Archive for June, 2016

28
Jun
16

FIVE WAYS BICYCLING IS LIKE THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

Bike rider photo

I have a new bike!

Actually it is a second-hand bike I bought from a friend. But it is new to me so I am calling it new.

And since I have now been out on my new bike a total of three times, I think I can officially call myself a bicycler. Or bicyclist. Or whatever they (we) call it.

With the benefit of this extensive experience, I have discovered that there are many benefits to be gained from the “life in the saddle.” Benefits such as an elevated heart rate now and then… feeling the wind whistle through your dorky looking bike helmet while coasting downhill… snazzy Spandex riding attire… and a whole list of secret hand signs you can exchange with others while out on the trail.

There is also an attendant list of hazards that are part of the two-wheeling life… not the least of which involves an unpleasant chafing.

But I won’t dwell on the downside of cycling too much. You will discover all of them soon enough on your own. The more pertinent part of the cycling experience that brings me here today is the surprising and unexpected relationship I discovered between bicycle riding and the spiritual life. Believe it or not. (So I guess I should really list that as another one of the benefits of cycling; it is not such a grueling test of pure physical exertion that your mind is prevented from discovering interesting and whimsical life lessons to be taken from the experience.)

And so… here are the Five Ways Bicycling Is Like the Spiritual Life:

  • There are ups… there are downs… there are flat places.
    Except the experience is exactly the opposite in the bicycle realm and the spiritual realm: the UPS in biking are when you are riding uphill. It is hard, agonizing, you sweat a lot and feel like quitting. The DOWNS are the fun part where you are coasting downhill, zipping along effortlessly and feeling the wind in your face. The UPS in the spiritual life are those rare and unique “mountaintop experiences” of bliss and wonder while the DOWNS are the times when you are low, despondent, and disconnected. The “flat places” are the same, however. Those are the times of extreme uneventfulness and even monotony. They are there to remind us of the value of faithfulness and persistence.
  • The experience is better when it is guided.
    You can head off into the wild, disdaining all paved paths, mile markers, or signs of civilization on your bicycle or spiritual journey. But both are enriched beyond measure when you take advantage of the experiences and wisdom of those who have gone before you. It is not necessary to re-invent either wheel because each journey becomes uniquely yours when you launch out and take it. The pride of the “spiritual swashbuckler” can effectively muffle the encounter with the divine. The humility of the spiritual student leaves an opening for an encounter with God.
  • The experience is better when it is a discipline.
    I could ride this morning, put my bicycle away for six months and then get it out and ride it again. Chances are I would have to spend a lot of time relearning some of the basics, tuning up the bike, strengthening neglected muscles, and wondering why this outfit doesn’t fit anymore. The overall result would likely leave me hostile to the entire undertaking and unwilling to repeat it again anytime soon. Engaging the spiritual journey erratically or episodically has the same effect. In each instance it is about maintaining and improving the health of a system. Neglect has never been a good way to improve the health of anything.
  • The experience is good with companions.
    We can – and often do – ride alone. Similarly we often engage spiritual practices in a solitary way. It is just like the Easter spiritual reminds us, “Oh, nobody else can walk it for you… you have to walk it by yourself.” But when we are occasionally able to make a connection with another who is on the journey, we find support, encouragement, and enrichment.
  • It is better when we go slower.
    Since my first extended bike ride was not that long ago, the experience is still fresh on my mind. I remember being amazed at how many more elements of the passing scenery I noticed when I went by on a bicycle instead of zipping by in a car. There were houses and trees and landscapes and animals I had simply never seen before. “Journey by car” tends to fix our attention on the destination… the place where we will be at the end of the road. “Journey by bike” helps us attend to the sights at hand. And so if that’s true, just imagine what “journey by foot” might do! The same is true on the spiritual journey. The essential nature of this journey is that it is a journey of mindfulness… of soaking our hearts, minds and souls in the rich broth of God’s creation.

I am certain there are at least sixteen other parallels I have neglected in this little essay and some that you don’t agree with. That’s OK! Please feel free to add or subtract from this.

But the one last, all-important parallel is this: that an encounter with and vital relationship with God is ultimately the point of both of these journeys. Because as Paul reminds us in Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being…”

AMEN.

24
Jun
16

BLESSED MESSES

To tell you, “I am not a fan of messes” and leave it there would be to willfully mislead you.

I can’t stand messes. I deplore them.

In fact, when it comes to things being dirty, out of place, unkempt, strewn about, untidy, chaotic, or in any state of disarray, “hate” is really not too strong a word to paint an accurate picture of my emotional state.

And so, to cope with this somewhat neurotic distress I find I have become a compulsive tidier-upper and putter-awayer. But don’t take my word for it; just ask my wife how many of her half empty Diet Cokes have gone missing from the kitchen counter in the last month.

I will also confide that I usually feel very self-righteous and more than a wee bit smug as I go on my tidy way.

Yes, I do realize that this admission puts my man card at serious risk. But those are just the brutally honest facts about who I am and what makes me tick.

And so it was with a very mixed set of emotions that I viewed a story on our local Public Broadcasting Service station recently. It was a story produced as a part of the “Beyond Belief” series… highlighting the intersection of faith and life in the Kansas City area. The story was about how a woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo fled her country three years ago in fear for her life and somehow found her way here to the heartland of America.

One of the first things she did was to locate a church where she could worship. And when that church – Central UMC – demonstrated that it was open and excited to have this woman and her family with them, she began inviting other family members and friends.

Despite the fact that very few of the new African residents spoke English and despite the fact that their worship style was very different from that of their host congregation, they felt as if they had found a new home there at Central.

In fact, so many Africans began to come and attend Central that they have now come to outnumber the original congregation. The pastor and the other church leaders found themselves at a critical decision point… a fork in the road where they had to choose to turn either left or right. Staying put was no longer an option.

The choice, in essence, was between tidy and messy.

The tidy choice – given their new reality – would have been to create two separate congregations under one roof: one service for the original, mainly white congregation, and a whole different worship service, preacher, Sunday school program, and structure for the African members… likely with a degree of financial support and encouragement from the original congregation.

The messy choice would be to keep everyone together; white people and Africans in the same service and Sunday schools… translations going back and forth of each part of the service, classic American Protestant worship styles and music mingling with rhythmic, energetic African styles in the same service. Children’s Sunday school classes overflowing with black and white children… too few teachers and too few resources to serve adequately.

Beyond that were other logistical and financial considerations about the church leadership and administration that were not really touched on in the piece, but which – I imagine – would also involve no small degree of messiness.

As they faced that critical crossroads, the church prayerfully chose messy over tidy. And as the piece unfolded, the images of that messy, lively, loving, spirit-filled congregation connecting in worship and life were just beautiful to behold.

I am sure things don’t always work the way they should at the church. I am sure misunderstandings and mis-communications happen on a regular basis. Feelings may even be hurt now and then in the process. But what they have received in return for choosing the messy path is LIFE. Pure, bubbling, effervescent, throbbing life… probably the kind Jesus was referring to when he talked about “life abundant” in John 10:10.

It made me stop and look back on the times in my life when I have been a part of something new and innovative. I remembered that those times were almost always messy right at the outset… and sometimes continued to be messy even for a long time after. You don’t have predictable patterns to be guided by. There is not a known routine or set of operating instructions. People are not on the same page because that page hasn’t been written yet. It is often uncomfortably messy.

But there IS life. And that life is good.

And so it made me wonder… how often in the midst of my compulsive pursuit of order and tidiness, is it possible that I (or any of you other neat freaks out there) might be sacrificing life and vitality on the altar of neatness? How often might we just sanitize the MOJO out of something in order to keep it manageable and orderly?

Yes… Genesis tells us that in the beginning God created order out of chaos and darkness. But I believe the narrative we see over and over and over again in rest of the Bible tells us that God is the God of the NEW… the SURPRISING… the UNEXPECTED… and yes… even the messy. (See Isaiah 43:18-19, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Revelation 21:5, etc.).

Though it pains me a little to say it out loud, I must now say: thank God for the mess. Thank God for life.

16
Jun
16

The Need To Know

Classroom photo

Have you ever been unemployed and then spent months sending countless resumes out into the ozone?

Have you ever gone to the doctor for a test on a strange bump, lump, or mole?

Have you ever anxiously paced the floor at night, 45 minutes after your teenager’s curfew, wondering where the _____ they are?

If so, then you know a thing or two about waiting. You know about not knowing.

So often, in anxiety-producing situations like these, the not knowing is the worst part of the ordeal; Not knowing if the news is good or bad… Not knowing if there is a solution… Not knowing what the path forward should be… Not knowing how the rest of your life might be changed… or not changed.

And so it is a perfectly natural human response to situations of uncertainty to crave certainty… to be able to KNOW something for sure. Because when we KNOW, we can act. And when we can act, we don’t feel quite as victimized by the random circumstances of our lives. It is a simple formula:

KNOWING = PEACE OF MIND.

CERTAINTY = CONFIDENCE.

Peace of mind and confidence are rare and wonderful commodities… highly sought after in the kind of topsy-turvy world we live in today. But I wonder if it is possible that in our rush to certainty we (I) might be guilty of overlooking the value of the process of getting there.

Let me broaden the question a little and ask this: is it possible that in our results-oriented, instant gratification culture we might tend to value the END much more than the means of getting to that end?

It is not only possible, but I believe this is an absolutely dead-on description of how we operate in this country today. Witness the vast number of people who state that their goal in life is to “be rich” or to “be famous” without any apparent consideration of the process of getting there. Witness the explosion of credit card debt in the U.S. – the sure-fire plastic path to acquiring a coveted thing today without worrying about how to pay for it until later. Witness the proliferation of casinos, lotteries, and other “get rich quick” schemes. Witness diet pills, stomach reduction surgeries, and “magic belts” that promise to rid us of extra weight without the muss and fuss of careful eating and regular exercise.

Witness, sadly, the precipitous rise of addiction rates in this country… as people seek to feel good RIGHT NOW.

Time and time again, it seems that when we undervalue the process, we lose track of something vital and important.

The same is true when we short-cut the process of getting to CERTAINTY. We want the answer, but we don’t really want to do the work of discovering the answer. That is because the process of discovering the answer often means beginning by putting ourselves in a vulnerable place. It means starting by admitting that you DON’T KNOW the answer. It means committing yourself to looking under every possible rock where an answer might possibly be found. It means considering first one option, and then another option, and then again possibly a THIRD or FOURTH option. It means patiently putting pieces together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

And – perhaps most frightening of all – it means starting the journey with the stark awareness that you might well finish in a different place than you thought you would.

That whole process I have just described has a name. It is called LEARNING. And sometimes learning can be intimidating… mainly because learning has the potential to pick you up from one place and plop you down in a completely new place.

There are numerous examples in my life of things I have had to unlearn in order to relearn. One of those examples is in my attitude toward homosexuality. There was a time in my life when I KNEW with absolute certainty that homosexuals were demented, mentally unstable, and probably dangerous people. After all, I reasoned, who in their right mind could possibly prefer to have sexual relations with someone of the same gender?

But then I met some gay folks. And then I discovered I had some family members who were gay. And then I met some other gay people and talked to them and worked with them. And then I read current literature about homosexuality. And, being a person of faith, I prayed about my attitude. And then finally I ended up in a completely different place than where I started out.

It didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen easily. The important thing is: it happened. But the first step to helping it happen was a willingness to grab myself by the lapels, look into the mirror and say, “There is every chance that you are dead wrong about this whole thing, bub.”

As we age, we learn. Sometimes we seek the knowledge and sometimes the knowledge seeks us. But as we age we also often make the mistake of thinking that once we have learned something and relegated it to the file drawer marked, “Certainty,” we will never need to revisit it again.

“After all,” we reason, “I did a lot of work on this question before arriving at this conclusion. I am now finished with it and ready to move on and tackle something else.” Sometimes re-examining our certainties can seem to be an activity akin to a furniture maker knocking on your door asking if he or she could come in and do “just a little more work” on that coffee table in the living room.

Given the time we occupy right now in this country – a time of extremism expressing itself in many forms, a time of violence, a time of unrest and insecurity about the future – it is my hope and prayer that each of us might voluntarily become more vulnerable and actively engage the task of re-examining our certainties. Pull them down off that dusty shelf… turn them over this way and that… peer closely and intently into the beating heart of the matter. Honestly and humbly ask God what you might have missed and where your certainty is incomplete.

The writer of Proverbs said it eloquently with these words: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6, NRSV).

In every conflict in the world that has ever resulted in tragedy and sorrow, both sides begin with a high degree of certainty about the rightness of their cause combined with a fierce will to defend that rightness.

Why don’t we pledge ourselves today to a little less certainty and to a little more humility and willingness to learn? We might be amazed at where that approach takes us.

10
Jun
16

Scar Show

scarYou’ve heard of a car show.

But what about a “scar show”?

I became involved with one of these a couple of weeks ago.

The occasion was a visit back to see my siblings and parents in the Pacific Northwest. One afternoon as we were driving south on the freeway, I said to my brother, “Hey, isn’t this the exit we always took to get to that first house we lived in out here?”

He agreed it was, and so, just for fun, we decided to take the exit. We were both curious to see if the house we moved in to in 1969 was still standing.

He knew exactly which turns would get us to the spot. And sure enough, there it was… our house! Right where we left it. Of course the whole area around it had changed dramatically. No more big open fields with ponds and trees. Just a whole bunch of other houses… cheek by jowl… crowding the entire area.

As we started to drive away, the road turned sharply downhill. I turned to my brother and said, “Oh wow! Remember your sledding accident on this hill? Remember that awful gash on your leg? How many stitches did it take to close that thing up?”

Naturally, a conversation that begins with that kind of set-up would not be complete without getting a first-hand look at the actual scar that resulted from such a mishap. And then of course, you know what happens next; somebody else has to show THEIR scar and then the next person shows THEIR own scar and so on…

Hence the name: scar show.

A couple of years ago I was able to overhear a slightly different kind of scar show going on. There was a table of men near me at a local McDonald’s. I estimated they were all baby boomers (like me) and a couple were even a little bit older than that. It was early morning and this seemed to be a regular gathering with senior coffees, Egg McMuffins and other breakfast items. I was trying not to eavesdrop, but the volume of the discussion made it impossible not to.

Soon the conversation turned into a scar show. The difference in this case was that the scars they were comparing were not the visible, physical kind. They were not – thankfully – lifting up shirts and rolling up pants legs to show off old war wounds.

But in much the same way that my brother and I had engaged in a friendly game of “can you top this” with the scars on our bodies, the guys at McDonalds that morning were comparing the scars on their souls.

They talked about divorces, disappointments, and deaths. They compared their different experiences of unemployment, underemployment, unease, and uncertainty. They had seen injustice, intolerance, ineptitude, and intoxication.

They had each been through a lot. And they were not afraid to come right out and say so. My heart was going out to them (and honestly, probably still should) right up to the point where they started comparing their wounds to the wounds of the present generation. And as you might guess, the present generation did not come out very well in the comparison.

“Kids today… they don’t know how good they have it,” one said. “They really think it is a disaster when the Internet goes down for a few minutes, or when their Starbucks latte isn’t made quite right.”

The speaker snorted a disapproving snort and then continued, “I’d like to see them try to deal with some of the stuff that we had to deal with when we were their age. They wouldn’t have the first clue about how to cope with ANY of it!”

Naturally the speaker was showered with affirmations from both sides of the table. Had it continued much longer, in fact, he might be standing today as the nominee for president of one of the parties.

But the whole conversation started me pondering the effect of the activity taking place there… the activity of comparing scars and insisting that somehow MY pain is greater than YOURS.

I wondered, why do we do it? Is there any value to it?

In the first place, I don’t know whether my pain is greater than yours. How can I?

I know that when the thing happened in my life that caused the pain – be it divorce, job loss, bloody nose, or sprained ankle – it HURT! In fact, it hurt like hell! But I was not inside your skin when your moment of pain occurred. I can’t possibly know what the experience was like for you. Not only that, your pain threshold is likely very different from mine. You might just shrug off something that makes me cry like a baby, or vice versa.

Given the difficulty of accurately comparing our two different, highly subjective experiences of pain, I began to feel that I must be seeking a payoff of some kind when I invite you to participate in a “scar show” like this.

But what is that payoff? Am I looking for sympathy? Am I in search of fellowship and some ground of mutual connection? Am I seeking to somehow bolster my own self-image by asserting a superior level of tolerance or virtue?

It could be any of the above. Or it might be some other motivation I haven’t considered. I am certainly not smart or insightful enough to be able to accurately name all the hidden forces at work below the surface of my consciousness.

But this I do know: neither my pain nor yours hold a candle to the pain Jesus experienced in his death. Or, for that matter, to the pain in God’s heart as he watched his son suffer. Both had to have been utterly “off the charts” in either the physical or spiritual dimensions when it comes to any kind of agony you and I might ever experience.

And now, maybe for the first time ever, I think I might realize why the pain of the cross HAD to be such a super, extra, heavy duty, uber level of pain. It had to be exactly that so that no pain on earth would ever be able to compare to it. Wherever human experience took us, there could never be the slightest doubt that God has walked in exactly the shoes we are walking in… no matter how much they hurt.

I think that also might be what it means when our Creed makes a point of including the phrase, “He descended into Hell.” It might well mean, “No horror you can imagine is beyond the reach of your Creator. Whatever is happening or has happened to you, he has been there too. In fact, He IS there. Right now.”

As Jesus said in his farewell discourse to the disciples right before being led off to his trial, torture, and crucifixion, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NRSV).

My pain is mine. Your pain is yours. But thanks be to God, all of it belongs to Christ and has been redeemed by him forever. AMEN.

07
Jun
16

No. We are not more.

haitquake1In September, 2010 I had the privilege of traveling to Haiti with a team of missioners from the same local church where I served. We were there to make a small contribution to the clean-up effort following the devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck that country on January 12, 2010.

As was the case with my trip to the U.S. Gulf coast following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the visual image that made the strongest impression was the sheer vastness of the destruction. Of course, video shot by news organizations had provided the world with a keyhole view of a smashed home here or a leveled school over there.

Those sights were heart-rending enough.

But when you arrive at one of those places and drive and drive and drive and see nothing but smashed buildings, uprooted trees, twisted metal, broken wood, piles of debris, and garbage everywhere, it jolts a new sense of proportion into your brain. You can’t say much besides, “Holy crap! I had no idea…” and then let your voice drift off on the wind.

As we began working in Haiti, shoveling rock and sand and passing cinder blocks down the fire brigade line, we talked. Folks on the team talked with one another, but we also talked with some of the residents who were working with us.

One such conversation with one of my teammates remains firmly planted in my brain to this day. After passing blocks for a few hours, we were sitting down taking a break. He pointed across the street to one of the flattened structures and said, “Do you see what is missing in that pile of rubble?” I had to confess that I did not and so he continued, “There’s no rebar sticking up. That is why there was so much destruction and death from this earthquake. The quake itself was pretty bad, but the majority of buildings around here aren’t built with iron rebar between the cinder blocks.”

He continued and explained, “They do it that way because they can’t afford the steel. It is a lot cheaper to build that way, but it also means that a building that might otherwise hold up in a moderate quake instead collapses completely and crushes the people inside.”

It was a case of a foundational weakness… invisible to most… that led to untold damage and destruction.

I think that image also forms a darned good metaphor for the current conversation about human sexuality taking place in the United Methodist Church. Because for me, the question of how we view all of our brothers and sisters – those folks standing beside me who are just as surely created in the image of God as I am – is a foundational issue.

It is not something that is on the periphery of things. It is not one issue in the deluge of lots of other issues. It is not something we have to figure out how to prioritize or budget for. It is not something that stands in the way getting the “real” work of the church done, as seems to be the underlying message of the current United Methodist “We Are More” campaign.

It is foundational. It is that upon which everything else rests.

For me, deciding to view the question of how we will treat LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church and respond by saying, “We are more than this,” is akin to touring a home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti a month before the earthquake and saying, “Look at the beautiful paint and lovely furniture and the decorations on the walls of this house. Look at the view out of this window. There is so much more to this house than the simple lack of rebar in the walls. Why focus on the negative when there is obviously so much positive here to see?”

Because just as a house is ultimately not more than the foundation on which it is built, a church is finally not more than its collective, agreed, and encoded decision about how it views God and how it views all people.

Either the rebar is there, or it isn’t.

Bishops are fond of telling us to “keep the main thing the main thing.” I for one cannot thing of a “mainer” thing than to make up our minds about whether ALL people (and yes, all means all) will be able to sit at the table of grace or not.

 

Continuing to pray for my church…




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