Thursday, May 31, 2018

Needing to Tinker Again With the Engine

We were push mower people throughout my childhood years, but there was one aberrant interlude when a riding mower graced our shed.  Throughout the circuits of our lawn I fantasized the turf as the asphalt of the Indianapolis Speedway.  Or at least a go-cart track.  It was, indeed, a fantasy because in reality the mower was a study in slowness.  It could go even slower if throttled down, but its top speed would lose to a casual walk. 

When the mower passed out of lawn service my Dad agreed that my brother and I could “tinker” with it.  I charitably include myself in that permission knowing full well that I am not a tinkerer — neither then nor now.  My brother, on the other hand, is another story.  Whether by exploration, hearsay, or the kind of knowledge gleaned from the quivering harmonics of the universe to which I have always been deaf, he somehow discovered and subsequently manipulated a fascinating element of that riding mower’s Briggs and Stratton engine called a “governor”.  The governor’s assigned function on the engine was to limit speed.  The engine, in other words, had all kinds of power.  It was simply being restrained by this simple mechanical device, quite probably to keep adolescent boys from racing around the neighborhood — which, having liberated the horsepower from the Governor, we promptly proceeded to do.

I was thinking about that old mower in recent days while lamenting with some friends what we described as “the coursening” of our culture.  If once upon a time there were generally accepted mores about decency and decorum — common courtesy, if you will, among acquaintances and strangers alike — those days seem to be gone.  We’ve become a profane citizenry of grunters and scoffers and name callers who mock and belittle, castigate and denigrate, always in all-caps or disregarding volume.  What once was known as courteous respect is now derided as mere “political correctness.”  We’ve become…course — rough, sharp and prickly — hellbent on, or indifferent to, inflicting as many social abrasions as possible.

Somehow we’ve lost our governor.

In an earlier time the religious community served that function, but not anymore.  Churches are routinely and cynically — and in large measure correctly — viewed as mere shills for one political party or another.  Elected representatives once contributed to that role — actually governing; demonstrating diplomacy and respectfulness in the milieu of diverse opinions— but that arena has become the most course and mean-spirited of all; “statesmanship”, alas, as elusive as unicorns; political “rising stars” from both parties routinely grounded by revelations of despicable behaviors that contradict their glossy public personae.  This, as the nation’s chief executive — who has replaced the White House organic garden with a mud wrestling pit (thus far, at least, only metaphorically) — elevates repulsiveness and repugnance to patriotic duty; who according to his own braggadocio grabs, fondles, despises, manipulates and bullies.  Meanwhile, true journalists have largely been replaced by talk show hosts and commentators whose ratings require ever more strident theatrics.  And have you seen the things we say to each other on social media?

But who is to tell us anything different?  What we need is a governor — the cultural equivalent of the level-headed spouse who can catch our eye or speak our name or touch our elbow in just that discreet way that ineffably communicates that we are perilously close to encroaching on the borderlands of decency.  Or to change the imagery, perhaps we need some new Galileo-like visionary who can help us rediscover some awareness of a “true north” of which we have completely lost touch.

I’m pretty much out of ideas, so I think I’ll call my brother.  He’s the tinkerer.  Once upon a time he figured out how to disarm the engine’s governor to give us a little more speed.  It was fun for awhile, but now I’m thinking it hasn’t gotten us very far.  It’s not that all this mess is in any way his fault — after all, we weren't trying to corrupt the world.  We were just kids hoping for a little more wind in our short cut hair.  But maybe it's time we slowed back down.  So I’m thinking that maybe with a little time and encouragement and methodical tinkering surely he can figure out how to activate it again.

The governor.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

On Reclaiming the Tender, Respectful Care of Words

"Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me."
"I love words," I clumsily blurted out some way into my first date with the brilliant and beautiful woman who, even after this curious admission, would go on to become my wife.  I no longer recall what prompted the comment, and to this day I have no insight into why I thought this information was important to share.  "They are like paints," I recall continuing, "with which you can paint whole worlds."

And though all these years later I still feel sheepish about that courtship conversation, I stand by both parts of my comment.  I do love words, and they are, indeed, beautifully and evocatively potent.  Which is why even at an early age I somehow sensed the absurd falsehood of that familiar childhood chant.  Words can hurt a lot -- even moreso than sticks and stones -- because they are not simply beautiful; they are powerful, and touch or bruise not simply the skin, but the heart.

People who read religious texts have encountered this notion before.  In the very first words of Hebrew scripture God, the Prime Mover, creates a world...with words.  Out of nothing, something.  In the same way that a candle flame overwhelms a dark room, the divinely spoken word transformed the silence.  I wonder if it felt, to God, like work or like fun?  Like construction, or like art?  All we know is that God stuck with it, talking and speaking us and all into being.  Only blasphemous fools assert that God, alone, has that power -- that only the words passing through God's lips amount to anything of consequence. 

We act as if that were true.  Increasingly I have come to lament the tawdry state of vocabulary in our culture.  We spew and strew words cheaply, as if they were so much water through a fire hose.  We tweet them, we text them, we shout and mutter and disregard them.  Marketers cleverly co-opt and trivialize them; politicians gratuitously bend and capitalize on them, all to the end that we scarcely know what words mean any longer -- if, as we cynically wonder, they mean anything at all. 

But though we dismissively convince ourselves that we have beaten words into submission, making of them whatever we choose at any given time, Eugene Peterson -- that wise and careful intellectual poet of the soul -- has a warning:
"We cannot be too careful about the words we use.  
We start out using them, and they end up using us."
I hope and suspect I'll spend the rest of my life pondering what he means by that, and the myriad ways my words are using me.  But at the very least, his insight prompts me to form them in my mind and mouth more cautiously, more reverently, more circumspectly.

They are powerful things, after all -- beautiful, yes, and as precious as gold.

But powerful, above all. 

So let us be careful with them; for whether or not we could ever break them, they can surely break us.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Holy Determination to Lose Absolutely Nothing

“Why does it say, ‘I won’t lose anyTHING he has given me’?” a classmate asked in the Sunday School class this morning.  “It seems like it should be ‘anyONE.’”

We were reflecting on the story in the Gospel of John in which Jesus describes himself as “the bread of life.”  In the course of his sermon on the subject Jesus notes that, “…I won’t send away anyone who comes to me,” but then expands that theme to acknowledge more.  “I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me.  This is the will of the one who sent me, that I won’t lose anything he has given me.”

It’s a wonderfully wide embrace; one that ought to puncture and start letting the air out of the various prejudices we have erroneously assumed God props up as vigilantly as have the rest of us. “Whites, but not blacks.”  “Protestants, but not Catholics.”  “Christians, but not the Jews who gave us spiritual birth, or Muslims, our spiritual siblings.”  “Straight people, but not those LGBTQ+ folks.”  “Us, but not them.”  “America first,” which might make political sense but is ultimately as spiritually blind as it is relationally na├»ve.

As I pondered my classmate’s good and observant question I thought about the old adage that “history is written by the victors.”  At least those who consider themselves victorious.  Which reminded me of Galileo and Copernicus before him (this, alas, is the way my mind works, even in Sunday School).  Theirs is a sad and tragic story, not simply because of the harsh and despicable treatment they received, but because despite what the science books attest and the astronauts observe, those ancient thinkers never really convinced the rest of us.  We still blindly and arrogantly believe that we are the center of the universe — racially, religiously, ethnically, sexually, geopolitically…

... even humanly.  We like to believe that we are the big “it” — as though the sequence in Genesis’ first account of Creation was in order of importance.  Lowly light, up through critters and crawlers, flowers and flyers, until God finally worked God’s way up to the really important stuff; the crown jewel of it all:  us.  But of course that’s not what it says.  What Genesis actually says is that God looked back over everything made and declared it special.  “Very good!” 


And so it makes sense, when I think about it, that the will of this One who made it is not to lose anyTHING.  Not merely anyONE, but anyTHING.  We seem to be the only part of God’s creation unconcerned about and completely content with the prospect of losing the mountains and the trees, the aquifers and the streams, the air and the birds that flutter on its breezes, the soil and the billions of life forms contained in every teaspoon of it.  Or, as the old hymn poeticized it, “rocks and trees and skies and seas…” You know, all those THINGS out there that aren’t human.  All that stuff that isn’t us.

But the tear contained in every drop of rain is God’s knowing lament that we all survive together, or we don’t survive at all.  I suspect that the sun — firstborn of creation and orbiting anchor of all that subsequently came to be — chuckles in bemused amazement that we (the caboose in the creative train) ever thought of it any other way.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Because there Must Be A Better Way

Here we go again.  I’m referring not only to the news of another mass shooting — this time at a Florida high school —but also to the inevitable collision of knee-jerk reactions.  “If only we had stricter gun control laws this kind of tragedy wouldn’t happen.”  “If only more law-abiding citizens carried firearms this kind of tragedy could be contained.”  We trot out these tired, stalemating alternatives, replete with statistics and global comparisons, constitutional protections and religious prohibitions in the aftermath of every such offense against humanity as soon as the ambulances have driven away the bodies.  Churches themselves offer little clarity, having become wholly-owned subsidiaries of one political party or another. There is no real political discourse, our elected representatives little more than shills for vested interests. And so nothing happens. No, that’s not true:  people continue to senselessly die in the course of everyday, benign pursuits like attending concerts, dancing in a nightclub, and going to school.

Even if we cannot agree on a solution to these increasingly common outbreaks of anger, terror and fear, surely we can agree by now that our entrenched ways of responding to them aren’t helping.  Indeed, our deadlocked insistences are only holding open the space for more violence to occur.

It’s time we declare a moratorium on trumpeting these binary alternatives.  Regardless of the hypothetical merits of our respective points of view we are not convincing anyone with our “all” or “none” debates.  Collectively we merely end up frustrated, increasingly estranged and entrenched, and doing nothing, blaming the recalcitrant “other.”  Surely we can demonstrate more creativity than we have thus far brought to the problem. 

Years ago Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, advocated “third alternative” thinking as a way to harness the synergies of conflicted voices.  Neither “my way” nor “your way”, third alternative thinking likewise moves beyond watered down compromises between the two.  Covey held up the belief that when patient, sincere advocates set their minds to possibilities beyond their original convictions third alternative solutions emerge that are better, richer and more resourceful.  Hasn’t the time long-since arrived for us to give the pursuit of a third alternative a try?

So here we are again.  How many times must we return here?  I have my biases and convictions, but I don’t know the solution.  The fact is you don’t either.  I am convinced, however, that somewhere in our collective imagination, honestly and fervently joined, there is one to be found that years from now our children, who have actually lived to ponder the question, will wonder, “What took you so long?”

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A Life Remembered, and a Still-Nourishing Meal

It has long been my custom to browse the obituaries each day. It is a practice born neither of morbid curiosity nor to establish, according to the old joke, my own absence there. It is, instead, my dread of failing to note the passing of someone who has graced my days with their own. We are shaped, I learned along the way, at least in part by those we bump up against, and I don't take those caresses and abrasions for granted.

Most days those memorial pages are filled, to my relief, with photographs and names unfamiliar to me. Today, however, my discipline was sadly rewarded. Don, I learned, had passed away, after a brief illness, at 77.

Perhaps it's just the way the universe works — sending out "dog whistles" lost on most ears, but in frequencies registered by those who need to hear them — but I was only recently telling of my acquaintance with Don, at a gathering of friends on New Year's Eve, the day before, as it turns out, he died.

Don Loomis lived across the alley from the church I served, in one of those unfortunate apartments carved out of an old and once prouder house on a weary street in the college neighborhood. Somewhere in or close to his 60's, Don lived happily and independently, despite the fact that he had lived his first 33 in a state institution. That circumstance had more to do with his mother's shortcomings than Don's, and though institutionalization had certainly left its scars, Don made his way without resentment or regrets, funded primarily I suppose by government assistance of one kind or another. Most semesters would find him telling his story dispassionately to sociology students at the university, answering questions, laying his life bare, less to garner sympathy than to proudly note that nevertheless he had thrived.

Every year Don hosted a Thanksgiving feast. As a regular on his social circuit — he would stop by my office to talk — I was routinely invited, but I managed to find exempting excuses. I couldn't imagine a meal in Don's dingy apartment, and, I'm deeply ashamed to admit it, in the company of what I presumed would be Don's dingy friends.

But one year, perhaps 10 years ago, I ran out of excuses. Don had stopped by asking to borrow some tables and chairs for the annual feast, and as it turned out, some money for the turkeys. And then came the inevitable invitation. I caved. I accepted. I grudgingly entered the date and time in my planner. Eventually the dreaded date arrived. With a deep breath and deeper trepidation I picked my way across the alley and located Don's "front door". Inside, several of the guests had already arrived — college students, mostly; and recent college graduates who had developed a fondness for and friendship with Don by living in the neighborhood, in very similar "unfortunate apartments", and sharing previous meals. Some had come back into town for this occasion. Some had brought their parents who were visiting from out of town. Perhaps 20 of us in all, crowded together around worn church tables and peeling card tables, quizzing each other about "how do you know Don," and settling into this unusual hospitality.

Don was meanwhile finishing up the dinner preparations — stirring, carving, ladling. Eventually we were called to attention, I awkwardly offered a Thanksgiving Prayer, and the meal was served. The tables were were covered, decorated, and set with plates and flatware and cups...and at each place setting a brown paper lunch bag enclosing an orange, an apple, and some nuts — a party favor of sorts.

It was a heart-meltingly tender evening: this man of meager means and limited story, the benefactor to fresh-faced, expensively educated twenty-somethings, their affluent parents, and a shame-faced hypocritical pastor he had endearingly befriended. All of us, gathered at Don's table, in each other's keeping and Don's, grateful. It was, in a word, beautiful. Or to choose a better one, it was holy. It was as close to the Kingdom of God — the Feast of Heaven — as I am likely to get in this life.

I drifted out of touch after that. Don returned the tables and chairs, he continued to stop by from time to time, but eventually he moved to western Iowa to be closer to family members. But I've never forgotten that evening — the gift of grace he selflessly and matter-of-factly extended, and the unlikely assortment of people convened there to receive it. And I've often wondered what became of him.

Now I know: he continued to live, continued to thrive, continued to tell his story, and then he died.

In the American narrative, Don's story would scarcely earn a word, let alone mention by name. In the American economy, Don would, by any calculation, be averred a "drain," a "liability".

Math, of course, has never been my strength, but I would add him up very differently — as one, nonplussed, who gave far-better than he got.

And in more ways than one, he fed us.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Past as Prologue

I'm too sentimental for this. And it's only getting worse with age. Annually this is one of my recurring dreaded moments: the inevitable lists of famous people who have died through the course of the year. Pop culture icons. Musicians. Actors. Luminaries. Statesmen. This year the list includes Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Jim Nabors, Joseph Wapner, and Don Rickles; there was Roger Moore who was perhaps my favorite James Bond, and Adam West, the quintessential Batman. There were showmen Jerry Lewis and Monty Hall. Passing musicians in my personal Hall of Fame this year include Al Jarreau, Greg Allman, Chuck Berry, Glen Campbell, Walter Becker, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, and David Cassidy, although plenty will take issue with that last one.

And these are just to name a few. There are certainly others on the list, like Chuck Barris of "Gong Show" fame, and Hugh Hefner of Playboy. Age was the determining factor for many, along with other natural causes. Suicide took more than its share (although I'm not sure what the share of suicide might be). Often The Grim Reaper wielded a sickle in the shape of the Big "C". As it always is, it's a long and diverse list. Some on the list changed history; some changed their particular craft; some didn't change a thing but helpfully entertained. Some simply changed me — or at least provided the soundtrack to the various changes I was undergoing.

And I will admit to the melancholia I feel at the loss of these 2x4's that have formed some part of the background and underlying structure of my years. Their passing confirms the inexorable movement of time — underscoring that the "way things are" is merely a transient movement along the way to whatever next will be. And every other day of the year I celebrate this movement that I pray will eventually be judged "progress." God knows I'm not the least bit interested in this present state of affairs being the culmination of anything to which we collectively aspire.

And yet seeing this long list every year reminds me that there are all kinds of joys along the way — secular "Ebenezers" to borrow a word from scripture and the old hymn; marker stones along the way of something memorable and good (the "Gong Show" notwithstanding).

Most of us will never show up on year-end lists of this sort. The ponds into which we throw our pebbles are much too small and remote. But they are our ponds, nonetheless, and we care about them and the ripples we set in motion. Institutionally we often ask, "if this organization ceased to exist would anyone notice or miss it?" Perhaps the better use of these year-end lists, then, is less to simply lament the passing of memorable personalities and the times in which they flourished, and more to prompt us to toss a few more pebbles with whatever time we have left.

I will miss these departed souls — their shows, their songs, the jokes and the laughs, and the associations I connect with them all. But only for a moment. There are, after all, new songs being written.

Ironic and appropriate, then, that at the very time I've been reading these lists of passing we have been playing with our 1-year-old grandson, celebrating not the past but all that lies ahead…

…in his hands…

…and, even yet, in ours.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Village’s Friendly Reminder


We have been eating into the spirit of the season — or eating ON the spirit of the season, to put a finer point on the matter.  A few weeks ago Lori retrieved from the cabinet downstairs our set of “Thanksgiving dishes” to enjoy in these waning days of autumn.

Called “The Friendly Village”, our little set consists of four place settings of this English China made by Johnson Brothers.  I don’t really know why we think of them as particular to Thanksgiving, lacking as they do the usual cornucopia and turkey iconography.  Perhaps it is the way their quaint brown images artfully and unobtrusively blur the transition between autumn and winter — precisely as late November is prone to do — with their snowy rural scenes encircled by fallen leaves and berries.  They are somehow warming, despite their chilly depictions; sweet and nostalgically bucolic.  They rather "feel like" the season, even if no pilgrims are pictured.

Warming, then, but also bittersweet, which perhaps accounts for their several years of neglect. The set was a gift received early in my ministry in Des Moines.  I don’t recall it to have been a special occasion — a birthday or Christmas or the like; we weren’t, in that way, in the habit of exchanging such gifts between pastor and people.  I rather recall it to have been something of a sunlit intervention in a particularly dark season of my life — a gesture of grace meant to convey sympathetic support.   A kindness more than anything.  But whatever the impetus, into my office one day breezed Evelyn carrying a wrapped box from which I later excavated the dishes.  A gift, as it were, from Harry and Evelyn, although it likely would have been news to Harry.

I had primarily known Harry and Evelyn as pleasant-faced members of the church’s older generation — reliably present among the pews on Sunday but otherwise peripheral to the busyness of congregational life.  They were kindly and implicitly supportive, but hardly the chatty type.  Other than the perfunctory exchanges of social obligation, I doubt we had ever enjoyed a true conversation.  I did not know them well, and yet here she was bearing gifts.

I’ll admit that while I was touched by the thoughtfulness, the dishes themselves left me...well, let’s say “neutral.”  Chalk it up to the superficial snobbery of youth, they didn’t really fit into my “aesthetic”.  Striking me as something more befitting my grandparents’ table than mine, I dutifully used them on seasonal occasions,  but they more generally lived toward the rear of the cabinet.

And then they began to haunt me.  In the years following the gift given and received, I rocked along through my tenure, busy with many things in my personal and professional life.  The church bustled programmatically along, the kids grew up; I got married, and Harry and Evelyn aged.  Eventually Evelyn went into a special care center on the far side of town and, left to his own religious devices, Harry sort of drifted away.  I visited Evelyn a time or two, but her memory issues made for challenging conversations, and I conveniently got lost in the proliferation of many and simpler things.  Or perhaps more truthfully put, Evelyn got lost in my proliferation of those many and simpler things.  The sum of it is that I neglected her —pastorally abandoned her and, by extension, Harry.  They eventually died largely forgotten by the church they had loved, save but one or two attentive friends.  And I grieve that negligence to this day.  

Which explains the bitter-sweetness of pulling out those dishes each year and setting the November table.  Their “aesthetic”, for one thing, is more compatible now — we have become, after all, the grandparents to whom I once consigned them; and God knows a “Friendly Village” is something toward which we can use every encouragement.  But mostly we use them to remember — Harry and Evelyn, to be sure — but more broadly the painful regret of negligent forgetting.  We eat off of these dishes to remind us to notice, to reach out, to be instigators in ways that we are able of precisely that “Friendly Village” in which we long to live; one encircling especially those more present to us who we easily forget or neglect.    

It’s just a small set of four, and we are only two, but whatever their other virtues and value, the dishes remind us that every village starts somewhere, and this one might as well start at our table...

...or yours, for that matter...

...Remembering, and giving thanks.

And reaching out.