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.)

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." 

 

*****

The Luxurious Stream of Conciousness

I've been breathing the analog air again. There's something about the dust particles and wafting scents that linger on an Ozark breeze; it burns the lungs just right. Last night I smelled the wet metallic pungence of rain soaked asphalt, it mingling with sugar-sweet honeysuckle and the souring, decaying skunk that didn't quite make it from one side of the road to the next. It was the perfume of Hartman Avenue, a veritable odoriferous feast for Lucy, the long-legged Porkie (what do you get when you cross a Pyrenees and a Yorkie?) at the end of my leash. The juxtapositions of life can be both acrid and sweet in one whiff. Isn't it grand?

Earlier in the day, I had purchased an organic, fair-trade chocolate bar that boasted a hint of lavender and crystallized blueberry bits. It was yuppie chocolate, the kind you eat square by square while listening to old records of Simon and Garfunkel.  I peeled apart the wrapper and broke off a square. It was as smooth as the satin edges of a baby blanket, and nearly as soothing. There are some indulgences that seem like a betrayal of sorts, a reminder that I'll most likely always be willing to negotiate my cares for the price of a nice piece of chocolate. This was, unfortunately, one such indulgence. But even so, I'm not afraid to admit it--it was a right-good piece of chocolate.

Which reminds me.

While Lucy was looking for a proper place to tend to her business, I set to wondering whether my avatar-self (the online version of me, see) and my analog-self (the chocolate eating me) would get along rather well, or whether they'd claim friendship only in passing conversation, small talk, or over evening cocktails. I wondered whether the Twitter me would name-drop the real me, whether he'd quote me and with how much frequency. I reckoned my analog-self might find my avatar-self a bit pompous at times, or perhaps myopic. On the flip-side, my avatar-self might rightly question whether my analog-self was on the narrow road, or whether he'd be fit enough to squeeze through a very narrow gate.

Am I the only split-personality on the internet?

Am I the only one who carefully crafts the best version of self?

Jesus said to come unto him "ye that labor and are heavy laden." That's what he said. I guess I fall into that latter category. I guess that more than a few of you do, too. The cares of the world--whether digital, analog, or otherwise--create dichotomies. The dichotomies make me so tired.

Personality fission--the cares divide.

Bone from marrow--the cares divide.

There are, however, ways to re-harmonize self to self, analog to digital, hypocrite to healed. There are prescriptions for remembering who you are and why you're here, for dragging your weary and heavy-laden self to power of the gospel: lavender and blueberries; the musk of the old family bible; a quiet walk with Lucy in the katydid summer; prayer; scripture.

There is no discovery apart from respite, I think. There is no respite apart from minor indulgences, I think. There are no minor indulgences apart from grace, I think. And grace, I reckon, is the most luxurious of indulgences.

Cynics, Celebrate! (Our reflections on the beautiful church.)

"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."

~Hebrews 10:24-25

On Wednesday, I wrote a bit of a self-indictment about presumptuous sins, the cynicism that is more than creeping. It's easy to nitpick the Church. You and I both know that to be the truth.

I have been told that the antidote for cynicism lies in many positions of the heart--mercy, peace, gratitude, joy, patience. But maybe all of these positions can be summed up into a more singular concept--grace.

Today I'd like to engage in a collective project, an exercise in grace giving. I'd also like to celebrate the church, the local one of which you are a part. So here is the collective question for today: what is the good you see in your local church? Would you share a short response in the comments below? It may go something like this:

This morning I shared a coffee shop table with John Ballentine. A friend  approached and shared a concern. John, without hesitation, started speaking to the air, to the Spirit who was all around. It was not uncomfortable; there were no closed eyes or raised hands. It was prayer in the moment. He learned this from the leaders of our local church. They have taught us how to be the body to each other, and I am grateful.

Your story will be different, but would you graciously (and lavishly) celebrate your local body? Perhaps you'd like to take it a step further and write your own blog post about the good in your local church. If you do, come back here and share the link with us. We'll make sure to check it out.

And while you're at it, check out Kimberlee Conway Ireton's piece, The Broken Body. In it she celebrates her local church. It's a beautiful reflection.

Are you ready to extend grace and celebrate the church? Who's first?

Photograph by silent shot, used under Creative Commons license.