Friday, April 21, 2006

Helicopter Crash & Graceland

I like Paul Simon (the musician, not the former Illinois Senator, [though I don't necessarily dislike the Senator. He did after all wear bow ties when no one else was willing to. And now Tucker Carlson and Dhani Jones have joined in, claiming to be starting a revolution.])

I will always think of Paul Simon (musician) as he appeared on Saturday Night Live years ago in a chicken suit singing, "Still Crazy After All These Years", with a complete deadpan attitude while people on camera, probably off camera too, and those of us at home were about to wet ourselves. Truly hilarious.

But his music is even better than he was funny that night. He knows how to put together rhythym and melody in such a way that it is contagious and infectious. And his travelings into all sorts of musical genre make him one of my favorites; a real musical genius.

This morning as I'm doing some work around the house I had the "Graceland" CD playing. One song stood out above all the rest:

"I Know What I Know"

And one line of that song lingers in my mind even now, an hour or so after I've left the place where the music was playing:

"Who am I to go against the wind?"

You know how sometimes music just comes into your life, maybe even reappears, at just the right moment? There is a crash at the intersection of what's happening in your life and a particular song? Maybe it's in the summer with the windows of the car rolled down and some great tune with an addictive beat. Or maybe it's a rainy day and a sad song comes on just as you've broken up with a girlfriend.

Well today was one of those days for me.

In the past week our little town of Chelsea, MI has buried our police chief and fire captain. Both of these men went down in a helicopter crash last Thursday. Perhaps you saw it on the news. They were both relatively young. One has two small boys who will grow up without a daddy. Both leave behind grieving widows.

Our family lives next to the cemetary in town. And the turnout yesterday for the second funeral was unbelievable. The processions for both men included throngs of people who showed up to show support and respect, in a way that seems unique to a small town.

A friend of mine was asking me "Why?" "Why these two guys who had done so much?" "Why now with so much life ahead?"

I have to tell you I spent more time listening to him and then agreeing with him about the lousy timing and plucking the particular people from us who'd passed away. I've heard all the Reader's Digest theology:

- Their time was up
- God needed a couple of angels
- This was some kind of divine punishment/reward

I'm not sure any of that is very comforting to those who are left to sort through the mess of fatherless children and grieving widows.

I know we could pull out a couple of scriptures and do some prooftexting (making the Bible say what we want it to say based upon this one brief little quote).

- "There is a time for everything and a season for every purpose under heaven." (Ecclesiastes [which is where the 60's/70's song came from])

- "The LORD giveth, and the LORD taketh away. Blessed be the name of the LORD." (Quite a statement of faith from Job [pronounced 'JOBE'] who knew a little something about pain and sorrow, having just lost his children, his house, and his health)

- "Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted" (that gives some hope for the future, and instructs us that God's Spirit wants to use us to do the comforting)

- "Jesus wept" (reminding us that God knows a little about sorrow too. [This is also a favorite memory verse of precocious children as it is the shortest possible verse they can learn and still claim to have learned a whole verse]

- "My ways are higher than your ways says the LORD" (and the Psalmist is right. This is a good verse when you don't know which end is up and aren't even able to form a complete, coherent thought to add to the discussion.)

And, I suppose, these would be appropriate in different ways and different circumstances. But today, I reach for Paul Simon's (the musician) quote:

"Who am I to go against the wind?"

Because like it or not, we're here. And so are those who are devastated by loss. And if we live very long, we'll come in contact with more pain that isn't necessarily deserved, and more things that are unfair. And we can either rail against it, or come to grips with the fact that life is like that sometimes.

Sorry that this entry is a bit of a downer today. If this is your first reading, you won't know I don't tend to be so gloomy. But today my friends are hurting and this is the moment in which we're living.

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Dreams & Desires of the Heart

It is a picture-perfect day in Southeast Michigan. The sun is shining, raising the temperature from the low before dawn to what will be around 70 F this afternoon. The trees are remembering what it's like to be green again. I'm ready to go out and do a little yard work. Life is good.

The house has been quiet this morning. School and work have called the rest of the family away. I've done my work here from home. And in the silent meditation of reading and prayer, I've had a bit of an epiphany: Everybody needs to dream now and then.

Recently, I have begun working on a decade-old dream of mine. Our church is going to open up its doors this fall and sponsor an after-school-program for kids in 5th-8th grades. In our sleepy little town, there are programs for kids prior to elementary school and even in the lower grades. But nothing for the older kids. And while we still need to provide a place for high school kids to go and hang out, our little congregation is stepping up and throwing open the facility to one segment of society that needs a little attention and direction, and a safe place to simply "be kids".

As I have been thinking about all of the things that need to be done prior to the start of the program, (raising funds, communicating with students and parents, getting volunteers in place, putting together the program), I was feeling more than a little bit overwhelmed. How will we get all of this done in time? Where will the people and the money come from?!

And it was at that moment that I "heard" it. Maybe better to say I "sensed" it. A voice. Well, not exactly. Not like if you called me from the kitchen and said dinner's ready.

But a thought, an impression upon my mind and my being. Here's the thought:

"You've had this dream now for over 10 years. Every step you've taken in the last few months has been successful. WHAT ARE YOU FREAKING OUT ABOUT? Why not simply relax...
take it a step at a time...
with a smile on your face...
and joy in your heart...
and the realization that I AM bringing your dream...
to the reality stage?"

In my tradition, we call this type of impression or thought "the Spirit speaking". God's Spirit. The Bible compares the Spirit to the wind. (Same word, "nooma" is used in Greek anyway.) Both the Spirit and the wind go or blow where they will. You can't anticipate it ahead of time. You can simply see the results after the fact. And cooperate or fight it while it's happening.

One of the great dreamers of the Bible, Jacob, (who interestingly gave birth to one of the great dreamers of all-time, Joseph), said this after he had awakened from a dream. "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I wasn't even aware of it."

So how 'bout it? When was the last time you had a good dream or were deeply passionate about a desire that was within your heart? Nothing makes you come alive or puts a spring in your step as a passion or a dream. May the Spirit lay new dreams and desires upon you today.

Grace & peace.

Friday, April 14, 2006

"Good" Friday?

I have spent my entire life going to church on a regular basis. When I was a kid, it was a part of my parents' life.

As a young person, I was in the process of testing and deciding if this was something that was for me.

And as an adult, I have organized my life around my faith, going so far as to practice a vocation that works with other people regarding living out what they believe.

But throughout this journey, there have often been questions, quandries, and wonderings about various aspects of my tradition (Christianity). One of these has to do with today on the Christian calendar: Good Friday.

I remember as a kid thinking, "How did we decide to call this day 'good'?" As an adult, I can understand how strange it would seem for someone to ask that same question. Good Friday is a day of rememberance of Jesus' torture, crucifixion, and death upon a cross.

Doesn't it seem strange, (or rather twisted or perverted) that we would describe such a grotesque, brutal event as the centerpiece of a day we call "good"?

In one sense, there is nothing good about it.

But is there another way to look at it?

My wife gave me great insight via an analogy. She was pregnant four different times. Three of those pregnancies went full-term. All three of those pregnancies, however, were terribly difficult. She lost a vast amount of weight during all of the pregnancies. She didn't have "morning" sickness. She had "all day, everyday, 24/7" sickness. She was treated for dehydration numerous times. One of her ObGyn's was so concerned, he threatened to hospitalize her for the duration of her pregnancy.

Now think about what I said earlier: she was pregnant four times! Wouldn't you think that after one time she'd say "That's enough! No more!!" I would have. (That gives you an idea how tough I think my wife is.)

I remember single parenting during the last two pregnancies. I would make the breakfast and lunch of the child(ren) home with mom before going to work. I'd come home and clean up, make dinner, get baths run, pay the bills, balance the checkbook (well, at least try to), hold her hair while she puked (but usually it was simply bile, nothing left in her stomach), fall in bed exhausted, and get up the next day to do it again.

Would anyone call these pregnancies "good"?

No. And yes.

"No" because you'd have to possess fewer than 1 brain cell to not know how unpleasant this was for her, especially, and me, to a much lesser degree.

But "yes" it was "good" because out of them we were introduced to our children. They are awesome kids. They're talented, bright, funny, the type of people I'd hang out with if I were their age again. (I never claimed to be objective!)

I think the analogy fits with Good Friday. You have to look at the results. Our statement of faith says that through Christ's death on the cross, God was reconciling the world, healing the wounds, taking upon himself the brokenness, selfishness, and brutality.

Being introduced to a God like this, finding out there is Someone out there like this, is the belief behind the name of this day. Good Friday to you.

Grace & peace.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"Born Again"...again?!

This must be one of the most loved and hated terms surrounding Christianity. Most people within evangelical circles use it often, and put it out front as THE DESCRIPTION of what being a Christian is.

But for many, this is a badge, not of honor, but of dishonor. I will never forget working at a rental car agency, sitting in the office with a co-worker. Somehow the matter of faith came up. "You're not one of those born-again people are you?" I could sense the disbelief and hostility in his voice.

Doing my best to diffuse the anger, set the table for real dialogue, and get any bad models from his past out in the open, I asked, "What do you mean by 'born-again'?"

He went on to explain that those people are in-your-face, narrow-minded, and, above all, hypocrites. I was quick to side with him where I could. No, that is not what I mean when I use the term. No, I hope I am not what he just described. But yes, that is a term the Bible uses. (If my memory serves me correctly, it is only used in one chapter of the whole Bible. Which begs the question, "How did we become so monotone in our description of the faith?" and "Why do we take the lame way out, only parrotting cliches without understanding the picture that is behind the term?")

Well, for those of you who are still reading, you may wonder where does it appear in scripture and what does it mean?

John tells the story in his Gospel. Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to see night. Presumably when none of his peers will see him making this trip.

Nicodemus says to Jesus, "Rabbi," (a sign that he respects Jesus), we all know that God has sent you to teach us." (Do you hear the humility?) "Your miraculous signs are proof enough that God is with you."

How does Jesus respond? Will he commend Nicodemus for showing respect, humility, and being teachable? No. Will he scold Nicodemus for coming at night? Not quite. But Jesus does challenge him. "I assure you, unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God."

Do you see what Jesus is doing? He knows Nicodemus has two competing ideas about religion. Nicodemus is a leader of the religious group. He is part of the status quo. He is a piece of the religious machinery. Jesus lets him know that to experience what God has in mind, good 'ol Nic needs a new perspective; he needs to be able to see and hear things differently. He needs to have different priorities. He needs to be made new. (Interestingly enough, the Bible uses the terms "new heart" and "new mind" and "new things" more often than it does "born again". But, I believe, they are describing the same idea.)

Well if this doesn't make a whole lot of sense to you, don't feel bad. "What do you mean?" exclaimed Nicodemus. "How can an old man go back into his mother's womb and be born again?"

Jesus goes on to explain a little more. "Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven." Another translation of the phrase "born again" can be "born from above". Jesus is saying what Nicodemus needs is something that can only be brought in from an outside Source. A Higher Power, if you will.

Have you ever been on vacation, or taken a nap, or had an experience that left you feeling like "a whole new person"? Take that experience, and multiply it by 100 and THAT'S a little of what is meant by being born again/from above.

Now, let's go back to my friend's statement before. Maybe the in-your-face, narrow-minded, hypocrites who claimed to be "born again" weren't really that after all. Maybe it is obvious to those "outside" the church that there is nothing "from above" about their lives. But that's THEIR problem (though it sure feels like our problem when we have to fight through those crappy, warped models).

But my problem, and I think, your problem is this:

have I sought out my own, authentic invitation to be a whole new person, born from above, born again?

Maybe the images of "starting over" or "starting with a clean slate" are appealing to you. Maybe the idea of a supernatural hand that gets you started on a different path is appealing to you. Maybe you like the idea of having new ears to hear the Good News in a brand new way. Maybe you would love to have new eyes to see truth that you've missed before.

If so, take a moment now and ask God to make you new. To make you born from above. To make you born again.

I am convinced that is a request God is always ready to answer. The result may be overwhelming and ecstatic. It may be much more cerebral and non-emotional. You may feel completely different. You may feel the same. But this is a journey of FAITH. And I have faith that what you just did will make a difference larger and more far-reaching than you'll ever know.

Grace & peace

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Rocky Mountain Renewing

My family and I have been on vacation during the kids' spring break. (These times become more precious when you realize we only have our oldest for a couple more years.)

Though we call Michigan home, and love it there, we spent the past week in Colorado. I've been to the state a half a dozen times or so. I still can't get over the excitement of approaching the Rocky Mountain range, waiting for the first peak to peek through over the dashboard of the minivan. Every time we leave, I dread seeing the last little bit of mountain range disappear from the view of my rear view mirror.

The week has been without nearly any tv. (Though we did bring a laptop and dvd player, but we were sitting around as a family watching the first few seasons of West Wing. So that doesn't really count!)

I forget how dependent I am upon my cable news channels. How addicted I am to checking my e-mail. How trained I am to listen for the phone and see if there are any life or death messages. (Amazingly, there weren't any emergencies, while we were away, the world continued to turn, and things will be pretty much the same when we return home.)

But we will be different. We will have memories of traveling for nearly 27 hours in the minivan (much more enjoyable than it sounds). Two of my kids say that is one of there favorite parts! The togetherness.

I will remember teaching a couple of my kids to play chess and playing more Rook than we have in years.

I will remember reading in the quiet of my room, while listening to the people I love the most, the people who share my last name, talking in another room, laughing over ordinary experiences, reminiscing about Seinfeld episodes, and asking each other questions about likes and dislikes.

I can't wait for the next vacation already.

May you find time for such a sabbath as that.

Grace & peace.