Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Just Like Dave


Sometimes Dave has trouble sleeping. So do I. Dave loves coffee. Yup. Me too. He spends the majority of his waking hours in coffee shoppes. Almost as much time as I do. We met in one. Dave's first love, his first broken heart was a Louisiana girl. Me too, me too. Dave just wants to feel normal, wants to be the master of his own destiny. I think we all can relate. Dave hurts, he grieves, he longs for simpler, happier times. Dave is perfectly human in that respect. 

Dave lives in Hattiesburg, MS twenty miles south of where he was born, where he accepted Jesus, was baptized, went to college, fell in love, and fell apart. He talks about the Easter when he lost himself. He's been looking for himself ever since, mostly through the cloudy haze of medication.

I hadn't seen Dave for almost four months. I'd been in Haiti and he in Hattiesburg. When we finally crossed paths at a Starbucks he had lost 45 pounds. His eyes were sunken in a bit but he was so glad to see me and starved for conversation. After a bit I finally got him to tell me how long it had been since he'd eaten. Way too long. He'd had a couple checks stolen and his account cleared out. It's hard to really say but I think he was more embarrassed than mad. We walked next door to a sub shop and Dave devoured "the best sandwich of my life".



Dave is diagnosed schizophrenic and bi-polar. He is on three medications. These are things Dave has told me. He explains what his pills do. Blue ones to help him sleep. Two blue ones and he can sleep all night. The larger white ones are his anti-psychotics. The new, small white ones help him not get trapped in the past. They keep him looking, going forward. He must not be taking those because for three days now he has talked mostly of his past. He speaks of his parent's deaths. The blue and white dress his mother was buried in. "Blue and white dress, blue and white pills." The conversations, the connections made in Dave's mind sometimes get loud enough to be heard. 


Dave has six toes on each foot. I don't. He likes to paint his twelve toenails and his fingernails too. I've not tried that, yet. Dave has an imaginary son. My River Moses is unbelievable but very real. The more time I spend with Dave the more I realize how much our differences are superficial, how we really are all the same. Different degrees of broken, but all wonderfully and fearfully made in our Father's image. And I realize even more, how desperately I need Jesus to keep my inner gravity holding, keep all my pieces from breaking up, spinning hopelessly, recklessly apart. 

Just like Dave.



Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Truth In Love



Many years ago there was a young woman. She was deep in love and her soldier was far away. He was stationed in a deeply hostile area and communication was impossible. She hadn't talked to him for months and she was buckling under the weight of it all. 

So very far away her man was aching hard for her. He'd had enough and crept across the dark jungle, crawling through swamps and under razor wire until he finally reached an outpost. And after some begging and bribing, a sympathetic sergeant let him place a call.




Every night she would sleep lightly, hoping to wake at the first ring. Her days were a strange orbit around the phone. When life beckoned from outside her doors she would resist its pull. But days she was drawn away she would make her sister promise to take his message and tell her soldier she would return very quickly. Six dreadful months and no call. She tried to imagine her hero, her lover, brave and bold and selfless. But long nights fear crept in. She wondered if he was even alive.

Six months without her voice and his mind was a worse war. Enemies without faces but names he knew too well. Depression, loneliness, fear, despair. And now the phone was ringing and with one word she would silence all those demon voices.

Ringing and ringing and then a voice. But not hers. A strange electricity and a rush of pain but he pushed the words out. Is she there??? His voice hungry and shaking. 

No.

Just then a mortar exploded a half a mile away and the line was lost for a second. He spoke quickly, forcefully, with six months of longing bleeding out.

"Tell my wife I love her. Tell her I am safe because her love keeps me alive, gives me reason to survive. Tell her she is my very heart. She is my every thought and all my waking dreams. Tell her all of hell could not keep me from coming back to her."

Another mortar explosion. Closer. The line crackled and cut again for a moment. He spoke quicker and with desperate urgency. Trying to unravel six months of thoughts and say only the most important things.

"Tell her I miss her all the stars and moons and every world. Tell her all the books in all those worlds cannot contain all my heart has to say. The sum of all their languages does not have the words to express my desire for her. Tell her everything I said. Every word. Tell her when I see her I have so much more to say!" 

Then the line went. He stared at the receiver. Relief flooded him and a strange peace of release. He snuck back across enemy lines to his post ever more resolved to live, to find a way back home to the women he was in love with.

She burst through the front door. Before she set the groceries down she yelled to her sister. "Did he call?" Expecting the "no" she always got, the "yes" hit her in her chest, a mortar of stronger sort. Breathless and trembling she asked, "What did he say?" The words hung like ghost speech in the air. Thin and gray. She felt everything. Aware of every atom.

She dared not breathe. She stared at her sister as her lips parted in slow motion to speak.

"He said when he got back there were things he needed to talk to you about."


                                   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There is a way to tell the truth, to say exactly what has been said, and yet betray the very heart of that truth. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul reminds the believers there to speak the truth in love. Paul knew all too well that the heart of the gospel could be divorced from the truth of it. He had experienced the depths and heights of a loveless religion, he had murdered for truth's sake because he did not have love.

When those who call themselves Christians, be they preachers or laymen, speak the truth without love they are like the sister of the bride who breaks her heart with the very words her lover has spoken. And though it was all true, it murdered the heart of what he had said.

Jesus has said much to His bride. And every single word of it was blood-drenched in love. And whenever the emotion of those words is twisted by the "the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming" it is the worst of what religion does. When the words of God are manipulated to control or punish or leverage Christ's bride I think He takes notice. I think His anger flares up and I think He will have His heart heard at all cost. In fact, that is exactly what happened. Centuries of loveless religion and controlling through fear led Him down the loneliest most brutal road. Where He went to war, gave His life freely, was crucified ruthlessly, crossed enemy lines and then came back to say to His bride....

"Your pain, your isolation, your fear cannot keep me from you. Your doubts I will never return cannot keep me from you. Even death can cannot keep me from you!" "I will come for you!" He yells over the war of the world. "I will come for you" He sings over His bride. "I will come for you my love," he whispers by His Spirit in us. "And soon!"

So to everyone who would dare to speak for God. Would dare to comment on the meanings, the motives behind His holy words...please, please, speak the truth, but only in love... 

Or don't speak at all. Jesus is a jealous lover. His bride is His life. He will take care of His girl. That's a promise. His promise.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day 28: Character Sketches


Later today I will take a train to New Orleans and fly early tomorrow to Miami and then on to Haiti, but for now I am sitting in this coffee shoppe watching people. Listening to their conversations. Learning, painting little character sketches, trying to understand what it is that makes people in a story believable. The way they interact with strangers, the cadence of their speech, their tics and superfluous movements. The way the boy in plaid stops moving his lips but doesn't lower his voice when he wants to tell his girlfriend a secret. As if lip-readers alone will use this private knowledge against him. Why would he do this? And why does the college guy sitting behind him hunch over his meal like he has done hard time in jail? Protecting his plate with one arm and keeping his face real low, real close to the plate so he can shovel the food in with his spoon. And the man with the rectangular glasses. He has nodded his head in agreement with every conversation at his table and yet not spoken up once. Is he this much of a people pleaser or is he plotting silently the whole time to financially defraud them all? His shirt would suggest as much. That shade of purple. 

But then there are the ones, enigmatic or odd, that capture my attention most.

For instance that man there. He barks when he laughs, like a dog with a cough, like a dog with a deep, rattling smoker's cough. And everything seems to make him laugh. The barista dropping a spoon. His tablemate mispronouncing a former soviet bloc country's name. Always barking his lung hacking laughter. I imagine he does it at the most inappropriate times. The priest with a lisp at his father's funeral, the sloshed champagne of solemn wedding toast. And always, always into a vacuum of silence, he alone finding hilarity in the most mundane of things.

Then, across the room, is this study in mismatched aztec prints who sits perched on her chair like a nervous little cat. The dog-cough laughter keeps making her jump. I imagine she is startled by shadows and sneezes on the subway. That she is always fumbling her keys in locks. "Sticky-tricky locks" she would say, half growl half whisper, never amused that so many doorknobs in so many diverse locations would for so long continue to conspire against her. 

Now they are in line, coffee refills we'll say. And she is fumbling again, through her wallet. She is apologetic, she is out of cash (a conspiracy!) and there is a five dollar minimum on credit transactions. He offers to pay but she declines. He insists and out of deference for the long line forming behind them she mumbles yes. He pays and she smiles gratefully. He smiles sheepishly. She blushes, but this full body sunburn blush and he smiles again, more confident, very warmly and it seems, to me anyway, their eyes hold a second too long. 

So I imagine their life together. 

They are married on a Friday, because Friday is a payday and Monday a holiday. Their house will be affordable. No other consideration will be made before its purchase. They'll move the left-over, left behind furniture from his first marriage and the emotionally neutral furniture from her last bad break-up into the two bedroom one bath fixer-upper. His western trade paperbacks will be placed next to her Faulkner and Hemingway and she will try her best to forgive him but it will keep her up nights. He will always, as if for sport, ask her grand hypotheticals, none that she can answer truthfully without betraying his fragile sense of loyalty. He will ask, "If you had one day left to live, who would you want to spend it with?" To which she will feel she must say, "You, honey."  But being a bad liar she might try and put him off with some non-answer, or some gentle bite back. She will of course spend it reading. He can be there too if he prefers. Instead she will say, "I love you". And they will both know she doesn't mean it, but for the first time, in a really, really long time, she'll wish she did. 
                             
Yep. This is what I am doing when I am awkwardly staring at you in a coffee shoppe. I am living out your other possible lives for you. I just write it down, see what the characters might do, what they might say. And when there is someone or something deeply authentic or universally true in some new way, well I'll hold on to those things for some story sometime. Or it's all rubbish and I'll erase it but I will hopefully have learned a little more about human nature. And every once in a while I'll fall madly in love with someone's imaginary self, and then I'll send them away to some far off locale, and when they get back, if there are still sparks, well then I'll write whatever they say. 


Thursday, March 13, 2014

This In-Between Month, (Later On) Day 25: Heals As It Cuts


I got up earlier than I wanted to go to the DMV as my driver's license will expire while I am in Haiti. The line was wrapped around the back of the building when I arrived and I braced myself for a long morning of waiting. Waiting without coffee. But the entire process is now automated. It took me 3 minutes. I got back to my rental car before my coffee cooled. Winning!

But yet, for whatever reason, I was one of two people to use the automated machine. The waiting room was to overflowing capacity with disgruntled drivers, faces contorted in disgust. One man ranted how all this technology was some conspiracy of paper conservation at taxpayer expense. He said this, holding ticket number one million forty-five out of about a billion and was still mumbling under his breath as I danced joyfully out the door. Well, I felt like dancing.



Now at a coffee shoppe I am lost in the words of Flannery O'Connor. If I have never mentioned her to you before I am sorry. I would quote her here but everything she said or wrote should be quoted. Get thee to a bookstore, a computer, or the library and read her. The Habit of Being is a collection of her letters. That's a good place to start. And Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose is great too. Her fiction is the best of American Southern gothic. Full of freaks and Jesus and deep mystery and eternal truth. She has the kind of razor wit and effortless grace that heals as it cuts. I seriously want to just quote her for an hour. I cannot find one phrase that rises above the rest when they all fly so high. For every writer out there, please, please read what she has to say about writing. She is a master and her wisdom is invaluable to your craft. To the Christian and the truth seeker she speaks with a clarity and a poetry that seers into the soul. To the reader and lover of fiction she captures in both narrative and dialogue that which is elementally human having been twisted by misery, wrung through the ringer of life and having resisted all their days Grace. She shows us the grotesque we will become without Christ. Wow. 

My driver's license will be mailed to my parents in 14 days. I will have been in Haiti for a week and a half by then. Some of the people in line with me this morning may still be sitting in the purgatory of the DMV waiting room. God help them.

Anyway, I finally found some quotes by the irrepressible Miss O'Connor that I'd like to share. Quotes about writing. Enjoy!

“The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn't write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, the total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. ” 

― Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored."  

― Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose





This In-Between Month, Day 25: Our Own Shadows


Sometimes I can be my own worst enemy. I am certainly my hardest, most unrelenting critic. If I took the tone with you that my inner voice takes with me, well you would not be my friend. Blame personality type or order of birth but I hold myself to an impossible standard. And when I fail, as I always do, as I always will in light of unattainable perfection, I have a hard time forgiving myself. 

Don't get me wrong, there are many things I fail at that are your garden variety failures. Ones so common and ordinary as to be too pathetically boring to admit here, but even those things, maybe especially those things, raise my inner voice's ire and I take a good tongue lashing.

And what I have found, wherever I go, is that most of us, in one way or another, are the same way. And what is worse is that we put our critical voice into God's mouth. And many times in my experience, people don't even realize it.




As I lay in bed last night, sleepless, restless, melancholy to the point of morose, a little bird of thought flew headlong into the little window of my soul. "When we face the sunlight we cannot see our own shadows." And in the darkness of that room, with darker thoughts, that little flash of light fluttering, that little thud and shudder and chirp of a truth reminded me this:

I must stare into the face of Jesus whose beautiful radiance will devour my shadows. And the more I am consumed by His loveliness and His light the less I will think of me, my darkness, my ugliness. And the more I bathe in the glow of His perfection the more I realize I need not even try to be something I am not and cannot ever be. What I can be, is a vessel, or maybe a cup, or probably more likely a shot glass to carry His light and His love and His utter perfection to the world. Anything else will leave me mired in self-loathing and failure. So I give up (again) on being perfect. And though I may be found muttering "shut up" to myself, or even screaming it now and then, well, I refuse to listen to that voice of condemnation any longer, for in Christ there is no more of that nastiness. I choose to believe what scripture says about me, namely that I am unconditionally loved and that His grace is made perfect in my weakness, not in my mock perfection.

Yup. Amen.







Sunday, March 9, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day Twenty-Something: Time's a Revelator



Today River and I rode through the mountains. We turned Gillian Welch way up and drove real slow, winding in and out of endless curves cut from sheer rock faces. She sang "Time's a revelator" and as she did it seemed time slowed, our surroundings coming into such sharp focus. The trees, except for a few evergreens, were bare and covered the old round hills in great gray bristles. There were tall slender symmetrical ones that looked like flightless feathers (for what are trees if not the earth's feathers, and forests her many wings). And there were huge white writhing ones too that looked like the skeletons of great lumbering beasts. And the ground, the trees and it seemed every stone was covered in a thick green fur.




After a week of rain the sun gilded the surface of streams and glowed rocks until they burned like coals. The endless bare branches, the sun cutting through with no canopy of leaves to obscure its light meant shadows criss crossing at every odd angle and making a maze on the forest floor. No photo could capture the stillness and the magic of those few moments any more than you can be warmed by a sketch of the sun. We just kept saying "wow, wow, wooooow". Our words, our breath, our movements slowed too. We stopped and stood on a giant rock in a river bend and my son, my own wild River broke the spell by quoting Coleridge which only served to put us back under the spell deeper still:
                                                                                                                         
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Now, in our hotel room, River strums his guitar and I am thinking about time, this short interval of eternity scaled for human reference. Time is a revelator and I suppose we agree, "only time will tell" goes our prediction. We comfort ourselves and promise one another that "time is a healer". The ancient greeks in all their wisdom defer to time as the "wisest counselor of all". But we only have so much of it, and like Dave Perkins sings, "we lean against time with heels dug in". How many on their deathbed beg and barter with time? All my possessions for just a few more days. 

Not much else to say I guess. I hope these scriptures about the time we have now and the time we have left will encourage you, and especially me to trust God more, drink down each day with great breathless gulps, and to get busy about kingdom business, mainly loving on widows and orphans and the lonely and the crushed in spirit. 

“But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hand.” – Psalm 31:14-15, ESV

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1, KJV

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” -Psalm 90:12, ESV

“Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered – how fleeting my life is.” – Psalm 39:4, NLT

“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:8-9, ESV

“The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” – Psalm 9:9, ESV

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” – James 4:13-15, ESV

And the one that seems to stay in my mind these last few weeks...

“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” – Ecclesiastes 3:11






Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This In-Between Month, Days 13-16: The Ones Left Behind



The days run together a bit, I could separate them, but the overlapping, the bleeding of thoughts one day to the next; life is more fluid than "x"s on a calendar. The last four days have been marked all the same, by conversations with a diverse cast of characters, by images with the edges blurred, by honest if not impatient prayers and what seems is heaven's silence. But then heaven will, promises to, make all things beautiful in its time.

At a little coffee shoppe in Ocean Springs I met Jack and Genevieve who are cycling across the South, from Savannah, Ga and then up to Alaska. They are warm and generous with smiles and conversation. They call Montreal home, although they have sold their belongings, quit their job and have no home to go back to. In fact, they are worried that when they do return to Canada a few months from now, everything will be so different and they will feel like strangers. I assure them it will probably be so. That they will see things they'd never seen before, the obnoxiousness of ads built to prey upon our deepest needs and fears. Selling community in a lite beer, acceptance in a new shirt, a sense of greater well being in a fragrance. They laugh when I tell them to be easy on their friends, the ones left behind.




Later, as I walk along the beach, the seagulls huddle on the sandbars, except for one.  He is riding a cold wind current, tunneling and spinning, diving and rolling and then straight up, like he was shot from a cannon. I always think of Richard Bach's little book Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the brave bird of the same name. Every time there is a solitary gull I am taken back to highschool and 16 years old. I picked the book because it was shortest but it left me buzzing for days, not at the philosophy Bach was intoning but the beauty of the story, the gentle defiance, the bravery and humility. If nothing else I learned that to live a life less ordinary, there are always the things and again, the ones left behind. 


A lighthouse in Biloxi and below a plaque commemorating "wade-ins" during the civil rights movement. Black and white activists would walk into the water together on Mississippi's segregated beaches. It took over 8 years after the first wade-in for a legal ruling to allow God's children of different colors to laugh and play together in the ocean He created for all of them.

























I am reading a book called "Neighbors," by Jan Tomasz Gross about the Polish town of Jedwabne where all of the Jews were locked in a barn and burned to death on July 10, 1941, not by Nazis, but by their neighbors, fellow Poles. Gross writes that the Nazis moved into the little town, they "easily reached agreement" with local officials on what to do about the Jews. Hundreds, including women and children, were soon brought to the town square. They were taunted, tortured, brutally desecrated and beaten with clubs and stones, herded into a barn, which was locked and set ablaze. Gross recounts other acts of demonic cruelty that surely made the Nazis proud. Stories such as of Jedwabne, Dachau, the 27 million enslaved today and even the Biloxi wade-ins remind me that for any great act of evil or injustice there is always a majority of complicit bystanders. 

There was to my knowledge only one brave woman in Jedwabne, Antonina Wyrzykowski, 25 years old then, who In 1942 hid seven Jews on her farm while the Jews of Jedwabne were being massacred by her Polish neighbors. She had a husband and two children, all of whom were threatened with death if caught by the Nazis. Much later she would write: “It's not about your religion, but about whether a man needs your help”. Those rescued Jews hid on her farm until 1945, despite regular searches of the property by Nazis and a very “aggressive attitude from Polish neighbours”. When the Nazis were driven out of Poland by the advancing Red Army, she and her family were beaten by locals for hiding the Jews. Her bravery is recounted in Anna Bikont's 2004 book My z Jedwabnego (We from Jedwabne).


Antonina Wyrzykowski died in 2011 at the age of 95.

Today is grey again and how I've always imagined Poland. And that on a day as grey as today Antonia would have bundled up her children to leave Jedwabne for the last time. Maybe she limped a little, maybe her husband's face was still swollen from the beatings. They could no longer stay but what were they leaving behind, and who? Was it a family farm, a house her grandfather had built with his bare hands? Were her neighbors also her cousins? Maybe even her siblings? Sometimes bravery costs you everything but your own life, and sometimes of course, that too.

Our stories, the ones we live, maybe the ones we write, they are for ones left behind. Cautionary tales like Antonia's or hopefully like Bach's parable, to spur others on to great heights. It could be as simple as a bike ride away from corporate Canada, or as society shifting as a short civil rights march across a hundred foot stretch of sand. Every act of gentle defiance, every act of humble bravery is someone's story to be read of others. Stories that don't just deny convention, but destroy it. Like Em told me, there are those who live inside the box, those that live outside the box, and those that ask "What box?". It seems that in society, in church, in politics even, it is very fashionable to be iconoclastic, to live outside the box. But in truth those lives are still defined by that box. I want to live by that "What Box?" view. That reality for me that is inherent in the gospel, where Jesus is constantly destroying all convention, turning the world upside down with radical selfless behavior. Where foolish extravagant love is law and all things are possible, the highest heights, and the end of injustice and cruelty, if we will only let Christ destroy those boxes within boxes that hem in our brains and hearts. 

Here's to a gentler, braver future (raises coffee cup). To loving, serving, and defying with foolish extravagance and radical sacrifice. To you! And the story your life will tell!


Friday, February 28, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day 12: The Fear of God


Today River and I shot a little pool, talked a lot about music and I realized again, looking at this young man who I helped make, that every second with him is such a gift of grace, every minute a miracle of mercy. As I dropped him off to spend the evening with his friends I was already missing him before I drove away. He is so bright, our conversations cover so many topics where I am way out of my depth. His questions make me search the depth of my experiences and hold fast to the promise that God gives us the words to speak when we need them. We talk about the church's role (if any) in politics. We often talk about Christianity in the modern age, at the crossroads of culture, and how the language we choose to use in communicating the gospel is crucial. One phrase that came up was "the fear of God". 

A web search for "fear of God" images and these were the first two that came up after a plethora of ads for some clothing company out of LA that sells 1000 dollar oversized understated neo-skinhead fashion...

That phrase, "the fear of God", seems to perplex so many (and it has always made me a little uneasy too). It has been used at times to bludgeon people into belief, others have dismissed it as an archaic concept, the personality of an Old Testament God who was replaced by a kinder, gentler, New Testament one, and by others still to reject Christianity altogether. We are told to love God for he is a gentle father, and then to fear God because He is a mighty warrior. And from the outside, and even the inside I suppose, this can make Him seem a bit schizophrenic .

As a Christian well immersed in “church” (and having at one point learned Christianese fluently) and, subsequently, living in a post-modern age where words have been emasculated, (and being no theologian), my response to the “fear of God” has always been a bit convoluted. I was taught, as a child, that this “fear” meant awe and wonder. And I still believe that to be one, large, dynamic part of it. But I think our system of awe and wonder may not big big enough for God. If a “2” is a litter of puppies being born then a “9” is River being born. The headroom for God is very limited. I say God is love. And then I say I love chocolate. The sliding scale starts in the finite but goes into the infinite. Words fail us and yet words are most of we have to communicate these concepts.

When I read the scriptures, it seems to me that fear is expected to be a huge part of worship and the relationship we are supposed to have with God. We're told the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That fear is for our protection, for our blessing, for our understanding, for all things in the universe to remain in order. It is this fear that is supposed to compel us to cherish our neighbor, to feed the poor, to be kind to the stranger. Hmmmm.... At the end of his days, Solomon, whom scripture calls the wisest man, summed it up to this. “Fear God and keep His commandments.” So than what is this fear? Again with the clumsiness of human terms, let me try and explain what I think it means. 

To me it is the acceptance of the sovereignty and perfection of a loving omnipotent God. It is the understanding that:

He answers to no man, but yet stoops so low to hear the softest prayer of the weakest saint. 

He can take or give without permission, be that life or riches or power. He owes no one a single thing and yet His generosity knows no bounds. He gave His son up to the dogs of hell for them to devour Jesus's flesh just for us, so that we might have eternal life. And then He makes us joint heirs with Christ of all of heaven's riches. 

He is beyond reproach, beyond any misgiving. He cannot lie. He cannot err. He cannot cease because He always was. And yet He calls us friends, we who are a ragtag bunch of rebels, liars, mistake makers, whose lives are a breath, a vapor, a flower fading.

He is all powerful and could at any moment, without our permission, end all life by grinding the big blue-green ball of earth to sub-atomic grit in His hands. But yet in His unfathomable tenderness He holds us gently, safely in His hands and not only does he not crush us, he keeps us from the crushing weight of all else. 

I believe, if His majesty were revealed, in total, to any created being, they would explode, or implode, (or worse) but that what stays His hand from exacting justice on us all is His infinitely merciful heart, is His promise to love those He has called children. Oh how He loves us! Infinitely more than we love Him. 

So then the act of fearing God to me, in the simplest definition, is the total acceptance of His complete control and incomprehensible greatness and of our total depravity and infinite smallness all wonderfully wrapped in the revelation that we were created for Him to love and that His purpose, His eternal plan, is fulfilled when He exchanges His wrath for us as sinners with His love for us as children. Then the invisible realms see the very nature of God and I suspect, they tremble too. 

Argh, that felt long-winded and not perfectly clear. I hope that it helps, and there are also some really good thoughts here.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day 11: Happy Birthday Mr. Steinbeck



Today Mr. John Steinbeck would have been 112. I have often pondered following the same route he took across America with his giant poodle Charley. Load up a little camper trailer, give it some literary name, and visit point by point every place Mr. Steinbeck did in his delightful little book Travels With Charley in Search of America. To chronicle how America has changed, what she has become in the 50 years since the book was published. But of course my idea lacks all originality, having been done by countless literary enthusiasts and travel hounds for decades. In fact one such fellow, a Mr. Bill Steigerwald followed the supposed route and found some of the travelogue to be in the kindest words, littered with artistic license. You can read his gentle de-bunking here.



But it's the thing. The doing and the writing about it. Steinbeck describes it this way in the book: "...a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any here..." And in me I certainly find that same desire, and mirrored in my soul, perhaps even more intensely, the desire to write about it. And not just America, but every strange sun-soaked Island, every frozen gunpowder grey country. 

How could you not want to sleep out in the wild desert when Steinbeck describes it this way? "At night in this waterless air the stars come down just out of reach of your fingers..." and "...there are mysteries in the desert, stories told and retold of secret places in the desert mountains..." But then to write the stories of touched stars and of the mysteries of those mountains. Wow. 

In the Atlantic 1962 review of Travels With Charley they wrote: "This is a book to be read slowly for its savor, and one which, like Thoreau, will be quoted and measured by our own experience."

Isn't that just it, the reason writer's write, maybe one of the reasons Jesus spoke in parables, that in communicating stories we measure our own experience against others. And in that we find the big truths, the universal ones. And at the same time take the big things, the universal images and ideals and make them all our own. When someone reads us, when they feel less alone, when some turn of phrase makes their breath stick in their lungs or some titanic weight of sorrow shipwreck and sink deep inside their chest. That's the payoff, it is for me. To communicate truth in such a way that somewhere someone wants to meet my tender Savior, to communicate beauty in such a way that someone somewhere places their hand on their chest to still their beating heart, and falls a little more in love. Ahhh to be that writer. 



Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day 10: Lion Tamer





Outside it is cold and gray and wet and inside it is only slightly less so. Haiti's warmth is a far away and I am missing her sunshine. (And her children, and her rice and beans, and her sea, oh and her starlight.) But there is coffee! And internet and the familiar faces of strangers. In my mind I make up tall tales about them. File them away for some story. The slumped red head there, with the oversized flannel filling out a job application. I imagine she is having a moral crisis, and finally she lies, claims she was a lion tamer, from the summer of 06 through the fall of 07. How she thinks this will sway the managers at Starbucks to give a job nod in her favor, I do not know. But it makes perfect sense to her. That's the best part.Then there is Dave, stranger than fiction. He is a volume of books, all of them start with what he's had or having for his last or next meal. If he takes his pills he is ok. If he takes too many he is far away. And if maybe, one pill is a little too small, well the real Dave bleeds through and he will show you his painted webbed toes and tell you of his current if not somewhat morbid fascination with squirrels.

But how I see them, real or imagined, matters not. George MacDonald said:

"I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God's thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest, and most precious thing in all thinking." 

The most important thoughts I will ever have of me or you will have of you or they will ever have of they are God's thoughts. He does not make up more believable or less boring personalities for us. He is not able to be deluded by His own romanticism. He is not persuaded by jealousy or bitterness. He doesn't allow His opinion of us to be leveraged by our imperfections or our needs. He speaks only truth, at all times, and what He says is binding, for all eternity's days. 

Mind you all of the thoughts God has for us existed before time began. They are His heart and mind for us. But with our closed ears and hearts and minds we cannot, could not ever hear Him. The new life we are gifted in Jesus means opened ears and enlightened minds and a new heart too! Then we can begin to not just hear what God says about us, but because we have already begun experiencing His transformative power, we can trust that He will finish the job. And we begin to believe, when on our lowest days He doesn't run away, that He must actually see something wonderful in us.

We are new creatures in Christ. Which means we get a re-do! That chance to start over (and over, and over). "So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away--look, what is new has come." (2 Corinthians 5:17)!

We are children of God, heirs of heaven, with full divine rights. "But to all who have received him--those who believe in his name--he has given the right to become God's children." (John 1:12) "And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ)--if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him." (Romans 8:17).

We are friends of Jesus. "But I call you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father" (John 15:15). And He proved it! Scripture says no greater love has a man than this than that he lay down his life for his friends. And Jesus did just that. Died in our place. I know that's elementary, sunday school 101...but it should shock us everyday.

Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Wow. Consider that, the intimacy that entails, that God would want to make himself at home in us. Geez. "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you." (1 Corinthians 6:19)?

This one sounds sacrosanct and too high for me, that we are the righteousness of God in Christ. But what I understand it to mean is simply this. Christ took the blame for everything we ever did, are doing, and will do and gave us instead His perpetual and immutable innocence to all those crimes. Talk about diplomatic immunity! The perks of being related (by blood) to a King. "God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We are accepted. "Receive one another, then, just as Christ also received you, to God's glory." (Romans 15:7). We are not alone, nor are we isolated or ostracized by our differences. We are part of Him now, along with all the others. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female--for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). We are free! "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the chains of bondage." (Galatians 5:1). We are chosen, holy, and blameless before God. "For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love." (Ephesians 1:4).

This is who we are?? Really?? How? Why?? Because God is love and He loves us!

But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you are saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5) "Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience … (Colossians 3:12). We know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you … (1 Thessalonians 1:4).

Now when you look in the mirror you may want to remind yourselves of these things. Don't use your sassy voice, and I promise not to use mine. This new us in Christ is a gift, we didn't earn it and therefore shouldn't flaunt it. For example. If you get pulled over by a cop you might not want to say something along the lines of, "My dad is God so send the ticket to Him, He can take it out of my heavenly inheritance." And please don't use your place of preeminence with Christ to cause you to step to the front of the Starbucks line in front of the rest of us. I may kill you. 

And though knowing how God sees us will help navigate the toughest days at work, and the lowest lows of loneliness, the most important reason for us to see ourselves as He sees us, is so that we will have the confidence to go to Him. "...In whom we have boldness and confident access to God because of Christ's faithfulness." (Ephesians 3:12).

So for all the Daves and all the red-headed lion tamers...you are unconditionally loved, and you are magnificently from the mind of God.


This In-Between Month, Days 8 and 9: The Locust Effect



Just over a week back and all other thoughts these last two days have been unable to escape the terminal gravity of this book. Everything I say or feel is caught in this convergent orbit around it, toward it. 

In the following quote Gary Haugen sums up the title and the premise of his new book The Locust Effect. “Without the world noticing, the locusts of common, criminal violence are right now ravaging the lives and dreams of billions of our poorest neighbors.” It is rare, that a statement like this, one so enormous, so far reaching in its implications, so shocking in its claim can also be undeniably true. As with the Holocaust or the purgings of Stalin or Mao's great leap forward that saw 45 million killed in 4 years, humanity wonders aloud how this could be happening under our noses, "without the world noticing". They ask where the good people are? The collective ego assumes we have evolved past this sort of mass evil. Mr. Haugen goes on to indict us all.

“One would hope that if the world woke up to such a reality, it would swiftly acknowledge and respond to the disaster—but tragically, the world has neither woken up to the reality nor responded in a way that offers meaningful hope for the poor. It has mostly said and done nothing. And as we shall see, the failure to respond to such a basic need—to prioritize criminal justice systems that can protect poor people from common violence—has had a devastating impact on two great struggles that made heroic progress in the last century but have stalled out for the poorest in the twenty-first century: namely, the struggle to end severe poverty and the fight to secure the most basic human rights.”

In the absence of enforced law the strong take from the weak whenever they desire. Land, sex, physical labor; all the poor have, coerced or stolen or worse from them all across the developing world. The problem is deeply complex, rooted in and mired by years of bad governance and inattention by the world community. And though it speaks to the wickedness men are capable of it also reveals how this same wickedness can be kept in relative check where there is rule of law. Please read this book. It will change how you understand poverty, how you view the world. (I am posting this in a longer form on the COH blog too with alot of statistics.)





Tuesday, February 25, 2014

This In-Between Month, Days 4-7


Day 4:

We walked down Magazine St. again today. River wanted to go to the used musical instrument store. As we walk he reads the street signs. "Terpsichore Street, the muse of dance" he says. "Calliope, the muse of epics. But if you want to write an epic epic you would have to invoke on all the muses" he instructs in a mock professorial tone. My mind is on overload. I listen a lot and talk very little. At one point River asks me what I am thinking but as I start to tell him, that jellyfish are the chandeliers of the sea, we arrive at the music store and he is quickly lost in his private world of wonder.



We walk back toward downtown and under the overpass are homeless men and women. Some share a drink, others sleep on the cold concrete. I am thinking of what EJ told me, of a woman she met, who was homeless and afraid. Who every night would sleep up in tree branches to keep herself from being found and raped. My eyes watered, my legs got heavy. I will never know what it means to be female, never know the constant fear that plagues the poor and the marginalized women of the world.  

Day 5:

Still reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Makes me want to capture every creature of thought, every monster of memory and put it all in a little circus of freaks called a book. What a crazy and practical writer Lamott is. In the best ways. She says sometimes it helps to write to one reader. She recounts how she wrote an entire book for her father as he was dying of cancer and another for her friend who was dying too. I find I write best this way, not my best writing per se but that I feel most connected to what I write. That I stay on task when normally my mind is prone to amble off, that I keep a sense of expectancy that otherwise easily wanes. 

Day 6:

We take the train to Mississippi. I am feeling anxious at time away from River. But it will be good to see my family. Waiting for me are two books I have been excited to read. Carl Wilkens I'm Not Leaving and Gary Haugen's The Locust Effect. I started reading I'm Not Leaving immediately and couldn't put it down. I have read much about the Rwandan genocide but this account of the one American who stayed is incredible. You can order it here.





Day 7:

To say I never left the pages of a book this sometimes sunny and sometimes slate gray Sunday would be almost true. The Locust Effect is devastating. It is the most focused and accurate view of poverty I have ever read. It reveals in undeniable fact, that to end poverty we must end violence against the poor. The stories of the poor denied, not just basic justice, but any justice are soul crushing. The stories of the abuse that that poor receive from the same institutions charged with protecting them is paralyzing. I recommend this book to everyone. It is that important, so dead on in it's analysis of the true state of justice around the developing world and its direct impact on keeping the poor in poverty. I am begging you, please, read it.




Thursday, February 20, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day 3: The World-Wide Whisper




River and I walked around the French quarter today. He entertained me, effortlessly shifting between Monty Python and C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and Dr. Who. Riffing about pop culture and the nature of evil. All in a cast of voices from the somber to the insane. He is older, looks older, changed in subtle ways. I want to lament what I have missed but instead try to only celebrate the man he is becoming. 



Later as the shadows of the afternoon gave contrast to the neon signs River sang "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" then "Norwegian Wood". And somehow "Hotel California became "American Pie" which then was Tennyson.


"For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging through the
thunder-storm."

My son's deepening voice and passion for song lyrics and all things guitar was a soundtrack to my thoughts. I tried to be right there with him, and most of me was, but the images of Kiev on fire...well it looks like hell's flames have come to earth.


Pictures from the Guardian UK.

It seems there is no "world-wide whisper" but instead a scream. All creation groans for all things to be made new but the daughters of Eve, the sons of Adam wail. The forgotten tragedies Central African Republic where religions devour each other. Boots on the throats of their brothers.





The caption above read "Christian's winning". Now how is that even possible? How can you reconcile laying down your life for your brother with a boot on his throat. What part of hacking him to death with a machete communicates the love of Jesus. None.

Syria with 9 million refugees. With a bloody conflict dismissed by the west as "someone else's civil war" as "baddie vs. baddie". But when civilians are targeted, when children are blown to bits because father's speak out...it is all of our problem. Below families flee across deserts and borders into the makeshift camps. Leaving behind death for living misery. 


 


I'ts all so much to feel. Too much to understand how one of us can or should respond. I am at a loss, feeling so far from the reality of it all. Today all I can do is pray. Pray for the children's lives destroyed by these tragedies. I just want to do something. But what?? 

I gotta go, River is ready to ramble on. I have a friend Nat in the Central African Republic, he and his wife work with Tearfund (who are also working in Syria). If you can, help them try and protect the innocent there. Mesi Anpil.




Wednesday, February 19, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day 2: Magazine Street, New Orleans



As I walked down Magazine Street today this thought turned over and over in me.

"Humility is not thinking less of your self but thinking of your self less." 

C.S. Lewis.




The last two weeks there has been a lonely lilted melody playing in the back rooms of my mind. Faint as a whisper, and real thin, like an echo of an echo. This week past someone turned the volume up and I found myself humming along, but still no words, no recollection of the tune. Until today, sitting in a little coffee dive on Magazine St., distracted making little mosaics of all the photos I'd taken, a few words twisted by memory and then a sudden jolt of recognition and a whole phrase coming back to me.

"Your fire burns me like a favorite song
A song I should have know all along
I feel you move like smoke in my eyes
And that is why..." 



Which is beautiful, and made me long for someone but wasn't the spiritual epiphany I had hoped for (yet) but it did lead me to revisit this album:




Which led me somewhat amused to the song "Jesus in New Orleans" where I read these  lyrics:


"But when I least expect it
Here and there I see my savior’s face
He’s still my favorite loser
Falling for the entire human race"

Which brought me back to selflessness. Jesus, in sweat became blood dripping agony, prayed this prayer to His Father. "Not my will but Yours be done." That is where it starts, thinking of our selves less and Him all the more. This is the first step on the path of selflessness. Surrender of our will to His and then we can really begin to live for others. What this will look like may be different for all of us, but it will have the same results, magnifying God in the eyes of His creation, and elevating those created in His image to intimacy with Him. 


50 cent paper backs at a thrift store. My first purchase in these here United States. 

I am reading Anne Lamott's " Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life". (Which I love and want to stop all else and finish, thanks Em.) And one of the things she tells young writers and old writers (and dead writers and those not born), is to write. Write everyday, write short things. Silly little throw away things. Just write, write, write. Get the fuel to the engine of the thing. Prime it, choke it, flood it sometimes, but keep trying to crank that engine. It is the same, in some ways, this business of being selfless. Just do it. Listen longer to a strangers rambling story. Listen with a wide heart and kind or concerned eyes. Tip better. Smile more. Tell people what you like about them, really mean it. Give your spare cash, and maybe a little that's not so spare to those that need it more. Make your days more about others, which doesn't mean you are forgotten. NO! God will take care of you! Seek first the kingdom and whatever you need for life and Godliness will be yours! Seek the "upside down kingdom" as it's been called, the one where the King came to be a servant and traded royal chariots for donkeys. The Kingdom where it's not about me.

Please excuse me, for coffee and Miss Lamott await. And in an hour I will see my son!