Monday, December 31, 2007

Home, Where I Least Expected to Discover It

Fifteen years ago today I began a new life. In a sense that is nothing conspicuously significant. It wouldn't be the last new life I would begin in the course of those fifteen years -- some on the far side of curves that threatened to scuttle me. The difference is that none of the subsequent new beginnings involved a car and a thousand-mile change of address. Fifteen years ago today I drove into Des Moines, Iowa after a lifetime firmly planted in Texas.

It hadn't occurred to me that I would ever live outside of Texas. It never occurred to me that I would ever live in Iowa. It certainly hadn't occurred to me that I would likely live out the rest of the my life in Des Moines. But then who ever knows about such things?

I remember calling my parents the next day to report a safe arrival, mentioning that "it was zero degrees when I rolled into town, and then it got cold." Indeed it did. It was my first experience with sub-zero weather; truly a foreign land.

But it was a land shortly to become home in every way that matters. I'm quite certain that I will always be a Texan -- that Lone Star illuminates every corner of my personal universe, and I read, for better and for worse, by its light -- but I am almost as certain that I'll not live there again. It was a good move fifteen years ago, in countless ways I could not have predicted, and I am grateful -- not so much for what I left behind, because I keep that ever and blessedly with me. No, I am grateful for the new world, indeed the new life, I have subsequently found, where least I would have expected it.

Fifteen years later, no one could still be more surprised than me.

Living proof that God works in mysterious ways.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who Cares About a Few Aching Muscles?

When I could no longer right myself once fallen I knew I was too tired to continue. It was my first attempt at cross-country skiing, and by this time in the afternoon every muscle was twitching. It was a good twitch, but twitching nonetheless. I had only fallen a few times -- not once, actually, until I left the flat figure-eights in the field where the neophytes learn. Throughout those circles I managed to stay upright, and then I got ambitious. It could be that I got "cocky," but I prefer to think "ambitious." After all, you can't live all your life picking low hanging fruit. As lovely as was the field, I longed for the beauty of the upper trails.

Of course, there is the hill that must be mounted just to reach those trails. And there are those myriad slopes of varying degrees once in that elevation. But even then, for the most part, I managed to stay vertical. For the most part. Thankfully, the fourteen layers of clothing I was wearing kept me warm and surprisingly dry. And blessedly, skiing is populated by people of grace who were ever nearby and ready to help, ready to offer a tip about poles and arms and how best to get back up, ready to check and see if anything was broken. "Only my pride," I routinely responded. But even that was mere sociability. The truth is I hadn't mounted the mount with any pride to break. I could only exceed my expectations, and for the most part ended the day pleasantly surprised. And along the way, when I remembered to quit watching the tips of my skiis and started seeing where I was -- on a snowy hillside in Southern Vermont with trees all around me and trickling brooks beside me and the bright sky above me -- the falls, the hesitations, the calculations, and the incessant twitching seemed completely worthwhile.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A First Day in Paradise

The roads were clear today, and blue sky elbowed its way in-between the clouds -- quite a change from the snowy arrival late yesterday afternoon. What should have been a two and half drive from Boston's Logan Airport demanded more like four. Traffic was as heavy as the falling snow. Every time I became aware of my white knuckles on the wheel I reminded myself that "snow is why we are here." Admittedly that recollection was easier once we arrived at the Vermont inn where we will welcome our third straight New Year.

Driving today was a different story. We started south toward Grafton to discover the cheese factory there. We headed back north to Woodstock to stroll the quaint streets and add more flannel to our wardrobe. But most importantly we pulled off the road and hiked a bit up a mountain road where branches still labored under their snowy loads, and the mountain stream rolled between their banks, the sound uninterrupted by traffic or talking or...anything. "This," I had no trouble reminding myself, "is why we are here."

Now twice-supped, one day explored, and content beside the fire in our room, we are enjoying the pictures from the day.

And the peace.

And the quiet.

And the snowy lanes and streams.

And though we have not yet seen a moose, we have had the chance to kiss inside a covered bridge.

Ah! December in Vermont.

The moose can wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Silent Night, Quiet Morning, & the Blessed Awe of Christmas

There are bubble wrap bits on the floor from the package that Barrington had tried to open. A bow is here, an empty box there. Wall sockets are busy charging new gadgets for their official launch, and the kitchen betrays evidence of the night before. It's Christmas morning -- a more leisurely affair than once upon a time. The kids -- no longer kids -- now gather the night before for worship, egg rolls, and presents, instead of dawn to reconnoiter Santa. It's quiet; the only sound the coffee brewing and the fire and the echoes from the night before...

...Isaiah and his kind...
...Matthew and Luke...
...O Little Town of Bethlehem...Angels We Have Heard on High...Joy to the World...
...and Silent Night;
...children describing angels they have seen flying and grasshoppers they have seen hopping; of a young couple's preparation for a first child;
..."Merry Christmas"...
..."I love you"...
...the gift of awe-filling grace...
...the light that the darkness cannot extinguish.

Christmas is hardly over. We have miles to travel and more family to embrace; we have more presents to open and more food to eat; we have more fires to gather around, and more memories to make. And despite our middle-age and lifetimes of experience holding candles on Christmas Eve, we still have a gospel to comprehend.

Which is to say that, far from being over, Christmas is still just beginning.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Perhaps the Brush of Angel Wings

It's the weekend before Christmas and all through the house not a preacher is panicking, not even... Having wakened early, I plugged in the Christmas tree lights, turned on the coffee, fed Barrington, and knocked out the last of the special bulletins. The sermon for Sunday is almost in hand, the Christmas Eve candles have been prepared by a loving volunteer, and the nativity scene -- the one my in-laws molded and painted and built some years ago -- is reassembled, and so far no mischievous hands have absconded with the baby Jesus.

It not only is quiet; it actually feels quiet for a change. And more snow is predicted tonight and tomorrow. Perfect! Not that everything is done. There is still a gift or two to buy, and there is the wrapping still ahead. We need to find something to do with all these cookies and candies we made earlier in the week, and there are a few returned cards for which we need to find new addresses. There is a meal to plan and groceries to buy.

But those aren't really "tasks" at all; they are the very candle flames of Advent. All of it is, actually -- even preparing all those bulletins and scripts. Getting ready. Making preparations. Putting life in order for the day -- for the One -- who is to come.
Make your house fair as you are able,
trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.
And so while much, if not most, is accomplished, I'm still getting ready. There is silence to embrace and prayers to attend; there are dreams to revisit and hopes to embrace; there are eyes to look more deeply into, and if I turn my ear just right... angel's song to hear.
"On earth."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Faith and the Politics of Religion

My sense is that he is half right. I have been conflicted about the public debate that has been rumbling regarding the religious beliefs and fidelities of the Presidential candidates these last many months. At various times they have been queried about their prayer life, their understanding of forgiveness, and perhaps most publicly their view of the Mormon faith. It is a debate that has hovered near the electoral process at least as far back as John Kennedy's speech seeking to allay concerns about his Catholicism, and eight years ago Joe Leiberman's Jewishness. This year, religiosity seems to be of particular concern -- specifically how relevant it ought to be. In his Sunday opinion piece, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer pleads that we "Keep Religion Out" of the presidential selection process, and as I say, he is half right. His impression is that the campaign season is "knee-deep in religion, and it's only going to get worse." Through the breadth of his column Krauthammer cites numerous examples to support his contention. As he wants to clarify it, "the Constitution prohibits any religious test for office," and that a religious underpinning should confer no "special status" to a policy proposal. As he rightly points out, "In this country, there is no special political standing that one derives from being a Christian leader..."

Krauthammer laments that none of the Republican candidates, when asked in the recent CNN/YouTube debate if they believe that "every word" of the Bible "is true" had the courage to respond, "None of your damn business." Guts, perhaps, or maybe political sense.

It's true that there have been too many extraneous questions about the candidate's religious life, but I don't think that means there are no valid religious questions to be asked. I agree that no "religious test" belongs in the American electoral process, and that no religious tradition or practice should have special status, but I do believe we are entitled to learn what we can about the meaning-makers active in a candidate's psyche. Religion is not the only such maker of meaning available to people in the world, but when candidates publicly claim a given religious expression, then I believe that profession becomes relevant to further inquiry. In fact, I would assert that it is not only appropriate to ask about such frameworks of value and meaning, it is important for the public to explore them. It's none of my business how devout a candidate's religious practice may be -- whether or not he or she is in worship every Sunday, how often the candidate prays, or about what, but I don't think it unfair to ask of candidates who claim religious affiliation how that affiliation shapes them. If one's religious formation provides some characterization of "the good," I think it is relevant for the voter to know what that "good" might look like, and how, according to that tradition, said "good" is to be attained. If that religious tradition makes some suggestion about "ultimate intent," I would like to know how that "end" informs the core of a candidate's visionary aspiration? How does one understand "evil", since that word seems to get thrown around a lot these days, and how are we to respond to it? When a candidate promises "high moral leadership," what, specifically, are those moral values, what is excluded from the list, and why?

Both Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson, by way of historical example, ran for President as Christian leaders, but both scared away most of the electorate. I submit that it wasn't their Christianity that frightened voters, but rather the very different ways that Christian faith took shape in their priorities, behaviors, and advocacies. It wasn't, in other words, what Christianity meant to others that made their faith relevant; it's what that Christianity meant to them.

Maybe, then, to return to the earlier example, it's not so much how often candidates pray that matters to me, nor even about what; it's what those candidates hear God telling them that I want to hear more about.

That could be interesting, indeed.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Frozen Inspiration

By no means did they all survive. Freezing rain drenched the city earlier this week, followed by heavy snow. Many neighborhoods went dark as ice-tugged power lines went down, and heavy weighted branches and boughs succumbed to the extra load. But they were the exception. Not to minimize the frustration of those who lost power or to ignore the crack of breaking limbs, but far, far more stayed up than fell down. The city has been, to echo the song, a "Winter Wonderland" of ice-sleeved trees and wires and -- well -- everything. If bare branches and high wires posed the greatest threat, evergreen boughs felt the greatest weight, and their needly arms sagged beneath the strain.

But -- and here's the thing -- they didn't break. They certainly look worse for wear -- disheveled, in a way, and tired -- and who knows whether their resilience will again elevate and restore their more stately pose. But they are hanging on. Tall, strong, firmly rooted, and grand.

Hanging on. Maybe that's not the most exhilarating hope for long and heavy Advent days when life seems to drop on us everything it's held in storage; maybe that's not the brightest metaphor for holidays more accustomed to twinkles and sprinkles and mall speakers cheerily droning carols. But when the phone won't stop ringing and the hungry and homeless keep knocking and the nits around us keep picking and the bombs keep exploding and the rhetoric keeps intensifying -- when the rain turns to ice, and then it snows -- hanging on may be the best that we can do. Arms bending but not breaking, after all, can be powerfully heroic sometimes.

And we can use all the inspiration we can get.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Advent's Prayer for Peace

If the first Sunday of Advent restarted our imaginative hope, this second Sunday provides the architectural drawings for that hope: peace. In a world like this -- in a time like this -- who can imagine such a state? Surely my wish for a horse when I was 5-years-old stood a greater chance of coming true than this adult hope for peace. At 51, I'm still waiting for the horse; who can calculate the wait for peace? Perhaps, then, now more than ever our hearts pry open our lips to pray...
God of Peace, we give you thanks for the thought. We are battle-weary from arguments and conflicts at the office, at home, in Washington, between presidential candidates, between armies, and within ourselves. Tired of the volume, tired of the vulnerability and the fear, tired of the anger and the grief, tired of the scars left on our bodies and our souls, we long for the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and knowledge and justice and rest; we long for the day when war is so long forgotten that not even the libraries contain books that remember them; when the earth will be as full of the knowledge of you as the waters cover the sea.

In the meantime, dear God, help us live in the midst of today – not only hoping for peace, but working toward it; not only talking about peace, but making it as well, starting with a fresh and appreciative awareness of lives already shot through with joy. There are marshmallow dollops of snow on evergreen branches; hoarfrost jewels the barren limbs, and there are the lively songs of children. We may not have the company we dream of, but we are not alone. The breathing beside us reminds of the presence of those who know our names, and the wreaths on countless doors remind us of your never-ending love…

We aren’t blind to the needs. We aren't deaf to the challenges. But we offer them into your safekeeping, fully trusting that you will hold them in your transforming grace. O God of Peace, make straight, again, the path to you, for we pray in the name of the one cleared it and set us upon it.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Tin of Memories, Melancholy, and Gratitude

When the box arrived, I hardly knew what to do with it. I am sentimental to a fault -- tears in the eyes and lumps in the throat can be paralyzing for me -- and these days are too busy to stand still. From a safe distance I finally sliced the tape and lifted the bluebonnet tin. But even then I waited. I knew what was inside. Over the Thanksgiving holidays my sister-in-law and my mother had rediscovered the boxes of Christmas ornaments that recent years of holiday simplification had left stored away. My brother's family took away their share. The shipping company delivered mine. Ornaments from through the years. School projects. Kitchen crafts. The very crucible of deep memories, melancholic joy, and lumps in the throat.

Today I am alone -- my day off from the office and Lori at work. With the last page of the novel turned and the laundry underway, I stared at the empty branches on the Christmas tree downstairs and understood that today was the day. I carried the tin gingerly from my dresser down the stairs as if it were an offering of some kind -- which, I suppose in a way, it was. Setting aside the lid and the bubble wrap inside I retrieved the construction paper Santa long faded and bent, the yarn Santa faces my Grandmother had knitted, and the brownish "shrinky-dink" ornaments in which I could neither remember nor discern any particular shape or intention. And I hung them. Offerings from my past to my present; from all that has gone before, to all that is and is to come. Silently. Carefully. Gratefully.

We are, I thought again, never fully formed, but always becoming -- the holy alchemy of all we have learned and experienced, all who have left upon us their fingerprints and on whose shoulders we stand, and all that is catching our eyes and touching our hearts and pricking our imaginations at the time. The fullness of our past -- in its simple profundity -- as the nursery of our present -- in all its unpredictable wonder. My grandmother's care, my own clumsy but determined coloring and scissoring, my mother's patience and my sister-in-law's diligence -- fifty-one years of moments and treasures, of words and actions, of hooking on branches and packing carefully away; an old woman and a little boy; a young mother and countless precious hours -- all together in one place, joining all the life and love and memories since: here, now, beautifully, tearfully united and alive.

I was right about the tears and the lump in the throat. I was right about the sentimental embrace. But I was wrong about the rest. I'm not paralyzed at all; rather strangely and quite surprisingly alive in a way as new and fresh as the snow; and larger than I have ever known. And it is good.

Merry Christmas, indeed.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Five-String Harp for Bob

"I'm coming home!" he called out to the unseen loved ones keeping him company that last day of life as we know it. "I'm coming home!" A dozen states and 1500 miles away and I can nonetheless picture his exuberant anticipation. Bob was always stepping into an adventure that became a part of his ever-enlarging home -- on a boat, learning and writing about the sea that feeds us; on a train, listening and singing and riding with hobos; on a stage, singing and pretending; in a classroom, telling stories to kids about Johnny Appleseed and more. Home became wherever he was privileged to be, and he was grateful, curious, respectful, and anxious to learn.

My first experience with him and my last were making music. I, the fairly ordered and ordinary constrained guitarist, and he the uninhibited banjo picker ever-launching into one or another obscure folk song that his memory had spent a lifetime gathering and pouring out. I think -- at least I hope -- that he enjoyed the music we made together, but he thrived to be with people who had one thing or another to teach him. Stood next to his, my life seemed rather limited and confined; my songs, thin and fading. The songs he knew -- and the living that surrounded them -- were timeless, earthy, hardy and real. I had nothing, really, to teach; all I could do was learn.

We shared a stage for a season, and a chancel from time to time. We shared a few living rooms -- both his, at a time in my life when I was full of lonely pain and grief and he and his beloved pulled out a chair from their table and served me grace; and mine, just a year ago in the company of a few last songs. The words eluded him from time to time; the tumor was beginning to speak too loudly for him to hear them. But the chords were there and the melody, the laugh and the joyful, crusty croon. And it was paradise for me.

He was, to me, the very portrait of life -- embraced, tasted, savored, and sung. His eyes, his heart, his spirit and his song were always wide open. Fitting that Thanksgiving was his ending.

He was always grateful.
As am I: for his life, his affection, exuberant example...

...and his song.

Welcome home, beloved friend Bob. And play on. There's bound to be something in those harp strings worth learning.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Hemorrhaging Spirits and the Need for Religion

Almost immediately into our introduction, my new conversation partner uttered the now-ubiquitous self-description: I'm "spiritual but not religious."

I get that a lot, and I think I understand what they mean. Almost unanimously the words grow out of a biography marred by bad church experiences -- hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, judgmentalism, political power plays, empty ritual, institutional maintenance. Etc. Etc. Etc. If anything, it is the latter half of that list that has been the most off-putting. We can put up with offense and disappointment, I'm learning, far more easily than wasted time, and more and more people are finding the preoccupations of the institutional church (the much lampooned "organized religion") -- budgeting, committee meetings, ushering protocols and controversies about when and how the candles are lighted and what the child should be wearing as it is accomplished -- not worth their time or interest.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I can't really argue. There is much to dislike -- and dismiss. We do tend to get our shorts in a twist over awfully tiny things. I recall one morning in graduate school, returning to class following a seminary chapel service, hearing one of my classmates conclude, "Well, we simply didn't have the Eucharist today." He went on to chronicle all the elements of the communion service that had either been omitted or accomplished "out of order," which, as far as he was concerned, invalidated the entire experience. Bizarre.

Ultimately I can neither condemn nor defend the institution. It has its baggage, but it also contributes continuity and community. And, in the interest of full disclosure, it pays my salary. But the institution is not the same as the religion it endeavors to serve, proclaim, and transmit.

Ultimately, spirituality without religion is as useful as water without a glass. Religion is not the sum of its rituals, but the particular shape of its belief. For all their many similarities and overlaps, the various world religions are, finally, different. They offer up very different ways of understanding -- making sense of -- life, the world, the ultimate goal of creation, and how we, as humans, fit into the mix. Religion is structured belief. Spirituality is inner animation and a sense of connectedness to that which is beyond oneself. Certainly the former without the latter is sterile and airless. But just as certainly the latter without the former is shapeless enthusiasm. It is the heart dressed up with nowhere to go and no way to get there.

So feel free to criticize the church. It certainly needs the critique. It can also survive the punches. But don't simply run around spilling spirit. Do something constructive with it. Get some religion.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Securing God's Commitment -- Or My Own?

"Can you put a price on faith?" asked a recent story about the practice of tithing in the Wall Street Journal. The writer went on to chronicle the plight of this biblical concept in current religious practice. What once was the gold standard of faithful stewardship has drifted onto the rocks of controversy, with some preachers becoming more and more strident in asserting the 10% requirement, and some parishioners taking issue, and taking their offerings elsewhere. With church revenue squeaking tighter and tighter, churches are twisting spiritual arms. With non-profit expenditures called more and more into question, parishioners are asking tougher questions about where all that money goes.

But it is not all about church fund raising. For some, tithing is about personal fund raising. Rev. John C. Hagee, of San Antonio, teaches that "If you obey God and you tithe, God will return it to you 30, 60, 100 fold."

For others, tithing reaches to the core of the contract between God and the devout. Steve Sorensen, director of pastoral ministries at Cornerstone Church, asserts that "When you tithe, God makes promises to us, that he ... is not going to let anything bad or destructive come about." For those who don't tithe, he says the Lord "is not obligated to do those things for you."

I'll have to admit, that is an angle I had not considered for stewardship Sunday: "Be tithers or be careful." I would find that kind of transactional theology funny -- if it weren't so tragically, maddeningly misguided. God is not a Mafia don, running a "protection racket" -- "Cough up 10% or else." Surely stewardship is not that self-serving, that fear-ridden, nor that blatantly contractual. Surely discipleship is not that mechanical. If I read scripture at all correctly, God has been more than willing to spill grace without regard for the merit of the "empty cups" who are filled by it ("But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8). Reducing God to our petty quid pro quos is to malign both the nature of God and the nature of true discipleship. Surely Christians follow -- and give -- out of gratitude for what is rather than as payment for what they hope to get.

So what about tithing? We practice it in our household, but as I look back on my preaching I see that stewardship, in general, makes a frequent appearance, but almost never anything specific about tithing. What self-respecting preacher wouldn't talk about tithing?

Noting that I haven't always been self-respecting, this preacher can only say that I have never found comfort with the notion of a mandated tithe. I see such prescriptions in the legal expectations of the Hebrew scriptures, but that mandated approach seems at odds with the anti-legalistic view of the Gospels. Moreover, I sense that too much emphasis on percentages seduces one into dividing assets between "what belongs to God" and "what belongs to me." My understanding is that "all I am" and "all I have" belongs to God, and that any practice that tries to shave that totality is self-serving, not God-serving. I believe my stewardship should be regular, proportional, and indeed sacrificial, but less because God has need of it and more because I need the constant reminder that "I am not my own." Giving becomes a form of worship, in assent to the teaching that "where my money is, there my heart is also."

Some have preached that "we ought give until it hurts," but my threshold for pain doesn't seem like a very reliable measure. Perhaps I should better preach that we should give until our giving seems commensurate with the gift we've already received.

All of a sudden, 10% sounds pretty puny.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A Short Trip from Bountiful

Black Friday. Despite its ominous sound, I learned just this week it refers to the day when businesses, supposedly, move into "the black." Those retailers might, even now, be taking a deep sigh of relief or expectation, as if to say, "It has finally arrived." But it feels to me like it has been a short trip. Just yesterday we were feeling grateful for all we have; today we are feeling anxious about snatching from the shelves all we want to have.

It is sobering to consider from whence this agressive day has sprung: Christmas, and the affectionate tug to respond to the gift of grace from God's own hand with a few gifts of our own to those we similarly love. We offered, in the beginning, tokens of our affection -- breads, perhaps, from our ovens; crafts, at times, from our hands. We gave some sign of ourselves -- something that sprang from our being -- as a messenger of fondness and appreciation for the experience of affection to those from whom we had received it.

Now we give what we are told we are supposed to by marketers and advertisers and retailers -- Cabbage Patch dolls, Tickle Me Elmo's, Playstations (in one iteration after another), and any number of personal electronics in my personal memory -- to those who will play with them for awhile before moving on to the next titillator that will be similarly forsaken. It seems like a good system for everybody except the giver and the receiver. The former piles up anxious obligation and debt, and the latter piles up junk.

I'm not sure if my saying these things is an act cynicism, of truth telling, or simply the voice of experience. It is certainly the latter. On both sides of the "junk" equation. As a son, I have been the benefactor of parents who did their dead-level best to please. As a father I have been on the desperate end, diligently checking items off of my children's lists. And as a householder, I have scratched my head at the mystery of where to store all the stuff.

I don't do much baking, and I am not crafty enough to make a go of such enterprises, but I have been moving ever so gradually away from gifts that take up room and toward those that build up memory. Gifts of experiences -- sometimes consumed, but always lived. No one I know, after all, has any more room to put things, either, and none of us has any business buying a bigger house. But we all need bigger lives, and we can help each other with that.

Black Friday. We are in Minneapolis today, and on our agenda is the great Golden Calf of wretched excess: the "MegaMall" -- the Mall of America. If years past are any predictor, we will buy little, if anything at all. But it is a field trip of grand proportions -- the decorations, the crowds, the displays, the music, the sheer vastness of the possibilities that eventually become more numbing than appealing. I think of it as "shock innoculation" against consumer viruses to come.

I hope it works. The mantra for the day is "remember Thanksgiving."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Small Celebration

I don't know why the story caught my eye. The absence has certainly not kept me awake, nor have I ever given much thought to who, by contrast, was included. But somehow the news that the Munchkins -- of Wizard of Oz fame -- were finally, after all these years, getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame has welled within me a contented, smiling sigh. According to the story, only nine of the original 125 actors who portrayed the citizens of Munchkinland are still alive, which should come as no surprise. What came as a surprise to me was the fact that the movie premiered some 68 years ago.

Of those surviving nine, Jerry Maren, part of the Lollipop Guild; Mickey Carroll, the Town Crier; Karl Slover, the Main Trumpeter; Ruth Duccini, a Munchkin villager; Margaret Pelligrini, the "sleepyhead" Munchkin and Meinhardt Raabe, the coroner, all attended the ceremony yesterday, along with Clarence Swensen, a Munchkin soldier who now lives in Pflugerville, Texas.

Maybe that last is part of the intrigue -- that in my very own Texas, the land of everything big and tall, resides one of the Munchkins. Perfect!

Or perhaps it is simply the common satisfaction of seeing the commonly forgotten get a little share of the spotlight. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Munchkins "made" the Wizard of Oz -- Dorothy and Toto, the Cowardly Lion and Tinman and Scarecrow, after all, had something to do with that -- but it sure would have been a smaller movie without them (no pun intended). Their winsome, exhuberant, hospitable presence made crashing down somewhere over the rainbow a magical delight.

But maybe it also has to do with my mounting disaffection for our culture's celebration of the bloated -- the deification of all things bigger, louder, and brighter. We have all become enchanted with -- if not addicted to -- powerful engines, bold tastes, high definition, mega-bandwidth, and vehicles with more cup holders and "electrical accessory ports" than gas mileage. Life on steroids.

It's nice, for a change, for something small to be celebrated, commemorated, honored. The actors who played the Munchkins earned it not because they overwhelmed us with horsepower and decibels, but because they simply enchanted us...

...with less, rather than with more.

That wouldn't be a bad thing to consider this week as I sit down with family and friends around the table and ruminate on the shape and size of gratitude, and the legacy I hope to leave.

Congratulations, Munchkins! Enjoy your star. And keep singing... least to me.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Year's Worth of Words

I missed my anniversary. A little over a year ago -- November 10th to be exact -- I created this little page on a whim and a wave of technological curiosity. Blogs were so much in the news -- were becoming such an ordinary noun in everyday discourse -- and I really couldn't fathom what they were. So, on an unusual Friday (my titular "day off") during which I had absolutely nothing else I had to do, I started Googling. Not surprisingly (since Google happens to own Blogspot), I found myself at Blogspot reading, comparing, exploring and, well, "fathoming".

Quite unintentionally, I discovered that, after a few simple and progressive key strokes, I had created one: a blog of my very own. Then, a new problem presented itself. Staring me in the face -- beckoningly; hauntingly; insistently -- was this big blank box virtually demanding me to put something in it. Innocently, and purely in the interest of further education, I tapped out a few words -- " come to the aid of the their country..." or some such quotable. Deleting that, and before I really gave it a thought, I simply started typing. A reflection here. A turn of phrase there. Perchance an insight. We were in the stewardship season at church, so little wonder what was on my mind. Lori would later confirm what I already knew in my heart: nobody wants to read about church stewardship in their spare time. But I was writing for personal discovery, not for public consumption.

And then yet another dilemma confronted me. If the blank box had lured and finally seduced me, how was I going to respond to the bewitching "Publish" button below it? It seemed so kind, so welcoming. It seemed so........easy. I had always wanted to be published, and now with a simple mouse click the button said I could be. What else could I do? The button made me do it.

And so it began. A year ago, plus a week. Along the way I have taken this little blank tablet to the airport for observation, to Vermont for New Years, on the train for scenic retreat, and into all manner of places in my head. There have been thoughts on weddings and marriage, on politics and civil rights, on birthdays and nature and people and, of course, stewardship.

And my, how it has grown! This little enterprise dedicated to "Curious, considerate conversation about faith and life" has taken the reading public by storm. Readership has rocketed during the ensuing months to what before long might actually reach into the double digits. Those readers haven't always been pleased. Sometimes, I confess, I have leaned perilously close to a "rant", and sarcasm, no matter how gentle, can be abrasive. I have my fans, of course -- my Mother, in particular, who believes every word I write is honey. But popular or not -- vinegar or honey -- I keep on writing. Erratically, I'll admit. There certainly is no schedule.

If I have unrealized dreams about an active forum of discussion between my topic starters and friends and congregants and far-flung strangers (anyone can see that comments are rarely posted), never mind. I have been having a ball. It's good for me to have a mechanism to ponder out loud, so to speak, and even pray. If these word-streams touch or nudge or otherwise bless anyone else along the way, all the better. Thanks for reading along.

I'll keep trying to write something worth reading.

Friday, November 16, 2007

I'll Think About it Tomorrow

It is mid-November and warm. Sunny, with the mercury hovering near 60 degrees, any sensible person would be outside, taking advantage of this meteorological bonus day by stringing lights outside for the holidays. Who knows, after all, how many more opportunities we might have for such things, unencumbered by fleece and hoods and boots? Only a fool would pass up such an opportunity. But here this fool sits: inside, feeling no particular pressure. Meanwhile, it's Friday afternoon and I have only now finished the first draft of Sunday's sermon. I suppose that's too early to describe as "last minute," but it is still tardier than I prefer. Still, I've already closed the file for the day, putting off any refinements for tomorrow. Or early Sunday morning.

It reminds me of the old fable of a Grasshopper, hopping about one summer's day in a field, chirping and singing to its heart's content. An ant passed by, struggling in the transport of an ear of corn he was taking to its nest.
"Why not come and chat with me," said the Grasshopper, "instead of toiling and moiling in that way?"

"I am helping to lay up food for the winter," said the Ant,
"and recommend you to do the same."

"Why bother about winter?" said the Grasshopper; we have got
plenty of food at present." But the Ant went on its way and
continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no
food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants
distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had
collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew:
It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.
I know that, of course. I know that I will regret it -- when the time comes to hang the Christmas lights and it is snowing outside; or when the time comes to do a hundred and one other things like revise the sermon draft and I would prefer to hit, once more, the snooze alarm. But it's Friday afternoon, and I am tired. I want to relax...or simply close my eyes for a moment or more. I have felt all the pressure to produce I want to feel today. And if it snows tonight...

...I'll put on my boots and gloves, tug on my coat, and give thanks that I'm alive enough to shiver.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The String Around My Finger is the Tie Around My Neck

The children's sermon this morning was about bow ties. I suppose that's not quite truthful. The presenting topic was about what I like to think of as the shorter, more elegant form of neckware, but ties were, in fact, ultimately secondary.

When I asked the kids if they had ever wondered why I only wear bow ties when everyone else around seems to wear long ones, they demonstrated a decided lack of curiosity. When I asked if they knew anyone else who wears them, a certain principal was named, and a school custodian (though that latter strikes me as suspect). Regardless of their interest, I was determined to tell them the story of my preference. On this first Sunday of November, we were honoring the saints -- particularly those church members who had died in the past twelve months, but others inevitably come to mind. My grandfather, for example.

My father's father had been a south Texas cowboy until he married and sought more settled work. He eventually opened a general mercantile store, though by the time of my arrival on the scene the store was long since gone and Grandad hobbied in cattle. Whatever his habits might have been before, from my earliest memories Grandad dressed himself in khakis, a white shirt, custom made boots, and a bow tie. I used to sit on the edge of his bed, watching him tie it, and beg him to teach me how. He faithfully tried, and though I never succeeded, my failure had nothing to do with his diligence.

Years later, my Grandmother now dead and Grandad confined to a nursing home, I spotted a bow tie in a store and felt within me that childhood determination, long dormant. The tie and the accompanying tying diagram returned with me to the dorm room where I was attending summer graduate school, and after a fog of colorful language and a growing numbness in my fingers, the thing finally held together around my neck in a semblance of a bow. Just barely.

I went back and forth for awhile, but for years now they have been the only ties I own or wear. In truth, I suppose I have made the style my own. I'm sure my kids think of me as wearing nothing else, and certainly those around me. And while the only people who ask me how to tie them are adults with tuxedos in their future, I still tie them as a little boy, sitting on the edge of a bed. It isn't some misguided attempt to be stylish. It is my way of remembering -- and, I hope, honoring.

Some hang pictures. Some tell stories. And though there are many folks who animate my memory, I wear ties. One, after all, can only wear so much. But all of us, I hope, remember...
...and give thanks for...
...those saints in our lives whose fingerprints have helped to make us who we are.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

We Shall Turn it Upside Down

I don't know; it just strikes me as odd. As reported by the Des Moines Register, a group of religious folk gathered on Sunday at a historic African-American church here in Des Moines to pray and rally against "a Polk County judge's decision that Iowa law improperly prohibits same-sex couples from marrying," and to encourage the Iowa Supreme Court to overturn the decision. In fact, it wasn't simply "a group." It was a BIG group -- 1200 according to the story. "This is more than a political battle," said the host pastor. "This is a spiritual battle."

That's fine. And while I can agree that the question does, indeed, have precious and powerful spiritual implications, my understanding of those implications leads me to an opposite conviction. Again, that's fine. In this country we are entitled to differing views.

What strikes me as odd, however, is the thought of this large and animated gathering, assembled in an African-American church of all places, singing and swaying and holding hands, according to the story, while singing the classic civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome. I'm not making this up: employing a core piece of civil rights iconography to denounce the civil rights of a minority. Bizarre. Next, Hamas militants will be singing We're Marching to Zion while planning insurgent attacks on Jerusalem, or an Iraqi terrorist stealing Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" just before detonating an explosive beside an American Humvee. It is an Orwellian -- or is it an Alice in Wonderland -- twist that feels wrenchingly, offensively absurd.

Please. Speak your mind. Sing if you want. Hold hands and sway if you must, but don't bastardize We Shall Overcome -- an anthem of visionary, inclusive and liberating hope -- by wielding it as an instrument of walling constraint. Go find your own anthem for that.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Politics of Collective Responsibility

It's Iowa, and so it is not unusual for me to say that I have thus far met five presidential candidates. As one of those candidates joked, "Iowans like to kick the tires and look under the hood" of candidates. Whether it's because we like to, or simply because we can, first-hand contact is relatively easy. Moreso, meaningful interaction with these candidates for the "highest office in the land" is within reach. Two of the candidates have stood in our church building (the lawyers would want me to insert loudly here that outside, non-partisan groups -- and not our church-- were the hosts for these gatherings, and that all candidates from both parties received invitations) and responded not only to questions from the audience but also to their follow-ups when the answers seemed, hmmm, less than focused. As another of those candidates observed, it is "politics as it was meant to be."

This past Friday, during one of those forums, the candidate was seemingly caught off guard when an audience member mentioned that everyone wants to know what we can expect from the candidate; what she wanted to know was what that candidate expected from us -- the American People? He hemmed, he hawed. He finally confessed that he hadn't thought much about that, but that it was a very good question.

In that simple exchange, it seemed to me, was spotlighted the core of the unhealthiness that has come to characterize American public life. I don't really want to give the politicians a free pass, here, but those of us who frequent the voting booth need to recover the truth that we have not fulfilled our civic obligation once we have scratched a mark beside a name. I continue to be a citizen long after the votes are counted, with a vested interest in public life. I don't have permission to crawl back into my cave until the next election. In the same way that I can't expect my spouse to read my mind, I cannot assume that my political representatives simply intuit my priorities and values.

A wise teacher once told me, "If you want to know something, ask; if you want someone else to know something, tell them."

Ask. Tell. Even if it is easier to vote and then complain. Our system isn't designed for the many of us to simply "consume" what we elect folks to "produce." We elect representatives to accomplish what is only possible as long as we continue the relationship. Opportunity, coupled with responsibility.

Or, as the old folk song puts it, "This land is your land, this land is my land." Our land. Together.

Friday, October 19, 2007

When Giving is Receiving

Lori tells me that nobody wants to read about stewardship -- about the thorny responsibility for traveling wisely and mindfully around our circle of influence. I suppose she is right. It sounds so sober; so, well, emptying and "adult." We are used to having our attentions grabbed by sexier, more scintillating intrigues. We prefer flights of possibility over the moorings of responsibility.

But perhaps those two aren't that far apart. Reading yesterday I came across a word that was new to me. Ubuntu. A South African term, the word can be loosely translated "People are people through other people."

Desmond Tutu once said of it,

“ A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

It recalls to me John Donne's conviction that "No man is an island, entire of itself..." Who we are, and what we become is all tied up, in other words, with who we connect with and what we take care of. Precious, irreplaceably unique individuals who are, nonetheless, inextricably parts of a larger whole. Which is to make more concrete and immediate the insight we have always been taught: that when we "do unto others as we would have done to ourselves" we are, in fact, actually doing it. It is the full-circle of our influence, at once sacrificial and self-enhancing.

One of my teachers, Ernesto Cortes, taught me, “Everyone is born a human; we need relationships to become a person. Personhood is only constructed through our relationships, our affiliations, our conflicts.”

People are people through other people. Ubuntu. Community. Stewardship. Our giving is the measure of our becoming. Responsibility. Possibility. It makes the idea of signing a pledge card this Sunday the least of my worries -- and my opportunities.

Let the offering be given and received.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

This One Wild Precious Life

It's not unusual to run out of paper. The printer only holds so many sheets, so it happens from time to time that, finishing up a re-edited sermon early Sunday morning, I plug the laptop into the printer, refresh my cup of coffee, grab the pages from the output tray and scurry on my way, only to discover later that the paper supply was shorter than the manuscript.

I think about that as I visit a dear friend in hospice, watching as each day finds her weaker; wondering if this day will be her last; if this page drawn through the printer of her experience will exhaust her supply, knowing that no matter how many days are ultimately counted it won't feel, to her, like her manuscript was complete.

I think about that -- as a 51-year-0ld man who still thinks of himself as "young", who still catches himself thinking and behaving as though the bulk of his time is ahead. It's possible that I could live beyond that centennial threshold, but given my thirst for coffee, attraction to desserts, and enjoyment of leisure, the odds are not in my favor. Regardless, the point remains the same: many or few, one doesn't know how many sheets are in the printer. This one showing -- this day in progress -- is the only one I am sure of, and even it could get crumpled along the way. Of what, then, will it consist?

This isn't a novel question, nor is the implied answer head-turning wisdom. Philosophers from the Buddha to Tim McGraw have encouraged people to "live like you were dying." Which, of course, all of us are. It's just that I am prone to forget -- embarrassingly and naively soon after I walk out of that hospice room. But one of these days I will step into the pulpit with a manuscript missing its final page -- or two. One of these days I'll step into eternity with a life finished, but incomplete. What will the evidence be of my stewardship?

What, then, is printing on this sheet of day?

For starters, poetry, and Mary Oliver's version of the question:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
---"The Summer Day"

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Building Community One Chorus at a Time

The setting is spartan but scenic -- a nature lodge with a large, open room, on the banks of a small lake. The setting sun tints the western sky through the bank of windows lakeside. Inside, busy hands set up tables, chairs, speakers and stands, snacks and centerpieces. And instruments -- from rhythm instruments on the tables to guitars and keyboards up front. And flutes, of course, and a fiddle and a bass and a banjo and accordion. We were there to sing -- because as the invitation suggested, it was too much fun last year when convened such an occasion to celebrate my birthday to do only once. I'm not sure I would go so far as to suggest there was something magical about the event, but there was something more than fun about it. and so while we can have fun in any number of ways, we were interested in that "something more."

People filter in -- from the three somewhat different circus rings of our life. There are church friends and neighbor friends and, well, friends who are simply friends. Those within each circle know each other, of course, and there is some overlap. But there are also those, like Rose, who only know us and few, if any, others. There is a willingness, but also a strangeness.

But never mind all that. The music soon begins -- a couple hours worth of three-chord roots music with which even the non-musical have little difficulty singing along. From O Mary Don't You Weep to Erie Canal to Buffalo Gals to This Land is Your Land; from Swing Low to O When the Saints to I'll Fly Away; from Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road to Peaceful Easy Feeling to Country Roads; from Today to If I Had a Hammer and We Shall Overcome and even a Polka or two thrown in for fun, we sang and sang and shook our tambourines. We laughed, we paraded, we sang at the top of our lungs without regard for who could hear. And it wasn't long before the various rings of acquaintance melded into one.

We had become a part of each other -- which is something music has the power almost intrinsically to do. By evening's end, we knew each other -- had shared with each other an intimacy -- whether or not we knew each other's name. There was, in the room, a resident kindness and grace; a corporate and palpable smile.

Perhaps part of the problem in the world is that we don't sing enough together. Maybe if the Security Council at the U.N. distributed rhythm instruments when they gathered and someone brought along a guitar the world would be a kinder place. Maybe if, instead of a "Green Zone" in Baghdad the army set up a jam session zone.

It's a silly idea, I know. But it was fun to see just what a little turn of When the Saints Go Marching In could bring out of a bunch of relative strangers one autumn evening last week:; one chorus at a time.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ten Years of Blessing Grace

In the sermon yesterday I lamented what has become for me consistent experience with weddings -- when three-dimensional symbols and rituals are flattened into two-dimensional, obligatory "acts" to check off the list. Unity candles often fit that description, becoming mere ceremonial drama, empty of any philosophical -- let alone theological -- importance. Even the wedding ring is too often simply a gift of jewelry rather than the constant reminder, in the thick as well as the thin of married life, of a love that is willed and not merely felt; of promises made and publicly – even divinely – attested.

In the sermon I confessed that "as a pastor I have come to have something of a love/hate relationship with weddings. Don't get me wrong; I'm in favor of them. But I loathe officiating at those whose motions are perfunctory; whose actions are ceremonial; and whose values are principally aesthetic – where the most important questions are 'Is the aisle runner straight?' and 'Do the flowers match the bridesmaids' dresses' and 'Does the gown appropriately highlight the bride's tattoo?' You know: the really important stuff."

I like to believe, of course, that I am different. Now two weeks past the 10th anniversary of my own wedding, how have we done?

Pretty well, thank you. To be sure, we don't always see eye to eye. Admittedly, the sight of the gold band around my finger doesn't always recall to my consciousness that moment in front of the evergreen tree when we looked into each other's eyes and made breathtaking promises. But it happens more often than not. Having planned an outdoor wedding, we had the sense to forgo the unity candle. But the third dimension of that familiar ritual -- the understanding that in marriage two individuals co-create a third living reality that requires care and nurture and constant attention -- we have pretty well embodied. That's not to say that this "third flame" doesn't get hungry every now and then, but from my vantage point it has never become malnourished. We talk. We listen. We pay careful and caring attention. We laugh. We refuse to let our aggravations talk louder than our affections and appreciations.

In our wedding ceremony, my Dad, the officiant, observed in light of 1 Corinthians 13 that "we can't always be patient and kind, but when we are, God is there." By that measure, it's no wonder that life in the company of my blessed bride these ten years has literally been divine.

Patience, kindness, passion and romance; forgiveness, tenacity, imagination and prayer. Those, and constantly blessing grace.

We have, it seems to me, created something precious together. There was, to say it another way, evening and morning: the 10th year. And behold, it has been very good.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Seeking an End to Soul-Sucking Politics

In that awful, wonderful Cecile B. DeMille movie The Ten Commandments, made in 1956 and starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, the final plague against Pharaoh -- the visitation of the Death Angel that took the lives of the first-born son of any whose house was not protected by the blood of the lamb -- was portrayed as a gray fog that crept into the streets and seeped through the cracks beneath doors and windows; a deadly vapor that gradually but relentlessly infiltrated the entire city, punctuated by the ever increasing cries and laments of the suddenly grieving.

Harry Potter devotes might think, instead, of the Dementors, those darkly shrouded, wraith-like, soul-sucking figures that mysteriously and silently swoop down out of the sky in hoards for a kiss that drains anything of significance and vitality from their victims.

Vaporous Death Angel wafting through the streets; Dementors descending from the night sky with their vacuous mouths open for a kiss. Both images came to mind this week during a conversation on faith in public life. We were asked by the leader to tell a story about some real, practical ways that the next President of the United States should affect our lives, and all I could think of was the soul-sucking, suffocating character of the political climate of our day. Permeated by fear and suspicion, judgmentalism and accusatory innuendo, political discourse has become the language of negativism rather than the vocabulary of hope, animated by the specter of terror rather than the spirit of possibility. Candidates over-talking each other; political parties savaging each other; special interest groups oversimplifying and insinuating slander. It has become the very air we breath -- or the very air that is suffocating us.

The real, practical way I wish that the next President would affect my life is by speaking a different kind of word. I know there are significant policy issues to address. Of course I want the next President to advocate on behalf of health care reform and protection of children and stronger support of education and more. I want the next President to work on rebuilding relational bridges between our country and the world. But all of those initiatives depend on the partnership of others -- Senators and Representatives, courts and states and more. Perhaps the only thing a President can do completely on his or her own is to use that significant pulpit to set a tone. And I am weary of the dark and life-destroying place into which the whole of public discourse, whether Republican or Democrat, has sunk.

Harry Potter would say that I am looking for a kind of political Patronus Charm to counter the Dementors. In biblical terms I suppose I am looking for some kind of blood to smear on the lintels of our common house that will hold this deadly discourse at bay.

I would like to think I am simply looking for a President who shines light rather than casts darkness; who inspires collective and hopeful participation rather than vague but paralyzing foreboding; who reminds us of and calls us toward the best that we can be; who is ready to launch among us a kind of "Marshall Plan" for our political character and culture instead of taking the easy way of finding one more "bogeyman" to fear or hate, demean or fight or legislate against.

I don't think that's asking too much.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

1956 Was, For Me, A Very Good Year

It's hard to imagine my mother being wheeled into the delivery room on a gurney. It's hard to imagine my Dad pacing the waiting room floor. But here I am: 51 years to the day after such requisite events most certainly occurred; happy, if not conspicuously wealthy and only occasionally wise.

Change that. I am fantastically wealthy. The currency just doesn't happen to be money -- although by world standards that wouldn't be quite true. I have everything I need and most of what I want, with fewer ripples in my pond than I deserve. I am surrounded by love and encouragement, forgiveness and grace, along with the creative vocational space in which to thrive. I have opportunity, adequate tools, fascinating toys, ample music, and bright colors. There are even surpluses -- like my waistline, though that is hardly a plus. And there are conspicuous deficits -- most significantly in the category of habits of exercise and health.

But hopefully we are changing all that, Lori and I. For as many birthday and anniversary presents as we are willing to calculate forward, we have given ourselves a new piece of exercise equipment. We had actually worn out the treadmill it replaces -- based, at least, on the trade-in value the fitness store was willing to offer. And now we are trying to add deposits to our physical "bank account." Gifts of health, as it were, to each other. So far the record is good: 5 consecutive days and counting -- if, that is, we can continue to afford the ibuprofen. It can hardly be considered, at this juncture, a habit, but we are gaining on it.

In the meantime, I'll blow out my candles with breath for which I'm profoundly grateful, along with all the other blessings that permeate my life as the very evidence and residue of grace. So, happy birthday to me: happy, happy, indeed. Thanks Mom and Dad. I couldn't have done it without you.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Agreement Does Not Equal Truth

A Polk County judge on Thursday concluded that Iowa's law against same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, and unfairly discriminates. District Judge Robert Hanson ruled that "the law violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Iowa Constitution." No small matter, certainly, this issue of fairness and equality under the law. Predictably, there were equally loud outcries of ecstasy and agony. "Finally," said some. "Outrage," said others. Also predictably, the judge issued the next day a stay on the order, preventing its implementation pending appeals.

But whatever one's views on the merits of the issue in general and this case in particular -- whatever one's views on marriage -- it was the exclamation by one Iowa lawmaker that has given me pause. In vowing to "to take more steps to change Iowa law to prevent same-sex marriages," House Minority Leader Chris Rants, a Sioux City Republican, exclaimed, "I can't believe this actually happened in Iowa." What it means is that one person has decided they know better than the whole Legislature."

That last sentence. That's the one that interrupts me. I recognize the long tradition within democracies of "majority rules." Although there are typically safeguards in place to protect minority voices from being routinely tyrannized, we haven't really come up with an alternative to simply counting up the votes. We can change the definition of "majority" -- "simple" majority or "super" majority, for example -- but it still boils down to the "voice of the many" having say over the "voice of the few." That, I suppose, is democracy.

While I don't discount the importance of the majority's opinion, I wouldn't attribute to it too much substance. Weight? Yes. Substance? Not necessarily. Especially from a Christian point of view.

I haven't gone back to read the actual votes, but I'm relatively sure that the majority of legislators in various southern states during the 1950's and 1960's saw no problem with racially descriminatory laws that were currently the "law of the land." The majority.

While most American colonists were getting fed up with the heavy-handed policies of Britain, I would be willing to bet that the majority disapproved of the actions of a few who heaved crates of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.

As I think about the biblical story, it was the majority opinion of those in charge that led to Jesus' crucifixion and Stephen's stoning. If a vote had simply been taken after the renegade Paul began to baptize uncircumcised Gentiles, most of us would not be in the church today. And reaching a bit further back, it appears that the majority of Israelites voted to return to Egypt. It was that "wild, activist judge" Moses who insisted they go forward toward Canaan.

All of which is to say that sometimes, every now and then, Mr. Rants, the majority -- even the "whole legislature" -- gets it...


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Forgiveness, After All, Is Such a Hassle

So much for killing someone with kindness. So much for "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads" (Romans 12:20). So much for overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21). One of my esteemed colleagues, the Rev. Wiley Drake, of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, California has had it with such "turn the other cheek" nonsense. It seems that after Rev. Drake mailed out a letter on church stationery endorsing a particular candidate for President, Americans United For Separation of Church and State encouraged the I.R.S. to reevaluate the congregation's tax exempt status. This displeased Rev. Drake, who no longer wants to kill his enemies with kindness; now he simply wants to kill them.

Citing Psalm 109 among other passages of guidance, Rev. Drake is encouraging his supporters to engage in "imprecatory prayer" -- calling down God's personalized wrath on those thusly targeted.

"Dear God, scratch them out."
"Loving God, hurt them, please."
"God of peace, obliterate them."
God as windshield to our specified bugs.

It reminds me of the closing lines of one of my other favorite Psalms:
"O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!" (Psalm 137)

Except Psalm 137 is merely acknowledging how good vengeance can feel. Unlike Rev. Drake, this Psalm isn't imploring God to hire on as our personal hitman. The good reverend is taking a quantum leap over President Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. Here is God as Strategic Offense Initiative, with prayer as the triggering, homing device.

And we wonder why Christians have an increasingly bad name! Perhaps having started with Genesis, Rev. Drake is still making his way through scripture, learning about prayer as he goes. I can see how his understanding of prayer may be a little skewed by the passages and examples he has encountered thus far. I might suggest, though, that he skip ahead just this once to Luke 11, where one of Jesus' disciples asks him to "teach us how to pray." According to Jesus, one of the core elements of prayer is the desire for forgiveness -- illuminated in some way by the way we forgive others who sin against us. Forgiving, and being forgiven as inextricably related. This whole "forgiveness" business can be kind of murky at times. As Kenny Loggins once said, "who the good guys are; who the bad guys are isn't always clear" (from The One Who Got Away).

It's worth thinking about. Apart from that whole humility business about holding open the possibility that OUR enemies may not be GOD's, Rev. Drake ought to be careful. At the rate he is going, he could be the one who winds up wearing heaps of burning coals on his head.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Cheaper than Therapy and Healthier Than Doughnuts

I had intentionally not set the alarm, hoping for a leisurely night's sleep. Nonetheless, 4 a.m. arrived with me wide awake and no prospects of drowsing. Sliding quietly out of bed, I found the two newspapers already waiting outside my door, and leafed my way through their pages. I booted up the laptop to pay the bills that had accumulated in the basket. I checked e-mails while I was at it, though found nothing much beyond the usual unsolicited offers of internet romances and medications aimed at anatomical enhancement. I logged off, fed the dog, checked the time, started the coffee, and tried to think. But whatever was going on in my subconscious was using its "outside voice", though I couldn't catch its meaning. Something was churning, but I couldn't find its name. I considered self-indulgence -- I actually thought for a moment about driving across town to buy a dozen Krispy Kremes that I would single-handedly consume, but instead I grabbed by walking shoes and headed to the lake for a walk.

I parked, jabbed ear-buds into my skull, selected a playlist, and hit the trail. I was hardly alone, though the path was much less crowded than I usually see it. A dog or two. No skaters. No bikes. It was cool, and the new sun was just above the horizon. And I pushed along.

I was two-thirds of the way through my second time around when I realized I hadn't even noticed the lake. It is one of my favorite parts of this city -- a scenic, beautifully landscaped lake surrounded by a paved walking path in the shadow of downtown and just a block or so from my house. Every morning I pass it, gratefully, driving to work and feel nourished by the mist rising from the water. But not this morning. Today I simply walked -- one foot in front of the other as briskly as I could push it, arms swinging for maximum effect; I walked and walked and walked, without paying any attention. I hadn't even noticed the mystical line where the glassy smooth water from the side met the wind swept choppiness from the center. I hadn't even noticed the wafer of black cloud in the western sky knifing in beneath the cottony white above it. I hadn't even noticed a single name affixed to the railing along the rainbow bridge. I hadn't even noticed what flowers were blooming on the hillsides, or how the urban prairie is developing between the path and the road. I hadn't noticed if birds were in the area, flying or singing or absent. I even realized that I had scarcely noticed the songs from the iPod playing into my ear. The overarching reality of it all was that I simply hadn't noticed.

What was so turbulently on my mind -- during the night, and now along the invisible lake? Was it something in the news or something in my spirit? Was it the collision between the bills and the monies available? Was it self-pity over all the "other people" work that dominated -- indeed owned -- the weekend that should have afforded some leisure? Was it accomplishing too many of the wrong things and not enough of the right? Was it gnawing indignation at a news story from the night before? Was it the tasks awaiting me at work, too long neglected? Was it pent up energy that was insisting on its way? Was it exasperation at my physical condition, slowing and thickening and settling? Is it about the way I look or see myself, or generally the way I feel? Was it some latent anger that was eating its way to the surface, or an aching silence clamoring for a voice? Was it disappointment, anxiety, apprehension, disillusionment, pain? What had I been doing on those laps besides taking faceless steps?

Tearing up, I realized, as I hurriedly wiped my eye and tuned into the sentimental song currently playing.

Praying, I recognized, as I became conscious of the names already on my lips.

Blowing off steam, I understood, as I felt my calves and lungs and knees.

But what else, I don't yet have a clue. I only know that if I hadn't done something I was going to explode. And so I walked. And just for good measure, for the last quarter of a lap, I ran. I don't remember the last time I ran. Neither could my legs or my lungs. But it felt good, and the cacophony has found, again, its "inside voice".

Quieter now, and calmer, showered and in my study, I even see the leaves outside my window; rustling in the wind that blows through them, as well.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Seeing Red -- and Thriving on It

I still remember the magic of picking up that first maple leaf from the wet grass beside the trail through Stowe. It was mid-November -- a full month past the prime of foliage season -- and the drizzly mornings of late had flattened and pressed this one into a remnant carpet of others. But on that crisp Vermont afternoon this dewy specimen may as well have been the Holy Grail. Even after who-knew-how-long on the ground; even after rain and footsteps and approaching decay, it was beautiful. The fact that it was the first day of my honeymoon may have added some of the magic, but holding between my fingers this icon of autumn was a glory all its own.

We returned the following year for our first anniversary -- this time in early October, the "4th of July" of Fall. If that single leaf the prior year had been the pop of a champagne cork, this was atomic bombs -- one mountainside after another exploding with color. Unspeakable, breathtaking beauty.

We have returned in more recent years, but not in the glory of Autumn. Our schedules have other demands on their minds during that time of year. But simply crossing the state line -- even in late December -- feels like a deep breath of the soul. There are memories there -- visions of glory; God's palette on steroids.

You can understand, then, what a personal pain it was -- what a deep and reverberating silence it is -- to come across an article in the new Yankee Magazine about one more perfidious effect of global warming. Sugar maples, "the official state tree of Vermont and the unofficial symbol of fall calendars everywhere" become scarce as one drives southward into warmer climates. "By Connecticut they've given way almost completely to the oak and hickory forests that also distinguish the southern Appalachians. Some climate models "predict that within a couple of centuries, the climate of Vermont and New Hampshire will be more like Virginia's today -- and gone will be maple sugaring and the signature colors of the New England autumn."

I suppose I can imagine a world without sugar maples in Autumn, but I'm not sure quite why one would want to live in it. Red leaves in Vermont represent just one more reason why we'd better start paying attention to what we are doing to the environment. Sooner, rather than later -- while there are still leaves to turn and glow and fall.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Shooting Ourselves in our Ecclesiastical Foot

Young people aren't coming to church. That's the revolutionary finding of a recent survey by LifeWay Research. According to the report, seven in ten Protestants ages 18-30 who went to church regularly in high school say they quit attending by age 23 and over a third of those dropouts had still not found their way back to the sanctuary by the time they turned 30. What has turned them off? The people they experienced there -- and, of course, the pastors. According to the survey, the dropouts found us "judgmental, hypocritical or insincere." Ouch! That hurts, but it isn't that surprising. It is something of a job description for teenagers to view older adults as judgmental "sell-outs" who have lost track of their ideals and dreams and basic integrity in order to make a buck and get along. I'm not sure that adults in the church are any worse in those categories than others -- but then perhaps our teenagers and young adults are simply disappointed to observe that we are not better.

What really caught my attention in the report was the 52% of respondents who "had religious, ethical or political reasons for quitting." Religious reasons for leaving the church? Ethical reasons? I recognize that it is dangerous to read too much into simple statistics, but the notion that a critical mass of people find the church to be detrimental to their faith experience ought to give us "church folk" cause to pause. Find us irritating. Find us disappointing. Even find us to be failures in our quest to be effective and faithful disciples, but God forbid that someone find us detrimental, counter-productive and ultimately destructive to the cause of Christ.

If I understand at all the mission of Christ's followers, it is to function as a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God's coming reign. We are to be, as the Apostle Paul characterized it, "letters of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:3). If the results of the survey are to be believed, we are functioning more like junk mail than letters of recommendation.

I stay awake at night imagining the kind of church from which people could not bear to stay away. Some people are sure that church has everything to do with programmatic, theatrical flame, sizzle and fizz, but I am more and more convinced that it has to do with a manifest integrity between word and work; with passion for and depth of commitment to the God who has found and embraced them; and determined hospitality.

But then the prophet Micah already said that --
"God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (6:8)

Now, if we could only do it more consistently, more transparently, more joyfully.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Responsibility, Blame, and Gratitude

In Minneapolis over the weekend for a wedding, we found our way to various viewing angles of the collapsed I-35W bridge. It was an eerie awe -- cars still perched on unnatural slopes; a semi truck still aimed downward into its fiery deadend. And the immensity of it all. Like so many others have already reflected, I've driven over that stretch countless times with no conscious realization that it was actually a bridge. It is a vast span of now mutant, accordioned concrete slabs.

Reading the local newspaper, the articles and letters reflect the typical drive to parse "accountability" and "blame." Whose "fault" is it? To whose address can we deliver the lawsuits?

I remember while living in East Texas how the river would occasionally swell beyond its banks and destroy the simple, but scenic houses built nearby. There would be an outcry of frustration from the suddenly homeless that more was not being done to restore their abode. Not wanting to be heartless, I did, nonetheless, wonder if there aren't some natural -- and frankly obvious -- risks in pitching one's tent, so to speak, in that particular location. It isn't anybody's "fault" that the river overflowed. More important than assigning blame and restitution, it seemed to me, was determining what to do next.

I do believe there are lessons to learn from a bridge that suddenly falls apart. And I do believe that if there emerges clear evidence of neglect or wrong doing then those responsible should be held accountable -- whatever that might mean. In this environment of managerial incompetence and political cronyism, who would be surprised if corners were cut, costs were shaved, or signs ignored by those who didn't even know enough to watch for them?

But it is also possible that despite the best engineering skill and building materials employed at the time -- the bridge, after all, was hardly new -- it couldn't any longer keep standing. It's possible that we don't know quite as much as we thought we did. As a bumper sticker advertising a garden center once put it, "compost happens." Indeed.

So, let us learn what we can, even punish whom we must. But let us also let go of the delusion that we can ever eliminate tragedy once and for all. And in the meantime, we might take my 7-year-old nephew's suggestion:

"We ought to thank that bridge for staying up as long as it did."

Thursday, August 9, 2007

She Insists on Growing Up

I'm getting old enough to appreciate the prods -- my computer datebook popped up the reminder that today is my daughter's birthday -- but it's hard to imagine that I could forget. For 24 years her distinctive melody line has added texture and lilt to my song so profoundly that it would no longer be "my song" without it. Don't confuse that with perpetual harmony. Dissonance, I suppose, is an essential part of father-daughter music. Sometimes the rhythm has been double time; sometimes syncopations that have stretched my vibe; sometimes there have been multiple measures of rests. But it has been our music, and I continue to be blessed and animated by it, and grateful.

It's hard to allow her the transition from little girl to young woman. She, of course, would argue that transition occurred years ago and has long since shifted gears. I can't argue the fact chronologically. But I'm not looking with such objective eyes. I'm not a casual observer, after all. I've changed her diapers. I've held her broken arm. I've listened to her giggle while holding a new kitten, and watched her walk determinedly up the sidewalk to kindergarten. And a few other things. So while I intellectually acknowledge that she is all grown up, the rest of me is slow to recognize it.

And so it is that we will gather around a dinner table tonight, a circle of adults, and at least hum together "Happy Birthday." We'll talk about adult things, and adult plans and adult concerns, and I'll play along. Actually, I'll enjoy it immensely. But one small part of me will be wondering how we forgot the candles and when we'll start the games and where we'll put the new toys.

24. Happy birthday, my beautiful grown up little girl. Forgive me if I still worry about you out there in this great big wonderful-scary world. You can handle it, I'm sure, but it's not that easy to let you. In the meantime, know how profoundly grateful and awed that God has sung you into -- and altogether through -- my life.


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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Linen Shirts, Flannel Slacks, and Boiling Frogs

And I just thought we were having a warm summer! As it turns out, the whole world is burning up. According to the World Meteorological Association, 2007 is breaking records for extreme weather events in general, and heat in particular. In other words, it isn't just Des Moines. As a world -- or is it as a country; or is it as a government -- we have been trying to make up our minds about this whole "global warming" thing. Meanwhile, completely disregarding our collective ambivalence, the globe has been busily warming. This is particularly distressing to me since my favorite clothes are winter varieties -- flannels, wools, sweaters and turtlenecks. At this rate, I'll have less and less need for them. And I just don't look that good in shorts.

Unfortunately, the subject doesn't lend itself to flippant humor. Despite our politicians' wrangling and our economic apprehensions, this is serious business. It isn't a matter of comfort -- there are those, I'm told, who would rather sweat than shiver -- it is about the resilient but ultimately fragile web of creation, interrelated, strand into strand, that gets turned and shifted and wounded and warped by even single degrees of change. A thermostat that we seem to be ratcheting higher and higher, to compounding effects. Ice melting. Tides shifting. Insects spreading. Diseases spreading. Agricultural reversals. Forest fires recurring. Habitats deteriorating. And who knows what else.

Meanwhile, we sit behind our Ray-Bans, sip our lemonade, and enjoy the pool. Like children, believing that if we can't see it, if we pay no attention, it doesn't really exist.

Or like boiled frogs. According to the story, if a frog is dropped into a pot of boiling water it will recognize the danger and jump out. But, if a frog is placed in a pot of cool water that is slowly heated, the frog will eventually boil to death -- no doubt laughing smugly at those on the counter nearby shouting warnings of the approaching fate.

Today has been another scorcher; unusually hot for Iowa. It has been that way all summer. Ah, but winter is only a few months away.

Perhaps. Ribbit.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Gratefully, Wistfully Revisiting Friendships and Friends

I still remember the giant, talking papier mache raven we created in Eugene's garage in high school for a project on Edgar Allan Poe. And the "lunar landing" we filmed in another garage after draping all the usual garage detritus in white sheets, watching no doubt breathlessly as one of us -- in some kind of astronaut costume -- took one small step for mankind down the retractable attic stairs. I remember smuggling the fetal pig out of the biology classroom -- the better to study by for the dissection exam. And I remember marveling at the surviving snout suspended from Eugene's rearview mirror, continuing to grow hair. I remember the music we made, the tennis we played, the theology we debated, the school trips we took, the confidences we shared, the breakups we consoled, the successes we celebrated, and the futures we plotted. I remember the wedding tuxedos we donned for one another and the divorces a couple of us have lamented. And I remember the pain of saying goodbye when all of our high school days and summers were finally expended. David, Eugene, Sheryl, and me. Oh, there were others who drifted in and out. We each had our own peculiar networks and relations, fueled by church associations, special interests and, with Sheryl, gender. She was, after all, a girl, though we were too good of friends to notice. She'll never forgive us for that.

And suddenly it was over. After countless hours of life shared in the shallows as well as the deep, we went our four separate ways. Four different towns. Four different colleges. Four separate lives. It was a perfectly natural evolution. But I will never forget the ache of splintering those three from my soul.

We have been together since -- weddings, as I mentioned, and consoling their undoing. There have been reunions and occasional intersections. And while I can't speak for the other three who settled in relative proximity, it has seemed to me that since those halcyon years we have kept to our separate paths. I suppose it has happened with a certain inevitability -- we have, after all, established our own families, our own professions, our own directions. But we have been circumspect. With all the technology at our disposal, we rarely communicate. We are, to be sure, busy. Absence, as my Dad used to say, makes the heart grow fonder for someone else. But I can't help but wonder if we moths resist flying too close again to that friendship flame.

Whatever, seeing them again is always inexpressible joy -- as it was in late July when they all came to hear me preach when I was guesting in a nearby pulpit. Hopefully my sermon didn't damage their discipleship, because their presence deeply moved and filled me. It was only briefly, but seeing and embracing them, talking and catching up with them made me thankful all over again for the memories we hold in common, and the grace-filled holding we shared of each other's lives.

And it gave me new resolve to dust off their e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and calendars. Already I miss you David, Eugene, and Sheryl. And already I long to see you again...

...and look forward to it.