Friday, May 16, 2008

Forever Young

"Take care of all your memories, for you cannot relive them." - Bob Dylan

It is funny how age sneaks up on you.

In many ways, 1980 seems like ancient history. And to many of the "kids" in our church, it is. We have deacons who were not even born then, and elders who were still learning how to zip and tie shoes. The year 2000 might as well have been a millenia away, and no one (including, apparently, Bill Gates) worried about Y2K bugs. In the immediate past of that time lay the musical tragedy of disco, and the future held the equally disturbing "hair bands." (Save the comments - you will not convince me that the hair bands were good music.)

For a kid growing up in the farmlands of middle America, the journey to the present now seems completely unlikely. The small (and I do mean small) bedroom community of my youth now seems impossibly distant to me. A kid of 15, in my future lay marriage, children and a host of challenges that, though now in my past, would have seemed insurmountable to me at the time.

Though the memories are hazy, I can recall the days of sitting around at my friend Van's house, listening to Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, and the Stones. Occasionally, Marc would come over with his Van Halen albums (yes , they were all LP's, vinyl, you know, those large usually black things you had to put on a turntable connected to your HiFi.) and we would humor him and listen to them. There were no bills to pay, mortgages to feed, kids to shuttle.

It is amazing how quickly time passes. Those days you thought would never end are all suddenly gone. And then one day you wake up and life is real. You have places to be, and you are no longer responsible just for you, but for spouses, children, parents, co-workers, and employees. The complexities of the now replace the simplicities of youth.

It would be easy to glorify the life of my youth. I had a good youth, but it was not always simply good times with friends, with no pain or reality to interfere. Even now I can look and see some of the scars that life has given through those years, both physical and mental. I can look at my hand and see a scar I got fighting with Philip Bellew over some girl we both liked. (We were friends again a few days later.) I can see Eddie Carter and Ingrid Collin's faces, classmates and occasional friends who passed away in car accidents during high school. I can see John's face, a much closer friend whose death still fills me with regret and a real sense of personal guilt.

By and large, though, my youth was relatively trouble free and carefree. God has given us the blessing of time, which seems to force us to remember the best, and forget the rest. (Or perhaps it forces us to remember it as better than it was?) And that is why, mentally, it is such a pleasant time to go back and remember, even though those memories have faded.

It is funny, though, how some things can bring those memories flooding back vividly. A few weeks ago, listening to Stokes, Connie and Adam sing a song written by Adam, was one of those moments. Music, for some reason, seems to transport us at times to other places and to other memories. And Adam, Connie and Stoke's singing took me back to those simpler days of my youth. Suddenly, I was vividly the age of 14, sitting in Van's house with the guys and listening to the new Bob Dylan album that Van had bought. And what a great album it was - Dylan's "Slow Train Coming."

I have written about it before, but it is worth me saying again: Bob Dylan, absolutely the most brilliant musical and literary talent in modern history and all around coolest rocker ever, was writing, playing, and singing gospel music. For a kid who liked music for the words and sounds, Dylan's gospel drip would later turn to a river. (Van hated the album, and gave it to me.)

Searching YouTube the other day, I once again had one of those moments. I was transported back to those days. Take a listen to Dylan's "In the Garden" from his "Saved!" album of 1981.

If you watched it closely, you would have noticed that Dylan's back up band for that tour was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Pretty amazing. The contrast of a dystopian hard rocker Dylan singing about the crucifixion of Christ, backed up by Tom Petty, is to me poetic, and humbling. And what great memories they make.

Paul said it this way: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Phil. 4:8.

Those moments in my youth, and in my present, are pure moments. And those moments will continue. We will continually build a lifetime of memories. And it is nice to walk those paths every once in a while and recall them, but I would not trade the responsibilities and relationships God has given me now for those days. And I know years from now, I will turn my hearing aid up and listen to some whippersnappers sing or preach, and a smile will come across my face as I rememer Stokes, Connie and Adam's song, and the perfectness of that moment in worship.

As a church, we have much to be thankful for, and many memories are being made in our midst. Memories that will be eternal.

Take care of your memories, because you cannot relive them. Thanks for tolerating me while I share mine.


P.S. - Burt - it is time for you to use your Wonder Elder powers and force Stokes, Connie and Adam, at gunpoint if necessary, to record that song and post it in .mp3 on the church website.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My Friends All Wear Bunny Suits

"Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm. " - Friedrich Nietzsche

I am one of the world's worst at giving gifts. I forget birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, special occasions even for those closest to me. Without a calendar keeping up with it,
(and the pesky people around me who insist on reminding me I am another year older) I would forget my own birthday.

"A Christmas Story" is one of my favorite Christmas classic movies, and regular around my house between Thanksgiving and New Years. From the flag pole "triple dog dare", to the back alley bully with yellow eyes and the father whose artistic medium is swear words and "fa ra ra ra ra" are classic. The movie is filled with so many classic scenes of childhood trauma that each of us can identify with on some level, yet still find comfort in the knowledge that a now grown-up Ralphie is the narrator, and turned out quite normal. (No mention is made of the need for huge doses of therapy). For those who know (and like) the movie, even mentioning it brings a smile to your face.

One scene stands out as a universal experience to me: Ralphie's aunt sends 10 year old Ralphie a pink bunny suit for Christmas because she thinks he is a 4 year old girl. It is clear both Ralphie and his dad are both perplexed and disturbed with the gift. How should you respond to such a gift? Well, mom, of course, has the answer: the same way you respond to any gift. Ralphie owes it to his aunt to put on the suit out of gratitude for the gift. The sight of a 10 year old boy looking totally embarrassed in a pink bunny suit is classic.

The scene is classic because it touches on an aspect of society that hits us all. All of us have been given gifts at Christmas, or birthdays, or other special occasions that are as useless as pink bunny suit. Sometimes they are from the crazy aunt or neighbor, sometimes our parents or kids, and, worse case, from our in-laws. But polite society demands a gracious acceptance of the gift and a faux display of appreciation. But if the gift is especially nice, something highly useful or thoughtful or expensive, we immediately begin to finds ways to repay the gift, feeling indebted to the gifter as and feeling guilty that our own gift to them does not measure up to what they have given us.

I often have lunches with friends in my profession. It is quite common that, when out at some lunch, one of us will pick up the tab for us both. Mentally, we keep tabs: he bought this time, I'll buy next time. But this is not true gift giving, it is gift trading. Gift giving is a virtue, no doubt, but it is not truly a gift when it becomes the currency of friendship, to be swapped and traded on a like kind basis.

As a Christian, I am often called upon to be motivated in my Christian life out of gratitude for the gift of what Christ has done for me. In a very real sense, I feel guilt that my sin required Christ to die for me so that I could know and live with God. I cannot understand the truth of God's gift to me without the sense of indebtedness to Him for it. But I constantly have to ask myself the question, "Is either guilt or gratitude a basis for living the Christian life?" Should we really live the Christian life from an "attitude of gratitude at the magnitude" of what Christ did for us? (Lest there were any doubts, now you know for sure I am a former Baptist with phrases like that.)

The story of the exile from Egypt gives me pause in reviewing my motivation. It is clearly written with the intent to evoke the drama of the situation. The tribe of Israel, once free, now lives as slaves in Egypt. And God gives them the great gift of liberation.

God raises up a leader from the very household of Pharaoh, to lead the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, and water from a rock. The foes of bondage, attack, hunger and thirst had been met with the calm hand and displayed power of God. The spies go out into Canaan and find that there are giants living in the land, with swords and armies, and its Moses plan to attack. The people rebel, saying things like "it would have been better to die in Egypt or the desert than to die at the hands of these swords." God has clearly had enough of these people. But he does not indict them for their lack of gratitude or their refusal to repay His deliverance of them from their bondage with their very lives if necessary. Instead, it is their lack of faith, their lack of trust.

The LORD said to Moses, "How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? Num. 14:11.

Suddenly the motivation, the umph, in the Christian life for me begins to make sense: the response to the gift of God in Christ is not indebtedness, it is trust and assurance that if even sin could not separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, then neither can any battle I might face, including death. God does the deliverance of his people so that they may trust He will do the same deliverance in the future. He does them not to be repaid, a debt we couldn't repay anyway, but to call us to trust in His care for us despite the circumstances.

Please, don't get me wrong, gratitude is an appropriate response to any undeserved gift. But I am learning that a gift is not really a gift if something is expected in return, be it a thank you, a return gift, a free lunch, or a life of dedication. Such quid pro quo robs both the giver and the gift of its true grace. Perhaps Nietzsche is correct when he says that a great indebtedness makes us vengeful, makes us feel enslaved to our creditor. And though we often sing that message in song, and hear it preached, that is clearly not the message of the Gospel.

Perhaps gifts should be given just to let us know we are friends and the giver will be there with us until the end. Perhaps the gift is evidence of the relationship we have, and its value is in the relationship it represents. And when given freely, it conveys the message that the future is will hold the same relationship.

Thanks for the maroon on green sweater, mom. I'm sure it goes with something I own. Even more, thanks for telling me you will be there with me through the years.

Where did I put that bunny suit?


Thursday, May 1, 2008

God on the Mountain

It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes... we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions - especially selfish ones. - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Some days I don't feel like a Christian.

Reading this week's Newsbits concerning upcoming youth functions brought me back to the joyous days (ancient days, according to my kids) when youth retreats were annual events. The trips always included a long bus ride somewhere where us teens, completely hip with our cassette players and headphones (usually playing "contraband" music) would act completely bored, but were secretly excited about the independence a week away from our parents would afford. There was the usual awkward teen interplay between the sexes, closely monitored of course, the camp atmosphere, usually decent food (we all ate more on retreat than we ever did at home), and some sort of day outings to places like putt putt golf, a water theme park, or some similar out of the ordinary experience for most teens.

The retreats were always centered around bible studies and songs, and talks that built a sense of community and fellowship among the participants and evoked the strong emotions of knowing God. These events were intended to bring about more mature thinking about who we are and knowing God's love for us in Christ. They were designed for us to experience God, to know and feel His presence, and His will for our lives. Events like candle-light services, nailing our sins to a cross while singing choruses of "Jesus Paid It All, All to Him I Owe" which, in retrospect seem trivial, but in that moment, at that time, made the presence of God very real and concentrated every emotion we had on dedication to Him.

The retreats would always end with a "Youth Night" at the church, a Sunday night service where we "youth" would lead the church and show forth the community and fellowship and dedication that we had built during the week away. The service would range from anecdotes of the funny experiences of the week, to testimonies of the changes we intended to make with our lives. It would end with a call to the church to be as dedicated to the cause of Christ that we now had.

Even in those days, I recall thinking that the "experience" of the retreat was just that, an experience with God. Emotional, fulfilling, and desired. And absolutely unavailable to anyone who was not a part of it. You simply had to be there. They were, as Oswald Chambers calls them, "exceptional moments." The only thing the church would see was the immediate impact on us, and they could pray for the long term impact on us all.

The response to those exceptional moments was both positive and negative. Positive in the sense that we built community, understood the God of love presented in Christ, and sought meaningful change in our decisions and directions. But negative in that the immediacy of God's presence on those trips led us to believe we were more in tune with God than others, and also led us to believe that the Christian life should be one long "exceptional moment" and euphoric experience.

For many years, my Christian life was spent feeling unfulfilled because I did not feel the immediacy of God's presence and did not live in a constant "retreat high". I had to pay bills, work with people, deal with traffic, including some guy who cuts me off in the middle of my prayer time on the interstate. (A good place to pray, I might add.) Life impeded on my mountain top. And it took me years to reconcile within myself that it was ok to be normal, and real, and to live my Christian life in the ordinary surroundings of modern society.

Paul deals with much of the same issues when he talks about his longing for heaven.

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2. Cor. 5:1-8).

Paul expresses all of our desires to experience the immediacy of God's presence.In such powerful language, Paul declares that while on this earth "we groan and are burdened". But tucked away in Paul's passage concerning longing to be with God, is a little phrase: We live by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor. 5:7). What Paul is conveying to me is that our present existence and experience are not indicators of God's presence, or lack thereof. We cannot look at what we have, the trials we experience, or the way we feel to determine whether God is present in our lives. We must simply live by faith that He is there.

What I learned from those years of longing for the immediacy and presence of God, the "retreat highs", is that I was not looking for God's presence, I was looking for the "feeling" of God's presence. It was only in those "feelings" that I could feel secure in Him. But the truth is, it was nothing more than my selfish desire to demand Christ reveal Himself intimately to me. Emotional confirmation that He "is", and I am His. It was me demanding of Christ that He conform to the way I want to experience Him. How selfish we are when God's unconditional love for us is arbitrated by our feelings.

Each of these are distractions from the truth that Christ is there, even when I'm cut off in traffic and I don't feel like a Christian. I've learned there is nothing wrong with those moments, when Christ reveals His presence in a unique and fresh way, but there is something in demanding He prove himself repeatedly by inspiration to me in the ways I demand. That is not walking by faith, it is living completely by sight.

Some days I don't feel like a Christian. But that doesn't change the truth that I am. I am learning to appreciate the retreat highs, but find my security solely in the truths of Christ.

Solo fides.