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.