Saturday, December 26, 2009

Schizophrenic Holiday Needs Separation

Christmas is a two-headed monster that doesn't think it is. The concerned observer can, however, witness at least two personalities at play that do not really acknowledge one another, yet occupy the same holiday. From one "personality" comes the high Christian commemoration of the Incarnation and birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. From the other comes the commercial "tsunami" of exchanging gifts with people in seemingly every social and relational direction. Each of these borrows terminology from each other, for such cross-pollination is inevitable given they occupy the same holiday space. However, I argue that they are very different "personalities" that are irreconcilable, thus making Christmas seem quite "schizophrenic" in practice, regardless of how much some may want them to be merely different aspects of one celebration.

On the one hand, there is the "Christmas" of commemoration. Arranging the calendar around the life and work of Christ, Christians start the year with the Advent and birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus of Nazareth. His Incarnation into a human fetus, conceived by the Holy Spirit and subsequent birth of the Virgin Mary in a stable at Bethlehem ("House of Bread") marks the beginning of both the Christian calendar and the execution of the Messiah's redemption. Indeed Matthew has summarized the meaning of Christmas with "Emmanuel, which means 'God with us'" (Matt 1:23). The great pinnacle of the story of redemption is in how God took on human flesh, stooped to the human condition, fully adopted humanity for himself, in order to rescue humanity from the curse of its own sin. Thus the carols, the hymns, the church services and biblical imagery of ubiquitous nativity scenes are ever appropriate to celebrate this chief of God's acts in history.

The timeless One entered time.
The ageless One became a newborn.
The all-sufficient One became dependent.
The all-powerful One became vulnerable.
The uncontainable One was constricted to a womb.
The One whom the universe cannot clothe...
...needed strips of cloth to stay warm.

Remembering this most radical of events in time is the stuff of the "Christmas" of commemoration. It is glorious. It is comforting. It is the catalyst and arena of worship.

On the other hand, there is also the "Christmas" of consumerism. Arranging the commercial calendar around this annual gift exchange, retailers have every expectation of "reaping a harvest" during this time. This has given rise to even the naming of the day following Thanksgiving "Black Friday," suggesting that businesses enjoy a sales boost that will put them "in the black" for the year. The attachment of gift giving among people to the biblical stories of wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus, or even alluding to Christ as our "gift" ("For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given" - Isa 9:6) have long since been brushed aside. Now the occasion is summed up completely in the oft repeated question to children, "What do you want for Christmas?" So pervasive is this collective assumption regarding the buying of gifts for all who one knows, that it produces it's own sense of cultural shame.

Anyone with an inkling of social reciprocity will spend money on gifts for as many in the address book that can reasonably be contacted - goes the belief. This has given rise to the office gift exchange, the sending of gifts to distant relatives and any other friends that one desires NOT to insult. In an ironic reversal of the legacy of St. Nicholas, the poor are not so much cared for by anonymous benefactors, but are instead shamed for failing to participate more fully in the festival of "give more gifts." Limited resources are a curse showcased by limited engagement in the "buying/giving" festival, constituting a perceived affront to acquaintances and loved ones in every social/relational direction. Christmas Day is then transformed into an occasion of guilt for having bought so little for those that you otherwise care deeply about. Therefore, the great American exchange of materials seems rather disconnected from the Christian holiday that uses the same label and date on the calendar. A separate holiday should be invented for this annual ritual that can be clearly differentiated from the commemoration of the birth of Christ (i.e. Christmas).

For this reason, I would like to propose a second holiday be instituted for this specific purpose: the festival of Tribuo Magis Munia (Latin for "give more gifts"). Certainly some etymological progression can take place to help this roll off the tongue better (i.e. "Christ's Masse" developing to "Christmas"). Nevertheless, the other "personality" within the calendar date called "Christmas" must be excised from "Christ's Mass." In our consumer driven free-market economy, it is unlikely that the festival of "give more gifts" could be caused to dissipate, reversing 200 years of "religious capitalism." Therefore, it would seem more realistic to simply give it its own name (even if it cannot be assigned a different date). This could offer people the opportunity to celebrate Christmas fully without having to engage the consumerist festival if they choose not to. Tribuo Magis Munia could then be a matter of persona choice, and even enjoy the secularizing influence felt in the rest of western cultural as well.

Christianity has been called "the poor man's religion," for the grace of Christ is offered free of charge to the penitent. By contrast Tribuo Magis Munia offers a costly "indulgence" whereby the wealthy may purchase "absolution" for neglecting relational connections throughout the year. Scrooge ecstatically proclaims, "the spirits did it all in one night... [because WalMart is open 24 hours]." In a somewhat reversal of the Gospel, Santa Claus blesses the children whose parents can afford his visit. Instead of "the people walking in darkness have seen a great light" (Isa 9:2), the people walking in poverty hang their heads in guilt for giving so little. Tribuo Magis Munia stands in contrast to Christmas, and therefore must be given its own festival. The two resident "personalities" of this schizophrenic holiday need separation from one another. I welcome help in the name progression, but desire to differentiate these for future years in our home.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mournful Anticipation

Who can deliver us?

When will he come?

What shall be the occasion of the Lord's rescue?

Such is the sentiment of those anticipating a Savior. This is, no doubt, what would have been on the mind of first century Jews of Palestine suffering under Roman occupation. To add insult to injury, Joseph had to, by imperial edict, take his young (very pregnant) wife several miles back to his hometown just to satisfy Rome's "head count." This is no small imposition to journey on foot. How could someone imagine bringing a child into such conditions?

The mournful dirge can be heard from the poor, the harried and the oppressed. The sad "countenance of the conquered" is evident in every face that won't quite make eye contact. The imposition of a ruler's will upon people that will never met him can be a strong depressant. For those that hope in the deliverance of the Lord, the cry goes ever upward, "How long, O Lord? How long?"

There is a sense in which the American patriot directs this mourning at the condition of his own country, for indeed the steady usurpation of liberty from D.C. housed tyrants is cause for such lamentations. However, there is a far greater sense in which this lament cry is common to all humankind. It is the nature of man to oppress one another, to seize power and maintain it with undiscernible labyrinths of law and statue. There is no corner of the Earth where rulers are not exercising (or seeking to exercise) constrictive power over their people, and claiming to do so "for their own good." The United States of America is my country, and therefore the land for whom I cry out; but my song of mourning harmoniously joins the global and historic tune of all people wishing that "Caesar hadn't imposed his census on us this way."

But it is not merely for liberation from political oppression for which people cry out. We intuitively know that this is part and parcel to the human condition. Governmental systems may facilitate this oppression to varying degrees (I argue passionately that the US Constitution constructs a system least friendly to oppression of any in history), but it ultimately is NOT the fault of these systems that oppression occurs. The finest system will not completely rescue us from oppression, for such oppression has existed in so many systems of history. Thus, this instinct to oppress one another is resident within the human condition.

The strong impose their will upon the weak.

Observe any playground and the "bully dynamic" will reveal itself soon enough. Day care settings are laboratories in which this trait of the human soul emerges as well. Very few of those who work with children must be persuaded of the depravity of man; they witness it in seed form everyday. Some assume that with time the micro evolution of people growing up carries them out of such base instincts. Indeed such is the role of the moral training of parents and the Church. But this aspect of human nature is too ingrained, too attached to the soul, infecting all human pursuits.

The cry for liberation is not merely the longing for freedom from political oppression, but for liberation from the "curses" inherent in the human condition. How long, O Lord? How long must the world be as it is? How long must we be as we are? This is the most appropriate sentiment of Christmas Eve - the eve of liberation.

Tonight we mourn, and quiver with anticipation; yet tomorrow we celebrate and rejoice in the surprising, radical, unpredictable, revolutionary, unexplainable salvation of the Lord. How is it that the God who created humans, that subsequently have ruined their own condition, would rescue those same humans by becoming one of them? (Parenthetically - Let me make this clear: I have a great affection for my dog; but if he misbehaves, I'm not about to stoop to the level of the dog to get him back on track. He'll learn of my authority in other ways, but I'm NOT about to try becoming "like" the dog.) The God who creates humankind, though not responsible for its brokenness, stoops to the level of humanity to rescue it. Deity takes on humanity. He who arranged the pattern of the stars must now be nursed in the arms of a young woman. The One that made all things, and by him all things are held together, must now be changed a couple of times a day. None, none, NONE would have expected that. It is too outlandish to anticipate. Therefore, the rescue cannot be fully seen until it occurs.

And so the mournful tune is sung. The lament is heard from oppressed people of all nations and at all times, "How long?" The oppression has been more severe for some than for others, but all who sing know its sting. Our hope is not is a political challenger to the present administration, nor in electing representatives that share our view much more. Instead our hope is in the One who can completely address, rescue and change the human condition. The birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated tomorrow, but in the meantime the longing for deliverance must be massaged through mournful anticipation.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Statist's Creed

We believe in one State,
almighty usurper of heaven and manager of the Earth;
and in one benevolent Leader - its head,
Who was conceived by the collective “spirit” of our age,
Born of a victimized minority,
Suffered under the hand of greedy Capitalists,
was enlightened through liberal education,
learned of our suffering through social activism,
was dismissed by right-wing conservatives
and considered unthreatening by political analysts.
He arose from obscurity bringing hope for our future.
He ascended into our highest office,
where he sits with our future in his mighty hands;
from thence he shall come to grant relief from our afflicters.

We believe in the “spirit of our time” and in ourselves;
We believe in the global community,
and the right of all people to be free from any suggestion of theistic
oppression from a contrived otherworldly construct of the mind.
We believe in forgiveness, but not in the concept of sin.
We believe in the sovereignty of our own body,
to indulge whatever pleasures suit us - for this life is all there is.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mixed Bag Around Holiday Time

Christmas is first and foremost a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Certainly over the centuries many ancillary trappings have been added to the occasion that vary considerably in how clearly they point to the main "reason for the season." Some culturally specific symbols can be even quite difficult to attach to the person of Jesus Christ, and his initial Incarnation among humankind. Nevertheless, for the most part we accept even the most tangential decorations and symbols because they add to festival that already has a good reason to exist. Christmas parties, friendly gatherings, store decorations and mall music add to the "spirit" of the season. Indeed to be so enveloped in a cultural blanket of Yule tide indicators is to feel warm and cocoa-filled no matter what menial task one must accomplish when out and about. It's very nice.

Unfortunately, no matter how much of a blessing such an ambient Christmas "temperature" may be, there remains a cold draft that accompanies the comfy wafts of hearth and home: This is the opposing reality of being ever aware, during the season of gifts and giving, of how little one has.

Everywhere one turns are the reminders of things just outside of the budgetary reach. The seemingly wealthy throngs all enjoy tastes and materials with great joy, and the lesser-resourced onlooker can do little more than rejoice for the one enjoying them. Visiting commercial centers such as a mall is very tempting, for indeed all the trappings possess a magical attraction to go out and walk among the celebrants. However, the mall is also a depressing place to visit because it's a veritable gauntlet of opportunities to repeat to excited children, "No, sorry. There's no money for that."

The dignified poor do not broadcast this though. Instead they simply excuse themselves from office parties and gift exchanges before it can be revealed that they lacked the means to participate. When asked, "What did you get for your children for Christmas?" They deflect with accounts of front yard football and traditional holiday movies rather than honestly confess, "Oh, something simple and basic like shelter, heat, light and groceries." They smile as more abundantly resourced celebrants talk of "family being the greatest gift of all." They agree that it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive, so they lavish generously upon their peers the "gifts" of encouragement, affection and loyalty. They seek to creatively teach their children the weightier matters of Christmas so that their young minds will be sufficiently distracted away from the empty space beneath the tree (what tree?). Regrettably, their tepid zeal for all things holiday related may be interpreted as a muttered "humbug," though the reality is far from it. The lesser-resourced often love the Lord Jesus Christ to such extent as to long to be ever more engaged in all things Christmas related.

The ambient conditions of the Christmas season ubiquitously present everywhere out in the community are a joy for those given over to the Christmas "spirit." However, they are a "mixed bag" for those who see all of these trappings and wish they could engage them more. Indeed such surroundings can serve as glaring reminders of what cannot be engaged. Just so you know, the friend who graciously bows out of that holiday festivity may not be ignoring an opportunity for celebration out of some sliver of "Scrooge" sentiment. They might instead want to avoid revealing their diminished means at a time when abundance is the celebrated norm.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rememberance can be unpleasant...but it's important.

Today is December 7th, the 68th Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese people, with their rich culture, fascinating history and beautiful home islands, are no longer an enemy of the U.S. On the contrary, Japan has become not only a healthy commercial neighbor, but also an ally in resisting the present-day threats from North Korea and China (not to mention the Soviet Union during the decades-long Cold War). Therefore, remembering the attacks on Pearl Harbor is not intended to resurrect indignation toward a historic enemy. Indeed, Japan is not the only former enemy to become a close ally against mutual threats. The United Kingdom is an excellent example of this, for July 4th celebrations do not strain the current U.S.-U.K. alliance. So the reason for remembrance must serve another purpose.

I posit that the reason why we MUST take time to remember and reflect on such days (i.e. Dec 7th, June 6th, Sept 11th, July 4th, etc.) is not because we love war, but because we love those who have fought and must fight them for us. Our moments of remembrance are the opportunity to soberly reflect on the nature of humankind, and the necessity for bravery and sacrificial duty in the face of unjust aggression. In essence, remembering historical moments of conflict is to reflect on the unpleasant reality of humankind's perpetual need for valor and courage in resisting evil aggression. Battlefield virtues may illuminate positive sides of humanity, but their necessity at all displays the negative sides of us as well. It's unpleasant business to reflect on man's need for defense and bravery, but it's important.

This principle is applicable to the Christmas season as well.

For example, our priest pointed out the other day that Advent is for "building up to Christmas," without celebrating it too soon. I found this curious. Does not the Christmas season begin the day after Thanksgiving ("Black Friday" insanity notwithstanding)? Should not the Christmas carols be sung jubilantly as soon as possible? Apparently not according to the "spirit" of Advent (mind you, I'm new to much of the historic Christian calendar, so my understanding of Advent must not be taken as authoritative). From what I'm learning, Advent is for reflecting on our need for a Savior in anticipation of His coming. It is to soberly reflect on why God would need to fully take humanity onto himself, enter our experience as a vulnerable newborn in a stinky, untidy stable. Indeed many carols are sung in a minor key because the tragedy/triumph of God entering humanity as a newborn is as much mourning over our need for salvation as it is a celebration of how he meets that need. Some aspects of remembering when Emmanuel ("God with us") was born can be unpleasant business, but it's so important.

For some, the unpleasant aspects of remembering deter them from taking the time to do so. "Why dwell on unpleasant things?" so goes their logic. The answer? Because it's important; because failing to remember can breed unhealthy ignorance regarding our needs, our flaws and our potential. All of the ways one should reflect on the reality-exploding nature of the Incarnation can be left for another time, for today is Dec 7th, deserving of it's own emphasis.

Memorializing the attack on Pearl Harbor is good because it reflects honestly on the nature of humankind, and remembers those moments when courage and valor were brought to the surface by the the scalding heat of combat dynamics. It's right because it celebrates a period in history when defensive might and national unity were (rightly so) held less suspect than can be assumed in the present culture (cynicism regarding present day military application must not retard appreciation for times when the cause was more clear and the goals more noble). I would encourage many to read FDR's "Infamy" speech, or watch a movie about the Pearl Harbor attack (accuracy is not the key objective with such films, but instead to remember and emote with the historic figures that lived through it precisely as it happened).

Take time to remember what occurred during that generation, and to those servicemen and women. Remember the virtues of sacrifice, duty, bravery and valor. Remember that such events are still possible today, for humankind has not evolved so much since then. Remembrance can be unpleasant... but it's necessary.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Seventy Percent Necessary

With the "War on Terror" being focused primary now in the landlocked country of Afghanistan (AFG), the question has arisen of "Does The Navy Have A Place In McChrystal’s War?" On one level this question is understandable on a popular level, for night after night people see images of war on their television and wonder: What role could the Navy possibly play in that desert or those mountains?

The writer of the linked blog article (Christopher Albon), goes on to suggest that the Navy can have a more significant role by shifting it's mission from that of a war-fighting arm to a humanitarian organization. The argument goes something like this:

The war is occurring on land...
The Navy is at sea...
The Navy has no place to fight in the land-war...
The Navy should learn to do something other than fight.

Before we start beating those swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, there are a few things to consider:

1. Logistics - Too numerous to list here are the ways in which maritime operations support the battlefield and supply logistics needed in-theater. Equipment and personnel needed for joint force power projection in AFG do not get there by themselves. Transportation and supply streams require unimpeded air and sea ways to reinforce assets subject to depletion. Regardless of how much air and fire support may be scaled back in AFG from USN carriers and cruisers in the Indian Ocean, the Army and USMC's ability to make war on Al Qaeda and Taliban forces will continually be in need of naval support to perform their tasks.

2. Operations - The USN contribution to in-theater combat ops (even on the ground) is also integrated and incalculable. Navy SEALs and intelligence work (at the very least) demonstrate just how "in the fight" the US Navy is, and will continue to be.

3. Preparation - It is grotesquely short sighted to recommend a shift in the USN mission from a war-fighting to humanitarian emphasis (i.e. "spreading good will," setting up clinics, and disaster relief ops) simply because news reports are filled more with sand than water. Earth's oceans account for seventy percent of the planet's surface area. THAT is the vast and wild frontier where power projection is, and will always be, the most necessary. The diverse and far-spread threats to civilization require a strong Navy now more than ever. Several smaller national threats are evident to the public eye (i.e. North Korea, Venezuela and Iran), to say nothing of the larger national powers that continue to warrant strategic deterrent from the West (i.e. China and Russia). Piracy remains a genuine threat to shipping lanes and free maritime trade. US Navy power projection will continue to remain necessary for seventy percent of the world's surface. Only the most reckless of "opinioneers" will fail to envision the perpetual role for the Navy in foreign policy and maritime freedom.

This is not to devalue or marginalize the laudable pursuits of humanitarian aid. Indeed charitable organizations should be far more outfitted and empowered to meet timely needs in countries where they are welcome. Natural disasters certainly will continue to create crises in the developing world. In addition, humanitarian efforts may also be a legitimate ancillary ability of armed forces. However, to suggest that such aid become the greater focus of war machines is the worst kind of folly.

Military forces have a single chief function: to break people and stuff.

What people and whose stuff must be broken is the purview of elected civilian leadership. Preferably those leaders will direct the military to break only that amount of people and stuff that is necessary to reach peaceful equilibrium. In other words, the "breaking" that the military performs must be swift and effective enough to persuade an enemy not to make continued "breaking" necessary. The military is made necessary by the depravity of humankind, and it's propensity to aggressively attack one another. Therefore, the "attacker" must be broken. This is the nature of the world. Aggressors must be militarily "broken" for peace to have its way.

The Navy is a military organization/organism. It can perform many functions, but its chief function is a military one. To forget this is to weaken military protection for seventy percent of the world's area.

(This is a great mystery, but to those with "eyes to see and ears to hear," I have also been talking about the Church. It can perform many functions, but it has a primary function. Losing site of this has weakened the Church (particularly in the West) more than any "attack" from outside could have ever accomplished. Not to start a new blog here; my main rant was regarding the Navy. But if analogies abound, indeed this one is glaring as well.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Pipe Club

It is a great mystery, but much more is gained from the company of old men, encircled in a fog of pipe and cigar smoke, than merely a few hours of mature camaraderie. Something about masculinity is much more "caught" than it is "taught." To catch these crumbs of wisdom that fall from the elders' table, one must be in close proximity to the one's dropping them. In addition, it is no small matter to be invited into the fellowship of older men when they gather to speak of weighty matters, of light-hearted jokes, of legendary anecdotes and deeply held values.

A grocery list of virtues to which younger men should continually aspire are on display, implied in the praises of past comrades and laments over errant brothers. In such an circle, one hears about the manliness of fidelity, the duty to treat one's family with understanding, the honor of service to one's country, the respect due the dead and the folly of misguided politics. By participating in this "Pipe Club," I partake in the shared history with "tribal elders."

And yet, it is not merely these qualities that draw one to a smoke-enshrouded porch in front of a church. Indeed there is something in the smoke...

Wafting in the burnt tobacco fumes is something mystical, magical and necessary. An indescribable efficacy rides upon the cloud holding steadily aloft around the heads of those gathered. The pipe then becomes an instrument of meditation, and the cigar a conductor of reflection. The tobacco is truly then a gift of God, offered in creation for our pleasure and to facilitate the appropriate times of slowing life down. Indeed the pipe and the prayer book can can easily go together, as does coffee and Scripture reading each morning.

But one's smoke is best when mingled with others' smoke. It calls out to community; to speak with the other smoker of things that cannot be merely mentioned in passing, but instead require a few draws from the pipe or that 50 ring maduro to consider the answer well. Surely of the many pleasures built into creation, tobacco has had the effect of creating close networks of people. As admittedly destructive as cigarettes are (this is not contestable), it is universal "sign language" for one cigarette smoker to place two fingers to his lips in a clear sign of requesting to "bum a smoke" from another smoker who has pulled his own pack out in the smoking area. Neither could speak the others' native tongue, and yet this communication could occur without ambiguity.

Pipe and cigar smokers know the vast difference that exists between their pleasures and the vice of cigarettes (non-smokers seldom understand the difference, and therefore often ignorantly claim there is none). Nevertheless, better the "vice" of cigarettes than the isolation of neglecting so effective an excuse to gather with peer/mentors that God has placed around you to nourish the soul. Along that line, the Pipe Club at Church of the Holy Trinity is a joy to attend, and a blessing to the heart, mind and spirit.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Technology "Fast"

Experiencing an interruption in internet and television service has been an inconvenient, yet not altogether undetectable blessing. The resulting effect has been a greater necessity to engage those activities that exercise the mind and nurture relationships better. In place of surfing the net, we have books to read. In place of the news to watch, we converse over dinner. In place of cartoons, my kids watch movies from our collection (2 hours long) that keep their attention for longer than minutes (with commercial breaks every 5 minutes). Instead of immediately turning on the football game that I enjoy watching, my wife and I go walk a couple of miles. Yes, the interruption of information and entertainment technology at home may be inconvenient, but there has been an "up side" that can be extracted from it.

In light of this unexpected benefit, it would behoove us to voluntarily perform this technology "fast" from time to time. Imagine the relational and concentration wealth that can be developed from the simple voluntary denial of the image-drive world to invade the harmony of the household. This can be taken so far as to even prefer candlelight for an evening over the simple flicking on of wall switches. Perhaps this practice can be incorporated into our Feast of Apartments held in May.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

People Watching

My love of humanity is horribly inconsistent.

At times I think I love ALL people (undoubtedly self-deluded) motivated by Christian sentiments of wanting to emote in sync with the Father's affection revealed in John 3:16 ("for God so loved the world."). Other times though, I can be grotesquely snobby, supposing that people must earn value that is not inherently theirs by virtue of being anthropologically classifiable as homo sapiens. To combat the contradicting extremes I employ two practices:

1. I attempt to recall an Augustinian view of my own depravity, knowing that I'm only capable of a certain amount of love for anyone. Therefore, I reign back thoughts about how altruistic my motives and affections really are. God may love "the world," but I'm thankful to have periods of love for anyone - let alone those who make it difficult. I simply have never arrived... I have a long way to go. I always will.

2. I watch people as they go about what they do, and attempt to consider what issues are facing them, influencing them to hustle and bustle through their various activities. Intolerance with people is often born of brief "snapshots," assuming that behavior observed in a mere moment is somehow indicative of their whole lifestyle. Were such a paradigm applied to me, surely I could be seen as being among the more diabolical villains to plague the human race. Therefore, I try to suspend the tendency to judge by "snapshots." Even when I only have brief contact with someone, some imagination can be used to place the moment within the context of a larger life story.

This discipline can be put into practice whenever I'm in the company of people. It's easier to do at home obviously, since I know more of their life story. Still not entirely too laborious is to extend this understanding toward those one works with. Through workplace conversations you become aware of the issues faced by co-workers. As a result, any given moment can be better placed within the broader context of their living narrative, making you more tolerant of perceived annoyances or quirks.

Where it gets more difficult is in those places where you interact with people you do not know for brief, single moments.

-The harried retail checker ringing up your merchandise on "Black Friday."

-The rude driver that forces the nose of their car in front of you during the morning commute.

-The customer service rep trying to address your issue over the phone.

This practice is often put to the greatest test when "people watching" at a bus stop. Public transit commutes offer a wealth of opportunities to see just how understanding toward people I'm willing to be. The bus stop is a tremendous arena for discovering exactly how much Jesus Christ has influenced my affection for "the world." The person waiting next to me is not necessary for me accomplishing something. My understanding toward them does not "grease the wheels" of something I'm trying to accomplish. The retail checkout person might go slower if I'm not patient and kind with them (and we can't have that). The car merging into my lane better get that space, lest I risk denting both theirs and my vehicle. The customer service rep on the phone can make my life easier or harder based upon how cooperative they are motivated to be (hopefully my kindness motivates them to help me... a lot). The bus stop bystander though, means nothing to me, except that they are a fellow person with a life story in which fits this moment in time.

People watching, on such occasions, is the chance to discover exactly how loving I'm becoming, or can be from time to time. So often I'm depraved, selfish and rude. However, it's good to know that the Spirit of God can invade even THAT, and punctuate my life story with epiphanous "snapshots" of His influence.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Smoke-filled Room

As the thurible waved back and forth behind me, while I processed into the the sanctuary carrying the cross, I could already smell it. The incense burned sending its smoke rising into the rafters. For some, this is a strong scent that might distract from worship. For me, it's an olfactory journey into the throne room of God. The fumes drift around and invade the atmosphere. Such elements can lead you, literally, by the nose into the images of worship conjured from Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4. When we had arrived at the front of the sanctuary and entered the area of the altar, the priest waved the incense over the altar, the sacramental instruments and toward us acolytes. It's a wondrous thing to worship Christ with "the prayers of the saints" wafting over and around you. In ideal conditions, the air conditioning can be disengaged so that the smoke develops stratigraphic layers of fog rising up to the ceiling (and symbolically up to heaven). Indeed Christian worship can, and should, be a multi-sensory enterprise.

The incense smoke activates a historic "trigger" in the brain that hopes the ancient saints would be pleased with how we have received their "baton" of worship rites. It also powers up a futuristic instinct regarding saints' collective worship of Christ in heaven. It agitates and quickens an awareness of the present-day participation in timeless worship that has been being conducted by angels since their creation. The incense, therefore, has the past-present-future aspects of all legitimate celebration. I have discussed before how this rubric measures the validity of all ceremony and celebration. The finest elements of church practice uphold this philosophy.

The lingering "scents of worship" stay with me throughout the week as I engage in morning and/or evening prayer. Prayers from the Book of Common Prayer contain such creedal truth and ancient language, that I sense I'm still engaged in "common prayer" with those saints I thought about when enveloped by incense smoke. My "smoke" mingles with theirs to waft up before Divine nostrils. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit take a big whiff and say to one another, "Do you smell that? I love it."

For this reason, there's nothing like worshiping in a smoke filled room. For us at the Church of the Holy Trinity, this happens on the first Sunday of the month. O that it was a weekly occurrence! For some in episcopal churches (albeit Reformed Episcopal - Anglican), some elements of worship simply smack too closely of Roman practices, and therefore must be introduced judiciously. Nevertheless, having chosen to "eat the whole buffalo," I've developed an 'appetite' for all that ancient liturgy and practice offers. Our wise and temperate priest is including new/ancient elements with measured incrementalism. My default response remains, "swing that burner at me again, father. Nothing aids an atmosphere of worship like atmospheric worship." The smoke-filled room is exactly the place where I want to pray with all the saints (past, present and future).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This Old House

When I visited Washington D.C. with my father last March, we had the privilege of visited Congressman Ralph Hall at his office. The elder statesman welcomed us into his office, took pictures with us and spoke with us about the affairs of state facing him. At a particular moment, as he was watching the clock on a video screen, said to my father and I, "I've got to go vote on something on the floor of the House. Would you like to come along with me?" That was a no-brain-er. Of course we wanted to come along.

We accompanied him down a "Representatives Only" elevator, and rode on the underground tram that ran through a tunnel from below the Rayburn building to below the Capital. As my father and I walked with Congressman Hall, he graciously introduced us to other Congressmen and Senators as "Dr. and Reverend Ott." It was a real treat.

As I rode the secure elevators, passed through security checkpoints, strode the marble halls and found my seat in the gallery, I could not help but be overcome by the history of the building. Imagine what events have taken place here. Some bills have been passed in this "house" that I've objected to, but others have been passed that have made my country better. Historic State-of-the-Union addresses have been heard in that very room. Generations of political hacks and heroes alike have wandered those halls debating or collaborating with one another over important bills. In essence, this is the 'house of our Fathers' (in a political/national sense).

Now at the time of this visit to the Capital I was not yet engrossed in the Anglican Christian tradition. However, since becoming Anglican, my views regarding having a sense of faithfulness to ancient "fathers" have grown considerably. On any given Sunday, the arrangement of music, the use of symbols and Christian liturgy all seem employed toward a unifying goal: faithfulness to Fathers of Christianity (which includes Christ, the Apostles and the early church believers that gave their lives to preserve the 'faith once delivered'). In essence, I enter the Church thinking two things: (1) this is the Father's house, and (2) this is the fathers' house.

This sense of wanting to be faithful to "the fathers" under girds every activity. This is NOT the space, building, hall or house wherein I'm free to make it up as I go. It's instead the space wherein I'm to be faithful to the one who came before me. It's "the fathers'" house; not mine.

Correspondingly, I now look back at the House of Representatives and wonder: what do they think when they wander those "hallowed" halls?

Do they see it more as "the halls of power?" Or do they see it as "the house of the fathers?"

Few politicians in Washington has distinguished themselves (Congressman Hall excepted; I'm sure there may be others) as people who think of their office in terms "faithfulness to the fathers." Therefore, their examples do little to combat cynicism regarding all politicians and the corrupting influence of power. Indeed their example seem to suggest that they think of the marble halls as "the halls of power," with its accompanying intoxicating effects.

Where can be found more of that brand of statesman that strives for "faithfulness to the Founding Fathers?" From where might emerge such leaders that examine the U.S. Constitution for guidance in the roles of government and the "fathers" writings for wisdom in governing? Could there yet be any in the nation that would approach the Capital, stand in the hallowed halls of 'this old house,' and remain mindful of those who came before them in that place, seeking to be faithful to their charge?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Strength of the Confessing Soul

The ancient discipline of confession is a strange and mysterious practice that seems to inexplicably release energy of the spirit. Many may attempt to explain this using mere psychological terms and reasoning, but it would seem greater than that. Thus the conversation between myself and my priest/friend yesterday:

We sought to differentiate the sacramental from the merely sentimental.

In the conversation, we teased out the differences as residing primary in the "source" of the meaning ascribed to a symbol, object or practice. If a person is ascribing special meaning to it, that would fall under the sentimental category. However, sacramentalism is, at it's core, the belief that God is ascribing meaning to it; that he mysteriously has attached spiritual efficacy to the symbol, object or practice. We do not reverence the Cross in worship simply because it's a meaningful symbol to us. We instead believe that, through the replica of the Cross in worship, God is performing a tangible and spiritually vital work in our soul. Therefore, we reverence the Cross not because of a sentimental attachment to the symbol. We do so because of a sacramental belief in God's use of the symbol to effect change in us. This applies to any practice in Christian development and worship.

Likewise, the ancient discipline of confession has its place in this conversation as well. A sentimental view of confession may seek to view it in a primarily psychological light. Some may engage in this practice for reasons that explain it on primarily anthropological levels. All of the reasons offered may very well be valid, giving rise to the psychiatric profession and counseling vocations. Nevertheless, this is merely viewing a spiritual exercise through a sentimental lens.

On the other hand, the practice of confession can be just as validly seen (possibly more so) through a sacramental lens. The "magic" of connecting with a spiritual director, or "Soul Friend," regarding specific struggles, temptations and lessons of life would appear to involve the Holy Spirit in a specific way as well. Peculiar energy infuses the process of being transparent with a spiritual mentor/director. The soul is massaged and exercised. Spiritual fitness is encouraged. The health of the soul is assessed by the spiritual "Doctor," a diagnosis shared and a prescription given. How is it that anyone would seek to have their body known more by a medical doctor than their soul is known by a spiritual "doctor?"

I am learning the value in this, more than I have known it before. Surely the transparent soul, laid bare in confession, has a better chance of pursuing health and strength of spirit than the one hidden by itself. Through weakness I am made strong.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sibling Care in the Community of Faith

"No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother" (St. Cyprian, died A.D. 258).

Why such a drastic emphasis on the Church by such early church fathers? Cyprian was not the product of an overbearing Roman Catholic Church, for the abuses of power that the Protestant Reformers reacted to occurred well over 1,000 years after him. Indeed for Cyprian to have written thus about the Church prior to even the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) explains the unity of the Church affirmed in the Creed: "And I believe one Catholic and Apostolic Church." What, therefore, did St. Cyprian know that some, who today find church to be "optional," do not know?

There is a great deal that we might argue Cyprian knew that many today are ignorant of, but significant among these is the manner that brothers and sisters in Christ support one another in Christian fellowship. It would be cliche' to insert a sports analogy here, but the universal principle is that humans are designed to be communal creatures. The archaeological record reveals a oft-repeated evolution of hunter-gatherer bands into more and more complex societies. Strength of numbers help people to survive dangers of predators, repel attackers and weather environmental change. Technologies of agriculture, dwellings and tribal defense all develop in sophistication along with population numbers. People have, historically, seen it as more to their advantage to be together than alone.

How is it then, that many in current society (particularly in Christian circles) would think it advantageous to proceed through spiritual life having only a "personal experience," or worse, avoiding church commitment altogether? Imagine a duck saying to Dr. Doolittle, "Of course, I'm a duck. I swim, fly, quack and waddle. I just prefer to be on my own. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of organized flight or "flocking" in streams and lakes together. To be honest, I'm uncomfortable around ducks. None of them seem to quack exactly like I do. And besides, flying together seems to make it easier for the hunters. I know you haven't seen me around other ducks at all, but I really am a duck - honest."

This point was driven home to me just this morning in church. The image above is of my daughter and youngest son. I sat behind them because the five in our family can hardly fit into the pew, and with all our stuff really makes it cramped. At one point, as the priest was preparing the communion table elements, Jessica spontaneously reached over and hugged Elijah. This sibling support was so wonder to behold. Un-coached by my wife or me, the older sibling decided to offer support to the younger one, and he accepted it. These sort of "living pictures" occur frequently in a church adept at trafficking in symbolism.

This type of "sibling care" is one of the essential characteristics of the Church. How could one imagine missing out on the arena wherein such beautiful lessons occur? No wonder Cyprian would consider that the organic nature of the Body of Christ renders the one who is disinterested in Christ's Body to be likewise disinterested in Christ. Indeed since the fellowship of faith is such a favored instrument of the Spirit, one can justifiably ask if the one disinterested in fellowship truly has the Spirit. This notion need not be taken to the extreme of assuming that merely because one has planted their butt in a pew before they can be assured of eternal life. However, neither must one use the straw man of "faith by osmosis" to reject the importance of Church commitment. While is it true that he is not a soldier who has merely bought a uniform at a Army surplus store, he also is not a soldier that has not joined the Army.

All this to offer theological context to the beauty of sibling support observed in front of me this morning. I hesitated to take the picture, thinking it potentially irreverent (and possibly rude) to take a picture with the camera/phone while worship is in progress. I had not asked permission of the priest in advance, who justifiably might have instructed me not to out of respect for the sacred occasion. However, the spontaneity of seeing my two children support one another in the midst of worship was just too pleasing. I had to capture it.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the siblings of faith in the covenant community, support, uphold, embrace, console, challenge, direct, comfort and carry one another under one Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such pictures of love and sibling affection warm the heart, for they offer a window into one of the chief missions of the Church for which Christ died and rose again.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

We All want a Leader

Observing the present political climate in the United States is a very interesting show. There is a cultural phenomenon on display that was present in during the previous presidential administration, but (in my opinion) has grown even more. People can disagree whether the respective presidents welcomed this trend, but it seems more defensible that this trend existed during the 43rd president's terms and has not abated so far during the 44th. What is this cultural trend? The human gravitation to "Messianism" (the belief that a saving figure will fix that which is airy in the world).

Before people automatically believe I am viewing the country through a partisan lens, consider that Evangelical Christians were no better following the 2001 Presidential inauguration. Phrases such as, "finally we'll see needed change now that we have a 'godly' President in office," were not infrequently heard at Bible studies. The fact that George W. Bush had frequently spoke of his faith only added fuel to the fire. Many evangelicals expected cultural "rescue" from him, forgetting that the Constitution prohibits him from meddling in the affairs of the citizenry as much as they hoped. In addition, many often spoke of having "hope" in Bush that one should only have in Christ. Misplaced Messianism was rampant among evangelical Republicans, unwilling to stomach any critique of his policies - be they foreign or domestic. So vested in this "messianic" view of Bush were many on "the right," that to critique his policy or (God forbid!) vote for someone else could generate rifts in fellowship at church. I witnessed this shameful trend first hand.

Having said that, it does appear to me that the trend which began during the Bush terms among "the right" is growing now to new levels among "the left." It does not appear enough to simply vote for Barak Obama during the 2008 presidential election, and enjoy his January inauguration. Rejoicing over the election of Obama now rises to the level of "messianic" laud and praise. By now we have all seen the YouTube videos of children singing for his election or praising his present administration. In addition, among his supporters there appears an expectation that he will influence more about culture, economy and communities than is constitutionally appropriate for an American President. The "messianism" has far from ebbed, but instead seems to have grown (only from the other side of the political spectrum).

While "Messianism" most often has a religious connotation, it speaks also to the broader human instinct for rescue by means of a powerful leader. The world is not working the way that you want it to, so hope is maintained for a central figure, a Savior, to wave his hand and make it all better. Christianity maintains that this instinct is only well placed when directed at Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, consider the plea of Israelites in 1 Samuel 8:5b, "So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.” While they had a perfect theocracy under YHWH, mediated through prophets and taught through the Law of Moses, they still wanted a human figure to lead them. Instead of frying them for their insolence though (which would have been His right), YHWH used that human flaw to bring about the reign of King David, who would foreshadow the One that was to come later (Jesus Christ).

The messianic instinct is resident in the human condition. That instinct can be directed productively at the Messiah of God (Jesus of Nazareth), or it can be directed misguidedly at a human figure whose motives cannot help but be mixed with good and bad intentions. If armbands suddenly come into vogue featuring Obama's symbol, it likely will not be his doing. It is the nature of people to place their hope in the wrong thing. If children sing "Red and yellow; black and white; all are equal in his sight," they're likely not consciously rewriting an Sunday School song about Jesus to sing Obama's praises. They're just placing hope in Obama that should be sorely directed at Jesus. We all do this. Evangelicals may not have sung such songs about George Bush, but were often over the top in their "hopes" regarding him too.

We all want a leader with a human face. In our depravity, Jesus' human face is often just not enough. We all want a leader with temporal power, but Jesus statement that "all authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me," is not enough either. One can "hope" that the messianism will eventually simmer down, before something really crazy emerges out of it. Among the great lessons of the twentieth century is what can happen to a society that develops a collective "messianic" adoration for its leader. Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia and China have all experienced this (to name just a few). Hopefully, America will tap the brakes a little on its "Messianism" before our country resembles the plight of those others.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Beauty of Communal Worship

Participating this morning in worship for Church of the Holy Trinity was a real privilege. Serving as an acolyte in the liturgical service creates a praxi fide of being intensely Christian. One of the great benefits of serving as an acolyte is the opportunity to, in essence, have a "front row seat" to all that takes place at the altar. When prayers are read, sacraments consecrated or distributed, your right there - in the thick of the experience. I enjoy it very much.

Today was especially meaningful because I witnessed something so wonderful as to deserve mention here. One man in the church has a son with a severe disability, the name of which I do not know. Nevertheless, at the time for distribution of the elements of the Table, the disabled son needed assistance to be brought forward in his wheelchair to receive the Eucharist. His name is "Rutherford." As I stood before the altar, holding oil and a napkin nearby for the priest to bless many who came to the rail, I observed Rutherford's father wheeling him down the center isle. When he came to the steps, he and an usher grabbed both sides of the wheelchair and lifted him up to the raised platform. Rutherford's chair was pushed forward to the rail to receive Communion and the priest blessed him using the oil I held. When the priest dismissed everyone at the rail, the same procedure was executed to take him back.

In this moment I witnessed a microcosm of the Church at work. Rutherford is disabled - quite severely. He cannot approach the altar on his own. The result was that there was need for the Church to assist him. Those knowing his need, and his inabilities, offered their help for him to participate in the worship of Jesus Christ. It was not left to him to simply conjure up his own ability to "come boldly to the throne of grace." Instead he was aided in his approach by those provided by God for his assistance.

This living picture was very poignant, and will stick with me for quite some time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Commute Meditation

"Make good use of your down time."

I've heard that wisdom from many sources all my life. However, commuting in Houston has presented opportunities to put it to practice. Not sense Seattle have I rode the bus this much; therefore, it's been a while since I discovered the serenity available when someone else is driving. Because I live in the same neighborhood of my co-workers, we carpool often. The conversations that ensue can be stimulating and enjoyable. Nevertheless, time spent using public transit can be rewarding as well.

The lost art of meditation can be quite foreign to Americans. It should not be lost on Christians, but American Christians do struggle with this: non-busy time spent thinking on those things that the normal pace does not allow for. I have found that bus commute time is well spent on morning or evening prayer, reading, or simply slowing my breathing to prepare for either the work day or coming home. When I consider how many of my peers struggle with high blood pressure, hypertension or stress, I recommend that they fit mass transit into their schedule in some way. It's unlikely they'll take my advice, for so many are addicted to the freedom of private transportation. I argue that the freedom is only taken away if you don't have it as an option. Just because you take the bus to and from work does not mean that you've relinquished your freedom. On the contrary, it is empowering to make decisions about the pace of one's life such that meditation time can be scheduled in through a metro bus ride.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Deadly Older Students

Proverbs 20:29 reads: The glory of young men is their strength, and the splendor of old men is gray hair.

This saying of ancient Israel contrasts the strength and virility of youth with the experience and wisdom of age. It does not appear to value one over the other, merely to point out the unique advantages possessed by each. In our youth-obsessed culture though, the advantages of age are often less celebrated. Looks and shape are lauded less loudly than perception and discernment. Rather than idolizing the fleeting beauty of perfect skin, might we not appreciate the life lessons gained along with a few wrinkles? Instead of constantly coloring hair to cover the gray, might we - now and then - extol the seasoned strands of our learned elders?

This contrast was often driven home in kung fu. Over time I often observed that "wisdom in the Art" was more valuable than the mere speed or strength of younger students. Though the younger belts had the flexibility, stamina and quickness to perform noteworthy feats in the Art, the older students had the patience, fluidity and panache to execute movements more effectively. Though we were not a tournament-based Art, we once had an in-house tournament which I judged according to artistic execution (not merely contact points). Though this made the judging somewhat subjective, I was doing all the judging and using each "point" as a teachable moment. When the younger students sparred with the older ones, I observed something very interesting. The younger ones danced about in a jittery fashion, trying to throw their opponent off, distract him or gain an opening through feint and speed. However, the older students often gained the advantage and exploited it by being patient, not moving, waiting for the erratic youth to over-extend themselves or misjudge their stepping. The older students had gained more "wisdom" in the Art, and thus were more effective, using energy better and more often winning the match. All involved learned a lot that day; me included.

The younger, faster, stronger student can be quite dangerous; but the older, wiser, patient student can be deadly.

I reflect on this principle in specific application to my marriage. We recently celebrated 16 years together. How is it that our marriage is so much better now than we dreamed in might be in our youth? By what principle has our relationship grown to a level unimagined when we had been married only two, three or five years?

I'm not sure what to call it, but it is undoubtedly tied to the same principle that helped my older students best the younger ones. Over time, an economy of motion is combined with knowledge about people. This is then fused with patience to allow things to unfold before acting rashly. In like manner that the older students were deadly in skill, so also the older marriage is more fulfilling than the younger one. This is a great mystery, but it seems all aspects of marriage are made more dynamic, fulfilling and meaningful with age. Consider the "trinity of attraction" (spiritual, mental/emotional and physical) that a couple experiences and then grows in; are not all of these areas developed over time into an intimacy the young cannot fathom?

Of course, age is no guarantor of wisdom. Many of us have observed the fifty year old "adolescent," and think "O, what a pathetic specimen." However, there indeed remains those skills that only the years will offer. They emerge by no other means than through crucibles of life potent enough to produce the blessed wrinkles, the glorious gray head and steely eyes that perceive far more than can be taken in by the naked eye. Such aging brings blessings to marriage that the young can only speak about longingly, dreaming of such joys. Hence the oft repeated phrase by couples in love, "I want to grow old with you."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Random God

The Collect for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity reads, "Let thy merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of thy humble servants; and, that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Having completed the Master of Theology degree at Dallas Theological Seminary, I can confidently say that the dynamic interplay between God and believers in everyday life is more a mystery now than when I started formal training. No definitive pattern can be discerned from either Holy Scripture, or from observing life in general. One appears to receive God's favor, another does not. The wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, but then the trend is sometimes reversed. One man seeks to honor the Lord with his labor, yet is not rewarded with abundance. Another could not care less for the Lord's agenda, yet seems to prosper at every turn. There is no discernible pattern to it.

To add complexity to the enigma, just when the lack of any pattern causes one to throw up their hands in stymied resignation, and declare that there is no pattern because God does not bother himself with the menial concerns of the individual, something occurs that seems to lend evidence that God does indeed "answer" prayer.

The apparent "silence of Heaven" may be a problem for the superstitious Christian that asserts a view of God as the "divine puppeteer," pulling the strings of every daily event (Oral Roberts). However, the seeming "answer from Heaven" remains a problem for the deist that asserts God as a "divine watchmaker" that created the world with various principles to operate it, got it started and then has pretty much left it alone since (Thomas Jefferson). There is such a thing as a Christian-deist hybrid, a sort of "Christian naturalist" that asserts belief in the great Christian creeds, but will assert that one should not expect God's intervention between the first and second advents of Christ. I have tried to avoid this tendency, but life experience has made it tempting.

Nevertheless, just about that time that the "silence of Heaven" has made Christian naturalism intellectually attractive, out of desperation concerning a family need I punt to prayer (for which I'm expecting no answer). When the need is met in an unexpected manner, it seems to jostle the categories all over again. Is the need met randomly by the blind ebbs and flows of human society and interactions? Was the entropic benevolence of someone toward us, who became aware of our need, wholly unrelated to the petition I had offered to God in secret? Is it right to interpret the meeting of the need as related to the prayer for the need? Did God send the money, or did some kind person give it, who arbitrarily decided to show kindness to us?

Clearly the best answer to last question is "Yes."

However, the temptation always remains to attempt learning something about God through such events, to discern his "pattern," discover his "m.o.," figure him out. The temptation to pursue such insight is great, but the folly of such a pursuit is great as well. The best that can be determined from such encounters is that God enjoys his randomness. For reasons that seem good to him, he appears averse to fitting neatly into popular categories concerning his interaction with us in this present world. To figure him out would be to master him in some capacity, and he will apparently have none of it.

The one who has a need met following prayer cannot say, "God always meets my needs when I pray." Likewise, the one who has a need go unmet despite much prayer cannot say, "God never meets my needs regardless of how much I pray." He is mastered by none, and is predictable by none. He holds his own council, and is advised only by himself on matters into which he will intervene. The "puppeteer" and the "watchmaker" are labels that cannot fit his character.

For reasons that seemed good to him, we had a pressing need that was met today. I mentioned this need to him in morning prayer, half expecting that this would be to no effect. Other disappointing life events this year had me persuaded that "Christian naturalism" was a more accurate view of God. Nevertheless, being a Christian, I have not abandoned the practice of prayer, though I did not expect anything to result. When I was approached hours later by an unexpected source with the resources needed, I gladly thanked them. Inside though, I rolled my eyes and prayed secretly, "You're having fun with this, aren't You."

I reckon the lesson was to cease attempting to discern the pattern. The sovereign Lord appears to enjoy his randomness, and he retains the right to involve himself in my life, and my needs, to whatever extent he pleases. I cannot presume upon his intervention (or absence) in any of my life events.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Base Camp

The process of moving from one city to another is a tremendous undertaking. Epic in size and scope, it requires many hands of help, and the indomitable volunteerism of faithful friends and relatives to accomplish the daunting task of loading and off-loading the vehicles used for the migration. Relay lines are formed, labor is organized, refreshments are provided, and the work proceeds piece by piece until the mountain of goods are safely either on, or off, the truck. The end result is the clearly of one's possession out of one residence, only to have them deposited in a disorganized cache inside the new residence. Thus, the new residence is the "staging ground" in which everything dedicated to making a new home, knowing the community and acclimating to the new environment must occur. It's "base camp:" the place where the glorious aspect of the adventure begins, because the inglorious labor was perform to reach this place.

I suspect that many are this way. Regardless of how nomadic a lifestyle one has maintained, the notion of having the "base camp" where the personal stuff is kept in reserve while the one new to the area ventures out into the unknown, comforted with the knowledge that they can return to the "base" to relax. Consider the phenomenon is having furniture in hotel rooms with drawers. What is the hotel expecting, that the patron is moving in to stay? Not at all. They realize that for those experiencing an extended stay, the drawers will likely be used. People want to create "base camp," even if it's for a week visit for business or vacation to a distant city or country.

For us, even though there remains a vast amount of work to be done in unpacking boxes, assembling dissembled furniture, beginning home utility services and arranging the living space, it is comforting to know that the question of location has been answered. In addition, the locating of "base camp" has a liberating component, empowering one to explore the surrounding environment, experience its distinctives and identify its benefits and pitfalls. "Base Camp" is a necessary component of exploration, and offers the means for entering new territory safely.

The Church operates in much the same way. If indeed one belongs to a church tradition that is represented in the area you move to, then the question of church family is answered quickly as well. For a historic denomination, that question can be answered before even leaving the past address. In any event, the Church can serve as "base camp," offering the safety to experience the world knowing that warmth and safety are readily available. Many experience the regrettable phenomenon of moving to a new community or city not knowing what church family they will connect with.

This has a couple of causes at its root (this list is by no means exhaustive):

  1. Fickle tastes - the consumerist's curse has fully enveloped the seeker, making their "felt needs" of paramount importance. However, what they often fall short in is critiquing their own "felt needs." Unaware of how flighty these "felt needs," or tastes, can be, they place as primary importance that which cannot be counted on to remain consistent. What they like about church this week will be what they loathe about church next week. The main problem with making one's wants and desires supreme is that they are untrustworthy. Consider the quote from "God" delivered by Morgan Freeman in "Bruce Almighty" when Bruce defended the chaos he had produced by giving people what they want: "Since when does anyone have a clue about what they want." More insightful words are seldom spoken in Hollywood.
  2. Self-centered - Holding one's desires in highest priority also has the intended consequence of leaving most churches simply unable to measure up. It's difficult to become planted in a church when there is little intention of submitting to any of them. Therefore, it is more simple to find a church that will no likely ever require one's submission. Preferably, if it could leave you an anonymous visitor for several years, that would be better. Admittedly, this category has overlap to the previous one, but the seeker is basically saying to themselves, "If I could find a church that fit me, then I could settle down."
Quite foreign to this mentality are the lyrics of Rich Mullins when signing in "Creed," who wrote: "I did not make it. No, it is making me" (emphasis added). Instead of prancing about looking for the church that fits one perfectly, perhaps more attention could be paid to how much the church is supposed to change you.

I did not make it. It is making me.

I suspect this could help one make their choice regarding a church in w new region much more quickly. For us, this helped us to know the church we would attend before even moving. This may seem like the exception to many, but in our opinion, it's how it should go.

Church should not be one of the arenas of risky exploration in a new area. It should be "base camp," that frees you up to have the other full experiences of the community. Base camp provides security, safety and nearby help that liberates the adventurer to fully know the new community. Whether getting established in a new home, or especially landing in a new congregation, the Lord provides "base camp" as a means of securing the explorer as they encounter all the new wonders of a neighborhood, a community or a city.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Adventure Music

The right mindset is so necessary for encountering the various peaks and valleys of life. Being a "the glass is half empty" or "the glass is half full" kind of person can make all the difference in how one approaches circumstances, responds to the new challenges or exploits new opportunities. The optimist will not only be more aware of opportunities that the pessimist cannot see, but might even create some of those opportunities as well. Some will say, "but it's hard for me to be optimistic when I cannot see the positive outcome." Granted, not all are visionaries that can imagine, and picture in the mind what grand results will emerge from humble beginnings. However, consider the plight of heroes in popular adventure movies, who cannot see the victorious outcome that will be revealed after all the struggle. They continue forward without knowing that the damsel will be rescued, the village will be saved and the villain's evil plot to take over the world will be thwarted. Inspired by conviction, that the struggle is right even though the outcome is uncertain, they press on through the various obstacles and dangers. This is summarized in one my favorite quotes from Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when asked how he will keep pursuing the Ark. His response? "I don't know. I'm making this up as I go."

I now live in Houston and work at the College of Biblical Studies - two realities that I could have never predicted mere months ago. In addition, we attend a new church and are making new friends both there and at work. I suspect we'll make more friends in our neighborhood and at the fire department. A whole new life will be carved out in a place we did not see ourselves until it occurred. Vision is overrated when one can't really see around the corner. All that can be entertained and decided upon is what attitude and mindset will be in place to meet the new life events.

Therefore, the chief mindset I am disciplining myself to maintain right now is to have an adventurous spirit. Along that line, because I'm heavily influenced by music, I spend a lot of time right now listening to music that will encourage that adventurous spirit. My music collection ranges from movie soundtracks, to classical, to country and rock. Not all of it encourages the same mood though. Some of it expresses isolation, such as the score to Cast Away. I played that music in my iPod as I packed to come here to Houston. Some of it expresses discovery, such as the score to Angels & Demons. I played this in my iPod when I first drove to visit the CBS and DTS Houston campus three weeks ago. Other music expresses the playfulness I feel when wrestling with my kids or engaged in a pillow fight with them. I play music from Pirates of the Caribbean (Dead Man's Chest) when I really miss my kids and want to "feel" them through the music.

However, I have music that really keeps me in the adventurous spirit. Oh sure there are the obvious scores to the Indiana Jones movies (all four of them), The Mummy, National Treasure, Sahara or Armageddon. But sometimes I need a little more convincing. The sliver of resident cynicism within me needs more subtle persuasion than the bombast of heroic themes. Perhaps one that communicates preferred outcomes through messy struggle. Lately the score to Blood Diamond has met this need. I play it on my iPod when walking through the neighborhood where I'm staying, while getting ready for the work day or winding down.

Music is so important, it not only expresses the mood, but can influence it also. I advise people to choose their favorite music carefully, for its power can be wielded toward non-preferred ends as well. Those experiencing depression should possibly lay off Blues music, or possibly scale back on Rob Zombie if they're having trouble concentrating. That's just my opinion.

For now, I have plenty of music at my disposal to help maintain the best attitude regarding all of our new adventures. The adventure music reminds me to keep on my toes, with heightened senses ready to take advantage of the opportunities that will emerge that we could not have foreseen.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Improvise, Adapt and Overcome

I have never been a Marine, and would never seek to claim for myself any of the honor that is theirs alone. However, I have been acquainted with enough Marines to be influenced by their habits, discipline and attitude. My preparation for the Navy chaplaincy (which ultimately was not to be), led me to spend time reading of the Corps, appreciating their traditions, sympathizing with their pride, running to their cadence. Over and over the credo of "Improvise, Adapt and Overcome" is repeated among them, driving them forward, giving them strength. I find myself inspired by those words as well, wanting to apply them, to live up to them, to live as if inspired by them to keep moving toward the mission giving me by life and God's providential work.

Having completed my first week at the new job here in Houston, these words ring in my ears and haunt me anew. They call me to throw out the old game plan and welcome an entirely new one. The new set of circumstances are precisely that - new circumstances. The one experiencing them is the same. Character and instinct are built over time, and the personal makeup that I bring to Houston is the same that was given to such blessed fulfillment in Fate, Texas.

Improvise - realize that the visibility of possibilities does not constitute the entirety of their number. Many more hidden possibilities may exist that have yet to be unearthed. Chances to minister, to engage in significant acts, to participate in powerful prospects or facilitate meaningful moments lie around every corner. Long term vision is not necessary to take full advantage of the openings in the present. Far to many people fail to use imagination in this way. Surely the avenues for significance are so abundant all around that new corridors of fulfillment exist at every turn. The nature of improvisation is to rhapsodize with spontaneous skills, to be "fluid" because to be flexible is too rigid at such times.

Adapt - The main focus of adaption is the extent to which the situation necessitated changes in you. The principle assumes the versatility of a person. One does not need to become a chameleon in order to acclimate to new surroundings or contacts. On the contrary, the changes necessary often fall well within the normal bounds of one's diverse skills and qualities. Adaptation is simply bringing different skills and traits to the fore that lie dormant in other circumstances, and then applying them in a manner specific to the immediate challenges. Far from suggesting inconsistency in someone, adaptation can demonstrate the versatility of one's unwavering character.

Overcome - In sum, victory is always possible, depending on the dynamic definitions of "victory" that may apply at the moment. To "overcome" is simply to meet and surpass the obstacles that impede progress toward worthy goals. "Worthy" could be unpacked for quite a while, but assuming the goal is legitimate, forward progress can be pursued without bothering the conscience. In Christian circles, goal have to account for loyalty to Christ and people around as well. Walking over people to get your way is not an option. However, to the extent that the goal is actually an outgrowth of one's loyalty to Christ and people, it should be chased after with profound passion. For my part, goals have been determined by mission, which grows out of my makeup, which I stays with me in every circumstance.

Therefore, in many way "improvise, adapt and overcome" remain inspiring words, especially now that here in Houston, there is need to re-apply those words all over again. I am not a Marine, and never have been. However, I once tried to become a chaplain to Marines and therefore sought to learn their mindset. Goaded on by their example, I approach the new job in Houston, and the many other opportunities that will emerge here, with the determined resolution inspired by that Marine credo.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Inconsolable Losses

Sometimes the sense of loss is very, very saddening. It creates an inconsolable disappointment that cannot be comforted, and those who attempt to comfort just sound insulting.

"God must have something better planned for you."

"Where God closes a door, he opens a window."

"We know that all things work together for good..."

How I tire of the well meaning, but generally insulting, slogans sold on key chains at Life Way Christian stores. When things hurt, THEY HURT. Period.

Oh, here's another one.

"Time heals all wounds."

NO IT DOES NOT! Time can be an anesthetic that renders one better able to cope with the pain, but it does not "heal all wounds." If an war veteran in Iraq lost his leg to an IED, would you offer up such piffle to him? Do you expect that his leg will grow back, given enough time to heal? Of course not. You would know better than to insult him in this way.

Far less than the war veteran losing a leg, yet quite potent to me nonetheless, was the pain of turning in all of my chaplain uniforms, badge, pager and gear to the Fate Fire Department today. It was time for me to turn back in those materials which could be used for other officers, firefighters or chaplains in the future. The finality of it was sobering (therefore, I think I'll have a Guinness after typing this). Fate Fire Rescue was one of those roles from which I derived so much identity. Introspective men will often attempt to separate identity and activity in an affirmation of being much more that what one does. While identity and activity can, indeed, become overly confused, it is not possible to fully separate identity and activity. The personal traits that make one adept at an activity spring out of their makeup and character. There is inseparable overlap with identity and activity that, far from being eroded, can even be embraced (within healthy parameters).

Nevertheless, giving up my beloved fire department is a steep trade. Sure I am thankful for the job opportunity in Houston, but it came at quite a price. Today that price was to return the vestiges and tools of my place in the department. Today the price was to give up the department and break away from something I have loved. I have no clue whether another opportunity will arise in the future to "belong" to the extent I did here. I have no assurances that an experience awaits in the future that will be as fulfilling as this was. Therefore, the pain of this loss cannot be consoled with speculations about future blessing.

Better to say, "We'll see what happens," or "I doubt you'll stay idle for long," or even, "You're right. That sucks." These are more legitimate than "God has greater things for you." You might as well say, "Whenever a bell rings, an angels gets its wings." It would be considered just as weighty.

The picture above is the last one I took in the station. Before leaving the station for the last time as chaplain, I had my wife take my picture sitting in "the chaplain's seat" of Engine 1. Yes, the firefighters designated a seat for me to ride with them. A year and a half ago, they did not know me well enough to be comfortable taking me along on a call. Some felt mildly slighted when I was allowed by the Assistant Chief to jump on the engine at the time to accompany them to a call 200 yards down the road from the station. 10 months later, after acquiring a new engine, the firefighters told me, "that's your designated seat, chaplain. Jump right on in there when we go out." I had been finally, fully welcomed into the tribe.

Firefighters are like any close tribe. They do not offer their trust flippantly. To earn it is a privilege and honor. To jump in "the chaplain's seat" when the call comes, the doors roll up, the lights flash, the siren blares and the apparatus barrels down the street is a thrill of epic proportions. What will we find when we get there? What will be my role? Will I offer moral and spiritual support to firefighters on auto-pilot? Will there be victims who need chaplain support? How will God's grace be evident in what we find and how we respond to it?

I loved being the chaplain for Fate Fire Rescue, and now it's gone.

Sometimes the sense of loss is very, very saddening. It creates an inconsolable disappointment that cannot be comforted.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You Buy a System

When purchasing or renting a new location to live in, several factors come into play. Not the least of these is the neighborhood or surrounding community in which the home is located. It's not enough to merely find a good house, for it could possibly sit on a dangerous street or be bordered by graveyards. The area could be a place where angels (or police) fear to tread, or be prone to frequent flooding, tornadoes or meteor strikes. The residence is placed within a neighborhood, which is positioned in a city, that holds a particularly place in a county, that is part of a state. You don't just live where you live. You live in a system of places that are intertwined together.

It is because of this that our family wails, with resounding lamentations, the necessity to move away from our beloved Fate, Texas. It's not merely that we have never been this involved in a community, we have never dreamed of being this involved in a community before.

It all started when I became the senior pastor of what was then called Genesis Community Church (later renamed Woodcreek Bible Church). Because the church needed a serious shift in community involvement to revitalize, I had an eye for whatever opportunities might arise. I began immediately to preach on "exterior ministry" so that congregation members would develop an instinct for blessing the surrounding neighborhoods. As a result, when the fire chief approached me at the National Night Out event for the City of Fate in fall of 2007, I was very open to serving as the chaplain for Fate Fire Rescue, though I did not know yet what I had gotten into. I am so glad that the chief approached me, and that I entered into that ministry to the fire department.

I was a pastor, but now also a chaplain. These are distinct realities. Some of the pastor nature comes out in chaplaincy, but it is much more characterized by being "present" with the members of your department, living life with them and being available for them to glean from you what they need - not to preach to them what they need. Being the fire chaplain also gave the opportunity to be part of both of the larger "families" of the brotherhood of the fire service" and the Federation of Fire Chaplains. The City of Fate even funded for me to receive FFC training at their annual conference last fall. There my wife and I not only developed a greater understanding of the "calling" of a fire chaplain, but also made life-long friends there who also served their departments in this way. It was a dream come true to serve my local community as a spiritual comforter, guide and helper; all the while being part of a larger guild of fire chaplains with a rich heritage and deep sense of conviction for "serving those who serve." The Federation left me with a severe desire to, hopefully, serve in such a capacity again in the future.

Because my role as fire chaplain allowed me to get to the know city leaders as well, this network had the unlikely effect of creating a good relationship with city council members and city staff. This was such a delight - to walk down Main Street and wave at most cars driving by. I became one who any personnel associated with the city could wave to with a friendly greeting. Sheriff's officers, city workers, fire dept personnel, city office staff, it didn't matter. This had become "my" town. Not that I "owned" it, but truly it had come to "own" me, and that was a wonderful feeling. All of these sentiments are embedded in the compact term "community."

I had been the fire chaplain for approximately six months when the newly elected mayor asked me to consistently offer the invocation at city council meetings when it convened. His desire was to simply entrust that responsibility to someone who would make sure it occurred, so that he would not have to concern himself with it again. It would just be taken care of. I agreed to perform this duty and privilege. As a result, I prayed for the City of Fate whenever city business called for an invocation (this meant council meetings, but also included park dedications and Chamber of Commerce luncheons as well). There is a sense in which I became the "city chaplain." Not to overplay my importance, but the town is small enough that this is how it "felt." I cannot say enough about how wonderful a feeling it is to minister to a city in the manner I had the privilege to do in Fate. I can't imagine such a scenario playing out in the same way elsewhere ever again. Fate, Texas was the "system" we became integrated into, and it worked its way into us.

It is this "system" paradigm that makes us so curious about what will happen in Houston. In what "system" will we find a new home? Will it present opportunities to know the local community well? Will the local fire department welcome our supportive involvement? Do they need a chaplain?

When you buy a new home (actually we're trying to rent a house until we get established in the community - then we'll look to buy a house), you buy a system. You don't merely acquire a new home, you acquire a neighborhood that's in a community, that occupies a particular place in a city, that has a distinctive place in the state, that contributes something unique to the country, that has a unique effect on the world. For this reason, one should enter into a new home with the understanding that you're acquiring a new "system" that may very well be the conduit of your impact on the world. These things go through our mind as we search for a new home in the Houston area. Indeed what "system" will we acquire there, and what will be our place in it.
Surely the Lord has fashioned our family to look for such "system" experiences wherever we go, and our beloved Fate has been the expression of it here.