Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Only Thing We Have

“Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.”
- Angela Monet

I love my deck.

Its not much, really. Some comfortable chairs, some floral arrangements and greenery. Surrounded by woods.

Its quiet. Occasioned by the sounds of the distant neighbors dogs barking at imaginary bogey men. My iPod plays out my favorite songs du jour. I can drink my favorite adult beverage. My wonderful wife usually joins me for a while and we talk. Sometimes its just me, or just me and the dogs.

From my deck you can see nothing. But from my deck you can see everything.

Good weeks and bad weeks both find their homes on my deck. Sometimes its triumphal relaxation. Oftentimes its reflection and planning. Sometimes, its nothing more than relaxing and de-stressing.

This past week could fairly well be said to be one of those "what-just-happened-to-me?" weeks. The week started with an unplanned trip to the dentist (which can never be good) and was finished with the yearly physical with my family doctor (something every middle age man dreads). These wonderful events sandwiched two fifteen hour days and a third trying to get caught up. Nothing, but nothing, went as expected. Especially the visit with my family doctor.

I like my doctor. He reminds me of "House", except his humor isn't quite as sharp.

I'm not the type to worry too much about my health (a fact you can probably tell) but his congratulations to me for beating out 25% of my compatriots made me stop and think. Typically, that would be a good thing. But he was referencing the fact that the first symptom 25% of people with heart disease have is sudden death.

Come again, doc? Hmm.

That will wake you up some. My ticker, he says, is making a sound that it shouldn't. Instead of "tic-toc" its saying "tic-ta-toc." Think that clicking sound under the hood when your teenage daughter thinks driving the car with the oil light on is a good idea. Its one of them things that make you go, hmmm....

The good news, he said, is that its still making a sound. So I win something, just not quite sure what. He says its some new doctors in my not too distant future. Won't Blue Cross / Blue shield love that?

I'm sure I will tell them they same thing I tell my family doctor: I'm the best patient you will ever have; I know I am going to die, your job is to keep it at bay so I can live.

So back to my deck. What does this have to do with my deck?

"What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him." Ecc. 3:9-14

The Teacher caps off his famous "for everything there is a time, and season for everything under heaven" passage with this simple observation. Clearly, the Teacher had a back deck. And clearly, he sat in the stillness to appreciate all that God had done already. He knew the rest that the writer of Hebrews spoke: a rest that says we may approach our God in the quietness of the deck and find mercy and grace in our time of need. (Heb. 4:16)

From my deck I can see into the master bedroom and my wife working hard at her job. I can see into the living room as the kids watch TV and dogs play. I can hear the sounds of the trees, and look into the sky. I can try to fathom the things of God, and laugh at my failure. And I can relax in the moment. And think of nothing. And everything.

In those moments the world is right.

Perhaps blogging about it shows that the doctor's news bothers me. But I really don't think it does.

As I sit here on the deck I can see the most important people in my life, that which I toil for, and I feel the presence of God. From the deck I can see how He has provided for me while I have been living my life. And I have no doubt that will continue.

If anything, my deck reminds me that no matter the outcome of any medical exam or work experience, I can refocuses my mind on the things and places and people that are really important.

These are the things I frequently lose sight of. And something God quickly brings back to my attention.

For when I lose sight of that which is ultimately important I cease to live anyway, and merely begin to exist.

And that would be something to really fear.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fads, Fictions and Faith

"A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it." - Oscar Wilde

Are you willing to die for what you believe?

That was the bold statement of a Christian of his personal committment to Christ in a local community forum while discussing Christianity with a professed forum atheist. It was a typical amateur religious debate. But the thread caught my attention. It dealt with how persecuted Christians are (or at least believe themselves to be) in the current liberal media culture, and how being a Christian is such a challenge with the current shift in world views in our society.

Now, religious debates can often be quite amusing, mostly because of the seriousness that each side takes in their positions, and the fun to be had in attacking the other's position. Local community forums are often the hot bed of such amateur joustings and forays into expressing beliefs and opinions on all things godly (and ungodly). But they usually devolve into parrroting the latest dispensational sermon they heard, of the most recent airing of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

I must admit that in my younger days I relished such experiences, and felt as if I was defending not only the one and true faith, but also the one and true God. Such is the naivete of youth. Little did I realize that the true and living God got along quite nicely without my aid for many an eternity.

And, unlike the professional debates, like the recent one at Samford between John Lennox and Christopher Hitchens, the amateur debates tend to ultimately devolve into "God said. I believe. And that settles it." A kind of Madalyn Murray O'Hare vs. Bob "Chaplain of Bourbon Street" Harrington, round 34. Usually the Christians involved begin to talk about how they would willingly die for the cause of Christ, and strangely how they fear that America is turning so godless that martyrdom will be a real issue facing Christians in this country in the not too distant future if Christians don't act now.

Now mind you, I am all for hyperbole, and don't mind using it myself to make a point, but the analysis of current American culture, godless and liberal, does not even begin to suggest to me that Christians in the country will face a persecution that will end in death on any kind of noticeable scale. And, ultimately, would it be such a bad thing that our society would so despise Christians that death would be quick and sure for those who follow Christ?

But really, is dying for Christ really the test of one's Christian beliefs? And by making such grandiose claims do Christians really believe they will win the world for Christ?

I don't think so. Shall we ever forget that in the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, 19 men, armed only with their religious convictions and box cutters, hijacked four airplanes, killing 3,000 people and themselves? These men, like so many of their brethren, were willing not only to die for their convictions, but kill for them as well. Christian, Muslim, Hindu (!) and other world religions have all had their share of dying and killing for their convictions.

Ultimately, as a test of truth, death tells very little of the veracity of one's convictions. And how absurd it is to use it as a test in a society where the chance of martyrdom is so remote as to be nonexistent.

The other answer often promoted in such debates is a willingness to live for Christ. The "WWJD" mentality. That is most often translated into some moral life lessons on what a Christian should "look like". What positions Christians (or at least, white middle class Christians) should take on godless issues confronting society, how they should confront ungodliness and godless people, make daily devotions and prayer, and register church attendance and giving. It means learning the appropriate head wag at the sins of others, while whitewashing our own sins. It means Peter Pan outfits and plastic smiles. And "purposefully" learning this year's "Prayer of Jabez", whatever that might be, in the Basement.

It is attaining the a form of godliness, but denying its power.

But then, if martyrdom is not in my future, what is the test of my Christian faith? Is it defending God in the forums? Fighting for the political cause du jour? Learning the latest Christian fad? Gaining positions of power to make the face of Christianity less absurd and more accepted? Is it living, and dying, for Christ?

I think Christ had the answer to that question. In his parable of the sheep and the goats, Christ made clear at least a part of His answer to the question.

Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. Matthew 25:34-40.

Of note in the parable is the nonchalance of the sheep. They did their acts of charity not for the rewards of heaven, and not in their search for deeper Christian meaning, but because of who they were, where they found themselves, with whomever they came into contact, and because of who He had transformed them into.

So casual and unassuming were their loving deeds, that they did not even notice they were doing them, and thought nothing of doing them because they were simply the right thing to do, the loving thing to do. There were no "purposeful acts" or ulterior motives, nor seeking of enlarged borders. They were simply being sheep. His sheep.

Paul, I think, said it well. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." (I Cor 13:13).

The older I grow, the more I truly realize there is nothing I can add to an already perfect God, or the work completed by His perfect Son, Christ. He needs no defense. And my death will complete none of His work. That doctrine becomes real, that head knowledge becomes real, and more and more becomes heart knowledge. I can add nothing to what He is doing in my life I must simply trust that He is, and He will do with me His purpose.

The older I grow, the more I realize that the real question, at least for me in this society, is not "Am I willing to live, and die, for Christ." It is, "Am I willing to love because of Christ?"

And that is a much harder question.

Happy Easter.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

It Always Rains on Wednesday

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” - John Ruskin

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

The garbage has to be at the curb by 7:00. AM. But its raining. And I've already showered. But the garbage has to be at the curb by 7:00. Maybe I can miss it this week? But we'll be overrun with garbage by next. But its raining. And its Wednesday.

It must be raining.

Late night last night. Bills to send, letters to write. Still not finished. Wished the weekend was longer. Wish the weekend was here. Drop kids off at school. Drenched. Drive to work. Drenched. I look at the sky.

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

Still drenched from pushing the garbage to the curb. Clients calling to push theirs on me. Late night last night. Clients calling. Clients to call on. Wished the weekend was longer. Wish the weekend was here.

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

Lunch time. Finally dry. Not hungry. Clients calling. Clients to call on. Lunch meeting, work to be done. Couldn't they come here? Its Wednesday, don't they know? Mad dash to the car. Wished the weekend was longer. Wish the weekend was here.

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

Drenched as I drive. No parking place close! The handicap don't go out on Wednesday, do they? Its Wednesday, you know. Surely they don't. Better not risk it. The cops know. They look at the sky.

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

Drenched as we talk. I force a smile. Wonder if I got the garbage to the curb on time? I look out the window as we talk. Wonder why the sun never shines on Wednesday. Or does it, and I just can't see? I look a the sky.

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

Clients talk. Sometimes too much. Lunch is too long. Don't they know its Wednesday? Wished the weekend was longer. Wish the weekend was here. I'm sure clients are calling. So many clients to call. Finally dry. Parked so far away. Mad dash to the car. I look up.

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

Drenched as I drive. No parking place close! Late for the next appointment. Don't they know its Wednesday? Mad dash to the office. I'm drenched. Clients calling. Clients called. Clients to call on. I'm drenched. But force the smile. I look out the window as I talk. It looks like Wednesday.

It must be raining.

Its late. Its night. Again. Finally dry. Where has the time gone? Wished the weekend was longer. So much to do. Wish the weekend was further away. I look out the window and see that its Wednesday. Time to go home.

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

Mad dash to the car. Drive home. Drenched. Its late. Its Wednesday. Did they pick up the garbage? Yep, left the lid open too. Again. Don't they know its Wednesday? Dump water from garbage can. In the rain. I'm drenched. Again.

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

Look out from the garage. At the rain. Its Wednesday. Head inside to see the mail. More calls to make. Issues. Wished the weekend was longer. Wish the weekend was here. Wish the weekend was further away. Not enough time tomorrow. Clients calling. Clients to call on.

Its Wednesday, it must be raining.

Forgot to read this morning. Understandable. Its Wednesday. And its raining. Again. Find my Bible.

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."
(Matt. 11:28-29 "the Message").

He doesn't know my schedule. He doesn't know who I have to call. He doesn't know that the garbage has to get to the curb. He doesn't know the clients calling. Or the ones I must call on. He doesn't know the unbearable lunches. The weekends aren't long enough. The weekend is too close. Why would He dare say such to me. Doesn't he know its Wednesday? Doesn't He know its raining?

Yes. He does.

Look at my calendar before bed. What's tomorrow?


Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Shot to the Nose

"Erected to the memory of John Phillips. Accidently shot - as a mark of affection - by his brother." - Gravemarker in New England.

In the early 70s my family lived in Aurora, Colorado in a quiet little neighborhood much like many of the older towns here in Alabama. I came across it the other day looking up old places I lived on Google Earth. (The address is 986 Dearborn Street, Aurora, Co if you want to see it yourself.) The center of the neighborhood was Ford Elementary School, which, from our little home on Dearborn Street, was literally over our back yard fence. During second and third grade I walked to school, and went home everyday for lunch.

Next door to us, on the corner, lived the Crofts. Mrs. Croft was a folk guitarist, and, looking back, probably had much more of a sixties mindset than my family had. In my mind I can still hear her playing her guitar and singing "Blowin' in the Wind", and, while at the time I didn't know who wrote the song, stands as my first ever memory of any Bob Dylan song. Her son, Taylor, and I are the same age and played together regularly in those days. Those were the days when G.I. Joes were full size dolls, and, with their great king fu grip, Taylor and I played G.I. Joes for hours like most 6 and 7 year old boys of our time.

However, this quiet neighborhood was broken up occaisionally by the neighborhood bully. I am sure that every neighborhood has them, and this quiet little neighborhood was no different. Unfortunately for us, ours lived in the corner house directly across the street from Taylor. His name was Jeff, and though only a year older, was much, much bigger than either Taylor or me.

I don't know that Jeff was your typical bully. I don't recall him ever beating me or anyone else up. I don't recall him yelling or taunting us. All I remember was being intimidated by him and his size and if he wanted to come and play with our G.I. Joes he did - and we didn't question or fight back. We viewed ourselves as powerless, helpless and weak to his greater power and authority. And I have never forgotten that feeling of intimidation and weakness that Jeff caused just by his presence. Bullies take because they can and hurt because they will. While justifications for their harm may be offered, justifications are not necessary.

Fast forward a few years to another quiet neighborhood in another town. At the end of Hahn Ave, the street where we lived at the time, moved a new family, the Coles. They have one son, Marc, who is approximately the same age as most of the other boys that live in our little section of the neighborhood. Marc wore thick glasses, and was fairly skinny and lanky.

By the time they moved in, the boys in the late pre-teen early teen years were already friends in the neighborhood. There was me, Eric, Van, Chris, Greg, Michael, Rob and Mark, all of us within a year or two of each other's age. For some reason, when the Coles moved in there was some collective consciousness among us that we would not accept Marc into our "group" and would treat him with contempt. And pour it on we did. For absolutely no reason, as certainly Marc had never done anything to any of us other than to look weaker than us, he was chosen during those years to be the outcast, the focal point and butt of our jokes, the target for snow balls in the winter, and verbal assaults in the summer. And, like the immature children we were, we could justify our actions toward Marc if they were ever questioned.

In truth, Marc was a decent guy just trying to get along, and we, me included, were nothing more than bullies, making his like miserable for our own pleasure. In later years, toward the end of high school, Marc, the Van Halen devote', was finally accepted in our "group" of Pink Floyd and psychedelic rock listeners and would hang out and listen to music with the rest of us on Van's killer HiFi. But those early years were clearly hell for Marc, and they were that way because of me.

As I look back on those two times in my life, it is scary for me to see how quickly I went from bullied to bully, not learning the lessons of my earlier days, and forgetting the empathy that adversity and trial should inevitably bring, but for some reason doesn't deliver. But I look back and see, that is how the world works - the strong, by force of might or deceit of mind, prey on the weak as if they are not persons, or at least persons worthy of their presence and friendship. The strong justify their own actions as either being entitled to behave in such a manner, or that the weak deserve such treatment. The weak are something to be used for the amusement of the strong. That is the way of the world. It is the way to hide their other weaknesses and insecurities.

John tells us "But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him." (1 John 2:9).

Like a shot to the nose, those words ring out against me. They convict me. They condemn me. They beat me up and bully me, calling me to examine my own heart and attitude and actions, even as I witness the heart and attitudes and actions of others. How quick I am to judge others in relation to myself, all the while over looking my own weakness, failings, and faults. And how blinded by the darkness I am when I fail to love my brothers and sisters in all their weaknesses. When I sit by quietly and permit the strong to prey on the weak.

Often I see, even within the church, the sense of entitlement that strength and power bring. I witness, among my brothers and sisters, and even within myself, an attitude of contempt and derision of those who are weaker in the faith, weaker in the body, and weaker in the soul. I witness the weak bullied by the strong, I know God is not in those actions, and Christ is not honored therein. I see the fragile souls entrusted to our care, and the wreckless and careless manner in which they are treated. And how, like poor John Phillips, they get caught in the cross fire of their brother's "affections". I see how we often suffer it to be so by inaction and inattention.

And I witness how quickly we forget that it is not our strength which unites us, but rather our weakness. How we are each sinners struggling through this world, completely and totally relying on the power of Christ to save us, and not our own. And how we forget how desperately we need the love of each other, as brothers, as sisters, just to find our way.

I am glad to be a part of Community Prebyterian Church, a place where the Marcs and the Jeffs can commingle, and each recieve the care and love of Christian brothers. And hopefully find the peace and acceptance and respect each deserves. A place where we want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11). And while we are by no means perfect, we are a place where we try not to shoot our brothers, not even by accident.

To the Marcs in my past, my present and in our church, I seek your forgiveness. Both for my actions, and for suffering the actions of others.

To Jeff's of my past, my present and in our church, I offer mine.

And to each know that we have tried to put away our childish behavior and cannot and shall not withdraw our love.

God, help us to continue to learn what it means to love one another.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Look What's Missing

"Many of us believe that wrongs aren't wrong if it's done by nice people like ourselves." ~Author Unknown

Over the Christimas break the 4theluv household received one of the worst domestic cleaning tools ever produced - the Bissell Spotbot. This little "jewel" boasts that even the toughest carpet stain is no match for its specialty formula cleaning solutions and its whirling brushes and water suctioning.

While they still look pretty good, as with every American family that has children and pets, the carpets at the 4theluv house show their wear. Through the years, things get spilled, pets have accidents, kids have accidents, parents have accidents and things get tracked through. While looking skepticly at the Bissell Spotbot and all its boasted claims, the 4thluvs decided that the worst of the stains had to go. After all, it couldn't make it look worse.

So what the heck, we thought. Let's give it a try. We filled the little machine with its "magic" formula, some recommended oxy-clean formula, set the machine over the stain we wanted gone, "set it and forget it". The whiring sounds set in motion, the high pitched whining, the back and forth of the brushes in its six inch circumfrence was a sight to behold. And ten minutes later this mechanical demon beeps its maniacal, almost satanic beep that it is finished.

Moved off the spot, the remaining carpet was still a bit damp and circularly brushed, but you really coudn't tell much. So you do what every self-respecting Bissell Spotbot owner does - you move it to the next spot and repeat. And of course, you repeat this action four times on four different stains, as that is about how many you can do on one tank.

The problem only appears after the spots dry. The problem, of course, is that all the hype and claims of the Spotbot are true. Absolutely true. 100% true. Way too true. The thing works better than it claims. There is no longer stains where the Spotbot was at work. The carpet looks brand new - fresh from the carpet mill. So soft and fluffy and fresh you wold lay your newborn baby on it, as long as your baby is smaller than six inches.

Now the 4theluvs consider themselves educated people. We tend to think through issues both theoretically and pragmatically. But the theoretical and pragmatic problems of the Spotbot escaped us both - perhaps because we didn't expect the claims to be true. The clean circles on our carpet now ridicule the dirt and grime on the rest of the carpet - carpet that didn't look too bad before we began. Now it looks like it should have been replaced years ago.

To say the least, Mrs. 4theluv was not happy. She wanted to know what we were now supposed to do with the crop circles in our carpet - the clean spaces. Those little round wonders of soft downy carpet pure as the driven snow. My only suggested was that we could show off our holes when people came to visit. (The couch was comfortable that night.)

And that's when it hit me - how many Christians live their lives showing off their holes? The things that they don't do. Those grand statements of how hole-y they are. Jesus had something to say about that:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. - Luke 18:9-14.

I have no doubt the Pharisee was not those things he said. He was defining righteousness by what he was not, and what he was. He was the display of perfection, a legend in his own mind. His holes were brilliant - he had hole-iness he could spout off and proudly display. And all of us repulse at that notion because we know that self-righteous arrogant jerk found sadistic pleasure in putting other people down.

It is so easy to condemn the Pharisee. But stop and think for a moment: don't each of us define "righteous" as those things we personally don't do, and those things we personally do or want to do better? And don't we gage the spiritual health of others by the standards we created for own righteousness? Isn't church about comparing our clean spots and learning how to accentuate them - all the while trying to cover up how dirty we are in other places?

Like my carpet, our "clean" spots only serve to highlight how desparately hopeless our situation is without Christ. But it also serves to showcase the promise and glory of the gospel - that our sins, though like scarlet, will be washed whiter than snow, and though crimson, will be as wool. (Isa. 1:18) Without Christ, there is no hope for any of us, no matter what we don't do.

I am glad, and hope it will always be so, that Community Presbyterian Church is a place that honors people not for the holes in their lives, but the Christ within them, our only hope. And perhaps all of us, the next time we are tempted to point out those sins we don't commit but others do will remember the lesson of the Spotbot.

Happy New Year.


PS - at the next yard sale for the church, there may magicly appear a Bissell Spotbot for sale. Feel free to buy it at your own risk. Just remember - it works. You have been forewarned.