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Monday, May 24, 2010

All in 24 hours...

It's really easy to get waylaid with bad news. For some reason the last 24 hours has dished out some stuff to get really down about. You combine that with some fatigue and this pesky gout in my big toe and you got yourself a formula for mild depression.

Because of my passionate personality...I tend toward a more melancholy state of being. I feel things deeply, for the good and bad. I carry the weight of conversations even when they are done and over with. I sense people's pain and can easily feel my emotions rise and fall with a facial expression or some other nonverbal that indicates distress. As I said last week in my message, without the Spirit's intervention, I gravitate to a poisonous mixture of a pessimist and a perfectionist. Let me tell you, that can be a deadly combination!

Financial pressure has played a large part in the saga. Doctor bills, activities for the kids, car accidents, registrations for our cars, birthdays, putting braces on two of our children, locking keys in the car that require a locksmith, gas prices, rising costs of food for a growing family...and so much more close in on you like a pack of ravenous wolves. It can really make your heart heave at times.

But then I look back at the last 24 hours and I'm amazed at how much good news there is. It's my daughter's 11th birthday and my wife's is in 2 days. The weather is in the mid 80's. I have air conditioning in my house which came in handy last night! I have a job. (which is always something to be thankful for in Michigan) I have a job I love! (which is something that probably 90% of the population couldn't relate to) And probably the biggest piece of good news is that 12 people accepted Christ this last weekend at church.

After each service I gave people the opportunity to come forward if they had received Christ and I couldn't believe the response. To look in these people's eyes and to see the joy and freedom. To pray with them. To celebrate their new life in Christ. This eclipses anything that could be wrong with my last 24 hours. At least it should.

But like any other human, I have undulations that take me to peaks and valleys. I am filled with unspeakable joy in one moment and unbelievable sorrow in the next. My emotive, affective heart undergoes such dramatic shifts as it is pulled to and fro between these, oftentimes, concurrent polarities. They aren't just dramatic shifts, they can easily become traumatic shifts that take a toll on my heart.

It is in these times that I realize afresh my deep need for the sustaining strength of God's Spirit. As the psalmist says, "He is my strength and my song, and has become my salvation." My Strength, My Song, My Salvation.

So today I must quiet my soul to reflect on the beautiful portion of the last 24 hours. The portion that speaks of salvation and joy. I mustn't fret over bad news.

"Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12:21

May it be so.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friendship and Fire...

I read something recently about C.S. Lewis and his group of friends called "The Inklings".

"Lewis was effusive in expressing his appreciation for the Inklings. To emphasize their importance, he said, “What I owe them all is incalculable.” And to emphasize their enjoyment, he asked, “Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?”

Last night I was joined by several friends around a fire. It is true.

This is one of my favorite Clive Staples quotes. He writes with such poetic depth and sometimes I can read pages of his works without the slightest clue as to what he's talking about. He can talk about some bit of minutia for a whole chapter and I'm choking like an infant trying to down a sirloin steak in their booster seat.
But in this bit of writing, it's like he breaks down all the grandiloquence into a quintessential concept that a 3 year old could nod in agreement with, and yet, the depth of this little sentence couldn't be packed with any more profound meaning.

The pleasure of a circle of friends around a fire has to be one of my most treasured memories of the past and moments of the present. There is something truly mythic about the glow of the fire dancing upon the faces of those encircled. Elsewhere, C.S. Lewis called these times "The Golden Sessions". These slivers of time shared with friends where you laugh and dream and hone the craft of storytelling. A tapestry of tales are woven together effortlessly. It moves from conversations of deep gravity to jesting jabs of levity. All the while, the fire consumes, as methodical and inevitable as an undertaker.

As I sat there last night, I wondered how people are doing out there in the world with friendship. I wondered how many had given it their last stab. I wondered how many had taken their last stab in the back. I wondered how many were feeling the stab of loneliness as they sat in their living room watching the television, again.

Is there any pleasure on earth so rich as a circle of friends around a crackling fire? I'm sure some would argue for a fishing boat or a ski lift or the front row seats of their favorite artists' concert. I'm not sure it's always a fire for everyone, but I know it's always friendship. Friends are irreplaceable delicacies without which our souls die sorrowfully waiting for our bodies to catch up.

But as for me Friendship and Fire are by far one of the greatest pleasures on earth.

My wife and I sat out by the fire about a week ago, talking and listening and relaxing. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. In some ways, perhaps I had.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The simpler days....

A return to simplicity.

I hear this sentiment a lot. "I want to be more child-like". "Oh, for the innocence of my youth." "I wish I could return to the days when things were much simpler." "Oh, to be a kid again." Whether it's speaking of child-like faith or Christ-like love, what we're really wishing for is the ability to unlearn what we've come to know and return to the place where we didn't over-think ourselves into an obsessive, premeditated frenzy. A place where we just were. A place of being. A place of unadulterated presence.

I will have flashbacks sometimes of such days as I've mentioned. Days where I lived without this invasion of thoughts about how I was living. Without the intrusion of inner dialogues questioning my motives or others'. Without the pestering prospection, introspection and retrospection that brings wisdom, but also brings over-consciousness and with it hyper-analysis that leads to hyper-paralysis.

I remember just climbing a tree. Or just exploring for bullfrogs. I remember running through the woods at full speed challenging myself to not slow down no matter how dense the forest. I remember praying for God to help me find my way home when I had lost my sense of direction. I remember crossing into our neighbors property hoping to find adventure. I remember cutting wood with my dad and dragging out the logs with our little eight end tractor. I remember watching Leave it to Beaver with my siblings after school. I remember jumping off the barn and dunking the basketball. I remember climbing into the attic and hoping to find something left behind by the previous owners that led me to a stash of cash. I remember going into the barn and watching the blow flies mindlessly crashing into the windows eventually joining their pilled up brothers and sisters on the windowsill who died trying to get free. I remember pouring gas down bee holes with a line of gas poured to about 15 ft. away so that when I lit it the hole exploded like a grenade in a bunker. I remember walking bare foot on our grassing trails. I remember eating wild berries and finding a wild cherry tree and climbing to the top to find the ripened cherries. I would sit in the crotch of a couple branches and eat until I had a stomach ache.

I remember going out at night and laying in the shadows of the barn on the lawn so that I could see the brilliance of the stars. My favorite was Orion. I would talk to him. I wanted to be a warrior like him. I remember playing snow football with my brother and sisters when we would have a day off of school. I remember eating concord grapes that grew on the old apple tree down by the quagmire. I remember mowing the lawn with the bush hog. I remember eating sumac berries with their firry fruit. I remember taking care of homing pigeons in the woodshed out behind the burn pile. I remember ice skating in the Ash tree grove that flooded in the fall. I remember felling pine trees just so that I could scream out "Timber". I remember cutting down a huge pine tree and cutting off the top for our family Christmas tree. (Charlie Brown tree for sure) I remember building a log cabin with my friend Art out of poplar trees. They were giant linking logs. I remember catching a baby rabbit and playing with it one summer afternoon. I remember having a lot car that I would drive around our property. I remember riding my buddies dirt bike that we were storing for him in our barn. I remember climbing to the top of "my cherry tree" and swaying with the wind until dinner time. I remember discovering an old junk pile in the woods and happening upon a stash of old bottles. I remember laying in bed at night in my bedroom which was furthest from the wood stove, piling covers on me until it felt like I was under a lead blanket. I remember waking up in the morning and seeing my breath as I put on clothes for school.

I remember watching my dog have puppies. I remember picking up our dog after he got hit on Rt. 104. I remember running to work and the smell of roadkill. I remember stealing onions from the muck fields. I remember riding my bike to the gun shop for 22 shells. I remember picking drops for apple cider. I remember riding my buddies scooter at age twelve on the road. I remember the smell of pesticide spray and crop dust from the helicopters blanketing the potato fields. I remember getting gifts from random people at Christmas. I remember dad getting a Christmas bonus from work and going to Ponderosa afterward to celebrate. I remember going to Bev's Ice Cream on the loop overlooking lake Ontario. I remember the resplendent sunsets that would cover the western sky that I took for grated until I moved away. I remember the Nuclear plant towers and the billowing clouds of steam that they would emanate. I remember getting hurt all the time, but getting used to it.

I remember the sound of my father's voice waking us up in the morning..."Rise and Shine and give God the glory, glory..." I remember playing circus in the living room for family nights and then singing around the piano. "God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, He's so good to me." Then we would read picture books of Bible stories with dad on the couch. I remember Dad broke all the stereos to only play 102.9 WMHR Christian radio. He made the tuning nob to not work on any of our radios. I remember going over to our neighbors and asking if we could watch the Yankee game with them since we didn't have a television. The Shafers house. I remember hearing Syracuse basketball on the radio as I was trying to go to bed. Dad would listen to it on AM radio in the dark. I remember my Mom's apple pie and cheese.

I remember alot of stuff about my childhood.

Those were simpler days. Or maybe these things are still happening an must become a simpler person.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Moments into Memories...

I was laying on the couch with Taylor last night.

She was laying face down on my stomach with her head buried into my neck. I was stroking her hair and gently rubbing her face as we watched an episode of "Life" on the Discovery channel.

She kept saying to me, "Dad, we're a lot alike."

And then she would go through a list of things we liked that her sisters didn't.

"We both like fish. We like tickling each other. We like to watch sports. We like Corn Pops. We like pickle juice. We like olives. We like celery. We like going to the library. We like beef jerky from the Shell station."

She kept going on and on trying desperately to write her story with me in the most unique terms. So unique that even her sisters would stand on the outside looking in.

The fact of the matter is that half of the aforementioned activities she doesn't even like. Sports is a great example. I know for a fact it's very boring for her to watch Yankees baseball, but because I like it and she wants me to like her, she likes it. She muscles down fish, but I can tell that she's forcing herself to look like she enjoys it. One of the dead giveaways is the amount of hot sauce she used to cover up the taste last time we had it. You can eat tree bark with enough hot sauce dowsed on top of it.

As we laid there on the couch last night, I could feel her little heartbeat pounding against my chest. As I concentrated on her heartbeat, it caused me to pick up on my own and to feel both of them simultaneously. Mine was going much slower. I told her that I could feel her heartbeat, and she said she could feel mine, too. She then moved her head down on my stomach to listen to my digestive juices churning in my intestines. She loves to hear them gurgle and make funny noises. I can't hear it or even feel it, so she will smile and let me know when my bowels are entertaining her. It's kind of funny to watch her face.

She then buried her head into my neck again. I scratched her little arms with my chewed off nails, lightly running them across her skin so as to put her into a deep sleep.

I love being a dad. I cherish these moments that too quickly become memories.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Love your Neighbors...

Love your neighbors.

For all that Jesus was, he was nothing if he wasn't astute. And this comment, though initially having the feel of a "no-brainer", packs a punch when you really try to live it out.

We live in the country, so our neighbors aren't snuggled up next to us in a suburban development or within spitting distance on a city block. We have to go out of our way to converse. We would have to walk across 3 acres of land to stand on their porch and chew the fat. Sometimes we're lucky and/or unlucky enough to be mowing our lawns at the same time which forces a closer proximity as we brush up against the property line that serves as the Berlin Wall in our relationship.

5 years ago they built a house next to us. We talked to them and welcomed them to our neighborhood. I even went over when their house was built and they gave me a tour of the place. I would guess they are in their 50's. Easy going. A little garden in the back. Quiet life. Occasional grandchildren stopping in. A deer-feeding, geese-feeding couple who love sitting outside on the back deck and having a bonfire every now and then. I was so grateful to have them as peacemaking, peacekeeping, peace-loving neighbors.

That was, until I killed a dirty black bird in my backyard.

I had no idea that they were animal lovers. Killing animals was a no-no in their eyes. I didn't know this until we received a message on our answering machine one Sunday after we returned home from church. "You better not be killing birds on our property or else." That was the first threat. And you could feel your heart take on the posture of something akin to an Israeli/Palestinian conflict. My property/Your property. My preferences/Your preference. My beliefs/Your beliefs. That's what threats do. Life becomes threatening. Neighborly relations tend to dry up at that point. And they did.

It might have something to do with me killing 3 groundhogs the previous year as well. They were digging under my shrubbery and ruining my freshly installed landscaping. They had lived under my garage for only God knows how many years...and I was putting down my foot. For all I know, they have a pet woodchuck that they sleep with at night, so this capital punishment--this brutal execution--didn't help matters much. I remembered that when I took a tour of their house, there were birds and animals--and pictures of birds and animals--around their house. This should have been a sign, but I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

For the next couple years, I would wave and wouldn't sense a reciprocation. It was clear that our lives offended them, and increasingly their lives were beginning to offend us. The longer time went on, the more our minds had figured out how to deify ourselves and demonize them. This, in case you hadn't noticed it, is what humans do to justify their own position. Our girls were even picking up on these vibes and saying things like "our mean neighbors". This bothered me, but I wasn't sure what to do to change this relational discord between us. I had stopped killing animals; I was trying to keep my lawn looking nice; I was zealous about keeping my girls off their property...but it didn't seem to be softening the situation.

Fast forward to Easter Weekend 2010--about a month ago.

My sister and her husband were here visiting for the weekend and we had just gotten home from church on Sunday afternoon. Heidi had planned out an Easter Egg hunt while the food was getting ready and then we were planning on having a feast on the back deck. The weather was beautiful. It was fixin' up to be a perfect relaxing afternoon with family and food.

The kids got changed and rushed outside to collect hidden easter eggs. They were excited as all to get out to explore the yard and find the plastic eggs latent with sweets.

It wasn't long before they came back inside to show us what they found. Much to our dismay, we realized something had gone woefully wrong as we found that some of the eggs had "cash" inside of them. We knew that we hadn't put cash in any of the eggs we spread around our yard, so the only way this could have happened is if the neighbor had put eggs around their yard for their grandchildren. Our suspicions couldn't have been more spot on.

We told the kids to put them back where they found them, but this was not enough. The neighbors had seen our kids pilfering their neatly placed eggs and were deeply angered at the scene. Even though we put back all the eggs that were taken, the drama was nowhere near over.

While we were on the back deck enjoying our Easter meal and some hearty conversation with my sister and her husband, I could see the neighbor-wife walking over to us with an Easter egg in her hand. I knew this wasn't going to be pretty.

As she reached the steps of the deck, she mentioned that one of the eggs we put in her yard wasn't theirs and then she took the opportunity to share some of her pent up anger at our family. Things like: "Do you know where the property line is?" "Do we need to put a fence between our property?" "If we find that any of our eggs are missing..." "Your daughters broke branches off our pine trees and they leave their toys on our property and. . ." As she was sharing, I was trying to explain things, Heidi was defending the kids, my sister was piping in with her take on things--it was not an amiable conversation needless to say.

As the neighbor walked away, I knew that our relationship had hit a new bottom. For some reason this just didn't settle well with me, but I lacked a solution to the unraveling reality.

Last week, I was hanging out with Taylor on a Thursday afternoon and I noticed the husband-neighbor digging around a dead cherry tree that had died over the winter. It was a tree that was very close to our property so it was hard to not say hi, though I was awkwardly trying to make like I didn't see him at first. As I was helping Taylor with her bike, I felt tugged to go over and talk to him. The interior war was on.

As I walked toward him, I was trying to think about how to start the conversation. Before I had time to formulate my opening line, I was standing next to him. "How's it going today?" He replied that it was quite a chore digging around a large tree to cut the roots. We talked for several minutes about cherry trees and their fragility to this climate. We talked about the weather. We talked about what direction the tree might fall. We talked about my trees and which ones I would like to cut down so that the grass could get more sunlight. We talked and talked and talked about everything but what I needed to talk to him about. Namely, us. Our relationship.

As a silent moment suspended into an awkward pause, I braced myself like a man and went there. "Hey, I just wanted to apologize about the Easter eggs debacle that happened a few weeks ago." I went into the story and how it was an accident and how my relatives didn't know where the property line ended and so on and so forth. I told him that it was my desire to have a great relationship with them and that we loved having them as neighbors. I told him that I didn't want to wage tribal and territorial warfare with them. I told them that he didn't have to worry about the tree he was cutting down falling on my property--I didn't care. I told him that I felt like emotions were high and that things were said out of defensiveness...and that I was sorry.

He thanked me for my apology and preceded to tell me that he just lost his job of 24 years the week before and that it had added a lot of stress lately. We then talked about his job and his fears about the future and how it was affecting him personally. It led into a beautiful conversation that would have never happened without an apology.

He then asked me how things were going at church. "Things really seem to growing over there" He said. We talked about the church and the changes happening and the excitement of being a part of it all. It's funny, I actually thought he wasn't aware of all that. It's funny what we block out when we don't want to deal with something.

I guess I share all that to say this. Jesus was onto something when he said, "Love your neighbor." It's not a suggestion; it's a command. And I'm not sure we can really love beyond the boarders if it doesn't start in our neighborhood, with our neighbors. They know who we are, rather, they know who we say we are. Now they are waiting to see if it's true.

I'm so glad I followed my heart instead of my head.

If I would have stayed hard-headed, it wouldn't be long before I became hard-hearted.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Maggot or Magnet...

Are you a magnet or a maggot?

In my last post this line surfaced as I stroked the keys of my computer and I haven't been able to shake this dog off my leg since. I'm in the people b'ness and I'm mesmerized by the various personality types and skill sets wound up with wounds and warts; winsomeness and wittiness. Unique as snowflakes, people descend upon you and land either softly or something akin to a golfball-size hailstone. I find a good many to land like hailstones--denting whatever/whoever happens to be unfortunate enough to be in their way...harm's way.

A magnet is a person who is attractive and attracting. There is something about them that seizes life without consuming it. When you're around them, you can't help but care what they think because they aren't blabbering idiots spouting off at the mouth whenever they get the chance. They weigh their words. They don't speak unless they have something to say. They listen to life as it happens around them and respond accordingly, appropriately. People seem to gather around them wherever they are. And here's the kicker, most of the time they are people who don't particularly like the attention. They aren't getting attention because of shock value or rock star appeal...their magnetic personality is hinged to something more substantive.

I've noticed that magnets have a few universal qualities:
- They are full of joy. They aren't down every time you turn around. They aren't Moody Judys or Downer Devins...they steward their emotions well. They aren't feigning joy by manipulating a mood of merriment, but when they are feeling low, their ambition is not to contaminate others around them with the same attitude. They are slow to share their disappointment and quick to hitch themselves to hope. Even when others ask about their "valley", they admit frailty and fragility and move the conversation to a place of God-dependence. Most of the time they are looking at the bright side instead of the blight side. They are "setting their affections on things above" instead of earthly things that change like the weather in Seattle.

- They are concerned with whoever happens to be around them. They aren't fishing for compliments or questions...they are fishing for Jesus did. And you can't do both. When you fish for men, you gotta fish for men...cause people can tell when you're fishing for something else that smacks of neediness. They are always feeding people's spirits. This contagious spirit just draws people to them, cause it's a rare thing to find a person that isn't fishing for something when they're with you. They are fishers of men.

- They are ok with being alone. They don't need something to do all the time...they don't need to be around other people to feel a sense of significance. They have learned to love hanging out with themselves because they are actually "healthy". The main reason people don't like being alone is because they don't like hanging out with themselves. They are unnerved by what they see or sense in no time, so they busy themselves with trifles and trivialities to distract themselves from their own issues. But a person who is healthy actually enjoys spending time alone. They are fueled by the consecration of contemplation. They love themselves well...and that is why they love others so well. Remember, Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." When you don't take care of yourself, you tend to treat others with the same neglect, or worse, abuse.

Maggots, however, are interested in one thing, and one thing alone: Feeding on things. They have no other purpose in life but to consume whatever comes close to them. They will eat through relationships at an alarming rate. They don't have eyes. They only have mouths. It's all about eating.

Maggots don't draw, they drain. If you have life, they will find you. And when they do they will attach their little lips to your vitals, and started eating you alive. At first you will willingly offer yourself to them thinking they they just want a piece of you, but they don't. They want the whole of you. The minute they sense you are catching on to their ploy, they will slink away and find another unsuspecting culprit. You want to warn them (the victim of their ravenous hunger that is), but you're so glad to have found freedom from the "maggot" that you see the other person as your surrogate sacrificial lamb--your scapegoat--so you let them find out for themselves the hell on earth that just moved into their "relational" neighborhood. This person (the maggot) doesn't get it. They don't know what they are doing...they don't have eyes, and I've learned something else...they don't have ears either. They only have taste buds. They know the taste of something that is alive. That's all. And they feed on life until it's on the brink of death as well. The person they are feeding on, the environment they are feeding on, will soon turn as cloudy white and tasteless as the maggot who is feeding upon them/it.

Maggots have these traits:
- Selfishness - It's always about them. "All roads lead to Maggot."
- Self-Consciousness - They think you're talking about them, thinking about them, etc.
- Self-Important - They have a vaunted sense of their own irresistible value.
- Self-Awarelessness (not a word) - They don't have the ability to see themselves.
- Self-Destructive - They continue to make decisions that plunge them into dissipation.

Families are full of maggots. Churches are full of maggots. (are they ever)

But families are also full of magnets. And churches, though they are few, have preciously beautiful and cherished souls who are magnets for the Kingdom-cause as well.

You only can become a magnet if you chose to, setting your every affection upon the goal of becoming a compelling agent of life-giving energy to those around you.

Being a maggot is easy. In fact, we are maggots by nature, that is to say, you don't have to try to be a maggot, just maintain a life of indecision. You will effortlessly start consuming life around you wherever you go. And you won't even know you're doing it. The only thing you might notice is that people are constantly looking for ways to get away from you. But you probably won't even notice that, because you have to have eyes and ears to get that kind of read.

Magnets and Maggots. Which one are you?

(Note: Ask someone else. Cause if you're a Maggot, you've already eaten away your conscience which is supposed to help you with something called "self-awareness". The first thing a Maggot does is eat its own conscience. You'll know that you've successfully eaten out your own conscience if this blog doesn't make any sense to you.)