Friday, July 13, 2007
Dick and Sybil love a good story and they have an uncanny ability to elicit a good story, even from an unsure storyteller. They listened intently to our 10 year tale, then celebrated what God has done. Then Sybil asked me a question that I have been grappling with the past six days: “Ted, do you know the difference between being irresponsible and un-responsible?”
Responsible vs. Irresponsible, I completely get.
Responsibility involves playing your role, keeping your word, rising to the challenge, exceeding expectations. I’ve always been responsible. You might say it’s part of the Ted-essence. Irresponsiblity . . . I hate it. I fear it in myself and judge it in others. An irresponsible person turns his/her back on obligations. They lack consistency. No one wants to count on them.
What is un-responsibility? First of all, I checked Dictionary.com. It’s not a word.
Many of you know my story. At an early age, I was thrust into an inappropriate position of responsibility, playing a priest role for very broken people as a preschooler. That was my crucible for learning responsibility. I’m good if I help people with their pain. I’m bad (irresponsible) if I don’t. Whenever some utters the words “I need you,” I’m duty-bound to act.
Un-responsibility sounds careless, dangerously similar to it’s brother, Ir. Being un-responsible involves looking at a need or hearing a plea, and calmly and confidently responding, “I’m not responsible for that.” It does not negate godly responsibility. I still have obligations and promises to fulfill, some which require sacrifice. However, I cannot feel responsible for everything, and I must learn to rank my responsibilities.
What are the things I am responsible for that no other person can be?
My health. My intimacy with Christ. My relationship with Steph. My nurturing of Gray, Aiden, and Melia. My sleep. My character. My friendships. My calling. My gifts. My legacy. My dreams.
Because many of the items in the list do not scream loudly in my ear their needs, I have become irresponsible about some of them in the past. I have sacrificed them for the demands of many people and situations that I am, in reality, un-responsible for.
Now begins the difficult task of naming some of things I will be un-responsible for. And more frightening is the prospect of the reaction when some of these people, places, and things hear me tell them that I can’t be totally responsible for them.
Can you help me get the ball rolling? What are some things I (or you) can be un-responsible for without being irresponsible? (This is a prompt to post on this blog. No need to write War and Peace. Just a line or two can work.)
Thursday, June 21, 2007
SOMEWHERE ON A PATH IN THE MISSOURI RIVER BOTTOMS -- God, why don't I want to be alone with you? These hours on this hike are yours. There will be no interruptions. No one knows where I am. Heck, I don't even know where I am. Do you?
How many thousands of times have we met in solitude over the years because I needed something? Peace. A plan. Forgiveness. Revenge. Understanding. Comfort. An analysis. Proof. Tears. Mortification. Vivification.
And you were there, mostly.
Too often the center of my prayer has been, "Medicate me."
I'm sick, write the script.
I hurt, up the dose.
I need a decision, make the incision.
I've resented you for refusing to be my pharmacological pusher. But out of loving discipline you whispered, "Physician, heal thyself." (Because you knew I'd try and you knew I couldn't.)
So if prayer is not about doing, fixing, creating or prestidigitating, I'm afraid I've been doing it wrong. And it's not that I regret the great prayers that could have been answered. And it's not that I blush with embarrassment over my theological error. And it's not that I feel ashamed over my narcissism.
I weep because I missed you. You stood at the door and knocked. And I stared through the peephole and announced, "I gave at the office."
Pray yourself in me. Pry yourself into me. Take hold of what I don't know how to let go of. Let me learn again that prayer is mostly about loving you and letting you love me.
I guess nothing productive has to happen on this walk today.
I just want to be alone with you.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
I am a single mom with two boys, five and seven. Yes, I see the irony of deciding to go back to church on Father’s Day.
I am a cancer survivor. It’s been eighteen months since I was diagnosed, two months since I finished up chemo. I’m supposed to be exuberant about beating the disease, but with no enemy to fight every day, I’m sure who I am anymore.
I am a doubter. Okay, a cynic. I can’t swallow mom and dad’s old-time organs and homilies. But I wonder if there might be answers. About the origins of the universe. About evil and suffering. About how my life has turned out this way.
I am gay. Nobody at this church needs to know that. I’ll slip in late and out early and get what I can.
I am a hypocrite. There won’t be a scripture quoted in service today that I couldn’t quote myself. But this is my Sunday routine. Maybe today I’ll whisper I’m sorry again. Maybe I’ll start over again. Maybe I’ll promise to do better. This is my Sunday routine . . . which follows my Friday and Saturday night routine.
I could have been any of these people when I walked through the church doors today, though I probably wouldn’t be mistaken for a single mom. I love the anonymity of church vacation church experiences. Nobody waits in line to talk to me. Nobody tenses up as I walk by. I could be anyone.
This was the “happening” church in St. Louis for young people. Reports were that Gateway shares much in common with this congregation. Because Gateway is launching a multisite church strategy in Austin this fall, I thought I’d do a little advance scouting just to see how this church does multiple campuses.
I arrived on campus a little late. Everyone else, apparently, was dutifully on time. No one in the parking lot to direct me. No signs. No one in the lobby to greet me. No reassuring nods or smiles.
The festivities had already begun, so I employed stealth to find a nondescript seat in the back row shadows. What an amazing facility! Comfortable seats, excellent acoustics, enormous stage.
The speaker, a guy, 30ish, wearing standard-issue preacher khakis was talking from I Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper and was building a compelling case for John Calvin’s view of the Eucharist. Transubstantiation. Consubstantiation. Swinglyism. All the views were represented. He cited his Reformed seminary training four times and quoted the authors right-thinking young scholars are quoting these days.
Please don’t misunderstand. This is a great church, led by talented, Christ-following, dynamic people. Jesus was present in the service. I’m sure he was pleased.
But I was alone.
I felt like a new candidate for the Masons who didn’t know the secret handshake. I was an expatriate living in Tehran. I was the junior high kid sitting alone at the end of the lunch table. Their backs were to me when I arrived, when I sat, and when I left.
I was coaching a business owner in Austin once about how to create a powerful sales meeting for his company. Of course, agendas are important. Definitely have well-spoken, confident communicators. You can’t go wrong with some strong visuals. Make ‘em laugh. Pump them up with motivation. But, I would be a pathetic advisor if I didn’t let him in on the secret ingredient – human connection, a tropically warm relational temperature in the room. Only about 1/3 of human connection that matters comes from the platform. Most of it is generated from the verbals and nonverbals of the insiders or members or in-the-know caste. At a typical sales meeting, a large percentage of folks arrive, sit, and leave alone.
And they wonder if they belonged there. They wonder if they mattered. And those nagging questions will be unconsciously factored into their mental calculus of whether or not they will go to the next meeting. “I probably shouldn’t go to the meeting this month. I’ve got some calls I need to make today.” (Subtext: “I don’t want to feel alone again, like I did last time.”
You never know, do you? What is that person’s story who is sitting near me in church . . . just two rows up and three chairs to the right? He’s well dressed. It seems like he’s into this whole experience. I wonder why he is alone.
Should I say something to him after the service? Maybe just a smile or something?
I’m sure it is a great church, this one I checked out today. I don’t even know whether or not I would have enjoyed a few questions like, “Is it your first time today? Where are you from? What did you think of the service?” I’m positive I would have turned down a lunch invitation. But, even if I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it, I wanted/needed to be connected to something bigger than me this morning.
I am a pastor from another town. I’m wondering who I am and where I belong in the Body of Christ.
I visited a church today.
Monday, June 11, 2007
We return from our trip with a sense of fullness brought on by . . .
Snow-capped peaks of the Sierra-Nevada. Walks along the shores of a blue mountain lake, road trip conversations in the car (and, yes, some squabbling about map navigation). Lounging in our condo with an amazing view. Lazy mornings with nowhere to be. Good food. Good wine. Curiosity and listening to one another. Renewal of our marriage identity apart from offspring. Reading books -- some good, some mindless. Seeing movies -- all mindless. Sailing across Tahoe on a 55 foot catamaran.
We feel full.
Though I have maintained radio silence the past couple of weeks, I want to recognize the significant role you all have played in making last week possible, as well as this whole sabbatical. We have been protected and blessed in every way. Issues with travel and cars and health and other barriers have easily worked themselves out. God has shown up in a variety of ways.
Many of you have asked the question, "Ted, why are you doing this blog and email on your sabbatical? Sure, I'll pray for you, but I don't want you to spend your time communicating with us our answering our emails." Many of you have also stated that you haven't felt comfortable commenting on the blogs you are reading because you didn't want to be a bother or add something that isn't helpful.
As I was preparing spiritually for these two months away, I felt the temptation to seal myself off from community . . . to move into solitude and quality time with my family. And there is probably wisdom in this approach. But I sensed that God want me to do this journey with a group of comrades. Honestly, my life the past few years has been somewhat bereft of community. That's certainly not your fault. Out of fear, I've chosen to walk alone . . . to not share my heart fully in community. More accurately, I've been paralyzed in pursuing relationship. God said, "Don't do this alone anymore. Even while you are away from these people, step toward them. Walk together."
And many of you have accepted that invitation to walk together. Your prayers and your words have awakened something in me. I'm glad you're my companions in this.
One of C.S. Lewis' contemporaries, Charles Williams, once wrote, "The altar must often be built in one place in order that the fire from heaven may descend somewhere else." That's an apt picture of intercessory prayer in the context of community. We build altars. We ask God to move on behalf of a loved one. And though we may not see the fire descending from heaven in their lives, we nevertheless played our roles.
The Lord is nurturing and restoring me these days because of the altars you have built in prayer for me.
I'm glad we are together.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
What's the allure of a freakish animitronic rat who plays skee ball? Is it his culinary art? Certainly not. Chuck E. makes Chef Boyardee and the Red Baron look four star. To say that the rat uses only the freshest ingredients is not advertising hyperbole -- truly the freshest rubber and sawdust.
Is it Chuck E.'s value for the dollar? Nay. The wily businessmouse converts all monetary inputs into a smoke-and-mirrors economy of "tokens" and "prize tickets." I never know what I've spent there until Visa informs me 30 days later.
Could it be the rodent's penchant for hospitality which brings fathers and son and daughters together in bonds of filial love? Alas, no. After arrival, children only make one or two visitations to the parents' table, often when token supplies have dwindled. In the absence of any company or conversation, guess who typically eats the entire so-called pizza?
I know the formula of the secret sauce. I know why kids salivate like Pavlov pups when Chuck E. ad spots invade their Saturday morning cartoons. Chuck E. Cheese's is purely, unapologetically, and thoroughly all about kids. (How do I know this? Because the Chuckster offers no adult beverages which would make the daddy experience more bearable.) In a world that caters to adult politics and pleasures, Chuck E. brings a birth-through-fifth-grade Xanadu to strip malls everywhere. Parents do not walk into the rat's domain with ulterior motives. No, on the part of the mom or dad, the visit is an act of selfless love and sacrifice, though this father has been known to mention Chuck E.'s name in the same sentence as a bribe or threat.
It's a child-centered affair. "These next two hours are all about what you want, my prince/princess."
My four-year-old has just dropped a fourth token into Chuck E.'s photography booth. Shortly, he'll be delivering another computer generated memory of his afternoon of bliss. He's smiling in every one, but never able to make it to the center of the picture. My two-year-old daughter has somehow managed to get to the third level of the virtual reality skateboarding game. God, please don't let her grow up to be Avril Lavigne.
My parents endured ordeals like this for me circa 1980. Little league baseball. Summer days at the pool. Christmas mornings under mounds of wrapping paper. For moments here and there, it was all about me. Were they spoiling me? If you asked my much older three brothers, they would declare "yes" and then mutter stories about walking to school barefoot in the snow and getting their big wheels second-hand. Sure, indulging a child with whatever they want 24/7/365 is a recipe for entitlement. But every once in a while, it can only be described as grace.
My boy whips a skee ball that flies out of his alley and lands in one of the holes of the kid playing next to him. No buzzers sound. Nobody calls foul. We all just laugh. It's the day of Jubilee.
I love giving like this.
Not as a reward to my kids for taking out the trash for ten days in a row or for making a grade. Not as a diversion to get them out of the house and away from one another's throats. I love giving because she's my girl. He's my boy. If I'd give them my life, then of course I'd give them two hours of mouse-induced hedonism every once in a while.
More than I give him credit for, my Father provides moments and encounters that are grace, that are exceedingly and flat out all about me. Why? I guess I have to look no further than the view of me standing there leaning on the giant claw prize grabbing machine with the gratified smirk on my face.
He loves giving like this.
All tokens have been expended. Prize tickets have been cashed in for a plastic kazoo and a handful of tootsie rolls. Both of these angels will be asleep on our way home by the time I merge onto the expressway. Grace can be exhausting in a contented, full kind of way.
Thanks, Chuck E. Until we meet again.
(Until I can afford again to stop by.)
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Books have been a significant part of the journey so far -- Lewis, Nouwen, Dillard, Buechner, and others. At first -- and this is bizarre to admit -- I had forgotten how to read. Though I read often, it's usually for utilitarian purposes. What quotes can I pull out for a Bible study? What new leadership strategy can I apply? Would this sound good in a sermon?
My spiritual directors gave me a reading list for the summer with instructions to read only what I feel will be meaningful. Unfortunately, when I see a reading list, I think "syllabus" and "How do I get an A?" By last Tuesday, I had put down the notebook and the highlighter, and I tried to figure out another to absorb the right material.
What I've landed on is a kind of spiritual wikipedia approach. I'm literally carrying around about 50 books from Debra and Dave and my own library in the trunk of my car. I'm familiar with many of the titles, and as my mind wanders towards a particular topic or I sense that I need counsel in a specific area, I pull out that author or that particular tome. The various passages and chapters are coming together into a strange sort of patchwork, my patchwork.
In my last post, I expressed some sense of loneliness and perplexity about God's silence. (Thank you to those of you who have offered encouragement and prayer.) I was tempted towards cynicism, so I went back to an author who constantly wrestles with cynicism about this faith -- Frederick Buechner. I've always felt a kindred spirit with that curmudgeon old guy. Sometimes I picture the two of us as the old cranky guys of Muppets fame sitting in the balcony cracking jokes about the absurdity of God and his lemming followers.
Friday morning I awoke with a thought. "Come to me." I grabbed some water, trailmix, and a copy of Buechner's "The Alphabet of Grace," and pointed the car towards the mountains. I drove into an immense national forest. Still feeling the "come to me" thing, I aimlessly turned down various dirt roads without thought of how I would find my way back. I came upon some bluffs overlooking a mountain lake, and knew instantly I had found the place. Still feeling the silent treatment (hey, God, you were the one who said to come out here!), I retrieved "Alphabet" out of my backpack, and sat down to read on the bluffs.
"Alphabet" has always been one of my favorite books. It's kind of a spiritual Hooked-on-Phonics piece. Literally. Buechner uses the alphabet and the sounds we humans make to talk about the minute-by-minute interactions we have with the holy throughout the day. Buechner speaks of finding God as he places his feet on the cold floor after awakening in the morning, as he makes breakfast for his children, as he does his work, as he puts his head down on the pillow.
On Friday, one of the passages that struck me was: "The alphabet of grace is full of sibilants -- sounds that can't be shouted but only whispered: the sounds of bumblebees and wind and lovers in the dark, of whitecaps hissing up flat over the glittering sand and cars on wet roads, of crowds hushed in vast and vaulted places, the sound of your own breathing. I believe in sibilants life is trying to tell us something."
For me, the alphabet of grace has been too subtle for me lately. But I believe this "something" life is trying to tell me is "Come to me."
God says "Come to me" in those picturesque views from the bluff.
God says "Come to me" in the taste of the food I ate today.
God says "Come to me" in the voice of my middle child as he asks me to read him one more chapter of a book at bedtime, just to keep me in his room a little while longer.
God says "Come to me" when someone opens up their pain in my office.
God says "Come to me" even in the silence . . . even when I would prefer that he would say, "It's all going to be okay" or "Sure, I'll give you exactly what you want."
The are sibilants of life. There is an alphabet of grace. Your day is speaking to you.
What does it say?
Friday, May 18, 2007
I had certain plans drawn up for this week in CO. I envisioned restful sleep, the conquering of mountain trails, worship in nature, and sweet communion with God. I brought along three journals, an mp3 player stuffed with sermons, and a large box of books. Though I had not articulated it, my main goal in coming here was to have my connection with God repaired (or rather, repair it myself).
Every morning so far I have awakened (from a restless night of sleep) and planned out my day -- what books I want to tackle, what mountain trail I intend to explore, what I want to eat, and how I desire God to speak to me.
This isn't working. I'm mostly getting the silent treatment.
This is just like me -- to try to orchestrate God's response to me. Maybe you've heard me quote Chesterton from the second chapter of Orthodoxy before: "Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination."
While I can think of several notable artists that have gone mad, I understand his point. Sometimes I attempt to move God around on the chess board so that he gives me what I want.
And what do I want? I was talking to God about this on a hike yesterday. "Life" for me is to get applause, to impress people so much that they affirm that I am unique or lovable or praiseworthy. "Death" for me is someone expressing disappointment or anger towards me. I move the chess board around so as to get as much "life" as I can and avoid as much "death" as possible.
I think he spoke to me: "And how is that working for you? Have you successfully found life and avoided death?" I would have preferred a continuation of the silent treatment.
Honestly, the pursuit of applause is what makes me miserable. It is what drives me to over-work, over-obsess, and over-heat. And when I do hear cheers, they feel empty. As for death, I can't avoid it. The more I take on in order to get applause, the more I disappoint people.
As I processed this with the Lord yesterday, I confessed that real "life" is to bring glory to him. That is when I feel most alive. Real "death" is separation from him. That's why I have needed this sabbatical. I've been experiencing some degree of that death the past few years.
I further realized that rather than pursuing real life, I have been medicating the death feelings through escaping into watching too much television, over-eating, and other activities.
Once I confessed all of that, God again went silent. Why?
Perhaps it's time for me to be silent.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
More than half of Colorado's 14'er peaks are in this area. The Rio Grande meanders through this valley I am staying in. I hiked 9 miles to near the headwaters today. Aside from stepping in elk poop and slipping on an iced-over log while trying to cross a tributary of the Rio Grande, it was a spectacular hike. I also hiked around the Continental Divide.
My lungs have finally acclimated to the altitude, but my travels today have exhausted me. It's a good exhaustion.
On the trail, I asked God what he wanted to talk about. Silence. I clumsily attempted to praise him as Creator and talk about the river and the mountains. I was so content in this element that all I could do was thank him for life.
I sensed a prompting -- "Tell me about your life."
Have you ever told someone your life's story? I apprehensively attempted to last year when some new friends inquired. My narrative to them lasted exactly eight minutes. Though I didn't mention it at the time, I was bored even as I told it. I guess I've never given much thought to the whole story.
So here God and I were with nothing better to do. I felt like he was asking me to begin with my birth. So I started talking. How strange it is to instruct someone on something they know better than you.
I hit the high points from every chapter in my life -- childhood (family), school (achievement), college (real spiritual growth), first job in Chicago (becoming a professional and learning to fake it), and Austin (well, I'll leave this parenthetical notation for another blog). I recited the events. He listened intently. And I felt as though he wanted me to explain my reactions to these chapters -- how they impacted me.
It was a holy morning. I saw my story from 30,000 feet (more precisely about 11,000 feet above sea level). Patterns emerged. New memories were jolted. Sense-making happened. I learned and unlearned. And I thanked God for his grace and discipline over these 34 years.
I talked for almost three hours -- talked and hiked and stepped in elk crap.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
I haven't made good time since my first child was born.
Maybe today's drive from Austin to Amarillo was good time. I'm not really sure how long it took, but I did enjoy the beautiful green country north of the city on highway 183. I prayed periodically. I listened to an entire Grisham novel on cd. I ate chicken and dumplings at Crackerbarrel. I daydreamed.
Two things I didn't do -- look at my watch or speed. Neither of these were intentional decisions. The thought just never occurred to me that I needed to be somewhere at a particular time.
I know why I usually speed and am stressed out while I drive. Driving feels like lost time to me. It's downright unproductive. I get uptight when something feels unproductive. Here is a list of activities that, much to my shame, I have been tempted to view as unproductive lately:
- Reading books and magazines
- Playing in the backyard with the kids
- Staying in contact with friends who live far away.
What's on your list of important things you want to do, but feel unproductive?
Maybe a more telling inventory for me would be a list of bullet points describing the things in my life that I view as productive or a good use of time. These are my addictions -- work, achievement, approval, "fruit." And I fully expect to be jonesing for them in the next 48 hours.
For now, though, I feel like I'm making good time -- not wasting it or exploiting it, but mostly ignoring it.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
I love passages about God's timing. Remember Romans 5? "At just the right time . . ."
Understanding God's timing in hindsight is easy. Predicting or mandating it in the future is near futility. Making sense of his movement as it is happening -- that's a detective story. How do you know or sense when "the time has fully come." Obviously the three magi who followed the star had the ability. You could argue Herod, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and many of the other birth story characters felt the tremors of plates shifting beneath their feet.
Even from a historical perspective, if you were looking in the right places, you could have seen that the time was ripe for God to begin a new chapter . . .
- The Pax Romana initiated by Augustus Caesar left the world at relative peace, allowing people to think more about spiritual things.
- The Grecco-Roman expansion untied the world under a common economy, language, and road system.
- After over 500 years of silence from God, the Jewish faith had been hijacked religious hucksters who stressed knowledge and rule following. There was a tremendous spiritual hunger.
If I were a lot smarter, I present further evidence.
But here's the point: Sometimes you can sense that "the time has fully come" for you. There are weak signals and coincidences everywhere. You don't know with any precision what God is doing, nevertheless you are being prepared, along with the world around you, for something significant.
Why put off thinking about the fullness of time until some future moment when God has already moved or you are feeling particularly nostalgic? Why not take out the maginifying glass right now and consider some of the clues in front of you?
What are you seeing that would suggest that your life is pregnant with something new and alive?
In a later post, I'll talk about some of the stirrings and rumblings that I'm feeling that suggest there is something alive in me that wants to get out.
Monday, May 7, 2007
Weak signals are patterns of human behavior, phenomena in nature, or movements of the Spirit that are trying to happen. You sense them, but what they will fully mean is yet to become clear. If you are truly interested in experiencing this "new thing," you're either going to have to curiously fiddle with your dial or drive a particular direction.
Right now there are all kinds of weak signals happening in Christianity.
- Rick Warren and Bono turning our attention towards Africa
- Passion artists creating large, catalytic worship experiences
- Prominent thinkers switching political allegiances
- Multi-site video venues
- Spiritual direction and theophostic prayer as an alternative to counseling
It's too soon to know if any one of these manifestations will lead to a paradigm change, or if they are merely a kind of blip on the radar. The only way we'll know is if we pursue understanding of them (or sit back and watch them run their course).
I am treating my sabbatical as a God-given opportunity to track down some weak signals in my life. Over the past months and years, I have begun to hear some "new songs" spiritually, but there is so much static from all of my activities that I haven't given myself completely to exploration.
In this blog, I'll name some weak signals I am hearing about my own life and document my attempts to find clarity. Undoubtedly, there will be many dead ends and lost signals, but I am more and more excited about what God will produce in the search. One thing you can count on -- I'm going to use this blog to honestly process what God is showing me. It may not be for the faint of heart.
I'm posting on the blog for two reasons:
1. As you read, I'm hoping God prompts you to pray.
2. As you ponder, I'm hoping God prompts you to comment.
I thought this would be a fun experiment -- a few dozen people with the freedom to interject, praying together about one person's journey over a fixed time period.
Please use this blog however you want to --
- If you just want to read it to know how to pray for me, that's kosher
- If you want post a quick thought, prayer, word of encouragement, or photo, that's cool
- If you want to ask me a hard question or exhort me to track something down, I'm up for that.
- Heck, you can even respond to one another
Obviously, my intention is not to devote my entire sabbatical to blogging. I may go days without posting. I may not be able to respond to everyone's thoughts.
Stop by every once in a while. I'll email all of you regularly a bullet point correspondence with high level prayer requests. You'll get the real story, though by showing up here.
I am so blessed to have all of you as travelling companions. Thanks for being on my team during this season.