Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Prayer of St. Francis

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

That is my favorite section of the prayer. I return to it often. There is so much of the giving giving giving giving power of Christ in it.

Forgiveness is the most extravagant idea in the whole of the cosmos. Only God could think of it. The rest of us are too selfish, busy keeping score of who has wronged us, working hard to prove our point.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mr. Josh Bottomly

I finally had a triumvirate of men to hang out with for a relaxed evening. Tuesday night Jason and Lennis joined me later in the evening after their respective children had been put to bed--Jason (2 kids), Lennis (4). I'm frustrated that it took me over two years to attempt a gathering like this. I suppose I've needed this time to grieve the loss of my deep connections in Oklahoma City. That Jewish dictum that I've thought of so often has been agonizingly fulfilled, never leave any place easily.

I've not just had one or two good, close brothers over the years; I've had several. And this richness has been a surprise to me. It wasn't until a few years after college that I think I even began to conceive what it means to have or be a good friend. Everyone else seemed to have a tight group. I was the late bloomer both academically and socially. I didn't date. Girls freaked me out and I was intimidated easily by the camaraderie other guys could share that I didn't have.

Josh Bottomly was an exception. We had a deep and young connection. We were thirteen at summer camp. Put together by the camp director, Kay Zahasky. She had just met me the year previously, but she had known Josh and his family for several years. It was her hunch to put us in the same room. I had the trundle bed that pulled out from underneath hiss bed. We talked way into the night. It is interesting--even a little strange--that we were talking about God so eagerly, sincerely, and so intensely. We prayed together as we fell asleep. I remember Josh whispering Isaiah 30:15 to me in the dark, "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength...." Philippians 1:6, "He who has begun a good work in you will complete it." I returned to camp from Illinois and Josh from Colorado for several summers. He became my best friend during that time. And that had its own awkwardness. How can the friend who you feel closest to be so far away? So, now with Josh in Oklahoma and me here in Michigan, it is not so new--to be away. There are other things that I'd like to tell about my friendship with him when we were in high school, but I feel hesitant to make much of it in writing for fear that I'd make it seem less than it was, that I'd make it mundane or silly or worse, that I'd sentimentalize it.

I offer these thoughts about Josh for two reasons: to celebrate him and to offer this friendship as a question.

Later when I moved to Oklahoma, Josh was the one who convinced me to go into teaching. I took a job, yes a full time position, for a measly $18,500 a year mostly because it meant I got to work at the same school with him. Later, I introduced him to the school where he now works. I was teaching grade six Language Arts and he grade seven. Casady has a chapel service daily and that meant that more often than not he and I would walk around the small lake in the center of the school grounds from the Middle Division building to the chapel.

Josh was up here in Holland for two nights a few weeks ago to visit some college campuses since he is a college placement counselor now. I rode with him one of these days and in the car we had plenty of good time to reconnect and reinvigorate the several conversations we have been carrying on over the years. Having him around made me realize what an empty space there is in my life, how good it is to have substantial, meaningful and regular conversations with other men. This is what finally motivated me to get Jason and Lennis together this past Tuesday night.

The question then is: why is it so hard for us to find space in our lives to share with each other? I just got back from having dinner with my two interns, Sam and Andy, and this same question came out of my mouth: when we are created to love and receive love, why is it so hard for us to actually be together? Tuesday night, Jason and Lennis were asking this question too. We all agreed that women are better at this than men. Women have "get togethers," a tea or a lunch or a prayer meeting. Men golf together. They watch "the game" together. There is the iconic poker night, a room filled with cigar smoke, men in their undershirts leaning over a table scattered with poker chips, cards and high balls of bourbon and ice. And there is, of course, the belly up to the bar at the neighborhood "liars club," as my grandfather used to call them. Here the boys are hitting the booze hard, spilling their guts to the bartender. Is there is a more iconic image of masculine loneliness, than the local bar as the social club, even a substitute for the church? But I'm not a sports fan. It is too expensive to gamble and drink liquor out on the town, and my father discouraged me from playing golf precisely because in his profession (Law) he'd seen how the game had become an escape for colleagues who had forfeited their obligations to their families.

Why does it have to be an either/or? Workaholism, the bar, the greens, 18 holes and poker nights versus the domesticated family man? I find myself romanticizing European cultures, especially those closer to the Mediteranean. France has a 30 hour work week and paid vacation as a standard. One teacher I used to work with had taught in Paris. She told me that at lunch all the children went home and the teachers were served a meal on real dishes with nice flatware. Best of all, they were served wine--by the school. In Spain they don't start dinner until late late. 10 PM is common; and then they sit at the table for a couple hours, no rush, no haste. When I studied in England for a summer, I was enamored with the English pub and the social convention of tea time. The pub was remarkable not because of the quality of beer but because it was neither a seedy, roadhouse like establishment where you can imagine a fight breaking out at any minute, nor was the pub a hopping club, a place to see and be seen. The pubs were family friendly establishments, a kind of corner community center.

Tea time was at 10:30AM, if memory serves me, no matter what you are doing. Everyone stops and takes a break. It doesn't have to be tea. Some take coffee or a soda, but there is always a little snack and a chat. In America smoking is the only equivalent we have to this kind of regular pause in the middle of the day. There is an unspoken connection between smokers, a kind of misery loves company bond even between strangers when they bum a cigarette of of each other or ask for a light or stand out in the cold just to get a puff.

There is a good movie called Smoke with Harvey Keitel and William Hurt that is about this very interesting section of our culture. Josh and I ironically discover this movie together. Harvey Keitel's character runs a corner smoke shop and William Hurt is an author who lives upstairs and is a regular customer of the store. Keitel invites William Hurt upstairs to see his life's work, several photo albums filled with pictures of the same street scene. Every morning Keitel sets up a tripod and camera and takes a picture across the intersection at exactly 8AM. William Hurt is flipping through the pages of pictures quickly and Keitel slows him down. Wait, wait, you are going to miss it.

We rush through each day, and we are not able to get perspective and see what is right in front of us. Smoking is a metaphor for this same idea; smokers stop and perhaps this pause allows them to see the day better, perhaps it is not so much about the tobacco as it is the opportunity to gain perspective.

My daily walks with around the lake at Casady served this purpose. It was good to pause. It was better to share that with someone.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thinking Clearly With Our Hearts and Minds

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone you love and respect dearly? Both of you are so sure the other person is wrong and you are baffled that there is such distance between your perspectives. This is typical for married couples to experience. If you haven't found yourself in this situation, I'd like to suggest that you should someday soon. It is a kind of agony, but it is an inevitable progression to deep loving and sharing.

We can call this experience a "de-centering." The world as you know it, what seemed familiar and safe has been turned inside out and is now frightening.

This is what some of the religious right are experiencing right now. What has happened to their version of America? Some even suspect this could be the beginning of the end and begin using words like "apocalypse" and even "anti-Christ."

My best friend, Josh Bottomly had his recent post election blog picked up by Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren. At last count his blog had attracted 74 comments. A small handful of them bluster in accusing Josh of attacking religious conservativism. If anything, I'm the one who might seem to be aggressive. Josh, in contrast is full of conviction, yes. Offense? No. It is clear that these comments are not responding to Josh's words, but to a preconcieved notion of what he represents. The dissenters are reading between the lines presumptively. If someone experiences drastic proportions of de-centering, he or she can rear back and bite vicsiously like a cornered animal.

And this is no surprise. None of us can use our minds in abstraction from our hearts. We are mislead to believe that we can attain a kind of god-like, bird's eye, objectivity, that we can stand above and outside a discussion and freely maneuver between the ideas without bias or prejudice. We can't. We use our hearts when we think with our mind and vice-a-versa, we use our minds when we feel with our hearts.

Scholars refer to this as "epistemic blindness." We are limited like a horse with its blinders to see only part of what is infront of us. Our affections and fears drive what we pay attention to and what we avoid considering. The path toward clear thinking is begun by coming to terms with these limitations, that our thinking can only be just so clear, that none of us will be able to have absolute certainty of any idea.

Some may fear the slippery slope of confessing to this kind of limitation: if there is no such thing as certainty, then is everything therefore relative? No, not at all. We are walking through the darkness, but we can still see the light. The Apostle Paul describes it as "seeing through a mirror dimly."

I once had a sparing session with a self-proclaimed agnostic who was convinced that I would be happier if I gave up my faith. My response was, but if you are agnositc, how can you be so sure that my faith is wrong? We went around and around on this for a few hours. I kept trying to burst his bubble, you can't be an agnostic and be certain at the same time! But he stuck to his guns because in his experience he claimed to have found more happiness when he had resigned the Baptist faith of his parents. His emotions were dictating his reason. And after learning more about his upbringing, it is totally understandable that his heart was coloring his mind.

This is my way of coming to terms with what sounds like irrationality to me when I continue to hear and read conservative Christians be-moan the inauguration of our next president. These brothers and sisters are functioning out of fear. It is the end of the world as they know it. And they do not feel fine. They are scared.

If some are so quick to read into the words of Josh Bottomly and paint him as an attacker, I have to wonder how I am percieved myself. The spirit and purpose of my writing here is precicely to build bridges--not to burn them. I want so much to offer others a chance to look over my shoulder and see the world, the church, music, worship, this election, from my vantage. I don't believe that I'm the final word on any of these things, but how can I learn and grow if I don't offer up some thoughts for discussion? If anything, I'm learning the limitations of this blogging venue to engage others. The essay form is very difficult to master. Oh how to be a charitable, loving critic!

Monday, November 3, 2008

“On the Eve of Election Day”

If you were to tell me when I was in college that I would someday be so interested in politics, I would not have believed you. Everything for me then was the Church, with a capital “C.” In fact my Writing Composition professor asked me if I could consider writing one of my expository papers on something other than ministry related issues. I replied to her, “would you have said that to Billy Graham when he was a student at Wheaton?” To which she replied, “you’re not Billy Graham.” My whole mind was consumed with the prospects of full time, professional ministry until around the age of 27 when I was finally on staff at a church and everything came crashing down.

To call it a season of disillusionment would be overly simplistic. I don’t want to assume that I fully understand what has happened in the last six years. I did not resign from that first ministry position because I had was convinced I was done with a kind of holy ambition to be a pastor. My Grammy told me that I had announced my desire to be a minister at the age of seven, and it is difficult, almost embarrassing to try to explain how this desire began. How can you describe a calling to someone who has not experienced it? In some ways it is the most private kind of knowing yet it is also an explicitly public kind of knowing as well. If I didn’t have people in my past and here in my present who encourage me to pursue ministry, I would not posses the nerve to continue down this path. I resigned from my first ministry position not because I had given up on my inner compass towards a life of giving. I resigned and went on to graduate studies because I’d had enough ministry experience to realize that I needed more preparation; I needed to grow up some more.

Part of the story is that I’d started having panic attacks while trying to hold down a part time position at the church and a part time position at a school teaching tenth grade World History. That year I recorded my first CD and was also leading a house church of young adults. The candle was burning on both ends; I didn’t have anything left to give in pursuit of my calling to be a giver.

After college I attempted a semester of seminary while participating in an internship. It was a hard year, so hard to transition from the security of a four year degree into the unknowing of what to do with that degree. I read a lot that year—not books for my theology classes. I was reading novels to escape the fear of the future. I’d read until four in the morning, sleep till 10:20AM or so and the book it to prep for my lunch shift at the Irish pub where I worked. That was the way that I read Brothers K the first time in something like three days. I woke one of these mornings feeling like I was drowning in my own self-consumption and somewhere I found the thought, “I want to be a giver…not a taker.” It was a curious thought at first, a bright, shiny thought that I didn’t feel capable of forming on my own. It was a prayer given to me that perhaps echoed back to my seven year old commitment to the work of a pastor. Or perhaps it wasn’t echoing back to my seven year old self, but rather to the ten year old, the thirteen, fourteen, eighteen, or the twenty-one versions of myself that had all sensed a bigger purpose.
How is it possible to talk about this “bigger purpose” without being presumptuous, without alienating yourself from others who don’t feel the same impulse? This is question that preoccupied me during most of my twenties. Why is being a pastor any more important than anything else?

Some of the most formative work I’ve done in my graduate work in on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoeffer was a heady young man. He completed two doctoral dissertations and was hired on as a university lecturer in his middle twenties. He had a bright future ahead of him in academics. He could have easily stayed in the United States during the Nazi occupation. Many other German scholars did. But Bonhoeffer left Union Theological Seminary in New York and decided to participate in the underground resistance of Hitler’s abominable dictatorship. Dietrich’s conviction was that he could not suppose his faith, writings and teaching would mean anything to anyone if he stayed idly in America. Scholars have tried to piece together what he meant in his Letters and Papers from Prison when he talked about a “religionless Christiantiy.” “God allowed himself to be pushed out of the world on the cross,” he said. It was the end of religion in the sense that it is the end of the power of theocratic governance, in other words, the end of Christendom.

Stanely Hauerwas among others has charted this notion that we exist in a post-Christendom age. The church has no worldly powers. Ours is not an earthly kingdom. Ours is a God who allowed himself to be destroyed by earthly powers for the sake of an eternal authority.
Here on the eve of the most important election of my few 33 years as a US citizen, I’m thinking about my brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ who are having a difficult time coming to terms with the end of Christian power. I was raised primarily within an expression of Christianity that enjoyed the privilege of seeming power. The Moral Majority has been strong throughout most of my life. We have preached salivation of souls along with the Gospel of the Republican Party. Tomorrow Obama will be elected our next president and this will take a tremendous blow to our Christian sense of power. I’m sure the next few years will be a bumpy ride. Mercy for us all!

It is ironic that I find myself inspired by Bonhoeffer to come to terms with the secularization of our society, to see it for what it is, to therefore participate more deliberately in my civic duties all for the sake of hoping the church can then be released to fulfill her calling. Bonhoeffer experienced a much more severe disillusionment than I did. His frustration was with the German Lutheran Church because none of its church leaders stood up to Hitler and the Nazi’s. Bonhoeffer was forced to look the failures of Christians, their complicity. Instead of staying in the safe halls of academia, Dieterich Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and participated in a few failed assassination attempts on Hilter and then was found out, arrested and executed by hanging just three weeks before the liberation of Berlin in 1943.

Bonhoeffer’s world was not so much like our own covered in layer after layer of moral quandaries and complexities. How many of us would have made a decision to actively pursue the death of a dictator? The ethics are difficult. I am convinced the ethics of our present situation, the ethics of our vote tomorrow are just as confusing if not more so.
There are many many layers of questions to consider in our vote. Again, my concern is that Evangelicals are so consumed by their concerns about abortion that they remain blind to the rest of the injustices that the church in America should stand against.

Here is what I hope: that the church might accept its stance of powerlessness, that we could embrace it as even Jesus himself accepted a lowly position while on this earth. I hope that in this lowliness we then pursue the flourishing of the kingdom of God upon the earth. I hope that if we begin to act like loving servants to our neighbors we can begin to partner with them in fixing our economy, our schools, health care system and steer a path of peace throughout the world that advances diplomacy instead of militarism. This kind of a witness postures the church as servants rather than adversaries, shepherds rather than patriarchs, lovers instead of moral police.

Romans 2:1-3

“1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? 4Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?”