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.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Radical Concept of Care

We have been struck by the kindnesses. Accompanying my parents on a medical safari through the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, we have certainly been the beneficiaries of those kindnesses, ourselves. Receptionists, housekeepers, nurses and doctors – everyone we have encountered has beamed a genuine smile, extended a helping and patient hand, and generally made us feel like their sole reason for waking up in the morning has been to make us comfortable, oriented and content. And while that has been a welcomed surprise (those not being my typical adjectives for describing experiences with the medical community), what has amazed us has been the generosity with which those graces have been offered amongst themselves – doctors to nurses, housekeepers to receptionists, and even doctors to each other.

Kindness, rather impatience. Cooperation, rather than competition. Appreciation, rather than presumption. Fundamental respect – as if, in language more familiar to my environs, people generally do recognize, around here, in each other’s faces the very image of God.

It reminds me of a restaurant experience that Lori and I enjoyed a few years ago outside of Portland, Oregon where, because of a serendipitous acquaintance the night before, we were privileged to sit at the counter of the exposed kitchen in the working company of the chef. We were intrigued by the intricate activity – the cooking and the assembling, the staging and the arranging for all the patrons of this busy bistro – but what awed us was the palpable kindness that oiled the movements and the mechanics between preparers and servers. It was a like a gentle ballet, with the kitchen voices amiably calling to the servers, “Amy, please,” or whose ever order was ready at the time. Kindly respect, which made it difficult for the customers to participate in the experience with anything but the same.

Back at Mayo, we wheeled the chair between clinics and floors, from one lab to another, and sat in one doctor’s presence after another. And without exception, we experienced people looking into our eyes, not simply Mother’s charts. We experienced people listening to her story and to her spirit, not merely to her symptoms.

And we had the unshakable impression that all of these specialists and assistants were not simply accommodating; were not merely fascinated by the physiological conundrums of medical complications. We left with the sense that they genuinely cared.

Imagine that: people, caring about people. What a radical concept.

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