Category Archives: Family

At Church… we Try

We went to worship this past Sunday in a small, rural church. (It was the third church we’ve visited since beginning our sabbatical, actually. The first two were in a major city and a suburb, respectively.) 

Worship Sunday was… familiar, recalling our days serving similar churches in rural Illinois. Volunteers played piano and organ together to classic hymns, adding the “A-men” at the end of each; wooden pews with long cushions lined in two rows down a narrow church; church leaders filled in for the vacationing pastor, adding “special” gospel music by a few groups and reading all four of the lectionary passages; a lay leader read his “sermon”; visitors were invited to identify themselves.*

Several times during worship, I thought to myself, “they are trying.” The church’s members and leaders were trying, but they lacked the strength and charisma I am accustomed to in other settings. They stumbled in their extemporaneous statements. The sermon both lacked the good news of the gospel and was completely disconnected from the four lectionary readings that preceded it (it was, in fact, a collection of different authors’ statements about world hunger and very little call to action in response). I did not experience a sense of wonder for two “folksy” versions of songs offered as special music, and the three classical hymns chosen for worship were played so slow they were difficult for me to sing. 

There was a moment early on when the congregation was invited to have a moment of silence, where I began to feel a sense of connection; where I began to feel immersed in the greatness of the wonder of God even as bulletins rustled around me. But it was cut short too soon for me…

The service was, though familiar, a far cry from the worship we had experienced the previous three Sundays in two other churches. Indeed, more than once during worship, I felt pulled out of my desire to connect with God and was distracted.

But, even so, in the midst distraction, I was aware over and again that the people around me were trying. And in an almost Whitman-esque moment of insight, I realized what was happening. You see, Walt Whitman has written two poems that often come to mind: “Miracles” and “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.” 

In each of these poems, Whitman gives insight in to our predicament. We live in a world where we are surrounded by wonder –

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

– but when we try to synthesize or explain them –

to add, divide, and measure them

– the experience is not the same as actually stepping outside

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look[ing] up in perfect silence at the stars.

Here’s what I realized Sunday morning:

Sometimes we catch momentary glimpses of such intense grandeur that our words, and even our best photographs, are insufficient to portray the wonder that envelops us.

Sometimes we experience such an overwhelming sense of our deep connectedness to the world around us and to others within it** that even our best generosity and hospitality fail to truly convey the gratitude we feel.

Sometimes we are privileged to know such kairos moments where the otherwise hidden divinity that imbues all the universe around us manifests in such a way that our limited senses catch but a glimmer of the light they so desire to know.

And here’s the thing: When we experience some form of the wonder of the world, we have a desire to share it with others.

Compare that while today we take pictures and videos and show them to others on our phones, previous generations filled carousels of slides to show at parties, and before that drew and painted grandiose landscapes to share with others what they had experienced firsthand.

In the same way, when we experience the wonder and grace of forgiveness, or Christian community, we want to draw others to experience the same. We try. Our efforts at welcoming others, at bringing a sense of the divine to worship, of helping lift people’s spirits are all just attempts to share something. To point in a direction and say, “hey, this happened to me. Maybe you can experience it, too! And, even if not, let me do what I can to share just a part of it with you.”

That’s something wonderful, and generous, in and of itself.


*Ugh! No! I insisted we stay anonymous…

**Such moments are often sudden and unbidden, but welcome. Those times when the world’s colors appear differently; where our vision of the world is through a sheen of awe and wonder.

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A new word

I just read/learned a new word today, and it connects with some stories to tell.

In translating Psalm 63:1 – “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul shirts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” – into Welsh, William Morgan

“used a passionate and evocative word… hiraeth. (To pronounce the word, imaging adding the sound at the middle of ‘python’ – without the p and on – to the English word here: the result would be something like “here-ayth.”)… which might literally be rendered as “my body is homesick for you.” …Hiraeth is a powerful and emotionally dense word in Welsh… Hiraeth speaks to the heart’s longing for its one true home.” (The God Soaked Life, p. 81)

Not too long ago, my last entry on this blog was about a dream I had with a deep sense of loss. In a conversation with friends Cecil and Sandra Lackore about this sense of loss, Cecil wisely shared that home is where we choose to make it, with one another. That was inspiring; enlightening. My sense of home is being with with Lynn (and the children, I suppose!). When I’m away – when I spend long hours apart or, worse yet, travel, I feel disconnected. I feel an inner longing for home that is not a desire to sit in my LaZBoy or watch what’s next in my Netflix queue. It’s to be in proximity with those I love, and with whom I make my home.

Back in 2009 I was attending the third session of the Two Year Academy for Spiritual Formation, sometime within the first 12 weeks of Kate’s joining our home. That particular time away I felt a stronger sense of loss and absence – a stronger sense of hiraeth – than ever before. Because my family had grown, my sense of home had suddenly expanded, and so its absence seemed that much stronger.

I’ve used the same concept before to speak about our heart’s longing, our inner desire, for God. I’ve quoted and misquoted Augustine; “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” But somehow tonight, as I read this word – hiraeth – and thought of my longing to be with my family even while I am engaged in meaningful conversation and relationship with others, it seemed to click in a new way. Tonight, this concept went beyond making sense in my head, and spoke to my heart.

Think of it this way:

My own longing for home (with my family) is present even in the midst of other things that are good; but my sense of hiraeth suggests that there is a hint, a promise, that things could be better. Visiting this camp might be better, if I had the evening to share and debrief with my children after they explored the Maine woods. Meeting with my colleagues might be better, if I could take an evening walk debriefing it with Lynn, or paint a ceiling tile with Kate, or drop Will in the freezing lake. Experiencing the shops and lighthouses of Maine for the first time might be better, if I were sharing the experience with my family; with those who fulfill, for me, that sense of “home.”

My life is good; but there is a hint, a promise, that things could be better. Walking this life might be better, if I chose to spend it with God more than I do. There is always, somewhere in the back of the moment, some sense of this – this hiraeth – this deep, heart deep longing for “home” with God.

Lost

I woke up messed up this morning. Emerging from a dream – which I will share, if you can hold its weirdness and inconsistency gracefully, to see the depth within – almost in tears. I couldn’t go back to sleep; I rose, mechanically, moving to the shower, eyes still moist.

Maybe it was the news of another senseless shooting; this time at a church. Maybe it was the detail that the pastor’s daughter had been shot and killed. Maybe it was the fear/anxiety I sometimes have for my kids – who generally feel safe to run free at church, and (honestly) should be able to!; but for whom I have a shadowy fear because of other pastors’ stories of harm and abuse that occurred to their own children. Maybe it was the combination of the first All Saints worship since losing my grandmother this April coinciding with the day I lost Gracie 7 years ago (and the month dad took ill 6 years ago). Meditation has given way to rumination; thoughts centered on the best things shifting to thoughts on what has been lost.

So I woke messed up from the dream…

I’m not sure how we got there, but we’re in my grandmother’s old home. The one on the full acre of land in California that I used to think was a farm; where the tunnel through overgrown juniper became an adventurous cave, and where the kitchen always smelled of percolated coffee (a sweet, vanilla like smell). She moved out a while ago, of course; but the new owners have let us set up in the living area during the day.

I’ve got scripts for the next few episodes on hand. Not only am I helping to write, but I’ve been cast as “Boo,” the older brother. We’ve filmed a couple episodes that have already aired. The house could be ours, but there’s an issue with the mortgage; its lumped in with two others.

There’s a contact to call. It seems funny, almost: “Dr. Leo Spaceman.” That was a character from another sitcom – 30 Rock – played by Chris Parnell. I call the number, and it’s Chris who answers. I tell him the mortgage lists him by his character’s name, and remind him we did a few skits together on SNL; but I was mostly forgettable. I mention the new show; he asks for its name. I can’t seem to remember, getting it confused with The Good Place. (The 3 word title is a play on words, something to do with realty [reality?]; “Outside I’m fine”?)

He gives us some information about how to resolve the mortgage question, but not enough. As the call ends, my friend notices that the screen on the phone changes. He share that’s a software glitch; it often happens when the person on the other end is putting a block against you.

We can’t stay; but I want to. I pull up a chair in the kitchen, trying to look at the tops of cupboards to see if anything was missed and left behind. I want to go out to the barn where my grandfather ran his trains. I want to eat fruit off trees I ate from as a child and shared with my own children. I want to open the pocket door in the spare room where the record player sat, where trains sat on tracks and planes hung in the air. But it’s not theirs any more, and its not mine, and we have to go…

I woke with a profound sense of loss. It’s kind of strange. I dreamt of my grandfather just a few weeks ago; I lamented with him, in his kitchen, that he didn’t get to know me as an adult, when I had mellowed out and discovered my own identity. (He had agreed with me in the dream.)

Even simplifying college years down to one “home” each, I lived in 13 different homes my first 36 years. But their home was the one permanent place our family had in all of that time.

Strange that a dream of the place triggered such deep emotional response. Maybe it’s symbolic. Maybe the permanence of place suggests a child’s expectation of the permanence of relationship; maybe the sense of loss for a cherished, childhood place is analogous to a sense of loss for safety in today’s violent chaos; maybe the “things” lost in dreams are talismans of deeper, important, but esoteric, non-tangible things…

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..