August 27, 2007

Shoes Optional [guest]

I have been thinking a lot this week about Nebuchadnezzar. I am not sure why exactly, but his story intrigues me. I believe many of us have someone, or perhaps a list of people, that we know only from the pages of the bible and want very much to meet in heaven. For me, after I find my baby brother who I never met, and my great grandpa who is one of my heroes… I want to find Nebuchadnezzar.

But that is not what this story is about.

The human brain is the most efficient model of multitasking that I can think of. At the same time that I am digesting, circulating, breathing, and sensing I can also be working, playing, or resting, and in addition to any or all of those activities there is always a current of thought winding its way through my mind.

So, I have also been thinking a lot this week about my friend Jay. I spent two years working in camping ministry in California. During that time I worked for the Outdoor Education program at the camp, and that program is where I met Jay. The first day of work was horribly uneasy, we (the staff) were mostly strangers to each other and we spent the day doing initiatives designed to make us rely on each other. In the middle of a silent activity, my new pager went off… loud. I had no idea how to turn it off, or who was paging me at THAT moment. After a few minutes of laughing and blushing, and new co-workers trying to help me silence the fiendish new piece of equipment, we turned to see Jay holding his cell phone and grinning.

Special needs kids were a frequent part of our outdoor ed. program, but their needs require a certain amount of adjustment to our normal way of doing things. Julian needed a walker and a caretaker to get around. He drooled, and his little legs dragged behind him as if reluctant to join in the fun. So, when the time came to help Julian with the rock wall… Jay recruited my help. Jay strapped Julian into the harness, we ran an extra brake line on the belay, and while I belayed and Julian gripped the wall with his little hands Jay lifted his feet into each toehold until he couldn’t reach any higher. Julian could only climb as high as Jay could reach that day, but that little boy had never been lifted higher than my friend lifted him. I will never forget that moment.

Jay died two-and-a-half years ago. Sometimes it hits me that he isn’t here anymore and I have to remember all over again that he and I will never finish building that tee-pee that we started for the kids in our program. Jay was like a brother to me. He was one of the first to make me feel comfortable after I moved to California. Perhaps because he was so familiar with pain he recognized that I was struggling. I had just been through one of the hardest points of my life and I needed a friend. Jay was a tease and his antics breached the wall that I had set up against the world that seemed so hard at the time.

Sitting at his funeral, I thought I would be fine. I thought that all of my tears had been cried out on the shoulders of friends who sobbed along with me at the loss of our dear friend and brother. I think what brought the tears that day was the last line of the funeral program that had been handed out. On the back page under the photo of him standing on the pinnacle of a rock high in the mountains were two words in tiny print: Shoes optional. Doesn’t sound like much does it? But those two words somehow summarized my friend. That is how he approached life, especially the people around him who needed to know that sometimes it is ok to kick your shoes off and relax.

Jay died because he lost his battle with his mind. The ironic part of that being that he helped me fight mine. I didn’t say goodbye to him the last time I saw him because I thought there would be another day. But this isn’t meant to be a depressing story. Jay loved much, and he taught me some amazing lessons about practical ways to love others. Jay brought measured patience, good humor, strong decisions, and practical advice to his relationships with his friends. Those who knew him loved him. And he never laughed at me for being a nature lover who is afraid of ants. Okay, so he laughed at me… but not that hard.

Life with people is difficult and precious, and sometimes surprisingly short. I could say something trite here about how we need to treasure each moment we have with each other… but that amputates the thought process far premature of what I am trying to communicate with this story. Jay died at 27 and I am 27… in his short lifetime he taught me so much and I pray with all of my heart that somehow I can be faithful with those lessons. Lessons like knowing that sometimes laughter is an appropriate way of breaking tension, that patience with a person’s limitations is an extremely godly trait, and that sometimes a good hike can work out a lot of trouble.

Speaking of heaven… one day maybe we will finish that tee-pee, and I will get to thank him for being my teacher and my friend.

-- Elizabeth Olwin lives in Bellingham, WA. She is an Environmental Studies major; she wonders why grass is green and enjoys going boldly into forests where no man has gone before. --

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August 20, 2007

But There is a Conflict [editor]

She’s 66, mildly retarded, and dangerously overweight; twice a grandmother and a devoted member of our church. She lives with four generations of extended family in an overcrowded and dilapidated house but her buoyant spirit is undaunted. Since losing her youngest son in a senseless murder last Christmas Eve (he was shot while riding with his uncle in a taxi cab) she has redirected much of her affection to me. “You’re my buddy,” she says with a broad snaggled tooth grin, “I pray for you everyday!” Then she gives me a long bear hug. She wants to sit close besides me in every church service and although the smell of stale sweat and excrement is often nauseating, she makes me feel a little special. He internal plumbing doesn’t work as well as it use to and she leaves tobacco smears when she kisses my cheek, but I’m pleased do have Mrs. Smith by my side.

She often hints, sometimes blatantly, that she would like to come home with us for a visit. Nothing would delight her more than to have Sunday dinner with my family. But there is a conflict. It has to do with values that Peggy and I learned from childhood. We believe that good stewardship means taking care of our belongings and treating them with respect and getting long service from them. Our boys know that they are not to track mud in on the carpet or sit on the furniture with dirty clothes. To invite Mrs. Smith into our home means to have filth and stench soil our couch; there will be stubborn, offensive odors in our living room. My greatest fear is that she will want to sit in my new corduroy recliner. I wouldn’t want to be rude and cover it with plastic to protect it from urine stains but I know it would never be the same again. Unknowingly, Mrs. Smith is forcing a conflict, a clashing of values upon me.

Preserve and maintain – conserve and protect. They are the words of an ethic that has served us well. Over time these values have subtly filter into our theology. It is increasingly difficult to separate the values of capitalism from the values of the Kingdom. Stewardship has become confused with insurance coverage, with certificates of deposits, and protective coverings for our stained glass. It is an offering, a tithe dropped into a plate, to be used on ourselves and our buildings. Somewhere on the way to becoming rich we picked up the idea that preserving our property is preferable to expending it for people. Why should it be so difficult to decide which is wiser: to open the church for the homeless to rest or to install an electronic alarm system to preserve its beauty? Why should it be such a struggle to decide which is more godly: to welcome Mrs. Smith into my home and my corduroy recliner or to preserve the homie aroma of my sanctuary and get extra years of service from my furniture? Is this not precisely the issues of serving money or God? How ingenious of our American version of Christianity to make them both one and the same.

We did finally invite Mrs. Smith to have Sunday dinner in our home and she did just as I feared she would – she went straight for my corduroy recliner and it never has been the same. In fact Mrs. Smith even joined a Bible study in our home the next week. Every Wednesday evening she head right for my chair; she even referred to it as her chair. I thank God for Mrs. Smith and the conflict she brings me. In her, more clearly than in Sunday school lessons or sermons, I encounter the Christ of Scripture saying, “And as much as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it onto me.”

...from Bob Lupton...

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August 9, 2007

The Tragedy of Home [justin]

Long-term memory isn’t my strongest suit. But the memory I had walking into my Grandma’s empty house for the last time is still with me. She was in a car accident a few days earlier that claimed her life. She and some other ladies just had their girls’ lunch at the usual mom and pop restaurant when it happened. It wasn’t more than a few miles from home. One of the waitresses at the restaurant heard the collision and ran out to try to help. She held Mama in her arms and talked to her as they waited for the ambulance to arrive. The waitress told the family that Mama kept saying over and over again, “Tell my son, I love him.” My grandparents adopted my dad when he was young. He was their only son.

A few steps into my Grandma’s house placed me in a trance. The house was being sold and most of the items had been auctioned off. The space was bare and yet full at the same time. I could see the layout of the furniture in the rooms that basically never changed, but they were all just transparent placeholders in my mind. I recalled scenes at the dinner table of playing cards with Papa and being asked about school by Grandma. She would say, “You be good, now”, as I finished up my cereal. I was overly loved with the way grandparents care.

But now something wasn’t right. Something was leaving and fading from around and within me. It was the closest I had ever been to experiencing a ghost and I wondered how Dad was handling it. I had known this place for 20 some years; he, at least double that. And now his dad (who passed away a few years prior), his mom, and this home were essentially gone.

My wife, Naomi, had a similar experience during childhood. Her family lived in a trailer on the side of a mountain while her dad was building their house. With three other siblings and limited square footage, Naomi didn’t have a place of her own inside the tin box. However, she did find a home outside in the surrounding forest with its trees, streams and wildlife. It was in that place that she was formed. It was there that she was taught about many of God’s attributes.

As a little girl, it was traumatic for her when the area was logged. Her place of life and adventure and peace was massacred. Naomi came to know sorrow as she walked through the remaining wood and its corpses.

Through the agents of time, death, and injustice we all have and will experience the loss of home. So much so that the concept of home seems more like a myth or a fantasy. We dream of security in a place where we can always return, visions of joy in a people who always welcome us. But instead we wake to find utopias destroyed and made into ghost towns, havens that are filled with abuse, societies that are broken with greed, murder, and self-righteousness. We are all orphaned, widowed, homeless and incomplete to some degree.

Our physical needs tell of our spiritual needs, and vice versa. Together they hint that there is hope to be found. In Jesus, God fully dwelled in bodily form. The physical and the spiritual collided, in Christ, and embodied each other. The hope to be found in this is that there is an adoption happening that takes us from our dysfunctional homes. Jesus tells us that He is both preparing an everlasting place for us and abiding in us, creating His home in us, now.

When God dwelled physically on earth He announced in word and deed that His kingdom was coming. At a lecture I once heard Dallas Willard (an author, philosophy professor, and speaker) talk about the genius of Christ. He said, “[Jesus] understood that the basic problem for human beings is to find a spiritual home in which they can know that they are cared for, eternally cared for, and then from which they can care for others and not spend their whole life just fighting over what to do.” The wonderful thing about the kingdom of God is that it is not centered on us and yet all our needs are met. We are all looking for home and having our desires met gives us the freedom to love and serve others.

Recently, I read a report from the Barna Research Group that was very telling of my self and my generation. The report said that Busters (those born between 1965 and 1983) are most likely to be stressed out and too busy compared with other generations. Busters are also the ones most looking for purpose in life. My schedule and my discontentment fight each other for first place. I need not only rest - but meaning as well.

Home is the treasure we are looking for and the answer to our boredom. Home is the cure for both our anxiety and apathy. Those who know Jesus can wait confidently in anticipation of the fullness of our adoption to come. Until then, we can enter, by faith, into His presence at anytime.

“God Himself - His thoughts, His will, His love, His judgments are men's home,” George MacDonald preached. “To think His thoughts, to choose His will, to judge His judgments, and thus to know that He is in us, with us, is to be at home.”

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August 2, 2007

We Shall Get In [jessi]

There are moments in life where I lose sight of God’s purpose and plan for my life. In short, I panic. Here’s one such moment I recorded in January of this year:

I woke up this morning with a parched mouth and the devastatingly firm conviction that I have already made my first irrevocably wrong major life choice. More than a year ago. Oh, to turn back the hands of time, right? I think I really did know it at the time, and I made the wrong decision anyway.

And how easy it is to decide to be dissatisfied with life—to long for something different, more, or better—whether it’s something easily definable or something far off and hazy. The latter is more my tendency. I constantly wish for something new or different, but I don’t know what to wish for. I’ll look back on my year, on the eve of my next birthday, and mourn missed opportunities. Here’s a bit from an email to a friend about three weeks ago: I'm afraid that I'll slide through my whole life never having made any sort of difference.” It seems like this dissatisfaction, if fostered, nurtured and sympathized, only brings on depression.

But what if it has another purpose? This month, instead of sitting down and writing an essay of my own, I considered just posting the whole of C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory (published in full online at I’ve been musing on it over the last two weeks. Lewis says, “If we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object.” So if that’s the case, I suppose that a general dissatisfaction with life could mean more than I thought it did.

Obviously, the disclaimer that applies here is that if there is something you do need to change, you change it. Often discontent means change is necessary. But if my restlessness of spirit is directionless, if it’s just there and I can’t shake it, maybe I should be thankful that what I feel and what I believe to be true in life are somewhat in alignment. I might feel like there’s something missing in life, but that’s because there is. Eternity is missing, and the things I think I desire won’t fill that need. I may try to replace it with friends and family, activities or education, but it doesn’t make a difference. There will always be an unfulfilled part of me.

Still speaking of that misplaced desire, Lewis says,

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

And this makes me think of the part in George MacDonald’s Lilith, where Mr. Vane sees a dove flying, and is told it is a prayer: “I listened, and heard—was it the sighing of a far-off musical wind—or the ghost of a music that had once been glad? Or did I indeed hear anything?” It also makes me think of Romans 8 where it talks about the whole of creation waiting for its fulfillment—the final redemption of humanity. So I guess that what I think I long for here on earth is merely a portent of things to come:

“We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled the air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of a murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and modern poetry, so false as history may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Almost, but not yet.

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Scattered Thoughts on the Pursuit of Happiness [jenna]

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. –from the Declaration of Independence

There it is ... ink on paper. All of us have the right to pursue happiness. Amusingly enough, the right is only to pursue happiness, not necessarily to have it. The Founding Fathers apparently knew full well that human nature demands it all too readily.

Did they understand what a fleet and transparent quarry we have? I am sure they did, though I also wonder if they may have actually been happier than most of this particularly dissatisfied age. If we strip off the "faction" (fictional descriptions around factual events) and psychoanalysis about men like Washington and Adams and Jefferson and Benjamin Rush and Stephen Hopkins, we generally find a respectability, and often a piety, that denotes at least a greater peace with themselves and with life than the generations alive today (this despite the fact that they fought a difficult and bloody war against a much larger power.)

For the sake of defining terms, though: what is happiness? Not joy specifically, which is a virtue; not pleasure, which is an experience; not contentment exactly, which carries undertones of resignation. Perhaps it could be considered a sort of combination of the three; or, more likely, an attitude all its own that takes all three forms at various times.

But that isn't how we define it, not culturally. Why has happiness become this gigantic appetite for pleasure, this desperate need for a maintained high, when it is much more naturally found—for most people—in quiet contentment? How has it become that we pursue happiness at the expense of others’ rights; of others’ happiness, if not their lives and liberties? Not merely in the big ways like divorce or tyranny, but in everyday ways like driving recklessly and aggressively or in treating others—especially our parents, our employers and the elderly—with disrespect.

The answer to that, of course, is that we're human. We screw up. But neither the fact of our screwing up nor the outcome of our mistakes has captured happiness for us; that, at least, is so brutally obvious that it hardly merits stating here. Still, we have the right to refocus and continue our pursuit; continue we do, and continue we must, for a healthy (meaning unselfish) pursuit of happiness is vital and even righteous.

It is worth looking to the old and godly for help in that search. They often understand happiness in a very courageous sense. I have seen this personally, recently, watching a very dear friend about my grandmother’s age lose her son and almost immediately thereafter, face the loss of her husband as well. When I commented on her attitude after hearing her list several ways she considered herself blessed, she simply said “We are God’s witness. But I don’t know what people do who don’t pray.”

The pursuit of happiness will undoubtedly look different for each person, according to personality and talent and interest and numerous other factors. For me, for now, it means:

--spending more time with my family than in being involved in various programs and activities
--attending church faithfully, and making regular use of my Bible and prayer book
--devoting myself to the man I love, now that I am lucky/blessed enough to have him in my life (before I knew him, it meant choosing to hope that I would have this chance)
--leaving my job at work instead of bringing it home with me
--listening to good and cheerful music often, but opting more often for silence
--taking every chance I get to look up at blue sky through green leaves
--caring about the world and making an effort to help others, but without trying to solve every problem on earth

My question to my readers, for the comment-box or your own mind, is this: What does it mean for you? I would love to hear from those who are willing to share.

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