Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thoughts on Thomas Merton

If there has been one pivotal encounter that stands above all others in the formation of my Christian faith, it might well be walking into Half Price Books in Round Rock, Texas, seeing this book called Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom - The Journal of Thomas Merton, Vol. 6, buying said book, and beginning a love affair with the writings of someone that is such a kindred spirit. Merton is rascally; he’s earthy, moody and mischievous. In so many ways he reminds me of myself. I know that some of those words may not be the attributes you, my friends, would use to describe me, but it is how I see myself. And so, when I read Merton I see the best things about myself…and the worst. I see things that need refinement and things that need to be pruned. 

That said I am not delusional enough to think that I have in some way obtained the same knowledge of my friend here. I also don’t identify with his calling to remove myself from the world. I totally have the desire at times to run off and become a monk, but I don’t see how that fits in with other gifts and callings in my life. So though I see Merton as kindred, I do not see him as identical. I don’t strive to be like Merton. I do however learn from him what pit falls may lay ahead of me because we have a similar bent. I also try to glean from him some good solid points of influence.

It’s kind of like a baseball player. Let’s say a tall, lanky pitcher with a strange wind-up comes along. He has this amazing ability. He looks up one day and Randy Johnson is on the TV screen. He identifies with Johnson. He sees similar mechanics, similar form. He is not Johnson, but he can learn from Johnson’s history to see what works, what doesn’t and what would make him prone to injury. Even studying Johnson’s form and injury history, understanding what mechanics made Johnson successful will not translate into an identical career path. It may make the young baseball player better, but it will not make him into Randy Johnson.

If you and I are friends on Facebook, or even Twitter, you may have seen me reference many quotes from Merton, particularly this famous prayer of his:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

The vulnerability of that prayer, the honesty of it just resonates with my soul. I know the desires of my heart. I know how whimsical and flippant I can be at times. I know that I can be passionately moved for a few weeks and then move on to another cause a few weeks later. That is how I live. I am not the most steady person or the most consistent. But as Merton prays, the desire of my heart is to be faithful. And when I get caught up in the logistics of faithfulness to the point that I am overwhelmed, I can go back to relying on God to see the desire of my heart. To see that I want to be faithful with every fiber of my being.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Mumford and Sons lyrics:

But I'll still believe though there's cracks you'll see,
When I'm on my knees I'll still believe,
And when I've hit the ground, neither lost nor found,
If you'll believe in me I'll still believe
(from “Holland Road” on the album Babel)

I am one of those guys who though I understand myself to be found eternally secure because of the finished work of Jesus, often find myself “neither lost nor found.” I can understand anyone who makes a theological argument against that thought, but hear me out for a second. I am not saying that I am actually “blown and tossed by the wind” like James writes in the first chapter of his letter. I am saying that at times I do feel as such. So, this is less about the power of Jesus, and more about the experience of being human. I experience these turbulent emotions and insecurities that swirl around me. And I rest assured that I will find peace and security. Sometimes I experience that in the here and now…sometimes I get swept out to sea and have to ask Jesus to rebuke the storm.

What Merton has been for me is a guide to say, “Even still…trust God. Learn to be your true self before God and man. God, friends and family can take your insecurity. They can take your irrational thoughts and help you be formed into the true nature that you are recovering.” And that is a message I need.

As I have often said before one of my biggest weaknesses is I am a perfectionist that cannot seem to get it right. I am often down on myself for the miniscule mistake in the midst of a triumph. “But it wasn’t perfect. I hit a wrong chord. I said the wrong word.” Those thoughts surround me…they probably always will. And Merton’s life shows that is the case. Merton shows me that I will probably always be fascinated by ideas on the fringe. I may tamper in the mud when living streams lay just ahead. But…it is okay; God is God, and I am just a man. He will lead me out of the miry clay and onto the paths of life everlasting.

Okay…that’s enough for now. Go read some Merton. I recommend Dialogues with Silence: Prayers & Drawings. It is pretty accessible and you could finish it in an hour at Barnes and Noble or some other such place. That way you can see if you like this dude before you commit to buying his work! Also, go listen to Mumford…and try to convince him to do his Birmingham concert a couple of days early so I can see him and still hang out with the monks!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Thoughts on Identity

This week has been one of those rough weeks. I think externally there is nothing anyone could point to that would identify it as such for me. It's one of those internal things. Like many of you, I sometimes just get trapped in the inner-weavings of a complex set of thoughts, emotions and feelings. And so much of what I dealt with this week was just getting caught in the crossfire of reason-vs-gut instinct-vs-feelings of insecurity. Make sense?

This guy dares you NOT to stay on the Elkhorn.
This morning, I came for my weekly jaunt to Panera. I have no idea why Saturday mornings at Panera have become so special. They just are. It started about a year ago on a Sunday morning actually in Frankfort, Kentucky. After a fitful night involving a lack of sleep on the Elkhorn I decided since I was up, I would find a place to hang out before spending time with my buddy Jeff and his congregation. I remember there being a few places by the highway heading toward the church, and it looked like only Panera was open. I think I had a two hour "quiet time" for those of you who like that language. If you know me, you know that two hours of anything is pretty amazing. And so, my love affair with Panera began.

This morning, amidst the internal swirl of life, I found myself reading my weekly homework from Henri Nouwen's Spiritual Direction. As I have mentioned before, Nouwen is pretty special for me. I took a class on him in seminary. This summer when I asked for a mentor at church David Prince stepped up to the plate and we decided to read through Spiritual Direction together.

So, halfway through my cup of coffee, after finishing my Scripture reading, I opened up chapter 3. It was one of those overwhelming/peaceful moments. I think you know what I've probably been there. It's overwhelming because although it is exactly something you need to hear (read), it is so sweet that it brings deep-abiding comfort. At the heart of the chapter is one central point: we are the Beloved of God.

Everything else in the chapter is pivotal to that. Nouwen (or rather Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird, who composed this book from Nouwen's teachings and unpublished works) points to three areas that we frequently point to as identity: what we do, what others say about us, and what we have.

What We Do

The first area we often point to as our identity is what we do. Ask anyone about my aversion to claiming my identity by what I do, especially TJ Felke. Really, ask them. For some reason, early in life, I simply refused to identify myself by what I did. I can't tell you why, but there was a deep felt disdain for that type of identification. Some of that may go back to my dad. Buck Love (still quite possibly the best name for a dad anywhere) was a mechanic. That is what he did. I was never ashamed of that. But, anyone who saw my dad as just a mechanic just radically missed who he was.

Buck Love (w my niece Sammy) is the stuff of legends!
My dad may have the ability and understanding to fix many types of machines, but that could never define a man who is one of the most fierce protectors of friendship, lovers of family, and seekers of truth alive today. So, to say, "Buck is a mechanic," radically missed the mark. And I think seeing that, understanding that about my father, caused me to always reject the idea of vocation being linked with identity.

On the flipside, my inner Pharisee would hound on acts of service and devotion. In my younger years I wanted my faith to be seen by just about anyone and everyone. I wanted people to know if I had a quiet time. I wanted people to praise me that I led men and women in worship. I think that I so heavily depended on works, and identification with works that there was really no growth. I didn't develop a secret life apart from community...I just performed like a monkey in costume for the adulation of those around me. Works were about love and acceptance. And looking back is a reminder not to purse that type of identity.

What People Say About Us

The second area Nouwen pointed to in terms of identity is what other people say about us. I think this is one of the easiest things for us to acknowledge as a bad way to live life. If we are constantly leaning on the words of others there are multitudes of ways we can be let down. Silence. Criticism. Lies. Cynicism. Any of these can derail who we "are." There is no safety in living your life banking on the praise of other people.

Despite knowing this, I know that I live and die by the praise of those around me. It is just old hat. I am a people person. I want to know that the people around me like me, love me and generally want me around. At the end of the day I am more prone to base success or satisfaction on how things shook out relationally than by how many tasks I completed or did satisfactorily. In other words, this is where I have derived a vast amount of my identity.

What We Have

Nouwen looks like someone I'd hang with.
The last area Nouwen pointed to in terms of identity is the things we own. I like the way that Nouwen explained this. He didn't just point to things we own like houses, cars, books, music. He also pointed to things like our national identity, familial identity and such. In other words, everything that we own, physical or otherwise. 

Finding our identity in these places is quite simple. It is easy to say, "I am a Texan from Florence who has four brothers and a sister. I am a Baptist with some Charismatic and Catholic tendencies who banks at Union State Bank. I am an athlete, musician and scholar with a master's degree."

Those are all things that I have. Every statement is thus true. And more than owning a Nissan Frontier (speaking of, any of you in the market for one?) or MacBook Pro, I can easily derive a sense of identification from those things. It is easy to fall prey to these things as the source of who we are.

I Am God's Beloved

But, Nouwen says that all of these things are false identifications for those of us who call ourselves Christians. We are simply "God's Beloved." I'll admit, I have heard this and similar messages for most of my life. Many great teachers and pastors have planted these seeds of identity, but they have not always taken root. I think to an extent I was just so hurried that I would say, "Yes. I know," and never reflect on the true meaning of being God's Beloved.

That has frequently been my problem. I can analytically decipher a statement and cognitively process it back in the storage of my mind grapes, but I never really access it on the level of identity. I never really let my life be transformed by the understanding that God calls me Beloved. I know for some this sounds like the very dregs of sentimentality that turn you off of Evangelical thought, but this isn't just ooey-gooey emotional sentimentalism. It is instead simple truth that should transform us not to live by the whims of what so easily passes through our fingers. We cannot hold onto nationalism, family, monetary satisfaction or anything of the like. We can hold onto proper identification rooted in eternal truth.

Identity is something that we will struggle with our entire lives. "Who am I?" is a question that will always be around. Whenever we are able to answer that with something substantive and eternal we will be changed. Whenever we answer that with something fleeting, insecurity will pad beside us. I may not have it all figured out. I may never. But what I feel like I am learning in this season is that when I can respond as God's Beloved, I am more prone to act of love and not fear. I won't get caught up in the waves and currents of emotionalism or even ill-gained wisdom. Instead I will find peace and rootedness in that which is eternal.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Thoughts on Mental Health Care

Immediately after the events of Newtown and Aurora, there was a national call for better mental health care. It was a part of the healing process for Americans dealing with grief from the loss of children and the idea that even public places like a movie theater are no longer 100 percent safe. It’s a natural reaction, and I think for those across the entire spectrum of experience with mental health service, it was a deeply held conviction.

Now, with a little space between the tragedies that call has diminished. There are some who will still continue to push for reform. There are others who await the next catastrophe to jump on another bandwagon. But for me, I just want to talk about the reason I don't care for the specific language "better mental health care."

First, I lay this on the table: I work in mental health care service. I work for the federal government studying PTSD in military veterans. Our scope is not limited to veterans suffering from war-related illnesses, we also have patients with sexual trauma, from tornado related trauma, accidents, shootings, murders, etc. So, though we have a limited scope of the population we engage, we still hear many voices of PTSD.

Also, since what I do is research based I meet patients interested in our services with other diagnoses like depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, schizoaffective, personality disorders. My life is basically a living DSM-IV manual. And I will be frank on this point: the care that I see given to veterans by the providers I work for is amazing. These women (because they are all women) astound me. They are able to disarm these men and women, see through liars, call out malingerers, point families to great resources and help veterans understand their illness.

I know there are a lot of other providers across our hospital that are just as amazing. I also know there are certain providers who give diagnoses or prescriptions that are quite suspect. I also know that some are doing so because they are dealing with, to go biblical for a second, persistent widows; these are vets that beat the path looking for a prescription. I also know that some of these doctors have pet diagnoses; if you go see Dr. So and So, you will eventually be diagnosed as Bi-Polar II. So, I understand that there is a need for better, more accurate mental health treatment.

Another thing I understand is that mental health care is expensive and a lot of people do not have insurance that will cover the costs. Or just as bad, are afraid to seek out mental health coverage because a permanent diagnosis will be added to their medical record that could cause them to lose their job, or prevent them from getting future jobs. So, I know that access to health care is problematic as well.

But I think that beyond those things the bigger issue is a misconception of mental health care. We think that certain people should be locked away. We think that certain people should be given a pill. We think that certain people should be given intensive therapy. We think that some people should be medically induced into a coma the rest of their lives. In other words we have all of these theories based on our experience with a homeless guy who freaked us out once, or an aunt who has seasonal depression, or this teenager who shot up an elementary school. In other words, we just aren't fully informed. So to call for an overhaul of a system without full understanding is scary to me.

I think the overall state of mental health care provision in America is pretty great. I think, just as there are good teachers and bad teachers, good bankers and bad bankers, we have good providers and bad providers. I think many people aren't educated enough to really know the difference. I know that there are many wastes in care partly because of inefficiency on our part, and partly because there are people who either don't have words to explain what they are feeling, are faking symptoms, or who think we need a pill immediately any time there is something wrong with them.

One of the doctors I work for recently relayed the story of a social worker who did a house visit and asked for X,Y&Z to occur. She reported back to the social worker the history of treatment for this particular patient and ended by saying, "They are just dulling their pain, and sometimes pain is the indicator that we need to do something different. I will not do X,Y&Z because this patient does not want to change...they want an excuse."

What can come across as callous was really a simple statement saying, some people don't understand the purpose or the point. Some people do not want to be better. I think this is a relatively small part of the population, but it needs to be acknowledged.

But on the flip side of things we also have a large part of the population like your Uncle Joe. Joe probably has been depressed or anxious for decades. He has never let anyone know as such and has been compensating for a long time. Some of his dealings could be greatly helped by one or two trips to a mental health provider, but fear, skepticism, lack of funds, or whatever the reason keeps him from getting help. It's just the reality of things. Doctors cannot heal the things they don't see.

And there are the rest of us. Sometimes we have things that we can’t sort out. Sometimes there is something wrong with our pituitary gland. Sometimes anniversaries mess with our mind. Sometimes Christmas is sad…every year. There are all of these things, and sometimes what we need is a listening ear. Sometimes we need medicine. Sometimes we need to work out and change our diet. Sometimes we need to just be honest.

In other words, we need good providers who can call us out on something…and we need to be able to believe them. And that is where I think we are at with this thing we call mental health provision.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Fiction Friday 2 - The Body in the Light cont...

“So. Tell me. How does it work?”

Everett Channing. Everett was a pretty good guy, but at the moment he simply annoyed me. I showed up at college, and Everett latched onto me. Not like the hanger-on from freshman year that has done nothing explicitly to annoy you, yet you don’t want to hang out with him. Not in that way at all. More like an unofficial mentor. Everett wasn’t my advisor, but he pushed more than Mrs. Greene ever would. Granted, Greene was more concerned with the two years left before her retirement than her students. She had long since given up caring what we did. Advising rates were not her top priority. Tahiti or some other such nonsense probably was.

“Are you going to just sit there, or are you going to explain to me how this works?”

“Everett, it works. My answers using this, uh, you know, it's simple stuff. I mean it's basically just middle school math.”

“Exactly, but can you tell me why it works? That is the question. It would be hard to find anyone who doubts Pythagoras at this point in time, but you still have no idea how this works. And that is the problem.”

“When would I ever need to know how the Pythagorean theorem works? The whole world knows that it works. It’s not like I have convince anyone of that.”

“You’re not listening to me, Thom. I agree that there is no argument here, but you are refusing to explain to me how it works. There are over 350 proofs that you could point to, and you don’t seem to know a single one of them. You are content to memorize a formula and pull it out of your back pocket should you need it, but you don’t seem to care why. And caring why is what I want to find out about. Do you care enough to know why?”

“Why would I care to know why this works? It’s not that interesting, and by now, it’s just accepted as fact? Why do you care how triangle math works, Everett?”

“I care, because it interests me. I care because I don’t have to depend on one person’s words dictating the way I live my life. I care, because questions help knowledge transform facts into some construct that helps me understand life.”

“Dude. That is deep.”

Why do we college guys say that? I mean, sure Everett's philosophy is beyond the normal realms of scholarship I would dare to broach, but “Dude. That is deep” does not exactly speak of intelligence on my part. And the fact is, at the end of my junior year of college, this was one of the “deepest” things I had talked about, and that is plain said.

“Well…thanks,” Everett piped back. “Listen, Thom. The fact is, I have known you for three years, well, almost three years, and you haven’t cared about anything enough to know the ‘why’ behind it. That is why I ask about a theorem. I want to know that you care about something.”

Dude. Low blow. C’mon Everett. Keep it above the belt, buddy. I know there is truth to it, but…

“Dude I care. I just haven’t found anything academically that pushes my buttons.”

“Thom. It’s not academics. You haven’t found anything. No student government, no frat, no organizations. You’re headed for a life of, I don’t know what. But the one thing I know is you’ll be underachieving.”

He's probably right. I've been here at school for three years. Any advisor but Greene would have made me declare a major, but I slowed things down, took 12 hours a semester, took off a semester to study abroad. Most of my friends are well into their studies. I have tossed around ideas, but I have to know something concrete by the end of this year. No more electives, no more basics, finally time to move on to something, and Everett was right, there just wasn’t anything there.

“Everett, if I didn’t know better, I would think you were going sweet on me.”

“Shut up Thom. You know too much for my own good.”

Everett smiled. He is a private guy, but for some reason confides in me, even though he's my elder. He is one of those truly confused guys. Not a guy in denial. He literally has just never had feelings for anyone before. No guy. No girl. No middle school infatuation. No high school lust. Just school. He wonders if something is wrong with him. I don’t think so. He may be a bit rational and lacking emotion, but there's nothing necessarily wrong with him.

“Listen man. I’ll choose something. We still have a few weeks until we choose, well, until I choose courses for next semester. I guess everything is already chosen for you?”

“Yeah. That is a part of being a master’s student here. Small enough school that I am just a train on a track. With any luck, we’ll graduate together.”

“Yeah. Us and Toph. Speaking of, shouldn’t he be here? Toph is always here.”

Toph. Toph was an engineering major. I always think civil engineering, but he's studing mechanical. He's a smart guy. Always studying, but studying with us. His name of course isn’t Toph, it's Christopher. He just stumbled over his words when he met his R.A. freshman year and a nickname was born. Now that he's in his major, most people called him Chris, and some even Christopher. But to me at least, he's still Toph.

“Chris won’t be here today. He has a group project. But, he should be at the apartment, by the time you get back.”

Oh. There is that. I live with Toph. Have since the beginning of this year. And in a university town, plan to live with him next year too. Good roommates are terribly hard to find, and good digs even harder. Everyone says they have the best place in town, or the worst. It’s like we live in this world of black or white subjectivity. There is no, “Oh my place is okay, not great.” No, your place was either the worst you had seen, or obviously the best. That isn’t the case with us. Toph and I have a pretty good apartment. It's not anything special. It's cheap because we are on a middle floor and have no view of the pool. It's a bike’s ride from campus, so you don’t have to worry about parking, unless you're feeling pretty lazy. Somehow our upstairs neighbors are quiet as can be and neighbors on either side keep pretty reasonable hours. Toph says it's because the building is filled with engineering students. They all work pretty hard to keep up with the pace of school so don’t have time for foolishness like drinking binges. That suits me just fine. I'm not a drinker. I don’t smoke. Keep a pretty clean mouth. I guess Adam Ant wouldn’t have much use for me.

“Okay. So, do you want to split, or do you need to hang around here a little longer? I know you have a lot of studying…and grading for that matter to do.”

“I think I can afford to cut out a bit early. It’s Thursday. Only one more day of classes, and for me, that is just sitting in on an undergrad lecture. Soon enough I will be teaching the course, but I know this stuff pretty well.”

Everett, no doubt was a smart kid. He came to school on a full ride, which was good, because he doesn’t have much money. Neither do I really, or Toph for that matter. Everett though, struggles. His parents were torn between excitement that he went to college, and nervousness, because they didn’t have any money to contribute toward the effort. He's a TA in his department and next year, his last year, will actually teach some freshmen classes for some experience, and even better, a little money. His stipend covers his basic expenses, but anytime we want to do something fun, go out of town, Everett usually has to stay behind, or accept the charity of others. It isn’t that he was too prideful for that, it’s just, I don’t know, he’s normal. He doesn’t like taking a hand out. Now food—that was a different story. Everett may have been thin as a rail, but the boy can pack away some food, especially free food.

“How about I treat you to some dinner? We’ll hit that Chinese place on the way back to the apartment. You can grade some papers and I’ll play some video games.”

And with that, we pack our things and head for the door, nothing much on the horizon. Just a typical February afternoon.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Thoughts on Living in Fear

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. 1 John 4:15-21

I don't often throw my cards on the table for everyone to see. Although I am working out my faith with fear and trembling, I don't want to do all of that in the public sphere. But, I do want to show one of those cards today. I have a working thesis regarding all of us who chase after this thing/person we call God. Here it goes:

Everyone pursuing God has developed, is developing and will continue to develop false ideas about God. It is part of the process. It always has been. It always will be. Because God cannot be fully grasped by finite human minds, we must accept that we cannot contain God in our words and/or reason. But, over the course of time, God will guide us to correct views, which will ultimately culminate in perfect understanding by experiencing the actual presence of God.

That's it. And I think resolving this in my heart has allowed me to drink from the different springs that arise throughout Christendom. It is why Dostoevsky's Orthodox beliefs shining through Zosima and Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov doesn't scare me. It's why Jay Bakker and Tony Jones don't bother me as they look at more progressive thoughts. It is why Krista Dalton and Rachel Held Evans encourage me in empowering women and challenging status quo about women in leadership. It is why I love the passion I see in Brian and Jenn Johnson. It is why Mike Bickle can challenge me when it comes to the Holy Spirit. It is why John Piper can get under my skin, but I still accept him as my brother, because he has things he can teach me. It is why I am not scared when my faith and beliefs are challenged. I choose not to live in fear. Because these men and women confess Jesus as Lord, and God therefore abides in them.

I think if there is anything that I have within me to help and spur on the Church it is this same attitude. It is my ability to rummage through the various corners of Christendom and glean what is good. It is kind of what I was hinting at yesterday in the Rob Bell post. I desire to see us all dine at the table together. It's like American Thanksgiving and I am inviting a bunch of guests. And instead of assigning positions so that Aunt Heidi Baker doesn't get sat next to Uncle Thomas Merton, I just roll with it. Because there are a lot of beautiful things that can happen when groups are challenged. A lot of love can develop.

But, it hasn't always been that way for me. I came from a tradition that worked hard to maintain a certain theological outlook. Anything that threatened that was labeled heretical and you were banned from even looking at it. And last night I was exposed to a group that did the same. It attacked Richard Foster. Now, I don't know that I can say this definitively, BUT, I venture to guess not many people find Foster that threatening. He is not the whore of Babylon that this website would have you believe. But the men and women who run this website view his teachings on meditation as too Eastern and a threat to the Gospel. Actually, there are a lot of people this particular group are afraid of. Here are some they specifically list on their website:

Contemplative authors
Christian Mystics of the Past
Global Peace Plan
Christian Organizations
The New Missiology
Mantra Meditation
Misguided Shepherds
New Age
Christian Conferences
Be Still Video
Contemplative Terms
The Secret
Signs & Wonders
The Shack
Rick Warren

This group is lost in fear. They are so afraid that they are choosing to not engage with the world. They are going beyond the call of being in the world, but not of it; they are isolating themselves. And more than likely they are endangering themselves. That is often what happens when we are so scared of everyone else. Our protective hedges cause our theology and beliefs to become fringe, and we are no longer tempered by our brothers and sisters. In other words, we need to be challenged. We need to be confronted. Challenges to faith actually spur us on. It’s not the other way around.

Beyond that, my biggest issue with groups of the Church that do these same things is that we limit the view of God's power and faithfulness. If we are so afraid that going to the picture show, playing cards, hearing a Beatles song is going to destroy our faith, then ultimately our God is not nearly as powerful as we think. Think about that for a minute. If a simple song, if using instruments in worship, or talking to a prostitute or homosexual is enough to endanger everything you hold dear, what does that speak about your faith and your God? Your entire life is based around worry and protection. Instead of engaging in the world as it really is, your life is built around keeping everything and everyone out, instead of engaging and inviting them in, which is more attune with the Gospel message. It’s like you are living in M. Night Shyalaman’s Village.

One of my strong suits (though some may see this as weakness) is that I simply trust God, my faith in Him and the input of community to keep me safe from buying into cheap religion, false teachings and dangerous beliefs. I trust that God will guide and protect my steps. I believe that He will lead me by peaceful streams. I believe that he will save me in torrential floods. My belief in the bigness of God and His ability to love His creation triumphs over fear. And beyond that, my idea that I will believe false things along the way, but in time God will lead me to correction also alleviates fear. I guess it simply comes down to belief that God is love. Residing in love, knowing it, experiencing it and trusting that you are loved removes all of this performance and pretense and in the process fear. I'm not afraid of punishment, I'm comforted by love. And that allows me to experience faith in action and not put up walls that keep me hidden from you.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Thoughts on Rob Bell

Say what you want about Rob Bell: heretic, herald, saint, sinner, prophetic, antichrist (yeah…there are those that go that far), Bell has captured the attention of the faithful across the spectrum. Heck, he has even captured the attention of those who casually observe the Church from the outside. As I reflected on Rob today, one word kept returning to me: thankful. I am thankful for Rob Bell…and you should be too.

Bell is challenging status quo. He is speaking out beliefs that have been at the margins for years and bringing them front and center. Some say it is clever marketing. Some think it is Bell flitting from hot topic to hot topic. Regardless, when Bell speaks, people still listen.
That said, let me take a step back and say, this is not me endorsing Bell’s theology. This is not me saying that his exegesis is impeccable. This is me saying that the Church has need of men like Bell to come along and shake things up. Whether you agree with him or not, if you are being challenged by what he says, if your pastor is having to respond to what he writes, then you should be thankful.

Bell is making a lot of pastors work. Challenging typical evangelical interpretations of Scripture, looking at various saints through Christian history, and talking about lived theology, Bell has caused men and women to respond; whether to come alongside Bell or to refute what he has written. And pastors in both circles should be thankful.
That is the first thing I thought of. The second was…this dude has a better understanding of Church and the overarching ideas of our faith than I ever gave him credit for. If you haven’t seen it, which I think a lot of us have, you need to watch this clip from youtube:

Bell and Andrew Wilson had a conversation about homosexuality on Justin Brierley’s radio show. The conversation got a little heated. Jay Bakker and Tony Jones say that it shows Bell at his best. David Ould over at Stand Firm ( uses the same video to show how shady Bell is in his eyes. Ould even critiques what I believe to be one of the most important things that Bell says. I have copied that particular part of the transcript below:
ROB BELL: Well, Andrew's my brother--like if we got out the bread and wine, we'd both take it.
BELL: That's right. So I don't--I understand it one way, I read it one way--
BELL: --he reads it another way--is that it, then? Do we just part ways? Or do you take the bread and wine and does Christ hold us together--is there something that trumps whatever differences we have? Like that's the question. Like, literally you're asking--and this is part of, like, sort of the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] that really, really, really pushes people away--is when, you have a particular conviction, and all of a sudden--your orthodoxy or your faithfulness to Jesus is all of a sudden called into question.
Ould, and others on his website, agree that this is a ploy used by progressives to cover their lack of knowledge and true argument. Eucharist apparently is now a cover up. Apparently inviting others to the table is now less about love, and more about wolves wearing their sheep skins. And that is something worth pondering. The centrality of the table, the Christian family and deception. I just don’t get what Ould and the others are saying. If there is any more prophetic act than partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, any more important part of our faith that expresses unity, excuse me for not being able to recall it.
The Catholic Church finds this act of worship so important that those who are not Catholic cannot partake. I understand that. I don’t agree with their stance, but because I agree with the importance of table fellowship I abide by it. Maybe what Ould wants to communicate is that the wolves will go after our most sacred symbol. Maybe he wants us to believe that appealing to the Eucharist is clever positioning.

But I think what Bell does here is say, “Look…how are we letting one issue destroy the fellowship of Christianity? How is this one issue so divisive that we can no longer celebrate Jesus together?” And that is where Bell’s exegesis and understanding of faith trumps Wilson. Wilson could whip my tail in exegesis, but seems to lose the heart of the Gospel (in this specific interview) by concentrating on a specific detail.
If the faithfulness of Jesus to the details of his day was important in establishing his kingdom he failed. He healed on the Sabbath, he consorted with women, he associated with and healed Romans, he hung out with prostitutes. He didn’t do a great job of following the prescribed theology of the day. He broke the rules of the Torah. Plain and simple.

I think that Ould, Wilson and so many others have fallen prey to the same problem that is rampant throughout the Church: we are about the negative. We are more concerned with the don’ts, the excluded and the no’s that we lose focus of the positives. There is much more time and energy spent saying, “Homosexuals don’t enter the Kingdom. Church of Christ’s do not receive salvation. Baptists don’t get the Holy Spirit, etc. etc.” than there is finding commonality and burgeoning love for one another. We are so focused on maintaining the status quo of the childlike faith of our youth, that a challenge, feels like we are losing ground, and more importantly losing control. And we simply cannot abide it.
Again, I am not showing my cards to how I line up, or don’t line up with Bell, but I am thankful for him. I am thankful that he has decided to spend his time asking hard questions, he has contemplated the life that is before him and reconciled it with his faith. Those are big things. He has worked really hard to understand the relational nature of God instead of creating a checklist of which Scripture verses should be followed and which shouldn’t. Because, as he pointed out in Leviticus we are also told not to combine two different kinds of fabric, women have to leave the camp when they have their period, and I don’t know about you, but no dad has come offering money for me to take his daughter under my roof.

Bell is wrestling with how to faithfully live out faith in Jesus. And in that wrestling he has ended up with some beliefs that just don’t line up with what a lot of us have accepted as truth. But at the same time, just as John Howard Yoder challenged the marriage of politics and faith in our American folk religion, Bell is throwing down the gauntlet saying, “Why won’t you at least see this through? Why don’t you at least look to see how we can reach the world?” And as long as you do, as long as you go back to Scripture, back to prayer and see this as challenge for growth, then you should be thankful.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Thoughts on Why I Read the Psalter

September 10-14, 2012. I grew quite giddy in the days/months leading up to that week. I emailed Brother Luke at The Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. I was going to spend a week there. I would finally stay under the same roof that my hero, and, as much as a dead man can be, mentor. Thomas Merton. What a dude. Merton had been quite influential for me since high school.

So, I packed up my things and took off two days early to get a glimpse of Kentucky. I really didn’t have too much of a plan for the weekend. I thought it would be cool to see a distillery or a horse farm. I knew I wanted to see my buddy Jeff Eaton. Outside of that…I didn’t make any plans. If you know me, free-flowing trips are not my style. Once, when driving from Belton, TX to Los Angeles, I tracked every Christian radio station and made a map for us so we would know where to find the next station.

When I left for Kentucky I started feeling some pangs of guilt. I hadn’t taken a real “vacation” in years. Usually travel had been reserved for family and weddings. And this was going to be the first of two vacations in back-to-back months, so I felt uncomfortable. But I had four things in a matter of 24 hours that confirmed I was where I needed to be. In brief: there was a Whataburger…outside of Texas on my driving path. Second, though I saw no graffiti at all the entire trip, a couple of miles before the monastery someone had spray painted my initials on a bridge. Third, as I settled into the campground (Elkhorn Creek Campground) I stayed Saturday night, I pulled out my old faithful Walt Whitman anthology. The next poem read:  A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings. The fourth was, my buddy Jeff and his church provided an amazing hotel room for me, and a member of his congregation gave me a little pocket change to thank me for helping him finish his DMin degree.
All-in-all, I took it as confirmation I was where I needed to be.

When I got to Gethsemani, I felt a bit disoriented. I didn’t know where to check in. I got there too early. I didn’t understand the schedule. There were all of these things that just weren’t making sense. I had plans for how I was going to spend my time, but made them before I ever knew the layout and schedule of the monastery. So…I had to change.
Sometime on the first day I decided what I needed to do was “keep the hours.” For those of you who understand monastic lifestyle, you may know what that means. For those of you who think of monks and nuns as those quirky people dressed in funny robes (which could include people of the former group as well) keeping the hours meant I was going to attend each of the prayer services every day. Here was what that schedule looked like:

3:15 am Vigils
5:45 am Lauds
7:30 am Terce
12:15 pm Sext
2:15 pm None
5:30 pm Vespers
7:30 pm Compline
In addition to the normal hours, there were also two more services you could attend. They were Eucharist at 6:15am and the Rosary at 7:00pm. As a Protestant I attended, but did not partake of the Eucharist, and generally did not attend the Rosary. But the rest…I kept the hours. And it was good for me. I threw aside my plans and decided that in the morning, between Terce and Sext I would hike, generally about 6-7 miles. Always getting lost. Most of the time convinced I would be murdered by snakes. Between None and Vespers I set aside specific time to study.

And perhaps it was the intentionality of the monastic life, or perhaps it was through the reading I did, but I just became convinced that life with God starts in the Psalter. The monks of Gethsemani pray and sing through the Psalter twice a month. And some of these Psalms were sung five days a week. So, I started to read the Psalms at the monastery. When I got home I made a calendar of what days to read what Psalms. Sure, I could have gone with the old stand by five Psalms a day, but I knew that meant some long days and some lean days. I wanted a little more consistency. So I did some math and came up with the number 83. I needed to read about 83 verses a day. I started grouping the Psalms in order stopping when the number hit around 83. Then I started reading Peterson’s A Long Obedience and it dawned on me…some Psalms are family. Specifically the Psalms of Ascent (120-134) belong to one another. So, I made some more adjustments.
But what I realized was for me, and I would assume for most others, the Psalms are our lifeblood. The Psalms are the dirt and vegetation of life. They are what keep us rooted to faith being more than a rational, academic exercise. The Psalms remind us that Christianity (I won’t speak for other faiths that use the Psalms) is about humanity…it is lived…it is breathed.

The Psalms remind us that we can be pissed off about injustice and still calm our soul in worship to God. The Psalms remind us that even in depression there is consolation. They tell us that from before we are born until we die there is both faithfulness from and to God. The Psalms are our lives written by men and women long ago who understood that the width and breadth and height of all that encompasses this thing called human life is a part of the game. Piety is not merely contented, contained love that can be mastered.
The Psalms aren’t simple poetry that we should fawn over. They are lived theology…for better or worse. And we can’t dismiss their emotive nature when establishing our own beliefs. The God who thunders from the mountains is still the God that is sung about in the Psalms. The people of God who sung their history is still the people who made up the early Christian Church. And so, though I know I need to look at Paul’s writings, and understand our two creation myths in Genesis; though Deborah leading her people and Peter correcting false teachings are important; these things just do not provide the backbone.

The Psalms provide us an opportunity to realize our humanity is not a hindrance to our faith. There are things in us that will be tempered, things that need to be disciplined, but God is not shaken by our anger, our mushy love or our poetic expressions that try to capture our experience. The Psalms give us permission to be human. And I think, at least for me, that was a message that I didn’t always understand. My humanity is part and parcel to growing in faith through love. And the Psalms encourage me in that.
And that is why I read the Psalter.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Thoughts on Disability

As a society, we have decided that men, women and children who have specific disabilities are broken. As such we relegate them to special areas and corners in schools, we don't let them have certain jobs, and in general would much rather have them in segregated communities, than walking among us. The occasional child with down's syndrome is okay. Depending on what part of the autism spectrum someone is, they might be able to break through. But everyone else...please keep them away.

I start this week off with that rude statement. But I write it, because, even if we would never say it with our lips, we live in a society that views people with disabilities as broken...and we don't like broken things or people. It is kind of the same concept as nursing homes or funeral homes. We want a few places set aside where it is okay to experience brokenness, but it needs to stay out of the rest of our lives thank you very much. And we may choose never to visit those places at all.

Now, before I lose the people who might be quite upset by me calling your child, your aunt, your friend broken, let me say...I challenge the way our society has handled and continues to handle people with "disabilities." Sure, there are certain limitations caused by certain ailments. True, some parents either emotionally, physically or financially cannot care for someone who needs around the clock care. But what we have done is set aside a population and said, "They really have nothing to offer. So we will care for them...away from the others." And frankly the assumption that those we have labeled with disabilities have nothing to offer is quite a poor one. And that same assumption is why we mislabel those with disabilities as broken in some regard.

I have mentioned my friends Anne and Nick on here before. They are part of the Vineyard, where I attend church. They are both great. I have been in a small group with Anne before, and Nick and I have spent time together with the college crew. But there is a larger story than that with disability in my life. I have been surrounded by disabled kids, men and women my whole life. From cousins with various ailments I cannot pronounce, to parents in my hometown who decided to raise their children in regular society, I grew up in a community that did a reasonably good job in this area.

I oddly want to tell a story from before I was born. My dad, the incomparable Buck Love (yep...that's his real can confirm that dad by leaving a comment...and you can correct this story) was raised in an era where segregation was the law...even if it was not always adhered to. He grew up in Florence, TX, like myself. He had this friend, I believe to be me named Jesse. Jesse was African American. Buck, Jesse and a few others went to the rodeo and someone threw the "n-word" around. They asked Dad and his friends why they were hanging out with this "that word." Dad said he looked around to see what they were talking about, and because Jesse was, well Jesse, it took him a minute to realize someone was referring to him. I think the incident ended with a scrap of some sort. Probably won by the boys from Florence. I assume as much because my dad is a great story teller... and because in Florence we start wrestling pigs, sheep, goats and calves by the time we are 4 years, we're all pretty grizzly and tough.

That is how our community reacted to various children with disabilities. Whether it was people from other communities making fun of (another) Jesse who played the cowbell in our marching band when I was in high school, or kids from other churches staring at Celeste when we went to camp, we rallied around our own kids. Because they were us. That was all there was to it.

That said, growing up in a large, Southern family where we all gathered quite frequently, we sometimes didn't (and still don't) understand what to make of life with our cousins with various needs. A lack of understanding didn't equate with a lack of just meant, how do you include members of your family who will never be able to communicate with verbal or sign language? How do we react to stares when with our cousins around town? How do you support your family who give their entire lives caring for their children? Do you go to the hospitals for surgeries? At Christmas when someone is getting a little loud, do you change rooms? These are questions we all had to deal with, because, as I stated above...these are our people. They belong to us.

And the Church needs to deal with these same questions. Henri Nouwen posed these questions a long time ago. Some people started to look at these issues. Others have just gone along with society and relegated care of "them" to others. I'll admit that I have not always been the advocate for inclusion that I should be. It becomes hard to juggle too many things at once. But recently through interactions with Anne and Nick, and reading Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus, I have been confronted with the reality that the Church needs to wrestle with how we treat others. In the case of most people it is "Are we asking too much," and in the case of men and women with disabilities, I argue the question changes to "Are we asking too little?"

If your church does confirmation...people with disabilities should be involved. If there is a youth group, the disabled should be involved. Do families volunteer to serve in communion? Their child with disabilities should be involved. This is an era we are fighting for the rights of so many people. And I want to take a moment and advocate for full inclusion of the disabled in communal life... because they are just as able as an "able-bodied" person is.

As I mentioned, sure there may be certain developmental issues that prevent full comprehension of the Gospel. There may be a cognitive impairment that prevents someone from engaging fully in our confirmation conversations. But there is also a lot to be learned, not only from mere presence, but from the insights of those who think other than we do.

Inclusion of those with disabilities isn't just a quaint idea. It isn't even just something that challenges us in how we see humanity and God. It is also a challenge to the woman with Down's or the man with autism to engage with community as well. These men and women aren't just dolls put on a shelf. They aren't just decorations that churches can point to saying, "We're really trying...see here!" They are human. They can give to community just as we give to community. They can receive from community just as we receive from community. So inclusion is just a natural step and a challenge that we need to engage.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Thoughts on Leading

I think I have made it no secret the love and affection I have for my tribe at the Tuscaloosa Vineyard. These people are quality. In the little less than a year I have journeyed alongside them it has been a place of healing, growth and challenge. One of those challenges has been stepping back into leadership.

From a worship night at my house. I love my tribe!
Even reading that statement is kind of odd. Since I have been in Alabama I have (unfortunately) landed in three churches before Vineyard. (I say unfortunately, because I like stability. I don't like being a hopper or a shopper. For the most part, those three congregations were filled with great people...especially my friends out in Buhl! I just had trouble finding my place.) And in those churches I have led youth, worship and small groups. So, it wasn't like I have been "out of the saddle" necessarily; it's just things feel different at The V. I think it seems more akin to what I feel my calling looks like.

So, this week was exciting because my buddy Tim asked me to lead worship. He is the worship pastor at the church and it was fun to see this type of initiation work itself out naturally, you know, from within, instead of bringing someone from the outside. Also, leading worship is something I tend to feel comfortable with since I have been doing that for over a decade now.

I probably wore this expression Thursday night.
But Thursday night, at practice for Sunday service something happened, that, to be honest, happens to leaders of all shapes and sizes, that I didn't expect. As I got in the saddle I just didn't feel comfortable. I couldn't find the right balance. I was just looking around wondering, "Does anyone else feel this shaky? Is this just me?" It was difficult to find myself lacking confidence in something that has always brought me great joy.

So I talked with a few people in the band/ leadership about it and as I drove off said a little prayer.

And here is where we get into a phrase that I often say, and when I look at friends faces I often wonder what they think when they hear it: God spoke to me. The idea of hearing the voice of God extra-biblically is something I think I will take on at another time. (BTW, quick definition of extra-biblical: outside of the Bible.) But for now, it was interesting to hear what the Lord was saying to me.

I will preface that message with this. I have been reading a lot lately. Henri Nouwen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eugene Peterson, Tyler Watson have been some of the more consistent reads. And I think their collective words helped me shape the message God was preparing to speak to me.

The simple version was this: when leading worship, your insecurity does not determine your offering. Do what you are supposed to do, and that is worship. Peterson has this great passage in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction where he writes about lifting your hands. Lifting up your hands is based on motor memory and not on some emotive response. Most people can lift their hands. When Scripture commends us to lift our hands it doesn't require working ourselves up to an emotional place where we can lift our hands. We simply send some neurons through the old neural freeway to our arms and say, "Wave around in the air like you just don't care."

When in doubt I read Merton.
So, when leading worship, of course, there will be in security. Just as there will be confidence, joy, sadness, weariness. We don't work ourselves up to worship. We worship. It reminds me of one of my favorite Merton passages:

What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.

 So, I just try to remind myself that worship is not dictated by emotive response in a given moment, that worship is beyond, yet includes my emotions. They are part and parcel with the whole living faith thing. 

I do however think there are certain differences in the corporate setting. We can't just be these crazed, responsive people, sliming others with our insecurities. We need to avoid being compulsive, but we can be honest. We can stop and say, "I am feeling insecure," to those close to us, without shouting to the congregation, "I'm out of control, I don't know what I'm doing up here!" There is an appropriate place for it. Just like there is a place to say, "I am probably a bit of a prideful git today." But neither determines our engagement with worship, because simply, worship isn't about us. It's part of something greater.

I think back to undergrad. There was a certain part of me that understood this, and a certain part that strove to be "authentic" saying things like, "I won't affront (because I used big words a lot in undergrad!) God. I'm not going to fake I'm just going to sit here." It was a heart that said worship was about me. It made me the center of the worship act, not God. And it was something that I just had to overcome.

So, tomorrow, I get to lead worship at Vineyard. I get to be a part of this external act of worship where the men, women, boys and girls of our congregation are going to be feeling happy, sad, anxious, prideful and insecure. And together, we get to enter this place where we say, "Even with that...I will worship." And that is what God wanted to remind me of as I am growing back into leadership this week. I'm sure next week there will be newer lessons, and then again the next week. In our living faith we just continue to evolve and that is a pretty cool thing.