Friday, July 8, 2011

Finding Life in the Wilderness

Patricia and I recently went on a mini-vacation to Index, Washington, a small out-of-the-way place about an hour and a half drive north of Seattle. We rented a little cabin that was so far in the mountains our phones did not receive signals powerful enough for urban intrusions. No internet. No cell phones. No Face Book. It was quite wonderful. The air was heavy and wet and just cold enough with the remnants of winter, sharp and brisk, as though the breath of God was blowing us away from our busy and distracted lives and closer to one another.

As we drove into Index we saw an old truck that had been abandoned probably decades earlier. Someone just gave up on it and left it to die beside the road. In the process, trees and bushes and grasses grew up to claim the vehicle and turn it into an exquisite environmental canvass, a haven for new revelations of supernatural existence. How often have our lives become like this truck? How often have people given up on us, leaving us to rot by the side of the road? God continues to create life in us, however, and works in concert with all of the elements of Nature to bring beauty from our seemingly rotting beings even as we sit and imagine ourselves powerless, even as we surrender to messages that discount our value and seek to negate our sanctity. Foolishly we believe that just because someone has removed our engines and busted out our windows, nothing great can come from within or explode around our lives. There is a truck on a road in Index, Washington, however, that pushes truth to the surface and challenges the familiarity of hopelessness.

Our little retreat provided a most incredible view of the Skykomish River flowing down from the Cascades toward the Puget Sound. The cabin sits right at the turning point of the river, looking somewhat like an elbow. The shifting direction at that point causes water to flow rough and violently, its resistance evident in the frothy white waves reaching out and up to slap the banks. Its sound of protest could be heard throughout the night as nature somehow redirected its anger and its loud, violent howls became soothing lullabies pulling us deep into a restful sleep.

Sometimes it is good – no necessary – to move away from our lives in order to find them. That is the central message in the scripture passage about Jesus going into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). There he came face to face with three of his own demons. The first was the fear of physical suffering. Jesus had been in the wilderness for forty days and nights. Like any one of us, he was hungry, his body was weak and longing for nourishment. We live in a society in which food surrounds us wherever we go. We may not be able to eat what we want all the time, but compared to so many other places in the world, if you live in the USA, most of us can find something to eat. A friend of mine who is essentially homeless and lives in a tent in one of Seattle’s many wooded areas stopped in to visit me the other day. He had been out “shopping” for food at the various food banks and programs for the hungry and homeless. As we chatted about the state of the union, he pulled an assortment of sandwiches and beverages he had amassed during his journey that day. He recounted his adventures and offer to share fresh meats and vegetables and sweets and juices he had collected since early that morning. He was proud of both his efforts to care for himself and of the many people who cared enough to share what they had received.

There are times when we are assaulted by demons of hunger, which convince us that our souls and our bodies do not have enough sustenance. We hunger for that car or that house or that job or that person we believe will fill us up and ensure our survival. Unlike my friend, however, we fail to get up and get out and search our narrow and restrictive little worlds for the many storehouses God has placed along our paths. We sit in our wildernesses of despair and become prey for demons of self-hatred that offer home delivery of brokenness.

The second demon Jesus encountered was doubt. He was tempted to push God into a corner, to force a demonstration of faithfulness. Oh how frequently this demon appears in my life! When things are less than I want them to be, when my life is not moving in exactly the direction I want or at the speed I desire, it is so easy to demand some proof that God cares. So often we jump ahead of God and move according to our own timing. We convince ourselves that we are acting according to God’s plan, knowing full well that in reality out actions are driven by our own selfish need to be in charge. We jump headfirst into raging waters and persuade ourselves that if God loves us we will be pulled out of the rapids. The reality is that we have learned throughout our lives that even the best swimmer can drown and have been cautioned to wear a life jacket when the water is rough. When we jump anyway and discover the water is too cold and the waves too strong our first thought is to accuse God of abandonment. Faith is not so much being willing to jump into dangerous water as it is trusting that because we have worked in partnership with God to prepare our lives, when we step into the rapids, we will know how to remain afloat.

The third demon Jesus encountered was the illusion of power. Satan promised ownership of all the riches in the world if only Jesus would worship him instead of God. To Satan, that represented power. Now that’s a familiar temptation as well. Jesus had been called into a battle for social justice and healing, a task that would require abundant strength and power. In his wilderness experience, it was probably quite tempting to think of all the good he could do with the supremacy Satan was offering. He could feed all the hungry and house all the homeless and clothe all the naked people throughout the universe. How often do we deceive ourselves into believing that if we had, we would do? I always think that if I won the lottery I would give some of the people in my family enough money to get their lives in order. What utter foolishness!! In my more sane moments I understand that those I worry about most have already received more from me and done less for themselves than a lot of folks in the world. In my wilderness experience I remind myself that when people take responsibility for their own prosperity, when they utilize available resources and work- really work - to embrace joy and possibilities, their lives change for the better. It is pretty tempting to think about how I could create a good and just world if only I had power and money. But it’s not about power or money or anything else. The bottom line is that we don’t run this world. God is in charge and when we trust and act upon that reality, life is good and peace abounds. It costs nothing to care and share, to love and affirm one another.

Our wilderness experiences bring us to a place of humility and self-awareness, a place where we meet our demons and defeat them. The authority and demonic powers of fear in our lives continue to astound me. Sometimes our greatest selves speak from our most familiar fears. Our visit to Index began with a glimpse into my own wilderness as reflected off the waters of the Skykomish. I have been unreasonably afraid of water since I was a child, a legacy from my mother who grew up in a time when rivers were where you looked to find missing children or to fish out Black men who said too much to the wrong people. Staring into the rapids below our refuge, however, brought comfort in the realization of God’s presence and awe at God’s power and majesty. I was reminded that when our people had many names for the manifestations of God and before we had the arrogance to claim such wonders as discoveries of men, the beauty and power I beheld existed and will continue in spite of humankind. What’s really going on is that the Spirit of Life calls to us in the wilderness and beacons us to rejoice and move closer to the natural wonder of God’s presence. It is then that life begins and the rest of our lives grow into the best of our lives.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What's Really Going On: Sticks in the Mud

Since I was a child, I have had an aversion to figs. This, I believe, is the fault of my mother. She who really liked Fig Newtons and, believing they had nutritional value, made the little gooey cookies a staple in our diet under the guise that they were good for us. They are not. I never liked them; they were just too sweet and had a somewhat bitter aftertaste. When she put them on our plates or presented them for a snack, I would eat the soft cake-like covering and throw the fig filling away. Well into my adult years, when someone mentioned figs my face would wrinkle and "Yuck!" would jump from my mouth.

Our neighbor has a fig tree growing in his yard. Now, to appreciate this story you should know a little about him. Yard work is not his strong suit. Since his mother died over ten years ago, cutting the grass and cleaning the trash from the yard has only occurred annually, like Christmas or birthdays. Over the years, when the neighbors have had as much as they can take and the City of Seattle has issued enough warnings and treats of $500 fines, he calls his friends together and supervises a yard make over. Once the debris has been removed, the beautiful bounty of foliage planted by his mother stretches forth breathing gorgeous sighs of relief to have been given one more season of life. Standing above the rubble is a fig tree.  It is slightly curved and its branches bend heavy with fruit in the middle of summer.  Some fruits even lean seductively across our fence calling us to pluck and taste.

During my first summer in Seattle, my partner, Patricia, succumbed to the temptation of the fig tree. She picked several fruits and offered me one. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, I resisted... at first. Figs, in my book, were not to be eaten. Unlike the garden of Eden, however, Patricia had not received a warning NOT to eat the figs. Our neighbor, in fact, encourages us to eat any of the fruit that grows in his neglected Eden, which includes juicy plums, pears, and Asian and Washington apples. The more we eat, the fewer left to rot or be eaten by the neighborhood raccoons, birds, and rodents. It's kind of our duty. Unable to resist any offering of goodness from Patricia for long, I eventually tasted a freshly plucked, soft and seed-filled fig. Oh, what a glorious fruit!! Nabisco should cower in shame for turning such a delightful morsel into the disgusting Newton. What a glorious fruit!!

Soon after tasting my first real fig a friend told me a story about his grandfather growing a fig tree from a branch broken off an established tree. He told me about how that branch eventually grew to a full grown, fruit-bearing tree that provided figs for his family for many years. The scientist and newly seduced fig eater in me could not let this pearl of wisdom go untested. I cut off about four (just in case one didn't work) branches and stuck them in the soil at various places in our yard. I figured all I needed to do at that point was wait, assured that figs would be raining down in no time.  Realistically, I knew that it would be a couple of years before I would be swimming in figs, but I could wait. Figs would be a-coming!

Earlier that year Baxter, a mixed bred of black lab and border collie, had entered our family. He is usually an uncommonly well-behaved dog with one weakness: he loves sticks. Big ones, little ones, crooked ones, straight ones, sticks hanging from trees or stuck in the ground. One hot summer day, Baxter discovered my fig trees. To him the were mere sticks in the mud. What was once a source of pure joy and eager anticipation for me had become a game to him. A game!! One by one Baxter pulled up my infant fig trees and ran around the yard. The more I yelled and chased him to retrieve my fig fortune, the faster he ran. The more I chased the tighter he bit into my babies. Needless to say, he won that game. When it was over, all that was left was one stick with two partially chewed little leaves hanging on for dear life. I was devastated. At the same time I knew he had no idea of what those sticks meant to me, so although I yelled a lot, I didn't kill him. I picked up the one remaining fig stick, stuck it in a pot of soil and left it alone.

As I was cleaning the yard this year, preparing for a new season, I glanced at my stick in the mud from last year with sadness over that broken dream. Baxter had grown into a beautiful and even better behaved dog. Six weeks of Doggie Headstart had smoothed out his crisp puppie edges. My Mantra in life has become "Let it go", so I decided to pull the stick out and use the soil and pot for a new plant, one I would purchase from a nursery complete with a guarantee. To my surprise when I poured out the soil, dark and wet from an uncommonly wet Seattle winter, my stick had roots. I was shocked!! At the end of my stick was not only a ball of roots a large as my fist, but also a new branch was forming and preparing to break through the earth. A closer look showed tiny little green buds waving proudly on the branch above Baxter's teeth marks. Oh what joy! I gently replaced the soil, gave my fig tree a bit of fertilizer and placed the pot out of reach in case Baxter had a relapse. As Spring gradually struggles to become summer, my abused stick is now becoming a recognizable fig tree, albeit a very young fig tree. It has two branches and wonderful leaves. It is realizing its identity and moved beyond being a stick in the mud. It knows its purpose and has said "Yes"' to life in spite of a dog's mouth. It has become a FIG TREE!!

That's how God works in our lives. I often wonder why fig trees appear so frequently in the scriptures. They are hardy little troopers and well represent the possibilities for survival in spite of adverse conditions. We frequently think of ourselves as "sticks in the mud". People have defined us as such throughout many of our lives. Our teachers. Our friends. Our parents. Our spiritual leaders. Our lovers and partners. Our government, our employers, and the media. We have only to look at the world around us to find messages that something about us make us unworthy or unnatural or unattractive because of our race or our gender or our size or our age or our health or our whatever. Some times - most times - it's easier to believe a lie than to embrace the truth. So we settle down in the mud and stay there.

What's really going on is that even as we sit stuck in the mud, God is moving through our selves to prepare us for our ultimate purpose: abundant life, passion, and ecstasy - not just joy, but ecstasy Today, I am happy to say that God meet us in our muddy places, the places where we feel stuck and misdirected. God gets right down there with us, pulling nutrients from the soil and placing them at the core of our souls, sending moisture to refresh, softening the bark around our hearts to enable new life, new dreams, new possibilities to break through and send us soaring toward the sky. As the saying goes, "The best of my life is the rest of my life", even when I've been stuck in the mud!!

Monday, May 16, 2011

God is Alive! Brag about it!

I decided to start this blog after noticing how often negative energies surround me even when I am physically in a place where they should not be. Recently, bitterness and sour attitudes seemed to be coming out of what I expected to be positive sources of hope: other people of faith. I was sitting in a worship service the other day, listening to the speaker talk about how we are supposed to focus on God's promises. My ears pirked up in expectation of a positive and holy experience. The core of this sermon , however, was actually a spoiled feast of brokenness.

The preacher encouraged listeners to remember all we had experienced in the yesterdays of our lives and included a not-so-subtle critique of ministers who do not act, think, or believe as he does. The sermon was a "two-for-the-price-of-one" journey into that familiar sewer of sanctimony that pollutes our communities and our churches. We go to church seeking assurance and receive reminders of our fragilities. We run to those "specialized" (read gay or alternative or progressive or whatever) ministries only to be met with the same rhetoric warmed over and using criticism to convince us that "the other ones" are wrong while they - the voices of oppression - have the answers. Now, I am not a fan of fundamentalism or homophobic preachers, but I tend to believe that each of us holds a piece of "the truth".

No one church or ministry or individual is all wrong or all right all of the time. Why do we continue to give power to hatred by our consistent defensive posturing? We are alive and beautiful in the world today. Period. Why do we persist in defining who we are based on who we are not?  Far too often I go to church to celebrate God's presence in the world only to be met with self-pitying orations about what some other churches or pastors or individuals are saying about some part of my essential self or did in the past to bruise his or her essential self. Who really cares what they t - whoever "they" are - think or say especially when we remember we are heirs to the wonder of God!! Let it go!!

I left the service struggling within myself to hold onto some semblance of the positive attitude I had before I came to church, saddened to have had to work so hard to skim his stuff from the surface of my mind and heart as I drove home. After all, worship is for building community and celebrating God's presence in the world, isn't it? It is an occasion of reminding ourselves of what's really going on with God, i.e., life and joy, grace and liberation.

This blog, then, is my way of staying in touch with and sharing God's presence in my life in spite of institutional efforts to convince me otherwise, in spite of pastors who use pulpits to work out their own personal issues, especially when psychiatrists are so available these days.. You see, when it gets right down to it, God is what's really going on!

In Psalm 34:2, the psalmist tell us "My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and be glad". Today, I want to brag about how good God is in the world.

When I begin many days, my dog, Baxter, pulls me into an "attitude of gratitude" with his instinctive celebration of life. His first act of the day is to smile and pant in great expectation of whatever the day will bring. He stands up. He stretches. He goes outside and empties the toxines of the night from his bladder and he moves into his day. From that moment on, the day - every day - is filled with wonder and adventure.

I think God calls us to awaken each day with joy and wonder and expectation much like Baxter. Further, I believe, God expects us to brag about it, to testify to ourselves and to one another about the goodness of God and about our unending accessibility to gifts of power and prosperity.

Seattle is an interesting place. I haven't totally adjusted to the ways in which a scratchy, gray blanket engulfs the city much of the time. I have, however, come to understand that, more often than not, something stretches the seams of that covering to let glimpses of the sun beam forth. Some days more; some days less.

That's how God's love works. There are so many things that, connected together, mute and threaten our joy and our peace. People we love suffer incurable and painful illnesses. People we trust betray us when they learn our secrets. Parents and children disappoint us. Lovers and friends leave us. Debts pile up and there is no money to pay them. Jobs are hard to find and at times even harder to keep. And, the challenges of life continue to churn the sludge of human existence.Our willingness to intentionally wallow in this mire, however, is voluntary.

When we lift up our sorrows, we are essentially bragging about our brokenness. Haven't you ever wondered how some people choose to talk about misery all the time? Now, everyone has a little slip into vocal morbidity, but all the time!!?? It's just too much! Bragging about brokennes is an attention getting, manipulative action that is highly ineffective and, in extreme cases, quite repulsive.

Join me in calling for a theology of possibilities rather than one of brokenness. Happiness is possible. Love is possible. Joy is possible. The end of sorrow, of loneliness, of isolation,  and of rejection -  all of that - is possible. The choice is ours. When we lift up our victories, we are loudly and unashamedly boasting of the powerful, life giving, prosperous-making love of God. The choice is ours. For me, "My soul makes boast in the Lord". Now that's what's REALLY going on today!