Distractions

Distractions

IMG_1683I began several times intending to write about God.  Finding traction was difficult. There was the distraction of Rosie the Labrador.  At 5:30, she came bursting from her night of quiet, eager to taste and smell and run and roll in her world.  And she so wants me, you, everyone to experience it.  She licks my leg, urging me out of my chair, bounding forward through the screen—through the screen—that could never be a barrier.  

“Silly dog! You broke the screen! Ran right through!”

 

But who is the silly one?  Rosie the Labrador challenges every supposed barrier.  Runs through some, paws at others but tests them all.  Not for any grand purpose other than to live the life of a Labrador with which she was blessed and has blessed us.

She bounds back up the stairs, tail beating a rhythm on my metal chair.  She paws my legs inviting them to move.  She sniffs my arm, tongue tasting my knee, eyes alert to all movement, nose to all smells-those I’ll never know.  

She wins.  We went on a walk.  I left the phone and ear-buds at home.  And I heard some things I would have otherwise missed.  

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Coffee For Lent?!?!

Coffee For Lent?!?!

59284097I gave up coffee for Lent this year. A little context…I have 2 Keurig machines. One at home and one 2 steps from my chair beside my desk at work. On an average day I drink 5 large cups of black dark roast coffee. I prefer French roast or Italian roast. No added cream or sugar…that would be unhealthy.

I say that not to pat myself on the back or for you to think of me as some sort of sainted spiritual ascetic. It’s more of an acknowledgment of the first of the 12 steps…I admit that I am powerless over caffeine. Who knew there were actual withdrawal symptoms?!? Irritability? Insomnia? Depression? Leg pains? Check. Check. Check. Check.

I’m getting past these. A couple of Aleve and a sleep aid tablet the second night of my little adventure got me 8+ hours of sleep and I’ve been almost back to normal since. It’s more the habit I miss anyway. Well…that and the taste…and the smell…the warm cup in my hand…the steam rising from the rim on a cool morning on my porch…STEP 2! STEP2!

This Lent thing wasn’t part of my small town, conservative Southern Baptist tradition growing up. But it has become an important part of my faith. Each morning, I walk into the kitchen by the light of the coffee maker that has switched on in anticipation of my first cup of the day. For the next few weeks, rather than stick in a coffee pod, I switch off the machine, grab a glass of juice and head out to the screen porch and think about this practice.

I would love to have something profound to write here in this place. God parting the caffeine free fog with some glorious Lenten wisdom. Not yet. Still waiting. That is probably the point. Waiting. Trusting. Anticipating. The God who made all of this is meeting me here in this spot each and every morning. In silence. I’m wondering if that in itself might be point.

What’s your text?

What’s your text?

“Everything’s wrong says he. That’s a big text. But does he want to make everything right? Not he. He’d lose his text.”
—George Eliot, from Felix Holt

biblical-text-verse-new-testament-golden-verse-49688382What’s my text? What’s yours?

It’s not a question I ask myself very often…maybe never. But I’m asking it today and I’ll throw it out there for you to consider if you will.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been hearing a particular text being thrown around: some form of, “they are wrong…they are scary”. Much is due to our current emersion in partisan politics and a very contentious election between two extremely polarizing figures. There could only be one winner.

Having come out of that election with a “winner”, it’s obvious that nothing really has been settled. We are still a country divided. Neither side claims the other side’s President as their own. Both sides have protested something. However, it seems when distilled down to the common denominator, each side is operating from a very similar text: “they are wrong…they are scary.” At least we have some common ground. (Insert darkly ironic sarcasm here.)

I’m not talking about individual policies or issues. On that there is much diversity. Much passion. Much thought. Many many words written and talks given. Much scholarship and study, and prayer on behalf of both sides. I’m not trying to deny those differences. I have my own positions on those issues that I hold passionately and thoughtfully. And quiet frankly, I’m right! (Roll your eyes…snicker if you like, but you feel the same way about your positions on “the issues”.)

But what I AM writing about here is the common text we seem to have devolved into following: “they (the other side) are wrong…they are scary”. I’ll not hear anyone try to tell me that their side doesn’t do that. All sides are doing it. But is that all there is to our text. Is that really the only option? The other side is all wrong? Really? Is that all we got?

George Eliot points out the reason this text has become so dominant. In an odd way, seeing the world through this dualistic (and extremely simplistic) text relieves the tension. We don’t have to solve any problem as long as we can demonize the other side and rest comfortably in our little nest of “answers”. But, meanwhile, we are all on the verge of “unfriending” people we have loved all our lives and calling people names we know probably do not fully apply.

I think we have many more options than that. And I’m not about to let the polititians and the “news industry” determine my “text.” In his book, “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit“, Parker Palmer suggests 5 “Habits of the Heart” that I know would be a wonderful alternative text for you to try. (if you don’t know who Parker Palmer is, find out…pick a book…any book he’s written. I’ll suggest “Let Your Life Speak” as a good start.) By “Habits of the Heart”, Palmer means the filters we habitually use to interpret our experiences. They are habits that we filter everything we experience through. They are:

  • We understand that we are in this together.
  • We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness”.
  • We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
  • We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  • We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

I’m not going to elaborate on these. I think they are obviously superior to the divisive “THEY are wrong…THEY are scary.” So…I dare you. Get a new text. Practice it. I dare you.

Aleppo, Rolex, BMW, & Light

Aleppo, Rolex, BMW, & Light

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The Fall of Aleppo (image from The Economist, Dec 17-23, 2016 issue)

The cover was pretty striking. The image to the right with the headline: “The Fall of Aleppo: Putin’s victory, the West’s failure”. I tried to imagine what it would be like to care for this child in such a place. Then, what was maybe the most disturbing point about this issue…I turned the page. 3 times.

 
  • First page: 2 page ad for “Rolex, The Cellini”: retail value $15,200. “It doesn’t just tell time. It tells history.”
  • Second page: 2 page ad for BMW 750Li xDrive: beginning MRSP $98,000. “Sheer Driving Pleasure”. Has a remote control key to park the car for you into tight spaces. So you don’t have to actually drive it yourself.
  • Third page: Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator: retail value $3500 (had interior cameras for “food management and direct grocery ordering). Comes with app for your phone so you might look in your refrigerator from your phone…rather than the annoying practice of opening the door.
 
The tragedy, and the irony printed in the first 6 pages of this magazine was a gut shot for me this morning. And it will haunt my Christmas. This isn’t a guilt trip post for the holidays. It’s not intended as a political statement per se. But, for me anyway, its my morning meditation on the closing of Advent 2016…the coming of the Christ…the hope and savior of the world. Where have we who call ourselves the “Christian West” gone wrong? How do we return to be the light the Christ showed us how to be to this hurting world? We are chosen by God not to be singled out and special. We are chosen to be witnesses to this light.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. —John 1:5 (NRSV)

Peace On Earth

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It’s been a difficult Advent to try and speak about peace.  Every where one looks the evidence of its absence is overwhelming.  I would write a few sentences here summing up the news headlines of late but I’d rather not. We all know them far too well.

If I turn from the headlines toward my expanded neighborhood of friends and acquaintances on social media, it seems there is an election looming.  In fact, there seems to be one looming 365 days a year.  And a cursory look at the posts on my feed seem to imply that one particular brand of politics or the other has the solution[s] and/or “leader[s]” to remedy this chronic lack of peace we’ve all been experiencing for quite some time.  Call me cynical but, I’m not really buying what they’re selling.  Seems as though this has been the claim by all sides of every issue for as long as I’ve been alert enough to pay attention.

So, what to do?  Do I give in to the cynicism of the age?

I don’t have an answer.  But I do have my faith.  The faith I have is rooted in a God who loves.  Call me naive.  Call me idealistic.  But, the older I get, my cynicism toward the powers of this world only grows and my faith in this loving God is continually confirmed.  Even when someone throws the turmoil of this world at my “loving God” saying the chaos is proof that my faith is in vain, I realize that I would rather live my faith in this loving God than in the false hopes and unfulfilled promises of the powers that be in our world.  It’s simply a better way to live my life. I would rather live in that love of God than in the fear and frustration offered by the alternative.

One of my favorite quotes about peace is by Nicholas Wolsterstorff:

“The state of shalom is the state of flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence: in one’s relation to God, in one’s relation to one’s fellow human beings, in one’s relation to nature, and none’s relation to oneself…An ever-beckoning temptation for the [American] evangelical is to assume that all God really cares about for human beings here on earth is that they be born again and thus destined for salvation…  [However], what God desires for human beings is that comprehensive mode of flourishing which the Bible calls shalom…God’s love of justice is grounded in God’s longing for the shalom of God’s creatures and in God’s sorrow over its absence.”

—Nicholas Wolsterstorff

If the system you subscribe to isn’t offering this type of peace…this shalom…then, well, it might not be worthy of your faith.  And it just might be contributing to the absence of peace we’re all enduring in our world.

I think my favorite Christmas song is Christmas Bells and my favorite rendition is by John Gorka.  Check it out here.  (Here is a live version of the song.)

Peace.

It Might Have Been Otherwise

It Might Have Been Otherwise

I got out of bed

on two strong legs

It might have been

otherwise…

—Jane Kenion, Otherwise

It’s a rainy Tuesday and I’ve been awake listening to the soggy morning that awaits, dreading getting out in it.  But, I picked up Garrison Keillor’s compilation, Good Poems, turned to page 25 and read Jane Kenion’s  Otherwise.   It’s a poem that is at once true, familiar and inspiring.  It lives up to Keillor’s criterion of “good poem”.  I get a warm feeling and decide I’ll write a little blog post about it and then leap into the morning.

And then…all of a sudden…it bludgeons me with it’s truth.  It’s sort of like turning on the TV expecting to see “Love It Or List It” or ” Fixer Upper” and instead there are malnourished children or refugees huddled around a burning barrel.  I walk away from Otherwise feeling guilty to actually be walking on those two strong legs, to be drinking hot coffee, to
be sitting in a dry and warm single family dwelling.  It might have been otherwise you know! (I’ve recently been told this is the guilt of a Democrat.)

Sigh…road

So, the matter at hand is that I have a new
day in front of me.  Another day to live life.  It’ll be made up of decisions large and/or small, thoughtful and/or thoughtlessly reflexive. The sum of these decisions will bring me to the end of this day some 16 or 17 hours from now.  I’ll be proud of some.  possible regret some others.  And still more of these decisions will be totally forgotten in
the blur of the routine busyness this day will bring.

My spiritual practice today will be to be more deliberate with my time.  To be more grateful, more conscious of my decisions and the sum of their results.  It could be otherwise.

We praise you with joy, loving god, for your grace is better than life itself.  You have sustained us through the darkness, and you have blessed us with life in this new day.

—The Psalm Prayer at Morning Prayers, The Upper Room Worship Book

 

Christianity After Religion

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In her Acknowledgments at the end of Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass says, “These pages are my long-considered answers to questions a book and a teacher raised during my senior year in college.”  Christianity After Religion is one of those books that took me a long time to read.  Not because it was difficult, but because it required me to look at questions that have lingered around my faith and life for years.

Raised in a very religious home, faith has always been an integral part of my everyday life.  It was not merely a program to be consumed a couple times a week at our local church.  It was giving thanks at every meal.  It was hearing the Bible read each night as we gathered in my parents’ bedroom.  Those readings closed with us all kneeling beside the bed and expressing prayers to God. The church of my youth taught me that when some tenet of that faith was challenged by culture or science or another doctrine, the first response was defensive because the challenge seemed to attack the very foundations of all the provided meaning and purpose for every aspect of my life.  Religion had been framed as a no-holds-barred death-match…winner-take-all.

There was a point about 12 years into my vocational ministry that this framework made absolutely no sense to me.  My denomination had been embroiled in religious/theological/cultural battles for 20 years and the lines that were drawn between the sides didn’t seem to be significant or substantial enough to justify the carnage being wrought between good and faithful people (Diana Butler Bass has a wonderfully succinct description of this battle on page 233).  It was for damn sure draining my very soul.  A journal entry I made during that time simply said, “God, if you’re there, cool.  If you’re not, cool.”  I had had enough.

During that time, my family was a part of a community of faith that seemed to be a refuge from the battles…a spiritual DMZ so to speak.  No doubt, our congregation was labeled by those in the fight, but my pastor, Dr. Larry Taylor, and the good people of that community had remained true.  There was something different for me about that place.  These people were not sheltered by any means and if pressed for a position on the issues of the day, whether religious or political, you would get an impassioned and well reasoned opinion from anywhere on the continuum of possibilities.  But, we were ultimately followers of Jesus in a place called Emmanuel Baptist Church and that community was more important and life giving than any one political/theological position.

When looking back, I recognized that I had experienced this same type of community in a couple of places before.  In the Baptist Student Union at LSU led by Frank Horton, and in the college department of First Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, led by Anne and Jack Lord.  Rather than soul-sucking battles for “truth”, I found life-giving and transformative spiritual community.  It was in these communities of my college days that I felt a call to vocational ministry.  And it was Emmanuel Baptist Church that helped salvage that call from the hubris of denominational leaders seeking to tear apart such communities in the name of their particular versions of truth.

By the time I reached Chapter 7 and read Diana Butler Bass’ description of The Great Reversal, I recognized she was describing those communities from my past.  These were not utopian by any stretch.  But when taken as a whole, my experiences in those places were lived examples of belonging, behaving, believing (in that order).  Butler Bass’ connecting this vision of community with spiritual awakening was exactly the appropriate link to make and her practical actions of “prepare, practice, play & participate” placed the lofty aspirations of such an awakening on the solid ground of experience and tangible action.

Christianity After Religion has become a foundational book for me.  I’ll read it again and, with difficulty, will attempt to find more space for notes and thoughts in it’s margins.  I recommend it very highly.  And I recommend you take your time.  It’s not a “page-turner” and I mean that in the absolute best sense of that term.