Saturday, September 6, 2014

For You Whose Life Feels So Mundane

I'm thinking about you whose life feels so mundane, so daily. This is for you --and there are many of us--who feel so boringly ordinary and question if our everyday, unnoticed tasks have any meaning. A lot of us have difficulty seeing the sacred in the common moments of our day. It's easy to separate the physical from the spiritual. It's hard to see significance in what feels so menial. Whether you're wiping up the vomit of your child or you're working on an assembly line installing thingamajigs on whirlybobs or I'm rolling paint on a wall it can feel inconsequential and without purpose. 
Micha Boyet, in Found: A Story of Grace, Questions, and Everyday Prayer, describes a season of her life when she did not work outside the home and so was the primary caregiver of her children. She had become acquainted with some of the works of the early Benedictine monks and was reading The Benedictine Rule.
"In the thirty-first chapter of the rule, Saint Benedict states something so remarkable that I keep coming back to it each night as I stack bowls and dry plates. He says, 'All the utensils of the monastery and in fact everything that belongs to the monastery should be cared for as though they were the sacred vessels of the altar."
All the utensils.
I take the sponge and rinse it in the silver sink. Nothing in this skinny kitchen is all that special. And I've been living as if my tasks as a mom, those daily mundane tasks--the brushing of my son's teeth, the wiping of his bottom, the dressing of his body, the kissing of his scraped knees, the soothing of his wild terrors--as if they were nothing significant, as if they were simply normal, what every mother does.
I'm mesmerized by Saint Benedict's words, that the monks should care for every tool in the monastery, from the garden hoe to the kitchen cleaver, as if it were the very chalice of the Eucharist, the tool that brings the blood of Christ to the lips of believers.
I am undone..
I'm not sure why I've been waiting for this. I'm not sure why I needed someone to say it to me this way. But with Benedict's words, I feel my world has been reborn holy. Suddenly my life, all these small daily instruments I am packing in my home, and the very sippy cup I fill with milk and raise to my son's lips, is an instrument of worship.
How did I miss it before? How was I so sure that God did not value my unimpressive daily life?
I see my reflection in the dark night window. My short hair is bobby-pinned out of my face. My red sweatshirt hangs loose from my chest. And in the reflection of the glass pane, I see it.
I am a priest. I am a priest of the gospel, holding the chalice to the lips of my son. Carrying the plate of bread to the hungry. My life has value because God has touched every mundane moment with the glow of holiness. 
It matters. It all matters." 
Grace and peace to all my ordinary friends and may you find the sacred in the simple.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Reminder for My Conservative and Liberal Friends

If you are a political or religious conservative that does not mean that ipso facto you possess the truth (truth being defined as that which corresponds to reality). If you are a political or religious liberal/progressive, you don't either.
If you are a conservative you simply look for or at reality, that which is true, through a different lens than does the loathsome liberal.  If you are a liberal, you haven't reached a state of enlightenment, positioned far above the knuckle-dragging conservative.  You both are simply viewing something differently because you have chosen differing lenses through which to look at life, politics, and faith.  Even though you loudly insist otherwise, you really don't absolutely know that your lens is not distorted.  In fact, since it is a mere lens, distortion unavoidably comes with the glasses.  NO ONE sees or understand clearly and perfectly. But you talk as though you do see and know it all and you are becoming obnoxious and abrasive. Could you please exercise some humility when you make your pronouncements? 
BOTH lenses are distorted.  The conservative lens, just because it is conservative, does not see more light than the liberal lens.  The liberal lens, merely because it is liberal, does not therefore have a clearer glimpse of reality.  If you're a conservative it is a vantage point, a mere perspective from which you view life and faith. .Conservatism is not the truth; it is merely an angle , a vantage point from which you look at or for truth. Equally, liberalism is simply an angle, a "perch" from which you observe, as well.
Maybe this will help. There is a winding river, coursing through a deep canyon. Both canyon walls are covered with tall, dense brush, numerous trees and undergrowth.  A dense fog hovers over the river.  A conservative is perched up high on the right side (of course) of the canyon wall; a liberal (where else?) on the left.   Due to the terrain, the trees and undergrowth, and the fog neither the conservative nor the liberal can clearly see the river.  From their respective vantage points, they report, however, what they can ascertain about the river via sight and sound.  Their reports must be tentative, because their vantage points preclude absolute knowledge about the river.  In fact, there are days, due to the fog when they can't even see the river; they report only what they hear.
My conservative friend, you are looking at the river from a distance.  You are not in the river; you don't own the river.  So please quit acting as though you do.  
My liberal/progressive friend, you, too, view the river from an equal distance.  Neither of you are closer to the river than the other and therefore you cannot claim a clearer view.  So please quit parading your enlightenment.
Can you entertain the idea that your view does not constitute the river?  Your view of the river and the essence of the river are not one and the same.  Why do you pontificate as though they are?  
I ask you to exercise humility and whether a career conservative or a lifelong liberal can you treat the one with a different view in the same manner you treat your peeps who share your view?   
Your venom only further aligns those who already agree with you.  Your venom never--NEVER--convinces anyone who differs.  In fact, it further polarizes and alienates them from you.  And if that is all you are about--if that is how you roll--would you please secure your position on the canyon wall and engage in a silent retreat?
On the other hand, if you can engage in civil and respectful dialogue as you describe your view of the river, while simultaneously being willing to learn from the observer perched on the other side of the river as to what they are seeing, maybe our voices won't continue to drown out the roar of the river. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Can We Resist the Rant?

Facebook gets ugly.  Duh.
The Christian community on fb is often ugly.  Sadly, duh, as well.
Civil is apparently viewed as spineless, kind as weak. Being abrasive is justified as speaking the truth.  Being disrespectful is rationalized as "just being honest."
"I tell it like it is" has replaced "I tell it like I think it is."   Seldom, if ever, does a post begin with, "I could be wrong. . . "  Humility has been discarded; in-your-face hubris is now the norm.
There is seldom neither a desire or room for discussion.  People don't want dialogue; they want your agreement.  To disagree is to defy.  To have a dissenting opinion is regarded not as being different, but as being wrong.
This is my experience of far too many in the Christian community.  When it comes to expressing a loathing of someone or spewing toxic hatred often I hear little or no difference between the Christian-and-proud-of-it and the individual who professes no faith or spirituality.
How can this be?  Have we forgotten that it was not Jesus, but the Snake, who spewed venom?  And yet I see my brothers and sisters spewing their poison against the President, the gays, those liberals, illegal immigrants, Fox News, any immigrants, CNN, abortion, abortion advocates, conservatives, progressive pastor/teachers. . . the list is endless.  In seeking to make a righteous stand and uphold morality we need to very careful; it was Pascal who said, "In seeking to become angels we may become less than men."
Do we actually care about the person or group or church we are assaulting with our words?  If we voice our view of a sensitive issue do we care about how our words will impact those who disagree with us?  Or  am I only and all about giving voice to what I think, feel. believe and value-- and to hell with how it will affect you?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Grateful For the Interruption

Big Rule:  Don't  acknowledge me, mention the weather to me, bother me, interrupt, talk or breathe loudly when I'm reading.
This morning I was sitting in Mac's slathering down my breakfast, book-in-hand.  A heavy, dense book about the emotional sense that Christianity purportedly makes.  Head buried in my book, looking neither left nor right, hoping to avoid all other people. I'm sitting in my self-imposed isolation at a counter and an old man sits down two seats from me.   A major violation of my space-boundaries which demand the length of a football field in any direction.  I've noticed him there before.  Always carries a beat-up briefcase that appears to contain all his earthly records. I keep reading and out of my peripheral vision I can tell he keeps glancing at me and then returns to his own business.  I'm thinking, Oh crap; he's gonna say something.  I bury my head deeper into my book.  He leans toward me and says, "So.  You think you can learn more from reading that book than you can talkin' to somebody?"  Oh crap.  Busted.  I reply, sounding but not feeling congenial, "Oh, not all the time," and I put my book down.  I notice he's perusing a mag of some sort and i ask him what he's reading.  He tells me it's a book about how to read.  He's 80 y.o. and three years ago he started learning to read. I repeat--he's 80 y.o. and three years ago he started learning to read. He was born on a plantation in Mississippi and worked the fields, never going to school.  He eventually moved to Peoria and became a very good boxer.  And faked it all these years.  In social settings he'd avoid the limelight, attempting to avoid any situation that would call on him to have to read in any detail.
I asked him,  "Until 3 years ago when you began this formal reading instruction, could you read ANYTHING?"  "Oh, words like 'cat' and 'dog.'"
He's 80; how does that happen?
He showed me his reading lesson which consists of a couple brief paragraphs and then several questions to test comprehension.  He proudly showed me last week's lesson for which he received an A+.  I asked him if he would read me a sample from that lesson.  In a very broken cadence he read, " The. . . boy. . . was . . . very. . . hurt. . . when. . . his. . . .father. . . departed. . . "   Reading another sentence he stumbled on the word "clever," and had to sound it out.  But there was no shame; all I saw was a  pride and a growing self-confidence that were surely nonexistent three years ago.
He has come further than I will ever have to.  From being a son of a slave he has struggled, agonized, labored and literally fought his way to become a man of dignity and self-respect.
"So.  You think you can learn more from reading that book than you can talkin' to somebody?"
No, sir.  Not today, sir.  Any time you want to talk I'll drop what I'm doing.  You have much to teach me and I still have much to learn.  Thank you, Bob.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Temptation to Manage or Massage the Truth

A Few Good Men (1992) contains one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history.  In a military trial Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise) only thinks he's on the offensive and grilling Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson.)

Kaffee: Colonel Jessup, did you order the Code Red?!
Judge: You don't have to answer that question!
Jessup: I'll answer the question. You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I'm entitled!
Jessup: You want answers?!
Kaffee: I want the truth!

Ironically, I think there are a lot of Christians--regarding themselves as knowing the Truth-- who actually can't handle the truth.  Here's what has prompted this.  
Recently, an acquaintance, whom I respect in many ways but with whom I also occasionally differ, posted on fb about someone lamenting that she felt "defeated." He asserted, " A believer is never defeated.  Romans 8 (the most positive chapter in the Word) says "in ALL things, we are MORE than conquerors (emphasis his) through Jesus Christ.  While we may be harassed from time to time, we are never defeated. {We are} conquerors.  Let that sink in."    While I appreciate his optimistic hope and faith, I also feel there is an element of denial. Maybe she is,in fact, truly defeated, i.e. maybe her marriage is absolutely hopeless.  Maybe her prodigal son has walked away, never to return.  Maybe she is terminally ill and death will rob her young kids of their loving mother.  These tragedies--and worse--happen to us.  For some of us, it's over.  It's broken beyond repair.  It's irrevocable.  
l am a Christ-follower but I admit there are times when Jesus simply does not fix it.  There are times when the resurrected Lord does not resurrect a broken marriage or a cancer-ridden body.  Defeated.
But many of us can't handle that and we rush in to either explain it away or provide shallow encouragement (e.g." they're in a better place now.")  We have to fix it or minimize it or discount it or spiritualize it--anything but embrace it and sit with it and be present with a friend in the terrible silence wherein there are no answers that help. Can we simply acknowledge it rather than pumping up false hope?  

I replied to his post in this manner:  " I appreciate your Christ-centered hope and optimism, but, on the other hand, even the apostle Paul himself experienced a season when he "despaired of life itself."  Whether we call it defeat or despair or disillusionment  it seems to be the experience at one time or another, of most, if not all, Christ-followers." 
I don't think that settled very well with many. One replied, ". . . even when I'm so worn I know I'm not totally defeated."  Another, "And when that season of feeling defeated is past, we look back and see what God did. {That's why} it says in the Bible to rejoice in everything, be thankful in everything."  And another, "brought down, but not destroyed."  And another rebuttal, "Paul did certainly feel discouraged in Romans 7 but he also know the love and security of the Lord in Romans 8." And others.
While we may have good intentions, I think many of us simply can't handle the truth.  The ancient Christians called it "the dark night of the soul."  Some referred to it as "desolation."  Times when it is dark and there is no light to illumine one's heart or path.  The writers of the Scriptures and the individuals described within its pages were more honest than most of us. David.  Job, The apostle Paul. 
We can say that even though we may feel despairing that isn't truly reality because there is always hope for the Christian.   i would agree that there is always ultimate hope.  But some circumstances are here-and-now hopeless.  Some marriages are doomed.  Someone's child is going to die and no last minute healing is going to take place.  Some 40 y.o is going to receive the news that it's terminal and in 3 months they will be dead. Do we have both the compassion and the courage to enter into that darkness and join them?  Or will we remain safely outside their decimated world and content ourselves with standing outside their crucible and simply lobbing them platitudes? 
 l understand that merely because i feel despairing doesn't mean that life is, in fact, despairing.  Feelings do not determine or define reality.  I get it.  However, if someone is truly feeling despair that is their truth in the moment and do we dare to be present with them and weep with them and be still with them or does the truth of their present experience make us so uncomfortable that we feel obligated to bombard them with platitudes and "answers" and Bible verses. 
Can we handle the truth?  
I made a sobering and yet, ironically, strangely comforting discovery recently. Here's how two of the four gospels describe the final moments of Christ's life.  The very last words that Jesus utters are not Romans 8-esque.  They are not "it's the top of the inning" optimism.  The last words he utters are these:
My God, my God!!  Why have you forsaken me?!?"
And then he died.  No cheery optimism contained in his final breaths.  No warrior-like "Death be damned!" triumphant shout.  Instead, summoning all the strength he has left, he gasps at God, "Why have you abandoned me?" 
Jesus was and is the truth.  Can we handle the truth?
As I said earlier,Jesus' final words are strangely comforting to me. Jesus acknowledged and accepted his horrible forsakenness by God.  With no sugar-coating, Jesus cries out in lament, "God, you have left me to myself!"  This tells me that Jesus knows my own dark night of abandonment. Jesus understands my own flailing in the dark when I beg for answers or presence and neither come.  Jesus understands when it feels like my prayers reach only to the ceiling. Jesus stands in solidarity with us as we navigate through our own journey of faith.
He understands.  Therefore,I don't have to fake it or sound upbeat or engage in platitudinal regurgitation when the dark closes in and feels so suffocating that I question everything    I cling to my trust in him and that's enough.
May God give us grace in two ways:
May he grant us grace to face the darkness and trust in the Light even when all my eyes see is the pitch black.
May God give us grace to enter into our brother's own darkness and may our quiet presence mediate God's own presence.  May God give grace to empty ourselves of platitudes and nervous conversation to fill the awkward silence  and, instead, embrace our sister in her own dark night of the soul..

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Some of the Saddest Words Spoken: "I Used To. . . "

                 Some of the Saddest Words Spoken

Wanting to enjoy the sunshine my wife chose to walk to the grocery store.  It’s quite a distance.   With groceries in hand, she was returning and walking through several neighborhoods to get home, enjoying the sound of birds celebrating summer and the sight of flourishing hostas and flowers. Then she heard the yelling of several older people and the sobbing of a young boy.  Initially, it was the harsh volume that caught her attention.  As she got closer it was the unrelenting venomous words being hurled at the boy that pierced her heart.   She slowed her pace, not out of traffic accident curiosity but because she was concerned for the boy.   The three were in their back yard; Les walked just past their residence and then stopped.  She didn't know what to do but she knew the scene could get worse and she wasn't going to allow that to happen.   A man and a woman in their 60’s were standing over the boy, teaming together in their tirade. Eventually, the adults backed off and went back inside their house, leaving the boy alone and crying. 

My wife didn't want to agitate the adults further only for them to scapegoat the boy even more, but neither could she just walk away.  She raised her voice loud enough for the boy to hear, hoping she was under the adults’ radar. 
“Are you ok?” 
“Do you want to talk?”
“Yes, I do.”

She introduced herself and asked him a question or two.  He’s “Billy” and he’s 12.  His mom has custody but she couldn't take care of him for a couple days so she persuaded her mother and stepfather to take him.  He was missing mom and they wouldn't let him see her momentarily or even call her.  Instead, they berated him and were intent on screaming and shaming compliance into him.

Les listened as “Billy” poured out his heart to a listening soul.  As he told his story, collecting himself off and on in order to be understood, she cried with him. 

She didn't want to get him in more trouble for talking long with her and she needed to get home, as well.  She asked him if he felt safe; he assured her that there was no physical or sexual abuse taking place.  It was time to say goodbye.

“Is it ok if I pray for you, Billy?”
“Do you pray?”
I used to; I don’t anymore.”

“I used to; I don’t anymore.”  He’s 12 years old and already his faith has been decimated.  The very people who are to care the most have crushed him the most.  Only twelve and his spirit is already broken.

She walked home and he went back into the house of those who steal dreams and rob kids of hope.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Back From Honduras But A Part of My Heart Still There

I ask if I may enter her little shack.  She smiles and welcomes me.  There is no floor, just mud.  It's the rainy season.  There are massive cracks between boards and metal serving as walls.  The shacks are always dark and dismal even if the sun is brilliant.  They cook over an open fire in the house. The black soot covers the ceiling and walls and surely her children's lungs.  The wind blows not against but through the walls.  The rusted flat metal roof leaks.  I've seen women point to just above their ankles to indicate the amount of rain that may fill their house in any given storm.  Chickens run in and out of the house, as does the emaciated family dog.  It's hell but they take pride even in the hell-hole of a house; I see women sweeping the dirt of their abode with facsimile of a broom.  And you see flowers growing in this hell. Beautiful flowers testifying that these walls may crumble but the spirit of these moms remains strong.
We talk for a while as she tells me her story and then we begin to build her a new house.  She has lived in this squalor for 9 years and been on the waiting list for a new house for two of those years.  Today is the day we begin and she smiles in anticipation.  She is responsible for eight children and 5 grandchildren.  I ask her how she provides for her family;  three days a week she does the laundry for rich people, earning five dollars a day.  I have no idea how they do it.

I visit a thirty something mother for whom we built a house last year.  As I approach she recognizes me and comes running, her eyes full of anticipation.  We hug and enjoy the reunion.  She loves her new home.  It's dry and it provides dependable shelter and even has a front door that she can lock.  She needs to.  Her husband beats her.  She made me aware of this last June and before we left Honduras then I attempted to put in place a support system, but with little success.  

She is proud of her new home and eagerly invites me in.  Even though she is beyond grateful for her house, life remains terribly difficult in light of the abuse.  She admits to me that she has had periods of wanting to kill herself, as she questions her worth and value. As she reveals her sadness I get an idea, a "nudging,"  what I call a "prompting," and determine to follow through with it the next day.  

The next day I return to her house, interpreter by my side.  We sit down and I pull out a bottle of grape juice and a small 6 inch loaf of bread.  She looks confused.  She has little religious history or background.  She knows very little but enough to feel completely unworthy.  I explain these symbols of Christ's death and that God has such a high regard for her--God himself values her so highly--that his Son died for her.  I ask her of she wants to participate and we will share in this ritual together.  She wants to, but her shame tries to talk her out of it.  She tells me, "I've done some very bad things. . . " hinting that her history would preclude her from partaking.  I assure her that it is exactly people like her and me that Christ died for.  We eat a piece of the bread and drink some of the juice together, and I trust and hope that in that moment she also eats and drinks and consumes Christ's love for her. 

I say goodbye, assuring her I will see her next June.

In the meantime, God, hold her in your arms and protect her from her husband's hands.  Give her grace to remember the sacred moment.