Tuesday, January 24, 2012

How About a Nice Sky Blue?

The problem, of course, is identification.  The reading suggested this week from the Hebrew scriptures listens in on a portion of the briefing given to the people of Israel about the days ahead of them.  "Do this; don't do that.  etc."  It is cast as a sort of tutorial on how to live and what to expect when they eventually settle into their destination.  And, in what strikes me as a prescient anticipation of the kind of eventual ambiguity that can lead either into mischief or paralysis, the people are told that "God will raise up for you a prophet...from among your own people.  I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak...everything I command" (Deuteronomy 18:18). 

Great!  We can all relax now. 

Except, wait!  How will we know him?  Or her?  We are surrounded by people -- all kinds of people -- claiming the voice of truth.  They only problem is that they don't seem to agree on what that "truth" is.  Which helps explain how it is that we have been down this road countless times before -- listening to one after another of those "truths" that promised to lead us out of the woods, only to find ourselves deeper into the thicket.  The current crop of Presidential contenders comes to mind; as does that bicameral brothel known as the United States Congress that seems unable to recognize a point of principal that isn't written on the back of a significant campaign contribution.

Authentic prophets, it turns out, don't wear fluorescent jump suits, carry indisputable credentials in their wallet, or garner the highest number of votes.  Or poll ratings.  And they usually don't seek out the camera...or votes.

In fact, if I read the record right they are usually the ones who find themselves, typically against their own wishes, telling us what we don't want to hear.  This being a democratic society, we typically opt not to hear it, opting to drop another quarter in the jukebox and make a different selection.  If we are in a church when we hear what we would rather not hear, we simply change churches.  If we are listening to the radio or watching television we simply change the channel.  "Fair and Balanced", after all, is really in the ear of the beholder; commonly defined as "does it agree with what I already believe." 

That's the problem with voluntary associations:  we typically choose to voluntarily associate with whatever it is or whoever it is that validates my previously held conceptions. 

Which makes "speaking the word of the Lord" a pretty dicey business, unless God has previously taken a poll and determined in advance what the "truth" of the Lord ought to be.  Alternatively, on the off-chance that people really would like to know the mind of God if only we could reliably identify the messenger, maybe God should consider that whole florescent jumpsuit idea. 

As long as it isn't orange.  I mean, you know how I feel about orange.  How, after all, could you take seriously a prophet wearing a florescent orange jump suit? 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Wind and Snow and Anticipated Embrace of Winter

There is something cozy about the winter.  I know, it is a coziness that comes with a price.  The wind, just now, is howling, blowing the new-fallen snowflakes like swirling and looping paper airplanes.  It is, I know from puppy breaks outside, bitterly cold -- double-digits, but only barely; neither of us has initiated a trip to the greenhouse for watering or the mailbox to check delivery.  Tir, in fact, has only begrudgingly left the love seat where he has been curled up and lost in a contented snore all morning.  I certainly haven't pushed.  I am no more interested in bundling up and braving the storm than he. 

That said, as much as I have enjoyed the unseasonable mildness and the outdoor walks it has beckoned; as much as I have appreciated the simplicity of movement sans heavy coats and extra time required to assemble and arrange the bundling, I have looked forward to days like this one -- cold, settling, almost paralyzing days viewed from inside the window looking out; appreciating the reassuring hum of the furnace through the duct work, heart beat synchronizing with the flickering in the fireplace; skin indulging the hugging softness of a neglected sweater excavated from the bottom of the drawer; spirit held by the companionable silence too melodic in its own way to violate with the stereo or TV.

I understand that others temporarily migrate out of these kinds of days -- east to Florida, south to Texas or west to Arizona.  I even comprehend why.  The season can take its toll.  But I have looked forward to a day like this.  The holidays and their particular magic are behind us; the decorations have been lovingly and finally stored and the house rearranged to its more typical order.  It is time for the simple descent of winter -- else how would we know to appreciate spring?

And today, it is finally here.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Vocational Sipping and Spitting

Last summer, while in the Willamette Valley of Oregon exploring the concept of "terroir," three colleagues and I heard more than one farmer and winemaker exclaim that "these hills were made for pinot noir."  Of course the hazelnut growers who had been there first might quibble with the assessment, but that clarity of discernment was striking.  By that time we had come to the strong conviction that places are particular and best suited for certain things and not others.  Agriculturally speaking, soil and climate, accumulating valleys and sunning slopes mean certain plants grow well while others flounder -- or require the vast amounts of artificial inputs that we now think of as "modern agriculture."  The right crop in the right place, however, doesn't have to strong-armed.  It simply flourishes and fruits.  Pinot Noir in Oregon; apples in Washington; onions in Georgia; grapefruits in South Texas.  Etc.  Sure, a lot of places do pretty well with a lot of crops, but a few places accommodate a few things exceedingly well.

And people.  This isn't ultimately about raw talent or innate ability, although those are relevant markers. I'm talking here more about "doing" than "being"; less about who we are and more about the particular things we are up to.  In one of the most-quoted definitions of vocation, Frederick Buechner observes that “… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC) 

It is, in a way, finding the groove; cutting with the grain instead of against it.  Admittedly, that "place" is not always that easy to locate, and I'm not sure that everyone would agree that a great pinot noir counts as one of the world's deep hungers.   Those farmers' clarity about that soil's purpose, however, is animating.  Unlike some of us who flounder around trying to figure out what we are supposed to do when we grow up, hoping it will simply hit us in the head one day, they, at least, have analyzed and experimented, taken notes and compared them with others who were trying to accomplish the same thing.  They have noticed how the soil drained and where the daylight hours cast their shadows.  They have watched and tasted and observed and been willing to fail.  They have planted and uprooted, sipped and spat and above all been patient.  And they have discerned, gleaning the insights observed and connected the dots.  And it has all brought them to strong convictions about what those hills are for.

I think of those farmers as I read the Apostle Paul's reflections in Ephesians 3. He speaks forthrightly about the "commission that was given me...to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ..."  Paul is not confused about what he needs to be up to.  He has a particular job to do, and he is working it.  It is his "groove" -- the intersection, he is convinced, of his deep gladness and the world's deep hunger.

In a way, of course, it almost feels like he cheated.  He didn't have to nose around for grain like a blind hog; he was knocked off his horse one day and struck temporarily blind except for the vision that filled him in on the details.  For most of us it doesn't happen that way.  Our discernment process will bear more resemblance to the Oregon farmers than to Paul's blinding vision, but the clarity about the work we have to do is worth the patience. 

That kind of sipping and spitting wouldn't be a bad way to spend this New Year just beginning to bud. If those hills were made for pinot noir, surely I have been made for something precious and needful as well.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Just Call Me Back

The problem, it seems to me, is that we no longer have rubrics for triage.

While in college I worked at Cox's Department Store selling Men's Furnishings -- shirts, socks, ties and belts.  We also sold underwear, but that didn't take a lot of "selling."  During the training phase of my employment, I remember how insistently the manager told me that an actual customer in front of me took priority over a prospective customer on the phone.  I thought he was right about that ordering, but the philosophy, I suppose, could be debated.  The point, however, is that there was no mystery as to how I was to handle contests for my attention.  Unfortunately for our culture, we don't have life managers who will provide the same service.  As a result, we fall prey to the presumption that every knock on our figurative door is equally important.  If the phone rings, we answer it even if we are already engaged in a conversation with someone else.  If we receive a text, we read it -- and likely respond to it, never mind that we happen to be driving.

You get the idea.  Gone is any concept of a hierarchy of importance -- those rubrics for triage to which I earlier referred.

Someone recently told me of being in the company of an individual whose cell phone began to ring.  Worried that the recipient wasn't hearing the summons, my friend asked, "Aren't you going to answer that?"  To which the other replied, "No; I carry that phone for my convenience, not everyone else's." 

A recent article in the New York Times reported on the practice of some ultra wealthy to "...part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms."  And then there are those, the writer goes on to observe, who "pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago."

We have become expert, the author ultimately hints, at sensing what is new, but not what is essential.  Maybe we have lost the ordinary and common art of simply asking the question.  Modern brain research refutes the much-beloved premise of "multi-tasking."  Our brain, if the scientists know what they are talking about, can't ultimately attend to multiple things at once; it simply becomes speedier at shifting back and forth.  That, it seems to me, is a sure recipe for superficiality.  In the course of our multi-tasking dizzyness, careful assessment and thoughtful evaluation -- essential components of prioritization, along with basic life and relational values -- are abandoned in service to simple attendance.  Stimuli come our way, and we duck and dodge or, as is more commonly the case, allow them all to strike us full in the face regardless of how trivial or secondary they may actually be.

By contrast, one of Stephen Covey's principles for enhancing effectiveness is expanding the gap between stimulus and response -- something our grandmothers taught us in their admonition to "count to ten" before reacting.  Scripture uses the larger language of sabbath to beckon us off the merry-go-round, less for simple rest -- although that never hurts -- than to regain orienting perspective. 

Some things are, after all, more important than others.  Which brings me back to that ringing phone, why we carry it, and how we will ever figure out who the actual customer is in front of us.  I'm not at all sure of the answer to that question, but on your way to figuring it out for yourself try this:  next time yours begins to ring, check the caller ID.  If the caller happens to be me, feel free to finish whatever it is that you were doing.  You can, after all, always call me back.