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.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Know the Big Stuff

My wife and I just spent the weekend in Houston, Texas hunting for houses to rent. We found a few that were to our liking, and one in particular that he hope to live in while getting established in the new area. Searching through several houses was helpful because they were so spread apart that the journey around town helped to develop my internal map, making it a little easier to get around. Houston has no topographical features to help know direction, so getting one's bearings takes time. Nevertheless, as we drove from location to location, the newness of the experience began to sink in, which can be somewhat unsettling. Any major life transition can be unnerving, especially when it's later in life. Hitting the "reset button" is fine earlier on, in the twenties and thirties, but to do so at age forty can produce generous doses of anxiety.

The end result is that at this time of life you start to camp more on the big stuff, and sweat the small stuff a little less. This is not to say that finding housing is necessarily "small" stuff, but there are things much bigger. Imagine having a place to live for the time being, but being unemployed. I can imagine it because that has been our experience for a couple of months now. For others, it can be much longer. The feeling is horrible, gnawing away at the gut while accusations of slothful dereliction invade the soul. So employment is a big "brick" to put in the retaining wall of one's life. Therefore, I am extremely thankful to be moving to a new job in Houston that is both rewarding and compensating. For a life dominated up to now with fulfilling volunteerism, it is nice to have work that is both personally satisfying and can support the family as well.

However, it can be argued that even this is not the biggest brick. Consider how meaningless such employment would be without a strong and cohesive family to enjoy it with. Having a spouse and children that are resilient enough to weather such change is valuable beyond measure. Kids that were emotionally prepared to move away if I had become a Navy chaplain are a blessing too.

Arguably, a bigger "brick" still is the question of one's church family. While this statement raises eyebrows, supposing that one might prioritize church over family, it unearths an important point. One's spiritual health is the first priority of life, being that the connection to God is the chief governor upon all other of life's aspects. In addition, contrary to the general sentiment produced by the "Dobson revolution," as important as the family is, it cannot compete with one's loyalty and connection to Christ. This may seem strange for someone so committed to his family to say, but this is the essence of Jesus words in Luke 14:26-27

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

This does not mean to actively hate anybody, let alone the members of one's family. However, it has everything to do with choice. The biblical language of "love" and "hate" often relates to what one chooses or does not choose. When, in Romans 9:13 Paul quotes from Malachi 1:2-3 with, "just as it is written: 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'," he is pointing toward God's arbitrary "choice" of Israel. Indeed, the NET Bible's translation of Malachi 1:2-3 reads:

“I have shown love to you,” says the LORD, but you say,
“How have you shown love to us?”
“Esau was Jacob’s brother,” the LORD explains,
“yet I chose Jacob and rejected Esau. I turned Esau’s
mountains into a deserted wasteland
and gave his territory to the wild jackals.”
(emphasis added)

Therefore, when Jesus speaks of "hating" father, mother, wife, children, brother or sister for his sake, he is not advocating hatred of loved ones. On the contrary, in every way those close to us are often, or at least should be, the direct recipients of Christ's effect on us. The love of Christ must so fill up the soul as to spill out upon everyone else (and not just to those who also kneel). Having said that though, the ultimate choice must become clear. Familial idolatry is possible. The questions surrounding one's connection to Christ, through the Church, hold precedent. It is the biggest "brick" in the wall.

Where a family will live is important to know. Where I will work is an even more important question to answer. How close will we be in the process is an even bigger consideration. But the question as to where we will worship is the most weighty question of all. Having a spiritual "family" is of first importance, and therefore is the leading concern when moving to a new area.

As a result, finding one's church in a new community is (or at least should be) the most important concern in a major move. Therefore, among the most unsettling items to be decided when moving is the church search process. Where will we go? Will we fit? Will we like the preacher? Will they have a children's program that my kids like? Will I like the music? Is it within a convenient distance? Etc...

The concerns of the "church consumer" are numerous and varied, and ultimately rather fickle. So it is with great satisfaction that we enjoy the Anglican paradigm of a connected Church through which I knew the Rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity already. Also, because of CHT's place in the broader Reformed Episcopal Church, a great deal of trust could be extended about that which we did not know. The net effect was that we knew what church we would move to before we knew anything else about Houston. Perhaps this may seem strange to some, not to "shop around" to find a church that "suits our needs," but such is the beauty of "mother Church." Besides, we strongly advocate the paradigm that teaches: you make your decision... and then your decision makes you.

We went to Houston last weekend knowing all the most important things in advance. Sure we were house hunting, but we already knew where I'll work, how close we are in all the change, and (most importantly) where we'll worship in the Church. How refreshing to know the "big stuff" in advance. I admit that the housing issue is somewhat anxiety endusing, but knowing the big stuff this early in the process is a tremendous blessing for which we are very thankful.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Far Green Country

At the end of J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Frodo boards the ship at the Grey Havens and sails off to the "undying lands" along with the Elves. Peering into the western horizon, Frodo gazes upon the following sight:

And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

To a certain extent, Christians can, at times, deserve criticism for fixating on the afterlife in an almost "escapist" fever pitch. However, it is also integral to the Christian experience to long for the world that is to come as well. As a theological aside, the evangelical theological construction of dispensationalism often comes under a great deal of scrutiny and scorn, but it should be remembered that all Christians are "dispensational" to some extent. How ever many "dispensations" one constructs in their theology of history, or however clearly they can be demarcated is a matter of debate. What is arguably universal though, is that all Christians hold to at least three "dispensations" (epochs of God's administration of his reign over all that differ with one another). These three are:

  1. Past tense - the way things were when they were as they are not right now, nor were they then as they are right now. This is seen in Creation, pictured as a garden, anthropologically seen as a period of innocence, and seen theologically as a time before redemption was necessary because sin had not yet infected all. This period was inaugurated by God in creation and concluded by God in the expulsion of humankind from "the garden."
  2. Present tense - the way things are that are not as they once were, nor as they will be one day. The state of the present world is clearly not enjoying universal innocence, nor is it yet experiencing universal redemption. The present world is broken, and therefore differs considerably from the world that was not yet broken (past tense) and the world that will be totally repaired (future tense).
  3. Future tense - the way things will be that are not as things are right now. The promise of a world in which the present "wrongs" are made right is a recurring theme throughout the Christian scriptures (both Old and New Testaments). This is a period wherein redemption is completed at every level of creation. What is currently broken is fixed. What is currently crooked is made straight. What is currently ugly is made beautiful. What is currently hoped for is realized.
Again, specifics within theses categories may remain points of debate within Christian circles. My personal preference is not to argue for more specific categories than I have outlined above. Certainly the above list places me in continuity with the ancient Church and in communion with the global Church as well - thus it is a "catholic" view of history. Divisions in the Church have often resulted from demanding greater specificity than this. Biblically, I do not see how greater specificity is necessary to grow in Christ.

Nevertheless, it is the third category to which I now turn.

When we reflect on symbols of beauty around us in times of worship, we must be thinking more of the world that is to come than of the world that was, because the one that is to come gets FAR more space in the Scriptures than the world that was. The new creation must occupy our mind more than the original one if only for this reason: the Scriptures invite us to.

When we enter the place of worship (and I'm thinking of our experience at the Church of the Holy Communion), there are so many elements designed to invoke the beauty of creation. The flowers on the altar, the carvings of grapevines and flowers on the tables and pews all point toward the bounty and beauty of God's creation (and also can point toward Christ being the "vine," and the "rose" of our redemption). Nevertheless, these are eschatological symbols of the world that is to come. Stepping into sacred space is to show up to "rehearse" one's reaction to the presence of God that will one day be unfiltered.

Holy Communion, itself, has an eschatological component in that we have the opportunity to participate in "the marriage feast of the Lamb" now that will have its fullest expression in the world that is to come. In fact, singing points toward the angelic choruses in which we will participate. I have little doubt (and evidence of this is found in John's Revelation) that the redemptive acts of Christ will be recounted then as well. For this reason the various readings are also rehearsal for what will be an eternal practice. The practice of worship is not a collection of misguided believers pining away for the "sweet bye and bye." It is the process of entering into "postcards of Heaven" in the present. In essence, the mentality necessary for Christian engagement in worship is to accept God's invitation into his transcendent reality that blurs the past, present and future together. Thus the Gloria Patri recited in morning and evening prayer seems less like poetic language, and more like a forensic disclosure of reality:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
(emphasis added - from the Book of Common Prayer)

Stepping into the place of worship is like rehearsing one's entrance into Heaven. The former creation is gone and cannot be reclaimed. However, the re-creation (restoration through redemption) is the more appropriate focus anyway. Not only is it given more space in the Scriptures, but the redemptive work of Christ will make it far better than what was before. One may be created in the "image of God," but is it not far greater to be conformed to the "image of Christ?"

Therefore, when we enter the place of worship, adorned with flowers, gathering the rays of sunlight, we journey to "a far green country." We taste in part the presence of Christ that we will one day enjoy to the full. We behold his beauty in preview. We touch the petals of his garden carved into the sides of pews. We smell the sweet incense of prayers offered to the Father when such practices are woven into liturgical worship (I'm among those hoping to experience it sometime soon - CHC does not presently include it). The "far green country" is not all that far away after all, for the liturgy and sacred space invite us to enter the "far green country" brought near. This must inform sacramental worship as well. Consider such overtones found in the Lord's prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom c
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,

for ever and
ever. Amen.
(emphasis added)

Indeed so much of the eschaton is pictured in the liturgy, and through the beauty of symbol throughout the worship space, that I, for one, am not above imagining the music from the Lord of the Rings playing in the background as I approach my pew, genuflecting as I turn to enter it.
I approach to encounter the Christ who will one day welcome me in full. I approach to touch the heaven I expect to see immediately after my mortal eyes close for the last time. I approach to accept God's invitation to season my "present tense" with the future. Gandalf is right to comfort with words of the "far green country," for indeed it is not as far away as even he supposes.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Old Words...Deep Words

Who writes this stuff anymore? I mean seriously. It seems we can't attend a church service anymore without leaving with a truckload of ideas to ponder and meditate on. It's almost if church should have been like this all along. Not to suggest that we've "discovered" a perfect church, for no such entity exists. However, our present experience is more closely approximating worship expectations we have had for some time now. Such expectations may have seemed unreasonable before, but now they seem appropriately intuitive.

For example, one of the hymns this week (I know. I know. I commented on the hymn last week too. Bear with me) fit so incredibly well with the current state of the United States of America. I was stuck by the timeliness of the poetry, though the hymn itself had obviously been written long ago. It went as follows:

O God of earth and altar. Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter, Our people drift and die;

The walls of gold entomb us, The swords of scorn divide,

Take not thy thunder from us, But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches, From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches That comfort cruel men,

From sale and profanation Of honor, and the sword,

From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together, Smite us and save us all:
In ire and exultation Aflame with faith, and free,

Lift up a living nation, A single sword to thee. Amen.

Wow! No that was a "prayer for the nation" that one can sink their teeth into. Such lyrics maintain the ancient and obligatory critique of one's country that prophetic voices of faith have a continual duty to sound. Because of my political bent, I found verse 2 particularly appropriate, yet the entire hymn was timely and applicable to the cultural ills of American society.

I am not the type of staunch traditionalist that would hold to only older music forms to the exclusion of all others. There seems, in my opinion, a place for both ancient AND timely expressions of aesthetic worship in the Church. Having said that though, I find it very, very rare for the contemporary lyricist to possess the poetic capacity found in older hymnody. If it's worth using in the service to give people the impression of worship, it's worth giving them a lasting impression after they've left the service. Thus I'm still reflecting on the song days later.

I've often said that although I do not begrudge Christians the use of contemporary music in worship, I prefer lyrics that I can read in prose with a straight face. While one might speak the poetry of "O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise," uttering lyrics such as "Yes Lord. Yes Lord, Yes, yes Lord!" appear better reserved for the enrapturing throws of sex. Therefore, let us continue to sing with our hearts that which can equally keep our minds occupied for a while too. Use what music style you want. I cannot be credibly dogmatic on that subject, but let the older words - the deeper words - be the poetry that the music ushers into the soul to churn and gestate into new spiritual life with each Sunday encounter.