Saturday, September 14, 2013

Thoughs on The Abbey of Gethsemani

I like writing. I think most of you probably know this by now. I thought while I was at the Abbey of Gethsemani I would do a lot of writing. I also thought, and looked forward to the fact that I would get several days in complete silence. And had that been the goal, I would this morning be quite upset that “those people” ruined my time of silence and reflection. By those people I mean the numerous men and women who would take from me the silence that I longed for. This trip, I only twice initiated conversation, but had no less than ten, maybe twelve people who went out of their way to speak with me.

This image was taken from wikipedia.
And the truth is each time I was quite embarrassed, because I knew that silence was being broken not just for the two of us, but for anyone who was around us. I also wondered why it was that men and women went out of their way to speak with me. Why not the other retreatants? They could easily see that others were speaking, because they heard and saw them. And the truth is, maybe they did that as well. And what I came up with was a few things. And these are what I learned this year at the monastery.

If I really do have this relationship with Christ that I suppose I do, there is something in that that is attractive to others. A few people remarked to me: you seem to happy to be here, or about me always smiling. That is what drew them to me they would say. And the truth is, I just enjoy the solitude found at Gethsemani. It is almost impossible for me not to be happy when chanting the Psalms throughout the day, hiking the knobs, reading, resting, eating simple food and seeing beautiful strangers that I love find solace for their souls. This is a joy to me. And I think that joy is attractive…not the things I do or say.

This image is from the Gethsemani website.
I expected this year to be exactly like last year. I expected that I would do this at such and such a time, and go there at this time. I expected to entertain the same rhythm I did last year. But when I stopped, I realized that September 2013 is not September 2012. I am a regenerating creation. For instance, I have shed and grown 12 new skins since I was last there. How much more has my heart, soul and spirit changed? How much have those changes caused me to need something in fact quite different? What I learned was that holding on to expectations based on previous experience can lead to frustration, disappointment and hurt…that we don’t have to experience. So, I just went with it. Sure, I sought solace, peace and quiet. And I found those things, but I chose not to let the interferences ruin the beauty that surrounded me.

I am not sure if Coptics, Catholics and Orthodox believers say things like this, but in Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches I have heard expressions such as: We are the hands and feet of Jesus. Some of these men and women that came into my space either acted as the hands of Jesus or needed the hands of Jesus themselves. I was both recipient and giver of the grace of God. And there are very few things in life, if any, more important than partaking in the giving and receiving of life found in Christ.

This photo taken from here.
The last big category is something that some of my Catholic friends here might take offense to, and I want to say to you specifically…that is not my intent. My intent is just to express the reality of my heart and experience. So, here it goes: I am unabashedly a Protestant. There are some marked differences that separate me from my Catholic brothers and sisters. But…I love them. And I will not try to change them any more than I will try to change Protestants of other denominations. The goal is not to win other Christians to my version and understanding of the Gospel. The goal is to walking in the love and unity of Christ’s Church. I don’t know why, but I still hold to a belief I developed in high school that we will all have some things we have reckoned wrong. And the reason I am fine with these misbeliefs is that we, the Children of God, are called to be in pursuit of truth. As long as we continue to pursue the truth we will have teachable spirits that learn to see truth wherever it lies. I see truth in the lives of monastic men and women of the Catholic Church. I see truth in the clergy of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches. I find truth in the history of the Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist churches. And I find truth in experiences I have in the Charismatic and Pentecostal congregations. There is beauty in all of us that we can partake in. When we fail to recognize true beauty, when we allow dogmatic approaches to our own understanding of the Gospel to prevent us from finding truth in the teachings and actions of those around us, we limit ourselves from growing toward the full expression of God found on earth today. That is Paul’s body in 1 Corinthians. I cannot help but find an expression of reverence in Gethsemani that does not exist in most Evangelical churches. I cannot help but experience a familiarity with God in the Vineyard that does not exist in many Mainline churches. But I need them both. I need them all. That is not to say that truth is relative, but more to say that truth is revealed and we are offered the opportunity to learn and partake in it.

I didn’t anticipate these four points taking up so much room. So, I think I will write more of the little things like I did last year in another post. But for now, you can kind of see how this year at Gethsemani was for me.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Adventures in Geograpy

I went home for Christmas last year, which I normally do. You know, being a small town boy, with small town virtues, and being part of two of the largest families in the world, that are both pretty awesome, going home for holidays is part and parcel to not being shunned and/or kidnapped by said families. Christmas fell on, I believe a Tuesday. I had taken a couple of fall vacations last year, so I didn’t have a lot of leave time. This meant that I planned to fly back on Christmas afternoon so that I could work the day after the holiday. However, geography had a different plan. (I think this is funny. We attribute big scheme activities to fate or God or Mother Nature or Father Time. This time…I’m going to blame plain old geography. Congrats geography…you’re big time now!)

You see three things geographical coalesced into what I call, “a typical James story.” First would be the state of Texas. I use the lower case state here as a play on words, in light of the earlier post about how vague English can be. I mean both Texas as a state in the union, and also the state that Texas found itself in due to a crazy weather pattern. So, the state of Texas contributed to this funny story. A weather front that had slowly been creeping in from the west descended on the Austin area. It brought with it snow and ice and caused major delays.

Second, the state of Alabama contributed to the scenario, same word usage as above. Instead of the icy deluge that attacked Mother Texas, Alabama had a small tornadic outbreak. I, and a lot of others sat waiting around the terminal for delayed flight after delayed flight. It finally became apparent there was no getting out of Austin. The gentleman in front of me at the ticket counter mentioned that if he could get to DFW their flight was delayed enough they could probably get out of Dallas. He went to talk to his wife as I had the same conversation with the ticket agent. He then hollered at me that I could ride with him, his wife and their baby to DFW. And, of course, because I am me, said yes.

Another gentleman heard and asked if he could join the merry band, and it was agreed that, yes, yes he could. So, the five of us set off to rent a car and watch for luggage. Since neither I or the other single gentleman had luggage we went to find cars, as did the father of the little child. I struck out at every rental place so went back to the luggage carousel. The mom of the baby said she needed to talk to her husband and left their infant with me, a total stranger. And we all know what that means…the baby woke up. Apparently this baby will be a free-spirited hippie like myself, because she looked up, decided, "Yeah, he’ll do. Since he’s here, I’ll go back to sleep."

The couple came back and told me that their family decided it was too dangerous and would disown them if their sweet little grandbaby was taken to Dallas amidst this catastrophic weather. So, now it was down to me and the other dude. He said he had found a car and was ready to go if I was still up for it. I decided to give it a shot since after all I was supposed to work in a few hours.

We hit the road and started talking. Talking was a great distraction because this guy was a frightening driver. Not in the sense of swerving in and out of traffic or ignoring most traffic laws. He just drove really fast on icy roads, and talking seemed to help me keep looking at his face and not the speedometer or the road.

So, I asked him where he was from, expecting the terminus of his flight, not inquiring of his native lands, and he surprised me by saying he was from Persia. Now, I pride myself on geography. So, I accessed my mental map of the Middle East, approximately in the Iraq area, and there was no Persia on my map. So, I texted a few of you and asked where Persia was before asking him. Turns out sports fans, Persia is in Iran. Now, some of you are thinking, “Not so fast there James. Persia and Iran are interchangeable terms.” To which I would respond, “Yes, you are correct, but incorrect in this instance. My new friend here wanted to communicate that he was from a specific part of Iran that is quite dissimilar from the rest of Iran. Kind of like Texans say Austin isn’t really Texas, or Americans say Los Angeles isn’t really the U.S.”

So, geography decided to rear its head again there and I learned a valuable lesson or two. But there was one more piece of geography that got in the way of our getting to DFW…well two. The first was a culinary detour known as, West, Texas. Now, for those of you not in the know, yes, I did mean to use that comma. And for those of you in the know, yes, I did make him stop at Czech Stop. The final piece of geography is Dallas and Austin just aren’t close to one another. So, we didn’t get to Dallas on time and had to share a room in a hotel close to the airport.

After about 3 hours of sleep the two of us awoke and went to the airport. He got out on the first flight, and I had to pitch a fit to get out of Dallas. I finally got my airline to send me to Charlotte, NC to get me to Birmingham, because apparently Alabama is not important in terms of air transit. And really, whoever decides on layovers these days has no sense of geography. I've been sent to cities far out of the way that make no sense. For instance, this flight to the East Coast to get back to a more centralized locale. Also, one final funny note. When I got to Charlotte I ordered some barbecue and what I thought to be a quite expensive Cream Soda. Turns out it was a cream ale…and somewhat delicious. So, beware when in that airport that cream soda does not equal cream ale.

Adventures in English

Markéta Irglová is a 25 year old singer-songwriter from the Czech Republic who rose to, well, fame in certain circles for her role in the film Once, opposite Glen Hansard. For those of you who watched the film, odd thing I never realized: she was only 17 when they filmed Once. Woah! Also, by way of warning, do not watch this movie with my friend Skye Sant. She will punch you in the arm for making her watch a movie that made her emotional.

I agree with her, there is something about the English language that is quite shifty. For those of you English majors, yes I did look that up. Yes, shifty is what I mean. English lends itself to cover ups. We have so many nuances, and words to get around saying something. For instance, this week I sat in a meeting where someone was asked a very specific question. To me, there seemed to be only one true answer, but through the turning of words the question was never really answered at all. We all realized what was meant, but we let it go, because culturally we accept that what was said communicated in a satisfactory way, “Well, I didn’t get that done, as it were.”
If you know me well, you know that I can be a stickler for language. That is not to say I do not misuse or abuse language. I do that quite often in fact. But growing my family had fun with language. Because of that my family communicates with a humor unmatched by most of my friends and colleagues. We know how to turn phrases in all the best ways.
But the primary reason I can be a stickler for words, is because I know how to use dodgy language. I know how to not communicate something quite well in a way that in fact looks like I communicated quite a bit of pertinent information. This skill has come in handy in quite a few accountability situations. I sound quite vulnerable, while not sharing the things that are really important or overwhelming to me.
But on the flipside of this is I can get quite annoyed when people use certain phrases. There was a period of time where no one at Antioch-Belton would approach me with the phrase, “Let me be honest with you.” If they did, they would receive my usual diatribe that went along the lines of, “Oh, so has everything to this point been dishonest?” or “Oh, you have been less than honest in your communication before this? Why don’t you tell me how you were dishonest with me so I know what I can trust to be true?” Those poor folks. I was an aimless grammar Nazi who was trying to help them understand the power of words. And for that…I’m sorry ACC-Belton and others who fell into that same trap. (This picture came from here, and was the first one under a search for "shifty eyes."
One of the ways that my adventures in the English language has recently started to mature however is in the area of accountability. Wait. James, didn’t you just say, you know, two paragraphs ago, that you used your skills to avoid vulnerability and sharing? Why, yes, yes I did. And because of that, I have become a sort of royalty in terms of all things shifty. For example, I give you this very fake conversation as an example of how I have used my understanding of the way words are used to get around certain topics:
Me: So, man, how are things going? Have you had any struggles this week?
Bro: Well, I had a couple of slip-ups this week.
Me, after waiting for my bro to expound: Well, anything specific man?
Bro: Oh, you know, the normal. I slipped up with sexual purity, and some anger things.
Me: You know what, that is pretty dodgy. Slipped up with purity could communicate anything from you thought about someone impurely to you flew to Vegas and purchased time with a prostitute. And anger things could mean you let a cuss word slip when you stubbed your toe, to the fact that you are a mass murderer. Say what you mean. I’m not asking you these questions because I like it. I’m asking these things because you said you want accountability. If you want to be dodgy, let’s not waste our time, let’s instead go eat pizza or take a hike or watch Waking Ned Devine. 
First, I wouldn’t have this conversation with just anybody. You have to earn the right to speak to people like this. (That is a freebie, no offering required for that preaching point.) Second, I don't just approach people about stuff in their lives. I don't hold anyone accountable that doesn't ask me to...unless something is about to get crazy, and I can prevent that person from making a huge mistake.
Third, this is where a little maturity and revelation have taken something from my past that is a bit shady, and changed it to something not only for my good, but someone else’s. We have this crazy language that allows us to escape honesty and truth. Whether language is a reflection of our culture, or whether language has shaped the culture is an interesting thought to ponder, but isn’t really the point of this particular post. The fact is English and dodginess go hand-in-hand together. (And yes, I can make up words. I went to seminary and they let us get away with all sorts of fantastical phrases that the rest of the world frowns at…and in fact gave us degrees for doing so!)
Do with this post what you will. There may not seem to be an overarching point or lesson so to speak. But I think in the subtext what you can find here is a plea to say what you mean. Honesty and truth will always play to your benefit in the long run, whether it be simply in being understood, or having to explain yourself when you are caught after a lie. Or at least...say what you mean to me, because I will be examining your words and (not so) secretly judging you.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My Grandma and Danielle Steele

This morning as I sit waiting on my patients to show up, I’m thinking about how I am getting a little older. I think that is partly just the nature of the beast, but partly because the protagonists in two of my recent books were older men looking back on their lives. I apparently really like that literary genre. So, if you run across books concerning old seminary/bible school graduates reminiscing make sure you pass on the title to me.

The other reason I was reflecting on getting older is I have a trip coming up. I leave Friday and will be gone around a week. I say around a week, because I figure I will be coming home Friday, but am not entirely sure yet. And I like the idea of that being open ended, because that is so free-spirited of me. However, as I sat on my bed this morning contemplating the day, thinking about the week, I thought about making some plans for Wednesday and Thursday. But I found myself thinking, “Well, I am going out of town this weekend, I probably shouldn’t plan anything those days.” And that is when I thought, “I am getting older. When did a trip ever need to be planned before than the day of?” And in case you're wondering about the picture, that is how scared I was of growing up this morning.

That said I have had two trip freak outs. One was with my friends Ashley, Ashley and Bethany. But really the only thing I planned there was the radio stations and approximate stops. I bet they were annoyed that I spent more time organizing what radio stations started and ended where than securing what time my buddy Helton would be home to let us crash at his place. At least…I understand if they would have been. The second freak out was the night before one of our trips to Juarez, Mexico for a missions trip. That ended up being a melt-down of epic proportions leading to two of my friends washing and packing my clothes for me. Yeah…not my greatest moment.
But, again, as I sit here, I think about getting older and how in one way I am becoming a lot like my grandmother. She was a voracious reader. And honestly, half the reason I wanted to write this post was so I could use the word voracious. My grandma tore through books. She could put away hundreds of books a year I believe. And when she ran out of books, she did crossword puzzles. As I get older, reading and little puzzles have become some of my favorite pastimes. But in thinking about reading, and how I am putting away several books at a time myself I was reminded of an old family story.
You see, though my grandma was smart as a whip, and could recite the entire prologue of the Canterbury Tale in Old English…from memory…from fifth grade, she for some reason loved romance novels, and particularly the writing of Danielle Steele. Now, I have never taken the time to read any of Ms. Steele’s work, but apparently she is the 4th highest selling author of all time, selling more than, get this, 800 million books. That’s right. This lady has sold nearly a billion books.
Well, my grandma liked her books, but at some point felt they were getting a little too steamy for her taste. So, she took it upon herself to write Ms. Steele and let her know. I love that about my grandma. I love that she probably thought, “She just needs to know. She’s a little off course.” So, grandma wrote the letter, and of course Danielle Steele wrote back. She had to. After all, famous writers always personally write back to little old women, who don’t even live in a town, but out in the countryside.
But, for real, Danielle Steel wrote grandma back personally and thanked her for the letter and said she would try to do a little better or something like that. I want to say she sent a book to her as well, but that memory is much foggier, so probably not at all true. It’s just one of those family stories that I found out this morning not everyone in my family knew. I don’t know why or how I knew it, but it tickled me this morning. And it made me think about something in our 2013 society that probably was not as much the case in the mid-1980s when this occurred.
Ms. Steele, whether she took offense or not, took time to write my grandma back. She didn’t chastise my grandmother for old timey virtues that have no place in today’s society. She didn’t tell my grandmother she had no right to accuse her of anything. In other words the normal defenses of televised celebrity were not present. Well…let me take that back, of young celebrity.
In today’s society we have lost the ability to receive critique and the ability to admit fault. And whether Ms. Steele was sincere or not is beside the point. Her reaction to my grandmother however is. She took the time to see what this little old lady from Andice, Texas had to say. Sure, a staffer probably found the letter and thought it was cute, but she reacted in a way that said she was not above it all, that she was not above being challenged. And I miss that in society.
I miss the ability to say, “Let’s think through what you just did/said. Can you see why that would be offensive?” Or even say, “Can’t you see that some of these ‘archaic’ views you despise are actually rooted in both historical and religious history for thousands of years? It’s going to take a while to change. Don’t be so mean about it.” It seems that instead of compromise and conversation and diplomacy we want to beat the snot out of each other with large sticks. And that scares me.
So, in a sense my grandma and Ms. Steele make me long for older days. The pair of them make me long for wise people who can reason together through things. They made friends through their interaction not enemies, while still maintaining the core of who they were. A disagreement didn’t lead to a separation, and I try to let that example remind me of how to treat others…even in 2013.