writings. I’m his social networking “friend.” I could share with you life stories and personal information regarding Donald’s likes, dislikes, childhood struggles and hang-ups. On my facebook page, you can see a recent photo of the two of us (his arm around my shoulder). I can even show you words written to me in his own hand.[1] Would that be enough for you?

Gordon: Probably not.

Me: So, what would it take? What would you need to believe that I knew Donald Miller?

Gordon: Well, I guess I would have to see the two of you together.

Me: There you go. God isn’t asking us to convince anyone that He is. We can’t. What’s to keep thinking people from concluding God is just an elaborate myth if all you have to show for Him are artifacts, stories and organizations? But what if they saw us together? What if they met my friend, God, instead of my book or my church or my empirical evidence? What would that look like? What would that be like? Suddenly, it is God’s responsibility to prove that He is (something He is certainly capable of doing with or without me). But, it is my responsibility to know Him and to make our friendship public. I’m not talking about TBN, here. I’m talking about friendship, not salesmanship. Besides, we are charged to “go and make disciples”—not “new converts.”
My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore… Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.[2]
Right now, Snuffleupagus is featured in Big Bird’s facebook profile photo. I recognize her. I’ve met her, but I don’t know her. It is unlikely that anyone will ever see me and Snuffy together. She is Big Bird’s friend, not mine. While I am sure she is a wonderful person, I have no real desire to call up Big Bird and get Snuffy’s contact information. I don’t imagine my wife and I will be inviting her to dinner any time soon. You see, Snuffleupagus hasn’t really been a part of our relationship with Big Bird.
I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.[ibid.]
By the way, God says "hi."

1. All of this is true, though not what it seems (or as creepy as it sounds). I read his blog. He autographed my copy of A Million Miles and I took a photo with him at the book signing.

2. Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Onan the Barbarian

I was hiking and talking with a friend the other day. He said something about faith community pleasuring itself. Yep, you read that correctly. He used the term masturbation to describe the selfishness of some Christian communities. Any attempt on my part to recapture his point here would be inadequate. I won’t try. Even so, while it was clear he was referring to the idea of masturbation, not the literal act, the negative connotation was still conspicuous and intentional. Curious, since the Bible says nothing directly about the issue. Many, however, feel it does make strong inference.

In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul lists a number of people (by the activities in which they engage) who will not “inherit the Kingdom of God.” Included in the list is the ancient Greek word “malakoi” which seems to have been understood by many early Christians as a person with “soft morals.” The 1611 translation of the Bible into English interprets the word as “effeminate” (a weak man). By Martin Luther’s day, the popular translation for the word was “masturbators.” In fact, as late as 1967, this designation still appeared in the Catholic Encyclopedia. The more recent Bible translations assign a reference to same-sex acts.

In Genesis 38, the author writes of Judah and his three sons; Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married a woman named Tamar but, because he was wicked, God killed him before an heir could be conceived. Judah told Onan to “lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.” [1] But Onan knew that the kid wouldn’t be his and, every time he slept with Tamar, withdrew and “spilled his seed.” This was equally as wicked in God’s sight, so Onan was put to death as well. (Who says the Bible is boring? This is made for TV, movie of the week stuff right here.)

Theologians have taken many different perspectives on Onan’s deadly mistake. Some advocate that it was Onan’s disobedience to his father that provided the offense. Other interpretations have led to the creation of the term onanism. Often a euphemism for coitus interruptus, the term intimates that it was Onan’s selfish intentions God found so detestable. Onanism is also used as moniker for the act of masturbation, implying that Onan was just using the sex act for personal pleasure, not procreative purpose. Since the middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church (and others) have used these interpretations to take a moral stand against masturbation, coitus interruptus, and even contraception. (Though, if, indeed, fiddling with your own equipment irrevocably leads to eternal damnation, I suspect there will be few post adolescent men in heaven. Just sayin’…)

But, is the point of this little story to give us another entry into our list of moral DOs and DON’Ts? Is that the purpose of Paul’s list of mortal sins?

I’m not taking a stand here on what acts, in and of themselves, are sinful in God’s sight. I’ll leave that between you and Him. But, I do wonder if these passages aren’t much more clear in point than the credit church history has given them. They seem to me to be saying, quite simply…

• know why you are doing what you’re doing
• know for whom you are doing what you’re doing
• be prepared to face the consequences of your intentions and focus

Our choices and actions are important. But, in the end, if you have a growing, living relationship with Christ, “why” and “for whom” you choose and/or act, not just how, tend to be the factors that will either commend or condemn. These things define us both apart from and in conjunction with what we do. As people of faith—lovers of God, what we do is, well... what we do (though, in my opinion, the things many people do in the name of God are ludicrous). Why and for whom we do are far more significant criteria in determining who we are. Contrary to what Christian book store bracelet-theology may espouse, ultimately, I wonder if what Jesus would do is all that doctrinally definitive or even consistent. If we were motivated by His “WHYs” and focused on His “WHOs,” “what” we are supposed to be doing and/or not doing might become more clear… or, dare I say, maybe less important.

For example, in Onan's case, his focus was keeping the inheritance for himself and his own. Oops! I said I would refrain from making my friend’s point.


Footnote

1. HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Baby, Please Don't Go

I closely follow several personal blogs (and loosely keep up with a few others.) I specify "personal" because I also follow a couple of authors' blogs and an outdoor adventure information forum. For the few personal blogs I regularly follow, it has been a slow couple of months. Since mid June, a cumulative ten entries have been posted by seven of the web writers; two of them haven't posted at all. In fact, if you examine this page, you will notice a gap in my own entries-- nothing whatsoever in July. So, what's up? Is it a summer lull? Have we all run out of things to say?

Yesterday, I read an article by Carolyn Duffy Marsan, Business Week, titled, "12 Words You Can Never Say in the Office." It was a list of words and "phrases that you shouldn't be using at work anymore because they will make you seem old." Terms like: Intranet, Web Surfing, Push Technology, Long-Distance Call, World Wide Web, Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), or Internet Telephony. Among them was the word "weblog" with the following explanation...
A blog is a shortened version of "Weblog," a term that emerged in the late 1990s to describe commentary that an individual publishes online. It spawned many words still in use such as "blogger" and "blogosphere." Nowadays, few people have time to blog so they are "microblogging," which is another word that's heading out the door as people turn Twitter into a generic term for blasting out 140-character observations or opinions.
I'll admit, I gave in to the whole Twitter thing last December. While I recognize (and have even exercised) some of its unique benefits, on the whole, I find it extremely tedious. If anyone is actually that interested in what I'm doing every waking minute of the day, they really need to get out more (either that, or I need to look into getting that restraining order). The truth is, I find it difficult to really sink my teeth into a statement like "working on a Sunday! ... story of my life." or "Just watched first 2 Hours of transformers 2. Didn't download all i missed the ending." I read one tweet recently that simply said, "trying to think of what I'm doing so i can post a twitter about it." I understand his sentiment.

I often find myself staring blankly at standing prompts like Twitter's "what are you doing?" or Facebook's "what's on your mind?" I could waste a lot of time trying to come up with something, ANYTHING remotely pithy with which to fill the box-- congeniality and intrigue in 140 characters or less. Contrary to popular belief, I don't always have something to say. In fact, I spend the largest portion of each day working entirely alone not saying anything at all. I don't usually mind it one bit. I draw energy from solitude. Yesterday, for lunch, I drove up to a generally deserted hiking trail in the national forest and just sat on a rock reading and taking photos. But, when I do speak or write or, in some other way, communicate, it generally has the full force of all my alone time behind it. Sometimes conversation, for me, is a release of that pent up raw energy. (One more reason never to ask me a question.) Writing is a refocusing of that energy and, often, my preferred outlet. But writing, though cathartic, is not communication without a reader. [Enter: the blogosphere]

So, bloggers, let's refocus some of that summer energy. I love our silent conversations. I love discovering life with and learning from you. Let the rest of the world "tweet" away. We both know we've more substance than that.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Red Light District

Remarkable how simple choices, when they find their effect
Can choke out the voice.
Not that there is nothing to say
Or even that it is or isn't being said;
Rather that the carrier, by reputation
Inspires a preemptive disqualification of the message.
Robbing others of the treasure within
By careless transport.

More tragic still, as a matter of convention
Others cheat themselves by premature defense—
O, malicious mishap.
Perhaps brilliance buried is best left covered.
For brilliance, free to shine
Is wontedly passed over for its tariff
Its pretension
Its peculiarity.
After all, it is more satisfying
To admire the jewel on one's own hand
Than on the hand of another.

As for me, I am strangled;
Silenced by witness
To my own once passionate acuity turning, as a matter of course
To platitude— three dimensions distilled to one.
Even so, it's more difficult than I imagined
To give up a life of prostitution.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Poverty Experiment

Lately, I've developed a nagging concern that our children have little appreciation for how blessed we are. Don't get me wrong. They are amazing kids (thoughtful, generous, sensitive to the needs of others...) It's just that they show too many of the normal signs of American entitlement. We all do. So, my wife and I decided to do a little gratitude exercise and live below poverty level for seven days.

The boys got to choose three toys for the week, each of which had to value under $10. There were no computers (except for work), DVDs, gaming systems, etc. After doing some research and a little creative math, we came up with a weekly income (after rent and utilities) reflective of the national poverty level. We ate, fueled our vehicles, purchased incidentals, paid for school field trips (and the like) for just slightly under this magic number. We ate a lot of beans, rice, pasta, etc. and very little meat. We played board games, with playing cards, and sidewalk chalk. We read books available to us through the library.

We didn't widely publicize what we were doing. In fact, only three people knew about it outside of our family. Each family member did, however, keep a nightly journal and, at the request of a friend, I will share my entries for the week here.

Day One- Monday, May 18, 2009
I’ve actually been looking forward to the start of this little exercise for a few days. Shopping for the week was a fun challenge. But, now that the week has officially begun, I’m finding this a bit more of a challenge than I could have anticipated.

For two reasons: First, an unplanned turn in my dental health has made it so that I will be having my wisdom teeth out tomorrow morning. I am a bit nervous and not looking forward to the painful recovery. But, because of this week’s exercise, I’m not sure I will even be able to “shop” for my recovery like I would otherwise. Luckily, we had planned at least a few soft foods into our poverty budget menu. Still, this may prove to be a real challenge.

Fortunately, it seems the procedure is covered by our dental insurance. Yet, it occurs to me, if we really were living below the poverty level, we wouldn’t likely have such insurance. I’m not sure what I would have done if this were the case. My pain level, at present, is barely tolerable. I am extremely thankful for our dental insurance and my wife’s job with the school district.

Second, I have found myself, a surprising number of times today, thinking of things I need to go “pick up” from the store; things like hair conditioner or more plastic spoons for my office. Ordinarily, these thoughts are fleeting and pass without action— but only because I don’t have time or because it’s not worth a trip to the store for such few items. It is never because we just can’t afford these things. I’ve never thought of basic toiletries as luxuries. Sobering.
Day Two- Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Today I had all four of my wisdom teeth removed. They had become impacted and were causing swelling and discomfort. I was told that I would need someone to drive me home because I would be under a general anesthetic.

One of the most striking things I’ve learned about combating the struggles of poverty is the unmistakable importance of community. For those that “have,” independence is the rule of the day. For those who “have not,” interdependence is survival rule #1. My wife had to work today. In fact, most everyone in my “community” was at work today. We have built lives of individuality and semi-independence. Thankfully, a good friend was able to become available during the day (rearranged her obligations) in order to drive me to and from the appointment. Afterward, she was kind enough to purchase a chocolate milkshake for me and then, to purchase (insurance co-pay) and pick-up my post-surgery prescriptions. It is only Tuesday and after purchasing groceries for the week and gasoline for the truck, we are already through more than half of our money for the week. I offered to pay for the shake, the mashed potatoes (another purchase made by our friend on my behalf) and the prescriptions, but she wouldn’t accept. Later, another friend brought me a smoothie from “Juice it Up.” And yet another couple of other friends sent text messages asking if I needed anything. Now, more than ever (and for many reasons), I am thankful for friendships—for community.
Day Three- Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The eating part of this is proving to be more challenging than I imagined it would be. Tonight for dinner, we made tuna casserole. Ordinarily, this is a low budget family favorite. But, I found I couldn’t take more than two or three bites. Chewing is next to impossible. I put my portion back into the pot and proceeded to drink a shake again for dinner just before rushing out to take my oldest son to his all district band concert.

The concert was wonderful. I was duly impressed with the students’ performances at all levels. I was slightly less than impressed with the school board and administration representatives who spoke throughout the concert. I was more aware than ever before of the range of dress clothing worn by the students— everything from jeans and a T-shirt to slacks and black tennis shoes. There were some kids dressed to the nines, but very few who looked as though they had the appropriate attire in their wardrobe. We are so blessed to be able to afford dress slacks, socks, shoes, and shirt for our son.

By the way, this morning, since I was still under the 24 hour mark with the anesthetic and unable to drive, a friend came by and picked up the boys to take them to school. Another above-and-beyond moment in our relationship. And, yet another representation of the wealth and strength found in community.
Day Four- Thursday, May 21, 2009
This morning, I woke up more sore and swollen than yesterday. Not fun.

I read an article today about how it is more expensive to be poor than it is to be wealthy or middle-class. When you can’t afford to shop around for the best price (due to lack of transportation or the cost of time lost utilizing public transportation), you can end up paying quite a bit more for everyday items such as milk or bread. In addition, with limited assets or credit, you may end up having to finance purchases at a much higher interest rate. What a vicious catch 22.

I was getting a little frustrated this evening. I’m not sure, as a family, we are doing so well at the focusing through this exercise. My wife had to sit down and write out what we’ve spent so far to mentally get back on track. It seems she had been using a few items from the pantry that we hadn’t factored into our budget (chips and sunflower seed butter for the little guy’s lunch). My youngest son has been sneaking in play time with more than his three selected toys (under $10).

I think all of us have been challenged in keeping the experiment pure. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have done more physical prep— cleaning out the cupboards, putting away all the toys, etc. Also, I’m sure, at or below poverty level, we would not have a washer and dryer in our home. We probably wouldn’t have a dishwasher either. My oldest son asked today if we were supposed to be using our blender. I’ve had to use our food processor to puree my food (since I can’t chew, at present). I don’t feel like we are cheating, exactly. But, I do feel like we are getting less than the full experience for lack of thorough preparation.

So, it is Thursday night. We have spent nearly 80% of our budget for the week. Three more days to go. One of those days includes a picnic and another a baby shower. I’m on less than a quarter tank of gas. Heaven help us!
Day Five- Friday, May 22, 2009
I am completely over this whole eating mushy foods business. My mouth/face can’t get back to normal fast enough.

I was thinking earlier that it would be nice to just sit and watch a movie tonight. But, alas, no T.V. or D.V.D. in our below-poverty-level household. That’s okay. The truth is, I didn’t really want to watch anything. It’s just that the other, low cost entertainment alternatives all required more effort. Reading, playing a game, etc.—all required more thinking and/or energy.

I really want to adventure outside the house tomorrow (Saturday). The beach, or mountains, or something. I’ve been a little stir crazy stuck around the house the past few days (recovering). But, alas, no gas money and almost an empty tank. Guess more creativity is called for.
Day Six- Saturday, May 23, 2009
Today was a lazy day spent at home. At least for the most part, anyway. Lazy for me is relative. My wife had a baby shower to attend. One of her colleagues from school came by for an hour or so before the shower. My wife has been helping the woman with her professional writing skills.

Though my swelling has decreased over the past few hours, my pain level has only increased. My jaw is extremely sore and contributing to a dull, but constant headache.

While my wife was gone to the baby shower, the boys and I sorted and folded laundry. I made them lunch and introduced them to my wife’s rice pudding. It was a huge hit! Who would have thought the kids would make a new food discovery in all this?

We’ve been playing a lot of “Rummikub” and “Apples to Apples.” There are quite a few other things (fun, family things) I would love to have done today but gas prices are outrageous. Still, we’ve gotten a lot accomplished and have had fun in the process. We haven’t needed money to laugh, sing, dance, play, and make an adventure out of just about everything. It’s been good to see!
Day Seven- Sunday, May 24, 2009
I have mixed emotions about the success of our little experiment. On one hand, I feel like my family has at least a cosmetic understanding of how blessed we really are. By that I mean, we have been made more consciously aware of the “stuff” we take for granted every day. To a lesser degree, there have been moments of recognizing how blessed we are to have each other—to truly enjoy one another. There is a lot of love in our family. I feel it is too often overlooked because we are always running and working to make (or maybe keep) life “better.” Which begs the question, “better than what?” Is this the great “American Dream?” To ignore (or at least set aside) the things that should truly be most precious to us in exchange for the ongoing opportunity to prove in visible ways to the rest of the world that we can afford these all but neglected “precious things?”

Also, I feel that, in the end, the awareness that we’ve only been pretending has inoculated the whole experiment. There has been little real bite to this. Even now, I am thinking about the things I’ve been putting off until our little exercise is over (hair cut, lunch with a friend, replacing my broken guitar, etc.). But, I can honestly say I have a deeper appreciation for the circumstances that afford me the resource to be able to “indulge” in such things. Hopefully, for my family, even if in the smallest of ways, they too may be coming to recognize just how much of an “indulgence,” not an “entitlement,” these things are. For MOST people in the world, they are extravagances.

We still haven’t decided what we will do with the money we have not spent this week. I don’t mean the few dollars we have left from our allowance. I mean the money we would have spent if we hadn’t been on it. We haven’t really even discussed it. I think it should be a family decision. I can’t wait to see what we come up with.

Finally, I’m forced to wonder, “what is our cut-off?” Do we have one? What I mean is, it seems we had less trouble than anticipated living at or below poverty income for a week (though, I’m not sure my family would enjoy the idea that any of our sacrifices become permanent). But, what do we really need? What is the bare minimum required for us to survive as a family? What changes in the way we think about ourselves and our world would be required to go below that line? Would they be worth exploring? What would God have us do with what we’ve discovered and experienced? Where do we go from here?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

All's well that ends well

Today I sit in a lush ravine, surrounded by thick underbrush, twisted and tangled. The trunks of fallen trees lean heavy on struggling neighbors, creaking with each gentle breeze. I can hear the gurgling of a small stream a few feet away. I hear it, but cannot make it out through the growth.

The wilderness trail I traveled to get here was longer than anticipated. Pleasantly so. I couldn’t help but smile as I passed a small post with the word “trail” carved into the side. The continuing path ahead was well worn, bare soil flanked by woodland trees and bright green foliage. “Hmmm. Now, where as that trail again? Thank God for the sign!”

A bit further down the path, another sign read “trail ahead dead ends.” I read it, but, never hesitated at my forward pace. The motion was instinctive.

Now, I know “objects in motion tend to stay in motion.” I recognize there must be countless psychological explanations for why people stay a course, resist a change in trajectory, or disregard warning signs. But, I found myself immediately considering the simple question, “if you know the trail dead ends, why continue?” “What real motivation does one have for forging ahead?”

My parents own a home that was built by my great-grandfather. I spent the majority of my growing up years on that acreage. The street dead ends into the South Canadian River. I have always loved hiking (though, as a younger man, allergies often kept me from it). When we were kids, my brother and I would spend hours exploring the river bed, tumbling down the sand dunes, and searching out hiding places.

There is a park at the end of the street. An old wagon wheel stands affixed to a large, stone monument at the entrance to the playground. The recreation area is dedicated to the pioneers who crossed the river there during the 1889 land run. Every year, hundreds of people travel from all over the country and, decked out in full prairie regalia, mount up on horseback or in covered wagons to reenact the crossing. I recall that our street would be covered in (and, consequently, reek of) horse feces for a week.

When I was in grade school, a sand and gravel company somehow managed to procure the rights to some of the area resources. Large dump-trucks passed up and down our street multiple times a day, damaging the pavement, creating traffic danger for local children, and becoming a general nuisance to residents. My mother, along with many of our neighbors, went on the war path. I will not go into the details of the ordeal, nor will I take time to elaborate on the dangers to anyone foolhardy enough to underestimate my mother. I will simply say that, in the end, the street was repaired and the trucks were rerouted.

There are quite a few amazing things that can happen and many fascinating discoveries to be made at a “dead end.” In fact, the trail I hiked to this spot is not a dead end at all—regardless of what the sign said. There is a long loop that returns you, surprisingly enough, to the back side of the same sign.

When I began to put down my thoughts, I fully intended to write about the divergence of paths and the process—the criteria one uses to make his/her choice of direction. I thought of writing about “destination” verses “journey.” I thought I would even introduce “adventure,” not as a companion to either, but rather as an alternative to both. But, instead, I couldn’t get passed the thought that the end of the trail can be the beginning of many worthwhile things. I am finding , in my life, that words like beginning and end can rob me of more clarity, understanding—discovery, than they provide. Beginning often merely describes the place where we have picked up the trail (or first acknowledged that we were on it). And, it is at the end of the trail that some of the best adventures in life begin.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

No Victim, No Crime?

A few weeks ago, my wife picked up our boys from school and returned home to find our house had been burglarized. The place was ransacked. Every room, every drawer, every cabinet, every closet— financial information all over the floor. The intruders had emptied my sons’ backpacks and refilled them with our DVD collection (around 200 disks), gaming systems, other small electronics, and miscellaneous items. They then rode off on my bicycle and my son’s scooter.

The police CSI unit dusted for prints. They took photos, made a list of crime scene evidence, asked us a number of questions, interviewed our neighbors, gave us a case number, and went on their way as yet to be heard from again.

Slightly over a week later, I received a call from my boss asking me if I could come into the office. The police were there. Our offices had been broken into over the weekend, ransacked, and thoroughly cleaned out. Here we go again. Unbelievable! Granted, I live (by choice) in San Bernarghetto… er, I mean San Bernardino, California, but, come on. Really?

Certainly, I am not happy about these events. I am broken hearted about our losses. A deep and almost violent anger toward our unidentified assailants swelled inside me when I saw my ten year old weeping over stolen belongings. I am frustrated and wearied by the arduous task of rebuilding lost data and program templates at work. I feel abused and violated. But I am not writing to lament. In the end, it is just stuff. And, stuff can be replaced.

The lingering disconcertion, however, comes in the awareness that strangers have been in our home— that uninvited delinquents have infiltrated our offices. We know, because there is clear and irrefutable evidence. The police have fingerprints on file. Things are broken and missing and defaced.

But, in the middle of all the mess, a curious thought crossed my mind. What if people have been coming into my home for a long time and I simply haven’t been the wiser? What if I am not the only person who spends a good deal of time sitting behind my desk? I only know people have violated the sanctity of these places because there is evidence of their time there. That fateful Monday morning, my office looked much different than when I left it the Friday before. The physical and emotional atmosphere of my home is strikingly different than it was a few weeks ago.

I recently attended a conference on spiritual development. One of the speakers confessed that, until he was in his mid twenties, traveling overseas, the Church (and consequently, Christianity) had made no measurable/observable impact on his life or community at large. He had never met anyone who professed to be a Christian and actually demonstrated some significant evidence of such a claim (outside of the things they avoided and the language they spoke). Sadly, I wasn’t all that shocked. I continued listening to his story as if there must be more to the point. But, when given pause, there was more weight to this reality than just about any other statement that could have followed.

In his book, The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes of an exchange with a leper he met in India. While working in a makeshift health clinic, after dressing the man’s wounds, the patient thanked Shane with the word namaste.

We really don’t have a word like it in English (or even much of a Western conception of it). They explained to me that namaste means “I honor the Holy One who lives in you.” I knew I could see God in their eyes. Was it possible that I was becoming a Christian, that in my eyes they could catch a glimpse of the image of my Lover?[1]
God has ransacked my life. All the stuff I’ve stored away in closets and drawers, He works to systematically expose to His grace. I believe this is evident to anyone who knows me. I wish I could say it is a totally different feeling than when my home and office were burglarized. But, my initial reaction is still that of one violated; an uncomfortable, but, in this case, not unwelcomed reality.

What’s more, I consider the people in my life, the others in my community, and I wonder if there is any evidence in their lives—anything in their world that would serve as indication that God is present in me. Claiborne also writes:

One of the lepers explained to me that oftentimes lepers don’t even know the words thank you because they have never needed to say them. They had rarely experienced occasions when they used language of gratitude.[2]
When God shows up, it is obvious He has been around. “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.[3]” So, shouldn’t it be obvious He’s been around when those near me survey their lives? There are far too few moments when someone had to learn a new word because they saw, in my life, a love beyond their experience. I’m anxious to do something about this.

Footnotes:

1. Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (The Simple Way, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2006).

2. ibid.

3. Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 30, 2009

"Holy weblog, Batman!"

The new banner for this blog is also currently my profile image on facebook. A friend made the following comment on the photo.

“powerful picture. your bare feet on the carpet where my tears have fallen: in the place where I've prayed, laughed, learned, grieved... My favorite time was when the only lights were Christmas twinkle lights, and I'd sit in the back on a pew: silent: alone.”
Last night, another friend had a bunch of guys over to watch the 2005 Ridley Scott film, “The Kingdom of Heaven.” The story takes place around 1180 AD (during the crusades) and chronicles the life of Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) and his heroic defense of Jerusalem against a powerful Muslim army.

Balian of Ibelin: [To the people of Jerusalem] It has fallen to us to defend Jerusalem, and we have made our preparations as well as they can be made. None of us took this city from Muslims. No Muslim of the great army now coming against us was born when this city was lost. We fight over an offence we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended. What is Jerusalem? Your holy palaces lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lie over yours. Which is more holy?

[pause]

Balian of Ibelin: The wall? The Mosque? The Sepulcher? Who has claim? No-one has claim.

[raises his voice]

Balian of Ibelin: All have claim!

Bishop, Patriarch of Jerusalem: Blasphemy!

Almaric: [to the Patriarch] Be quiet.

Balian of Ibelin: We defend this city, not to protect these stones, but the people living within these walls.
So, what makes a place holy? Is it what happened there? Who was born there, lived there, died there? In the Old Testament, altars were built, wells were established, temples were erected; because God did a miracle here, or met us there, or spoke in this place. And we call these places “holy.” We esteem them, hallow them— we visit them hoping for some mystical solace, or revelation, or encounter. Why?

There are places that inspire or return me to a once familiar, or significant, or otherwise precious emotion. There are fragrances, and sounds, and sights that conjure up past glories or, by classical conditioning, adjust my mental frame. But, does that make these places, or smells, or sounds, or textures “holy?”

Please don’t misunderstand. I can be a very nostalgic guy. There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering where God has been; revisiting tender places of the soul; examining the marks on the wall that help us measure our growth. In fact, in the right context, these can be very important exercises. Even so, that doesn’t necessarily make these places “holy.”

I have deep respect and affection for those who worship with ceremony and true piety. I believe, by what is often a lack of true reverence, much of western Evangelical Christendom has lost any genuine recognition of God’s sovereignty and power. But I would not necessarily call orthodox liturgies more “holy.”

When God gave instructions for constructing the Arc of the Covenant or building the Tabernacle/Temple, He didn’t ask people to build a “holy” object. He asked them to, “build a place for Me to meet with you.[1]” These things are “holy” because, and, consequently only when God is present.[2] The sanctity of our encounter with God in those places is held, not by the place itself, but in the presence of the person of God and the hearts of the people who encountered Him there.

Unlike a temple, God cannot be destroyed. Unlike a golden box full of artifacts, God cannot be stolen or hidden. Unlike a prayer, or text, or liturgical sacrament, Truth in the person of God cannot be altered. In fact, it seems to me that sometimes these forms must be broken down; torn away; stripped of all sanctity in their own right in order for the treasure— the holy presence of God to be exposed and experienced.[3]

I have discovered that I need more “holy” places in my life. But, that is not to say I need more buildings, or sacraments, or boxes. I simply need more places in my life where God and I meet. I need more true sanctuaries.

Footnotes:

1. “’I will meet with you there and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel.’” – Exodus 25:22 (NLT)

2. “’These burnt offerings are to be made each day from generation to generation. Offer them in the Lord’s presence at the Tabernacle entrance; there I will meet with you and speak with you. I will meet the people of Israel there, in the place made holy by my glorious presence.’” – Exodus 29:42-43 (NLT)

3. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Cor. 4:7 (NLT)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I'm no Superman

Recently, like many others, my wife and I have suffered some significant blows to the security we've too often taken for granted. You know, the “we went to college, pay our taxes, vote in general elections, give to charitable organizations, refrain from kicking small animals, reduce, reuse, recycle, buy American, etc. and are, therefore, entitled, on our own terms, to every good health and unencumbered opportunity imaginable” kind of security. After all, this IS America, right? Maybe such arrogance deserves a good take down now and then. At any rate, for endless reasons, it’s been a rough few months.

For the first thirty years or so of my life, my initial reaction to challenging news was usually one of heightened adrenaline and an overwhelming desire to leap into crisis “go” mode. What can I say? I’m a fixer. Lately, however, my first response has been far less intense. Lest you think this a mark of maturity (growth in trust) or the proverbial “softening with age,” I should also note that, since a rather serious bout with depression in the middle part of this decade, I have come to recognize the difference between peace and protective detachment. Peace is active— perennially animated and adaptive. Emotional lock down, if you will, is a more passive, defensive state— conditioned and mechanical. I fear I may yet fall into the latter category.

On one hand, my heart is pricked by a deep desire to be proactive. I imagine gracefully advancing like an intrepid superhero using flying debris from my enemy’s onslaught as the very weapon that will win me the victory. On the other hand, I am all too aware of how much of a “superhero” I am not and find myself torn between the ever extant, critical analysis of my mind and the noble, sanguine churnings tucked away in my soul. And, truth be told, I’m not convinced that one is altogether better than the other. I’m afraid I need both. Or neither. Or, maybe, I just need to be taken out of myself completely.

But, the humbling, shame of it all rests in the sobering realization that I am still so blessed. When I consider the worst case scenario for everything I currently face, I would still be better off than the overwhelming majority of people on this planet. The thought blinds me, albeit temporarily, to the things I must do to successfully navigate the rough road ahead. What defines success here is so superficial by comparison to what many others face. (e.g. For me, successfully navigating our current economic crisis might mean finding a way to keep my youngest son in private school. For billions of other fathers in the world, financial success means their sons will eat today.) So, how hard do I fight for these things? What makes them superficial? I live in an environment of great excess and abundance when measured against that which is fundamental to human life. And yet, certain aspects of this “abundance” are necessary for survival in an environment where excess is the rule of the day.

In the end, I hope I will do what needs to be done. I am open to divine guidance on this point. But, whatever the path ahead, I feel challenged to approach it with a deeper solemnity, requisite humility, and thankfulness. I am not “entitled” to certain securities. I am simply blessed to enjoy them from time to time. Maybe this attitude is a key to unlocking peace. I think I’ll grip it more tightly than I have in the past.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"The average pencil is seven inches long...

...with just a half-inch eraser - in case you thought optimism was
dead." ~Robert Brault
Yesterday in a staff meeting I made a “speaking those things that are not as if they were” kind of comment and referred to myself as choosing optimism. Someone in the meeting said, “yeah, well, it just comes off as sarcasm.” I assured him this was only because he knew me so well. If he didn’t know me, my optimism would have been believable. Okay, maybe not… but humor me. See, there’s the optimism again.

Truly, I’m not as jaded as I sometimes appear. Still, I’m more of a pragmatist than most of the people with which I surround myself. A happy accident? I think not. Because I’m neither a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” sort of guy (I’m more of a “the glass is in a state of unhealthy compromise, much like the church at Laodicea[1]” guy), people often think I’m devoid of the ability to celebrate the little things in life. Not true. I just like to celebrate and then move on. I’m usually on to the next step before everyone else is done celebrating— sometimes before they even truly get started. I’m working on that one. But seriously, what's wrong with a little celebration "to go."

This past weekend was one such cause for celebration. Not a “little things in life” celebration. Actually, quite a big thing. One of my closest friends (consequently the last, long time, close, single, male friend I had) got married. It was, as they say, “the end of an era.” I had mixed emotions. But, the feeling that dominated was one of acceptance. (Is acceptance a feeling? Hmmm. That may be another blog post.)

I am the oldest of four children; three boys and a girl. My youngest brother died when I was eight years old. My other brother and my sister are three and a half and twelve years younger than me, respectively. I was a full time college student by the time my sister was starting first grade. I was married before she started jr. high. But my brother and I grew up together.

Even in a loving, stable home, same gender siblings close in age often seem to compete more than ally. As much as I love my brother and do have MANY things in common with him, and as much as we enjoyed playing with one another when we were young; as we grew older, we worked to separate ourselves from one another by capitalizing on and accentuating strengths not possessed by the other. While this did not pull us apart emotionally, it did lead to distinctly different approaches to life. Our bond is still and will always be fraternal, but, unfortunately, physical distance and very different lives keep us from being as close as either of us might like.

It seems all of the children in my family have chosen independence, each in distinctive ways. Independence is one of the values that attracted me to my wife. I believe the ability to carefully regard the feelings and values of others and yet make autonomous decisions is a mark of health and maturity. But, in its purist form, independence can be lonely. (By the way, I’m not a psychologist. I just play one on the internet.)

Among other things, I think a growing dissatisfaction (maybe disillusionment is a better word) with independence over the past few years, has helped me to recognize a deep need for covenant relationships bonded by something more than time, or blood, or proximity, or common goals/values.

My friend (the one who got married) is one of the people in my life with whom I feel that bond. And, while hanging out before and after the wedding with the other groomsmen (his older brother, his two lifelong childhood friends, and a mutual comrade), I realized something interesting. I watched these guys interact with him. I listened to their wedding toasts. I observed the way they spoke about him in our conversations, even when he wasn’t around. And, it occurred to me that we each felt that same special bond with him in one way or another.

So, my relationship with him was less unique than I had believed. But, at the same time, I was reminded (and encouraged) that I wasn’t the only one with this deep need for brotherhood—and that the connection I feel with him has as much to do with the exceptional way God has gifted him as it does my need. The net result: true belonging.

He reads this blog and, it occurs to me, this may all be news to him. He has often (even recently) commented that he believes he takes away much more from our friendship (specifically our conversations) than I possibly could. While the odds may favor me for obscenely tedious insight (we’ll be “optimistic” and call it wisdom… yeah, that’s it… [ahem] wisdom), on this point, when it counts, he’s no slouch. Regardless, he brings to my life something I consider much more valuable—genuine love, respect without reservation, unadulterated camaraderie, care that goes below the surface, passionate and authentic spirituality… brotherhood.

And he is not the only one. I am truly blessed—between my wife, my children, my family and friends, I am rich in the love and support necessary for abundant living. And that gives cause to stop and celebrate—the "dine-in" not the "carry-out" kind of celebration. Dear reader, I wish you may have and take the same occasion in your life.


Footnote

1. "To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ...I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth." - Revelation 3:14a, 15-16 [HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society.]

Friday, February 6, 2009

Better Off Dead?

One of my favorite places to hike, read, write, think, pray is an arboretum at Heaps Peak in the San Bernardino National Forest. The trail is only about a mile long with gradual inclines, rich foliage, and woodland wildlife. Self guided tour leaflets containing information about the various views associated with numbered markers along the path are available at the trailhead.

I currently take Mondays off. Whenever possible, I try to get away from town and enjoy much needed alone time. There's a tasty barbecue joint in the nearby mountain community of Running Springs (former town of residence). I headed there for lunch this past Monday only to find the owners have decided to close shop one day a week. Guess which day. ARRGGH! So, I rerouted to another of my favorite haunts, a little restaurant overlooking close by Lake Arrowhead. On my way home, I stopped by Heaps Peak.

As you come to the first small clearing along the heavily wooded trail, you find a split rail fence guarding a grassy slope.

"If you look at trees down slope in front of you, you should be able to notice the scorched black trunks from the Old Fire of October, 2003. It should also be evident that those trees are healthy and green. Over millions of years pine trees have adapted to fire so that their bark acts as a protection against fire. These large knobcone pines, Coulter pines, and white fir survived the fire and continue to grow and flourish. Some of the much smaller seedlings did not survive, which encourages forest health by naturally thinning out trees, thereby reducing competition for scarce resources such as water."
As you round the third bend on the trail, you come into a large clearing—a creek wash fed by a small spring. You cross a narrow bridge and begin a modest ascent to a landing that hosts one of my favorite views. When you reach this point, over your left shoulder, on a clear day, through the lush green forest you can make out the distant snow covered peaks near the Cajon Pass. In sharp contrast, directly in front of you, you find a barren, somewhat menacing slope studded in towering, dead tree trunks.

"As you look across the drainage to the far slope you will notice a large group of standing dead trees or ‘snags.’ Although these trees burned in the Old Fire they did not die from that fire. These pines succumbed to the Western pine beetle infestation during a recent drought, before the fire burned through this section of the forest. Unlike the living green trees at the Arboretum, which resisted the fire very well, these trees were dry or ‘brown,’ thereby providing fuel for the fire and they burned easily. The large burned snag that towers above the other barren trunks is a Ponderosa pine. After a year or so the scorched bark tends to fall off the dead trunks leaving the white inner core wood exposed."
These words and images catch on something deep inside me every time I visit the arboretum. I’m seriously considering this as a teaching topic soon. Thoughts?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

[thump, thump] Is This Thing On?


It’s one of the cardinal rules of marketing: know your audience. But, inherently, public web personae are just that… public. Public and blind. Dear reader, I can’t see you. I don’t know who you are. The whole thing is a little unfair to my taste. You get a window into my soul and I get… well, I get the odd comment now and then from one of the same four people.

Still, just when I am ready to conclude that it’s not worth the time it takes to format my personal journal entries for “public” consumption (is it still considered “public” if everyone can but nobody actually does see it?), then, out of the blue, a friend will verbally reference one of my entries. Or, I will receive a comment from someone I’ve never met. I don’t even know how they found this place.

And another thing - As much as I’d like to convince myself that maintaining this blog is valuable to me with or without readership, the truth is, I can enjoy the catharsis and other benefits of journaling/writing without posting here.

So why share my thoughts in an open forum? What do I hope to accomplish with this little exercise? I’m sure there are many reasons: working out my thoughts with unrestricted accountability, challenging readers to go deeper, weighing in on things important to me, staying connected with friends and family… but, for me, the most valuable implication of this little experiment is the opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue on meaningful issues; to exchange ideas; to reach for each other’s minds, take the floor and meringue a little while.

I won't pretend that everything I write might inspire you to weigh in. Still, you must find something of interest here from time to time or you wouldn't stop by.

So… hi, my name is James. I write this blog. But, enough about me. Tell me a little about yourself. What are your experiences? What's going on inside your head? [THUMP, THUMP, THUMP] “HELLO? IS THIS THING ON?”

[Click COMMENTS below and just go nuts... "hey, I read your blog," "these are the inane ramblings of an otherwise brilliant mental patient," "meusbonuspars changed my life," "James is crazy hot," ...heck, wherever the wind may take you.]
* * *
THIS JUST IN - Blogger has added a new feature where you can sign on (look left) as a "follower" of this blog. SO, DO IT!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Graham's Fairy Tales

Once upon a time…

…I believed people were simply the product of their own choices.
…I dreamed I would be “discovered.”
…I saw personal weakness as something to be ashamed of.
…I feared exposure.
…I believed God considered me more than some people.
…I believed God liked me less than most people.
…I thought everyone was interested in knowing the truth.
…I thought I was always interested in the knowing the truth.
…I believed smarter was always better.
…I believed if people just took the time to know me, they would value me.
…I believed if people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me.
…I believed the world was a really big place.
…I imagined how much better off I might be if I were someone else.
…I found black and white more attractive than gray.
…I believed idealism was as noble as hope was na├»ve.
…I feared infinity.
…I thought it was alright to save my best effort for the right time.
…I thought the right time was when I had the most to gain or lose.
…I believed I knew how other people saw me.
…I believed I saw myself as I really am.

What happens when you discover you aren't the hero in your own story but, rather, the foe to be vaquished? I feel little shame by way of surrender knowing "happily ever after" depends on it. The protagonist costume is still a little roomy but I welcome the new perspective