On the Violences of Christian Taking

I. For a moment let's be still. Let's listen to the chatter of birds returning from milder southern winters; let's smell the neighbor's fresh mulch spread in anticipation of the spring thaw. For a moment, let's see the daffodils stretching upward, or at least imagine them begging to break through winter's last gasp, its final chokehold.

II.

On Saturday, I visited a coffee shop with a hippy flair Carrboro, North Carolina. It was a packed house, with Tar Heel students sitting at the island tables that populated an outdoor garden. One student swung in a hammock, looked up through the greening trees. I walked by the hammock, smelled the weed stuck to his skin, noticed his nary-a-care smile. He looked up at me, said, "hey, man. Cool?" I had no idea what the question was, so I looked down, smiled, and nodded.

"Cool," I said.

In the coffee shop, the high-ambition students sat along the room's edges, they with their headphones on, furrowed brows sunk into the spines of text books. On occasion, they'd cast a longing glance to the low-ambition students in the center of the room, they chatting and laughing about who knows what. They were an eclectic mix of doers, and resters. They were a mix of take-the-world and take-what-comes, alike.

I watched the children poised on the unknowing edge of prosperity's ambitious burnout. I wanted to tell them to dive into the pit of take-what-comers, to let things develop without assuming the onus being a catalyst, some sort of personal Big Bang.

"Go swing in the hammock," I wanted to whisper in all their ears, but they wouldn't have listened. I wouldn't have either.

III.

Cool?

IV.

Before the Carrboro coffee shop, I sat in a lake house living room with fourteen men. We were strangers before the weekend, each of us coming from different professions and being invited by the five members of a sort of spiritual direction community. There were two pastors, a tech-startup cat, a money-manager, an executive coach, and a rock-and-roll church administrator from the Rocky Mountain State. There were two pastors from Virginia, and a peace mediator from Old Dominion, too. A seminarian had driven from the Blue Grass state, and two money managers and a pastor-therapist from middle Tenessee attended. Then there was me--a lay lawyer from the Ozark mountains.

One might ask whether a retreat of strangers is as uncomfortable as it sounds. I suppose the answer depends on the sorts of people that comprise the collective, but in our case, I would say it was anything but uncomfortable. We talked in simplest terms about the things we wanted and the status of our souls. We shared a common desire to live what's left of this one life well, to push into relationships that are meaningful, that go beyond the platitudes of job, and money, and even family.

There's something rich about sharing the status of you soul in a collective of otherwise strangers. Pretense and posturing disappears (if you let it). There are no business competitors, no one to get a leg up on. If the collective is honest, and ours was, it fosters a sense that, when you take it down to the nuts and bolts, we're all so similar, all have the same underlying self-consuming doubts and struggles.

Near the end, I shared about my growing distaste of the creeping, subtle, Christian violences. I told them I was weary of Christian ambition, of church mission statements that include grandiose statements about "taking the city for Christ." I've had my fill of warfare metaphors, and fighting memes. I'm tired of long-on-opinion and short-on-grace living. I want a community that's flips the notion on its head, one that rests. I want a community that believes the great "give us this day our daily bread."

We unpacked the notion, and the pastor from Virginia boiled it down to the bones--"at our church, we're not looking to take anything anymore; instead, we're hoping to cultivate a community of restful belonging."

Belonging--I think it's what we all want if we're honest.

V.

Spring is not something to be seized and dragged into our present realities. It comes in its beauty, in its own time. It comes and we belong to it in the same way the cardinals, or the redbuds, or the daffodils belong to it. It comes without effort--without our effort, anyhow--and it's the best of graces. This is the way of the good things of God, at least that's the way I reckon it.

Is this the way of belonging?

VI.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Take what comes.

Cliches (And Parenthetical Asides)

Things have turned here in the Ozarks. After a spell of wicked weather--ice, snow, wind, and such--winter's wrath has given way to milder temperatures. (Ah, the portent of Old Man Winter's demise, the foreshadowing of spring!) The snow has melted, has seeped into the good earth down to where the spring shoots are coming to life. This weekend the boys and I cleaned the last of the Fall leaves from the yard. We raked pile after pile from near the walkway, and under one such pile we uncovered two surprise lilly shoots stretching up through the already composting fallen foliage.  Ian squatted over them, smiled and said, "look daddy, something is growing!"

"That something," I said, "is the shoot of a surprise lilly. It'll bloom in a few weeks."

"It's turning spring!" Ian declared, then added, "woo-hoo! Spring break!"

Yes, spring is on its way; it is coming with its its dogwood and redbud beauty, its Bradford Pear stench, too. I'm rather looking forward to the new season this year, because the weather across the more southern reaches of Middle America have been what the meteorologists call "wonky." It's been so off-kilter, in fact, that the boys have missed eleven days of school. And as we all know, eleven days is an eternity in the Benchmark-Test Era of public school. (Will the teachers have enough time to prepare our chidden for the standardized exam? Will the students measure up? We're always teaching our kids about measurements.)

In an effort to mitigate the inevitability of low test scores, our district has taken an aggressive approach, scheduling a Saturday school day or two, and cutting into Ian's spring break. As we all know, to an elementary-aged boy, there are only two things worse than catching Lizzie McGirl's cooties during freeze-tag (when did she get so tall, and fast, and when did her voice get deeper than mine?)--Saturday school and a shortened spring break. Not to be undone by Saturday school, though, my children have upped their game, have taken to feigning illnesses that would impress even the most skilled physician.  (As an aside, I'm starting to wonder whether my children have the ability run a fever and vomit on demand.) Children are Houdinis, skirting every inconvenience if allowed.

Maybe we're not all that different.

I was with a friend this week, and we were discussing some of the nuances of life. We spoke of growing older (when did my lower-back start aching again?), of unmet expectations (will God ever fully heal my Titus?), of the joys of parenting (see previous comment regarding vomiting on command). We spoke of darker days, like the season I spent self-medicating, or the season he spent in the corporate grind. We laughed as we discussed our own coping mechanisms, how they weren't that much different than those of our children.

We spoke of the lighter things, too, though. We have both found good community among the good people of God. He (emphasis added) is finding joy in the quiet things, the things that will "never make me famous," as he says. We have good wives, good kids, love.

We unpacked life, layer after layer, and the more I thought about it, the more I considered the breadth and scope of our time here. It's a wild ride; isn't that cliche? Apologies. I've always been predisposed to cliche. Old habits die hard. Shoot; there I go again! Let me try again, because if at first I didn't succeed, and all of that.

We unpacked life and I considered how it is composed  of a series of both unfortunate and fortunate events. I considered how both pain and joy are gifts, how they teach us what it means to be alive to the presence of God around us, in us, and through us. Without pain, where is the need for communion with God? Without joy, where is the thankfulness cultivated by God at work in us? Joy and pain, yin and yang--they bring the balance to this thing we call grace.

All is grace.

This could become cliche if we let it, almost the stuff of silver linings. But it's much more than that. Consider it. The snow of winter--its melting gives way to the shoots of spring. The sickness of the child--it draw us deeper into our need for trust in an eternal God. The community of faith, the wife, the children--they keep us moving forward.

I could write another thousand words in an attempt to convince you that the phrase all is grace is really no cliche at all. I could scrawl, and scrawl, and scrawl, beg you to unpack every life event and see the good grace behind it. Somehow, though, I think the begging would take the fun out of it. Maybe there'd be grace in that, too.

Today I'm remaining in the language--all is grace. Everything. Even the rotting, composting leaves. Even the tender shoots of spring. It's all a grace.

(Exceptions for Saturday school and shortened spring breaks are duly noted.)

Spilling Blood (A Guest Post by Shawn Smucker)

Some of you know that I've taken to hosting guest posts again this year. This week's is an absolute doozie. Many of you know Shawn Smucker. I stumbled across him a few years back, and immediately felt drawn to the honesty of his writing. In addition to being a heck of a writer, though, he's a kind gent. There's a lot to be said for that.

Enjoy Shawn's piece, and when you're finished, jump over to his place. You'll be glad you did.

***** ***

My Sunday School teacher had kind eyes that worked hard to negate the firm, almost harsh wrinkles, her gentle personality emerging in spite of some long ago atrocities still etched on to her face. She was probably the same age as my grandmother. It was at her suggestion that one year, in January, when I was around ten years old, I started reading through the Bible. Three chapters every weekday and five on Sundays would do it, she said.

I read Genesis in one long sitting, starting on Sunday night at church in the nursery where my mother sat with my baby sister, continuing in the car with a flashlight, and finishing at home, in the top bunk, under the all-seeing eye of my reading light, well after midnight. I woke the next morning fairly certain the words had soaked into my skin. I felt holy.

* * * * *

As soon as you hit Indiana, things smooth out, as if the earth is taking in a deep breath, or sighing. Long, flat lines stretch in every direction: lines of corn stubble poke up through the snow, lines of tall thin trees stand at the horizon, and wispy lines of clouds look down. Abandoned windmills age the skyline, like wrinkles around the eyes.

The highway is straight and rises up and down in long, gradual grades, ignoring the rundown shacks forgotten in the groves of trees, ignoring the small towns, ignoring the factories and the farms and the isolated houses whose only movement is the barely visible smoke rising from the chimney.

We pass it all by, rarely stopping.

* * * * *

I relished the times when my Sunday School teacher would ask me how it was going. Until a few months later when I got stranded in Isaiah and lost interest. Then I started avoiding her outside of class, ducking into side halls, plunging into the bathroom.

I developed a paranoia, around that time, that I might drop the communion plate as it passed. They were large, chrome, hubcap-shaped dishes, and they each held at least fifty small plastic cups filled with grape juice. The whole thing shimmered like a ruby, and every time it came to me I held on tight, white-knuckled, quite certain the dish had a life and mind of its own.

That’s a lot of grape juice, I’d think to myself. That’s a lot of blood.

My little hands shook as I squeezed on to a plateful of the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for me. Relief surged through me after I successfully passed it on. Because my hands were shaking, I had to put my small portion of grace into the holder in the pew in front of me.

The plate full of crackers was much less intimidating.

* * * * *

Driving a long, straight highway over a countryside pulled flat makes it easy to believe we don’t have much choice in life, that our timelines of existence are simply made up of things that happen to us, one after the other.

Then again, maybe that’s just the illusion of winter, with its large icy puddles lying where you know they don’t belong: in the long rows of corn stubble and at the edges of small streams.

* * * * *

I’ve spent my life afraid of dropping the plate, watching the blood spill on my childhood Sunday khakis, small plastic cups tipping over and making a mess on those sitting around me. The pink dots on the white carpet would forever remind people of my failings.

“Remember that?” parents would say to their small children, while pointing at the stains. “That’s what happens when little boys don’t hold on to the plate.”

But recently, when I take time to sit in silence, I recognize an emerging voice somehow communicating through the wordlessness. A kind voice. It cares nothing for abandoned Bible reading plans or dropped communion plates – I finally understand this when I take the time to listen.

And sometimes, if I go deep enough into the silence, the voice turns to sounds and syllables and eventually words, and the words turn me into a puddle – not an icy one stranded in the middle of an Indiana field, but a thawed out one reflecting spring. The words the melt me are like a sigh, or a May breeze, or a long straight road.

“You are enough, just as you are.”

***** ***

Original photograph by tylerhoff, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Here We Go Again With the Wooden Heart

I come back to this piece by the Listener a couple of times a year. This time it's fresh, and I'm going to own it. For those of you who've heard me extol the virtues of this artist (time and time and time again), bear with me. Perhaps it's the day for you to own it, too.

*****

I've been haunted by standard red devils and white ghosts.

Haven't we all? The process of self-knowledge creeps like a life. Sometimes success births self-knowledge, but for some--the more thick-headed, loose-skinned ones--self-knowledge is found in the  recognition that everything falls apart. Even us.

Everything falls apart at the exact same time it comes together perfectly for the next step.

There's only the next step, really--the next forward step, that is. If we're honest, we work the next western foot forward. If we're kind, we pass that wisdom down to the next group of fall-apart people. If we're lucky, they'll work it out too, they'll join us in the infinite loop.

If we hold on tight, we'll hold each other together and not just be some fools rushing to die in our sleep.

It's some summing of the white-knuckled posture of prayer and the kind words of friends that by-God steels hollow legs; that re-hinges the doors of the soul; that by-God rushes us, rushes us, rushes us to somewhere other than sleeping. To life? To moving? To hymns? I don't know where these things rush, but by-God it's a clean high.

All these machines will rust, I promise you, but we'll still be electric, shocking each other back to life. Your hand in mine, my fingers in your veins connected our bones grown together in time. 

This is how a life is moved: from birth to cracking; from cracking to breaking; from breaking to floor; from floor to who knows where? The line between the refuse pile and the mending is fine. It's found in the courage of friends who've been once broken, twice born.

Cause I know that our church is made of shipwrecks from every hull these rocks have claimed.*

*All bold and italicized lines from the Listener's "Wooden Heart." 

 

*****

Ebenezer on the Internet

I.

Eben-Ezer - (Hebrew: אבן העזר‎, Even Ha'Ezer, lit. stone of help)

Nearly one year ago, I sat barefoot in the thick carpet of the Rock House living room and watched Titus vomit another meal into an over-sized plastic bowl. We were at wits end, feeding him through a tube that was taped to his ghost-boned cheek, ran up his nose, down his esophagus, and emptied into his unstretching stomach. A formula bolus was pumped through a syringe at the end of the tube, and as it pooled in the pit of his stomach, he squirmed uncomfortably, body readying itself to reject it all.

We were watching the slow wither, his energy waning until the light in his eyes was dimming tired and faint. He was a malnourished native, a passing soul, an emergency. We were frightened--all frightened--and rocking on the edge of the mantel, feet balling up the carpet again, and again, and again. I would like to say that I prayed the fervent prayers of God-ward saints in those hours. Truth is, I didn't pray much at all.

We made our way to Arkansas Children's Hospital where a good doctor said he was sorry, but he had no good answers--not really. There was an egg allergy, yes. There was a slight brain issue, sure. But these things didn't account for Titus' inability to grow. It had come down to prayer and luck; these were our last and best ditch efforts.

We were discharged, and I feigned offense at God for some number of months. "Why Titus?" I asked, daring a deified storm to materialize on the horizon, to rush up on me like an Oklahoma wall cloud and thunder-boom

Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?"

That voice never came, in part because I had not yet endured the hardships of Job, and maybe in part because there was a kinder, gentler way.

There was a feeding pump. There was a special formula. There were slow feedings, patient feedings. There were weekly weigh-ins and checkups. There were the prayers of saints. There was the laying on of hands by the church elders. There were good friends who brought warm supper and supple wine. And slowly, we began to see real Goodness in the land of the living.

Nearly a year ago. Impossible.

Wednesday night I rocked Titus to sleep singing an awkward mix of pre-school silly songs and hymns. (Have you ever heard a playlist that included "B-I-N-G-O" and "Step by Step?") He began to doze during the second verse of "Come Thou Fount," and when I reached the line "here I raise my Ebenezer," I was struck by the notion that Titus was the personification of that truth. The sleeping proof of a meticulously patient and gracious God.

Ebenezers are real things. Do not doubt it.

II.

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt

Allow me to segue with a bit of a flourish. Allow me to come out swinging.

I am growing weary of the internet and social media. There is the good stuff, no doubt. There is also the clanging clamoring, the ranting and railing, the shaming words. The words. There is no great lack of words for consumption. Words. Words. Words. There are Tweets upon Tweets and statuses upon statuses. Words. Status. Words. Tweet. More words. Status. Tweet. Blog post. My blog post. My tweet. My status. Advertisement. Tweet tweet.

And there is nothing innately wrong with any of it. In fact, some of it I quite rather enjoy, and some of it is rather useful. But at times I find myself distracted by the thought that it is my by-God obligation to be in the middle of it all--ah, the siren call of attention's center. And often (here comes the confession), I sacrifice content quality to dive directly into divisive, subversive banter.

Let's call a thing a thing. Let's find these lines of division and blot them out with a metaphorical eraser. Let's stop talking about people and events and start talking about ideas, about concepts, about Gospel.

Gospel.

What is it?

III.

"The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" -Psalm 103:8

The good book tells me that my God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. While I whined about the waning son, the Heavy Hand could have snuffed me out like a wick; he could have returned me to dust and ash. There was another way, though. Instead, he gathered the elements of faith, formed minerals from them, formed minerals into rock and rock into Ebenezer. Instead, he showed me his enduring patience with my lack of faith, and in time, restored it all gently.

I am thankful for my Titus. He is the reminder of my "Stone of help."

This is the Gospel--that while I was still sick and broken, while I was faithless, there was a patient and gracious way made for me.

IV.

“All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” ― Chief Seattle

The sections of today's piece may seem somewhat unconnected, but bear with me. There is a great pull to become wrapped up in the latest and most polarizing issue, malnourishing though it may ultimately be. There is a great pull toward sounding off. This is not a bad thing, necessarily. I think God created us with these  sorts of bents (even if we misuse them from time to time) because, truth is, certain events need discussing; the words and deeds of others sometimes need a little vetting.

But today--if only today--I'm asking if you'll participate with me in a bit of redirection, an internet slight of hand. Will you use today--if only today--to raise an Ebenezer? Will you share your Ebenezer story out loud? Do it here in the comments, or on Twitter (140 character challenge), or on Facebook.  Can we move away from the critical, divisive, issue driven internet? Can we participate in a better web for just one day--if only today?

It may not be your bag. If not, that's cool. But what if you gave it a shot? How would it feel?

Share with me your Ebenezer story. Raise it, and nothing else.

Who's first?