Friday, January 31, 2014

Winter Beauty

The day wound down like so many others -- in my office with one group entering as another was leaving -- making plans for this worship service, that mission trip. We consulted calendars, created communication plans and confirmed our to-do's.  After three straight hours, the heat of logistics evaporated any sense of the sacred.

 When the last group left,  I stole a glance out my window to discover a gentle snowfall, the refracting light suggesting a moment to pause and appreciate the beauty. As I glanced across the hushed cityscape, I remembered our Room in the Inn guests, chronically homeless members of our community,  gathering in the Fellowship Hall for a meal and warm shelter. I offered a quick prayer of gratitude  that our congregation would take in these guests and decided to see if they needed any extra volunteers.

I approached the Fellowship Hall, glanced through the window panes, and was struck by another picture. A passel of  young adults -- most of them new to Charlotte and Covenant --  were sitting at round tables, sharing a meal, engaging in conversation, and enjoying our guests. The menu that night reflected the demographic: Bojangles instead of meatloaf, Trader Joe's ready-to-eat in place of casseroles.

It was a remarkable sight for many reasons. Young adults with a multitude of options giving of their time and energy to serve the homeless of their new city. Faithful young professionals braving poor driving conditions, last-minute shopping lines, and traffic jams to make their way to church to serve with others they barely knew. Nearly all of them came straight from work, and they did it all with a spirit of joy and humility.

As I left that evening, I did so again amazed a the quiet ways of God, the only one capable of orchestrating such a sacred scene. Homeless members of our community -- certainly in need of shelter and food -- but needing even more  someone with whom to share a meal, sitting at round tables with young adults new to the community, away from their families, also in need of table fellowship. As a rare winter snow brought a thriving city to a standstill, two disparate segments of the same community discovered God's subtle provision in each other. 

Winter beauty indeed.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Angel Makers

Angel Makers

Something about Christmas puts me on spiritual notice. I suppose if God can show up in a stable, there's no telling where the sacred might show up…. a family meal, a hospital room, a child's laugh, a walk around the block. Who knows, God might even show up in church! Most often,  God shows up when I'm not really looking, as if to keep me guessing, and I only catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. 

Truth be told, I sort of expect God to show up in church on Christmas Eve. The carols, scripture readings, a piece from Handel's Messiah (thank you, choir), and a highly artistic rendition of  Little Drummer Boy (thank you, worship team) seem to increase the likelihood.  Yet, once again, God showed up in the most surprising way. 

This time it was through the angel ornaments, a new tradition for our Christmas Eve services. Unbeknownst to most in the congregation, small groups of friends had been gathering for months to craft exquiste handmade angel ornaments (fine satin and lace, hand-cut and sewn) to be given to all in attendance on Christmas Eve.  These 'angel makers" met quietly, worked diligently, and prayed faithfully that their gift would bring healing and hope, not only to their lives (many of whom had suffered loss recently) but to all who attended our Christmas Eve services.

We sweated the details of how this would work out: counting angels, sizing baskets, sleeving each angel in a protective sheath,  timing music, and carefully mapping an "angel ornament" distribution plan. In worship, we introduced the angels by asking everyone to take "one ornament per family, however you define family" and sent the ushers down the aisles armed with baskets overflowing with angels. Grace prevailed and somehow it all worked with minimal chaos. Each family received an angel ornament.  The ushers took up the offering and exited the sanctuary in their allotted time. We exhaled and a new tradition was born.

Then  God -- who is able to do far more than we could ask or imagine -- started to show up in the most (extra) ordinary ways. After the service I was greeted at the door by two elementary school-aged sisters, each with an ornament. With tears in her eyes, their mother hugged me and whispered, "Their dad and I just separated, and they wanted one for his home as well. I hope that's ok." I wanted to say "No. It's not ok; it's beautiful and lovely, exactly what we want this church to be about." Imagine that,  God using the church to help children build a bridge between two homes saddened by loss.

 A few moments later an elderly woman exited with her daughter in-law and grandchildren. Her son was absent due to an array of high-consequence decisions. She held the angel tightly and said, "I'm putting this on my bedside table to remember the promise of good news. God knows could use some right now."
Then she reached out her hand to her granddaughter, steadied herself, and walked arm in arm toward a Christmas Eve dinner very different than any of them expected.

Another woman let me know she hadn't set foot in a church since her husband died. But she'd heard that others who experienced loss like hers had decided to honor their loved ones by making and giving angels, and she wanted an angel to help her journey toward healing.

The stories have continued almost every day since, convincing me that God showed up on Christmas eve pretty much the same way God shows up every time,  not in the fanfare of trumpets and choirs, nor in the well-spoken word or careful choreography of worship, but through the humble, anonymous, prayer soaked offering of servants who hoped their efforts would serve God's purposes in ways beyond anything they could ask or imagine. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Summer Reading

The mere utterance of 'summer reading' has elicited eye rolls and heavy sighs in our home in recent years. I can't really blame them. Who wants to engage The Scarlet Letter when the fifth season of "Gossip Girl" has just been released? Besides, with the advent of Snapchat and Vine technologies, who has time to let a plot line unfold? Extended time for reading is a quaint idea, akin to eight track tapes and tail fins.

Yet this summer -- more than any in recent memory -- has allowed me time (most of it on the way to and from Kenya) to engage some wonderful works.  Perhaps the most important book I've read in recent years is Eboo Patel's Sacred Ground. If someone wants to make an important investment in our world, get in touch with me about bringing him to Charlotte. His work with young people through his Interfaith Youth Corp is the most hopeful  way forward for our world, and especially for our nation. We'll study the book at Covenant in the fall, but I encourage all readers to pick up a copy now and enjoy.

I also branched out a bit this summer and enjoyed some surprising works. The first surprise was The Untethered Soul, an explicitly Buddhist book about centering our hearts and minds. At times the concepts are a elusive to my western mind, but for any who over-invest in people and causes, who ruminate and obsess over  children, and suffer other inward challenges, it offers sage advice.

Years ago I swore off the whole genre of church leadership books, but like a lover with boundary issues, I took up two books on organizational and church leadership that were so compelling they kept me up at night. First was Blue Ocean, a book on how to transcend the typical turf wars of competing entities. They principles within apply to churches, educational institutions, and businesses. I plan to study it with some staff members in the fall. The most surprising book I read -- one which is almost embarrassing to admit I've devoured -- is Andy Stanley's Deep and Wide. If you haven't read it, don't laugh. He's a thinker, analyst, communicator, and motivator. Dismiss his ideas to your own peril (I'm talking to you, my Presbyterian minister and elder friends).

Finally, I substantiated my reading by finally taking on William Placher's Essentials of Christian Theology. I've meant to read this compendium for years and am sorry to have waited. Many of my classmates have entries, and I commend it to those who long for substantial Christian theology. I especially like LeAnne Van Dyke's entry and remember fondly her contributions during theology class over twenty five years ago.

I'll offer an update a few weeks from now but hope to tackle a few other works. Feel free to suggest your favorites.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Celebration Dance


David Partington, a valued friend and colleague, introduced me to the work of John August Swanson, an artist whose etchings and serigraphs capture spiritual experiences. Perhaps my favorite of his works is "Celebration" which shows a dance with musicians playing, candles burning, and people of all ages joining hands to fill the room with joyful dance. It's an image of life at its richest.
















I was reminded of this "Celebration" dance last weekend when other friends generously hosted a graduation party for our twins at their lake house. The day was beautiful and bright, and people from multiple generations gathered on the lake, lawn, and patio to enjoy the gift of each other. Youth advisors who had guided our children, school friends, church friends, long time family friends, grandparents, and others from across the landscape of our lives gathered for no other reason than to share the joy of traveling together.

As I stood on the patio looking out at the festivities, I marveled at the beauty of it all, how blessed we are to dance through this life with more fine people than we could possibly name. I couldn't help but wonder if this is what God had in mind for the human enterprise.... a joyful dance with hands joined, arms raised, light shining, music playing ....  populated by those with whom we are privileged to share the journey. It's a marvelous image for this thing we call church.

To all those who have been church to our family for the last twenty one years of raising children, thank you for joining us in the dance. We're honored and grateful.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Spiritual Observations from 14,000 Feet


If you take a summer drive through Eagle County, Colorado and look to the south, Mount of the Holy Cross -- with its 14,005-foot peak -- reveals itself in full splendor. The mountaintop is famous for large summer snowfields, one of which forms a distinctive cross. In the late 1800’s, William Henry Jackson published a picture of this so-called “Holy Cross,” subsequently drawing thousands in pilgrimage to this site.

When I first saw Mount of the Holy Cross thirty years ago, something about its beauty beckoned me to the summit, and recently I decided to give it a try. I invited a friend to join me and along the way made some observations about risk, guidance, nourishment and reward.

Observation #1: Staying Alive Includes The Risk of Failure.
William Carey, the famous British missionary, once said, “Attempt great things for God: Expect Great things from God.” There is something refreshing and good about applying ourselves to endeavors that require God’s help to succeed, endeavors which attempted with only our own strength are sure to fail. The thrill of such a daunting summit attempt lay in very real possibility of failure. Approaching endeavors beyond our own capacity, ventures which rely on God’s help to succeed, injects an important dose of vitality into our lives.

Scripture is full of examples. When God appeared to Moses, God said, “Go down to Egypt and free my people from slavery!” Moses responded, “I can’t do that. I stutter. I’m not good at speaking. Besides, I murdered someone down there.” Yet God’s call remained. When God said to Jeremiah, “Go speak a word of truth to power. Remind them they are to worship me alone.” Jeremiah said, “You sure you want me? I’m just a boy.” Again, God’s call remained. When God commanded Amos to speak a strong word of justice, Amos was understandably nervous. “But God, I’m just a tender of sycamore trees.” Still God’s call remained. Max Dupree once said, “Never insult a leader with an easy job.” And God never does. When we accept the call to something bigger than ourselves, we are released from the false sense of self-sufficiency, led into a spirit of humility and trust, and emerge with a fuller measure of life.

Observation #2: Travel with an Experienced Guide
After numerous mishaps and near disasters in my outdoor adventures, I finally subsumed my pride to common sense and hired a guide. The guide granted my friend Stephen and me all kinds of freedom to hike according to our desires -- stopping when needed, pausing for pictures, answering questions – and he inserted himself only when necessary to save us from harsh consequences born of inexperience.

His value was evident from the outset. The temperature was 25 degrees colder than anticipated, and at the trailhead he opened his well-stocked trunk, inviting us to grab any extra equipment we needed. He also insisted on walking sticks, unnecessary on a 6,000-foot ascent, but essential aids on a descent navigated by fatigued minds and legs. He also insisted on sunscreen which we didn’t need at 15 degrees in the dark of morning, but was essential to our health a few hours later when we stood under a cloudless sky at 14,000 feet.

Perhaps most importantly our guide provided an intimate knowledge of the landscape. Much of the terrain lacked distinction, making it easy to drift a few degrees left or right, such that over time we would have been significantly off course. On this particular hike, just a few hundred yards of drift led to dangerous cliffs from which many previous hikers had required rescue. Thankfully, our guide had solid points of reference, made small corrections along the way, and got us to our destination safely.

The same is true for the spiritual journey. Wise spiritual guides can keep us from drifting according to the landscape. They can set points of reference, offer a seasoned read on the terrain, and share knowledge of the contours of the hills and valleys because they’ve been there before. If we walk with a trusted guide, we can receive small correctives for the journey and avoid a potentially harrowing and expensive rescue.

Observation #3: Start Early Because Storms Come at Mid-Day
We hit the trail at 5:00 am, the launch time for all guided hikes, because storms start to brew at the summit around mid-day. Even the most inexperienced hiker knows the worst place to be during a lightning storm is at the summit, only halfway through your hike. Safe refuge is hard to find, wind blows strongest, rain pelts hardest, and navigating the way home can become very difficult if not downright unpleasant.
The same can be said for our lives: Illness, teenagers, mortality, addiction, marital strife all the threatening storms of life start flashing their lightning about mid-way through. The wisdom of a challenging hike holds true in the spiritual life as well. Our ability to endure storms is largely dependent on how far we’ve traveled, our comfort level on the trail, and our knowledge of safe hiding places along the way. If we want to end our journey well, we must start early, because storms come at mid-day.

Observation #4: Hydrate or Die
When hiking at altitude, dehydration can sneak up on anyone, with devastating effect. Physical weakness, diminished cognitive ability, and even altitude sickness are more likely when a hiker is dehydrated. At altitude, hydration is more discipline than desire. Successful climbers drink before thirst and eat before hunger. On our climb, we carried as much water as possible (120 milliliters each), carefully measured our intake and stopped to compensate if we ever fell behind.

The parallels to the spiritual life are obvious. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says,

"But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst." Jn. 6:35

Ministry leaves little appetite for personal spiritual hydration. We pray for others, study for presentation, and worship as a form of work, but that does little to hydrate our own spirits with living water. If we're not careful, we get behind, start to feel weak and experience diminished cognitive and emotional ability. Dehydration of our spirits quickly leads to a loop of spiritual/emotional doom from which it's very difficult to escape. Experienced hikers know you have to drink before being thirsty, to hydrate as practice instead of feel.

Observation #5 Stop and Enjoy the View
On the way up the mountain, Stephen and I were so invigorated by the challenge we fixed our sites on the summit and set out quickly. Our stated goal was simply to summit, but a secondary goal was to finish in less than seven hours, a feat accomplished by an elite few. We ascended at pace, took short breaks, and snacked as we walked. At the summit we celebrated briefly, ate lunch, took a few pictures, pulled out our walking sticks and headed down.

Nearly half way down, serious fatigue began to set in. Knees ached, calves burned, and Advil lost nearly all its magic. Our guide saw the staggering and again offered valuable input. “I need to pull over for a minute and change socks,’ he said. “I’m getting some blisters.”

We gladly obliged his need and sat down on a rock. He took his sweet time, slowly unlacing his boots, air drying his feet and scrounging around in his pack for a fresh pair of socks. “Look up at that mountain.” he said. “Can you believe you did that?” We glanced up at the gleaming summit and enjoyed a moment of accomplishment.

“Don’t you want to change your socks too?”

Come to think of it, we did. We sat a bit longer, changed, and got re-oriented to the remaining portion of the journey. We moved much more slowly now, down the mountain, out of the sun, into the wooded portion, and after only forty-five minutes came upon a stream. Once again our guide said, “I need some water. In fact, why don’t we all fill up?” Off came the packs, out came the water filtration system, and we sat by the stream as the fresh water supply slowly filtered into our packs.

Re-loaded, we trudged on even more slowly, and on the final leg climbed through a switchback to a clearing. “This is the last full view of the mountain,” our guide said. “Let’s just enjoy it for a while.” We stood in silence, admiring the majesty of creation.

When we are young and ambitious, it’s difficult to slow down and enjoy the journey. But, without proper pacing, we become fatigued, start aching, and begin to trip and fall, sometimes in a disastrous fashion. When we stop to appreciate the view, take in the beauty along the way, and pace ourselves appropriately, we not only enjoy the journey but invest in a more successful completion.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Growing Beyond Boundaries

One of the joyful surprises of aging is learning to relax into new forms of spirituality. It’s small consolation for knees that ache and hips in perpetual lockdown but the inward ease of spirituality in the second half of life calls to mind the “fountains of living water” Jesus describes. I’m not sure how it happens, maybe through the same processes that turn hair gray and injuries permanent, but after years of seeing a world of scarcity where only the strong survive, I find suddenly an intensified beauty to the journey, a delicacy to life, and a sacredness in sharing it with others.

We don’t start the journey that way. When initially making our way -- be it in faith, career, or relationship -- we mark our boundaries, establish evaluative measures, and carefully circumscribe everything about us. Earlier in my life I cared deeply about things like membership numbers, race times, and savings account balances. These days, my focus has subtly shifted toward quality conversation, experiences shared with loved ones, and the joy of a growing faith. This shift must be what Ken Wilber meant when suggesting that the spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian.

The problem is that the boundaries needed to sustain the constructs of life’s first half often ignore the spiritual needs of the second half. At some point – especially in the realm of faith – we become less interested in whether something is practical, revenue generating or efficient and long for something to touch our souls, to feed our spirits, and allow spacious room to breathe.

That’s why Jesus found boundaries terribly uninteresting. They were too limiting, ultimately insufficient for the spiritual needs of God’s people. Instead, Jesus saw the larger whole, the both-and way of faith, and trusted in God’s goodness to work out the boundaries. So he said dangerous inclusionary things like, “My Father’s sun shines on the good and the bad, his rains fall on the just and the unjust.” Or, “Don’t pull out the weeds or you might pull out the wheat along with the harvest.”

Today we see a broad movement toward messy spirituality, boundary-less, undefined spirituality. This movement is manifesting itself largely as a rejection of ‘organized religion’ (whatever that is) and the Church that represents it. Some church leaders bemoan this movement, fight it at every turn, and even do things like embrace Latin liturgies and ancient creeds to plant a stake in the ground against it. I’m occasionally tempted to join the chorus that offers vigorous declarations demarcating our boundaries. How else can we be sure not to drown in a sea of competing ideologies? Besides, the sanctuary is the only realm where clergy still have a touch of control.

But I wonder if it would be wiser to listen to these spiritual but not religious, boundary-less anti-institutional people. I wonder if they’re rightly calling into question the focus of our faith and encouraging us to grow into more mature expressions of Christianity, faith that is less competition with those outside our tradition and more cooperation, less critique of those who think and act differently and more collaboration on our shared values, less attack on the perceived ‘other’ and more appreciation for the divine in us all. I wonder if the ‘spiritual but not religious’ movement isn’t a God-given catalyst to those of us affiliated with Christian faith to move beyond the boundaries of the first half of life that no longer serve us well and into the God-breathed beauty of the second half, even if we can’t control its outcome.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Time in the Second Half

Sitting in the eye doctor’s chair a couple of weeks ago, with my pupils duly dilated, the lights dimmed, nothing there to read but the eye chart, and the doctor, as always, busy with somebody else, I realized once again, how vital my time has become. It’s part personality. I’ve long tried to maximize my time, but that trait is facing a force multiplier now from children whose time at home is short, and the unfathomable reality of finding my way fully into mid-life. So it is that I am cherishing time, salvaging time, multi-tasking, looking for short cuts, time-savers, trying, in other words, to fill right up to the brim each and every remaining waking minute.

That’s probably what led me to Richard Rohr’s new book, Falling Upward, A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. In it, he speaks of deconstructing “first half of life containers” in favor of more generative, open and loving constructs the second half. He quotes Albert Einstein who said, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it in the first place” and suggests that the second half of life both forces and invites us to a more healthy and grace-filled world-view.

One way to read this passage in Luke is to see that this deconstruction/reconstruction happened to the disciples when they recognized the risen Christ. Their early containers of a politically motivated, power-based messiahship were deconstructed, and the resurrection invited them into a whole new construct for faith and life, one that sounded an awful lot like risk, trust, surrender, and gratitude, of living in a fashion that recognizes the sacredness of life, that sees life as more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable and more wonderfully troubling than they could have imagined before they had gone through the difficulty of the first half. The may not have liked it, but they embraced it, and reconstructed their lives based on this new understanding of faith. In fact, history suggests that all disciples were so compelled by the importance of the gospel that they gave their lives for it.

Deconstruction involves loss, which is not always our favorite topic. Growth requires change, another less-than-favorite notion. But this Easter I also had a wonderful reminder of its rewards. When I was a child, Easter was typically a bit of a disappointment. We weren’t Roman Catholic like most of our neighbors and didn’t get new suits, dresses, or ties. We typically got a Fanny Farmer chocolate bunny and some jelly beans, most of which my father ate after we went to bed. Easter, frankly, devolved into little more than a boring time with relatives with whom we shared little in common, a day I wished away as fast as possible.

But this Easter, on the spur of the moment, my sister called to say she was nearby and, after some coaxing, agreed to come to spend the evening with us, bringing her eldest daughter with her. We didn’t do much … went for a walk, sat on the porch, shared a meal and some family stories. But beneath the surface something far more profound was happening, as I realized my understanding of Easter had experienced the deconstruction and reconstruction Rohr describes. Instead of wanting something sweet or trying to get my head around a dubious bunny or -- worse yet -- wishing the day away while with relatives with whom I had little in common, I had the opportunity to celebrate Easter with someone I used to celebrate it with for 18 years but had not done so in more than 30. It brought deep joy, a treasured time of suddenly, and even a bit miraculously, becoming family once again; a listening and sharing time; a remembering and envisioning time; time sitting all together round a table, breaking bread together, laughing about old stories, making some new ones, and glimpsing faces almost lost to distant memory.

As I awoke Easter morning, it occurred to me that my sister and I did exactly what we used to do 40 years ago, only this time with a totally reconstructed understanding of faith and life, with a second half quality of time. It was nothing less than a sublime gift, one which I’ll long treasure.

I firmly believe it’s the kind of time we are all looking for, looking forward to, in our heart of hearts. And it’s based on our resurrection belief that God is always at work, always making a way, always showing up when we least expect it, and inviting us to embrace the life that really is life.