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.