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Friday, September 30, 2011

Everything is Meaningless?


This is what I long for. This is what I feel evades me all too often.

Ecclesiastes is a book of the Bible that talks about this dearth of meaning that we often cannot find words to express. "Meaningless, Meaningless, everything is meaningless. A chasing after the wind." What do you do when a passage of the Bible is communicating a truth that isn't actually true? How do you interpret it and then apply it? Is is possible to disagree with Solomon without disagreeing with God? I don't know.

All I do know is that I couldn't agree and/or disagree more with God's Word.

The part I agree with and feel more often than I would like to admit is the apparent meaninglessness of life. Conversations seem canned and contrived. People aren't listening half the time. Environments are created to keep us from feeling the awkwardness of this vacuum. Throw in the white noise of music in the background and create a mood that doesn't require anyone to make an attempt at intimacy. Nobody has time, not the kind of time it takes to draw in and go deep. So we make passes at things like asking questions, but we don't have time for the answer should the person chose to "go there". So it becomes clear that whether or not we say we want meaning, we don't position ourselves in life to make any time for it.

I was at a pastor's gathering yesterday and we were set up at tables of 8 people as we listened to the leader guide us through vision and values. He shared for about 15 minutes and then asked us to take some time at our tables and answer a simple question: "What are the walls you're hitting in your leadership right now?" I thought: "This is going to be good to hear what everyone has to say around this table." Just then, the leader said, "We have about 90 seconds so keep your answers brief." It took about 10 seconds to figure out how to keep such a weighty question connected to a weightless answer, another 10 seconds to wonder who was going to go first and whether we were going to go around the table clockwise or counter-clockwise, and by the time we shared, people were speed-talking their way through their "leadership lids". Only a couple people got to share even with the "speed chess" velocity.

The leader would then bust into the middle of our sharing from up front with his loud microphone and pull us toward another topic, a great topic by the way. Every topical shift was so important to talk about, but we didn't actually have any time to talk. He would share some nuggets of truth and then tell our tables to take some time to each share our personal response to the 90 seconds. "Where are you at spiritually right now on a scale of 1-10? Please be honest, too, because if we can't be honest here where can we be honest?" Bam, we are talking a mile-a-minute about our chosen number and the reason we chose that number. Remember, 8 people...90 seconds...sharing honestly about the currently reality of our walk with God. This went on for an hour...about 7 very important questions that we had a minute and half to talk about with honesty, meaning and passion. I couldn't help but feel queer.

I didn't feel angry at the moderator, I guess it's better than just coming to a place and having someone just talk at you the whole time about some all-important topic. I really loved even the little shreds of humanity that I heard around our table even though it was hopelessly truncated. It left me wanting more and feeling a feeling that I'm often feeling. Namely, that all the meaningful things are effectively forced into parking spaces in which they can't possibly fit. I'm tired of well-meaning people not treating meaning very well. Myself included. Let me rephrase that...myself especially.

Meaning cannot be pushed around like a pawn, forced upon us in the concentration camp of efficiency. Meaning needs time and attention. Meaning surfaces in awkward silence. It visits perfunctory places and perfectly imperfect people. It emerges as a sidebar is usually off-topic and in the baseball diamond of life it is always coming "out of left field". That's what makes it meaningful.

Which leads me to what I was getting at a bit earlier. Though I agree that everything in life feels meaningless, I don't agree that "everything" in life is meaningless for obvious reasons that I probably need not expound upon. There is so much meaning when you're doing the "things" that are meaningful.

Taking my daughter on date on Thursday night was unspeakably meaningful, dripping with meaning, in fact. So I don't agree that "everything is meaningless". The feeling of meaninglessness, this chasing after a gust of wind that you can never catch, is felt when we live our lives in such a way as to crowd out meaning with programs, schedules, demands, expectations, predictions, predispositions, prejudices, terms & conditions. Meaning rarely finds a home inside these human contracts and constructs. There is no room for meaning at this table of 8 with 90 seconds to share the 'what and why' of your deepest passion. It will not submit to these trivial terms. Meaning doesn't want a place at the is the table. It isn't a talking point, it is the point.

So is life meaningless?...yes and no. Yes, if you treat it like a whore. No, if you treat it like a wife. A whore is pursued, used and discarded. A wife is pursued, romanced and cherished. You can't get meaning from pleasure. You get pleasure from meaning.

Meaningful, Meaningful, everything can be meaningful. A running with the wind.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What's in a name?

"Where everybody knows your name."

When I was younger, the sit com Cheers was in full swing. The song had a hook to it, but it was the aforementioned lyric that I think set the hook.

We didn't have a television the better part of my childhood, so I didn't ever watch Cheers unless I was at a friends house and we happened to be lazily surfing the 4 channels on network T.V. that were available at the time.

As I got a little older, I would catch reruns from time to time and it didn't take long to figure out why the show was sticky. The idea of going to a place--any place--and being greeted by name strikes a chord that almost catches you off guard when you're old enough to put words to the longing, or hear someone else do so.

Cheers was a basement bar in the city of Boston. It wasn't fancy. The set up was anything but club-like. It didn't appeal to the animalistic urges of the sex addict looking for an easy squeeze. It didn't draw the affluential or influential. It was a collection of random individuals from all walks of life looking for other people to talk to about their day. It wasn't anything sensational, just normal conversations usually centered on something that happened that day that each of them would casually weigh in on. As people weighed in on someone's story, it suddenly became more and more colorful and nuanced. Something that wasn't all that noteworthy would be massaged by community into something beautiful, insightful and wonderful. Norm was normal on his own, but around these unlikely friends, Norm wasn't normal anymore; he was endearing and transcendent. On our own, must of us are normal Norms.

But here's the kicker, it starts with someone knowing your name. You can't go any further until you cross over this border. We laugh at people who name-drop, but it wouldn't be a joke if it didn't hold some truth to it. When people start using names in a story, something immediately goes form generic and general to more interesting. We laugh at presidential candidates talking about "Margret from Cortland, N.Y. who's struggling to afford insurance as a single mother of 14", but the reason they are using this ploy is because we are suckers for it. And this is why names mean the world, because names represent a narrative. When you move from plastic names like "buddy, champ, legend, dude, and bro" to "Harry, Chandler, Kyle, Sam, or Tristin" something extraordinary happens in the eco-system of relational connection that unlocks the heart.

Knowing someone on a "first-name" basis is the cornerstone of influence. You can impress people in a nameless world, but influencing people requires name-recognition. Names lead to narratives. It's that simple.

I know this, because when I don't know a person's name, I can scarcely tell you a darn thing about their life. If I can, it's fact-based recall. It's hear-say typically. But as I lock in someone's name, their face loosens, their eyes light up and they share with more detail and drama. When I utter a person's name, it somehow tells them I'm interested in them and that they can share more freely without the internal time clock warning them that someone is about to say, "I'll let you go."

A person's name matters immeasurably.

I need to work on this. WE need to work on this as humans. We are losing this art of naming people. Not name-calling, name recalling.

We must stop accepting the label of community without the knowledge of names. You can't have real community aside from real people knowing other real people's names.

The end.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

being out there...

It is very important to be out there.

Even if you don't know what is coming next, just putting yourself out there gives you a shot at being there when something happens. And you never know when something is going to happen.

Church buildings are great places to gather people in hopes that something happens, but I'm learning that life really happens when you're least expecting it to. There is something about a bunch of people rising to an occasion that actually prevents the occasion from occurring. Granted there are times when you get lucky and something special happens smack dab in the middle of something planned and programmed, but rarely. The good stuff happens out there in the unpremeditated and unpredictable crapshoot of the commonplace.

It's hugging the waiters and waitresses in a restaurant you've gone to for 7 years as the grieve the death of their beloved boss.

It's running into friends on the sidewalk and making small talk.

It's attending a community collaborative meeting and listening to leaders in the community share the passions and dreams for Lowell.

It's going out to lunch with a young leader and normalizing struggle and the temptation to disown desire.

It's sitting in the coffee shop with artists and calling them up into leadership.

It's crashing into hard conversations with people that no one else is going to have with them.

It's going to counseling with your wife and letting someone else in on your pillow talk.

It's staying up late with advisors and wrestling through hard decisions with candor and valor.

It's waking up early to meet with your "trusted brothers" and talking about life as it is, not as you wish it was.

It's snuggling on the couch with your youngest daughter and kissing her soft forehead as you watch "Nanny McFee".

It's tasting defeat and victory. It's getting scathing and soothing emails. Caustic voicemails and caring voicemails. It's grinding through necessary evils and relishing moments of irreplaceable joy.

I'm finding that being "out there" is where God laughs and plays. You don't always know what you're getting yourself into...but that's the point.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

So long, Facebook.

Heidi and I went to counseling yesterday to lay our lives in front of someone else if for nothing else than to have someone bear witness to our story. Our denomination pays for a few sessions a year, so we go almost every year for a "check-up", sometimes several times if needs be. I can't begin to describe the lifeline this has been.

So as we poured out our hearts like water, one of the flights of conversational fancy we explored was the onslaught of social media and the constant pressure that comes with always being "connected and accessible". Heidi and I have noticed that since we got internet at home, our time has been swallowed up with staying "on-line" with everything and anything that is happening in the outside world. Increasingly, our time has been spent keeping up, checking up and following up on things that we "come across" or that "find us".

We will be at home, or on a date, or in our car and "texts, news feeds, and emails" will be announced with a cute little chime indicating that something pressing needs to be addressed or reacted to. You can't very well just ignore it, because everyone knows you got it and will assume that you don't value them as much as the next person if you don't respond according to their particular personal "time-table". Our counselor said that one of the problems with all the social media that exists is the lack of ethical education accompanying the product that serves to give us a universal code of conduct with which to function. Because of the lack of this universal ethic, we have a product that means something different to everyone that uses it. The pressure that comes with this sort of unruly relational system is incalculable as everyone gets to make up their own parameters and guidelines as they go.

I am a relational being, so the draw to be connected is very appealing to me. And yet as I talked with the counselor yesterday I couldn't help but feel that my life has been overtaken with "connection and communication" leading to "disconnection and miscommunication". I can't keep up with my inbox for one. If a couple days go by, it will get away from me and someone is stranded waiting for my response to their questions, ideas, thoughts, hurts, or encouragement that I have all but forgotten exist in the first place. I will want to, but if I don't do it immediately there is a good chance I will get behind and never revisit the conversation.

I know what it is like to "put your heart out there" only to have someone never acknowledge the exchange. Increasingly, this will occur and I just can't stay on top of the "news feed". I have more news coming in than I have the personally ability to respond to. What do you do when your "incoming communication" exceeds your ability to respond with "outgoing conversation"? Something has to give.

It is especially disturbing when I consider that I was the one to open up this medium of connection. No one made me do it. I didn't "have to" create easier ways for people to stay "in touch" with me, but I made the decision to do so of my own volition. I, at some point, said, "I want people to be closer to me and I want to be closer to people. I want to be easy to contact and connect with. I want my life to be an open book letting anyone and everyone peruse the pages of my life with the click of a mouse. I want people to stay in contact with my every move, commenting on each and every trifle, whimsically throwing out thoughts and ideas that I must digest and process. I want to be 'on' all the time. I want this." No one made me do this, I chose this. And on many days, I love being 'accessible'.

But between texting, email, facebook, blogs, cell phones, internet and cable, I feel crowded and congested like "rush hour traffic" inside my head and heart. This traffic jam is a world of my own making in an effort to be a "good pastor and a good person". Over time, it has filled my life with more "news feeds" than I could possibly ingest and digest in a thousand lifetimes. Some people can manage this chaos because they aren't creatures who absorb every nuance of life as an artist. But I am not one of those people. I soak in every dainty little detail, filing away content and holding conversations inside my head with the information that I've encountered. I don't know why this is, it just is. I'm sure it has it's bright side, but boy, oh boy, does it have an underbelly that wrecks shop on my heart.

In talking with the counselor, he encouraged me to take control of this area of my life. His suggestion was to take some time off from Facebook and any other social networks that aren't tethered to an "ethical code of conduct". I don't do a great job of managing social arenas, so for the time being, I have to deconstruct my life and reassemble it with healthy terms of engagement. This will, no doubt, be troublesome on some fronts, but I trust that I'll be able to find a balance in it all over time. For now, this is essential to my social sanity.

It was one of many things we talked about with the counselor. It's funny how interacting with someone outside the "weeds and woods" of my reality can make sense of my nonsensical patterns.

So, after this weekend, I will be disabling my Facebook for an indefinite time period. I trust it will help me get my poop in a group which lately has felt more like diarrhea.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A visit to jail...

I visited a young man in the county jail today.

I noticed several things on my visit.

The place has no music playing in the entry or lobby or halls. It is nothing but echoing voices and reverberating noises. Unlike most things in life, you don't notice music until it's not there. I can't believe how music brings meaning to mundanity.

The building is nothing but cement and cinderblock. There is hardly a color in the whole building. Almost everything is gray and white which affects your mood almost immediately. The color is stiff and cold, sterile and stoic, and it isn't long before you adopt this emotional posture without knowing it. This is not a place of emotion or relaxation or recreation. Welcome to a world of gray.

There aren't paintings in the halls or in the rooms. No art. No beauty. Nothing to catch your eye and breathe life into your veins. Nothing remotely close to tender, inspirational, attractive or encouraging. I take for granted the artistry that fills most places that I visit filling me with hope and hospitality. This is not a harbor of hospitality for your heart, this a place meant to be meaningless on purpose so that you realize what you take for granted on the other side of those cold and colorless walls. This place is there to remind you what it's like when life is vacuumed out of the building and you are left with nothing be utilities and the utilitarian world of scarcity and survival.

The guards (other than my good buddy, Ben) are quiet and stone-faced, robotic and pre-programmed. They aren't inhumane, but they aren't human. They dwell somewhere in between the two trying hard to regulate their emotions so as to not appear affected by their surroundings or the feelings of those incarcerated. I want to go up to some of them and say, "Hey, you can talk to me normally, it's ok. I'm not a criminal nor a child, I'm a grown adult with intelligence and ingenuity. There isn't a need to bark orders or to talk to me as if I'm a cyborg. I'm a human who's just trying to help." But alas, many of them have on their work clothes and their work voice, and to try to get them to break character is nigh unto impossible.

As I sat in the visiting room for almost 45 minutes waiting to see my friend, I was struck with the stone-cold silence of the 6x10 space. It was so quiet, I could hear my nose whistling with every inhale. My thoughts were loud and the time was creeping along at a snail's pace. I didn't dare ask if he was close to coming for fear that I would be thrown against the wall, frisked, hauled away for a mug shot, hosed down in the basement like Rambo in First Blood, dressed in an orange pajama-suit and thrown into a jail cell waiting for my wife to post bond and bail me out. What made matters worse is that I couldn't bring anything in with me, so I didn't have a watch or a phone or any way of knowing whether 30 minutes went by or 3 hours. I just sat there in a suspense of disbelief almost untethered to anything that even resembled life.

Maybe this is why Jesus said in Hebrews 13:3 "remember those in prison as though you were their fellow prisoners...". Because until you get into one of those places, you can't begin to imagine how dark a night can be and how long a day can be. You can't even believe the jolt of hope that can come through a hand-written letter or the week of energy that can be produced by the simple hug of a caring human being.

I'm learning that I don't have to go to jail or prison to find these environments bereft of music, color, decency, art, or humaneness. Nope, it's on our block and in our backyard. It's two houses down or just around the corner. Heck, it's often in our own living room with our spouse or children. And it doesn't take much to turn the tide, just a word...

...a smile
...a visit
...a hug.

What you have done for the least of these you've done for me. - Jesus

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Writing to be more grateful and thus, more graceful...

I haven’t written a blog entry for over a month. I think it’s been the longest hiatus from writing I’ve taken since I started blogging back in 2005. Unlike others who take a break from writing to pursue a project or to give something up for lent or to consecrate themselves more fully to higher priorities, this exodus was more of an ebbing away that an abrupt departure or a premeditated decision. I think it was last week that I was reflecting upon my life (something I am used to doing more frequently than I have in recent weeks) and it struck me that I have abandoned this discipline/therapy almost entirely.

I’m amazed how things that feed your spirit are often the first pieces of cargo to go overboard in life. In an effort to survive, you keep the draining disciplines and dispose of the nourishing disciplines.

My nourishing, life-giving patterns include:

1. A date night with my wife each week.

2. Playing with my children and resurrecting my inner child.

3. Watching an occasional inspiring movie that breathes story into my story.

4. Getting out of buildings and into nature, out of conversation and into activity.

5. Getting off the internet and enjoying actual friendships around an actual fire.

6. Reading books instead of email, status updates and memos. (Books and Faces instead of Facebook)

7. Getting into the car and driving to a new and undiscovered location for the fun of it.

8. Going to lunch with my daughters and engaging their friends at school.

9. Saying hi to people in the community with vim, vigor and value.

10. Spending time in the Word and Prayer just to be with my Savior.

The last one may be the most critical piece of cargo that goes overboard. When you separate from your Savior, you separate from the one who saves you once and for all spiritually, but also the one who saves you each and every (I’m aware of the redundancy of that statement) day of your life. If without Him I can do nothing as it says in John 15, then nothing is precisely what I become as I divorce myself from his salvific heart.

And today as I navigate a “reentry into the blogosphere” today, I find myself grateful for writing and it’s ability to be my “silent counselor” listening to my untethered, disjointed gibberish and absorbing my scribbles and scrawlings.

On this day, I write to become grateful in hopes of becoming graceful. I’m glad to be back.