Category Archives: Family

Peacemakers and “Core Values”

You probably already know Matthew 5:9, which in the more common NIV reads:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

But as I prepare for our 90 Days in the New Testament endeavor this spring, I’ve been listening to Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, as I drive. And I was struck by how he phrased the same verse:

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.
That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

If you follow me on Facebook, you may have already seen that in early December the LEGO Robotics team that I help coach – “R2-Determined,” from Thomas Elementary School – did well at the local regional qualifying tournament. Well enough that not only did the team advance to state competition, but they won the “Judges Award.” They did great!

Except in one area. As part of the competition, the team goes into a room with judges who give them a task to work on together, and then evaluate their teamwork in relation to a variety of “core values” set by the FIRST LEGO League. These are actually good behavioral values the students need to learn to do well in life… and in that room, that day, they did not do well. At all.

That particular failure was particularly crushing to me, even with the excitement of going on to state competition; given my vocation, how could I have failed so much to help encourage their positive behavior? (I will share that in the mean time, we’ve been working a lot on teamwork, and reflecting on how they work together.)

This week, Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus’ familiar “blessed are the peacemakers” opened the verse up to me in a new way. Of course, peacemaking is about more than just resolving conflict! Of course, peacemaking has to do with helping people cooperate and live and work together! And, yes! When I am faithful at pursuing peacemaking in this way, I do experience a degree of fullness; I do know a bit more who I am inside; I do experience my place as a child of God.

 

…in the spaces between…

“…the holy things we need for healing and sustenance are almost always the same as the ordinary things right in front of us.” (–Nadia Bolz-Weber; Accidental Saints)

I have been “in a funk” of late. Self-destructively, I tend to feed this beast from time to time, spiraling down into thoughts of my own inadequacy and ineffectiveness. This is not a “pity party,” per se, but more of a spiritual and vocational malaise, generally loosed upon myself in times of stress.

The opposite of meditation – when one intentionally reflects upon the positive, or quiets one’s soul to listen – this was rumination, where one listens to (and even nurtures!) that internal voice we all carry, the antithesis of Stuart Smiley that is ever ready to tell us that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t smart enough, and dog-gone-it, no one likes us.

I know this particular record all-too-well, and despite the fact that I know its tracks are hideously out of rhythm, still I let it play through in bits, here and there, from time to time.These funks settle in when I forget to lead and live out of my giftedness; in those days when the mundane daily details are endless, and that internal voice whispers that a career as a Video Store manager might be more meaningful than vocational ministry.

One night (morning?) in the midst of this particular cycle, I had an incredibly vivid dream. Now, i often dream, sometimes even repeatedly – for seven years, particularly during seminary, I routinely dreamt I was a vampire hunter. And I have several times dreamt that I was a former writer for Saturday Night Live. I generally discard most of my dreams as my subconscious mind unwinding. But sometimes, in addition to listening to my own subconscious, I think that in some dreams I perhaps am given a glimpse of the holy.

The dream was so vivid, I posted about it on Facebook. In the dream, author Rob Bell served as the Virgil to my Dante, but rather than descending into hell, we were journeying deeper and deeper into a building…

We are walking into and through a large, ornate, beautiful cathedral; a mix of ancient and modern: soaring ceilings and colored glass in the sanctuary, flatscreen LCDs in classrooms and meeting rooms.

The sanctuary is full of people I know or have known through the years; members of churches served in the past, even some long gone. We talk; I am particularly interested in what the dead have to share, but they speak minimally, trying to keep my attention focused on… the goal of our visit. The nature of the Church, perhaps?
We walk into the most inner office, where Bell and someone else (likely Tertullian or some other ancient theologian) have a particularly animated (spirited?) conversation around a white board.

I am distressed, disappointed, at what we find. As we walk back to the narthex with its gothic doors, Bell challenges me to think about it more clearly. “God isn’t somewhere to be found in a church space,” he critiques me, waiting for a response.

After a moment of reflection I reply, to Bell’s pleasure, “God is found in the space between people.”

This weekend after Easter, I left town to officiate at the wedding of a friend from our previous church. In our denominational tribe (United Methodist), there is the standard expectation that once you are moved you don’t return for ministerial duties. But in this case there was an invitation from a family and the current pastor, and as a connectional church we also help one another out when we can. (And… I was excited to be able to do so!)

So I took the kids with me for the weekend (farming them off to my brother during the wedding itself), freeing Lynn up to have a quiet weekend before leading worship alone.

This was a family that I was comfortable with – perhaps too comfortable, as I will admit this is the first time I have ever led a wedding rehearsal with a drink in one hand! But this crowd of family and friends who were jocular and joyous with one another were also at ease with the “God-talk” I brought with me as my standard stock-in-trade, and even expressed a feeling of being blessed.

One table of women at the reception thanked me for my part in the service, expressing two moments that touched them as a group: when we invited all those assembled to bless the couple in the beginning, and when we ended with words blessing the congregation itself. Straight from the Book of Worship, they were

“Friends, go forth and bear witness to the love of God, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.”

Without going in to details, another shared how in the weeks leading up to the wedding there was a family reconciliation, and they felt blessed with how the evening had gone.

We talked of times past and days to come. I pontificated on Jesus’ pleasure in our love for one another (as a reflection of His love for us). Strangers shared with me about the churches they used to attend or where they were encountering God today.

And I experienced something divine, gathering with these friends and their families. Somehow, in the midst of the most ordinary things – laughter, love, good food, a bit of alcohol, spoken words of blessing, promises of commitment, dancing – we experienced the holy. I remembered the joy and meaning I know as a follower of Christ, and in my vocation as minister. As I read the very next morning in Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints, I found healing in the holy ordinary that surrounds me every day.

Somehow, in the spaces between people, I experienced God.

And I have to wonder if perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he shared, in Matthew 18:20, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

A Christmas Prayer

Dear Lord:

I love my children more than You.

Maybe it was while my eldest was being knit together, as I’m fairly confident it was not love at first site – that cone shaped head of his freaked me out! Maybe it was when #2 came along, bald far too long if you ask me but given from the start a disarming smile. Maybe it’s just been a gradual alteration, a slow attrition. Honestly, I’m not sure when it happened, or how.

But I can remember when my heart and soul were on fire for you. I can remember when a passion to know and share your love seemed the animating motion in my life, the foundation even for my vocational calling. Perhaps it is the rigors and daily grind of that vocational calling, or the gradual and initially imperceptible shift from a calling to love and serve You to tasks and duties serving the institutional expectations of others…

I love my children, God. Whole-heartedly, fiercely. Yes, there are times I’m frayed and frustrated and upset, and might think it because of something they did or said. But, truth be told, I know; I know they are just children, they are still learning, they make bad choices. Hell, I still make bad choices.

Even so… they are amazing, magical, miraculous. I find joy in their joy, no matter how simple; when they are happy, smiling, laughing, it is contagious; their happiness reaches down into my soul. And, God, I know heartache in their sorrows, however seemingly insignificant they seem to my adult perspective, there are times when their cries over something, anything, wring pain from my heart that even surprises me.

They are these little physical miraculous hyperactive wonders that beam and belch and bully, sing and sulk and scurry, talk and tattle and tantrum. Some times my heart is just so incredibly full … in, for, because of, with, through them!

I want so much for them to know joy and peace and security. I want their lives to be full and rich with the good things that really matter, and, yes, along with them I confuse that to include things – the many little shiny gods our consumer driven culture suggest will fill the void, will bring us happiness, will show I love them.

You know, I remember being sick at home one day. It was a school day, and I was miserable. When my father came home that day, he came in to check on me. And he had something – a Transformer, Starscream. For no reason in particular – just that he had been thinking of me and hoped I might know some joy and comfort when I wasn’t.

I understand that so much, now, God. And the strength of my love for my children – not just familial affection, but my earnest desire to do whatever I can to bring good into their lives – surprises me. And it seems so much more real than the love I have always professed for you.

And in this season, we celebrate that you came to us as a child; that you gave yourself – and something of yourself but distinct, so like a child – to us. You gave your Son that we might know your love.

I am awed by that. I don’t think I could give my child in such a way; perhaps because of selfishness rather than love. But, irregardless, you, of whom my own love for my children is but a poor, shabby reflection, you whose love for your own Son must so far exceed anything I know… you gave. You gave it up.

I want for my kids a full life, free of pain and sorrow; you knowingly gave your Son into a world that would cause him to know such. Sorrow for the people around him, upon whom he had compassion as a shepherd for lost sheep. Pain from the betrayal of friends; from the rejection of the people; from the merciless murder of the powerful.

We speak of “your love,” particularly for us. And it must be great. And my love for you is such a small, shabby thing; even compared to that for my children.

So.

I love my children more than you. I confess, but do not know if or how to repent of it. I confess, sharing that in my heart I wish I loved you more, that I wish nothing stood between us, but knowing otherwise. Humble? Yes. Penitent? I don’t know. But seeking to be honest.

Please receive what I have to give, imperfect as it is – for even my love for my children is imperfect, sometimes lying a bit buried beneath anger or frustration. In this season, even as I prepare to pepper my children with toys that will disappear but from their memories 30 years from now – and yet is part of how I know to share love and joy with them – receive what I have for you. Receive it like I will receive whatever strange gifts my own children might give me, with joy even in their simple or imperfect nature. And continue to invite me to grow in love and joy and peace, even as I do with the little ones entrusted to me.

A Dim Glimpse of God’s Love and Grace

Through the providential collusion of streams of my life, I find myself visiting London a few days prior to taking a week-long course on the spirituality and theology of the Wesleys; meanwhile, at the same time I am joining with others in “141 Days of Wesley” to read through all of Wesley’s sermons. The following is an insight that came to me during our experience of a Wesleyan “love feast” on the evening of Wednesday, August 22, at Cliff College.

“God is love. Can you share: what does this mean to you?

This is the question that was posed. And immediately upon hearing it, I began to think…

“well, that’s a great question, isn’t it? to contemplate the great mystery, the divine, the ineffable nature of God and divine love. At best, anything I might say or articulate would simply demonstrate the truth of Paul’s words:…for I only see dimly… I only see in part… (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12)I doubt that I have anything particularly worthwhile to contribute…”

But as the facilitator of the evening’s love feast repeated the question – “what does “God is love” mean for you?” – a particular image came to mind, and with it an inspirational insight not only into the love of God, but my present spiritual journey

This specific image came to mind: Just a few days before I set off on this journey, my little Kate – who has just begun preschool early because she is experiencing a bit of delay in speech – was beginning to say a new thing. Generally, on her own, it came out as “I va-you,” and, sometimes, “I va-you, daddy!” (her emphasis on the daddy!) As I sat contemplating “God is love,” this image popped into my head.

And suddenly, as though God sat beside me and whispered a comment into my ear, this image connected with some of my theological rumination from earlier in the day.

You see, we had begun just that morning to reflect on the theology and spirituality of John Wesley. For two days we have considered the historical perspective, now we were deep into Bible and theology. And as many will no doubt know, key to Wesleyan theology is his articulations of the work of the Holy Spirit via preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace.

As we worked and discussed our way through these three foundational doctrines and their relationship to the journey of faith, I experienced both a sense of assurance, and a sense of conviction:

Assured… because I do know the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ. Like Wesley, I can even point to a time when it settled on me in a powerful way. In the spring of 2001, as I drove from my parsonage to my wife’s, listening to a sermon by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, I truly felt the same “warm” heart that Wesley described of his Aldersgate experience. That day, when asked “how are you?” I was able with faith and truth to respond, “forgiven and free!” And since that day, though I may experience the internal witness to different degrees, still I hold to that assurance of knowing forgiveness in Christ.
Convicted… because I do not yet know that “holiness” or “purity” of heart described as the result of the work of the Spirit’s sanctifying grace. I still struggle with various elements of sin that seem insurmountable obstacles to truly knowing the witness of God’s Spirit within my own; more often than I care to admit, in place of the fruits of the Spirit I still know the fruits of my “natural state”: impatience, frustration, anger, instead of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control…. To me, the result of sanctifying grace is the very longing I began this blog somewhat focused upon: purity of heart, knowing and experiencing the elimination of sin within. And I remain far afield from that goal!

Earlier that day, I had come to reflect that it is this process of Christian perfection within which I still struggle, and within which my doubts as to the sincerity or integrity of my Christian faith arise…

And then came this image of my daughter, trying but stumbling to express herself. And all the while, as she does so, I knew that she would get there; I knew, despite her fits and starts, one day she’d be able to say it. And still, when she finally does fully say what she has been trying to express – “I love you, daddy!” – still I felt a deep sense of joy. And every time she says it, my heart lights up. “I love you, daddy!”

And there it was, in the image of her trying but stumbling toward expressing something within her own heart, that suddenly I understood – albeit as though looking through a dark mirror or window – I experience – although just in part – what it means that “God is love.” For not only does God desire holiness in my heart and life – and not only does the word of God promise that such is possible! – but God knows, despite my struggle; despite my fits and starts; God knows, I will get there. And the joy and love I know in little Kate’s struggle and eventual success is just a part of what which God knows as I struggle forward in my own journey toward holiness of heart and life..

Last Words, General Conference, and Dry Bones…

This past Sunday was April 22, Earth Day. It was also the birthday of a dear friend who just turned 70 (happy [belated but public] birthday greetings, Carolyn!). And it would have also been my own father’s 70th birthday.

April 22 was also just a few days before representatives of my “tribe” – The United Methodist Church – began to gather in Tampa, Florida, for our quadrennial General Conference. Now, as social media begins to bring me news, updates, ideas, inspirations, and snarkisms from those attending General Conference, I’m sitting here pondering my father’s last words and their poignant meaning for our Church.

Another blogger pointed out that in their new book Jesus Insurgency, Rudy Rasmus and Dottie Escobedo-Frank point out early on that the Church has been lingering at the “crossroads of Graveyard and Decision Street for a few decades.” That image lingered with me, if only because we personally were there so recently; struggling through a significant pneumonia infection, my father had to choose whether to be intubated a third time in two weeks or transfer to hospice care. I had sat with him for weeks in hospital ICU rooms, and now sat and walked with him through his last few hours as he transferred on a Thursday afternoon and passed away on a Friday evening.

I try to hope that he kept the events of Thursday evening in his mind through his final hours on Friday. Lynn brought our two children up that evening – they had only been able to Skype into his hospital room the weeks before – and the five of us were all together for a while. Lynn and my father sat together and talked – briefly, as weeks of infection and intubation had left him barely audible – while the kids and I sat and read and played at the foot of his bed. That evening, for the first time in a very long time, my father smiled. Watching his grandchildren, there was a look of contentment on his face. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I had actually seen him happy and smiling in the last several months, as the life he had built crumbled around him, many of his greatest fears coming to pass: divorce, financial distress, abandonment.

My brothers and mother were there some that evening, and would return late in the morning the next day, too. And so we were all together for a time, but the only moments in those last few days where I saw even the glimmer of joy on dad’s face were when Will and Kate were rampaging around the room and lounge chair. He smiled then, and for that I am immensely grateful.

When I returned early the next morning, dad’s condition had already quickly deteriorated. And that morning he spoke the only words he would speak that day. As he looked at me and clasped my hand his last words, said three times before additional medication helped ease him into a fitful sleep, were simply “it hurts…” I’ve never felt so impotent, unable to do anything or help beyond just sitting with his hand in mine. Dad didn’t wake or smile again that day, but even so I was again touched when, as my son was leaving grandpa for the final time that morning, he said his own last words to my father: “I love you grandpa.”

It is hard even to retell that story in print today – almost five months later – but the images and events of those last few days with dad have been coming to mind as metaphor for what our Church is experiencing as we enter our General Conference. (Other churches are facing crises, too, but here I’ll just reflect on what I know about our tribe.)

First, I don’t want to overly push the idea or metaphor that we are dying. Many would argue that the Church is on life-support; yet, even if our denomination is struggling in some ways, in other ways – and particularly other areas of the world – there is great life and vitality. But there is a strong sense of imminent death, many have used the metaphor, and the very term is even used in reference to the upcoming “death tsunami” that the church is about to experience. I don’t know whether our current situation is terminal or not, but it is clear that it is untenable to continue what we’ve been doing institutionally…

As it was happening to my father, so to our tribe and her churches are many of our “fears” are coming to pass. The buildings and legacies that many of our older, existing congregations have striven to secure and maintain are facing their end. The financial support of our general agencies and the ministries and missions they accomplish throughout the world have been faced with great crisis in recent years. And what some would call “denominational loyalty” has waned so greatly in recent decades that most mainline or Protestant Christians today easily shift from one tribe to another without pause. The same emotional responses one might feel related to divorce or abandonment are real experiences for our brothers and sisters: some clergy, members, or even local churches feel abandoned and/or driven away by the actions of their general agencies, annual conferences, clergy, or church leaders.

We vacillate between moments of hope and joy – celebrating the birth of new churches, the missional success of conferences in other parts of the world, the rise of young leadership in our local congregations – and the pain that our current situation seems to cause our beloved Church. At times we are looking at the world hopeful and with contentment that the ministry of Christ and our heritage will continue to make an impact for generations; and at others we feel as though we’re bedside, unable to do much more than commiserate with the Church in its pain.

And – in different words and ways – I’ve heard others wonder, question, or outright suggest that one day some progeny or legacy of ours will say to us, “I love you,” but then move off into the world to live it’s own life for Christ.

Unlike the events of this December past in my own life, I do not believe the crises we face as a United Methodist Church need be terminal. Even if it might be, I am reminded of the story of Ezekial in the valley (Ezekial 37:1-14). Ezekial was a mighty prophet, and responded to God’s call. He prophesied to those bones, and they were raised up; but that was only one step. At God’s direction, he also had to prophesy to the breath to enter those bones. I like to think that if we are on the way to being “dry bones” – or already there, as some might suggest – we can listen for God’s direction, and heed the steps toward new life. And I’m no prophet, but maybe those two steps are already before us.

I do believe radical change is necessary, and I would suggest such changes need to be the most radical in our hierarchical structure. The annual conference may be the “basic unit” of The United Methodist Church, but our conferences or agencies do not do much to make disciples; I believe it is through the arena of local churches/groups where we will have our lasting impact. We need to encourage, equip, and then free our clergy, laity, and churches from the despair of idly sitting by the dying Body. We need to inspire and enable one another so to live that the “scriptural holiness” that was once our rallying cry might begin to soften hearts and transform communities. Although it may be true that our organization/institution needs radical reform, our local churches need saints more than we need reformers. We need individuals so touched by and committed to the love and grace of God that they are seeking to “live missionally” (as the Inspire network would encourage us!); we need to love of God once again to so fill us that it spills out to bless others.

My hope as our brothers and sisters meet in Tampa for General Conference 2012 is not that any specific legislation or action will be approved. My greatest hope is that we will in some prophetic way recapture the spirit that drove John and Charles Wesley as they led a movement (not a church!) of people to live after the example of the earliest (“primitive”) church. My hope is that rather than continuing to feel as though we are at the bedside of a dying Body we love, we can hear the voices sharing God’s word and direction that will truly revive that Body. My hope is that my son, nurtured within the Church, will not one day feel the need to say “I love you” and then move off to be closer to Jesus in some other arena; but that he will know a vital Body that is actively connected to and moving with Jesus.

Small Towns… life… and death…

Who knows how long this will last… Now we’ve come so far so fast…
…somewhere back there in the dust, that same small town in each of us…
(D. Henley,  B. Hornsby)

Littleton, Illinois.

The signpost on the edge of town proclaims the population to be 200, and we can forgive the residents if that might be a bit inflated these days. True to its name, it is a little town, an old farming community where founding families, pioneers in the age of western expansion, are proclaimed by the large granite monuments on the cemetery hill on the northwest edge of town; family plots surrounding monumental obelisks declaring their names.

The old store once run by members of the Horney family is crumbling on what remains of the main street in town. The remains of what was once a service station, likely a “full service” station with mechanically inclined young men who once helped residents fill their new vehicles with necessary fuel and could repair their engines, lies as testament to a busier time of life, the kind of small town experience that has been slowly deteriorating away with buildings; the one time station attendants most likely residing up on the monumented hilltop north of town…

Not too far away, the facade is all that currently remains of a one time Five & Dime store in Virginia, Illinois. The roof caved in years ago, allowing water to run through the second story and down into the first, finally completing the rot and ruin of merchandise still left on the shelves after the son of the store’s last managing owner simply, inexplicably to some residents, locked the doors one day and moved away. Like the 1960s calendar that still hangs in a locked and deteriorating barn on my grandmother’s lot in Ojai, California, visible through a window peppered with decades of dust and grime, so I I agile the old Five & Dime likely held simple items that could be redeemed as great treasures by someone.

But, alas, as both widowed grandmothers now gone and mothers still lingering in small corn field towns might have and will attest, sons and daughters – let alone grand-generations – seem little interested in going through what might seem the detritus of a life; though, in our defense (for I must number myself among the “younger generations” so far removed from the rural and small town life) said generations might attest in reply that they feel somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of personal memorabilia and belongings and tools and other items once useful and well-cared for but now seemingly useless in an age of digital tools and virtual living.

I remember sitting somewhere near the Phoenix Courthouse with my Junior High Honors class, reflecting on the day, and for whatever reason a line from a current Don Henley song came to mind, reminding me that “somewhere back there is the dust, that same small town I each of us…” A truly odd non-sequitur, as I had grown up in the suburbs of Phoenix and Los Angeles, and knew no more about small towns than I did girls. (Which at that time is to say that I knew they existed, and also that I had no experience or comprehension of them.) But, even still, I wrote some rambling missive with the lyric seemingly poignantly quoted at the top of the page.

When I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to attend Northern Arizona University, I reveled in the experience of what I deemed a “small” town, population 20,000. Half a decade later, I moved (all my worldly belongings in a Geo Metro) across the country and into a three-story farmhouse in Woodland, Illinois, population 300. Ironically, as I spent the next three years living half the week in this farming town, my world expanded. I experienced life in a small town first-hand; neighbors who would drop by to share produce from their gardens or a fresh baked treat, a church who stocked my pantry the day before I first arrived, friends who still gathered on porches or lingered out in the yard to visit, homes and yards that were not surrounded by walls or fences but open to one another.

I also made my way over to Littleton for only the second time in my life. We had visited somewhere around 1985, some few years after my grandfather Vail had passed on and gone on up to the hill to rest with the other Bartlows, but not so long that friends from his childhood days still remembered him and told my uninterested-at-the-time ten year old self that they had known my grandfather, and that he had been a “good man.” Returning again as an adult, with a farm pickup borrowed from a gracious Woodland neighbor, I met a distant cousin, re-met the great-aunt I had visited as a child, and managed to return to my own empty house with a few pieces of serviceable furniture to live with, thanks again to others’ generosity.

I returned at least twice more in the next year – once for the funeral of said 100+year old aunt, Mildred Horney. Vail’s only sister was an independent spirit known to many and remembered for telling family that she was “a Horney-Bart.” Dear Aunt Mildred is up on the hill these days, resting with her husband and next to her parents. And then, well, life intervened. I went to school, I served two churches the best that a seminary student still just learning the world can, I courted a beautiful young woman who came from a small town and through work and school had her own experiences adjusting to suburban and city life.

I proposed over a chess set, I took wedding photos in a gazebo in a park dedicated to the four freedoms, I moved to a county seat college town, a fair sized farming town, and eventually back to suburban Phoenix. Now, perhaps, I can recall with some integrity Don Henley’s insight. Littleton, Illinois faded into the dust.

But only partly, because Littleton always held a special place in my father’s heart. He would still, on occasion, reference it and Rushville, recalling the summers he would bring the train from Lowell, Indiana, to stay with Mildred on the old Bartlow farm. I only just learned that this farmhouse, where dad spent his summers reading books and where I as a precocious ten-year old caught fireflies in a jar, was where the three generations of the family prior to my father’s were all born. (The first 6 of my great-grandfather’s generation were born in the log cabin; he, as the youngest of 9, was born in the very farmhouse itself.) Like the storefronts, though, it had fallen into disrepair in recent years, and was razed just this past fall.

When we helped my father pack up his belongings for a post-divorce move from home into an apartment, he pointed out connections to Littleton via belongings and books. And when pneumonia took his life less than a year later, my brothers and I agreed that Littleton was where his ashes should find a final resting place.

So we three traveled back to what was, for us, that same small town back there in the dust. We may not have been the generation to leave town and shake the dust off our feet – that, apparently, was our grandparents, who left the family farm and the small town to work in the city (grandpa Vail worked in Chicago), and who had no desire to return, despite the wistful hope of great-grandfather Bruce, who left them his second farmhouse and acreage on the east side of town – but we are most definitely far removed from the small town.

So we came, we saw, we buried my father. We placed the small box down into the ground at his parents’ plot; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We visited with our Aunt Janet and second-cousin Jean, Mildred’s only child. And, like the generations before us, we left. And soon another memorial will be placed up on the hill, dad resting up there with others who once left home to pioneer the west.

I’d like to say the experience has granted me some great epiphany about life or God. Perhaps that is on the way. But I am left with a bit of the same nostalgia others feel for days gone by. Not days that I knew firsthand, but for the memory others’ can share, of days of activity and vitality; when the small town was bustling, when the generations gathered around for a photograph, when the promise and hope was of life. Even in a digital world, that is a hope we can hold on to.

“Wrestle”

Do you wrestle?

I had the privilege this weekend to sit in on two presentations led by Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans. At an afternoon session with the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology she shared about the “evolving faith” of GenXers and Millenials, and what older Christians might do to minister with and to them. Then, at an evening session at Tempe First United Methodist Church she shared about her recent project, a “year of biblical womanhood.” (And, okay, I’ll be honest that that particular focus did not initially interest me, but I found her insights and her willingness to share about her faith refreshing and inspiring, so I attended after all…)

All of which is preface to share that Rachel’s comments, especially drawing from comments to this post, about the spiritual struggle of young adults resonated with me for a variety of reasons. "you've got questions"In fact, when I arrived early for the evening presentation (I had nowhere else to go*), I shared with her that one of my favorite invite cards at our church read: You’ve got questions… on the front, with …so do we on the back.

"so do we..."

Maybe it’s because I’m a part of Generation X myself, but I’ve not been bothered with the need to have answers to everything. Just like Mr. Henslowe repeatedly reminds us in Shakespeare in Love, when it comes to competing theological assertions I’m okay with the idea that “it’s a mystery.” Even John Wesley, the founder of my particular religious** tribe, basically instructed those who want to engage Scripture, when they come across a part they find particularly troublesome or difficult to understand, not to be overly anxious about it; but to return to it at some later date to then re-consider if it made more sense to them.

So struggling with faith, Scripture, doubt, etc. is not a foreign concept to me, and is something I readily embrace, even as one called to reach, preach, and teach.

So I’ve been reflecting the last two days that perhaps a good guiding image for what it means to seek a relationship with God comes from Genesis 32:24-31, where Jacob wrestles all night with a stranger (presumably God). The story includes the fact that Jacob is transformed as a result of his willingness to wrestle with God (e.g. his name is changed) and is blessed by God.

I have often said, “Faith is not the same as belief.” Belief indicates giving intellectual assent to some doctrine or teaching. Faith is about relationship; faith is about trust. And faith is very much about wrestling. After all, if God is so radically different and removed from human experience as to be considered “holy,” then our understandings of God must be challenged and transformed from time to time lest we re-make God in our own image. And so my childhood understandings of God and my relationship with Christ have undergone great  change through the years; but my underlying faith has generally been blessed as a result of wrestling with God, with concepts about God, with Scripture, etc.

So it is okay to wrestle when it comes to faith. Looking at Jacob/Israel’s example, we could say it is to be encouraged, as transformation and blessing can result. And it is also, I would dare say, far more normative than bedrock assurance.

Between his penultimate and final hospital stays this past year, my father had about a two month period first in a rehab / care center and then in his apartment. During the time, I overheard him talking with a chaplain once – and I later had a conversation with another pastor whom he had visited with for some time. At the end of his life, he was experiencing a struggle in faith. He had been asked by the more-evangelistic chaplain if he was “assured” what was going to happen if or when he died. With both the chaplain and my Methodist colleague, my father opened up and talked about his struggle. Raised in the church all his life, of late he had been wrestling with the question of what was going to happen; and whether he was heaven-bound, or not.

I, too, have visited with many individuals who, nearing the end of their lives, suddenly started asking questions about whether God would accept them or not. It often times makes me sad to hear such questions, not because I think it belies a lack of faith – indeed, I would argue quite the opposite! – but because it suggests that certain tenets of belief may have outweighed the person’s faith/relationship with God; because in their own times of difficulty, rather than the lavish welcoming father the prodigal son encountered they envisioned God as a remote judge validating their decisions…

I know I don’t get all things right. (Some days I could argue I get very little right!) But I do trust and love God, even though at times I debate the very existence of God. I understand that God’s love for me is not fully dependent on whether I’m right, even as I struggle with what Scripture or tradition indicate is appropriate or not. And, at a level deep within, I firmly trust that God loves all the world, even as I, like others, have to wrestle with why there is pain and suffering and abuse…

I believe wrestling with God is normal, and positive. Perhaps it is in the striving with God and others that the purity of heart I long for might arise. Perhaps it is in wrestling with tough questions where I might encounter greater understandings of God’s unlimited mercy and love.

During one of her presentations Rachel referenced a quote that I also find in my notes from The Academy for Spiritual Formation; a quote from author Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet that seems an appropriate place to end:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

 

*This isn’t actually true. I took 30 minutes to walk from Tempe First up Mill Avenue, which I haven’t walked since 1995. Nostalgia kicked in big time – the Mill is just so radically changed from the days I was regularly visiting it…

**I intend to share more on my and others’ wrestling with the word “religion” in a future post…