Frenetic Spirit (Intro)

Frenetic Spirit (Introduction)

People around me are anxious. While national newscasts spark concern, debate, and ire, I’ve sat with parents whose children cried themselves to sleep for (irrational) fear of deportation. As medical tests suggest the promise of clarity for treatment, I’ve commiserated with people uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. Amid deepening divisions within my theological tribe, there is angst and anxiety about whether we can truly remain United, Methodist, or even a Church. And if I’m honest, even as I volunteer in our local school, I know some degree of anxiety from time to time about whether my children are getting the best education they might. Fears and uncertainty seem to be widespread, and I am certain you could add your own to this brief list.

So, today I am inviting you in to an ongoing conversation. As I organize and put these thoughts to paper (or keyboard, anyway!), I do so with an awareness that what I have to share is not some authoritative theological treatise, nor a life-changing book on spirituality. Instead, as I give myself time to muse in a generic text editor, I’m sharing with you reflections on a conversation that I believe God has begun with me and, I’m fairly certain, is keen for me to get back to.

As a bit of background, this particular conversation began during a recent Bible Study I led at my local church, Trinity Heights U.M.C. As part of an ongoing devotional reading and study of the New Testament, each week we begin with a shortened version of Lectio Divina. Latin for “divine reading,” Lectio Divina is a prayer form that integrates reading of Scripture with meditation, reflection, and conversation with God. On the night in question, as we slowly read and pondered the following passage three times, God began this conversation that I hope to share with you in five subsequent parts (too long for a sermon; too short for a book).

The likely-familiar story in question takes place in the Gospel of Mark immediately following the “transfiguration” experience of Jesus and three disciples (I’ve briefly touched on this here). It’s the story of a demon-possessed boy and his father, who have come to Jesus for healing. In years’ past, I’ve often been struck by v. 24 – “I believe; help my unbelief!”, which I’ll share a bit about in part 3. This time, however, as we read through the pericope, I encountered a new focus I hadn’t really read before.

Below is the passage in question. I invite you to perhaps read it slowly and repeatedly on your own, and see what inspiration it/God speaks to you before moving on to my ramblings that follow:

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”

17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”

24 Immediately the father of the child cried out,[a] “I believe; help my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.

28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

[a]Mark 9:24 Other ancient authorities add ‘with tears’
(Mark 9:14-29, scripture and notation, NRSV, c. 1989)

As a new conversation emerged from this recent reading of this text, I find that it draws me/us first through four different, difficult movements of conversation before bringing me/us to a word of hope and good news…

The Porcupine Who Howled At The Moon

The Porcupine Who Howled At The Moon (1)

Once upon a time there was a porcupine named Joggi. While Joggi was aware of the great mystery of life that beat within his small chest, he did not think his name – or he, himself – really mattered. He had once had a friend, but their friendship had ended sadly, and that’s a story for another time. (2)

Ever since he had lost his friend, Joggi had grown afraid.

Joggi came out at night, for porcupines are nocturnal, as I’m sure you know. On most nights, after the sun set Joggi would come out of his hole under a tree and root around in the small brush and bushes, snorting and snuffling and looking for something good to eat.

But some nights, as Joggi made his way out, there would be a great big full moon, that hurt his eyes and made him worry that owls would see him. On nights like these, he would back his way back into his hole, bury his head in his front paws, close his eyes, and wait for the moon to set. For Joggi was anxious and afraid of the moon.

On other nights, Joggi would be out snuffling and snorting and looking for food when a breeze would begin to rustle the leaves. If the breeze began to grow, Joggi would back himself into his little hole, bury his head in his front paws, close his eyes and wait. For Joggi was anxious and afraid of the wind.

Other nights, Joggi would look up from his snuffling and snorting and watch the clouds nervously. If flashes of light and thunderous booms filled the sky, Joggi would back himself into his little hole, bury his head in his front paws, close his eyes, and wait. For Joggi was anxious and afraid of lightning and thunder.

Joggi had not always been quite so afraid, and most nights he still made his way around the brush of the forest floor. But even Joggi notices that more and more, he was hiding in his hole, waiting.

And one night, as Joggi buried his head in his front paws, closing his eyes to wait out the garish light of the full moon, he heard something he hadn’t heard before: a long howl. He opened his eyes, and lifted his head, and peeking through the entrance of his hole he saw a great silver wolf off in the distance, staring at the moon.

The wolf howled again, and his tail flopped from one side to another. He tossed his head, and this time, when he howled at the moon, Joggi had the distinct impression he was greeting the moon as an old friend. Then the wolf hopped up, and briskly dashed off into the forest, playing with the moon.

Joggi buried his head back in his paws, closed his eyes, and waited; for Joggi was anxious and afraid of the moon.

On another night, as the wind howled around the entrance to his hole, Joggi heard another curious sound, like a low growl. Opening his eyes and lifting his head from his paws, he peeked through the entrance of his hole and, once again, he saw a great silver wolf off in the distance.

The wolf squared his feet in the soft turf of the forest, lifted his face, and looked directly into the wind. A soft growl rumbled from his throat, but it wasn’t angry. The wolf’s tail twitched left then right then left, and the growl switched to a quick bark. Then he tossed his head, and briskly dashed off into the forest, playing with the wind.

Joggi buried his head back in his paws, closed his eyes, and waited; for Joggi was anxious and afraid of the wind.

As you can imagine, another night, Joggi saw the wolf again. It was a dark and stormy night, lightning flashed in the sky and thunder echoed through the tops of the trees. Joggi lay in his hole, his head buried in his paws, his eyes closed, when he heard a playful sound in the midst of th storm. Opening his eyes and lifting his head from his paws, Joggi peeked through the entrance of his hole and, once again, saw the great silver wolf.

As lightning flashed in the sky above, the wolf hopped about, his tail twitching. When the thunder rolled, he hopped and barked. He turned left and right, hopping and barking, and soon Joggi saw that he dashed off into the forest, playing with the lightning and thunder.

Joggi laid his head down on his paws, but this time, he kept his eyes open. He waited. This time, he watched as the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled. Joggi was anxious and afraid of the lightning and thunder, but this time he also thought about the playful wolf.

And so it was one night, as Joggi emerged from his hole to snuffle and snort after the sun had set, the he saw the great, garish moon rising over head. As he began to back into his hole, he remembered the great silver wolf, howling to greet the moon. He stopped, and sat himself down, and looked at the moon.

Joggi let out his best howl, but he was not a wolf, and it sounded more like a sqwak. So he thought a moment, and looking at the moon he took a deep breath and called out, “hello, Moon!” And Joggi waited, and the shadows stayed shadows and he saw no owls. And Joggi called out again, more bravely, “hello, Moon!” and the great frightening moon wasn’t so frightening. And standing and walking out under the moon’s light, Joggi found that there was joy in the moon.

And a few nights later, as he snuffled and snorted his way through a tasty blueberry bush, Joggi felt the branches shift and sway with a growing wind. As he walked toward his hole, he remembered the great silver wolf. So Joggi stopped, and he turned toward the wind, his face close to the mossy ground. He planted his feet firmly in the soft turf, and he raised his head to greet the wind. And the wind touched his nose, and it ruffled through his quills, and Joggi smiled. For Joggi found that there was joy in the wind.

Some time later, clouds filled the night sky over Joggi as he made his way through fallen leaves. And instead of returning to his hole to hide and wait, Joggi looked up at the growing storm. He waited, a little tense, until the first flash of lightning. He jumped a bit, and shook his quills, and they rattled and rumbled their own echo of the rumble in the sky above. And Joggi found that there was joy in the lightning and thunder.

And so it was that the porcupine who howled at the moon grew to be less afraid, as he remembered the way of the great silver wolf.

But that’s not the end of the story. For later, on a night when the wind blew strong under a full moon, Joggi emerged out of his hole. That night he planted his feet, his face in the wind, and looked up at the moon. As Joggi cried out his greeting, “hello, Moon!” he heard a faint echo, “hello, moon.”

Joggi looked around, and saw not too far away little Archie the Hedgehog. Archie was seldom seen; Joggi could not remember the last time he had seen the timid little animal. But there Archie was, a small mirror to Joggi, his paws planted firmly in the turf, his eyes to the moon and his nose touched by the wind, smiling.

And in the shadows of the forest, a great silver wolf, his eyes blazing with light, watched them both, and smiled.


(1) with gratitude to, and inspiration from, Martin Bell.
(2) “The Porcupine Whose Name DIdn’t Matter,” p. 113 of The Way of the Wolf by Martin Bell.


c.f.
1 Timothy 4:12, “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity”
Titus 2:7 “In everything set them an example by doing what is good.”
Matthew 5:13-16

     “Without realizing it, we fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers. Good people who are always “there,” who can be relied upon in small, important ways. People who teach us, bless us, encourage us, support us, uplift us in the dailiness of life. We never tell them. I don’t know why, but we don’t.
“And, of course, we fill that role ourselves. There are those who depend in us, watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know.
“You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think.”

-Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten

“Sacred” Music

We had a moment in worship this morning…

The Cornell University Glee Club visited Flagstaff and led most of our time of worship today. While I know they are capable – and have a repertoire consisting – of far more, they shared a number of selections of sacred music with us, drawing from pieces drafted across the centuries! Ancient Latin alongside modern pieces, all sung a cappella by 40 some male voices. As they sang, a few thoughts came to me that I thought I’d share…

cornellchoir

When I closed my eyes, the music seemed to surround me as though in waves. Maybe it is because of familiarity with the physics of sound being a wave, but I imagined the voices mingled together like the waves of the ocean  – bass voices flowing like the undertow of the beach, baritone the shifting swells of waves, tenor (or higher) like the waves crashing at the top. I could almost see the waves as they sang.

I could also picture some of the great cathedrals I’ve visited in Europe. I remember hearing some choirs rehearse in them as I wandered, decades ago; and the mixture of voices filling our worship space this morning were reminiscent of those choirs I’ve experienced, or of choirs innumerable through centuries of faith.

I was reminded that our ability to express beauty (not to mention divine reverence) in music is inherent, and not dependent on instrumentation. Long before there were base guitars, synthesizers, drums, pianos, organs, trumpets – there were voices. While I in no way want to denigrate instruments or musicians – especially because I hold many of my friends with such talent in such awe – the power of voice on display today was inspiring. Voices raised together in melodious harmonies, they transcend the individual and invite listeners in to a moving experience of community.*

So, today, we had a moment. 🙂


*A few years ago, a book came out titled “We are smarter than me,” which emphasized communal knowledge. Listening to the choir this morning, I was reminded a bit about the nature and power of communal worship; of the lifting power of community.

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.

 

Why I Want to Quit… But Won’t

Yesterday, someone opened up an old wound. So now I share in the spirit of a quote attributed to Hemingway and Red Smith, “if you want to write, sit at a typewriter and open a vein.” Read at your own risk.

I was the solo pastor of a young but modestly sized church. Lynn was on family leave, as we had two very young children at home – a toddler and an infant. During our time, several new families with similar young children began attending the church. Lynn became friends with a younger woman and her son, close in age to ours. For a few years, this little boy and Will were friends; perhaps the stablest friend he had. They would have play dates, and Will actually asked for and prayed about this other little boy.

Then in a rough season, both in the church and in my family, the woman became angry at me and withdrew from the church. I would not say I was without blame, but her response was exaggerated. The attempts I made to rectify and rebuild the relationship were rebuffed and rejected. The mother stopped connecting with Lynn, and the little boy suddenly disappeared from Will’s life. What hurt me most was that my son was robbed of a friendship because another person though so little of the relationships to begin with.

Over the years, I’ve seen many – too many – people leave church communities, sharing a wide berth of “reasons” why they came to such a “difficult decision.” Some times they seek to assure that it isn’t personal; but, in the end, it always is – because, whatever reason they might give, they are casting off relationship with you, and/or with others with whom you are invested. Beyond people leaving my life, my children have experienced Sunday School teachers and volunteers suddenly disappearing; relationships that were helping them grow suddenly cut asunder. The other night, in a book study, I asked, without answer myself, “have we so commoditized relationships that they are easily tossed aside?”

And so it was yesterday the old wound was opened up again when yet another person stabbed at it with their decision to leave the congregation because they were upset with denominational conflict, in this case movement regarding potential changes in how the church responds to homosexual persons. The same conflict has been going on throughout my ministry, and I’ve had people express their disgust and leave because the church was becoming to libertine or accommodating to culture, and others because the church was not loving or open enough. Recently Lynn and I articulated, as clearly as we could, that we have known people of deep faith with very different positions on issues of sexuality, and as pastors our commitment was to sustaining a community culture where people with diverse opinions could join together pursuing growth in love for God and neighbor. Sadly, this means we are not “committed enough” for those who want change to occur, nor for those opposed to such change.

One of my dilemmas is that I can see the faith, the heart, and the good in people with very different perspectives. Perhaps it is because my life has been blessed with mentors of liberal and conservative leanings – people very radically different in perspective but who still demonstrated love and respect for one another – that I can live with such tension and not insist on certainty from others aligned with my own perspective. I know people coming to radically different conclusions but who start from the same place I do, a deep desire to love God and others. I’m not always at ease with ambiguity, for perhaps none of us ever are. But I can live with the tension of different perspectives, because I know they arise from people with strong relationships with God and others. But others can’t, or won’t, and sever their connections with others who don’t think as they do.

So I went to a dark place internally as I spent yesterday on the road, coming to question if this was the kind of church I wanted my children to be a part of. You see, one of the commitments and teachings I cling to is that the church is not an organization or institution, but an organic community of people; more like a “body” – the metaphor most often used in Scripture – or a “family” – the metaphor most prominent in modernity. Like the bonds of family, we are all individually fallible and incomplete, but we don’t render the bonds because of disagreement. The body is supposed to have a deep unity – again, “unity” being regularly exhorted in Scripture while “uniformity” is not – founded not in agreement with one another, but in love for one another.

But my growing perception is that for too many, religion/spirituality has become so individualized that we commoditize the church: instead of a community we commit to, it’s a CostCo where we purchase the things we want, and when we don’t like something, we bail for a different big box location. We tender our resignations, leaving for better pastures where the pastors are “real Christians”… at least until we find something in them we don’t like. (I had a tenure long enough at one congregation to see a family leave, bound through two other churches, and end up back where they had begun!)

And here’s the thing: while I maintain faith in God, I worry I’m losing faith in people. (The tenor of our recent election didn’t help this perception any, either!) If I can’t trust you to maintain love and seek unity even when there might be disagreements along the way; if the threat is always there that you’re going to bail because you’re upset about something; if you’re likely to reopen old wounds; then why should I bother with you?

Why would I stay? If my faith, hope, and commitment are to an idealized community that isn’t realistically going to happen, why invest and sacrifice so much to help lead and form the community? If my own children are not going to know continuity with others who love and care for them as part of God’s extended family, why make them experience the sacrifice of me being gone so much? Why stay somewhere you are being hurt?

And so driving through snow, rain, and sand all in the same day, wind buffeting me with different trials along the way, I once again contemplated quitting the local church. I want to quit, because other people let me down. I want to quit, because I don’t feel strong enough to persevere investing to build community others cast aside so readily. I want to quit, because the reality they’ve seen is not the church as I want my children to know it. I want to quit, because I have skills and passions I could put to good use in other arenas…

When I woke this morning, the sense of personal hurt had ebbed and was replaced by the larger grief I’ve known of late, that I’m losing faith in people. I shared that grief in prayer and moved on. I read through the Gospel of Mark (which was simply the next scheduled morning reading I had, and not some inspired “Oh, I should do this…”), seeing Jesus develop community where it was least expected, and the outcomes of that community: healing and wholeness for people who had been sick, lame, or lost. I saw again his affirmation of the scribe who knew what was the greatest of God’s commandments, and his grief at the Pharisees who were so assured of their own righteousness because they followed God’s Law. I was reminded of Who it is I follow, but saw even he struggled with how people responded…

Then there was another book I turned to finish, having just the last two chapters of The Road to Character by David Brooks left to read after starting it months ago. In the last chapter*, as Brooks shared a radical cultural shift that began in 1945, from moral realism to moral romanticism, something happened. Perhaps it was the movement of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was just my bruised ego healing, or perhaps it was just inspiration shared from one to another. You can ascribe the source as you wish.** But as Brooks shared his “Humility Code, a coherent image of what to live for and how to live” – a simplified list of propositions that should resonate deeply with any person of faith – I was reminded why I may, at times, want to quit, but why I won’t quit.

Brooks shares his view that we “don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness… The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle.” He writes that people “with character are capable of long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin.” He reminded me that we can not arrive at self-mastery and good character on our own, “Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside – from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and examples…” He points out our need for community, perhaps all the more for the deep statistics the chapter shares about the impact of our increasingly individualistic society. And, in the midst of this, he shares that wise leaders always struggle, knowing that lows are lower than the highs are high, but seeking to leave things a little better, making progress toward the ideals after which we strive.

Like others before me, I may want to quit, but I won’t. I won’t because, for whatever reason, I and various communities of faith I have been a part of have discerned God’s calling in my life to be a leader. A leader who strives after ideals – ideals of what it means to know and love God, to follow Christ, to live in Christian community – even if we fall short of those ideals. And, as both David Brooks and Simon Sinek*** allude to, perhaps now more than ever we need true community; and to achieve it, we need people who work to help us develop and experience it.

I know these old wounds will continue to be re-opened. I know I will continue to be let down by others. I know that, at times, I will bear witness to the price others pay for a person’s “difficult personal decision.” Like others before me (Jeremiah and Elijah spring to mind, but I know there are countless others), there will be times I want to quit. But I will persevere, sticking to my core principles – the centrality of love (especially of God and neighbor), and the importance of community to our spiritual health even amid a culture of individualism being central to much of who I am and what I do.

For selfish reasons, I may want to quit;
but because of (what I hope are) selfless ones, I won’t.


*The book is long and wordy, but the last chapter is incredibly profound. I recommend it!

**This is an aside, but in a few recent democratic processes I’ve observed that some Christians only ascribe movement or inspiration to the Holy Spirit if it aligns with their perspectives. Otherwise, they see that God isn’t really present in the activity…

***I also listened to the bulk of Leaders Eat Last, by Sinek, while driving yesterday.

Another Dream

I have an active dream life, and often have vivid dreams, for good or ill. This morning (while I am on vacation) is an example, and I share it because I think it speaks to some of the greatest anxiety I have regarding both my vocation and our culture. So below is the dream, followed by some thoughts as I wake from it:

——

I’ve run into a colleague in a bar, someone I have been close to and know I can speak without being judged. He asks how I am. In my response, I share that it’s a challenge to be helping to lead an institution that is in decline, that is struggling and failing to connect with people my age or younger. Another colleague comes by and shares that his church is going gang-busters after initiating some particular ministry; the innuendo clearly being that anyone who isn’t growing or successful is doing it wrong.

I’m on a porch with Lynn when a group of about half a dozen seniors walks up to me, bypassing Lynn completely, and drop a large stack of papers on my lap. “What do you think of these?” one of them asks, gruffly. I look down at the stack and ask what they are. “Applications for the nursing home.”

The church also operates a nursing home on its premises. Turns out, as (one of?) the pastor(s), I’m responsible for selecting new residents and overseeing the nursing home. I express a bit of dismay that this is something I’m expected to do, as well. One member of the group expresses a bit of empathy while others demand my review of the papers.

Looking at the first one, the paperwork has been filled out with a large handed scrawl. “This is terrible,” I comment, “my fourth grader can write more neatly and spell better than this.” I drop that one. The next one is a “request for roommate” form, completed by two women. The form seems filled out fine, but another hand has scrawled hastily written comments in the margins and throughout the form. I put it on the bottom.

One of the group comments that they want a recording of a funeral from the other day. I indicate that I don’t record them. They are shocked. The empathetic woman suggests that she could record from her phone. “Of course,” I share, “you could record it, but I’m not able to.”

The next form seems to be standard, and I realize that the top of it reads “Expects An Invitation.” The next form isn’t a form, but several copies of newspaper articles about a high school cheerleader. Someone in a shaky hand has written in mostly unreadable cursive comments about the girl throughout the pages, including one that clearly reads “lift up her skirts.” The implication given is that surely because of her immorality the girl, or a relative of hers?, wouldn’t be allowed in the nursing home…

——

Do you sense the anxiety I felt (or did you perhaps feel some of your own) reading the dream?

Some days, I think we are, generally speaking, getting meaner toward one another. Maybe we’ve always been this way, and I’m just growing out of innocent naivety to see it. Or maybe people really are becoming more free toe express gruffness, meanness, assertiveness bordering on (or crossing into) arrogance, and self-righteous entitlement.

I’ve given my life to growing (and serving) in love for God and neighbor; in pursuing “holiness.” I constantly work with others, and sometimes see degrees of this meanness expressed around me. How do I reconcile my commitment with the seeming failure I see around me?

In the last few years, as I really contemplate what a life with Christ/God means, I have gravitated toward Galatians 5:22-23a being the best descriptive of what “holiness” means to me. Here’s an amalgam of several translations of the verses:

“The result of God’s presence in our lives is love and unselfish concern for others; joy and exuberance about life; peace, serenity, and perseverance; patience and compassion in the heart; kindness; goodness, generosity, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people; faithfulness; gentleness; and self-control.”

These “fruits of the spirit” are the aspects prominent in persons of character that I respect and respond to. These are the transformative changes I pursue through my faith in Christ, and genuinely hope to help others to know, experience, and grow in. While neither I nor others are perfect in them, my hope is that we hold them as the ideals toward which we aspire and live.

Finally, an additional word of encouragement I find comes from both Romans 12:8 and Max Plank’s poem The Desiderata:

Romans 12:8, “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you. live at peace with everyone”
Desiderata, “As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.”

…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.”