Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Trouble with your Merry Christmas...

They are not wearing uniforms, but if you look close enough you can spot the guerrilla soldiers in the supposed "Christmas Wars" from a great distance. They are lurking in lines at retail outlets, municipal offices, and educational institutions at this very moment. Some wait for the evil "Happy Holidays" to be uttered by the person behind the desk. Others execute a sneak attack and confidently get their "Merry CHRIStmas" out before the poor souls waiting to help them even knew what hit them. Although the tactics may differ, their mission is singular: Save the baby Jesus from liberal, politically correct commies who want to destroy Christmas once and for all.

This afternoon I ran into an old acquaintance at the grocery store. It seems we run into each other about once a year, usually around Christmas. She and I were students at Truett during my first attempt to return to school a few years ago. She is now a pastor out in Crawford and things are going extremely well for both her and her family. Our interaction was brief, but I was rejuvenated by the constant gentleness that seems to always be flowing out of her. That is "Merry Christmas."

This week I have been trying to rest. I just finished a difficult semester. Stepping down from working full time has been quite a change, and I have loved my new position, even if it can be frightening at times. At the end of the semester I got to show off my adopted home town and family of rag-tags to the author of one of my favorite books and, in the process, made new friends. That week was capped off with a party of old friends that revealed the clich├ęd truth that we were all made to be with each other. That is “Merry Christmas.”

A couple of weeks ago after church, in my friend and pastor Josh's office, there was a crowd of people. Bennett Gamel, the new baby we had been praying for since his complicated birth a few months prior revealed that he suffers from Cystic Fibrosis, had made it to the first church service of his young, fragile life. Everyone wanted to get a peak and to hug the proud parents. In the service that day we dedicated three more babies—Aiden, Walter, and RC. The whole Sunday was one of those special once-in-a-while moments where you get a small glimpse of what that baby in a manger meant: Heaven had met Earth and somehow we were given the gift of witnessing it. For a moment Josh and I caught each other's glance and we shared a smile of recognition that needed no verbalization. That is “Merry Christmas.”

So to all of you warriors for Christmas, do us all a favor. Relax. If a cashier at a national retail chain obeys instructions that are meant to welcome people who do not celebrate Christmas and perkily wishes you a “Happy Holidays,” does this destroy Christmas? (I won’t even mention what should be obvious to everyone about the meaning of the word “Holiday…) And do you think Jesus needs a display of his birth on taxpayer funded land in order to do what he has been doing for over two thousand years, captivating the hearts of humanity and changing lives and societies?

Your obnoxious “Merry Christmas” is not a Merry Christmas at all. It is a hand grenade thrown across an imaginary battle line. That does nothing to further the message of that silent night so long ago. So if your Merry Christmas is not heartfelt, try a genuine "Happy Holidays" instead. It may do you some good.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Advent Day Three...

This has been one of the busiest days in one of the busiest weeks of my year. Yet, strangely, it has not felt that way. I had plenty of time to feed my new addiction-- computer chess, play with my dog and marvel at how quirky she has become, and even get work done and make a few people laugh along the way. It's been a good day.

Plus, in researching for a talk I am giving tomorrow, I ran across a million great advent quotes. Here is one...

"Luke's Gospel account of the Christmas event is full of activity…And yet, in the middle of the frenetic action, here is this woman wrapped in mystical silence…She demonstrates the necessity of a quiet place within ourselves at Christmastime—that place where we are most ourselves in relation to God.

"It is a place of silence, not because it is untouched by all the activity of our lives, but because it is capable of wonder. Every prayer begins with silent wonder before it turns to words. Our first response to God is dumbstruck awe at who he is and what he has done for us."

Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent Day Two...

It's easy to wait when your days are full.
Not really waiting at all.
Just letting the days come at will.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent, Day 1...

I spent yesterday doing work around the house. The yard was mowed, back porch cleaned up a bit, front bushes were clipped and the Christmas lights went up. When darkness was near, the last strand was put in place. It isn't much, but it is something. Plugging in the final product, I looked at my poor, eclectic and sometimes dangerous little street and I had this thought-- I'm glad the holidays in my neighborhood look more like A Charlie Brown Christmas than Christmas in Rockefeller Center. As I went into the house chuckling at the meagerness of my outdoor decorating ability one of the young kids from next door yelled out, "Hey Mister. It looks perfect!"

When you drive by here, you will quickly realize it is most definitely not perfect. It isn't really even that good.

I just arrived home from church. It is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which means we meet at night to give travelers time to get back to Waco from their visits home. It is also the first Sunday of Advent, which means we begin to think about hope and expectancy. About waiting. Waiting for something better. Waiting for something new and different and more invigorating than the lives we have found ourselves stuck in.

In the service there were babies crying, technical malfunctions, and, if you ask me, a slight hint of healthy melancholy mixed in with the joy we knew we should all be feeling at that moment. It was much more Charlie Brown than Rockefeller Center which, to me, looked just about perfect.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

For Ann (Or, They Are Weak, But He is Strong)...

Many of you know that one of the books I've read in the past few years that really resonated with my life is Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow. Recommended by my friend Josh, I knew it would probably be good, but I had not idea how much it would remain with me and linger in my thoughts. Maybe it was the quiet way Jayber lived his life. A bachelor, without a family to belong to, but somehow belonging to everyone in the community. Maybe it was the idealistic simplicity of a time gone by. For whatever reason, this work of literature captured my heart and read my life in ways few other books ever had.

Jayber was a barber, a gravedigger, and for many years a church janitor. He experienced the life of the church from a distance, but somehow felt existentially connected to it through his work taking care of the yard and cleaning the sanctuary. Over time, he belonged.

Jayber Crow has occupied my mind today, and this is why:

For me, there is something strangely holy about Saturday evenings. I can't explain it. As a child growing up in Chandler, and before I was old enough to drive, the only thing to do in that small town was to play with friends and walk home before it got too dark. This was, of course, a time when it was no big deal for eight year old children to walk across town without Child Protective Services getting involved.

As the day wore on, and it became clear that it was time to head home, I would walk. Occasionally I would take meandering paths to get home, walking away from my house before I walked back toward it. As dusk approached the autumn sky turned myriad shades of purple and gold. The sound of crickets was simultaneously deafening and relaxing. As I approached that little church building (which I have written about before,) I could hear the buzz of a lawn mower. As I walked down the hill, the one by the neighboring Methodist church that was fun to ride your bike down, I never doubted who would be walking behind the lawn mower. For as long as I can remember, Ann Crawley was our Jayber Crow.

Her children were both slightly older and slightly younger than me, so I don't have a wealth of stories to tell, and maybe that is good. We all need steady people at the periphery of our lives who can model for us how to live, but at a safe distance. Otherwise me may never know to look for the lessons these people have to offer.

She lived around the corner in my neighborhood and is one of those people who I can never remember not knowing. She taught Sunday School, brought food to our potluck dinners, and she mowed the lawn of our church. On those Saturday afternoons I would wave and she would wave back, and we never had to ask if we would see each other's face in church the next morning. We knew each other too well,the same way that all of us in that community knew each other-- in a way that afforded and accepted understatement.

Tonight she lies in hospice care with her family surrounding her. As of last night they removed all nutrition and are making things as comfortable as they can for her. I learned a few hours ago, from her daughter-in-law's facebook status, that one of her grandsons got to sing her the song that she no doubt sang to (and with) me and that rag-tag group of friends of mine many times-- Jesus Loves Me.

After years of mowing that church lawn and keeping it's pews dusted and clean, Jayber Crow finally belonged in the same way that Ann Crawley belongs. And the moment of his belonging went something like this...

One day when I went up [to the church] to work, sleepiness overcame me and I lay down on the floor behind the back pew to take a nap. Waking or sleeping (I couldn't tell which), I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them (from the back pew) on the Sunday before. I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying, the little children tucked into the pews beside their elders, the young married couples full of visions, the old men with their dreams, the parents proud of their children, the grandparents with tears in their eyes, the pairs of young lovers attentive only to each other on the edge of the world, the grieving widows and widowers, the mothers and fathers of children newly dead, the proud, the humble, the attentive, the distracted–I saw them all. I saw the creases crisscrossed on the backs of the men’s necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there. They said nothing, and I said nothing. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me.

When I came to myself again, my face was wet with tears


Someday soon, all of our faces will be wet with tears. Tears for a life well lived. For years of faithful service, for performing the monotonous tasks with care and joy, and not just perfect attendance, but perfect presence as well.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Coming Together...

I discovered this morning that the center of political discourse on the earth resides neither in Washington, New York, London, nor in any of the other usual suspected places, but rather at the McDonalds near Baylor University on I-35.

The restaurant was full, and Fox News was on the big screen. You could feel the tension in the room as about half the people were visibly annoyed, the other visibly enjoyed. Finally, someone tipped their hat and made some comment about something one of the anchors said, which set off a brief heated argument about something or the other.

But a realization of decor set in and each elderly combatant retreated back to his coffee and Egg McMuffin.

Then the news turned to news of the election in Afghanistan. At the mention of Karzai's runoff opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, the entire place came together in uproarious laughter.

"Abdullah Abdullah! Now THAT'S FUNNY!"

I'm glad we can find common ground in something.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Story...

Before the news of last week fades into the roar of more pressing matters, I should probably share this story...

In 1997 two of my fellow interns and I entered the elevator of the Russell Office building on our way up to the third floor. Already on that elevator was a grey haired man reading the newspaper while a younger guy, presumably his assistant, was standing next to him. In Washington you are always aware because there is always someone of consequence very near. Which is why we were all surprised that we didn't notice the old guy standing with us until he lowered his papers and inquired with a booming voice "How are you young 'uns today?" We looked over at Senator Kennedy and our jaws dropped. Each of us managed a stuttered "Good." He asked who we were interning for. (If our youth didn't give us away, our intern badges did.) When we said Senator Hutchison, he responded, "She is a fine colleague," exhibiting what most people don't know actually goes on daily in Washington, once the cameras are turned off-- civility even to those with whom you disagree.

This was the end of my brush with greatness.

(Incidentally, my fellow interns, both attractive females, got several more follow up questions beyond the "How are you" that I was limited to.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Back...

The world has changed since I stopped blogging regularly. My world, your world, the world.

My days are no longer spent trying to reason with irrational customers who complain that Barnes and Noble censors conservative authors while standing in front of displays packed tight with Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly books. Instead, I go to classes and spend the rest of my time trying to "be present" to a campus full of a diverse range of students.

There are new friends along with the old group of stalwarts who keep my life anchored and full of purpose-- if only the purpose of making it to the weekend to sit around a table and laugh until we cry as the babies are playing all around us. The new friends keep me interested, always keeping me in check, reminding me that as soon as you think you've got people figured out, a curve ball will always be thrown.

As for you, gone are the days when you have the thought to check my blog for a funny story or surprising update. In fact, if it weren't for the "Facebook Import" option, these words would probably go largely unnoticed. You have kids, jobs, and a sneaky suspicion that tectonic plates have shifted in my life to such a point that writing has become a long lost dream. Perhaps this is true.

This earth is still spinning, relatively oblivious to the affairs that make up the tempest of our lives. But the more things stay the same, the more they change. There are new stories to write, new personalities to examine, even new values to be had.

So I will try to return, ever aware that the pain of loss that made writing so easy, and so cathartic has faded away into a (somewhat) distant memory. I will speak truth as I see it, share love as I experience it, and throw words together in as messy of a manner as I can, in the hopes that some of them will land in a meaningful and life-giving order.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

One Book One Waco...

The Waco Tribune Herald this morning ran a guest editorial I wrote for Little Chapel on the River. Below is the original article I wrote, before edits...
______________________________


In 2005 Waco lost one of its beloved pastors to a tragic accident. In the weeks and months after Kyle Lake passed away those of us who were close to him needed a lot of things, but mostly we just needed to be near each other. We gathered at homes, parks, restaurants, coffee shops and bars to laugh, cry, and share stories. This was a time for regrouping. It was a time for solace. Surprisingly, though, it was also a time of discovery.

What many of us discovered is usually spoke of in theoretical terms but seems to become much more tangible, and necessary, in the midst of tragedy. We discovered community. And in the midst of discovering community, we discovered Waco. Many local establishments became safe places for us that provided comfort and a sense of the sacred that exists when people share life together.

In 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center drove her out of her neighborhood, Gwendolyn Bounds found herself in a similar situation. In the midst of her displacement she discovered what seemed to be a buried treasure of history, a place that compelled her to slow down, listen, and to become a participant in the community that was being revealed right before her eyes. In the Hudson River Valley, just across the water from West Point, sat Guinan's, an Irish pub and general store that was ground zero of the life of Garrison, NY for many decades.

I am honored to announce that Bounds' book chronicling the life of this special place is the summer 2009 One Book One Waco selection. Little Chapel on the River is equal parts biography and social commentary. It tells the story of a place that infused vitality and meaning into the lives of the people who entered its doors. In many ways it is also a lament for a way of life that is quickly fading away in our country. Mostly, though, it is a celebration of what happens when people make a conscious choice to be near each other.

The theme for One Book One Waco is "Unity in the Community." It should be noted that unity and uniformity are not the same. In reading Little Chapel on the River you are likely to encounter characters with vastly different lives, values, and beliefs as your own. On the barstools at Guinan’s sat Democrats next to Republicans, pacifists next to soldiers, and Christians next to agnostics. Places like Guinan’s, and the numerous “Little Chapels” that exist in our own city, teach us that while our differences matter, they should never be deal breakers in our search for community.

We already exist in close proximity to each other. We may as well make the most of it by gathering together for a choice beverage, a good meal, and a conversation about a wonderful book.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

For Everett, Boone, Lillian, Emmy and Miller...

Several months ago eight year old Avery Lake told me she remembered being in her mom's belly. Intrigued, I asked "You do? What was that like?" Without skipping a beat she replied "VERY bloody."

My memory is not quite as long as Avery alleges hers to be, but there are some remnants from my late-babyhood that linger. The Buddy Holly Greatest Hits 8-Track that my family listened to in that red Ford Mercury. Walking along the sidewalk of Tuckers General Store during the Chandler Centennial celebration, where Ernest Tubb performed on the trailer down by the train tracks and several years before the downtown buildings burned down and were demolished. But the most vivid and numerous of these memories are from the inside of the little tan brick building on 3rd Street that held the congregation of First Baptist Church.

In that place we were free to roam. Of course we had to be in our classes when they began and in church on time, but in the in-between times, the building was ours. This was a different time and place, of course, where all parents assumed that every adult in the church was keeping an eye on the children and would keep them from harm and discipline them if they saw fit. It took a village, if you will.

But back to memories. It's strange the things you remember. What I remember most from those early years in church are the patterns on all the surfaces. The cheap linoleum in the nursery was cream colored with precise puzzle-piece type sections that probably originated from an early 70's drug induced creative streak of some floor manufacturer. The tile on the ceiling were perfect squares, suitable for counting when the church service became boring. The upholstery in the pews was solid red and had minuscule diamond patterns that would embed in your hands if you sat on them long enough.

These memories are random, but they are mine. They tell the story of a kid that always had a home aside from the one where he laid his head at night.

In conversation with someone a couple of weeks ago, a younger person who has many friends at UBC, I came to an epiphany-- No one at UBC, my church, ever feels like they really ever completely belong. Some of us who mostly sit on the side, us "older folk," can feel alienated from the language and emphases that are zeroed in like a missile on the life of a college student. Those in the center, though, see the way the older people walk the halls with confidence, familiarity, and a sense of permanence, can feel that, since they are transient and we are not, then the church belongs to us.

Though at home, we all can feel like exiles.

This morning we dedicated five babies. It was beautiful. The parents promised to raise their child after the way of Christ, said a personalized prayer, and then the church promised also to be family to these babies and to model Christian love in their lives. When that part of the service was over and the parents took their children back to the nursery, a little smile began to slowly form on my face as the realization formed-- Some people in the building today felt they completely belonged. Of course, and I guess this is the irony, they can't articulate all that this entails. They aren't in conversation with each other about the direction or lack thereof with the church. It really doesn't matter to them who is preaching and none of them are there because of who sings on Sunday morning. (Well, I guess technically Emmy Parker is.)

All they know is that sometime in the course of the morning they will be fed, played with, passed around by scores of people patiently waiting their turns, and may even sneak a nap in when they feel like it. Later they will hear songs that tell of God's extravagant love and the ancient stories of sin, sacrifice and redemption that reverberate into the narratives of our lives.

They will also notice the surfaces. The grainy-colored carpet they play on in the nursery. The corrugated tin that lines the hallways. Standing on stage, if they looked up, they could see the painting of the Last Supper.

As adults they will tell stories of that place. The surfaces, the people, the stories. And hopefully, they will say that there has never been a time when they didn't belong. To this church, yes, but also to the God that became a baby so we could all become children again.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

River...

A little over a year ago I began to consider returning to seminary. I had figured out that moving forward in my current career would require me becoming a person I wasn't willing to become. Before that point I assumed that if I was ever going to do vocational ministry it would come from stumbling into it in nontraditional ways. When I realized that wasn't going to happen, I decided to heed the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit that came from passing comments of several close friends. Returning to Truett felt right, if a little scary. I was well past the point of asking my parents for financial help, so I spent the past year working and going to shcool full time.

Punching in and out of work, studying for Greek, writing papers, all while balancing a new set of friends with my Waco friends has been equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. It ended for the summer with my final class on Monday. Yesterday me and some of my new friends took a "Daycation" down to south-central Texas. The biggest chunk of the day was spent floating in tubes down the Guadalupe River. This is the week when some Texas universities are in final exams and some have just finished, so there was a decent smattering of people in the water, but not enough to make it miserable. The weather was perfect and the sun shining.

On the water I was in and out of brief moments of sleep. Occasionally I would wake up near a cluster of frat guys engaging in some of the most vulgar talk I've ever witnessed. I found it quite amusing. I'll spare you the specific language used, but it involved names of girls the guys had been with as freshman and how they wish they could be with them again after four years of practice.

Another conversation ending in this sentence-- "I can't stand that chick. She not only divided our pledge class, but the entire fraternity as well!"

It was everything I could not to snicker. Instead I paddled away into less crowded territory.

I woke up again startled. There was no one near me. I looked up disoriented because I couldn't figure out where I was. I asked my friends if I was ahead of them or if they were ahead of me. It was the latter, so I paddled with my arms some more.

Several times I woke up in still water and decided not to work my way out.

There were rapids over low rocks. This was a pain because it required a decision-- Do I stand up and walk over the rocks (a prospect that was sure to cause humorous stumbling both because of the uneven surfaces and the decent amount of beer in my system at the time,) do I struggle with my arms and feet to push myself out, or do I just sit there like the beached whale I felt like at the time, hoping a swift enough current would pull me where I needed to be. I honestly couldn't tell you which one I chose, but I guess it was a hybrid of all three because I eventually found my way out.

Toward the end of the three hour adventure, Jake and I were the only ones left in the water. Chris and Josh were about fifty yards ahead of us, at the end. I tried to make the experience last. Closing my eyes I thought back through the past year. I've made new friends, learned new things, and in small ways become a new person. Yet I'm still essentially me, with the same hang-ups, virtues, vices, and general trajectory of life.

Opening my eyes to the fractured sunbeams coming through the tall cypress trees, I realized why the river has been such a powerful tool used by poets and novelists alike-- It contains everything and, in some strange way, goes to everything. I considered how the last three hours was what it is like to follow God in the way of Christ. It all begins by simply being in the water and ends on that distant shore. In between, though, is the stuff of life. Much of the trip requires hard paddling that will make your arms sore the next day. There are rocks that come along that require a little creativity, decision making, and luck. Discerning God's will for your life sometimes requires you to be shot in directions you don't want to be shot in. Other times, however, you have to be willing to be stuck for what can seem like an eternity. This is what is hard for many people.

Today I bear the scars of the rocks, the soreness from the paddling, and the color from the sun. But mostly I bear the smiles that come from the people in my life willing to float alongside me, and the God of the great river that is taking me home.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

So let His people sing, sing, sing...

I think I can trace the day I became a grumpy old man spiritually back to about ten years ago. I was a part of the planning for some sort of orientation at ETBU, the alma mater where I had returned to work for a year. We were sorting out the schedule and there was a block of time that we couldn't quite figure out what to do with. Someone made the comment that we could have a time of worship. I don't know what it was that brought such vitriolic reaction in me, but I turned my head annoyed and asked "Why does everyone around here think we need to fill every waking moment with a guitar and praise songs?" A faint audible gasp filled the room and I realized I had overstepped a boundary. And honestly, I was just as shocked at the words that came out of my mouth as anyone else. Up to that point I would have jumped at any opportunity to do a little praise-and-worshippin' with those around me. But I guess I had had enough of that, and have been on (somewhat) facetious crusade against planned-spontaneous worship ever since.

This morning we had what I think was our third outdoor Palm Sunday-Baptism service out at Indian Spring Park.* Before the service some of us were having breakfast when a friend mentioned some new emergent-type thing that was going on in town. In response I somewhat reflexively made the comment that I don't really have a desire to check this out because "I already have a church." I fully realize what an arrogant thing this was to say, because embedded within my sarcasm was the not-so-subtle suggestion that those who attended this particular event were aimlessly searching for the Next Cool Christian Thing, whereas I have found joy in the simplicity of the local church. (Yes, I can be quite the asshole sometimes.)

It was slightly more chilly at the service than it had been before, although the sun was shining bright. I made it a point when walking down the hill to receive communion to look around at the people around me. I've tried to do this more often lately, for if UBC baptism services have done anything, it is to make me try and memorize the moments I have with these people that I love.

Few people have bitched about this place as much as I have, but none of that maters in moments like this. It is all peripheral.

Later Josh and I were hanging out for a brief moment while Britt took three-year-old Roy down to see the river. The girls were behind us mingling. I recently commented to Josh that one of the things that makes me smile is thinking about how Britt and Roy interact, and watching them head down the hill toward the water, sun blaring down on all of us, made me think that once more.

There were dogs around. Most belonged to somebody, but one didn't seem to have an owner. Andrew brought his and Katie's new puppy over and baby Lillian reached out to grab it. Fearless, she put her face right in front of the dog's nose and got a face full of puppy tongue.

Did I mention the sun was shining?

I looked around. The Gunvordals were there with their beautiful Collie. I see only see those people once a week for a few minutes. That's about all it takes to realize what top-shelf people they are.

To the left and down the hill a bit some college guys were wrestling while Kelly was going around making a birthday video for Larissa, who is in Kenya. The Crowder Band was loading their gear and Miller was snotting on his dad's sweater.

I realized Tom and Beth weren't there, and neither were the Brownings. And I missed all of them. I also thought of Avery, Sutton, Jude, and Jen and how much I miss them as well. I thought of Kyle and realized how my grief has long ago given way to gratefulness for having been blessed with such a great friend for so long.

Ben and Jamie gave me a ride back to Cafe Cappuccino where I had parked. I had them drop me off around the corner so they didn't have to go out of their way. Walking to my car, the warm sun beating down while the cold wind blew around, I thought back to my comment earlier in the day-- "I already have a church." And again, it was an arrogant thing to say. People should not be disparaged for trying to find a sense of Christian community in places outside the bounds of a church. I just happened to have been lucky enough to find it inside those bounds.

So to all of you wanting to fill the empty moments with guitars and singing, sing away. Be caught up in the emotion caused by our risen redeemer. To those questioning their faith and reaching out to new forms of expression, question and express away. I think God is honored and pleased with what you are doing.

Never mind me when I roll my eyes. Remember, I'm just a grumpy old man. But one who has found his place for at least a bit longer.
________________________


* (I've written about the previous two outdoor services HERE and HERE.)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Giving Up...

I have heard it said that you shouldn't tell other people what you are giving up for Lent. I'm guessing the reasoning is tied in to the part in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus continually warns against doing your spiritual acts in public. He says this is what the hypocrites do, and they have received their reward in full.

I'm not quite sure this logic holds, though. For if one decides to give something up and makes it known this person is, in effect, announcing a source of weakness. Or, at the very least, making it known that there is at least something preventing that person from devoting their life fully to God.

Here I am, weak and out of control. Or, perhaps, taking too much control of my life instead of allowing God to guide. I'll spare you the Jesus Take the Wheel speech, but you get the drift.

I have given up coffee. Which, I am discovering, can be quite a bitch to give up. There is no other vice I have that tells my body how much I have grown dependent on it once it has been given up.

I am also trying to be more intentional about getting work done. Thus, the abrubt ending to this post...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday...

Remember, from dust you came, to dust you will return.


I went to school early today. When I saw my new friend Jake had the cross of ashes on his forhead, I made the comment that I saw he had already been to an Ash Wednesday service? For a moment he looked slightly puzzled as to why I knew this, then the recollection of his mark came back to him. No doubt this happened many times today all over the globe.

And this, I think, is an irony of Ash Wednesday. On most days I walk the earth very conscious of my sin, of the ways I have fallen out of step with God's rhythm, of the fact that I am nothing more than the dirt I once was and the dirt I will someday return to. But I can carry myself in such a way to make others oblivious to this fact.

On this day, however, Christians make a public declaration. In having the black stuff on our forhead as a sign of repentance, we are telling the world that on the times we forget who we are, we want you to at least be able to see it. Living in community does not provide for private acknowledgement of our sin. It requires that it is out in the open.

So know that I am so much more than the way I make you laugh or can find a book for you or can make a poignant, witty statement. I came from dust, and to dust I will return.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Lenten Journey, Fat Tuesday. Or, This is Where We Begin to Die...

This will not be the first time the body of believers over on Dutton Avenue has observed Lent. But for this part of that body, it is the first time I have felt the weight and significance of the journey ahead. I began the trek with those closest to me this evening at a Fat Tuesday feast. The necessity of this part of Lent should not be overlooked. A walk into the lonely desert is made slightly more bearable when you know there are those you love heading there with you.

I think Lent is a reminder that, as Ann Lamott says, you can't heal your own sick mind with your own sick mind. It is an acknowledgement that there are too many things clouding our vision, prohibiting us from seeing God. But mostly, it is making a statement to ourselves that we can never hope to have a Resurrection without a very real death...A death that hurts, that picks at the scab of our hearts and lets the blood flow. It is painful, in the same way that Jesus' time in the desert, and his whole life for that matter, was painful-- Walking towards death so that New Life may spring forth.

I hope you will join me in this death.
I hope you will join me in this life.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Preface...

For several years I have tried to write a book about growing up in church. This is one of those start and stop projects that may never get finished. I never get past the preface. When I start over after a year or so of not writing, I begin a new preface. I have about a half dozen prefaces just waiting to be tacked onto a yet to be written book. Since I have no time to write non-school related things, I thought I'd share the last preface I wrote. Tonight at our church Love Feast I got to sit back and watch things happen. I was joking with a couple of friends about the way people angle to try to get to hold all the kids running around. When I thought about the children in my church, I was reminded of writing this about a year and a half ago...

_____________________________________

The church building that contained thousands of my childhood hours sits in the shadow of a newer, cavernous tin structure that has become commonplace among the small towns along Highway 31, which runs northeast from Waco, my current home, until it ends in Longview, the area where my parents grew up. The older building is made of a tan brick that is porous enough to hold the stories, secrets, milestones and memories of generations of people trying to discover how their lives, individual and corporate, fit in with the plans of a God who created the pine and oak that tower above the countryside surrounding them. The newer building was erected with an eye toward efficiency. Inexpensive and expansive, were it not for its size and cross perched atop a center column of red brick pointing to the sky, it would be indistinguishable from the numerous “dollar stores” that every small East Texas town apparently needs these days. It cost next to nothing, and remembers about as much.

As a young child I was held in that old sanctuary by the wooden pews with red-lined seat covers. The words coming from the mouths of preachers swirled around me and seeped into my soul as I learned the language of faith the same way any child learns any language— effortlessly and with little deliberate intention. I devoted my energies instead to discovering how long it took for me to sit on my hands before the miniscule diamond patterns of the upholstery would temporarily be imprinted on my flesh, and trying to count the amount of square ceiling tiles above my head. Eventually times would arrive when sitting through an entire church service would be laborious and excruciating, but I remember these early years as being a period of comfort, where even in a scary and uncertain world there would always be waiting for me a place where I felt secure, and where I was welcome to take a nap in the laps of numerous people who loved me as their own.

The sheet metal of the new building seems to me a little too contrived and sterile to hold the memories of the past, but if you get down on your knees and place your ears to the ground it sits on, you will hear the stories of a community of people fractured by animosity, incapable of breaking out of the human condition of brokenness and confusion, struggling to find an identity in those middle places between poor and rich, town and country, saint and sinner, yet clinging as hard as they are capable to God and God’s people. And in those stories you will find the preface and introduction to my life story, a story spent in the pews and chairs of around a half-dozen Baptist churches scattered in places as disparate as an old Safeway building in Waco, TX to an aging and dingy house of worship in a former Soviet Republic.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What you Will...

"Don't you ever doubt it?" Davy asked?

And in fact I have. And perhaps will again. But here is what happens. I look out the window at the red farm-- for here we live, Sara and I, in a new house across the meadow, a house built by capable arms and open lungs and joyous sweat. Maybe I see our daughter, home from school, picking plums or apples for Roxanna; maybe one of our sons, reading on the grass or painting an upended canoe. Or maybe Sara comes into the room-- my darling Sara-- with Mr. Cassidy's beloved rolls on a steaming plate. Then I breathe deeply, and certainty enters into me like light, like a piece of science, and curious music seems to hum inside my fingers.
Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?
No sir.
All I can do is say, Here's how it went. Here's what I saw...
Make of it what you will.

-- From Leif Enger's Peace Like a River


________

A few years ago a customer asked me for a book that had true ghost stories in them. I took her to the section where such books were and asked if she had any more questions. She pressed her point. "So these are TRUE ghost stories? You know, that REALLY happened?" I took the opportunity to try and educate her, telling her that some would say they are true, while others would express doubt. I walked away feeling quite smug and satisfied with myself.

Today a lady asked me for books on UFO's. I took her to the section and helped her look. I told her about a popular book on the subject. As I found it and began to grab it, she asked the million dollar question. "So are these things that really happened?" By the time she finished her sentence I had the book in my hand. Looking at the subtitle that read True Stories, I replied "Apparently so," and was shocked at the lack of cynicism in my voice.

This is where I am with God. There are times when I know. These times generally occur in the presence of others and include laughter, unspoken sentiment, shared stories. Toddlers joyfully thrown in the air, drinks consumed, the worlds problems solved over good food. This is when I know. It is during such times that if you ask me about God's work in the world, about Jesus and his death and resurrection, about the Spirit that breathes life into all living things, and if you end your question with "Is all this real?," then I will tell you of course it is real.

But there are other times like today. Cynicism, exhaustion, and a (perhaps unreasonable) feeling of alienation all serve to cast sufficient doubt on what I claim to believe. But even in these, there is the seed of belief. Last night I watched Jesus Camp for the first time. The portrayal of children involved in a pentecostal/evangelical ministry with militant overtones served its purpose of weirding me out. The absolute certainty instilled in such young minds is frankly quite scary. But there were also moments that made me hopeful for these children, and they were moments of doubt. Every now and then, in the middle of the screaming and the induced tears and the sharing of the gospel, a look of doubt would be cast over the faces of these children. Doubt that I know all too well. There was even a moment when one of the children expressed how hard it is to believe sometimes. It was during these moments of doubt that I saw possibility, for doubt clears the fields and provides ample space for God to dance, "proving," if you will, that he is still in the neighborhood.

Do you remember the question the preachers used to ask us? "Do you know that you know that you know that you know?" Of course I don't. I have had doubts and, like Enger's character in Peace Like a River, I will probably have doubts again. But I'm comforted in the fact that I'm not called to certainty, I'm called to proclaim that which I have found to be true.

Make of that what you will.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Letter...

I occasionally write letters to the editor of the Waco Tribune Herald, but never get them in the print edition. But my latest made the cut. it was in response to THIS GUEST EDITORIAL.

Here is the (I must humbly admit) very witty letter I sent that was printed...

No booing allowed (This was an editorial addition that I'm quite disappointed with. It made me look like a whining child. But oh well, maybe I am.)

In his guest column, Mark Osler [“Carried by loving mob,” Jan. 24] commented that those really being inaugurated Jan. 20 were the large crowd assembled on the mall in Washington D.C. If this is the case, I would like to suggest a resolution of censure be passed for their unpatriotic disrespect to an outgoing president.

This “loving mob” rightly cheered President Barack Obama’s encouragement that our country put childish ways behind us, then engaged in behavior befitting children by booing President Bush.

If you ask me, this is not a good starting point for the millions “inaugurated” that day.

Craig Nash

Waco

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Real Conversation on the Phone with a Customer This Morning...

Me: Thanks for calling Barnes and Noble, this is Craig. How can I help you?

Lady Caller: Yeah, is there any kind of book that has stuff about Paula Deen's life in it, not just recipes?

Me: I'm not sure, let me look in the computer. I know several of her cookbooks have little sections with biographical information in them.

Caller: Well, I don't want any of that biographical information stuff. I just want stuff about her life.

Me: Oh, ok. Well some of her cookbooks have stuff about her life along with the biographical tidbits.

Caller: Great, I'll take one of those.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Interesection of What is and What Should Be...

A scene that gives the name to one of my all time favorite movies: Melvin Udall, a man enslaved by his inability to experience human touch and interaction leaves his therapist's office in a fit of rage. In the waiting room he discovers others waiting to be rid of their demons and ailments that keep their lives from being healthy and satisfying. He asks a question that causes some to gasp in fear at the possible answer-- What if this is as good as it gets?

Tonight I found myself in a room full of people. A few I knew, many I didn't. We were celebrating Nathan's successful completion of his Ph.D. My blood was sufficiently saturated with Dr. Duncan's homebrew and as I sat down I looked around in that perfect counterintuitive balance of buzzed trance and clarity of thought. I saw Josh talking to Grant and Desiree while Britt played with an almost two year old Roy with water bottles. Others mingled, laughing and telling stories.

And then somehow Melvin Udall's question invaded my attention. What if this is as good as it gets? Such a question requires a quick assessment of things.

I'm working a lot at a job I've been at for what seems like an eternity. Things aren't bad there. My personal expectations were lowered enough in 2007 to make anything seem bearable.

Inertia, a need to feel and breathe something new, or perhaps (hopefully) God himself has led me to seminary. I'm reading great things, beginning the beginnings of new friendships, and in small ways remembering what it's like to feel vital again.

There are people I've lost. Neglect, distance, and even death itself have all, in equal measure, removed me from those who once provided a frame for my being, a reason to laugh and to think about tomorrow.

Yet there are others very near that I cling tightly to , as if my life were at stake. They know who they are. These people get me. In our absences they think about me, and I think about them. They are who I naturally move toward.

Roy was laughing, and you could tell it was hurting him as he ever so slightly assuaged the pain by bouncing to the music. U2's City of Blinding Lights was on the stereo. "The more you see the less you know/ The less you find out as you go./ I knew much more then/ Than I do now." And this is true. I know much less than I used to know.

But I know enough. I know enough to believe this isn't as good as it gets. My faith in God setting all this right, making the crooked paths straight, doesn't allow me to assume this is the best there is. But for now, it will do. The smiles and the laughs and the goodbyes and the planning for tomorrow are nothing more than the intersection of this time where good enough has to be good enough and that time, where things will be more than just good enough.